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A Bad Idea Gains Momentum

America’s elite technocrats (or at least the not insignificant subset who go to TED talks) seem increasingly enthusiastic about the idea of a universal basic income to address the job losses brought about by technological change. Business Insider reports:

Universal basic income — a system of wealth distribution that involves giving people a monthly wage just for being alive — just got a standing ovation at this year’s TED conference. […]

People in Silicon Valley are working to build autonomous robots that could replace human labor. But as economists have started speculating about the ways those innovations could lead to widespread unemployment, many tech elites have begun searching for solutions to the problem they’re creating.

It’s easy to see why this idea is appealing to Silicon Valley technologists, to economic policy wonks, to citizens of rationalia. It satisfies fully the demands of what Shadi Hamid has called “chart-based” liberalism, with its homo economicus model of human behavior. Globalized capitalism is exacerbating inequality and squeezing jobs outside of metropolitan centers? The capitalist winners can just pay off the losers with a UBI and go about their merry way. The price of long-term social peace is just a slightly higher marginal tax rate; the rest of our economic model can remain untouched.

The problem is that work, for most people, isn’t just a means of making money—it is a source of dignity and meaning and a central part of the social compact. Simply opting for accelerated creative destruction while deliberately warehousing the part of the population that cannot participate might work as a theoretical exercise, but it does not mesh with the wants and desires and aspirations of human beings. Communities subsisting on UBIs will not be happy or healthy; the spectacle of free public redistribution without any work requirement will breed resentment and distrust.

Countries across the West are struggling with ways to politically accommodate the dislocation brought about by 21st century economic forces. We don’t have a complete answer yet. But we will have to do better than simply resigning ourselves to the existence of a vast, subsidized underclass.

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  • Anthony

    A most important priority towards addressing current and further impending economic challenges for large swaths of our civilian population is to begin talking to each other rather than at each other (Governor John Kasich [Ohio] has recently spoke to this national concern). Similarly, Jeffery Sachs has said that at the root of America’s economic crisis (for those referenced above) lies a moral crisis: the decline of civic virtue among America’s political and economic elite. One of his premises is “a society of markets, laws, and elections is not enough if the rich and powerful fail to behave with respect, honesty, and compassion towards the rest of society.” UBI may not be an answer but it begins an exploration.

    I think both Kasich and Sachs are referencing an ethos of social responsibility – a responsibility that compliments meaningful and sustained general economic/social comity. UBI may very well be an attempt to grapple with long-term social, political, and economic trends. Still, to be clear, UBI may not be the solution (assuming that one or two…exist) and illusory solutions often distract from the deeper reforms needed in our society. That is, “the American economy increasingly serves only a narrow part of society, and America’s national politics has failed to put the country back on track through honest, open, and transparent problem solving. Too many of America’s elites – among the super-rich, the CEOs, and many of my colleagues in academia – have abandoned a commitment to social responsibility. They chase wealth and power, the rest of society be damned.”

    So, if not UBI or TED talks, what is the price of civilization going forward into the 21st century? What do we Americans owe both ourselves and our country – America’s political institutions have broken down but the breakdown, if we’re honest, implicates us.

    • RedWell

      I’d also add that UBI is often treated as an all-or-nothing proposal. Certainly the staunchest supporters and critics want – or need – to see it that way.

      But we could imagine UBI, for example, paired with meaningful public work (think of the WPA, for example) or as part of a system of national service not unlike the military.

      Alternatively, I see UBI as an excellent way to compensate parents who stay at home raising children. That is real work and vital to society. Right now, we actively punish parents with the unhealthy choice of sufficient income or sufficient time with their young children.

      UBI supporters absolutely overestimate the ability of most people to separate work they must do from work they choose. But throwing it out over an overly narrow interpretation of human nature and hoping “the market” fleshes things out is, for conservatives, curiously ideological and even utopian.

      • Jim__L

        So the 1950s picture of single-income households with moms staying home to raise kids, along with a healthy dose of porkbarrel politics, is a meaningful solution to this problem.

        Works for me.

      • Anthony

        I agree with all of the above; and just read your link on real politics – thanks.

  • Makaden

    Let’s ask Thomas Sowell’s favorite three questions of this idea:

    Compared to what?
    At what cost?
    Do you have data for that?

