After the coronavirus, Universal Basic Income seems inevitable. What will the world look like when we all have enough?
NOTE FOR 2020 READERS: This is the tenth in a series of open letters to the next century, now just 80 years away. The series asks: What will the world look like at the other end of our kids’ lives?
Dear 22nd Century,
When I began this thought experiment of writing letters to a world eight decades in the future, I needed a handle on what that meant. So I thought about how different the world was eight decades in the past. How grim everything looked during the Great Depression and the run up to World War II! The high-tech, economically booming and relatively peaceful world I lived in, with all its flaws, would have seemed like utopia by comparison.
Never did I imagine, in 2018 and 2019, that we would soon find ourselves teetering on the brink of another Great Depression. A recession, yes; those are cyclical, and we were overdue. But a Depression? Well, we don’t really have a standard definition for one, but we usually think of mass unemployment, which reached as high as 25 percent in 1933. Even in the darkest days of the post-2008 recession, unemployment was never higher than 10 percent. In December 2019, some 3.5 percent of the U.S. population filed unemployment claims, a 50-year low.
Then came the coronavirus, and the worldwide shelter-in-place orders required to combat it. All of a sudden, the economy started shedding around a million jobs a day. By the end of April 2020, even government economists were predicting 17 percent unemployment, and that wasn’t even the worst-case scenario. The economy may shrink by up to 30 percent in the second quarter of 2020, they said; another common measure of a depression is a 10 percent-plus contraction. And if these statistics were too hard to process, we also had long lines at food banks to rival any Depression-era breadline photograph.
But enough about us. Let’s talk about you. Will the 22nd century have learned from our mistakes? Will you look back at the unemployment crisis of the 2020s and shudder, grateful in the knowledge that it can never happen again? Will you, in short, have instituted a true, guaranteed, Universal Basic Income for every citizen?
That future seems much more likely all of a sudden. If there is one silver lining of the coronavirus crisis, it is this: UBI is well and truly on the agenda. At the beginning of the year it was a fringe idea that one U.S. presidential candidate made the focus of his campaign. Now the House of Representatives’ finance committee has suggested paying every American $2,000 a month for the duration of the crisis and a year after. As I write this, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — a cautious progressive at the best of times — announced that UBI is “worthy of attention… we may have to think in terms of some different ways to put money in people’s pockets.”
Life, and the basic income needed to live it, comes at you fast.
Perhaps we won’t get a true UBI this go-around. But COVID-19 is likely just the first in a series of worldwide shocks we’ll have to steel ourselves for. Climate change makes pandemics more likely, not to mention other natural disasters that will threaten the lives of millions and the livelihoods of millions more. The quarantine we’re currently in is by no means the last of the century; it’s just the first one to shine a spotlight on how amazingly automated human society has become. We’re all feeling pretty disconnected and fearful right now, but without the internet and automated supply chains it would be a thousand times worse.
Life after COVID-19
The fact is, we can’t flatten the curve of automation. There is no vaccine for AI. According to a landmark 2013 Oxford University analysis of 703 occupations, reaffirmed by the authors in 2017, 47 percent of all jobs in the U.S. are at risk of being lost due to automation in the next 25 years. And that’s just based on the technology we know about now. The story of the 21st century is a story of a job automation apocalypse.
To pick the most obvious example, there are more than 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S. today, a record for the profession, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s the most popular job in 29 states, more necessary during this pandemic than ever. But what’s waiting for them on the other side of COVID-19? A fleet of self-driving trucks, already in trials. Trucks with a (thus far) spotless safety record, trucks that never need to be paid or take a break. How long is it going to take America’s 711,000 trucking employers to do the cost-benefit analysis on that one?
Let’s be generous and say it’ll take a decade or two for those 3.5 million jobs to be lost. What then? Maybe disgruntled former drivers will try to sabotage these trucks, just as the Luddites once smashed looms. They couldn’t arrest the march of technology. Neither will the drivers.
