National Book Awards Speech

What’s So Funny ‘bout Peace, Love & Basic Income?

Basic income has been getting a lot of attention in the news lately. It seems like every day there’s a new think piece or article on the topic.

On Thursday, The Boston Globe announced that “Robots Will Take Your Job” — the same day The New York Times declared that “The Robots Are Coming For Wall Street.” The sudden uptick in attention is promising.

But one thing has been troubling me about a few of the pieces I’ve read: a certain un-seriousness about the topic, a kind of off-hand disregard, not unlike the way that journalists talk about, say, the porn industry.

In a Buzzfeed article, Cora Lewis describes it as a “Marxist social policy” that goes by several different names (“the cutest being ‘mincome’”):

“The idea … is a kind of Soylent for economics, a synthetic miracle cure-all for poverty, manufactured by the same method and minds that tackled hunger by making a hipper, nerdier version of nutritional shakes.”

Really? Basic income is so unpalatable that it’s pretty much Soylent?

In Business Insider, Biz Carson starts it off this way:

“Tim Draper is known for having crazy ideas and for funding them. He’s put forth plans to divide California into six states. He’s also backed giant companies like Tesla that have big visions to change the worlds in crazy ways…. Onstage at the Startup Grind conference in Redwood City, California on Tuesday, Draper put forth a new idea: let’s give everyone $15,000.”

The idea of a basic income—which is on the table in several countries — is as “crazy” as a plan to split up California?

This isn’t a fringe idea, folks. This isn’t speculation about some far-off future. This is already happening. In Switzerland this June, voters will consider whether to implement a basic income of 2,500 francs per month.

Finland is working on its own basic income experiment, and now Ontario, Canada is planning a pilot program within the next year.

And yet we still get articles like this one:

It’s true that Silicon Valley’s interest in the topic deserves some skepticism. In The Guardian, Evgeny Morozov asks whether the tech titans could ever be trusted to do basic income right, or whether it’s just part of a plan to get everyone driving for Uber. But a “cult of bros [and] brahmins”?

Lauren Smiley writes that, if you’re a “basic income bro,”

You can namecheck Milton Friedman and Richard Nixon and Edward Snowden and MLK, Jr., as other, higher-profile basic income bros, lending historical gravitas and across-the-aisle solidarity to your club.

as though citing the background of a political platform is a mere talking point designed to — what? get you laid? elected? retweeted?

There’s nothing wrong with pointing out the hypocrisies of a given activist or economic group — something Smiley did brilliantly in her piece The Shut-In Economy — but the ridicule here seems misplaced.

Although Smiley describes this as a “cultural study” rather than a “basic income policy story,” it’s a bit of both. And the context in which journalists present matters of public policy — satirically or not — influences the debate. Implying that basic income is an abstract philosophical cause that only “crazy,” “Marxist,” “bros” believe in perpetuates that myth, and shuts out the voices of others who would benefit from the policy.

In a response at Medium, eHuman Dawn writes:

As a housewife I see UBI as a means to begin to acknowledge the work of life, caring for others, art and ourselves as well as the Earth. I can’t imagine if I had an income for the hours of work I’ve done raising children the past sixteen years. I left programming to do what I thought was right for my kids, and I don’t think the world owes me anything. What I do think is we owe each other the trust and confidence that is behind a BI society — that we all deserve life and caring for one another is our purpose as a community.

It’s fair to point out that the basic income conversation has, thus far, been dominated by privileged white men. But one could just as easily describe basic income as a policy devised by utopian feminist sci-fi writers like Starhawk and Ursula K. LeGuin. On her blog, Starhawk writes:

[T]he system I came up with for the world of The Fifth Sacred Thing…would be my preference: everyone has a basic, guaranteed income, that represents your fair share of common resources and the wealth of the past. Everyone then gets work credits for whatever work you do, including housework and caring for children or the elderly. If you’re an artist or a healer or someone who’s work doesn’t lend itself to counting hours, you get a stipend. And if people really like what you do, they give you gifts. Ah, how happy I’d be living in that world!

U. K. LeGuin described a similar society in her 1974 novel The Dispossessed:

“[Y]ou think that the incentive to work is finances, need for money or desire for profit…. [But] people like to do things. They like to do them well. People take the dangerous, hard jobs because they take pride in doing them…. After all, work is done for the work’s sake. It is the lasting pleasure of life.”

More recently, in a speech at the National Book Awards, she declared:

“I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope….We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art — the art of words.”

Seriously, journalists — if you’re happy with the way things are, then keep on with the laughter. Otherwise, let’s start taking basic income seriously.

It can’t get here soon enough.

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