Friday, February 1, 2013

a few addenda to the Bloggingheads talk


1. At the beginning of the video, I said that the American dream is said to be that if you're willing to work, you can provide for your own material security, and that if you're also smart, you can achieve prosperity. What I meant to point out is that this hasn't ever been true-- there have always been systematic exclusions along racial and gender lines, there have always been gaps in who is eligible, there have always been people who have been left behind unfairly.... But the American people tend to maintain a belief in this system, probably because the median American 

2. To be clear, I don't know for sure if capital-biased technological change is going to happen in a way that seriously undermines employment in the near term. It might not happen soon. It might not ever happen. But I want to point out how essential to our entire system it is that we have enough jobs for those who are eager to work, and that the way that macroeconomic forces can cause mass unemployment like they're experiencing in Europe could undermine our entire social system. Meanwhile, as I suggested in the discussion, part of the point here is that while we want adequate jobs under a system in which jobs are necessary for securing your own material security, more work is not in and of itself good-- in fact, part of human progress is moving to a situation where people work less. I mentioned that both Matt Yglesias and Peter Frase have made this point in the diavlog. And I feel that we should be working towards a situation in which the value of automation is enjoyed by all people, not merely by those at the top, as so much of the value added to our economy now is.

In other words, I'm not sure if capital-biased technological change is going to happen in the near future. But I am sure that we're in a situation where a tremendous amount of generated income is being captured by those at the top, as the chart above shows. What I would like is to have a conversation about our basic social system that considers the nature of technological progress and whether it helps workers or the investment class. I would also like a broader discussion in which the problems demonstrated in that chart can be discussed as problems without people immediately screaming class warfare.

3. It's the nature of the format that you're going to have to make references that seem a bit arch. When I talk about the empirical case against the notion that you control your life, I'm referring to a broad collection of research, particularly education research, that points to how chancy aspect of your life like parentage make a huge impact on your eventual outcomes. One of the things that consistently amazes me in my research in education is just how determinative early-life conditions can affect adult success. What's more, the degree of social mobility for the average America-- the ability of an individual to leave his social class for a higher one and stay there-- is, as an empirical matter, lower than most people assume. I'm thinking of writing this stuff up long-form with ample references, but it's a major project that I would want to publish somewhere other than this blog.

4. One thing that the Internet has shown me is not just the productive capacity of the human species, but the productive desire, the need to create, and also the need to share. And it's not just people writing blogs and recording podcasts, although I value that too. It's "how do I make my own cheese," "here's how you make a bookcase," "this is how to rebuild an engine," "let me help you with your taxes," "here's some schematics for this circuit board." We have so much desire to do things, and to share our knowledge of doing things, and I believe a desire to do things for other people, if the conditions are right. And we have so much need, so much want. When you look at what people are capable of making and sharing, and you look at how much material need there is, you can't help but conclude: something has gone wrong here.

I find the hoary old conservative fear that, if you provide for people's material needs, they'll stop working and sit around on the couch all day just fucking bonkers, man. I find it totally incompatible with my experience. If you give people what they need to survive, will some small number of people sit around and smoke weed all day? Sure. But I doubt many will, and the reality is that as technology continues to erode the amount of human labor needed to provide human society with goods, we can bear the cost of some people who don't work. And as I recognize no positive value in work that is independent from its contribution to human need-- in contrast with, say, the Puritan work ethic of the American mythology-- I see no failing at all in such a situation.

How do we harness that productive capacity and direct it towards the greater good, which people want to contribute to, if they can? By removing their fear of a loss of material security. You take away people's fear that they will lack shelter, food, clothing, transportation, education, and health care, and suddenly, the can spend their time doing those things that they enjoy and understand. Right now we've got a vast army of various trained construction workers-- educated in a particular craft-- who are out of work. Their productive capacity is going to waste, and those of them who have a productive desire are unable to implement it. Why can't they use their productive capacity to help people who have no homes? In large part, because they have to fear for their material security. They have to worry about feeding their families, about paying the rent. But you remove that fear of immediate material security, and suddenly, new doors open.

How do you do it? By giving people money. You can call it a universal basic income, if that suits you. How much will be controversial. But you give people the money they need to provide for their families, and watch the spread of sharing and cooperative labor. Some will say, "you can't just give people money." Sure you can. Just giving people money actually has a great track record.

