July 29, 2018


A Case for UBI: Combating the Robot Workforce: Review: 'Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World' by Annie Lowrey (Robert VerBruggen, July 29, 2018, Free Beacon)

In her new book, Atlantic contributing editor Annie Lowrey tells the story of the UBI in impressive and readable detail without breaking the 300-page mark, combining policy-wonk analysis with on-the-ground reporting in places where the UBI is being given a test run. And while she's an unabashed supporter of the concept herself, she does not shy away from airing counterarguments and frankly discussing the political obstacles. Even readers who come away from the book unconvinced will come away from it better informed. [...]

At the other end of the economic spectrum and far into the future, it also seems rather likely that a UBI will be necessary when robots take over the workforce. In the past, labor-saving inventions like tractors--while disruptive to workers trained in specific industries--have generally, in the end, freed people up to expand the economy by taking new jobs that machines were still incapable of doing. Eventually, though, we're going to get to the point that a robot can do just about anything a person can do, and cheaply. There will be no work left for people, especially those with lower cognitive skills.

At that point, we will be amazingly wealthy as a society. The question will be how to distribute all that amazing wealth. (The pitchforks will come out if all the money simply goes to the creators and owners of the robots, which is one reason that UBI enthusiasm runs so hot in Silicon Valley.) A UBI will not be some sort of cure-all--there remains the question of how people will fill their time and find meaning when work is gone--but it seems like a pretty commonsensical place to start.

A UBI is a lot less sensible right here and right now, though. In making her case for it, Lowrey puts forward a number of standard liberal criticisms of the modern welfare state, and especially the U.S. welfare state, presenting the UBI as a superior alternative. There's much to disagree with in her analysis, and even if she's correct in her diagnosis, there are better ways to address these problems than by sending everyone in the country $1,000 a month, no questions asked. (That's the amount she pinpoints as enough to survive on but not much more. It's obviously far higher than the amount that keeps people from starving in poor countries and can add up quickly for bigger families.)

Lowrey notes, for example, the central claim of the recent book $2 a Day: that in America, more than a million families with children are living in Third World conditions, bringing in less than $2 per day for each person in the household, thanks to conscience-shocking holes in the safety net. This assertion has been controversial from the start, and earlier this month the economist Bruce D. Meyer presented new research that would seem to debunk it entirely. (To be fair, the research came out too late for Lowrey to include it in the book.) Poverty is a serious problem, but $2-a-day "extreme poverty" is incredibly rare in the United States.

Lowrey also makes the usual criticisms of the 1996 welfare reform. Some of these have merit--Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the program the reform created, is not exactly a model of government competency. Nonetheless, the law seems to have reduced poverty over the long term by making work more attractive than welfare, especially when combined with work subsidies such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, as Scott Winship powerfully documented in a 2016 Manhattan Institute report. Put simply, work requirements and work supports are a potent combination for relieving poverty and encouraging self-sufficiency--and the defining feature of the UBI is that it provides financial support regardless of work.

That's not to say the American safety net is perfect, of course. There are too many different programs with different criteria providing too many different benefits, and some aspects of the UBI are attractive by comparison. But as Lowrey notes, incorporating those aspects does not require adopting the UBI wholesale. We could, say, consolidate the safety net and give out more benefits as cash, rather than as in-kind aid such as housing and food stamps. Even the far left could pursue its agenda quite aggressively--increase welfare spending, weaken work requirements, hike the minimum wage, regulate working conditions more strictly, start a government jobs program--without taking the final step and declaring war on Americans' core attitudes toward the importance of work.

...precisely as long as it takes increased productivity to replace you. But, ultimately, resistance is based on a misunderstanding of economics: the point of an economy is to create wealth, not distribute it via jobs.

Posted by at July 29, 2018 7:11 AM