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Guaranteed income, jobs and Switzerland

2013 December 18

Though only one of, obviously, many great-great-grandparents was born in Switzerland, so far as I know, his line of descent has remained a prominent component of my family heritage and in some small way I have long thought of myself as having “Swiss forebears.”

Today I feel a more-than-usual measure of pride at that tenuous connection, after learning of a Swiss referendum on a universal basic income. This concept, also known as a guaranteed basic income, has been receiving more attention in the past year or so and a quick online search will provide you all kinds of details and extrapolations. But for the most part it would amount to exactly “what it says on the tin.”

For whatever it’s worth, I heartily endorse this proposal. Though it seems a longshot at this point, even moreso here in US of A, I want to endorse being even more radical. For some while now I’ve been thinking that, at least as a societal (and ultimately species) goal, we ought to flip the prevailing perspective of unemployment and job creation around. Our ultimate aim should be to “kill” as many jobs as possible, put everyone out of work and boost unemployment to 100%.

Sound like a #slatepitch? It’s funny you should bring that up, because much of the background to my thinking on both this and the Swiss referendum story can be found in the writing of Matthew Yglesias, particularly this outstanding post. If you read the BBC item about the arguments over basic income, then read Yglesias, you’ll note that he basically covered all of them months ago. Not that difficult, perhaps, given that basic income isn’t a new idea, but the correspondence in some cases is uncanny. Yglesias described our current society as “organized around a ‘work hard or else you’ll starve and be homeless’ model,” and while his phrasing seems obviously critical and even caustic, the money quote from a basic income opponent is basically an upfront restatement of the very same attitude. The Beeb quotes economist Rudolf Strahm warning, darkly, that “There will be no incentive for young people to learn a job or study.”

We have to have a “work hard or you’ll starve and be homeless” model, you see, so that people will work hard, which is essential because… well, it just is.

Presumably, Mr. Strahm and others envision some kind of breakdown of the economy following inevitably from “no incentive” for working, though I suspect that in many cases this is blended with paternalistic moralizing about perceived virtues of labor compared with “idleness.” I could go on and on about this but, in brief, the purely economic idea seems vulnerable from just about every angle. Perhaps the most fascinating takeaway from the BBC story is that “there is surprisingly little debate about whether Switzerland could afford it – the consensus seems to be that, financially, the scheme would be doable.” No doubt Mr. Strahm would counter that the country will become poorer as a result of people “dropping out,” but this seems to ignore completely the trends of more than a century of industrialization.

As I have written before, the days of the “idle rich” are largely gone from western societies; it’s now normal for people to engage in some or other paid activity (which we call “work” for simplicity’s sake) even when they have enough money to support themselves and their family in entirely comfortable idleness for generations. I suspect that Mr. Strahm’s and others’ conviction that even a paltry guaranteed income will nonetheless lead to masses of people simply loafing on the coach is largely the product of class snobbery, basically. They may recognize that their own careers and those of affluent peers within the “creative class” are driven by things other than money, yet take for granted that “those people” outside of their elite are somehow inherently different, and will become welfare leeches given the first opportunity.

Then again, maybe they’re just worried about who will clean their toilets; most people may be willing to work for the fun of it as basketball players or celebrity chefs or (ahem) bloggers, but there are admittedly some jobs that very few people will take without additional “incentive.” With regard to fundamental good or service shortages resulting from guaranteed income, however, I often wonder just what these people’s concept of an economy and productivity can consist of, when they remain immovably welded to a position that even the richest societies need everyone working, full time, and probably need to stretch the definition of full time as well because we’ve been “living beyond our means.” What precisely is the point of automation, or indeed any productivity increase, if we steadfastly insist on maintaining a system of compulsory labor? That, after all, is quite plainly what’s under discussion here, regardless of whose phrasing is preferred. One of the Swiss plan’s proponents, Enno Schmidt, grasps that point though goes a bit far in attempting to drive it home: “a society in which people work only because they have to have money is ‘no better than slavery’.”

Modern capitalism seems better than slavery, even amid sustained high unemployment, but being satisfied with “better than slavery” seems like an awfully low standard!

In the short term, I don’t know what’s “best,” whether within or without the realm of “the possible.” Yglesias himself argues that first and foremost, we should and can restore more or less full employment by pulling the right policy levers, and I’m inclined to trust him. As ministers in neither the United States nor Europe are doing so, meanwhile, a basic income seems even more of a dream. There’s a possibility, too, that even if Switzerland passes the measure, “socialism in one country” may not work, though I suspect concerns in this regard are overblown; will that many people really migrate to a small, cold, expensive country for $2,800/month? Given language and cultural differences? Perhaps we’ll see.

Meanwhile, in the larger picture, I believe that some times being more ambitious can lead to better solutions than the route of lowered expectations. It’s true that, right now, there is not to my knowledge an effective automated toilet-cleaning technology. But presuming that reducing the pressure on people to take any job, because the alternative would be starvation and homelessness, will result in dirty toilets seems to presume an incredibly static context that absolutely ignores centuries of observation and theory about how markets and innovation interact. Just maybe Mr. Strahm has the relevant importance of “incentive” entirely backward, and desperate workers are not a requirement for clean toilets but an impediment to them. Go search for “Hero steam engine.” Now. Do you suppose that maybe the reason why, despite all of our technological wizardry in the 21st century, robots have not taken over toilet-cleaning (or in many cases electronics assembly, or warehouse operations) is the large pool of labor clamoring for a job doing these things at prices so cheap that there just isn’t that much incentive to invest in automated replacements?

I remember many years ago listening to a woman talk about “abundancy mentality” contrasted with “scarcity mentality.” I thought at the time and to some extent still think that she was a bit of a flighty futurist nitwit, but in watching our economy both through news of larger events and through firsthand observation as a white-collar “knowledge worker,” I’ve come to the conclusion that she had a point here. I think that some time ago we passed the tipping point when approaching jobs and our economy as a scarcity issue is consistently helpful, and that it has since become deeply counterproductive in most areas.

No, it’s probably not realistic to presume that we have the resources to establish a choose-your-own-adventure paradise right this instant, just by fiat. I strongly suspect, however, that getting to that point is not only a worthwhile goal, but one that we will reach faster and more comfortably if we recognize and embrace it as our ultimate goal, rather than hugging as tightly as ever to a model of deprivation-based “incentive for… people to learn a job or study.”

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