Work Replaced by Universal Basic Income: Probably Not

Erik LoomisYou know, this is fine so far as it goes — maybe UBI could be some sort of solution. But it’s pretty ridiculous to me as well. What is far more likely to happen is what is already happening — massive income inequality, permanent poverty for many, a downwardly mobile middle class, and the rise of candidates like Donald Trump able to tap into the deep discontent and anger this all causes, channeling that anger away from capitalism and toward black and brown people. The only possible thing UBI as going for it as a realistic policy is that since it is truly universal in theory, even white people might use it. But since that’s not really the intent — it’s a baseline, to a topline, what it really means almost certainly is that it will be seen by the public as another welfare program disconnected from work where the taxpaying white people are subsidizing people of color. Never mind the reality of this where millions of whites would also benefit.

It also totally ignores the centrality of work to American political culture. I know that some disagree with me that work is a fundamental tenet of human existence and that it is something we need, but I maintain that position. While theoretically one could then have their UBI and then go into some hipster logging operation where they look really cool and disheveled in all the right ways while sustainably logging or something like this, a lot of people are going to be lost without some kind of work. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, this is a nation that flatly rejects any kind of economic program that does not include work. That’s a big part of the reason Social Security has always been popular, because you work and pay into it and then get paid back. And that’s a huge reason for the attacks on AFDC that culminated in the Clinton-signed welfare gutting bill, because the lack of work is unacceptable to American political life, especially when the recipients of that welfare are poor and therefore probably black.

—Eric Loomis
UBI and Automation

14 thoughts on “Work Replaced by Universal Basic Income: Probably Not

  1. Even those on ADFC both did work and wanted to work. Our national identity is tied tightly to the concept of spending way too much of our time working. Throw in racism and you have a toxic stew that will never let us permanently get rid of income inequality.

      • Honesty? What is that? We cannot possibly be honest since that would mean having to accept hard truths about ourselves and no one wants to do that. Well, not on one half of the political spectrum. You can get Democrats to mea culpa once in a while.

        • True. I think what we need to do is rethink what we mean by work. I think back to the Chris Rock routine about job vs career. People like work that they find fulfilling. It’s interesting that people with fulfilling careers are the most likely to bitch at people about their bad attitudes about their crummy jobs.

          For the record: if you are going to comment on my Hillary Clinton article, please do not start it, “*Sigh*”!

          • Hey! I have some manners! Not many but some!

            It will take a long time to switch over and will involve a lot of pain and suffering because we cannot be bothered to try to avoid it.

  2. Oh, boy.

    “this is a nation that flatly rejects any kind of economic program that does not include work

    This just isn’t true. As in not factual. Alaska, one of the most right-wing libertarian states in the Union, has something called the Alaska Permanent Fund, funded by oil revenues, which is a public savings account which pays out individual annual dividends. In 2014 the Fund paid almost $1900 to every resident of the state, from infants to retirees. As with the Britsih NHS or Canadian Medicare, almost none of the beneficiaries are in favor of getting rid of the Fund. In short, Alaska already has something resembling a Basic Income, although the dividend varies from year to year. This sort of arrangement is usually called a sovereign wealth fund, but it isn’t the only way to finance a Basic Income.

    My own first encounter with non-fiction advocacy for a basic income was in, of all places, John Campbell’s Analog magazine (Apr 1975) where I read an essay by James S. Albus called The Economics of the Robot Revolution (to show how little things have changed, the same issue contained a pro/con debate about National Health Insurance). This essay was expanded into a book called People’s Capitalism, the original 1976 edition of which is still freely available in PDF on Albus’s web page — http://www.james-albus.org/ — look under Area of Interest/People’s Capitalism/bottom of page. Other links on the page are having problems, but you can find them at the Internet Archive:
    https://web.archive.org/web/20091128160956/http://www.peoplescapitalism.org/

    As I recall, Albus advocated government investment on behalf of all citizens, preferably in modern technologies. Dividends from the resulting fund would provide a Basic Income. This scheme could achieve widespread ownership of means of production without eliminating current business structures and allow the growth of automation to benefit rather than pauperize the general public.

    Personally, I see no reason not to combine a Basic Income with some form of Job Guarantee, enabling all those who wish it to do paid work. For some reason most advocates are either/or on this. Seems to me that guaranteed paid work would reinforce the safety net of a Basic Income, while insuring a minimum wage and a tighter labor market. While most people might indeed want the structure and rewards of a paid position, who in their right mind would want the current arrangement where most of the power and profits accrue to a “boss”. Well, aside from those who aspire to be the Boss.

    • I thought he was pushing it on Social Security. When it started, people got benefits that they never paid into. But I’m sure the Alaskans have their reasons for thinking they deserve their thousands of dollars each year. Regardless, there are very few blacks in Alaska. But I’m with Loomis in that the UBI is a non-starter. We live in a country where we keep cutting food stamps for children. I believe that America is such an awful place compared to other advanced countries precisely because we think of ourselves as exceptional. It allows us to justify being the most stingy, petty people on the planet.

      • “maybe UBI could be some sort of solution. But it’s pretty ridiculous to me as well.”

        Uh, all right Eric. Care to tell us why it’s ridiculous? No? Ah, what you mean is it will never, ever happen. That’s why. Like abolition. Like women’s suffrage. Like the eight-hour day. Like that. Oh… right, I just placed him — Loomis is one of the LG&M crowd. Like Hillary, their line is inevitably, “I love this idea. Truly. But you know, it just isn’t realistic“.