Politically speaking, UBI is low-hanging fruit. According to a March 2020 survey of 2,200 people, there are clear majorities in favor of basic income on both sides of the aisle. Which makes a lot of sense. Republicans like it because it removes the need for a vast government bureaucracy. It’s a flat and simple system: Cut everyone the same check, and you don’t need to hire an army of busybodies to do means-testing or administer an array of complex tax credits. Democrats like it because it removes the stigma from the whole concept of welfare: If everyone gets the same, there’s no need to demonize one group or another.
And nearly all of us — well, those of us in the 99 percent — have had times in our lives when even the fear of money insecurity could give us sleepless nights and diminished days.
“It’s really the ultimate marriage of left wing and right wing thinking,” says Rutger Bregman, Dutch historian and author of the popular pro-UBI book Utopia For Realists. “It’s about individual freedom. In Silicon Valley, they call it ‘fuck you money,’ right? The idea that you need a certain amount of money to quit what you’re doing right now. A basic income is ‘fuck you money’ for everyone. It’s venture capital for the people.
“Just imagine a society where everyone has that. It’s very easy to see how this could lead to an explosion of innovation and creativity.”
UBI isn’t just a nice-to-have — it’s the only way capitalism is going to function at all in a world of automation. “Free cash greases the wheels of the whole economy,” notes Bregman. “People buy more, and that boosts employment and incomes.” Does it require higher taxes? Yes, and taxes were raised on the rich prior to the economic booms of the 1950s and the 1990s — decades when U.S. GDP grew by about a third and a quarter respectively. What the rich give in taxes, they too reap rewards from in the long run. It’s not just the right thing for them to do, it’s the smart thing.
I hope the rich folk of the 22nd century understand that. I think you will.
Of course, we should never underestimate humanity’s most selfish tendencies. We often seem to need to prop up a bad system just because it’s the one we’ve always known. I’ve written about the English upper-class reactionaries who scuppered an 18th century attempt to provide a form of basic income, 40 years after the system was instituted. Maybe you are looking back on a mid-21st century golden age of basic income, before the notion that poor people have to be kept hungry and fearful in order to be productive reared its ugly head once again in the 2080s or so.
But I doubt it. Already, the data is giving the lie to puritanical notions of what would happen in a world of UBI. Take the old canard that everyone would just waste their monthly checks on drugs and booze. In 2014, a World Bank study of studies looked at 19 cases of UBI-like cash transfers to the poor. Sales of alcohol or tobacco did not see a rise; if anything, there was a minor decline. It is the stress of poverty that leads to drugging and drinking, not the other way around.
Because when we’re flush, it turns out, we tend to be aspirational, not escapist. Our brightest days feel like they’re ahead of us. We tend to invest in our best potential futures. And that investment, more often than not, benefits everyone.
The Star Trek future
What does the world look like when we all have enough cash to put food on the table while pursuing our dream careers?
This is a hard question to answer in 2020, in part because there is very little in the way of popular storytelling that attempts to answer it. Sure, we talk about “the Star Trek future” with the glancing understanding that Star Trek, set in the 23rd century, proposes a utopian Earth where everything you could possibly want can be replicated. As any Trekkie knows, we’re told these magical replicators have been made available to all: not just Universal Basic Income, but Universal Basic Replication.
“In Trek’s universe, most if not all of the real-world conditions that drive economic behaviors essentially disappear,” writes economist Manu Saadia in the 2016 book Treknomics. “Currency has become obsolete as a medium of exchange. Labor cannot be distinguished from leisure. Universal abundance of almost all goods has made the pursuit of wealth irrelevant … but what really distinguishes the United Federation of Planets is that these replicators are free and available to all as public goods.” [Emphasis his.]
Still, Trek’s shows and movies rarely reveal what Earth looks like as a result. The franchise dodges the whole question by sending us into space with magic technology. Its main suggestions for what people want to do in this utopian economy: Fly starships, seek out new life, use scientifically implausible teleport machines, and drink endless cups of tea, Earl Grey, hot. (The recent Picard series gave the retired captain a vineyard, but no details on how its business functioned.)
