Sunday, January 01, 2017

Some thoughts on UBI, jobs, and dignity

One of the more interesting arguments these days is between proponents of a universal basic income (UBI) and promoters of policies to help people get jobs, such as a job guarantee (JG). To some extent, these policies aren't really in conflict - it's perfectly possible for the government to mail people monthly checks and try to help them get jobs. But there are some tradeoffs here. First, there's money - both UBI and JG cost money, and more importantly cost real resources, which are always in limited supply. Also, there's political attention/capital/focus - talking up UBI takes time and attention away from talking up JG and other pro-employment policies.

One of the key arguments used by supporters of pro-employment policies - myself included - is that work is essential to many people's sense of self-worth and dignity. There's a more extreme variant of this argument, which says that large-scale government handouts actually destroy dignity throughout society. Josh Barro promotes this more extreme argument in a recent post.

This seems possible, but it's very hard to get evidence about whether welfare payments are actually dignity-destroying. Anyone who goes on welfare probably has other bad stuff happening to them in life, so there's a big endogeneity problem. Meanwhile, time-series analyses of nationwide aggregate happiness before and after welfare policy implementation are unlikely to tell us much. The best way to study this would be to find some natural experiment that made one group of people eligible for a big UBI-style welfare benefit, without allowing switching between groups - for example, payouts to some Native American group might fit the bill. My prior is that handouts are not destructive to dignity and self-worth, as Barro assumes - I predict that they basically have no effect one way or the other. But this is an empirical question worth looking into.

In his own post, Matt Bruenig argues against Barro. His argument, basically, is that many rich people earn passive income, and seem to be doing just fine in the dignity department:
If passive income is so destructive, then you would think that centuries of dedicating one-third of national income to it would have burned society to the ground by now...In 2015, according to PSZ, the richest 1% of people in America received 20.2% of all the income in the nation. Ten points of that 20.2% came from equity income, net interest, housing rents, and the capital component of mixed income...1 in 10 dollars of income produced in this country is paid out to the richest 1% without them having to work for it.
I don't think this constitutes an effective rebuttal of Barro, for the following reasons:

1. "Work" is subjective. Many rich people believe that investing constitutes work (I'd probably beg to differ, but no one listens to me). And founding a successful business, which creates capital gains, certainly requires a lot of work. 

2. Passive income very well might be destructive to the self-worth of the rich, on the margin. In fact, I have known a number of rich kids who inherited their wealth, and devoted their youths to self-destructive pursuits like drug sales and petty crime. It could be that for many rich people, the dignity-destroying effects of unearned income are merely outweighed by the dignity-enhancing effects of high social status and relative position.

3. Many rich people became wealthy through work - either a highly paid profession like CEO, or by starting their own companies. This past work may provide dignity for old rich people, just as retired people of all classes may derive dignity from their years of prior effort.

And Matt's argument certainly doesn't counter the less extreme version of the "jobs and dignity" argument (i.e., the version made by Yours Truly). Even if passive income isn't actively harmful to dignity, it might not be helpful either, in which case pro-employment policies would be more effective than UBI in promoting dignity.

But that said, I do think Matt's policy proposal is a good one:
A national UBI would work very similarly. The US federal government would employ various strategies (mandatory share issuances, wealth taxes, counter-cyclical asset purchases, etc.) to build up a big wealth fund that owns capital assets. Those capital assets would deliver returns. And then the returns would be parceled out as a social dividend.
This is something I've suggested as well. I see it as an insurance policy against the possibility that robots might really render large subsets of human workers obsolete. 

UBI isn't a bad policy. If robots take most of our jobs, it will be an absolutely essential policy. I just don't think it solves the dignity problem. And with Trump winning elections in part by promising to restore dignity, I think Democrats need an issue to counter him, and jobs policy is far more likely than UBI to fit this bill. 


  1. Is personal dignity and feelings of self worth necessarily dependent on work? If so, is this relationship necessarily desirable?

    Having traveled extensively through much of the world I'm struck by how uniquely American this is. Go to any party and the very first question a stranger asks is "What do you do?" That question is first because we believe the answer defines us. That's not true everywhere in the world.

