A Universal Basic Income is in the news these days, mainly because the child tax credit in Biden’s recovery bill looks like a permanent feature of fiscal policy. Who will try to strip this subsidy to marriage and family from any future budget? Not even a truly demented Republican, of which there are now many, would think of it.
So we asked our colleague James Livingston, who’s been thinking and writing about the issue for a decade, to address it. He responded with a talk he gave at the University of Chicago and elsewhere in 2017-2018, called “Now What, After Work?”
He insists that federal, state, and local governments have been experimenting with something like a UBI since 1968—the recent Stockton initiative is nothing new. The numbers on poverty and income inequality don’t suggest much success, but we agree with him, that doesn’t invalidate the experiments. Livingston also tells us that discussions of a UBI with his students at Rutgers indicate that public opinion is deeply, and justifiably, divided on how and why people get “something for nothing.”
Let there be more discussions!
Here is his introduction to the issue of the UBI, and then the talk itself.
–=Bruce Robbins, John McClure, Laura Kipnis
Universal Basic Income. We’ve all heard of it by now because the Silicon Valley types, the charming, facile, smiley-faced Andrew Yang among them, have made it a household word. Hence The New Yorker article on the Ides. https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/joe-bidens-stimulus-plan-contains-an-experiment-in-universal-basic-income. But what does it mean, what does it do?
Universal means everybody gets some money, no prior tests required. You don’t have to prove any kind of need to receive this income. Basic means the income is a baseline, a supplement to earnings from your regular job, not a replacement. You’re not quite getting something for nothing.
Income means—well, what does it mean?
Once upon a time it was the answer to how you “make a living.” You received income if you worked as an employee, produced a valuable good or service, or had invested wisely. No longer. A UBI assumes that there is no legible or measurable relation between effort and reward–between labor expended and monetary compensation. It’s a way of acknowledging that this relation is arbitrary at best.
In this sense, a UBI acknowledges the central fact of very late capitalism, which is that the value of labor power has been driven to near zero. Wages have stagnated accordingly. You can get almost anything for free–except food, clothing, and shelter.
So the bottom line is this. Your labor power, your labor time, has become just about worthless, but you still have to buy the right not to die. To detach income from work, as a UBI proposes, is, then, to allow for you to live without a wage. It is to announce and to enact the end of capitalism.
Now What, After Work?*
January 13, 2017, Chicago, Illinois
Now what, after work? I’m going to make this question personal and uncomfortable—for me, not for you—because I want to retire but I can’t stop working. Not only that. I’ve been working for a wage my whole life, since I was 12 years old. That’s probably why I wrote a book called “Fuck Work.” I had to retitle it because Amazon wouldn’t list it if the f-word was the first word. At least that’s what the publisher told me. https://aeon.co/essays/what-if-jobs-are-not-the-solution-but-the-problem
I’m sick of working for the wrong reasons. By now we all ought to be, because the job market is broken and can’t be fixed. I’m pretty sure it started expiring along with all others in the slow-motion collapse that began with the crash of October 1987 and ended with the catastrophe of 2008. Either that, or the job market has been perfected by forcing the value of labor time toward zero. I’ll come back to this choice of endgame in concluding. Either way, my optimism is not cruel, and vice versa.
We have long expected the market in labor, this job market, to build character (self-discipline, honesty, initiative, etc.) and to allocate incomes in a way that seemed justifiable—or at least explicable. Those expectations go together, of course, but they have, at long last, become worse than bad dreams because we can’t seem to wake ourselves from their attendant delusions. To act upon these dreams and delusions is to evade the real world, not to change it.
Let me illustrate briefly. You’ve heard it all before. 25 percent of working adults in the country are at or below the poverty line. 40 to 50 percent of them are eligible for food stamps. The official unemployment rate is below 5%—we’re at what used to be known as full employment—but the net gain in jobs since 2000 still stands at zero, and income inequality, the economic plague of our time, hasn’t changed a bit (it may even have worsened). According to Oxford and MIT economists, about 50% of job classifications that now exist will die of computerization by 2025, including many “non-routine cognitive tasks,” like the thinking you do as you drive to work or report a story or sell a pair of shoes or walk a beat. Or just deal with a situation not already installed in the hard drive. I, for one, am sure that a computer could write a better, more comprehensive bibliographic essay than I ever did in grad school.
