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The universal basic income is a bad idea whose time will never come

EPA/Mas Irham
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  • Allison Schrager
By Allison Schrager


Published This article is more than 2 years old.

I can’t tell if I have a bullshit job.

Do I wake up everyday confident my work will make the world a better place? No, but sometimes I kind of do. Do I feel creatively fulfilled? Mostly, but some tasks can be tedious and boring. Am I productive all the time? Certain days I get weeks’ worth of work done, but others it feels like I only surf the web, chat with people in the office, and watch cooking shows.

But there are two things are for sure:

  1.  Even if I have a non-bullshit job now, I did many bullshit jobs to get here.
  2.  My work matters to me, and I don’t like the suggestion that it’s worthless.

David Graeber of the London School of Economics describes ”bullshit jobs“ as the positions he believes are pointless, yet account for broad swaths of the modern workplace—actuaries, PR reps, and telemarketers, to name a few. Making it so nobody has to work in these roles to feed themselves is one of the motivations for a universal basic income.

The idea is that the government should pay everyone a benefit—say, the equivalent of a minimum-wage salary—regardless of income or employment status. It is a popular policy among certain pundits, wonks, and—lately—Silicon Valley types. Supporters come from an unusually broad range of political persuasions and policy backgrounds.

Depending on who you ask, universal basic income is designed to achieve one or several objectives. Some say it will ensure an income to people when robots take their jobs. Others think it would be an effective way to end poverty. And then there is the thing about bullshit jobs.

One big concern is whether governments could afford such a program. For the sake of argument, let’s assume they can. Even then, it might not be a good idea—or rather, it might not be a policy that achieves its objectives better than any alternative with smaller costs. Beyond the direct financial costs—which, remember, we are mostly discounting—it’s also important to consider the consequences of potential economic distortions.

Robot-proofing the future 

Is it necessary or desirable to fight against robot stealing jobs? Since the Bronze Age, technology regularly changed the nature of work. Often the transition was messy or took a generation for people to find their place. Right now we are in that messy phase, with incomes stagnating for a generation and millennials worrying that they’ll end up poorer than their parents. In the past, people went through many of these dark days, but always eventually found their way and were rewarded with greater wealth and prosperity.

Perhaps this time is different, and what’s coming out of Silicon Valley is more disruptive than anything else over the past 5,000 years. Perhaps. But many economists still think humans will adapt and thrive this time around. If anything, universal basic income could hinder the process in which we figure out the future of work, because it removes the incentive to find a way to make oneself valuable in response to economic shifts.

Poverty and priorities

As a tool to alleviate poverty, universal basic income is not the most efficient. It is true that phasing out welfare as income rises can have nasty side effects—namely, discouraging work. But well-crafted programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit in the US provides income support to the neediest while still encouraging them to work.

What’s more, poor people have other needs that won’t be met by a bump in their paycheck, like failing schools and substandard public services. If the goal is eliminating poverty, it is better to direct public funds to those needs instead of the giving money to well-off people who don’t need it.

The meaning of life

The weakest argument for basic income is that we need to rescue people from tedious jobs and unleash their creative potential. This is at best ludicrous and at worst patronizing. Even so-called bullshit jobs matter because they can foster skills and connections. Being good at something meaningful often takes years of experience and learning from crappy jobs.

Without the burden of supposedly pointless toil, the argument goes, people will be motivated to pursue more fulfilling endeavors. But research suggests the opposite is true—motivation is driven by the need to resolve uncertainty, namely the uncertainty about whether you can pay rent. There is also weak evidence that people typically spend their free time productively. In recent decades, lower-income Americans have started to work fewer hours. But studies show (pdf) that they are spending much of their increased free time passively by watching TV, relaxing, or sleeping.

With income guaranteed, will people really stop working? The startup incubator Y Combinator is running its own trial of a basic income for a group people in the US to see for itself. Studies of US war veterans paid a guaranteed income showed sizable declines in workforce participation when the program was expanded to cover new groups of vets. Other research has showed some decline in work as a result of previous basic income trials.

Who works less and at what jobs matters. If young people decide to dedicate themselves to poetry instead of furthering their education, starting new companies, or—yes—working the low-paying jobs their predecessors did in their 20s, it can have a bigger long-term impact than if more 60-year-olds decide to take early retirement.

From bad to worse

We can argue about what ails developed economies the most. The rise of ugly economic populism suggests to me that it is not a lack of creative work—it is more likely down to growing polarization, weak community bonds, and disenfranchised, underemployed men. In an increasingly isolated world, where our darkest impulses are easily validated on the internet, work is an important place where we interact and connect with others around a shared sense of purpose. Sometimes, we even encounter people with different politics and views of the world.

I can’t understand why we’d consider creating and then calcifying a perpetually under-employed underclass by promoting the stagnation of their skills and severing their links to broader communities. But maybe it’s not just me—polls suggest a majority of Americans aren’t keen on the idea, either. And Switzerland will hold a referendum on a proposal for a universal basic income next month—it looks doomed to fail.

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