    So it's no surprise that in a culture that defines individual worth by professional status that people without work lack dignity. But maybe the response to joblessness isn't to double down on the myth that "we are what we do." Maybe a better answer is to challenge that myth and elevate the idea that people have value because of who they are.

    1. Anonymous9:21 PM


    2. Anonymous10:53 PM

      > But maybe the response to joblessness isn't to double down on the myth that "we are what we do." Maybe a better answer is to challenge that myth and elevate the idea that people have value because of who they are.

      Completely agree.

    3. ...and your recommended substitute(s)? :-)

  2. Another data point be to consider whether Alaskans who receive a resident benefit from energy royalty revenues have had their dignity destroyed. Having known Alaskans, I gather not. Alaskans are perfectly happy with their unearned income.

    If you look at who considers unearned income to be a problem for someone else, it is usually someone looking down the ladder. If you think the Irish are inferior, for whatever reason, you will be upset if an Irishman gets a free cigar. Obviously, getting a free cigar would not bother you. You deserve a free cigar and probably earned it somehow.

    A billionaire, who probably got at least a free box of cigars and a free cigar factory, would be considered completely deserving. A person from your own group would probably deserve a free cigar, unless there was some reason for looking down on them despite them being in your group.

    A good example is to consider the Nazi economic system which was extremely up front about this basic human phenomenon. Germans and other Nordics deserved the same pay. Frenchmen deserved maybe 70%. Eastern Europeans maybe 30%. Jews, gypsies and the like deserved 0%. Look at how people assess how much women's work is worth. Look at how upset people were about charwomen earning decent wages in ammunition plants during World War I. There is most certainly an intrinsic sense of what people deserve for what work they do, and it directly mirrors societal values.

    Is UBI a bad policy? I have no problem with it. When McGovern proposed giving every US citizen $1,000 back in 1980, I thought it was a great idea for getting the economy out of its doldrums. He was laughed at, of course, since that would entail giving $1,000 to people who didn't "deserve" it.

    (Of course there are other ways of doling out money. Japan used pachinko gambling to inject money into the economy after WW2. Money won in lotteries is always considered fairly earned.)

    1. Anonymous2:39 PM

      Alaska is a tricky example. The people seem to derive some of their dignity from simply living there. You'd need an experiment somewhere utterly unremarkable.

      Your comparative valuation point is a good one. Though I'd offer that people often rely on historical valuations as well. These can overlap with social values, but can also be rather benign. In 1966, my grandmother could never dream of buying a $50,000 mansion, but she'd insist today that the same place wasn't worth $500,000.

  3. Don't we need to do a better job of training the lower skilled and lower educated Americans. Job openings hit a all time world record, unemployment claims are at 43 years lows. It looks like we need more labor, skilled labor or labor that wants to work not a JG or UBI. JG could work for a sector of the population that are high school drop outs, recovery drug addicts, vets and those leaving jail, and coming back into the work force. That seem's like a starting point but we have over 165 million working Americans, doesn't strike me as the main issue even though we are missing roughly 2.6 million prime age working men from the peak of the previous cycle

    1. You're overlooking the difficult to count "under employed". I can't count the number of people I know personally with advanced degrees that work at(or close to) the minimum wage. Also, a lot of the employers out there looking for H1B workers don't mention the jobs they are offering pay way below market wages, or are soulless or are in very undesirable areas. I have personally interviewed for positions that appeared tailor made for me, only to receive an offer that was half of advertised wage. I still see the same ads now, some 3 years later. Lots of foolin' going on out there. A UBI would greatly reduce managements power over workers. It'll never happen in the US for that reason alone.

    2. And yet, job openings in the aggregate are always well below job seekers. Go look at the data. It's particularly clear if you look at U6 vs. job openings. The closest job openings get is to a bit more than 1/2 of the total job seekers in the case of U6, in 2000. And that doesn't even account for varying distributions of skills, locations, etc., of job seekers vs. job openings. Finally, there's no contradiction in needing to train and needing to provide jobs.

    3. Anonymous3:06 PM

      A benefit of UBI is it could actually reduce the "Welfare Trap" where people are disincentivized from working because for each dollar they earn they lose more than a dollar of benefits.