There’s more—or less, depending on your point of view. Labor force participation rates by adult males are stagnant or falling. Life expectancy among white males in the South is declining as they lose the narrative of their lives, according to Angus Beaton—and they’re losing that narrative because they can’t organize their lives by their time on the job. Because there aren’t enough good jobs to get them out of bed and off oxycontin. Or maybe they’re selling the stuff, knowing that it’s the best-paying job in the county. I am not condescending to these people. I was addicted to the stuff myself, and the withdrawal wasn’t easy.
In sum: having a job, if you can find one, is not going to teach you anything about character precisely because there is no longer any legible or justifiable relation between effort and reward, between work and income. Not when the gangsters on Wall Street destroy Main Street’s assets, launder drug cartel money, peddle bad paper downstream, prey or foreclose on gullible borrowers—and still collect their obscene bonuses. In 2012, a TV interviewer asked me, “Aren’t those guys on Wall Street the best and the brightest, your A students?” I though for a few seconds and said, “We’re supposed to reward them for wrecking the world economy? No, they fail this course.” I would now add: Let them eat cake.
Why then is everybody from Left to Right, from Dean Baker and Thomas Edsall to Jim Jordan and Greg Mankiew, in favor of “full employment” and thus restoring a legible relation between effort and reward, work and income? By different means, of course, private or public investment, but still. What makes them think that shitty jobs for everyone solves any social problem?
In answer, let me get all historical if not medieval on your ass, just for a minute. Perhaps we’re all prisoners of the Protestant Ethic. But if we are, we’re all of us, Left to Right, equally the captives of the Marxist tradition, which insists that human nature resides in our capacity to produce value and transform environments through work. It’s probably time for us to reevaluate this unconscious affiliation, especially if, like Kevin McCarthy, you’re worried about the leftward drift of public policy.
Or, you could say that the disintegration of the job market is nothing new, for two good reasons. On the one hand, the expulsion of live workers—living labor, as Marx would put it—from ”good-paying” jobs in manufacturing has been happening since the 1920s,without competition from lower-paid Chinese or Mexican labor forces. Sure, deindustrialization accelerated in the 1970s, and the outsourcing of jobs since then under the hammers of “globalization” has become a familiar phenomenon. But the extrication of human labor from goods production got measurable a hundred years ago, and so did the income effects. That decade of the 1920s was the chronicle of a death foretold.
For example. The net loss of jobs in goods production was roughly 2 million in the 1920s. Industrial output increased 60%, labor productivity by 40%. Net private investment meanwhile atrophied, so that the capital stock per worker was less in 1939 than in 1919—and less in 1955 than in 1939. Labor-saving machinery was amplified by capital-saving innovation. So profits doubled, but became pointless, so pointless that industrial corporations awash in them started lending money in the call loan market that inflated the stock market bubble. To the tune of 8.7 billion dollars. Meanwhile they opened time saving accounts at the banks, to the tune of 6.6 billion dollars, which of course went directly into the stock market, and inflated that growing bubble. When the industrial corporations yanked their call loans, the shit hit the fan.
Oh, and by the way, by the end of the Roaring Twenties, 93% of the population had less disposable income than they had in 1922. The drastic shift of income shares from labor to capital in that decade caused the Great Depression, as a similar shift after Reagan’s tax cuts caused the serial crises that culminated in the Great Recession.
On the other hand, the job market has never been a free market, especially not in these United States of America. Here that market has always been overdetermined by systematic discrimination against people of color and against females. Do I need to recite that genealogy, from slavery to sharecropping to Jim Crow to the labor unions, on toward the employment office? Do I need to remind anyone of the resolute exclusion of women from the paid labor market on extra-legal but awfully effective grounds?
Still, I think something new is happening, and it’s worth our attention. That something is a new intellectual and political urgency about (1) putting people back to work even as jobs disappear—not because of outsourcing and defective trade policy, as the president would have it, but as a result of technological innovation; (2) about paying them a living wage; and (3) about getting something for nothing by means of a Universal Basic income (UBI). From Left to Right in the mainstream, “full employment” is the slogan. Meanwhile, activists east to west have drained all the idiocy from former discussions of a higher minimum wage—OMG, it will cause inflation! And a universal basic income is now a practical question, but not just in Finland.