    Anyone want to take a shot at running the logic?

    • RedWell

      A small shot. We are already subsidizing thousands of people through emergency room visits, higher
      insurance premiums, policing, social security and so on. For example,
      the libertarian argument for UBI is that it is ultimately cheaper than
      other half-measures like food stamps.

  • Andrew Allison

    For an example of what happens when you pay people just to breathe, see Chicago, Detroit, etc., etc.

  • QET

    This same matter was the subject of an article at New Geography recently and I posted what is a substantial agreement with this TAI post there. My basic point is that UBI is already substantially provided to many people in the multifarious welfare programs (including direct cash payments like refundable tax credits). I did note, as I do in all discussions of UBI, that the free market luminaries Hayek and Friedman both entertained this as a rational possibility, so it merits some consideration even from non-socialist types.

    But merely appealing to the heavens for relief from history, which is what this TAI piece boils down to, is a fine way to produce a writing for publication but little else. It amounts to a kind of Micawberism. But that may be all we have today. The sorts of productive work that employed tens of millions in the past simply no longer require those tens of millions, and since most productive work was and still is productive of material subsistence, the inadequacy of which has been the foremost fact in human history until fairly recently, we do seem to be in a state in which the only rational hope is that something will turn up. No policy can bring into existence “meaningful” and high-wage work for the planet’s billions who all seek it and all have an equal claim to it. In the US, possibly the removal of environmental, zoning and other government impediments to construction might succeed for a time in employing large numbers in the construction of new housing and other facilities. But as far as mass :meaningful” employment goes, that’s about it.

    • Jim__L

      As I mentioned above — push for a society with single-breadwinner households where Mom takes care of the kids, along with large amounts of porkbarrel politics.

      You don’t need “relief from history”, you need answers from history. They’re there for the taking.

      There’s also a meme going around some Silicon Valley subcultures — “How is it we have structural unemployment, and no moon colony”?

      • QET

        Well we already have the third leg of that stool. The first two legs are not likely to return no matter how much pushing is done. History does not repeat itself; or, if it does, it does so only as tragedy or farce. Rarely, perhaps never, has an institution from the past been an answer in the present.

        I think I understand the meaning of the meme, but maybe not. What does it mean to you?

        • Jim__L

          “Rarely, if ever, perhaps never, has an institution from the past been an answer in the present.”

          Democracy, just to name one. (I think that characterizing our current democratic system as either farcical or tragic is funny, but an exaggeration). Read more history, there are lots of ideas there — answers, even. =)

          History is cyclical, when it comes to institutions. Renaissance, revival, re-establishment — all of these are not only possible, but perhaps inevitable, considering that human beings are what we are, and we haven’t changed much (except maybe gotten fatter) over the last several thousand years.

          “How is it we have structural unemployment, and no moon colony?”

          Pouring manpower into establishing a moon colony reduces and could even eliminate structural unemployment. It’s a form of public works project, but one with some additional qualities that would make it an actual solution to the problems we’re seeing.

          One, you need lots and lots of robots simply to survive on the Moon, Mars, in freespace, etc. The man / robot ratio that we’re looking at on Earth as a problem is actually the solution elsewhere that Man could explore. Two, there are also resources there for the taking — humanity would have a frontier again. Picture households, with all of their associated automation, surviving (thriving!) where there is enough room and raw materials for everyone. The parallels to the American frontier are striking, if you think about it. And this time, there are no moral questions about natives — the whole place is empty, ours for the taking.

          Once this meme gets ahold of the Minecraft generation — once someone breaks the four-minute-mile barrier, and shows that it’s possible, which it is — a whole new horizon opens up.

          • Makaden

            Thought provoking.

          • QET

            Democracy is not really an institution but an ideal type. And pretty much every instance of democratic governance is not a reprise of a prior instance but a variation on it. I take your point, but expecting a large-scale return to the family-economy structure you mention is about as realistic as expecting a return to originalism in Constitutional jurisprudence. At least that’s how I see it.

            On the meme, yes, this is what I thought it meant, and while I agree that mankind’s future lies off of this one planet, I just don’t think technology is there yet to build and sustain even a platoon-sized human community on the Moon or anywhere else. That is coming, though, but I think it could be another century before anything like that occurs.