    4. Anonymous2:43 PM

      Anon, to reduce the Welfare Trap you couldn't have a universal basic income. What you'd have to have is a guarantee for working people that if they're willing to put in a certain number of hours per week (month, year, whatever) they'll receive a certain amount of money. Basically, you'd have something like the EITC, except paid out over time rather than as a lump sum.

    5. Anonymous3:16 PM

      Anon2 the welfare trap us about marginal effective tax rates on the poor from diminishing subsidies and benefits. A Ubi isn't dependent on not working or making less money so if it replaced welfare the effective marginal tax rate on the poor would drop.

  4. Yes; Alaska is another good natural experiment.

    I think UBI/natural resource fund/return on capital ends up being more framing than anything. And framing might be difficult to deal with with policy. As Noah mentions, there are those trust fund kids I've known that view it as unearned and either apply themselves or take destructive paths. Some people see welfare as beneath their dignity. Some see it as deserved -- especially if it comes as a tax break.

    It may even be that political identity determines that framing. No democratic policy will be seen as dignified by republicans and vice versa.

    I think Obamacare vs Kynect is a natural experiment there.

  5. The problem with work=dignity is that it is an example of begging the question. Assume Dignity iff work, them Dignity -> work. People look at the loss of dignity caused by massive economic upheaval and assume work is key. But, if a company town loses an employer the damage to institutions that can provide dignity is more widespread than just the employer. Service organizations die, young people become disconnected from dying civic institutions ( community theater, local art institutions, school based organizations ). The entire dignity ecosystem dies. People who found dignity outside of employment are hurt as much as those who found it in employment.

  6. Jerry Brown2:38 AM

    Regardless of the personal dignity involved with work, we will need a whole lot more and much better robots before we can afford to have most people not work at least some of the time. Until then, those who don't work and just collect some UBI , but look like they can work, are probably going to be looked down upon by those who do work. And for good reason- because they will be dependent on those who are actually out there working to provide them with the material goods and services they need. And having a lot of society looking down on you for not trying to contribute while you reap the benefits of their work is certainly not a dignified position to be in permanently.

    I think that a Jobs Guarantee that ensured that all people who were willing to work were able to would avoid much of that. Not all, but much of it. And if a UBI stipend was added onto that perhaps that would be good too.

  7. There is any real difference between Job Guarantee and workfare?

  8. I don't a test involving a single group will cut it. A UBI is UNIVERSAL and this makes a substantial (belonging to a subsidized group automatically has status effects).

  9. Jerry Brown - having people look on you is one thing, basing policy on whether people look down on you on not is another again.

  10. Whether a person can accept unearned income with dignity depends a great deal on the source. I am happy to receive gifts from people who want to give me money and can afford to do so; I am willing to receive gifts from people who want to give me money and have a hard time doing so, but I will attempt to return at least equal value to them; I do NOT want to receive gifts of money from people who stole that money, because I do not want to be a thief.

    So, with a UBI - I would prefer not to take money stolen from taxpayers, though if I am also a taxpayer (as I am) I can at least justify it as receiving some of my own funds back.

    On the other hand, something like the Alaska fund is a dividend paid from mutually owned resources. This can be easily accepted with dignity because it is really just receiving one's own money.

    My ideal solution would be for everyone to have shares in the companies that produce value. Perhaps this could be done through government - such as with a sovereign fund - though it would be better if done privately. There is some justification for it, too: we, and generations before us, paid the taxes and produced the environment which allowed the development of the technology which will be replacing our jobs. While some contributed more than others and are worthy of receiving higher returns, most contributed something and should benefit from our mutual sacrifices. If we did not earn it ourselves, it is a gift from our parents who want us to have it because they want to see their descendants prosper. If it was earned by our parents and given to us, it is our duty to accept that gift and to use it wisely for the benefit of future generations.

    1. Stolen from taxpayers? Please... All money eventually goes back to where it came from. Banks. Are you a thief if you take out a mortgage?

      Money, in the large, IS a mutually owned resource. Is it any different to create money and build a bridge or create money and give to a person to build a home or buy a car?

  11. Anonymous7:01 AM

    What about people like yourself, Noah?

    Don't you and Barro basically hold jobs which are glorified versions of posting your opinion on Facebook? I mean, it's not like you're engineers or, heaven forfend, working in a restaurant. Hell, you're not even beat reporters or schoolteachers. Hasn't Barro mostly made his career from sinecures at think-tanks?

