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LAZY NEW WORLD

Would universal basic income really make people happy?

Ephrat Livni
Member exclusive by Ephrat Livni for The future of work

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It’s the year 2036. Cars drive themselves. Your house is run by an AI. You have a tiny device implanted in your hand, called a gram, which delivers everything to you—even more convenient than Amazon Prime. And a robot has your job. But you’ve got government-funded health care and basic income. Your needs are met.

Still, you’re miserable.

Welcome to the world of The Absolveda new novel by Matthew Binder, published on Dec. 4 by Black Spot Press. It’s dystopian science fiction that takes place in a world that’s not so different from ours, yet is utterly distinct and pretty much stinks.

Most interesting is the novel’s take on universal basic income (UBI)a form of social security that’s attracted a lot of interest in recent years, with trials launching in places from Finland to Kenya to Oakland, California. Many American politicians and candidates currently support the idea. For example, incoming freshman senator Alexandria Ocasio Cortez proposed a Green New Deal that would offer basic income and universal health care to people who lose jobs in the wake of policies meant to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, with the goal of ensuring that efforts to pivot to environmentally-friendly energy don’t leave workers stranded. Long-shot 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who believes automation will take most jobs, is worried about “the disintegration of our society” and wants to give every adult US citizen $1,000 a month. And even Hillary Clinton is a fan of UBI.

But The Absolved takes a more pessimistic view of UBI’s potential to address the changes brought on by technology and automation. A majority of citizens living in the book belong to a category called “the Absolved.” These are people who do not have to work and are free to do whatever they please with their time. They could exercise or read, watch movies, make art or make love, do magic tricks, or spend their days meditating. But in Binder’s book, they mostly end up as depressed drunks who spend their days watching sports and are addicted to gambling or food.

Lazy new world

The protagonist in The Absolved is a doctor, Henri, one of the few remaining high earners in society. He pays extraordinarily high taxes in order to support the many government programs, but he still receives a basic income. In real life, most conceits of UBI would work similarly. Billionaires would receive it, too, but they would have paid into it with contributions that mitigate the cost of such programs. Elizaveta Fouksman, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Oxford, argued in Quartz in August that “UBI costs far less than you think.”

Supporters of UBI argue that it’s time to rethink the desirability of “full employment.” Maybe everyone doesn’t need a job. Perhaps we’d be a happier and healthier society if everyone was cared for, but not everyone worked. Practical philosopher Andrew Taggart noted in Quartz in April that in contemporary society, many of us are engaged in work that doesn’t provide meaning. Merely having a job is not enough to create purpose.  UBI would free up people to pursue activities that feel like genuine contributions.

But The Absolved casts doubt on that claim. Even those who do good in the book are fundamentally uninterested in the well-being of others. For example, the protagonist’s wife, Rachel, runs a food bank for fringe members of society, called “the futile,” people so low in the system they don’t even receive a basic income. Theoretically, she should be an admirable character, but this do-gooder is no good. She engages only so that she can feel better about herself and look impressive to her wealthy friends, is obsessed with appearances, and is a thoughtless product of her times.

For example, when Henri cuts down a tree in their yard with an axe—enjoying a rare moment of physical labor, prompted by threats of litigation from the neighbors—Rachel is mortified and chides him for setting a poor example for their son. “Surely you didn’t make our son do this work,” she says. “This is unacceptable.” Though both the father and the boy feel satisfied after a day of chopping and stacking the wood from the tree, eventually the child takes his mother’s side, explaining that at school, he’s been instructed that efficiency is the highest goal. Their endeavor, while satisfying, was a waste of time. Henri should have called a landscaping company with electric tools at its disposal to do the work, as Rachel expected.

The book reads, strangely, like a mix of Marxist manifesto and capitalist propaganda. On the one hand, Binder’s characters are miserable because they are workers who have not only been disconnected from the means of production, but disconnected from production altogether. They’re happiest when they have the chance to do something. On the other hand, they can’t seem to find any purpose without work, and become morally corrupt because the struggle to survive has been turned into just a struggle to pass the time. Without labor and competition, the book implies, we can’t muster the drive to do anything.

Henri offers this cautionary tale as an example:

For years, as different professions became obsolete, I always said that being freed from the burden of work would be a blessing. It would allow people to pursue more noble ambitions than mere life-sustaining employment. Every person has some unique quality and aptitude that can bloom like a desert rose if given the right situation. I once knew a lawyer who late in life developed a passion for magic…[H]e lost his job, displaced by a new software program, and for a few months he did practice every day…Soon he grew bored and quit. When I said it was a shame, he told me that without his day job as a lawyer, the magic became a chore and lost its appeal. In its place, he found a new hobby: consuming copious amounts of food…Within a year, he gained a whopping 120 pounds.

The future is retrograde

All in all, The Absolved is an interesting exploration of looming problems and those we already face—the perils of automation and dangers of an unequal society. Wherever you fall on UBI and universal healthcare, it provides much to contemplate.

But the book does have problems. For one, despite the novel’s futuristic world, the writer seems unable to escape a dated mindset. His protagonist is hopelessly sexist, his fantasies a cross between Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller, and his observations about men and women are disturbingly retrograde. For example, Henri remarks early in the book:

It’s my firm belief that nine out of ten women take great pleasure in debasing the men they supposedly love. I see it all of the time, a woman contriving to put a man into a situation where he’s forced to dishonor himself, humiliate himself, or betray what is pure and strong in him.

Although Binder creates an unusual female character who is extremely powerful and ruthless, undeterred by sentiment, he also turns her into a male fantasy, a gorgeous goddess with an unparalleled sex drive who seduces men and women alike and is always dressed to the nines. When Henri asks her to help his lover and introduces the two women, he spends an afternoon in a rage, imagining them having sex and laughing at him.

Binder seems to intend this effect. He recently wrote an essay in Quillette complaining about the “ideological monoculture” in New York’s literary scene, where he noted, “It’s not just that writers and editors have to be PC when it comes to their books and their public pronouncements: There also seems to be a crushing uniformity in regard to their privately held viewpoints.” In the essay, he admits that his male, white, cis protagonist is unsympathetic. But Binder then complains that his book was rejected despite its promise because he’s an “unknown white guy.” It’s always easy to confuse characters with their authors, and Binder’s essay certainly contributes to confusion about how much Henri might be like him. Despite the obstacle of not being a minority or a woman, Binder does get a book deal after all, which renders his essay a little absurd and unseemly and makes it impossible not to wonder if he, too, lacks an understanding of his advantages.

As a result, the book’s tone gets tiresome at times. But it’s also got a lot of humor. For those who can stomach despicable protagonists—think Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky—in a world that’s utterly unappealing, The Absolved is actually a fun and easy read. Binder is a clean, clear writer who is occasionally amusing, often offers keen insights, and certainly raises many interesting and important questions about the future.