A universal basic income only makes sense if Americans change how they think about work

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Eduardo Porter's broadside against a universal basic income focuses almost entirely on the cost and efficiency of cutting every American a check that would keep them out of poverty. But the harder — and more important — question around a UBI is about how it interacts with our culture of work. And the truth is I have no idea how to answer it.

Here is the question: Could we respect people who live off a universal basic income?

Porter thinks not. Work, he writes, "is not just what people do for a living. It is a source of status. It organizes people’s lives. It offers an opportunity for progress. None of this can be replaced by a check."

Later, he says that "in this world ... where work remains an important social, psychological and economic anchor, there are better tools to help than giving every American a monthly check."

Notice what he did there. "In this world." So long as any discussion of a universal basic income is predicated on those three words, then I agree: It's a bad idea. But the whole argument over a UBI, as I see it, is about the legitimacy of those three words. A UBI is the kind of radical policy that asks whether we actually need to live in this world, or whether there are better worlds on offer, if only we have the political and cultural courage to find them.

Does work — as currently conceived — have to be our primary source of status? Should it organize our lives? And can those dynamics be changed by a check?

The retirement paradox

Human beings are almost endlessly adaptable. Studies show that even the worst tragedies — the loss of a family member, the loss of a limb — only temporarily cut their happiness. But there are some conditions we never quite get used to. Among them is an extended bout of unemployment.

"Compared with other negative experiences, the life satisfaction of the unemployed does not restore itself even after having been unemployed for a long time," write economists Clemens Hetschko, Andreas Knabe, and Ronnie Schöb.

One major theory is that the pain of unemployment comes from the loss of social status. "Worker" is an identity you can be proud of, even if you don't like your job. Having to recategorize yourself as "unemployed" robs you of your self-respect — and self-respect, it turns out, matters more than mere limbs.

Hetschko, Knabe, and Schöb test this in a clever way. Looking at a data set of German workers, they measured the happiness of unemployed workers when they retire. It is, they note, an interesting kind of transition — your day stays the same, but your idea of yourself doesn't. "Entering retirement brings about a change in the social category, but does not change anything else in the lives of the long-term unemployed." The unemployed person who retires still spends her day outside a workplace. But now she can call herself a retiree — a perfectly honorable social designation — rather than unemployed.

The effect this has on happiness proves profound. A typical unemployed male sees his life satisfaction rise by 0.3 points on a scale from 0 to 10. If he was unemployed and still trying to find a new job, his life satisfaction rises by almost 0.7 points. In both cases, the effects persist for years.

These numbers might seem small, but remember: Persistent changes in life satisfaction are rare. Even huge events in a person's life rarely lead to long-term changes in happiness. Marriage, for instance, "causes a mere 0.2 point increase in average life satisfaction."

On the other side, if work really drives happiness, then the employed should experience retirement as a kind of trauma. But that's not true, either. Though moving from "worker" to "retiree" changes a person's life much more than moving from "unemployed" to "retired," it barely changes life satisfaction at all.

Can a check change our work culture?

Once you accept that the benefits of work flow in large part from the benefits of being able to call yourself employed, the dynamics of a universal basic income become much more complicated.

Porter's piece largely focuses on the economics of a UBI. But I think the cultural changes it would — or wouldn't — trigger are more important.

Take Pete. He's a 30-something ex–software engineer who has been unemployed for years. He scrapes by on basically no money: biking everywhere, never buying coffee, never eating out, making his own home repairs. He ekes out a bit of extra income making furniture for friends, but it's nothing near a viable business. Poor guy.

Now look at Mr. Money Mustache. He's a 30-something software engineer who has been retired for years. He writes a wildly popular blog where he tells people how to retire early and live on basically no money: bike everywhere, make your own coffee, stop eating out, figure out how to fix a toilet. He has elevated frugality into a status competition — and he is winning it. His followers call themselves Mustachians. He has been interviewed by every media outlet you can think of (including Vox). ABC News says he is "living the dream." His motto? "Financial freedom through badassery." Helluva guy.

As you've probably already guessed, Pete is Mr. Money Mustache, and he's a good example of how much of the trauma of unemployment comes from the weight of society's disapproval, the shame that comes when a friend of a friend asks, "And what do you do?" Pete's answer is humiliating. Mr. Money Mustache's answer is, well, badass.

Saying, "I'm unemployed" is very different from saying, "I retired at 32, and it's amazing." The question is whether recipients of a UBI would have an answer more like Pete or more like Mr. Money Mustache.

The case for and against a UBI

Here, then, is the case for a UBI, as I see it. For many — perhaps even for most — work brings both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. For those who can work, and can find jobs, a UBI isn't likely to lure them into indolence. Hell, it may even increase their incentive to work, both because they'll achieve a higher standard of living and because employers will have to offer better pay and better conditions to attract workers. (As Dylan Matthews notes here, past experiments with basic incomes have shown little effect on work incentives.)

But for those who can't work or can't find jobs — and there are millions of these people, and our country has nothing even approaching an answer for them now — a UBI could be a boon, so long as relying on a UBI for income is respected. It could give them the freedom to turn their passions into their vocations — they could be an artist, or a writer, or a Reddit commenter, or a competitive video gamer, even if they don't make much or any money from those pursuits.

Instead of their social status being in the hands of employers with no use for them, it's in their hands, and they'll have plenty of incentive to figure out a way to present themselves as high status.

We have examples of this kind of program already. Social Security, for instance, is a perfectly respectable income source.

But the case against a UBI flows from the premise that this much cultural change around work is effectively impossible. In that world, a UBI would become a form of welfare, and its recipients would be pitied and derided. An angry public would resent handing over cash to the undeserving poor and would forever be agitating to cut or eliminate the checks.

If that's the reality of the situation, then, yes, a UBI is a bad idea — it's better to push people to work by supplementing incomes or using the government as an employer of last resort. Sure, that's more paternalistic, and it means we'll waste people's time in unpleasant or useless jobs and consign others to unemployment. But in a world where a job with a steady paycheck is the only path to self-respect, then we should be doing everything we can to get people into the workforce, even if we could support them in other ways.

This is why I find it hard to decide whether a UBI is a good idea. The economics are fairly straightforward, and there's little doubt, as my colleague Matthew Yglesias writes, that we could afford a UBI or something close to it. The harder questions are about how we view work, and how we would view people who chose to take a basic income.

We know how to end poverty. So why don't we?

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