    1. Anonymous3:10 PM

      That's kind of like saying that poets get way too much mileage out of the idea that "things are like other things". There has always been a market for the output--including opinions--of people they deem to be sufficiently credentialed/qualified and articulate.

  12. Why is it reasonable to expect a 'guaranteed' job to improve dignity? A job that only exists due to legislative action is by definition worthless and precarious. Anecdotally people in this situation do not have dignity, they really want to quit.

    1. Really? I think a fair number of jobs exist only due to legislative action and people go to them and earn a living for their families without complaint.

  13. "The US federal government would employ various strategies (mandatory share issuances, wealth taxes, counter-cyclical asset purchases, etc.) to build up a big wealth fund that owns capital assets. Those capital assets would deliver returns."

    There won't be returns after the politicos get into boardrooms and start driving firms to benefit their friends, family, and political agenda.

    One of the reasons economists are in disrepute these days is that they live in a world where politicians are philosopher-kings with souls of gold, and employ economists as technocrats, naturally - not the real world one where politicians are greedy human beings looking out primarily for themselves, same as everyone else.

    Corporations like Google and Apple have enough power. The last thing we need is a merger with the US Govt ensuring Google's market share, at gunpoint, so that Apple does not need a warrant to unlock your phone and make sure you are fine upstanding citizen.

  14. "Many rich people believe that investing constitutes work (I'd probably beg to differ, but no one listens to me)." I'd also beg to differ, not probably but absolutely, positively; nobody listens to me either.

  15. I'm sure that a good jobs and handout program would be like this. Those who receiving public assistance would be required to do community a minimum of eight hours a week. To build their dignity . And provide job training. Another idea would be for the government to work with day labor and temporary job services. For example it would be like this the welfare recipients would be required to go to day labor to work and the government gives them the check. Instead of the labor company.the labor company then is paid by the company that has them send out worker the worker .

  16. Remember -- not very long ago -- when we heard (and believed in) generations of families lured into uselessness by welfare. Now we understand those families (in the American case) -- SIMPLY PUT -- wont work for $10/hr (sucker money in our rich economy). But they would work for $20/hr.

    Meantime $10 jobs are everywhere -- and being filled by foreign born workers whose expectations (and intolerance for misery) is a lot lower.

    Needless to say labor unions is what is pathologically missing from the econ/pol mix (permanently missing from academic liberal mindsets; for sure). Collective bargaining sets labors price by the max the (ultimate) consumer is willing to pony up -- not by the very minimum the most unfortunate worker will put up with.

    Pay enough and American born workers with better education and capable of detecting irony in the English language will be hired first -- and will show up, first of all. This is not theoretical at all: ask 100,000 Chicago gang age, minority males why they are in drug dealing (and who knows what else) street gangs.
    * * * * * *
    cut and paste on making $10 jobs into $20 jobs
    You can’t get something from nothing but, believe it or not, the money is there, somewhere to make $10 jobs into $20. Bottom 45% of earners take 10% of overall income; down from 20% since 1980 (roughly — worst be from 1973 but nobody seems to use that); top 1% take 20%; double the 10% from 1980.

    Top 1% share doubled — of 50% larger pie!

    One of many remedies: majority run politics wont hesitate to transfer a lot of that lately added 10% from the 1% back to the 54% who now take 70% — who can transfer it on down to the 45% by paying higher retail prices — with Eisenhower level income tax. In any case per capita income grows more than 10% over one decade to cover 55%-to-45% income shifting.

    Not to mention other multiple efficiencies — to get multiple-10%’s back:
    squeezing out financialization;
    sniffing out things like for-profit edus (unions providing the personnel quantity necessary to keep up with society’s many schemers;
    snuffing out $100,000 Hep C treatments that cost $150 to make (unions supplying the necessary volume of lobbying and political financing;
    less (mostly gone) poverty = mostly gone crime and its criminal justice expenses.


  17. Isn't the fear of robots a new iteration of the age-old fear of new technology. One hundred years ago the average working life was 150,000 hours. Now it is 75,000 hours. Won't it fall another 50% in the next 50 years? The problem of UBI has been succinctly put by the UK IFS - it's either too little or two expensive.