        It’s true enough that Americans are spiteful. That’s part of why it’s important that social benefit programs be Universal. Loomis seems to be implying that somehow a UBI wouldn’t be — in fact that it would be means-tested, not universal at all. Which might be true if it were designed by Republicans or ThirdWay Dems…

        “even white people might use it. But since that’s not really the intent — it’s a baseline, to a topline,”

        What the heck does this even mean? Seriously, is it English? And what is Loomis implying the intent of a UBI would be, exactly? Tar Baby, he ain’t sayin’.

        • I don’t think that’s what he’s saying. First, he’s saying that work is something that people want to do. I agree. They don’t want to do awful, pointless work. But if you give people the leisure, they don’t usually just sit in front of the television all day. They do thing. They make things. It’s in our DNA. But it’s also a question of access. It’s a question of what you think is possible. It’s a question of your entire environment. So as long as we have a racist society, we are going to have the white folks who get the good paying jobs that actually provide their lives with meaning. There will still be huge numbers of whites who don’t get those jobs and are on UBI. In fact, like welfare — it would be the majority. But the white elite wouldn’t see it that way. They would paint it as a program for minorities.

          I’m not saying I agree, but that’s the argument he’s making. But I do think that people greatly overstate universality as a reasons for programs being accepted. The reason that Social Security is accepted is not because it is universal. And it is not because (as Loomis said) people pay into it. It is accepted because it supports a hugely powerful voting block. Why do you think all the Republican attacks on it are to dismantle it “for people over 55”?

          Bottom line on UBI: it is one of many ways that we could improve this country. But again: in a country that is cutting food stamps for kids, we just aren’t moving forward with “one weird trick” to fix our unjust political-economic system. I thought Sanders was brilliant in talking about free public university education. But the key to that and everything else is that we need to tax those that have more than we have been. And that’s more than the top 1%. But until the bottom 90% start seeing improvements in their lives, we don’t need to talk about how other taxes might need to go up.

  3. I think it’s fair to say that there will need to be some true sea change before any radical pro-poor change will be made in America or even in Canada.

    Our provincial government is somehow trying a UBI in selected cities in Ontario. We’ll see how it goes, but I think there would have to be a restoration of 50’s tax rates to get this off the ground for the whole province.

    And every province would have to do it, else money would exit Ontario quickly. And the USA would have to do it, else money would exit Canada quickly. And China and Turkey would have to do it, else money would exit North America very quickly.

    As pro-labour as I am, I really don’t think that people for the most part like having jobs. Professors typically like their work; many of them would do it for nothing if they did not need to make a living; same for many other well-liked careers. Not like most jobs.

    • The question is related to the day when robots do all our grunt work for us. As Talking Heads taught us, “If your work isn’t what you love, then something isn’t right.” And something is most definitely not right in the world. We could progress that the bad kind of work is shared. But we don’t. Because we still think in terms of hierarchy. I don’t have much hope for the species.

      • Enough, perhaps, that you are not willing to use my short, vulgar formulation.

        There certainly is a big difference between ‘work’ and ‘jobs’, but this seems too subtle to explain to plain folks, in a political environment with more than 3 crazy people thinking Dumper is a good leadership choice.

        • I don’t think it is a matter of explaining anything, though. I don’t think people just happen to think that they must have soul crushing jobs. I think it is part of the power elite feeling superior. And the liberal class really is very good at helping out in that regard. People do need meaning in their lives. But most jobs don’t provide that. And, in fact, we’ve developed a society that withholds meaning from the vast majority of people. Look at our educational system. But we muddle on.

    • People want to feel valued and important. That can come in a work setting or in other ways. What’s amazing about work in America is that almost every company makes their money off hardworking people. The people at the bottom of the company. And yet almost every company’s higher-ups regard those workers as clods and treat them thusly. Mitt Romney was right; we are a nation of makers and takers. Mitt just got the labels mixed up on who’s who.

      I’m currently doing intern crap for the corporate office of the company I work at; I was injured and can’t work at my regular jobsite for a while, too much heavy lifting. The attitude of these slow-witted toolbags towards me is astounding. It almost glistens with superior glee. One told me “different from the field, isn’t it?”

      Yes, it is. In “the field” I work my ass off. The vast majority of these people spend most of the day chatting or making up useless tasks for others to justify their salaries.

      I loved that phrase “the field.” It’s like a spy movie in reverse. In a spy movie, agents in “the field” have contempt for the paper-pushers and so does the audience. In real life, we regard people who don’t have office jobs as submental.

      It should be the other way around. We should pay people with the most physically difficult or mentally numbing jobs highly, and paper-pushers far less. But then few people would want to sit around a boring office. The reason they do now it because it’s a mark of status, which is why they have to look down upon manual labor so cruelly. If your time punching numbers into Excel doesn’t make you better than the grocery clerk scanning bar codes, there’s little reason to do it. (At least the grocery clerk meets some interesting customers on occasion.)

      Another thing I hate? Being told “I wish I could have your job.” As in, “oh, the responsibility is so much for me to bear, feel glad you aren’t burdened with my administrative troubles.” Well, they can have my job. An internal study I shredded today says we lose around 30% of ground-level employees each year. We’re always hiring.

      In the fifteen years I’ve been with the company, there’s only been one person who left management to go back to “the field.” And I live with this person.

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