What the urgent moral purpose of “full employment” and a $15 minimum wage miss is the most basic, salient fact of our time, which is the complete breakdown of the labor market. This is new. Republicans won’t let Democrats spend enough public money to fix it (but now they have) because they want the private sector “job creators” to solve the problem, but CEOs have so much profit in their coffers that they couldn’t invest enough of it. And besides, bottom line, corporate investment doesn’t create jobs except at the margins of the labor market. You can look it up in my last two books. Or you can consult the numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Department of Commerce.
So, that UBI component becomes the substance of any rational debate about the future of work. There is no legible, justifiable relation between work and income, effort and reward, as these are pieced together by the labor market. We know this because 20% of all household income in the US is now composed of transfer payments from government—something for nothing. We know this because Wall Street bonuses rise no matter how much wealth the traders and the brokers and the analysts destroyed in binging on bad paper and subprime mortgages—something for nothing. We know this because we pay farmers not to grow crops.
The future of work looks bleak, because the job market has broken down. That much is clear. But the future of thinking about how we could become our brother’s keeper looks better, as we realize that the relation between work and income is something that is now subject to discussion—precisely because the job market has broken down, and precisely because we know how, practically speaking, to detach income from work. Yes, we’ve reached an economic crisis, stumbled into a moral cul de sac, maybe even encountered a spiritual impasse. How to get something for nothing and justify it without invoking luck, fate, or fortune—or better genes, better education, better habits? Our answers are already superior to Wall Street’s. They need to be.
But speaking of work history, or the history of work.
I used to win money in bars with roughnecks, shitheads, and friends by saying, “Bet I’ve had more jobs than you have.” The Lucca Grill in Bloomington, next door to Illinois State University, is where I first perfected this gambit, back in 1983, when I was a visiting professor there. Otis the guy from the Oklahoma oil fields—he taught me to drink beer on ice to avoid dehydration—was my first victim. Chuck the bartender (son-in-law of the owner) was the second. Vinnie the grounds crew chief was the third. I had tried out this bet in a 4:00 o’clock bar on North Halsted, in Chicago, and in another place on Southport, where I bartended. I took it on the road in 1983.
You look at me and you think, he’s the good cop: short hair, unblinking eyes, an impassive and yet interrogative attitude. Quiet, but friendly. You think maybe this guy is waiting for you to divulge something because he just sits there, nods his head, sometimes he smiles and says “Uh huh.” In bars, anyway, this first impression leads to great stories. Then, when people learn that I’m actually a mild-mannered professor, they laugh and loosen up, they tell me even more of their life stories. Don’t get me wrong, but that’s when I make the bet—when I can tell from those stories that the jobs are the chapter titles in the stories of their lives.
The bet goes like this. You make a list of the jobs you’ve had, and I’ll do the same. Bet my list exceeds yours, and we’ll discount for age if you insist. If I win—I’ve never lost—you pay me 20 bucks and buy me a drink. If I lose, I pay you 40 bucks and buy you a drink.
Here we go. These are only the jobs I got paid for.
Been a newspaper boy, a caddy, an umpire, a construction worker X 3, a short order cook, a factory worker X 3, a forklift operator, a yard clerk at the Chicago Northwestern Railway, a gandy dancer—bet you don’t know what that is—at the Burlington Northern Railway, a re-loader at UPS X 2, high school & college, a salesman X 3 (clothes at Sears, shoes at Sears, Cutco knives door to door) . . .
Been a janitor X 2 (at a junior high school and a hospital), a grounds crew worker, a chauffeur, a gas station attendant X 2, a housepainter—actually, I was a contractor, I invented the business, hired guys, and painted a whole Chicago high school (Gordon Tech) in the summer of 1980, while I was collecting unemployment—a ghostwriter, a journalist, a writer, a copy editor, a teaching assistant, a bouncer, a bartender X 3, a waiter . . .
And a college-level instructor X 10, in two maximum-security prisons, one juvenile detention facility, a junior college, a small liberal arts college, and five large state universities (two in Illinois, one in Michigan, one in North Carolina, and one in New Jersey).