  18. Isn't the fear of robots a new iteration of the age-old fear of new technology. One hundred years ago the average working life was 150,000 hours. Now it is 75,000 hours. Won't it fall another 50% in the next 50 years? The problem of UBI has been succinctly put by the UK IFS - it's either too little or too expensive.

  19. Does the evidence show that a lack of dignity is important rather than bordom and lack of social interaction? If it is the latter a UBI combined with elimi ation of minimum wage might work because it could increase work.
    One problem that i see is some of our more agressive male are not suited to service work, but with a UBI and without a mim wage they might find work that is hiden and does not reqiure submition to the public. Think of the insult "you will be asking do you want fries with that?". Many men do not want to be seen working in service like that.

    1. One piece of evidence is that blue collar workers seem to die younger if they retire younger. Retirement should not reduce dignity much which points to boredom and lank of social interaction.

  20. Anonymous10:40 AM

    I think the problem lies in thinking we have one thing called "dignity", and two influencers which we are calling "work" and "income."

    Dignity combines self-respect, a self-knowledge of accomplishment or ability, emotional stability, and freedom from shame. For a tiny percentage of people, those feelings can be self-generated, but for most people they depend on reflections of the opinions of others.

    Poverty is dignity-destroying because it imposes physical conditions on the poor which determine how others see them. Basic cleanliness and grooming become difficult. Even going for coffee becomes expensive and time consuming. Health problems go untreated. Clothing, even the best quality, goes unwashed, unpressed, stale and wrinkled. In a very short time, a poor person bears the stigmata of low status, poor health, loneliness, and shabby appearance, and then the opinion of others reflects back to him an image of vulnerability and shame, which few people can fail to internalize.

    People who raise birds tell us that it can be difficult to spot illness in a bird. Sick or injured birds conceal symptoms, to avoid attack by others in the flock. So it goes with people, too.

    So, fundamental "dignity" requires enough resources to maintain basic cleanliness and freedom of association and movement -- to maintain an illusion, at least, of health.

    Job training, often pushed as a solution, can have little effect on building this sort of dignity. Accomplished or not, an unkempt, shabby person will be told he is worthless every day by the behaviour of those around him, and will not offer him the consideration they would offer a less skilled, more presentable person.

    Does it seem likely that providing a stable basic income would rob people of dignity -- this basic dignity that relies on freedom from being a target of contempt? Nonsense.

    Once a person is assured of some stability in his life, then other sorts of worth and skill can be built up. Not before.

    Noni Mausa

  21. I think that the challenge with some of the dignity/work counter arguments is that you have to take into account a) where the money came from and b) heterogeneity among recipients. For a rich person earning dividends on an investment, I highly doubt they're looking at that as receiving charity, or being dependent on someone else. They put money in with the promise that they would get money out. They can leave the system anytime they want. They still have a choice.

    Also, the example with Alaska: I don't think they see that payout as charity. I certainly wouldn't if I moved to Alaska. Googling the payment for this year, there only getting about $2000. That's more like a nice gift than income replacement. Also, again, where is the money coming from? It's coming from revenue of oil sales. It's similar to the investment view: Alaskans put in work to make it possible to produce that oil, whether directly as an oil worker, or indirectly in some kind of support function (teaching workers' kids, selling them food, etc) and they can leave the system anytime by moving somewhere else.

    Now, would all Alaskans see it that way, not likely. But that would be the case with any kind of income, passive or otherwise. Because people are different! Would some see receiving UBI as destroying their dignity? Yes. Would some people be happy to receive it? Yes. And some of that is certainly culture, but not all of it. I know this because I personally would fall in the former category and my younger brother would fall into the latter, but we were raised in the culture--the same household, even. So I think both sides are right, in that regard, but they're right about the wrong question. The important question, it seems to me, is which group is larger, and what the effect of loss of dignity would be for that first group.

    I also suspect that connecting dignity with work may be the wrong connection. I think it's more connected with overs perception of their ability to self-suffice. Can I take care of my own needs, without having to ask for help? Am I capable of maintaining myself? Am I help to others, or a hindrance and burden? Those questions, again, are going to be more important to some than to others, but I think that's really what's at the heart of the concern.

