Universal basic income


Lester: Tell me something, Jimmy. How exactly do you think it all ends?

McNulty: What do you mean?

Lester: A parade? A gold watch? A shining Jimmy-McNulty-day moment, when you bring in a case sooooo sweet everybody gets together and says, “Aw, shit! He was right all along. Should’ve listened to the man.” The job will not save you, Jimmy. It won’t make you whole, it won’t fill your ass up.

McNulty: I dunno, a good case—

Lester: Ends. They all end. The handcuffs go click and it’s over. The next morning, it’s just you in your room with yourself.

McNulty: Until the next case.

Lester: Boooooy, you need something else outside of this here.

McNulty: Like what, dollhouse miniatures?

Lester: Hey, hey, hey, a life. A life, Jimmy. You know what that is? It’s the shit that happens while you’re waiting for moments that never come.

The debate surrounding “universal basic income” (UBI) has been sharpening in the last few years. And, as Noah Smith writes, it highlights one of the fractures in the “progressive” coalition. At the risk of using this blog post as an excuse to talk about my favorite TV show, it seems to me to be the same divide as that between Lester Freamon and Jimmy McNulty in the exchange above.

To put it simply, is work an end in itself, or is it simply a means for getting a paycheck? Does work have intrinsic value? Can work fill your ass up, even just a little bit? Is work required to lead a dignified life? And, in the case of McNulty, what type of person would he be, and what type of life would he lead, if his job were automated out of existence, if he no longer had the thrill of the case to pursue, and if he instead received a government check to do (essentially) nothing?

I should note at the outset that this debate lies squarely in the domain of the educated and relatively well-off. It’s a debate of the privileged. Experiments in basic income in the U.S. have been spearheaded by multi-millionaires, like Sam Altman; its benefits have been touted by billionaires, like Mark Zuckerberg and Marc Andreessen, and even abroad, rich countries including Switzerland, Finland, and the Netherlands have been the first to experiment with UBI.

Altman, in particular, sees UBI as an alternative to leftist wealth redistribution schemes. He explains, “We need to be ready for a world with trillionaires in it, and that’s always going to feel deeply unfair. It feels unfair to me. But to drive society forward, you’ve got to let that happen.”

With that kind of mentality, it’s unsurprising that UBI has been embraced by many liberals and libertarians. As some leftists have described it, UBI is an idea that is infused with “tech-bro” optimism and idealism. It’s one of those “wonky” ideas that makes perfect sense on paper – as Steve Bannon might put it, it’s as if it were crafted in a petri dish at the Cato Institute. From the libertarian perspective, the benefits are manifold. First, all those pesky government bureaucrats and public sector workers will be replaced with an electronic cash transfer. Second, the government will implicitly subsidize the private sector (after all, it’s not as if Facebook’s tax dollars are going to pay for UBI). And, third, if the handout is tuned properly, the working class might stop clamoring for higher taxes (or, worse, the heads of the “trillionaires” on pitchforks). It’s a bit like the New Deal notion of “saving capitalism from its worst excesses”, if FDR had made his money selling people apps.

As Matt Yglesias has argued, Silicon Valley support for UBI might appear a bit more altruistic and meritorious if its rich investors were equally concerned about the current Republican attacks on the safety net:

Right now, the rate of productivity growth is slow, not fast. Americans collectively put in more person-hours of work than we ever have before. The Federal Reserve is taking deliberate policy steps to restrain the pace of job growth. And by developed country standards, Americans work an unusual number of hours per year and an unusual number of years per lifetime. Focus on UBI as a potential fix for science fiction labor market scenarios serves to distract political attention from both actual political struggles over the labor market and actual political struggles over the social safety net.

In other words, rather than musing about a UBI, it would be nice to see well-intentioned technology titans try to lift a finger to defend food stamps, Medicaid, disability insurance and other under-assault welfare programs while backing monetary policy aimed at worker-friendly policies and a robust drive for full employment.