But culture has to change too. Mike Konczal's "pity charity liberalism" critique, and my own critique of globalize/grow/give liberalism, are based on the fact that our current disparities are not just of material goods but of  power. And I'm still chewing on that. As I suggested in the discussion, there's no reason that we can't have unions within the working economy that coexists alongside an UBI. Indeed, I believe unions would be strengthened under such conditions, as the general employment market would be so much friendlier to labor in general. But do I have a 12-point plan right now? I confess that I don't. I just want people to start talking about the next stage. And I want to express happiness that so many smart people are talking about it.

Update: An interesting Reddit discussion on automated cars. Via Marginal Revolution.

8 comments:

Corey said...

I find the hoary old conservative fear that, if you provide for people's material needs, they'll stop working and sit around on the couch all day just fucking bonkers, man.

Yes, yes, yes, a million times yes. Conservative opinions along this line seem to be derived from anecdotal analysis of the way people spend their time away from work now (largely TV) and extrapolating it to a society without work, without thinking that perhaps it's the work that makes people want to do nothing but watch TV in the evenings in the first place.

Shawn Gude said...

Terrific bloggingheads discussion, Freddie.

A couple quick points: The distinction needs to be made between work, or generally being productive, and waged work. As you say, there are all sorts of productive things people do with their time outside of waged work— including being on bloggingheads! This activity is what is essential to human flourishing and happiness, not waged work. Second, if you think about how a UBI would come into existence, it's not going be through kindly benevolence or considered rationality, but the possession of real power. That's why, for me, rebuilding the labor movement is priority number one. Automation will only be beneficial to workers if we have the power to canalize it, to direct it towards social ends rather than to enrich the already wealthy and powerful.

Mark D said...

FYI, Freddie-- you probably already know this, but a nice, old-timey term already exists that means the same thing as UBI: "demogrant."

At least that's the term that get's thrown around in tax-policy circles...

Freddie said...

Thanks.

BenAP said...

Reminds me of Robert Anton Wilson's "RICH economy". I always enjoyed his optimism.

What I am proposing, in brief, is that the Work Ethic (find a Master to employ you for wages, or live in squalid poverty) is obsolete. A Work Esthetic will have to arise to replace this old Stone Age syndrome of the slave, the peasant, the serf, the prole, the wage-worker -- the human labor-machine who is not fully a person but, as Marx said, " a tool, an automaton." Delivered from the role of things and robots, people will learn to become fully developed persons, in the sense of the Human Potential movement. They will not seek work out of economic necessity, but out of psychological necessity -- as an outlet for their creative potential.

( "Creative potential" is not a panchreston. It refers to the inborn drive to play, to tinker, to explore, and to experiment, shown by every child before his or her mental processes are stunted by authoritarian education and operant-conditioned wage-robotry.)


http://www.deepleafproductions.com/wilsonlibrary/texts/raw-RICH.html

Brett said...

@Freddie
I find the hoary old conservative fear that, if you provide for people's material needs, they'll stop working and sit around on the couch all day just fucking bonkers, man. I find it totally incompatible with my experience. If you give people what they need to survive, will some small number of people sit around and smoke weed all day? Sure. But I doubt many will, and the reality is that as technology continues to erode the amount of human labor needed to provide human society with goods, we can bear the cost of some people who don't work.

Agreed. I'm actually worried that it might fail - we might just redefine standards of living upwards to incorporate the income. If the costs of basic goods and services are still falling, then that would still be a huge improvement over the present (since nobody would starve, although they might still be homeless). But it could lead to major competition for the remaining jobs, and particularly jobs that allow people to afford the kinds of "status" goods and services that shape so much of our consumption.

. . . . Assuming those still exist. Honestly, I have no idea what "consumption" beyond the basic sustenance needs will mean in a world that might have things like artificial sense stimulation, extremely good augmented reality/simulated reality, and possibly even Noah Smith's idea of "desire modification". Maybe most people will spend their lives in "secondary worlds", the descendants of modern social networks and video games - we'd consider it unimaginable, but try telling someone from 100 years ago that we'd be spending a third of our time sitting in front of metal boxes looking at screens.

Eric Falkenstein said...

I'm curious. If labor is losing its share of income, presumably the rest is going to 'capital'. Yet, returns on equities since 2001 have been pretty stagnant. What other metric of capital returns would highlight that capital is getting proportionately more of output than previously?

Skye said...

Very well stated, Freddie.

I would quibble a bit with your complaint about America's "Puritan work ethic." If you go back to John Winthrop's 1630 address 'A Model of Christian Charity,' he states, "We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others' necessities." It is a strikingly redistributionist argument.