  22. I think that this is at least two, maybe more, interconnected problems.

    There has been a severe loss of jobs leading to loss of community structure/community decay in "factory"/Rural towns. Help is needed not just to replace the income loss, but also to replace the jobs/sense of self-worth AND rebuild the community. This is compounded by the inability of education/retraining to help the situation in the absence of decent local jobs - because there is strong resistance to moving away. JG would work best in this situation, in my opinion, but a "National Dividend" would be a good adjunct.

  23. Pop Francis is on your side of the argument, as in Paragraph 128 of Laudato si:

    "128. We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work. Yet the orientation of the economy has favoured a kind of technological progress in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines. This is yet another way in which we can end up working against ourselves. The loss of jobs also has a negative impact on the economy “through the progressive erosion of social capital: the network of relationships of trust, dependability, and respect for rules, all of which are indispensable for any form of civil coexistence”.[104] In other words, “human costs always include economic costs, and economic dysfunctions always involve human costs”.[105] To stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short-term financial gain, is bad business for society."

  24. Anonymous11:38 AM

    You mention that programs cost money and big programs cost lots of money. You should mention also that as a monetary sovereign the United States needs not issue any debt to 'fund' its operations. As a sovereign it can issue liquidity directly into the economy, say for a job guarantee program. Inflation will come about where there are resource constraints. And even that inflation will survive only if their are monopolies. Otherwise competition will force supply to catch up with demand. As it stands now, our debt based financial scheme amounts to a subsidy of the wealthy and the companies they own and control, including private banks of course. By the taxpayer who is on the hook for final funding.

  25. We need to define what is meant by UBI here. Is it some "dividend" that adds up to only about 10% of a living wage, like in Alaska? Is it about 1/2 or less of a living wage, like in Finland? Is it $10k (about 1/3 of a living wage)? Is it a living wage? Is it universal for every person? Is there an adjustment down for children? Is it provided to those on SS? Is it going to be "funded" in some way, or just raise the deficit? Answers to these questions have huge implications for how the program should be evaluated--if UBI is about 3% of GDP (like an Alaska-style dividend), that's a lot different than if it's 50% of GDP (living wage per person). Even $1000/month for 200 million people is about 12% of GDP--or 1/2 of total federal govt spending.

    A job guarantee is much simpler on that score--even the most generous programs wouldn't be much more than 5% of GDP for a rich country like the US (and less generous programs, like $10/hour for 20 million people on average, would be about 2.5% of US GDP). And peak spending on the program would be only at the bottom of a recession, while the JG spending would decline as the economy moved into expansion and be at its lowest point across the business cycle at the cycle's high point (that is, a well-designed JG has its own built-in macro stabilizer).

    1. A job guarantee raises the same questions as UBI. Is that a job guarantee per person, or is it just for high school educated adults? Do elementary school dropouts get different job payments than PhDs?

    2. You're wrong.

      first, if you were familiar with the JG literature at all, you would know that your first question has been answered literally thousands of times--the core proposal is always that a JG is offered to anyone that wants it.

      second, in the sense that I am discussing here--costs, macroeconomic impact (particularly inflation and macro stabilization)--your other questions are not anywhere near as important for JG as for UBI. The number of PhDs, engineers, and so forth, unemployed is virtually never large enough that this would matter in the sense I am discussing here. There are differing views within the JG literature on whether there should be tiers of payments based on skill, but it is not overly significant to the cost and macroeconomic impacts of the proposal (as I have defined them here). (This isn't to say that it is not an important issue, of course.)

  26. My concern about UBI is that over time, as people leave the labor pool they will become politically disenfranchised. When the economy doesn't depend on a given class of people, there's less incentive for political leaders to pay attention to their needs.

    The extreme example of this is dictatorships where all the wealth comes from natural resource extraction - leaders of such states who spend any of that money helping ordinary people aren't likely to stay in power very long, because their ability to stay in power depends on keeping the army and the industrialists happy and well-fed, not the masses.

  27. Arguably, and more so historically, housewives have received passive income without loss of dignity. Also children.

    Coercing people to work by threatening them with starvation seems evil.

    The resources required for a UBI are minimal: food, housing, clothing, minimal health care. If you commit a crime, we will provide this for you.

