This week, Mark Cuban revisited statements he made in May 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic was still in its infancy. Cuban, for those who aren’t avid fans of “Shark Tank” on ABC, is a self-made billionaire and currently owns the Dallas Mavericks NBA team.
He proposed that each American household, regardless of current income level, should get $1000 every other week for two months to total $4,000. The idea originated after the first (and so far, only) round of $1,200 stimulus checks doled out after Congress passed a record $2 trillion relief package. Cuban recognized a growing division between families living in starkly different economic realities: those who were doing alright but maybe feeling a little pinched, and those legitimately struggling to keep their heads above water.
Cuban isn’t wrong. Economic disparities have been growing for decades and the middle class is not only shrinking in numbers but also standing on less stable footing. I wasn’t aware of just how dismal the situation was until I read Andrew Yang’s book, The War On Normal People. His argument for universal basic income (UBI) was compelling and completely changed how I understood the American economy.
I read Yang’s book during his run at the presidency in early 2020. The loudest criticism for Yang reasons that while he offered a unique proposal that could theoretically address the root cause of so many of the nation’s ills, at the end of the day, he is a staunch capitalist. He discloses so openly, speaking of capitalism and entrepreneurship with enough reverence to mask the ugly truth. That capitalism, no matter how utilitarian or altruistic it may be, is a system that will never benefit everyone.
This is my biggest bone to pick with capitalism: it consistently puts profits over people and views them as commodities, just like everything else.
And this is where I think Cuban’s call for additional stimulus payments is deeply flawed. He wants to put a 10-day spending requirement on the money to support small businesses by increasing demand for non-essential products and services.
In this hypothetical UBI scenario, American families are nothing more than elements in a Rube Goldberg-esque economy — pieces that can be manipulated to perform a certain way to achieve the desired result.
Cuban admitted he feels most Americans would be tempted to save the money if this spending caveat was left out. To which I say, “Who fucking cares?” I fail to see how forced spending would benefit people — not businesses and corporations— who are struggling with job losses, reduced hours, and ongoing financial anxiety during a pandemic and looming recession.
In Jasmine Harding’s piece for GEN, she described the millennial worldview as one “marked by uncertainty rather than stability. The future feels precarious, leading many young people to value spending their money on a preferred lifestyle over saving for retirement.”
In a way, I agree — I see this illustrated clearly in the contrast between myself and my mother. While she adopted the beliefs and values of her generation, opting for a job and lifestyle that is unfulfilling but stable and secure, I chose something else. I ditched a corporate job with benefits and PTO and launched a small business with nary a safety net to speak of.
But I don’t think this worldview is exclusive to millennials anymore (if it ever was). There have always been savers and spenders. There will always be savers and spenders. For each person who squirrels away every penny and diligently saves their earnings, there is another who spends frivolously on whatever strikes their fancy.
We must also keep in mind that human happiness and satisfaction is often linked closely to a strong sense of agency. In other words, we might be facing dire situations but if we can hold on to some semblance of autonomy, we are less profoundly miserable than we would be otherwise.
If someone wants to squander their stimulus checks on material goods, more power to them. If someone wants to put some away from a rainy day, so be it. If someone wants to pay down debt or start a college savings fund for their kid or send their dog to daycare so they can work from home in peace or blow it all on Animal Crossing upgrades…go right ahead.
The forced spending of stimulus checks favors the spenders and makes it more difficult to save for big-ticket items or long-term investments. An additional $4,000 isn’t going to get most of us very far on a down payment for a home or college tuition. It’s likely not even enough for the average Insta-worthy vacation (not like we can easily travel internationally these days anyway). But throwing money at people and saying, “Be grateful for what you get — now go out and spend it” is not the type of UBI that’s going to help the normal person characterized in Yang’s book.
Mark Cuban is a smart man; I don’t think he’d be a self-made billionaire if that wasn’t the case. So I don’t think it’s lost on him that he’s imposing another hallmark of capitalism in his efforts to envision what UBI would look like in America: the concentration and centralization of wealth.
Why is it OK to save and invest if you’re already financially stable enough to do so? If I phrase it differently, I’m asking, “Why is OK for the rich to hoard wealth and resources, but we can’t attempt to do the same in smaller, less impactful ways?”
As I learn more about the intentional inequality built into the systems and institutions of our society, the more I see how power and wealth continue to be reserved for those who have always had power and wealth. I’m not an economist or a financial expert. In fact, I barely passed my undergrad accounting course which pains me regularly now that I have to balance my books and file taxes.
So perhaps someone can dumb it down enough for me, a normal person, to understand. Will the forced spending of stimulus checks actually help us normal people, or is it a ploy for the rich to appear philanthropical while funneling more wealth to the top?
As a small business owner, I suppose I could benefit from more free-flowing money in the economy. But I just don’t think it’s right. I may be speaking against my own best interests, but I still land squarely in the lower tiers of the middle class. I don’t have a sizeable savings account. I don’t have a plush portfolio of investments, stocks, or bonds to tinker with. And as my TIAA quarterly report recently reminded me, I’m far behind on retirement saving and might have to live on $84 a month.
If that’s the case, I can only hope UBI becomes a reality by the time I want or need to stop working. In the meantime, I can only pray I retain my right to spend and save how I want to, not how the rich think I should.