The proponents of UBI on the libertarian-conservative side, like Charles Murray, are incredibly cynical and mean-spirited. They view the UBI as a means of gutting the New Deal and the Great Society, and probably see liberals supporting UBI as patsies (just as Bill Clinton was a patsy for supporting welfare reform in the 1990s). But the proponents of UBI on the libertarian-liberal side, like Zuckerberg and Altman, are almost nihilistic. They see a dystopian, jobless future in which many are immiserated and automation reigns supreme as an unavoidable outcome. So they are planning for a future in 25-50 years in which this endpoint is the only possible endpoint. Like Yglesias, I don’t believe that. There’s plenty we can do right now to improve the material conditions of the poor and to stave off this possibility. Inequality and poverty are not natural consequences of economic “laws” but instead, to a large degree, products of the political system and its (in)ability to cope with economic and technological changes. The Federal Reserve could keep interest rates low and promote truly full employment. The tax code could redistribute wealth away from the rentier capitalists. We could make it easier for people to move between jobs, by loosening the tie between employment and benefits. We could stop spending an inordinate amount of money on health insurance that doesn’t really make us healthier. We could install sensible regulations to dampen the negative effects of globalization and trade on employment. But, instead, to pontificate like Lester Freamon for a moment, we’re ignoring the shit that’s happening right now while we’re waiting for moments that may never come.

But let’s set politics aside. I worry that the truly corrosive part about UBI is that it devalues employment. Having a job – and I know this is unfashionable to say in some highly educated social circles – has intrinsic value. Sure, the job may not always fill your ass up. Even at its worst, though, it provides a focus, a way to fill 8+ hours in the day, a bubble in which you can ignore home life and drama-filled relationships and all of those obligations and personal emails and errands you’ve been putting off. It’s a source of stability, especially at an age (like mine) when so many other things are in flux.

And, at its best, a job provides self-worth. Knowing that you’re fluent at a task that many others are not instills pride, regardless of whether that task is blue-collar or white-collar. In the ideal situation, you might even be filled with a sense of purpose and a feeling that you’re contributing to something larger than yourself. It’s true, as Freamon says, that no one will throw you a parade or proclaim “Aw, shit! He was right all along. Should’ve listened to the man”. But, for instance, being a (good) cop is something to be proud of, to derive satisfaction from. To take down a criminal drug ring that was destroying a community does deserve a parade, even if combating drugs in Baltimore is a Sisyphean task.

It’s obvious not everyone shares my views. One such person is Mark Zuckerberg himself. Read this somewhat astonishing account of Mark Zuckerberg’s visit to a truck stop from his “listening tour”:

Finally, Zuckerberg gets to something that’s in his wheelhouse:

“I asked the truckers what’s changed over the last few decades. When the truckers I met started driving, you logged your driving hours on pieces of paper. Now it’s electronic and automatic, which makes it harder to drive more hours than you’re supposed to. Some people said they want to work longer, but they feel like regulations are getting in the way of their freedom and doing what they want to do.”

Zuck will talk about regulations. “It’s tough because those regulations try to keep people on the road safe.” Hmm. Can’t tell if that’s campaign-ish. It probably wouldn’t go over very well. I wonder if he said something similar about gun control to the second amendment guy.

Then he pivoted to talk about what really interests him, self-driving trucks:

“Everyone I met was skeptical self-driving trucks would replace jobs for different reasons. Some thought it would be impossible to pack all the sensors you need to deal with things like weather into trucks. Others thought computers could handle the interstate but not the last mile to the store. And some truckers think we’ll end up with something like autopilot on planes — with trucks driving themselves with people in the cab.”

Zuckerberg’s response to all of those obstacles that are preventing 3.5 million people from losing their jobs doesn’t exactly inspire hope. He basically just says these truck drivers don’t know what they’re talking about:

“From all the research I’ve seen, I’m confident we’ll solve these problems. But it’s interesting that people in the industry don’t believe this will happen soon.”

Spoken like a man who wants to connect.

Zuckerberg treats the end of trucking as a source of optimism. “We’ll solve the problems” blocking adoption of self-driving technology, he says. It’s obvious that Zuckerberg derives immense satisfaction from solving technical problems – and self-driving car technology is one of them. Is it impossible for him to see that many truckers derive satisfaction and self-worth from their livelihoods too?

In this context, Zuckerberg’s support for UBI seems like a sick joke. He’s effectively saying, “Me and my tech-bro buddies are going to put you and your buddies out of work. So here’s a measly check – don’t bother us again.” Quite the platform for Zuckerberg 2020.


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