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An idea that should die after 2016: the universal basic income
I have been UBI-curious in the past. But after watching this year’s global political upheavals, I am now firmly against the idea of giving every American adult a government check, no questions asked.
The universal basic income — a universal payment to every adult, designed to support a basic living standard regardless of whether the recipient works — has never been a broadly popular idea.
But it has become subject of fascination for policy wonks across the ideological spectrum because of the goals it intends to serve: decoupling subsistence from wage labor (a goal of the left), replacing complex safety-net programs that often create disincentives to work (a goal of the right), and preparing for a future in which automation reduces the demand for labor.
But after watching voters act out their rage at the establishment this year, I have become convinced that a UBI is a very bad idea that would further destabilize the global order — and that the assumptions that had policy wonks interested in the UBI in the first place are bad, too.
The UBI is a policy for a post-work future
Work is one of the core institutions that holds our society together. It serves two purposes: It provides people with the income they need to support themselves and their families, and it provides a sense of purpose in life and society.
Over the past four decades, work has become less effective as a way to provide income, because wage growth has lagged behind economic growth and wages themselves have become more unequal across the skills spectrum.
Workforce participation has also declined, meaning that even as work is getting less fulfilling for those who do work, a growing share of adults does not work or try to work.
In this environment, the logic behind the UBI is obvious: It is supposed to cushion the landing when an increasingly automated economy generates fewer jobs, and it is supposed to make wage labor less central to the human existence.
A post-work future would be very ugly
One problem is that a UBI does nothing to replace the sense of reward or purpose that comes from a job. It gives you money, but it doesn’t give you the sense that you got the money because you did something useful.
More important, a UBI is likely to increase already-existing work-related resentments that drive our politics.
The decline of work is asymmetric, and an expensive policy that is designed to accommodate the decline of work is likely to generate more resentment from those who work toward those who do not.
If workforce participation continues to decline, government redistribution might become more necessary, but political support for it will fall.
Our society is increasingly destabilized. Trust in institutions is low, and participation in institutions is declining. People are less likely to attend church. They are less likely to be members of unions. Their families are smaller. They change jobs more often.
De-emphasis of work will only make this atomization worse. The robots have not taken our jobs yet. It is not time to surrender to a social change that is likely to further destabilize a world that is already troubled.
Fix work and make it more central to society
Donald Trump won the US presidency in part on a message about restoring an economy that allows people to get ahead by earning income from a job.
Trump’s message was of course also about a lot of other things, including ethnic resentments. Yet Trump did about as well as Mitt Romney with Hispanic voters, despite his crude anti-immigrant rhetoric.
I believe one reason for that is Trump’s talk about jobs was a lot more than just racialized code language. It had appeal that was not limited to whites.
Imagine the power this message could have when not wrapped in the idea that Mexico is sending rapists and not promoted by a candidate viewed as unqualified by a majority of the electorate.
It is not at all clear that the public is interested in a post-work future or even a future in which work is less central to American society. They want work to work again.
Policies are available to make work more central in society and more rewarding for workers, but unlike the UBI, they have to be conditional on work.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.