Sadly, as we established in a previous letter, human travel beyond the solar system is unlikely in the next few centuries, if it all. We’ve also established that an asteroid mining boom, creating unprecedented wealth, is likely in the mid- to long-term future. That will be the career choice of roughneck entrepreneurs, the pioneer types, not the majority.
Living inside the moon (or inside asteroids) is likely to be a thing, though mostly short-term for tourists. Some may stay, if they’re OK with spending their lives under fluorescent lights, breathing recycled air, surrounded by different kinds of dust and stone. As a NASA scientist once told me, explaining the kind of drudgery space colonists are likely to endure: “Hey, some people like Cleveland.”
Nothing wrong with Cleveland (sorry, Cleveland!), and there’s nothing wrong with the Final Frontier as long as you don’t mind it being quite a bit grittier than it was in Star Trek.
And for those of us who prefer to live on a planet which will still, even in the midst of the darkest climate change scenario, be the most beautiful and abundant place we’ve ever found in the cosmos? What will life look like at home? What will be the dominant philosophy of a UBI society? Well, that’s where “fully automated luxury communism” enters the story.
This odd name was coined by UK writer and activist Aaron Bastani, who confesses it was partly tongue-in-cheek. He made a video explaining it in 2014 and wrote a book, Fully Automated Luxury Communism, in 2019. In between, via blogs and articles and Tumblr, it traveled the world — so much that I first heard it at a Silicon Valley party in 2017, quoted approvingly as a likely summary of the future.
What does it mean? Let’s break it down: Fully automated, as in a society where robots and AI are doing all of the work. (Sound familiar?) Luxury, as in the post-scarcity world of abundance created by this automated system: Pretty much anything you need will either be delivered digitally, fabricated at home in a cheap-ass 3D printer (not quite a Star Trek replicator yet, but close), or dropped at your door by drones at negligible cost. And communism, as in the actual original concept that Karl Marx’s acolytes failed to deliver — a more or less equal society where the people own the means of production. Just a way more consumerist version.
Bastani’s vision isn’t always the most fleshed out. “If we embraced work-saving technologies rather than feared them, and organized our society around their potential, it could mean being able to live a good life with a ten-hour working week,” he writes. Which is great, so far as it goes, but then he adds as a rhetorical flourish: “Cartier for everyone, MontBlanc for the masses and Chloe for all!” These are luxury brands whose very existence relies on being unaffordable to most. If they fell to a price all could afford on a $2,000-a-month UBI, or if we could all make them at home in a replicator, would they even have a customer base?
Such visions may be helping to spur a high-tech revival of the “communist” label, one that was also celebrated in Cory Doctorow’s novel of a post-scarcity future, Walkaway (2017). Millennials are less familiar with its negative connotations, having missed the Cold War, and the same will be true of each successive generation. An annual survey commissioned by the not-exactly-neutral Victims of Communism Foundation, but conducted independently, found Communism’s favorability numbers on the rise among millennials — from 28 percent in 2018 to 36 percent in 2019.
But if we are headed for a new kind of high-tech UBI-driven communism, it’s one replete with irony. “A basic income would be the crowning achievement of capitalism,” says Bregman, “because it would give everyone a bit of capital to invest in their own lives.” Marx’s vision of a worker’s utopia would have been delivered not by a dictatorship of the proletariat, but by the very system Marx hated.
But if this is a new kind of communism, it’s one replete with irony. “A basic income would be the crowning achievement of capitalism,” says Bregman, “because it would give everyone a bit of capital to invest in their own lives.” Marx’s vision of a worker’s utopia would have been delivered not by a dictatorship of the proletariat, but by the very system Marx hated.
