Basic Income vs Jobs

Politics produces endless strange outcomes. Yesterday, I encountered a Guardian item by Ben Tarnoff attacking universal basic income from the left.

Yeah, well, sure; why not?

I’m not sure that all of Tarnoff’s thesis hangs together, though a lot of his arguments are difficult to dismiss because other highly qualified voices support them. A long stretch in the middle basically rebuts that the popular narrative that economic inequality is the product of automation and “inevitable” globalization. Instead, the author lays blame on intentionally pro-elite trade policies (passed off as globalization), “the transformation of the tax code, the growth of the financial sector, and, above all, the collapse of [organized labor] since the 1970s.”

Economist Dean Baker makes and provides ample evidence for much the same arguments, almost every day. He has written more than once that “robots putting people out of work” is a red herring, and that automation is entirely compatible with full employment and a growing middle class, if we reverse policies that favor capital over labor.

I find his case persuasive, and generally endorse his specific prescriptions. Mr. Tarnoff’s objection to basic income seems a bit less convincing; a lot of it seems to be driven less by substance than style. He portrays the concept as a scheme by tech billionaires to “give us an allowance to live on, and keep the rest for themselves,” and “crumbs left by the bully who steals your sandwich.” In practice, though, I’m unclear that this is really all that different from his one-line alternative: “Better to own the robots collectively, and allocate the surplus democratically, than leave society’s wealth in the hands of its luckiest members.” Unless I’m missing something, basic income accomplishes two of these three objects, and it’s unclear to me how much meaningful difference collectivized robot ownership would make if the wealth produced by automation is redistributed. Possibly Mr. Tarnoff assumes that basic income must mean small-scale redistribution—”crumbs”—but besides its name I’m not sure that the concept is actually incompatible with much more aggressive leveling.

Meanwhile, though, I feel like something is missing from both his vague rebuttal to the “robots are going to take our jobs” story and from Mr. Baker’s more rigorous version. Both seem to assume on some level that society not only can produce lots of jobs despite automation, but should. I’m not clear that this is a very worthwhile goal.

While I’m skeptical of overconfidence regarding the “lump of labor fallacy,” etc., I’m willing to allow for argument’s sake that, for the foreseeable future, it’s possible to design a “market” economy in such a way that all humans can find paid employment with comfortable wages/benefits, even with automation performing more and more tasks. I just wonder whether the people advocating the realization of this possibility are giving much thought to what that paid employment will involve, and whether or not it’s really going to be a positive or even benign force in shaping lives.

I believe that humans are potentially quite resourceful in coming up with new wants that, by one measure or other, “require” another human to satisfy them. But I see two or three problems with relying on this as a core part of our economic system: 1) it seems like in practice a lot of these invented wants are fundamentally rubbish, and 1a) that portion seems destined to increase with automation, while in the meantime 2) I’m not sure why this is an approach that should even be up for consideration when designing the future.

This is territory that I have visited a number of times before. It’s just endlessly confounding to me that our culture, and even many independent-minded, progressive intellects, continue to treat “jobs” as a scarce good which we should seek aggressively to supply as universally as possible.


I don’t see the fundamental nature of “the job” as a desirable element in society, at all. So far as I can tell, what unites the many broad categories of what we call “jobs” is simply the cession of some greater or lesser direction over our activities to others in return for money. Often this exchange occurs out of need—”work hard or you’ll starve and be homeless”—which seems obviously to signify coercion. Admittedly some people actually like that and even admit it, or come close, but I would hope that most enlightened adults would prefer empowerment over slavery as a general rule. Meanwhile, even when people are so wealthy that they cannot conceivably be exchanging independence for money out of need, I think the assumption that it’s nonetheless rational and normal to go on making such an exchange anyway is at least as awful if not more so.

The fact that in practice these exchanges seem increasingly often to mean not only accepting external direction of one’s activities but stupid, debasing direction as well, is arguably incidental but still significant. Do people really still look around themselves, let alone to the future, and take for granted that having “a job” is in any way reliably associated with meaning and dignity? For fuck’s sake, I cannot be the only one who finds the notion absurd.

Maybe all of this is just too utopian for most people; perhaps even economists and other intellectuals are mostly unable to see beyond a labor-for-money-for-goods economy as the only way to keep civilization running.

I feel, however, that it’s time to start looking for something beyond that. Regardless of whether or not we can keep coming up with more busywork to enable broad participation in a jobs-based economy, the notion that we should do so is overdue for serious questioning. It shouldn’t matter that robots can’t replace everything right now, or even that they may never be able to do so; they can replace a lot and will be able to replace even more, and simply presuming that we’ll deal with that later and for now keep structuring society around coerced busywork is unacceptable.

It’s time to begin developing alternatives, in more detail than just “collective ownership.” I think that answer may be perfectly valid economically, but capitalism and the job are more than merely economic phenomena. We’re going to need a new culture, and just as importantly I think we’re likely to need some vision of what that new culture will be beforehand, if people are ever going to begin letting go of the old one. What will people do, how will we relate to one another? Even if we agree that the job is a rubbish source of providing lives with meaning, what system of values will provide a better replacement?

I really believe that this needs to be approached as more than airy-fairy utopian daydreaming, too. Earlier this year George Monbiot wrote that at the moment, the world’s political left needs to be able to articulate a real alternative to capitalism, one more compelling than simply “capitalism with some wobbly shims to make it more fair.” Given the struggles of left-leaning political parties even in the wake of massive market failures, I think there’s much to be said for his proposal that these parties need a real effort to develop such an alternative, simply for reasons of practical electoral survival alone.

I think it’s also safe to say that the alternative needs to be more thoughtful than just socialism/communism. Frankly, even these models seem to have failed, in practice, to challenge some of the basic assumptions of market culture. So far as I am aware, even in the Soviet Union, most people had jobs performing externally directed work in exchange for money, which was used to outfit one’s life through consumer purchases. Under the circumstances, of course many people will be reluctant to try it again even if we suppose that democracy can take the place of autocratic government, and automation can ensure quality consumer goods.

The future demands more imagination than any flavor of labor-for-money-for-goods. Not because robots will make all of them obsolete, but because they will make something better possible, if we have the wit and the courage to come up with a definition of “better” that addresses not just economics but the human condition.

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