What would you do if you had a guaranteed, no-strings-attached cash flow that kept the rent paid, avocado toast on the table and the interest on your student loans at bay? Inconceivable, I know, but bear with me.
You haven’t won the Powerball, but likewise, you’re not squatting in the woods catching squirrels for your supper. There may not be a lot left over after, but the essentials are all comfortably covered. You don’t have to work as many hours to pay the bills, so you won’t. What you need now is a way to pass that extra leisure time, but how? Would you finally get down to writing that novel? Revive your tepid romantic life? Sell handmade baskets on Etsy? Smoke a bowl (or more likely, a few) and ravage your Netflix queue? Would you find something more meaningful to do with or your life, or just some more decadent means of distracting yourself?
Setting aside the cheek and exaggeration, what I’m sneaking up on here is a universal basic income (UBI), the “disarmingly simple idea” of providing periodic cash payments to every individual member of society, regardless of means and with no requirement to work. Think of it like having a patron or a sugar daddy, except it’s the government. I’m interested in two things about the UBI: the economic argument for it and the potential it offers for a vaguely Marxist psychological liberation. I’m sanguine about the former, skeptical of the latter. In 2017, it’s almost trite to claim that wage labor is alienating, but my contention is that there’s a deeper, cultural sickness, one untreatable even by a UBI.
If you’ve got Internet access and an ounce of political awareness, you’ve probably encountered the concept of a UBI already. In the last decade it’s gone from pipe dream to serious political viability, and in Oakland, Ontario, Nairobi and Finland, tentative reality. Last February, Stanford established the Basic Income Lab to study UBI’s implementation and financial feasibility under the virtuous auspices of the Center for Ethics in Society. Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley big boys believe a UBI will become a necessity in the near future, as automation stands to displace 45 percent of American workers over the next 20 years. Needless to say, Bernie’s behind it.
It’s not just bleeding-heart academics and conscious capitalists, though. Somewhat shockingly, there are conservative arguments for a UBI too. OG patriot Thomas Paine proposed 10 pound per annum payments to “to every person, rich or poor,” while libertarian luminary/real life turtle man Milton Friedman argued that a guaranteed income could clean up the U.S.’s current hodgepodge approach to anti-poverty programs and enable work not otherwise compensated in free market economies, like volunteering or creating art.
The minimum wage — which could be a good or a bad thing for the economy depending on who you ask but which, either way, isn’t exactly the be-all-end-all answer to workers’ money woes — could be binned entirely with a UBI. A UBI is also an intuitive and compelling answer to the welfare trap. There’s a perverse incentive to stay on government assistance indefinitely when earning just a little over the income cutoff makes you ineligible for your benefits; a UBI bypasses that issue because it’s dished out to everyone regardless of means.
The fundamental necessity of a UBI has always been poverty reduction, which we mostly talk about today in terms of inequality, though even that’s starting to sound a bit too Obama-era. The U.S. is the prime case of inequality among the so-called advanced economies, a slightly snobby-sounding classification the IMF is propagating, not me. Nine in 10 U.S. households make less than $35,000 each year, with the top 0.1 percent earning almost 200 times the income of the bottom 90. The only time in our history when income inequality was comparable was the late 1920s, and I’m blanking on it at the moment, but I’m pretty sure something bad happened a little while after that. (It’ll come to me eventually.)
What’s more telling is the rate of real hourly compensation, which has been dragging alone at a miserable clip compared to productivity since the early ’70s. And the wealth gap? Let’s not even go there. (But if we were to go there, let’s just say there’s finally something we’re worse at than Russia or Iran). In terms of inequality, Miami is comparable to Zimbabwe, as though you needed another reason to never, ever go to Miami.
Say what you will about our troll of a 45th president, but Trump’s election is a very real indication of how deeply this rampant inequality has penetrated the psyches of those “forgotten Americans” feeling excluded from the golden touch of the tech boom. Clearly our current welfare system isn’t serving them sufficiently, and by now, I hope I’m starting to convince you that a UBI is the most promising alternative.
