Friday, May 5, 2017

The "Spiritual Ruin" of a Universal Basic Income? No, Not Really.

Recently, there was an article in The Week by Damon Linker titled, "The Spiritual Ruin of a Universal Basic Income".   He basically argues that it is a bad idea for the left to pursue the idea of a UBI because 1) it fails to address (and perhaps even intensify) the psychological and spiritual consequences of joblessness, which are (in his view) distinct from and worse than the economic consequences, 2) most people couldn't handle joblessness even with a basic income and would thus become depressed and purposeless and give themselves over to video games, porn, and/or drug addiction, and 3) the left should not concede that automation (and the resulting job losses) is in any way inevitable.

And all of these things are in fact false.

First, only a person of relative privilege could possibly see the economic consequences of joblessness as entirely separate from, and less significant that, the (admittedly real) psychological and spiritual consequences of same.  The former can indeed cause or contribute to the latter in a big way, and it is very difficult to disentangle them.  Poverty and desperation are well-known to be harmful to the mind, body, and spirit, and only meaningful work (as opposed to work for the sake of work) can be said to be beneficial to same.  When the economic consequences are resolved via a UBI, the remaining noneconomic consequences of unemployment would in fact become that much easier to tackle.

Second, there is no logical reason why a UBI and the sort of New Deal 2.0 jobs program that Linker advocates would be mutually exclusive.   The TSAP, in fact, advocates exactly that combination, with both a UBI and a Job Guarantee program for everyone who wants one.  We also advocate shortening the workweek as well, which would spread the remaining work among more workers, thus more jobs.  Thus the noneconomic consequences of joblessness can also be adequately dealt with as well.  So that is not a valid reason for the left to abandon the idea, anymore than it would be a reason to abandon the idea of a social safety net in general.

Third, the idea that UBI will cause most people or even a particularly large chunk of the population to become lazy and/or self-destructive is not borne out by the facts.  Numerous experiments with UBI and related schemes have been conducted in diverse cultures and locations in the past half-century, and the overwhelming weight of the evidence strongly suggests that this will not occur.   If anything, one notable effect is an increase in entrepreneurship due to a decreased fear of failure and more time and money to invest in their goals. Students and new mothers will likely work fewer hours than before since they are no longer forced by dint of economic necessity (the effect on hours worked is likely negligible for everyone else), but is that really such a bad thing?  Of course not.

Nor is there any credible evidence that substance abuse would significantly increase either as a result of UBI, and it may even decrease.   But just to drive the point home even further, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sam Altman argues that even if 90% of the population sat around smoked weed and played video games instead of working, a UBI would still better on balance than not having one, as everyone would be free to pursue their passions and the remaining 10% would innovatively create new wealth.  Not that he thinks that 90% would actually do that, of course, but the point was well-made nonetheless.   One can also point to the Rat Park studies as well.  It is amazing how addiction diminishes or even disappears when rats (or people) are not treated like caged animals in the "rat race"!

And finally, a real pragmatist would realize than automation really is inevitable in the long run.  Contrary to what the neo-Luddites like to argue, fighting against it will not stop it, only delay it a bit.  The best that we progressives can do is admit that fact and do whatever we can to ensure that the fruits of this automation will benefit all of humanity and not just the oligarchs at the top.  To do so, we must take the power back from the oligarchs.  And a crucial step to that goal is a Universal Basic Income, so We the People can actually have some bargaining power, no longer dependent on our employers for survivial.  Whether we get this one right will basically be the difference between a futuristic pragmatic utopia (as Buckminster Fuller envisioned) or a horrifying technocratic dystopia straight out of 1984, Brave New World, or [insert other dystopian novel here].  So let's choose the right side of history!

After all, as the late, great Buckminster Fuller--the Leonardo da Vinci of the 20th century, famously said in 1970:

We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

Thus, on balance, a Universal Basic Income Guarantee for all is a good idea regardless.  A win-win-win situation for everyone but the oligarchs.  And the only real arguments against it are paternalistic and/or sadistic ones, which really means there are no good arguments against it in a free and civilized society.  So what are we waiting for?

1 comment:

  1. There should be a UBI in this country. It would do much to bringin community cohesion by lowering crime rates.