If you permit the multiples, and you ought to because I worked the construction, bartending, and teaching jobs in different places and different times, the total is over 50. I see that some of you are scribbling—we’re on.
You’re probably thinking, why is this guy posing as a working class hero? I am, in fact, a mild-mannered professor. Notice, however, that most of the jobs I list were menial—they were mere labor rather than meaningful work according to the specifications of Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition(1958), the most important meditation on work since Marx: “The only activity which corresponds strictly to the experience of worldlessness, or rather to the loss of the world that occurs in pain, is laboring, where the human body . . . is thrown back upon itself, concentrates on nothing but its own being alive, and remains imprisoned in its own metabolism . . . .” Arendt is riffing on Heidegger’s notion of worldness from Being and Time(1927), of course, but she’s also amplifying his complaints from “The Question of Technology” (1955), where poiesis—the meaningful work of the artist, the writer, the artisan—becomes the ethical standard by which to fear the “standing reserve” from the warehouse of us petrified automatons, you know, we who work because we have to. Elaine Scarry took up the same issues in The Body in Pain(1985), a book, that like Being and Timeand The Human Condition, treats work as the mere suffering of the individual, not the promise of social labor.
Now, did my experience on these crappy jobs teach me what Heidegger, Arendt, and Scarry—not to mention Christopher Lasch, Richard Sennett, Jackson Lears, Matthew Crawford, David Ellerman, and any number of others who believe in “meaningful work”—wanted me to learn? Hell, no.
If I understand what Arendt is saying here, I want to laugh out loud. Maybe you do, too. If you’ve ever worked in a factory or a restaurant, on a grounds crew, at a construction site, or in a cubicle supervised by a well-meaning fool, you know better than this. You know that what seems mindless, merely manual labor is never just that, and that it can’t be—only animals and psychopaths remain imprisoned by their own metabolism, which is to say bound by the physical drives we call instincts. You also know the paradoxical result, which is that unlike most human beings, animals and psychopaths remain uniquely individual in their final articulation as sentient beings, at the hour of their death. The rest of us watch as our loved ones gather.
The rest of us also work with others, and with our minds in high gear, no matter how menial the task. All our lives, we engage in social labor, and in doing so we transcend or free ourselves from the recurring cycle of the bodily functions specific to us as individuals. You’re never alone on the job, even when you’re all by yourself, maybe looking for the next customer from behind the counter at the department store, maybe in your office wondering how to advise a student or a client, maybe staring at that screen you can’t seem to fill with words, maybe herding those sheep down the mountain.
And don’t kid yourself, writing is the most social kind of labor because it presupposes the conventions of language, form, and style—you’re always in dialogue with previous writers and your present audience—but it also requires storage and distribution systems that exceed every individual’s capacity, in every century. It requires mere words and mass markets, the most social of media. And, like any moral capacity, say, courage, writing as such can only be known by its enactment—when it gets read and interpreted by others. Nobody writes for himself, not even Michel de Montaigne.
Nobody works for themselves, either. We wouldn’t know how. Marx explained the profoundly social character of the labor we perform, as human beings rather than as foraging animals driven by instinct: “Because of this simple fact that every succeeding generation finds itself in possession of the productive forces acquired by the previous generation, which serves it as the raw material for new production, a coherence arises in human history, a history of humanity takes shape.”
So in work of every kind, even that of the slave and the serf, we have discovered ourselves—there we have found what is human about our nature, and what we have in common with others who labor, whether they are close by or an ocean away. The shattering crisis of our time resides, then, in the common knowledge that work is fast disappearing, and that what is left of it doesn’t pay a living wage.
How then are we to build character and demonstrate that the relation between effort and reward, work and income, is legible and justifiable? How to give up the ghost of the Protestant work ethic and not fear what seems to be the inevitable result—that is, the sloth that comes of getting something for nothing?