  28. Seems to me that the reason there are jobs not being filled is that the populace is ill equipped to fill these jobs due to lack of training or proper relevant education. If there are going to be more robots and automation in industry, then there will be more need of skilled workers who are able to implement, maintain and update the systems under which they run. This means that spending $60000+ on a some garden variety of liberal arts degree is not going to enhance one's employ-ability. I teach upper level math in HS. From my witness in the classroom, the prevailing attitude toward procuring the skills necessary to succeed is noncommittal to nonexistent because it is "too hard" or "too much" work or even "it does not interest me". People with these life views are already comfortable with the notion of not working hard for much of anything. This puts them on par with livestock as they really do no want to really make any real contribution to themselves never mind society. Efforts to push STEM careers are vigorous but ignored by the majority. However, that is where the "good jobs" of the future are for the most part. Yes, there will be still need for police, service workers (less so in the future), tradesmen, etc. But if it is to break the cycle of minimum wage employment, one must do something to break the inertia of stand still and doing nothing. When I was younger and struggling like many do today, I evaluated what was relevant in terms of needed job skills and "where the work was" and followed through on a plan to make myself ready and relevant to pursue a career that would eventually provide much more than the Maslow minimum. So many people day dream and "plan" for a future without "getting action" involved. This is the principal ingredient in any plan coming to fruition. "Getting Action" is a phrase the Theodore Roosevelt used to describe his own personal initiative in motivating himself to do the work he needed in order accomplish his goals. Truth be told, most people have no real goals or do much to set themselves above the concern shown by most "cattle". Our ability to choose and take action is the very thing that sets humans above livestock. It is tragic that many people are content with letting society care for them. I wonder what these same people would do, if society determines that these same folks add no value to the social order anymore. Many a sci-fi book and film projects their prognosis for the future under this premise. Let's consider "Soylent Green" or "Terminator".

    1. Anonymous9:46 AM

      "I wonder what these same people would do, if society determines that these same folks add no value to the social order anymore."

      No individual is so valuable society can't decide that anyway. And only very large groups can credibly be said to be that (economically) valuable. And even then, there have been plenty of times and places in the world where society decided anyway that they weren't, and found out the hard way how wrong they were.

      I think that the people who pursue "useless" degrees are not the same people who are struggling. I think that people in this generation are just as diligent as ours in goal-setting and seeking out an education in "a field with a future", if not more. It's just that most futures are overall worse.

      I am lucky enough to know how to code and train a neural net, I'm not afraid of any Terminator. People don't appreciate how complete control we have over learning algorithms' goals and training.

      If you're afraid of computers, you should be terrified of dogs. Unlike with computers, dogs' objectives were set by evolution and are only capriciously aligned with ours. Their training too! They get a stream of sensory data all day long, only a small fraction we have any control over. Who knows how they interpret it and what they learn from it. And yet, you probably aren't worried that your dog will tear out your throat while you sleep.

  29. Sniffnoy12:27 AM

    If people currently largely derive dignity from work, seems to me the thing to do is teach them a better source of dignity. Dignity from freedom! Dignity from play! Dignity from amateurism and personal projects!

    I mean, it's a little ridiculous, right? "I don't have people telling me what to do all day and getting in the way of the things I want to do. How undignified." I would say the opposite -- it's being told what to do all day and not being able to do what you want that's undignified.

    I say: Do what you want, and derive dignity from that! Take up writing, or woodworking, or mathematics, or Super Smash Bros., or car repair, or baseball, or, hell, I don't know, dB drag racing. Maybe having someone telling you what to do if you can't think of things to do yourself, but for anyone who has an idea what they want to do with their life, who wants to get good at something or make something great or break some records, having to have a job just gets in the way.

    I mean, sure, everyone wants to contribute. But it's a mistake to conflate that work that someone pays you for. There's plenty of work being done out there that nobody pays for. Me, I've got no academic position -- job market's hard right now, you know -- but I'm an active mathematician anyway, and nobody's paying me to do that.