          • Jim__L

            It depends entirely on how hard we work at it. I’ve been looking into some work at NASA Ames Research Center on the subject forty years ago, and it’s surprising how far along many of them got before it kind of trailed off.

          • ljgude

            Good point. It sure beats either killing yourself with opium or becoming a jihadi.

    • Fat_Man

      I think UBI is a horrendously bad idea, that would accelerate the opiate addiction crisis into hyperdrive.

      But as you note some conservative authors have recommended the idea. The most notable recent author is Charles Murray (the man who was mugged at Middlebury) who published a short book on the topic last year:

      “In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State” by Charles Murray

      “Imagine that the United States were to scrap all its income transfer programs—including Social Security, Medicare, and all forms of welfare—and give every American age twenty-one and older $10,000 a year for life.This is the Plan, a radical new approach to social policy that defies any partisan label. First laid out by Charles Murray a decade ago, the updated edition reflects economic developments since that time. Murray, who previous books include Losing Ground and The Bell Curve, demonstrates that the Plan is financially feasible and the uses detailed analysis to argue that many goals of the welfare state—elimination of poverty, comfortable retirement for everyone, universal access to healthcare—would be better served under the Plan than under the current system. Murray’s goal, shared by Left and Right, is a society in which everyone, including the unluckiest among us, has the opportunity and means to construct a satisfying life. In Our Hands offers a rich and startling new way to think about”

      • QET

        I think some conservatives have advocated for it because it satisfies important libertarian precepts: it preserves individual autonomy (I can spend the money in the ways I think fit) and it shrinks the state (you don’t need vast agencies to just wire money into people’s accounts each month). But for just these reasons, progressives will never support it. Far better for people’s income to be sliced into as many separate welfare programs as possible, with each one its own state fiefdom, its lords having the power to award the benefit, or not, to increase it, or not, to make whole industries and whole sub-populations its beholden clients.

        • Fat_Man

          It is Murray’s proposal not mine. I abhor the idea.

      • Fat_Man

        Another famous libertarian author who wrote about UBI was Robert Heinlein in one one of his very first novels:

        “Beyond This Horizon” by Robert A. Heinlein

        It should be noted that before WWII, Heinlein supported author Upton Sinclair in his campaign for governor of California in 1934. Lewis, all though more commonly thought of as a socialist, was influenced by the Social Credit movement, which was then popular in Western Canada. Social Credit put forth a sort of UBI that Heinlein worked into his novel. The novel does not compare to his later works such as Stranger in a Strange Land and Glory Road. The science in Beyond is genetics. It uses the number 48 for the number of chromosomes in the human genome, a number that is wrong (it is 46) and was still in circulation as late as 1960 when I took highschool biology.

        Heinlein abandoned socialism and social credit after WWII and became famous as one of the foremost exponents of libertarianism.

      • Kevin

        UBI will not replace all transfer payments no matter how much it’s backers piously claim that. It will be layered on top of existing benefits. (Are we really cutting Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, SSDI, food stamps, WIC, Pell Grants, and the rest of the welfare state? Which politician will vote for all of these cuts?)

  • Eurydice

    It seems to me that the problem they’re actually addressing is how to maintain a consumer base when people no longer have jobs.

    • Jim__L

      Will UBI actually allow people to remain consumers of the sorts of things that Silicon Valley produces?

      I doubt it.

      • Eurydice

        Well, the point of automation is to make things more cheaply than with human labor. And if people don’t have jobs and don’t have income, it won’t matter how many robots you have.

      • Fat_Man

        Mostly they would consume opiates.

        • Eurydice

          Someone would still have to buy those opiates.

          • Fat_Man

            It is not well to do people who are addicted to them right now. Opiates are not that expensive these days.

  • Angel Martin

    “The capitalist winners can just pay off the losers with a UBI and go about their merry way. ”

    They rigged this system for deindustrialization with trade deals that prioritize protection of “intellectual property” over everything else.

    They support financial sector “regulation” that codifies to big to fail, unlimited taxpayer bailouts, and no criminal charges regardless of the level of fraud.

    They support open borders and amnesty since real Americans are less likely than ever to support them.

