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Friday, July 25, 2014

Why the basic income movement will be mainstream soon

by David Atkins

If you believe as I and many others do that our current economic crisis is dictated not only by intentional plutocratic rigging but also by globalization, mechanization and deskilling, then you're likely to believe that the economic models of the 20th century aren't going to work in the 21st.

Those who think this way tend to sound almost crazy to a lot of activists. We talk about things like ending the Westphalian system, about altering corporate law to require at least partial worker ownership. But more than anything else, a lot of conversation revolves around a basic universal income to decouple human dignity and base-level financial freedom from the idea of "having a job." Not because we're crazy liberals who don't believe in work or capitalism, but because there simply aren't going to be enough jobs to go around, and the ones that will exist simply won't pay enough. The disparity between labor and capital is going to keep growing to a point where you can't soften the edges of the system anymore.

The basic income question made its way to Vox yesterday with approval:

So here's my takeaway: a negative income tax or basic income of sufficient size would, by definition, eliminate poverty. We still don't know if there'd be much of a cost in terms of people working and earning less. If there is, the effect is almost certainly small enough that a negative income tax can offset the lost earnings and remain affordable. The worst case scenario is that we eliminate poverty but see a modest decline in employment. The best case scenario is we eliminate poverty at even lower cost and don't see much of an effect on employment. That's a gamble I'm willing to take.
The usual suspects who don't cry "moral hazard" at every turn are worried about a potential decrease in productivity. That's not necessarily going to happen, because most people who are suddenly freed from the drudgery of a soul-crushing job aren't going to become couch potatoes overnight. They can start businesses without worrying about failure putting them on the street. They can write books, create art, teach, and do all those productive things everyone dreams of doing but has neither the time nor the energy for.

But even if it did decrease productivity, so what? Productivity has been skyrocketing for the last 40 years without redounding to the benefit of actual workers, whose wages have stagnated. So if all this increased productivity is simply helping make the rich richer while working the poor and middle class harder and longer, then we can afford as a society to relieve the stress of the workers who actually build the economy, while dumping a little less money into the pockets of the fat cats to buy their second yachts.

It seems a little crazy now to most people, but it's going to be a mainstream proposition before too much longer. And it'll happen right around the time when mechanization and deskilling start taking all the white collar and STEM jobs that the upper-middle class and lower-upper classes think are protected from the technology and globalization onslaught. When the white collar workers start getting thrown en masse into the same vicious economic blender that has been shredding blue and pink collar jobs, watch the political winds start to shift.

It's just a matter of time.