Notice, before we proceed, the radical, democratic implications of the notion embedded in the Protestant work ethic—nobody gets something for nothing. It sounds stingy, miserly, erotically stunted if not cruel and unusual when compared to the gift economies of aboriginal peoples or the lavish banquets of court society or the carnivals that punctured late medieval proprieties or the baroque rituals of the late Catholic Church. It looks that way, too, when you imagine those wizened, witch-hunting Puritans as its perfect embodiment. And, so conceived, this work ethic certainly countermands the original teaching of the early Christian church, which was animated by the criterion of need: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” But those protestants, those Puritans, those fanatics of the 16th, 17th, and 18thcenturies, they were objecting to what we still won’t stand for.
And what is that? Two fundamentals. Abstention and release from the world of work, the realm of necessity, is the road to Hell. This life, in this time, this body, and this world, is not probation for another, better one, in Heaven—no, it’s all we got. You cannot know grace unless you’re willing to stay in your calling, in the here and now, where the Devil will lay cross enough upon you. That’s Martin Luther talking. Stay there, with your neighbors, stay here and love them as yourselves, do not long for the next life, make the best of this one. By now we all believe that.
Also, because we are all equal in the eyes of God, and now each other, you do not have the right to live indolently off my labor—no matter how well-born or well-dressed or wealthy you are, not even if I’m your slave. If your income is a deduction from the sum of value created by my labor, my production of real goods, you’re a parasite, and you ought to be sentenced to a life term of exclusion from the body politic. The contemporary term for this cosseted, contemptible group is the 1%. In the 19thcentury, as early as the 1850s if we may judge from the correspondence of Abraham Lincoln, its members were known as capitalists. By now most of us believe that.
These are fundamentals—principles, you might say—still worth acting upon. But the question remains. Can we relinquish the Protestant work ethic but not sacrifice its radical, democratic implications? Can we stop working but not become superfluous beings, barely able to get out of bed, barely able to experience the world, all of us having become new renditions of Oblomov, our 19th-century Russian avatar? That is the question.
It’s not a metaphysical question, nor, as we like now to say, a thought experiment. We have empirical evidence, and a lot of it, to answer with. Certainly we’ve been addressing this very question since 1910, when William James claimed that work and war, where boys had hitherto learned how to become men, these were either disappearing or unthinkable. He preferred work, the moral equivalent, as he called it, of war. Twenty years later, John Maynard Keynes predicted the end of work as such, and this in the throes of the Great Depression. Since then we have been awash in a sea of similar prediction. Our time is merely high tide.
But such prediction is always freighted with a lingering fear that getting something for nothing will corrode our moral mettle, turn us into dependent creatures of the state or of the party or the person that spends most on us. Even the best, most hopeful books and essays on the subject warn us, in good Puritan fashion, of the dangers that exemption from necessary labor will probably bring. For example, Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s wonderful book of 2014, called How Much is Enough? They sketch in fine detail the rudiments of the good life, and explain how a UBI could serve its purposes, but they conclude by worrying that indolence and idleness could contaminate the leisure time afforded by a basic income.
Well, of course it could. But we already know that it didn’t, so not to worry. How’s that? Like I said, we’ve got some evidence. Between 1968 and 1981, federal, state, and local officials conducted four experiments that included eight cities and two rural counties in the US, about 6,000 families altogether. A fifth experiment was conducted in Dauphin, Manitoba, by the provincial government there, between 1974 and 1979. The results were the same in every instance—supplements to family income that raised the participants above the poverty line had no significant effect on anyone’s work ethic.
The pioneer study was the New Jersey Graduated Work Incentive Experiment, run out of Nixon’s Office of Economic Opportunity between 1968 and 1971. 1,357 male-headed households in Passaic, Paterson, Trenton, Jersey City, and Scranton, Pennsylvania—who knew that New Jersey had such imperial ambitions?—received an income subsidy with this question in mind: what will happen to the work habits of the parents? Pretty much nothing. The fathers reduced their work hours by one a week, the mothers by slightly more, but they spent the remainder with their kids doing homework and getting them to the doctor as needed. I would remind you that these results were duplicated in all the other experiments.
The original results in New Jersey plus Scranton were encouraging enough for the OEO to commission a Preliminary Report that, in April, 1970, convinced a substantial majority of the House to pass Nixon’s Family Assistance Program, which was designed to replace welfare with the kind of income supplement or subsidy the Jersey experiment delivered. The OEO was then directed by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.
What were they thinking???
