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Silicon Valley’s basic income fans should spare a minute to defend the actual safety net

Medicaid, food stamps, and housing assistance are all on the chopping block right now.

Speaking at Harvard’s commencement ceremony last week, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg became the latest titan of Silicon Valley to muse about the potential merits of a universal basic income program as a solution to hypothetical future joblessness induced by technology change. Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Andrew Ng, Sam Altman, and many others in the industry have also spoken favorably about the idea, which is essentially flat checks from the government that would go out to everyone.

It’s an interesting conversation. And it’s dangerously detached from today’s policy fights.

Universal basic income has considerable merit as a possible way foreign aid could be more effective in promoting economic development in poor countries. (See Dylan Matthews’s reporting from Kenya on a big UBI experiment there.)

It’s also clear that an unconditional cash benefit for parents of young children could slash the rate of deep poverty in the United States, which remains horrifyingly prevalent in a wealthy country. The spirit of UBI is even worth keeping in mind as Congress and state legislatures perennially think about how to tweak various existing low-income support programs. Perhaps rather than the current potpourri of nutrition assistance, housing assistance, heating assistance, etc. we should give people cash and let them decide what to do with it.

But the scenario in which rapid technological advance decimates the demand for human labor, leaving huge swathes of the population permanently unemployable, bears no resemblance to our current situation.

Right now, the rate of productivity growth is slow, not fast. Americans collectively put in more person-hours of work than we ever have before. The Federal Reserve is taking deliberate policy steps to restrain the pace of job growth. And by developed country standards, Americans work an unusual number of hours per year and an unusual number of years per lifetime. Focus on UBI as a potential fix for science fiction labor market scenarios serves to distract political attention from both actual political struggles over the labor market and actual political struggles over the social safety net.

In other words, rather than musing about a UBI, it would be nice to see well-intentioned technology titans try to lift a finger to defend food stamps, Medicaid, disability insurance and other under-assault welfare programs while backing monetary policy aimed at worker-friendly policies and a robust drive for full employment.

The robots aren’t taking our jobs

I wrote about this at length two years ago, but the widespread perception that there’s an increased base of technological change that’s destroying jobs at a faster-than-ever pace is backed up by pretty much no data whatsoever.

Productivity growth — economic output per hours worked — has been slower since 1980 than it was in the three decades following World War II, and it’s been especially slow in the years since the Great Recession struck. Aggregate hours worked in the United States is higher than it’s ever been, and while the recovery from the 2008 to 2009 recession has been painfully slow, it’s also been incredibly steady. Month after month, another 100,000 to 200,000 people get jobs and the labor force participation rate creeps up again.

In this context, it’s worth remembering that the era of quantitative easing and other extraordinary job creation efforts by the Federal Reserve is long gone. Instead, while interest rates remain low by historical standards the Fed is currently in the process of deciding how quickly it wants to raise interest rates. The point of raising interest rates is to slow the pace of job creation to prevent the unemployment rate from getting “too low” and workers being able to make excessive wage demands that end up sparking inflation.

Reasonable people can disagree about the appropriate balance of considerations here, but if you are worried that the economy is not generating enough demand for human labor, then you should take it up with Janet Yellen and her colleagues instead of worrying about robots.

The safety net is under attack

But while robots aren’t taking Americans jobs, there are very serious efforts under way to remove social assistance from low-income Americans.

Medicaid, which provides critical health care to millions of disabled, elderly, and poor people (especially children and pregnant women), is particularly vulnerable at this point. The American Health Care Act passed by the House of Representatives would roll back Barack Obama’s expansion of Medicaid eligibility and then go further, ultimately reducing enrollment by 14 million and leaving a smaller share of the population with benefits than we had pre-Obama. Remaining Medicaid beneficiaries, meanwhile, would be dealing with a stingier program, restructured in a way that’s particularly disadvantageous to the oldest of the elderly and the least-healthy of the disabled.

Donald Trump’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget request goes beyond the AHCA and proposes even deeper cuts in Medicaid paired with swinging reductions in spending on the whole suite of safety net programs. Social Security Disability Insurance, which Trump promised not to cut, gets cut. So does SNAP. So does the Low Income Heating Assistance Program. So do Pell Grants. And so does pretty much everything else under the sun.

Not because of quibbling concerns about the efficacy of this program or that, but because all kinds of spending must be squeezed beneath the sacred cow of deep tax cuts for the wealthy. It’s a morally shocking set of priorities on its own terms, and it’s also clearly inconsistent with any kind of move toward any form of UBI.

We know how to work less

But just as the idea of providing financial assistance to the poor is an issue of real contention in actual partisan politics, the goal of providing a glide-path to a world of less work is something we can accomplish far short of utopian schemes for organizing and entirely post-work society.

  • We could move to not only make college tuition-free, but even provide modest cost-of-living grants to qualified full-time students so they wouldn’t need to work to make ends meet.
  • We could establish generous paid leave for new moms and dads so that parents of infants could contribute to society by focusing on parenting rather than performing market work.
  • Instead of encouraging people to retire later by continuing to shift the eligibility age for full Social Security benefits up to 67, we could lower it to 62.
  • We could enroll everyone in a Medicare-like government-run health insurance program that would make it easier for people to survive spells out of the labor force or in part-time work without exposing themselves to financial catastrophe.
  • We could join most countries in establishing mandatory paid vacation rules, or establish more national holidays.

None of this, of course, is a solution for the radical possibility of full automation of everything. But that’s a purely hypothetical case. At the moment, we are dealing with the reality of slow productivity growth, not unusually fast growth. And if productivity does pick up (or even if it doesn’t) there are plenty of modest, well-understood ways to shift society in the direction of less reliance on market labor without fundamentally reconceptualizing how society works or the concepts of a job and a career.

Embrace regular boring politics

The common thread in all of this is that it’s incredibly tedious, regular, boring, banal partisan politics.

The proximate threat to labor demand isn’t whiz-bang technology, it’s the hegemonic influence of the excessively inflation-averse financial sector over monetary policy. The proximate thread to the safety net isn’t an intellectual inability to comprehend a feasible means of using money to help people in need, it’s the Republican Party’s passion for low taxes. The big concern about my less-work ideas is that “we can’t afford it” — i.e., that the growth engine powering our economy isn’t strong enough, not that we’ve done away with all need for human labor.

Big tech knows, of course, how to engage with boring humdrum politics. Just ask about tax treatment of offshore profits or Federal Trade Commission scrutiny of platform owners or H1B visas or a dozen other humdrum issues.

Silicon Valley doesn’t always get what it wants on these topics any more than any other business group does. But their voice is heard, and it’s effective. Boring, tedious Walmart recognized years ago that food stamps are good for Walmart because low-income people often use their stamps to buy groceries at Walmart and they’ve become some of the most forceful and effective advocates for the program around. If tech luminaries want to be engaged on these issues they could be too by calling up the same boring, tedious lobbyists they would contract to deal with international tax policy or European Union antitrust scrutiny or anything else.

Alternatively, if they just don’t actually care I can respect that. But then they should do us all the favor of acting like rich executives in any other industry and stay quiet about issues that don’t directly impact their bottom line.

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