In the spirit of Scott Adams, who uses his blog to offer simple solutions to the world's most intractable problems, I'd like to offer my thoughts on solving the problems of poverty and the welfare state.
On the one hand, it seems wrong for so many to live in squalor during a time of such plenty.
On the other hand, the generous European welfare state has largely failed; given the choice between hard work and no work with the same standard of living, many choose the path of least resistance.
The logical conclusion is to provide a universal safety net, but make sure that the services it provides are spartan and undesirable, so that no one is tempted to live a parasitic existence.
Here's how it might work. Let's assume that the most important thing to do is to provide food and shelter. Since McDonalds, and Taco Bell have already managed to push the price of meals down to $1 or less, we'll focus on the shelter part of the equation.
1) Set up a government program, Project Shelter, that will provide free shelter to any citizen (the issue of what to do with immigrants shall be left for another post).
2) Every citizen has the opportunity to sign up for a Project Shelter account either online or at a government office.
3) Any hotel or place of lodging can opt into being a Project Shelter provider. In addition to providing shelter, they must also provide some means of using the Internet, such as an open computer cluster.
4) Anyone with a Project Shelter account can go to any Project Shelter provider and get one free night of accomodation per day. To do so, they log into the provider's page on the Project Shelter web site (probably from the provider's computer cluster).
5) The government reimburses providers $10 for each night of shelter that they provide through this program. This is done monthly via ACH.
Let's examine why this would work.
A) Almost no new infrastructure. Rather than building government housing or using some elaborate system of subsidies, there is a single program with a reasonable cost.
B) By limiting the payment to $10 per night, it almost certainly guarantees that the accommodations will be spartan and uncomfortable. There's little incentive for folks to try to join the program unless they are truly destitute (though I can imagine this being used by road-tripping college students...who don't mind sleeping with the homeless). The same holds true for the requirement of daily logins.
C) Using a centralized Web site should limit opportunities for fraud, and make it relatively easy to investigate disputes and punish wrongdoers.
D) By simply offering reimbursement and specifying nothing else, we open up the floodgates of entrepreneurship.* Since few existing hotels will want to participate, innovative entrepreneurs will probably build Japanese-style "capsule" hotels, start marketing to homeless people, and compete to offer the best amenities they can to attract business, while still making a profit on $10/guest/day.
* Honesty compels me to point out one could imagine (as I did) that extralegal entrepreneurs might also take up the cause by purchasing accounts from the homeless in exchange for cash up front, or simply extorting them by violence. But I think that a random inspection regime for providers, and the value that a homeless person would place on nightly shelter would limit such abuses.
Even if you're unemployed and broke, this program would give you a clean, safe place to live and improve your chances of finding work. Moreover, just about anyone should be able to find some way to scrape together $2-3/day for food. And if a few hard-working entrepreneurs or aspiring artists were to use the program to quit their day jobs and take a chance on achieving their dream, I'd still consider it money well spent.
What do you think?