Arthur Brooks
Jan 19, 2017 · 2 min read

A lot of important thinking across these scenarios. But let me be a little contrarian about one key point within this possible future.

The concept of a universal basic income attracts lots of smart support. In addition to progressives, some conservative and libertarian experts (like my AEI colleague Charles Murray) prefer the idea to the tangled web of current safety net policies.

But, as this report rightly notes, there are massive concerns about the social and psychological impact of pivoting policy and society away from work. For most people, meaningful labor and earning our own success are key paths towards dignity and life satisfaction. One study shows unemployment benefits do almost nothing to mitigate the happiness downdraft from job loss. And my own research has found that Americans who feel they’re succeeding at their jobs are twice as likely as others to say they are “very happy” overall — even controlling for income.

Can new technology and 21st-century communities fully replace this vital pillar of human flourishing? I’m not sanguine. The 2016 election showed us that many older Americans and working-class people of all ages (especially those who do not identify with elite culture) don’t see these new options as satisfactory replacements for the meaningful work opportunities and traditional communities that have eroded.

So while wage insurance is a big, bold idea, I’m not persuaded yet. I would rather aim at jump-starting labor force participation. I’d start with reforming and innovating existing safety net programs, with a special focus on beefing up work requirements. Any wage subsidies should be designed to incentivize work rather than potentially crowd it out; expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit could be part of a good solution.

But the big solution? We need a radical new agenda for forming human capital. Let’s help empower more Americans to stay engaged in the economy, rather than merely making it less painful for them to drop out.

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