Like other sentient, responsible beings back then, they were thinking that an unemployment crisis was waiting on the other side of Vietnam, when war spending couldn’t stand in for private investment and create enough jobs. The welfare system would soon be an unaffordable social problem, so the adults in the room had to devise an alternative.
The more important question just now is, what are wethinking??? Us academic and intellectual and humanistic types want to talk about “meaningful work” in the Arendtian or Heideggerian mood, as if artisanal activity, craftsmanship, DYI , poeisis in short, is the standard—it’s just us and the raw materials—as if that phenomenological situation, that relation between us and the material world, is the only one that would sustain our souls. With Arendt and Heidegger, we’re stuck on Aristotle. Why can’t we get over this ancient delusion?
Because, as in dreams, where we steer the gods and monsters toward a happy ending, sometimes by just waking up, we can’t get over our origins as infantile pilots of our infinite, immeasurable desires for omnipotence, for mastery of the material world, wishes served by the “compulsion to work.”
But the decline of socially necessarylabor since the 1920s has freed us from this psychological command, this “compulsion to work” as Freud put it.
Now, therefore, we can rethink socially beneficial labor, what used to be called “women’s work”—health, education, service—and perhaps treat it as our basic industry, with all that entails when it comes to wage differentials and what we mean by equality. We can but we don’t.
We can, but we don’t. Why not? My guess is that we don’t yet know enough about the end of capitalism, the apocalypse that already approaches because it already happened. How could we? Who knew that antiquity would give way to Hellenistic culture, republics to empires, feudalism to capitalism? Those revolutionaries of the 17thand 18thcenturies didn’t know they were creating the possibility of capitalism—they didn’t even know what it was. But I’m willing to place a bet on the future, and hedge it, too. I think I know when the end of capitalism happened.
Before I do so, let me remind us of Marx’s unstinting admiration for capitalism, which is most happily on display in the Grundrisse, those famous notebooks where he turned the base verbal dross of political economy into a kind of lyric poetry—especially when praising the corrosive effects of a money economy on tribalism and partriarchy. (He was a 19th-century liberal in his own way.) In the 4thplanned volume of Capital, which was published in English as Theories of Surplus Value, Marx defined the “historic function of capital” as its unprecedented capacity to increase and improve the productivity of social labor, by means of primitive accumulation, to begin with, and then by the rationalization of the labor process, a.k.a. factory discipline regulated by clock time. Max Weber completed Marx’s project so conceived. Or was it Daniel Bell?
The creation and constant reconstruction of the labor market were the means to capital’s end, that “historic function.” Not that workers were mere bystanders in the process, forced into the satanic mills by the sheer market power of capital. The point is that the labor market is where workers learned to buy the right not to die by increasing and improving their productivity. Parts 7-8 in Volume 1 of Capital are a concrete illustration of this process, where “the historical and moral element” of the wage becomes pivotal.
Our question now becomes, What happens when the labor market can’t teach that lesson any more? When the “historic function of capital” has been accomplished—completed—to the point where labor is so productive that its value approaches zero? When the “historical and moral element” in the determination of the wage bill has gone missing?
Or rather, when that moral element is all that’s left in the determination of the wage because the marginal cost of reproducing workers as economic functions just keeps falling, again approaching zero?
All right, here’s the other bet. The epitome of market society, capitalism in the USA, has finally failed because it succeeded. It has succeeded because by driving the cost of labor toward zero, information, the most basic necessity and public good in a post-industrial society, is now free. It has failed because by driving the cost of labor toward zero, information is now free. The commodity form no longer regulates the distribution of sounds or images, music or movies, because the labor market no longer compels the increase and improvement of productivity, and is no longer needed for that purpose. I call this process primitive disaccumulation, as in the reversal of what Marx called primitive accumulation, whereby everything, even land and labor, became a fungible commodity.
Whatever you call it, these facts would suggest something more—the market, conjured as either ideological imperative or epistemology, or everyday, useful device—has outlived its usefulness as a political benchmark, something we could cite in differentiating, say, capitalism from socialism. Or liberalism from conservatism. Or neoliberalism from whatever else you got.
If I’m right, we’re already experiencing the eschaton, that apocalypse. It’s upon us, but if we think about the possibilities residing in this event, we could have some fun.