A Modest Proposal: The Universal Christmas Bonus

Last year, Paul Ryan passed along this made up story:

This reminds me of a story I heard from Eloise Anderson. She serves in the cabinet of my buddy Governor Scott Walker. She once met a young boy from a poor family. And every day at school, he would get a free lunch from a government program. But he told Eloise he didn’t want a free lunch. He wanted his own lunch—one in a brown-paper bag just like the other kids’. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown-paper bag had someone who cared for him.

Insofar as the point of this story is to push against free lunches in school, it's obviously a rather craven sentiment. The opponents and critics of free school lunch are an odd bunch. They seem to think it's basically alright to send over 90 percent of children to these big welfare programs called public schools, but that feeding them while they are at these welfare schools is over the line. 

It's not hard to see what's going on: public school is so commonplace and nearly universal that it's no longer coded as the public program that it is, while school lunch is still associated with welfare for the poor. Naturally, conservatives tend to get worked up about the latter and not the former. It's a toxic but ultimately understandable dynamic.

However, if we ignore this background dynamic, there is something worth salvaging out of this fictitious story that was made up and never happened. It is indeed dysfunctional and wrong that we have economic institutions that leave many parents with resources so inadequate that they cannot buy things for their children. Our needless deprivation of these parents leads to embarrassment and alienation for both the parents and their kids.

One place where this occurs is at Christmas time when poor parents are unable to purchase the kinds of presents they'd like for their children.

The problem with this system is the one Paul Ryan identifies in the story he pulled out of thin air. It doesn't allow the parent to go out and buy the presents they know their kid wants and then give it to them. This means both the parents and the kids are left unable to fully experience the joy and intimacy that such gift-giving creates.

The obvious fix to this problem is to implement a Universal Christmas Bonus (UCB). Already, rich people who work at rich-people jobs often get Christmas bonuses. So what the Universal Christmas Bonus would do is provide this bonus to everyone. More specifically, everyone between the ages of 18 and 64 would receive a lump sum check around this time every year. The amount of the lump sum is negotiable. But, for instance, we could have a $300 Universal Christmas Bonus, which would have a fiscal cost of around $60 billion per year.

With the $300 UCB, all parents would be empowered to provide gifts to their kids. The money and the nudging that the focus of the policy would provide could significantly reduce the number of poor parents who are so pinched that they cannot ensure Santa stops by their house. Non-parents could use the money to provide gifts to their friends and loved ones, or for other purposes.

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