Friday, December 13, 2019

Understanding Guaranteed Income and The Quality of Our Jobs

I’m surprised to see how long it has been since I wrote on universal basic income (UBI).  I made the main points about it long ago:  it would be expensive but much of its cost would be covered by removing welfare-related programs; it is not the same as unemployment benefits; while we don’t need it now, we must address it soon.  After reading the New York Times July 15th, 2018 book review front-page article, “Barely Afloat in America” with two reviews of three books by Emily Cooke and former labor secretary and author Robert B. Reich, what do I think has changed?

The books themselves, Annie Lowrey’s Give People Money, Alissa Quart’s Squeezed, and current Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s War on Normal People, seem accurate and even visionary.  The first and last looked at the merits of guaranteed income, and Quart’s considered deterioration of the American middle class.  

Reich saw, and I see, a jobs situation worse than current unemployment figures.  On why, though, we part company.  I think that what we have is a temporary reprieve from what will, with the next recession, clearly show itself as a permanent problem of simply not enough work opportunities.  Reich said that there was no such thing, but rather “a good jobs crisis” (italics his).  He correctly pointed out that “most economic gains are going to a few,” said the solution was a UBI, which “may seem like a pipe dream” but “seems inevitable,” and cited both books as naming $1,000 per month – the same figure, though slightly smaller due to inflation, that I named in 2012’s Work’s New Age.  Per Reich, after me, that level “doesn’t deliver a comfortable life,” meaning most or at least many would still want paid employment, that about two-thirds of its $3.9 trillion annual cost would be covered by discontinuing food stamps and the like, and gave high billing to a financial transaction tax toward that shortfall.  Reich also, accurately and rarely, pointed out that once such payments are restricted to people with certain employment, income, or net worth statuses, or even taxed on a sliding scale, they are “no longer universal or even basic.”  At the end, though, he couldn’t resist mentioning “vastly unequal economic and political power” as a problem in itself, which UBI would not resolve.  

A more recent piece from Yang, “Yes, Robots Are Stealing Your Job,” in this year’s November 14th New York Times, made the case that, despite recent downplaying, mechanization is still with us.  It is more or less a candidate’s position paper, but I can’t denigrate it for that, since where are his opponents’?  He also touted a $1,000 UBI as one of several measures to improve that situation, and ended with a call to “talk about the real causes and solutions of these problems instead of blaming the current occupant of the Oval Office.”  

I share a problem with Yang.  We are both stuck in the future.  That can be good or bad, positive when, as here, it draws advance attention to something worthy of it, but negative when it confuses what we need to do now with what does not require immediate action.  It can also draw a sort of Cassandra effect, in which when something doesn’t materialize people think it never will, and it taints subsequent predictions’ credibility.  Yet we need reasonably bipartisan forecasters.  

The other part of the Times Book Review piece, a look at Squeezed, was juxtaposed with Cooke’s rather dramatically expressed personal experiences, which led us to think there are day-care centers where the employees let their toddler charges run free while they look for TaskRabbit income supplementing opportunities, that foreign women “must” move away from their own children, and that she herself, despite working as “the editorial director of the New Republic,” does not expect to be able to afford more than one child.  The key thing to think about here, though, is another I put forth eight years ago, that we cannot expect to have the same things our parents did – some have become unaffordable, while others are much cheaper and more accessible now.  Another important fact is that, yes, children are more expensive even in inflation-adjusted terms than they were before.  

Overall, we have the freedom to choose what is and is not worthwhile for us.  And stopping education at a low level is a luxury we can afford less than previous generations could.  UBI or not, we must adapt – that, as with the previous piece, is a message we must take home.

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