Thursday, June 15, 2017

Universal Basic Income?

This piece on the idea of a universal basic income connects dots in some pretty disturbing ways.  I’m still not sure what to make of it.

UBI is the proposal to make a certain income level a basic right of citizenship, like in Alaska.  On the left, it’s usually conceived as a supplement to other benefits; on the right, it’s usually conceived as a substitute for them.  The idea has caught on recently among some techies as a response to technology-driven worker obsolescence.  Yes, automation, IT, and the emerging internet of things may cause mass unemployment, they concede, but with a good UBI program, who cares?  Besides, the internet is the greatest mass entertainment system ever devised; as long as all those useless people have screens and connections, what’s the problem?

The UBI idea has a long history.  It showed up in various forms of 19th century utopian socialism, for instance.  Oscar Wilde argued in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” that between technological advances and political ones, we could harness technology to free workers from boring tasks so they could focus instead on higher things, like art and philosophy.  (This was before Netflix.)  In the middle of the 20th century, some very smart people worried about the ever-shortening workweek and the cultural deadening that would follow from excessive leisure.  John Maynard Keynes speculated about the coming fifteen hour workweek, extrapolating from hundred year trends.   In the 1960’s, no less a thinker than David Riesman titled a collection of essays “Abundance for What?”  Now, instead, full-time jobs often expect 60-plus hours per week, and we sneer at the fuzzy-headed idealists who think that parental leave should extend at least until the baby is old enough to walk.

Part-time jobs have grown, but with less-than-proportional pay.  Making a living often requiring stitching several of them together, at the expense of the art and philosophy -- and, yes, Netflix -- that Keynes and Wilde thought reduced hours could enable.

So would just paying people to step off the treadmill solve the problem?

Jobs are about more than income, as important as income is.  They’re about usefulness, and all that entails.

Tyler Cowen notes in The Complacent Class that the cities in the US with the most integration by economic class -- Cincinnati, Buffalo, Rochester -- mostly reflect the 20th century economy, and are losing ground.  The cities with the most segregation by class -- Boston, New York, Seattle, Austin -- reflect the 21st century economy, and are pulling away from the rest.   It’s possible to read the 2016 election in part as a reaction against a growing, inchoate, visceral sense of irrelevance.  The reaction is one thing, but the sense of irrelevance is another.  

When students talk about wanting jobs and careers, part of what they talk about is wanting a place in the world.  A good job offers an income, but it also offers a reason to get up in the morning.  It offers the possibility of mobility, and a felt sense of agency.  And in some cases, it offers real political and economic power.  It’s no coincidence that the labor movement was based in, well, labor; having something of economic value to trade -- the ability to work -- offered leverage that could be used to gain political power.  Lose the value of labor, and you lose that leverage.  Apps don’t unionize.

People who feel useless aren’t at their best.  To the extent that the economy cleaves into one group that works 80 hours a week and another that’s told to be happy watching screens in economic backwaters, I don’t see a healthy polity.  Political polarization isn’t just about bad manners; it’s rooted in a deeper economic polarization.  Add a difficult racial history to the mix and the picture gets even uglier.  

Brookdale’s 50th birthday is next month.  It, like most community colleges in America, was founded at the height of what economists call The Great Compression.  It was the period when income polarization was at its lowest.  Community colleges are physical incarnations of the assumption that prosperity and its demands are spreading everywhere, and for a while, that assumption was correct.  Now prosperity is retreating into a few enclaves.  Public higher education wasn’t built for that.  It’s a difficult adjustment, and the jury is still out on how best to handle it.

At a basic level, though, I think we need to reject the idea that consigning much of society to permanent uselessness is somehow okay.  There’s talent in unlikely places, and possibility where you might not expect it.  And there’s a dignity that comes with having a contribution to make, whatever that contribution is.  For all of their flaws, the single most appealing trait of community colleges and similar places is their belief in the dignity and possibility of everyone, no matter their income or family situation.  They empower people to make better lives for themselves.  They live out the assumption that usefulness isn’t the exclusive property of anybody.  It isn’t.

I’m perfectly happy to consider UBI as a policy tool among others for improving lives.  But to the extent that it rests on an assumption of widespread uselessness, I have to say no.  A belief in empowerment and dignity for everyone may be dated, or fuzzy-headed, or corny, but I don’t care.  It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.