    And now, having lost the 2016 elections, and with illegal immigrant numbers down, they dream up a new enticements to generate more illegal immigrants and solidify their welfare mob support.

    The spike in UBI support is actually good news. It means that the American Deconstructors are getting worried, and think that some new gimmick is needed to maintain their position.

  • victoria wilson – mn

    It’s hard to believe that even after the dramatic electoral upset there are self-titled intelligentsia who appear to be oblivious of the social component of work and all the value it encompasses. Even after revelations of opioid addictions, marital disintegration, collapsing communities- their solution is to send everyone a check in lieu of work? Seriously? Sure- money is the reason people show up to work; but recognition, being part or a particular team, or vision, opportunity to learn, all rank higher than pay raises on lists of what matters most to employees. The workplace is an arena where cross-cutting cleavages can pass tracks and undoubtedly make exchanges. The manager may connect the custodian to the best care provider for his aging mother and in the course of conversation finds out about the best brake shop in town. The ad gal tells the accountant where to send their artistic child to college and in return learns of a tax deduction. Car pools are set up, babysitters are connected, help groups for addiction are formed. The workplace is rich in social interaction with real tangible value. A $15/hr check is not a solution.

    • FriendlyGoat

      Fascinating and perhaps true. Can you tell us how we are going to keep people in an adequate number of slots in those workplace societies? Maybe even in the kind of societies which actually have such employees as an ad gal and as accountant who might send any kid to college? That is kinda sorta the problem under consideration, right?

    • victoria wilson – mn

      Jane Jetson promised me over 5 decades ago that homemaking would be automated yet I still spend at least a couple of hours a day at it. And no one in our sphere supports a family on 3hrs of work a day as George Jetson did. So this is not a new vision. It has been around for a half-century. An elimination of the workplace society may happen- but I’m pretty sure it won’t be in my lifetime.

      Take my albeit folksy examples. There will always be a need for managers to babysit. They are safe. Custodial jobs seem ripe for automation. A sophisticated robot could sweep or vacuum all the floors in your office, empty the garbage and wipe down the coffee maker. Though the cost-benefit probably won’t be here for a while. Advertising has already gone through an upheaval due to technology, or rather due to technology changing where consumers spend their time. The algorithms that track all of our preferences will find us for now, and then we will learn to avoid them. I don’t see AI having the perception of human behavior to stay on top of this chase for our attention. Accounting is a numbers oriented job perfectly suited to computer outputs. Undoubtedly there has already been an elimination of thousands of bookkeeper jobs. Demand for accountants however is still strong, and the compensation here is quite high, so there must be more intellectual thought required than a program can handle. There must be some skill useful for interpreting the intentions of balance sheets and tax codes. Self-driving cars are close to reality but coworkers may still see advantages to carpooling, social advantages. I don’t foresee robots being left to supervise infants and toddlers for quite some time, if ever. And associational behavior in group formation is a human thing- I don’t envision a robot leading an AA meeting.

      I have no doubt that technology will continue to take down industries through automation. For the titans in that world the threat of 85% job loss is accurate and worth attention. I can see those affected wanting to try UBI when it occurs in this limited environment. And my comments above are in response to that possibility.

    • RedWell

      Your argument is that going to work is a social and personal good. Sure. UBI, however, is not a proposal to end work. It is designed to provide a baseline for those whose wages have been shrinking over the last generation. Yes, some people would no doubt drop out of work, but we already have an wave of people not working.

      • victoria wilson – mn

        My 15 year old asked me what I was doing as I sat down to write a reply. I responded that I was considering my objections to UBI. He said, well that’s communism. I guess that’s as good of a short reply as any.

        • LarryD

          The essence of the flaw to UBI as a right is a (perhaps deliberate) misunderstanding of the nature of rights. My right to free speech implies an obligation on your part to let me speak (but no obligation to listen). What they are arguing for, however, is an obligation to supply, which is just a rationale for slavery.

        • RedWell

          No. I guess that’s even shorter.