Here is a more succinct summary of our fully-automated future: perpetual school. “The ultimate goal is to make life as close to the college experience as possible,” notes Greg Ferenstein, who is writing a book on Silicon Valley startup founders and their politics, “a life dedicated to research, exploration, and creativity, while automation ensures that everyone has enough food and leisure time to pursue their unique contribution to the world.”
That’s what has happened to Scott Santens, the first person in the world to crowdfund a basic income. (He donates everything he gets over $1,000 per month to other basic income advocates.) He hasn’t stopped working — he was a freelance writer before and a freelance writer after — but he is able to pick and choose his projects now. He sees himself in a lifelong process of UBI advocacy, and puts more of his work out there for free on a Creative Commons license. Secure and free of money panic, he’s more willing to give.
“I think you’ll see a shift towards a gift economy,” Santens said when I asked how a UBI-driven society might play out in the future. “We can expect to see a lot more volunteering, a lot more unpaid work. It’s more couchsurfing.com, less Airbnb, you know? Just give things to each other.”
Santens hadn’t been to Burning Man, which is currently the 21st century’s best known example of a gift economy. But as a veteran of the oft-misunderstood desert event, where coffee and ice are the only two things on sale, I could confirm: Once you experience the gift economy, it’s hard to forget. Tell people to be radically self-reliant in the desert for a week, and they go overboard with generosity to strangers. Gifts take endless forms, such as (to pick a random example from 14 years ago) the camp that brought tanks of liquid nitrogen and freezers full of cream in order to dispense ice cream for all.
This is true wealth, in a world where everyone has enough: Being creatively generous, going out of your way to earn as much delight and respect from as many of your neighbors as possible. This, not a Scrooge McDuck swimming pool of money, is what philanthropist billionaires from Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates have had the luxury to seek all along. This also perhaps explains some of the stranger showboating behavior of billionaires who go to Burning Man, such as Elon Musk. And this, given the solid footing of UBI, will be a game the other 99 percent are able to play too.
The revenge of bullshit jobs
Is this 22nd century utopia inevitable? Of course not. We’re still human, and humans will find any way to ruin a good thing. Bregman says he’s grown disillusioned since writing Utopia for Realists, partly thanks to the number of people he met on a book tour who were convinced, regardless of the data showing UBI experiments work, that it will never work.
The trouble with convictions like that: They create our reality. If we’re not open to new information, if we don’t accept the idea that UBI could work, we will fail to update our concept of what “work” really means. In other words, we’ll continue to let corporations make a lot of (digital) paper-pushing busywork for us.
“We shouldn’t underestimate capitalism’s extraordinary ability to come up with new bullshit jobs,” Bregman says. Bullshit jobs was a term coined by the London School of Economics’ David Graeber, who wrote a 2013 paper on the topic and received a flood of confessions from people who felt their work was pointless. Two years later, a survey of 849 UK adults found that 37 percent said their work was “not a meaningful contribution to the world.”
What happens if that number just keeps rising, along with the fear of unemployment that herds us into bullshit jobs just to keep food on the table? What if 75 percent or even 90 percent of us are essentially on corporate workfare? Will we all be sitting in cubicles watching algorithms making decisions on our screens, hoping desperately to catch an error in the code, focusing a lifetime’s worth of mental energy on making the boss think we’re useful?
“Maybe at some point in the dystopian future we’re all pretending to be working,” Bregman says, “but really we’re drowning.”
That’s what makes the shift to UBI so essential — and why the shift in our attitude needs to come with. Bregman, for his part, has written his follow-up Humankind to try to convince us, with yet another mountain of data, that humans are intrinsically good and kind, and therefore should be trusted with free money. But perhaps you will look back and see that our greatest teacher was the coronavirus pandemic itself. Perhaps it will not only lead to a basic income for all; perhaps it will remain in our memories as a reminder that we are, in the final analysis, a society that genuinely cares for everyone. And will go to extraordinary lengths to prove it.
Yours in hopeful quarantine,
Originally published at https://mashable.com