“No one wants to admit that our half-measures aren’t working and won’t work” is something that needed to be said by the Presidential candidates this election season in regards to the dying of the Industrial Age, the irreversible decline of manufacturing jobs and the potential attenuation of many other types of employment. No such discussion was had, however, as a vulgar Mussolini-Lampanelli clown shouted and taunted and danced. The future will likely arrive most ferociously for those very working-class people most drawn to his spectacle.
Those quote was actually delivered to Sean Illing of Vox, in an interview with Andy Stern, former union president and current Universal Basic Income advocate who fears a Hunger Games future for most of America if policy doesn’t address the challenges that will attend widespread automation. The Raising the Floor author also addresses another perplexing topic: What if we get UBI and most people aren’t working? What would we do with all that free time? I almost shudder. Lots of people who have a life-or-death need for Medicare, Social Security and the Affordable Care Act just voted for a party desperate to be rid of those things. Imagine the trouble we could get into if food and shelter were assured.
Let’s pivot from unions to universal basic income, which is a cardinal issue for you these days. In your book, Raising the Floor, you conclude that a UBI will eventually be necessary. Can you say, first, what UBI means and, second, why you think we need it?
A universal basic income is essentially giving every single working-age American a check every month, much like we do with social security for elderly people. It’s an unconditional stipend, as it were.
The reason it’s necessary is we’re now learning through lots of reputable research that technological change is accelerating, and that this process will continue to displace workers and terminate careers. A significant number of tasks now performed by humans will be performed by machines and artificial intelligence. We could very well see 5 million jobs eliminated by the end of the decade because of technology.
We’ve already seen Uber-deployed driverless cars in Pittsburgh, and driverless trucks will be deployed in the next five to six years — we’ve already seen them across Europe. The largest job in 29 states is driving a truck. There are 3 and a half million people who operate trucks and 5 million more who support them in various ways.
So there’s a tsunami of change on its way, and the question is twofold. One is how does America go through a transition to what will be I think an economy with far fewer jobs — particularly middle-class jobs? What policies will guide us through this transition? And second, what do we want this to look like on the other end?
I believe a UBI is a way to ease the transition, and it’s also a way to provide a floor for people — not necessarily a substitute for work, but a supplement to work that allows them to have a sense of economic security, have consumer buying power. We want to allow people to be entrepreneurs, to take risks and raise kids and do other things without turning the world into the Hunger Games.
Obviously you’re an advocate for a UBI, but I’d like to hear what you think is the most compelling counterargument against UBI.
Certainly our concept of work is problematic. This is a country in which people have not figured out what to do if they don’t work for money. I think there are many other ways that people potentially can work but, psychologically, the Protestant work ethic is embedded in the psyche of our country. The idea that someone would get something for nothing is anathema here. People that work feel like those who don’t shouldn’t be rewarded. It’s just an alien concept.•