          • Anthony

            To your earlier remark that UBI is often treated as an all-or-nothing proposal, here’s another thoughtful perspective in line with your general sentiments (including is life without work a dream or a nightmare? And can a UBI save us from the worst consequences of joblessness – psychological and spiritual decay [a position you’ve already encountered here]):

          • victoria wilson – mn

            The Ted Talkers would have UBI rescue 85% of the workforce
            when their jobs are taken by robotics. This structure of a large underclass on
            fixed transfers, an underclass that is excluded from influencing the economy
            through choice, resembles past communist societies. These were economic trajedies.
            You refer to UBI in the effort to pay
            people to do other jobs like care for their children. This resembles programs that are already in
            place, where people receive daycare subsides while they work. Your examples tie funding to a direct purpose.
            This is how transfers are already done in the social democratic model.

            I think what you are hoping for is a model where
            society evaluates each effort that individuals make toward their welfare and
            that of others, and then compensates accordingly, even when ‘work’ is done
            outside the traditional workforce. I
            think there is such a model. But the
            lines on a comment section are too brief to cover it. And so we resort to overly broad

      • Jim__L

        If you can live on UBI, the majority of people will do so.

        The economy will shrink — there will be less to go around — because they’re not being productive.

  • Michael Kaplan

    This seems to confirm TED talker Yuval Noah Harari’s argument that while the Industrial Revolution gave birth to the working class, the IT and AI revolutions will give birth to the useless class. Harari forecasts that 85% or more of the human race will have nothing to contribute to the economy, culture, or society. So in the techno-feudal future they will be kept quiescent with post-modern bread and circuses: The UBI, cheap drugs, and cheap virtual reality. This scenario is portrayed in the SyFy show “The Expanse.” WRM has called it Blade Runner with food stamps. Let’s hope we can figure out what we need to do to avoid this nightmare dystopian future.

    • Jim__L

      This is a truly useless “intellectual”. If he were serious, he’d be working on ways to solve this problem; as it is, he’s just giving intellectual cover for elite apathy towards lower classes.

      If he’s right, he’ll probably be one of the first against the wall when the revolution comes. Is he sure that’s what he wants?

      • Michael Kaplan

        Actually, Harari doesn’t believe the revolution will ever come. He forecasts that the elites will use biotechnology and genetic engineering to turn themselves into a new superhuman species– Homo Deus– which will attain eternal life, eternal youth, eternal bliss, and godlike powers. If the mass of unenhanced, useless Sapiens become too much of a burden or a nuisance, the superhuman Deus will just exterminate them. Or, in his other scenario, all humans, Sapiens and Deus, will be replaced by the AIs. I don’t know how much of this Harari really believes, or if he’s just trying to be provocative to get more TED invitations. Barack Obama, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg have all praised his work.

        • FriendlyGoat

          Maybe Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg will have better insights after they receive tax cuts?

    • Angel Martin

      I know who the leading members of the “useless class” are going to be. Overspecialized snowflakes like this joker who die of exposure in a snowstorm because of a flat tire.

      In every major war in the past, factories had to be converted from peacetime to military. How does that happen in some ultraspecialized, robots-only factory ?

      No problem, just reprogram ?

      The West will be overrun by masses of 1970’s Russian tanks while goofs like Harari try to debug the robot factory reprogramming.

      The Russians will plough us under while these idiots are trying to produce something other than remote control vibrators or $1000 coffee machines.

  • PierrePendre

    When the economic case for France’s 35-hour work week became discredited, its champions on the left switched to claiming that it would give people more time to realise their latent potential; they would go fishing, become more involved fathers or study, write books, paint and sculpt. This hasn’t happened either. French culture remains in the iron grip of a self-selecting Parisian insiders’ club. One reason is that most of the people who got more free time were those who were least imaginatively equipped to do something constructive with it. But at least there were no obvious disadvantages in respect of social pathologies because four hours a week didn’t make all that much difference. Exempting people from work altogether without giving them something else they had to do would be quite different. Idle hands make mischief and all that. This risk would apply especially to young men who couldn’t be guaranteed to spend all and every day cheerfully playing football. One of the obvious casualties of UBI would be the primary, secondary and tertiary education system as we know it. What would be the point of going to school for the children of families which chose to live entirely on their UBI revenues. If we complain about the problems caused by the output of the current public education system, what would it be like co-existing with a large number of citizens who, instead of being half-educated, had no education whatsoever?

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