Elon Musk is the most wholesome visionary our era has produced. He is a benign idealist; a guy with his eyes on a horizon beyond money. Money? Musk doesn’t care about that. He hopes only to elevate our minds, our bodies, and our roads to other planes.
Businesses, says the man who has founded so many of them, don’t really exist. Capital, says the man with so much of it, is of no consequence to him. “The main reason I’m personally accumulating assets,” he says, is to fund a multi-planetary future. “I really don’t have any other motivation.”
Musk comes across as a tech monk who sees money as a means only to a good end. He claims to gather it only to rid the world of the blight of emissions—and to rid us of the problems of life on Earth at all. To help untether ourselves from those mortal chains and speed us through a tunnel unto paradise, he proposes a world with universal basic income.
UBI is a policy gift that Musk and so many others in the C-suites of Silicon Valley offer us as part of their vision of a sustainable economic future. UBI, says Facebook’s Zuckerberg and eBay’s Omidyar, is the patch for the economic problems of everyday people. But what Musk and his colleagues tend to leave out of their compassionate public speech is that UBI is also a patch for their problems. Of course Musk, son of the neoliberal era, wants UBI to be instituted: It’s just peachy for him and his businesses, as it means his consumers will have more income to spend on his goods. (Not that he cares about money, of course. It’s all about innovation!)
But let’s suspend our judgement for a minute. Let’s overlook the fact that the man who says he couldn’t give a hoot about money was once the CEO of PayPal. Let’s also overlook that this committed environmentalist benefits by the sale of green credits and that Tesla posted profits due to industrial emissions.
Instead, let’s believe that he, and the rest of Silicon Valley’s elite, are ultimately acting in the public interest. Let’s allow them all to appear as they would prefer: good liberals who want to use their money only to make the world a better and more automated place. They champion diversity (despite its lack in their own employee records), and they advocate for generous work conditions in California (while taking a markedly different approach to the labor they outsource to the Global South). Let’s believe them—let’s say that their billionaire habits of capital accumulation, labor exploitation, and their reluctance to pay their taxes are all a means to a good end.
But let’s not let them all off so easily when it comes to their determined and growing support for UBI. After all, this policy is not one confined to their own business practice, but something they wish to impose on states and nations—on us. UBI is a hack that may well benefit its Silicon Valley advocates in the short-term, but it’ll compound income and social inequality for the rest of us for decades (especially if it’s applied in the gloriously “simple” spirit in which it is largely understood).
Here’s the shameful secret not uttered in our favorite futurists’ TED-style presentations. The reason they adore UBI isn’t to do with their commitment to lift a growing underclass out of poverty; that’s just a bedtime story that helps the super-wealthy sleep. Instead, it’s more to permit spending on their goods by what remains of the American middle class. No one on a stagnant wage can currently buy the things that Musk—and the rest of Silicon Valley—wants to sell them. These billionaires champion a scheme whose prime result will be their profit.
The Notorious UBI
UBI is an old economic proposition and one with some very different champions. The revolutionary Tom Paine proposed a version of it, as did Milton Friedman, the best-known architect of neoliberalism. The idea that an identical sum be paid by the state to all citizens as a right and not as a form of welfare or reward is one, we’re told, whose time has come.
Part of UBI’s appeal for many everyday advocates lies in its apparently post-ideological nature. The fact that this prescription can come from both former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum and former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis stands to some as proof of its inherent theoretical strength. If an “erratic Marxist,” a neoconservative, and the guy who wants to send us all to Mars can agree, then partisan consensus for policy enactment is likely. It looks like a centrist solution.
While it may be a solution that works to the advantage of the capitalist class and their friends in policy, it is likely to win our endorsement, too. Most of us in the West know very well that our incomes are dwindling along with our future job prospects, which will be lost to automation or the “fluid” global labor practice created by the neoliberal policy era. If we did not already know during 2007’s global financial crisis that an economic regime change is needed, we know it now, just by looking at our bank statements.
This thing stands a real chance of being passed into national economic policy. And, if no other ideas are put forth—say, old-fashioned things like nationalizing ownership of companies, redistributing surplus to workers, or transforming corporate super-profits into health or education or bridges—it retains its shine. UBI now has fans from the material left, the right, and, in the form of Canadian prime minister (and poster-boy for photogenic progressivism) Justin Trudeau, the absolute center. We’re liable, in the absence of any other proposals, to become fans ourselves. But most importantly, beyond the support of people and politicians, UBI has our era’s true leaders—the billionaires of Silicon Valley—on its side.
