Serious discussion about Guaranteed Basic Income in America stretches back at least as far as Richard Nixon, whose administration’s advocacy for it and universal health insurance would today make the 37th President a sort of Sanders-esque figure.
When people initially learn Silicon Valley technologists are fully in favor of GBI, they’re often surprised and grateful, but this largesse comes with a caveat. To a good degree, it’s driven by a Libertarian streak that aims to vanish social safety nets (the welfare state, as it’s often referred to) and the bureaucracy that attends it. That would include all forms of government healthcare. That’s a problem since, as we’ve seen, health insurance left to the free market is an unmanageable expense for many, and that would be true even with an income floor.
In a NYT conversation about basic income between columnists Farhad Manjoo and Eduardo Porter, the latter questions whether we’re headed for an Utopian work-free world or one with plenty of poorly paid drudgery in which the BGI math doesn’t add up. An excerpt:
I read your very interesting column about the universal basic income, the quasi-magical tool to ensure some basic standard of living for everybody when there are no more jobs for people to do. What strikes me about this notion is that it relies on a view of the future that seems to have jelled into a certainty, at least among the technorati on the West Coast.
But the economic numbers that we see today don’t support this view. If robots were eating our lunch, it would show up as fast productivity growth. But as Robert Gordon points out in his new book, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” productivity has slowed sharply. He argues pretty convincingly that future productivity growth will remain fairly modest, much slower than during the burst of American prosperity in mid-20th century.
A problem I have with the idea of a universal basic income — as opposed to, say, wage subsidies or wage insurance to top up the earnings of people who lose their job and must settle for a new job at a lower wage — is that it relies on an unlikely future. It’s not a future with a lot of crummy work for low pay, but essentially a future with little or no paid work at all.
The former seems to me a not unreasonable forecast — we’ve been losing good jobs for decades, while low-wage employment in the service sector has grown. But no paid work? That’s more a dream (or a nightmare) than a forecast. Even George Jetson takes his briefcase to work every day.•