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For a living, I wonder about and try to bring about the future: I invest in technology startups—many related to artificial intelligence—that (if they succeed) will deliver a more automated world. Our firm, together with New America, has also been conducting a national scenario planning exercise to understand the 10- to 20-year outlook for work in the United States.
All this future-looking has taught me that every future hope or worry hides in the present. While Brishen Rogers argues that “reports of the death of work have been greatly exaggerated,” I would argue we are feeling technology’s dislocations in our joints now.
The biggest ill a basic income might heal is fear.
Work today is gasping for breath: labor force participation by men ages 25–54 has fallen 10 percent from a peak of 98 percent in the 1950s. Official measures of unemployment understate the severity of today’s crisis by not including those who have given up trying to find work.
Rogers says that significant unemployment caused by technology has yet to materialize, but significant job loss has already followed from automation. Just look at the example of longshoremen as documented in the new podcast Containers.
Meanwhile a great deal of work valued by our society is poorly paid, such as eldercare, childcare, and teaching. In all, the present state of work in America is a mess. That is why we are considering proposals as sweeping as basic income.
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There are many mistaken ideas of what a basic income might solve. Some people believe it would solve inequality but, all other things being equal, it would barely trim the edges of the wealth gap. Others believe it would solve poverty. If poverty were only a matter of money in the bank, that might be true.
Rogers emphasizes the moral economy of work, saying, “we need a vision of good work.” Put plainly, a basic income might fill our wallets while it fails to fill our days. It will fail to provide for goods that both the public sector and private markets struggle to provide, such as health care, education, and housing. It will fail to balance power.
But what power must we balance? The power of the firm? It is unclear whether, in the future, firms will be more or less powerful on average than today. In fact, while the biggest firms are getting bigger, the average size of firms is falling (as is the rate of new firm formation). It is unclear whether the power of all firms is a problem worth solving—or if it is simply a problem of those firms that are monopsonies or otherwise distortive of markets.
The long-term employment relationship between a firm and an employee has carried so much of society’s load: the purpose of a job for an individual, the stability of an income for a family, health benefits, even camaraderie. Whether that relationship is fraying is also unclear. So the need for stronger collective bargaining seems unclear—other than the form of collective bargaining we see now, in our very biggest collective, which is citizen influence on the government.
How do we reconcile a basic income with American values of earning one’s way?
What is clear is that the typical American no longer has a fair shot at providing for an ordinary life. Many people would like to work more, if only predictable work with fair wages were available, but for the first time on record, the rich now spend more time working than the poor. Many are afraid they will be unable to provide for their loved ones and almost half would be unable to pay an unexpected expense of $400. That fear might be provoking extreme behavior (including tolerance of white nationalism). Our hunger for stability is innate.
The biggest ill a basic income might heal is fear.
With a basic income, a spouse can leave a domestic abuse situation. With a basic income, a writer might write, an actor might act, and our culture might reflect the breadth of our peoples’ lived experiences. With a basic income, an entrepreneur might put a few dollars into opening a family business.
And, with a basic income, yes, some might use more opioids. But for every person who does that, many more will make their families proud.
Going forward, many professions will require a degree of personal motivation much greater than the “show up and do the job” seats many fill today. Work is noble when it is necessary.
So in addition to raising the economic floor with a basic income or an alternative to it, we need to promote the skills and mindset needed for anyone to become (if she or he chooses) a “firm of one.” Self-employment would provide an alternative to employment at a big firm, and as the costs of doing business fall in many industries, the “firm of one” becomes more economically productive. It also seems clear that our society will continue to need many forms of work for which there is no payer willing to provide an ordinary life for the paid.
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Many towering questions remain. How do we reconcile a basic income with American values of earning one’s way? Can we create a multicultural, inclusive society that also treats its least well off with generosity? Can we sell all this politically? How should we pay for it? What government benefits might it replace? How should we design it? Is basic income like ice cream, where it will be good in any flavor? Or like mushrooms, where the difference between one variety and another is life and death?
But the conversation is happening now. If we do raise the economic floor in America, it will likely take decades to agree on a new way. In the coming years work will shift. Our families may hold together differently. Our politics might take a ninety-degree turn. We need to honor those who do necessary work for which they are unpaid or underpaid. We struggle to predict the future, so we must prepare for it and address the crisis we already face today.
Each week, another magazine, book, or think tank sketches a dystopian near-future in which automation renders workers unnecessary. Is a basic income the solution?
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