UBI is a scheme whose intended consequences can be compared to what some economists have called “the Walmart effect.” When wages began to fall in the West in the market-friendly period we call globalization, Western workers had less money to spend. When these Western incomes diminished, profits for Western capitalists could have been threatened. Happily, for pre-Musk capitalists, labor exploitation was now occurring off-shore and the cost of many goods, along with the cost of labor, dropped. So sure, your wage may have remained stagnant for years—but you could still afford that set of discount linens upon which your nightmares of a Hunger Games future can quietly take place.
Now Musk’s beloved automation is taking jobs from both the West, where those soothing linens are now less affordable, and the Global South. The robots—which are remarkable things, providing both the possibility of leisure and superabundance to us all—will take over many kinds of labor previously performed by humans throughout the world. This extraordinary moment in history will, almost certainly, make goods cheaper as the rate of investment in the variable capital of labor disappears. There will be far fewer pesky people demanding wage rises—just the constant capital of machines whirring along.
At this historic juncture, we have choices. We could, like Musk, encourage the state to pay us just enough UBI to keep innovative capitalists, who have made most of our labor redundant, innovating toward Mars. (Although, given the long habit of those who accumulate great wealth to avoid taxes, it’s not clear how this will be sustainable.) Or, we could find other ways to keep these now unemployed workers who accidentally innovated themselves out of jobs flush with cash. It was not Musk alone that produced these magnificent labor-saving devices, after all—it was also our labor, and the labor of our ancestors. Maybe, if we look at things in a truly “innovative” way, the true and the sustainable social dividend we should be paid is not a few bucks of UBI, but a stake in Tesla itself. Perhaps he could offer us a wage, or even a dividend cheque, for our very useful assistance. If Musk does not, as he insists, care about ownership, then perhaps he could consider that a collective management of the companies built by the labor and innovation of the many is a better, more fulfilling, and long-term solution all around.
But just as the G20 members recently assembled to determine the future of nations not present to deliberate, Musk does not consult with those people who his public policies and private businesses will affect. If he wants to build a meaningful future for us, he might consider including us in that conversation. Our collective knowledge would be every bit as innovative as our collective labor has been in the past. Elon, surely, is not the world’s sole innovator.
The reality of wealth realtors
But, this isn’t going to happen. The powerful industrialists of the era will not admit that their innovations have impeded their own capacity to profit. They will not concede that we have a stake in a future that they feel entitled to manage.
We now hear plenty of talk about all the success small UBI pilot programs are having: over there in Finland, up in Ontario, even a privately funded program in Silicon Valley itself. But these isolated experiments—which are usually moral rather than economic ones designed to prove that people who are in work will stay in work, even if their income increases—cannot reflect the macroeconomic glitches the UBI patch may cause.
UBI inserted into our current economic software is likely to raise prices on many everyday goods. According to the late, noted US economist Hyman Minsky, one of these may be a rise in the cost of living. Even though there is UBI in your pocket, it is in everybody’s pocket. Just as prices would be likely to rise with the introduction of a new basic wage, so they would with the introduction of UBI.
UBI absorbed into current conditions is therefore likely to provide no positive change for us. There is no way to guarantee that landlords or merchants will not raise prices to reflect the moderate gain in income. If you’re already well-to-do, a price increase in the residential rental market or at the supermarket is of no great consequence to you. If you’re one of the 51% of Americans earning less than $30,000 per annum, it’s likely to have a significant effect.
This may guarantee that profits to the investment class and merchants will increase while creating a greater strain on the classes it’s most meant to benefit. After all, the wealthier classes are also receiving UBI, which they don’t need to spend—they can transform that extra cash into capital, as Musk would. This may have the effect of increasing wealth inequality, not eradicating it. The extra money (that Musk doesn’t care about, remember) may well become meaningless due to UBI-led inflation.
UBI evokes, as do many of the phrases relished by Musk, a sort of realist utopia. It is certain, for a time, to safeguard the interests of a powerful few. But in the long-term, it is likely to diminish the purchasing power of the many. A true social dividend would not be a small state stipend whose terms are set by the billionaires of Silicon Valley.
The innovations produced not just by Musk but by centuries of human labor have made history’s richest companies less likely to profit. The capitalism that Musk says he doesn’t care about is crushed by the weight of its own contradictions, so he want to prop it up with a government subsidy. But coming from the guy who believes in Martian colonization, UBI, an old idea, is hardly the innovative thinking for which he should want to be known.