    Now not everyone can do mathematics. But you know what else I do? I help update the spoiler list on a well-known Magic: The Gathering website. Nobody's paying me to do that! But that's basically just data entry; it doesn't exactly invole much in the way of choices, and it's not exactly skilled labor. I do it because I honestly want to help keep the list up to date. I'm sure there's plenty of other meaningful work out there to do that can bring dignity but not a wage, and that you'd be have plenty of time to do if you had UBI.

    So, that's my answer to the dignity problem. Not: "The government is giving me money even though I'm not doing anything awesome productive", but rather, "The government is giving me money so that I can afford to take the time to do things that are awesome or productive". Rather than earning money doing what someone else tells you, you can put your money towards your personal projects.

    In short, the answer, IMO, is not to cling to dignity from professionalism, but to embrace dignity from amateurism.

    1. Anonymous11:13 PM

      Thank you for this. The solution to today's ills requires a complete reworking of traditional thought processes. Sadly, most experts remain locked into the same tired and ineffective institutional mindset that enabled the current crisis.

  30. There's an incredibly strong desire for "fairness" in this country, to the point where many Republicans are motivated by the perception of unfairly good treatment of minorities.

    Therefore, the only way a UBI would work politically would be as a "dividend" paid to everyone equally, and the only way to get it past the deficit/budget hawks would be if it was a relatively small amount of money AND replaced the existing welfare/food stamps program.

    A Job Guarantee, as I see it, would work differently (but might also replace welfare). If you need work, you apply online, and the government assigns you to a job that needs doing (much like the Army does). It might be child care, it might be construction, it might be picking trash up off the side of the roads. You don't get to choose, and what you get paid would be the prevailing wage for the job. Given the nature of the ruling majority, turning down the job would probably make you ineligible for any government benefits going forward.

    Of the two, I think a Job Guarantee Program would be much, much more of a political possibility than a UBI.

  31. I wonder what fraction of commenters have dignified jobs that involve sitting in chairs and playing with computers or attending meetings all day? Work is in the eye of the beholder.

  32. I don't think the word "work" has been very well defined here. I wouldn't think that "laboring" in and of itself creates dignity. Rather, I suspect that the sense of self-worth stems from the fact that your time is, literally, worth something - someone was willing to pay you to use "something you own," in this case your time or efforts, but so called "passive income" is the same thing - it's "rent" for the use of something you own.

    Now in the case of Alaska, I don't think it's unreasonable to say that each resident owns a share of the oil resources contained within the state - thus, they're entitled to get paid for the use of that asset.

    While the crude an Alaskan oil worker draws from the ground may be a "collective asset," he still retains private ownership of his time and effort. If you tax the income he earns from that time and use it to pay for defense, roads, etc., well, that's still private ownership. However, if you put those taxes into some sort of "fund" as Bruenig suggests, though, then you've done something considerably more radical - you've converted his time into a public asset, that is, you've actually eliminated the concept of "private ownership," which based on the post I believe to be Bruenig's intent.

  33. The Verbiage Ecstatic1:32 PM

    One thing in the UBI camp is that money is fungible whereas jobs are not.

    Presumably, not all jobs are equally dignity-inducing. Otherwise, there wouldn't be child labor laws, people wouldn't switch jobs in the basis of anything other than compensation, etc. "Make work" is viewed as a negative term for a reason.

    I might agree in the abstract that guaranteeing everyone a job that gives them opportunities to feel useful, like their work is valuable, to grow as a person, etc would be better than a UGI.

    But, someone has to design and rollout those jobs. They have to deal with the range of talents and abilities across the population. I suspect that creating a dignity-enhancing jobs gets harder, not easier, at scale.

    Handing out cash has logistical problems too. But at the end of the day, it's an easier thing to do.

  34. "talking up UBI takes time and attention away from talking up JG and other pro-employment policies."

    But UBI is a pro employment policy in the broadest sense! And probably more suited for the job than JG, given the trajectory that the role of human labor is on. It's trending towards people increasingly working for customers that don't yet know that they might be customer to something new and cool. That's the world of work of creativity, chance taking.

    That said, I don't mind to give to the most creatively bankrupt, a gentle lie so they might feel needed, even if they don't try to figure something new and cool out that might not ever become popular. As much as I'm not a fan of lying to people, and think that people generally can contribute without a JG scheme to tell em what to do, given the awesome tools available online, and opportunities in local communities or at home.