Is the problem excessive inequality, or inequality itself, full stop? Sure, some amount of inequality is a certainty in a market-based society, on account of differences in talent, effort and luck. That inequality is most painfully apparent in America’s cities. A stroll from the Caltrain terminus in San Francisco up through SoMa and toward the Tenderloin reveals a disturbing microcosm of the situation. In social terms, though, inequality only becomes toxic when those on the lower rungs have trouble getting their basic needs met, which is precisely why a UBI could be the answer to the American middle class’s current economic discontent. What kind of car Bill Gates drives or how long Larry Ellison’s yacht is (it’s not about size really, but in case you were wondering, 453 feet) doesn’t matter so much when you’re not pulling 60-hour workweeks to keep your kids clothed and fed.
The point I’ve been making up until now is that a universal basic income could be a decisive step toward addressing inequality and economic insecurity. A UBI could reduce inequality, meaning higher incomes for the average American, which would increase consumption and investment, ultimately benefiting the economy as a whole. At the same time, it could simplify our social welfare system and maybe, just maybe, liberate us from the worst of wage slavery. What I mean is that our malaise is only partly an economic problem. There’s a cultural component too, one that is too easily overlooked precisely because it presents no obvious ways of addressing it.
Material stability is all well and good, but what of the spirit? Could a UBI really make us less alienated from our work, the world and our lives? “Men don’t need money,” says Jordan Peterson, “men need function.” The reality, of course, is that we need both, but the deeper point stands. Many of the institutions that gave meaning to the lives of earlier generations of Americans have today evaporated. Church attendance and belief in God are both on the decline, multigenerational households are an oddity and a modern career path is more often a labyrinth than a ladder.
Religion, family, local communities and the traditional nine-to-five used to provide a clear and stable social context within which to locate and define one’s self. Yet we can’t return to the past to fill that absence. Another Great Awakening is an impossibility, and as lovely as a live-in grandmother may be, the nuclear family and the single-parent household aren’t going anywhere. Money will never reveal to us who we are or how best to be in the world, but our culture isn’t helping us much either.
I often make up metaphors to explain life to myself. Sometimes I share them with others, but mostly I keep them to myself, since they remain a bit too inchoate to sound sensible. One of these metaphors is the end of the party. The party always ends, and then you’re at home, taking off your shoes, putting your phone on the charger and feeling a bit empty but not too bad, passing time, until tomorrow arrives and you can once again (praise God!) be preoccupied by those quotidian experiences, pleasurable and painful, that constitute your ongoing reality. The end of the party is the feeling you get when distraction wears off and your woes are once again front and center, not in any desperate way, but rather like a pesky poltergeist.
What makes our lives feel meaningful, however briefly? Having activities, sensations and ideas to distract us from life’s baseline meaninglessness. Maybe you won’t agree — and I promise I’m not putting on nihilism for the sake of nihilism here — but everything meaningful proves fleeting, while the creeping suspicion of an underlying valuelessness can only be covered up, if even that.
Each generation seems to see itself as more profligate and unmoored than the last, but when I look at what our culture is producing to keep us entertained, a voice inside me screams, decadence and decline! (It’s my own voice; I am, as always, half joking, even with myself.) A 32-year-old man spends thousands to dress like a Dalmatian, indulge in “puppy play” and feel like his most authentic self. In Boston, you can buy a pizza with hamburger meat and French fries on it. How many of us check our phones for messages, updates, emails, whatever, dozens if not hundreds of times per day? Don’t you feel uneasy without it in your pocket or purse or wherever you’re in the habit of putting it?
Our metaphorical opiates are available to almost all of us, even the poor. About 70 percent of people in the U.S. own a smartphone and 45 percent own a tablet, while 96.7 percent of American households own at least one TV. I don’t mean to act as though economic insecurity is a day at the beach, only to point out this is not your grandmother’s brand of poverty. I’d venture to guess that with more money on hand, many of us would only increase our consumption.
The most appealing possibility of a UBI — the potential to liberate us from the crushing grip of necessity in order to pursue our own interests, passions and artistic ambitions — seems its most naïve, too. Our culture of decadence feeds us junk-food pursuits that only bring attention to our cultural displacement.
That’s not really an argument against a UBI. On the contrary, its economic promises look too, well, promising for us not to explore implementing it further. We can only hope that puppy play is enough to tide us over for now.
Contact Iain Espey at iespey ‘at’ stanford.edu.