Thursday, July 28, 2016

Universal Basic Income: Our Only Hope for a Brighter Future (for All) or Sellout of the American Dream?

There's an interesting article in this month's July/August MIT Technology Review. It's interesting to me anyways because of recent readings about UBI, a.k.a. Universal Basic Income. The buzz in Silicon Valley is that with increased automation there's going to be a need for new thinking about Capitalism. Earlier this month we introduced this idea while reviewing futurist Calum Chace's new book The Economic Singularity. David H. Freedman's article "Basic Income: A Sellout of the American Dream" pushes back.

For a great starting point toward furthering the discussion, read the editor's column, in which Jason Pontin creates an imaginary dialogue between Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman.

[Aside: I personally enjoy any use of the imagination, especially these kinds of encounters of historical personages. A good example of the form is Peter Kreeft's rewarding Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis & Aldous Huxley. I'd known that Lewis died the same day Kennedy was shot, so news of his death was lost in the greater noise of the time. I had not known that Huxley also died the same day, so the collision of these three very different and influential men's ideas in a lengthy dialogue made for some illuminating reading. I myself used the device once to interview an uncle who had lost his eyesight during the Civil War and became a poet and newspaper editor.]

Freedman's article is a good read on an important topic. He suggests that there are many reasons the concept of UBI resonates is because many Americans are struggling economically. He points out that the wealth being created in Silicon Valley exacerbates the guilt of being rich in a land where .01 percent of the people "account for more than 20 percent of the country's wealth." The author suggests that the idea of UBI might be a result of this awareness of this growing wealth disparity.

Freedman notes, however, that just doling out dough on a scale being proposed will be far more expensive than we realize. In one of the article's callouts he states, "How much would a basic income cost? The simple answer is: a lot."

The article's section subheads spell out his view fairly strongly. "Sticker shock" and "Risky bet" stand out. In the latter part of the article he dismisses the call for UBI as unnecessary. He writes:

"It’s not just that a basic income would be a risky bet based on murky data. The bigger objection is that it’s an unnecessary bet. Existing safety-net programs could be expanded and tuned to eliminate poverty about as effectively but much less expensively, and they could continue to focus on providing jobs and the incentives to take them."

Is the real battle between proponents and opponents both wearing rose-colored glasses? People like Freedman believe that the information age will create more jobs to replace the ones automation is going to take and that UBI is unnecessary. Tech optimists see the possibility of a world where most needs (and job tasks) will be satisfied by technology so we'd better think of ways to make sure the unemployed are taken care of. It won't be enough to quote Jesus and say, "The poor you will always have with you."

Freedman concludes, "We aren’t yet close to running out of jobs, so why go through so much expense to make it easy for people to opt out of the workforce?"   He may be right for now, but since I don't possess a reliable crystal ball it feels comforting to know that there are people out there at least addressing the scenario.

Read the full article here.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Think about it.


LEWagner said...

Freedman concludes, "We aren’t yet close to running out of jobs, so why go through so much expense to make it easy for people to opt out of the workforce?" He may be right for now,

Yeah, there's no shortage of jobs. People just "opt out of the workforce". :)

Ed Newman said...

I am in favor of UBI, especially if there is future abundance because of tech gains and there is less need for labor. There are many people who can't work due to disabilities and then a massive amount of mismatch of skills. I probably answered too flip at the end.

It's a fact that there are people who opt out. But that doesn't mean all unemployed should be punished because some would rather be taken care of with a monthly stipend by declaring an alcohol addiction for example.