No, nor the literal idea.
Of course I want free money.
If the Koch brothers came up to me right now and said, “Hey, here have some money no strings attached .” I’d be pretty skeptical of that claim but let’s presume it’s true. Would I take it? Fuck yeah. I mean, depending on how much and so forth I would definitely take it. Let’s say the Koch bothers give me $10,000, what would I do with it? I’ve thought about situations like this (who hasn’t?) and I’ve decided I’d likely do a few things here.
- Move out of my grandmother’s and get my own room
- Pay off my college debt
- Save the rest
The first one outs me as a poor person who is dependent on others in order to produce the content for this blog. No, I’m not happy with this situation which is why I write so much, produce so much content and do as much as I do. I’m trying to do all of this so I don’t have to depend on others to get by. So my goal right now is to keep building up the money I get from Patreon, C4SS and the services i offer for pets (walking, house-sitting, boarding, etc.) until I can do 1.
But if I had free money, I’d likely just rent a really cheap apartment for myself (like $400 – $500 a month) and give first and last month’s rent, etc.
…And then I’d keep doing what I’ve been doing.
To be fair, I’d probably be doing it a bit more confidently and securely. I might give some donations to C4SS, invest in better equipment so I can do an Abolish Work Podcast and so on. But the problem with doing much more at $10,000 is that number two is so crucial and costly ($6000 which isn’t a lot for most students, but is a lot for me) that I’d need to keep at least half of the rest for myself. So maybe I’d save $2000 for myself so I could have it just in case of a rainy day.
But after I spent the $6000 I’d be pretty cautious with the remaining $2000 for personal use. Maybe $1000 of the $4000 left over would go to C4SS, the rest would go to various health related issues or medical things I’d like to do for myself as a gender non-conforming person (i.e. electrolysis).
The point being that I probably wouldn’t end up on a drug-induced stupor and lay on the sidewalk. Why? Well, it’s not because I’m magically better than most people. It’s probably for a handful of different reasons but here are some of the big ones that come to my mind first and foremost:
- I’ve been poor my whole life
- Material wealth isn’t important to me
- I’m used to making decisions that affect me directly
So, as far as number one…surprise?
I’ve been poor my whole life and never particularly prosperous in what I own or what I aim towards owning. I don’t consider any of these things morally relevant, but I think they’re things that influence my abilities to deal with wealth. It’s true I’ve used foods tamps (when I have them) many times to have snacks or unhealthy foods. I’m totally willing to cop to the stereotype that, as a poor person,I have sometimes used foodstamps for unhealthy foods.
But so what? It’s my body and the state is going to steal the money from folks anyways. I get tons of pleasure from eating bad food every once in a while. And more often I get food that I need. But when I worked at a convenience store I often got the sweets since I was working and didn’t have time for much else. So in that sense, maybe the conservative case against food stamps as encouraging unhealthy eating is also a case against work? Something to ponder.
Other times when I went shopping I’d often get what I really needed and tried to only get minimal sweets. A few items here or there. No matter what I did in these situations though I bore the costs of my actions. This was important money for myself and I could let it slide a little into unhealthy foods but overall I still needed the essentials. I took care of myself while still indulging and keeping in mind that these were costs that no one else could subsidize.
Of course, the money itself is subsidized via people’s tax money and I wouldn’t deny that. But there’s no barrier past that for me as a poor person. And I would rather use someone else’s unjustly stolen money than starve or suffer undue hardship in an unjust system under some silly sense of “moral purity” or “consistency”.
I’ve said this for a while, but if your movement is going to tell me that its ideas are more important than my health?
Than fuck your movement.
This is all a round-about way of looking at an article that Coders Against The Drug War sent me a month ago.
The article is entitled Free Money by Sarah Perry and featured on a blog called Ribbon Farm. Ribbon Farm is a a “longform blog” started by the Venkatesh Rao, the same guy who wrote Breaking Smart (which I looked at here).
Contrary to the title, let’s start with some positive comments.
I appreciate that Perry blows away some myths throughout her article. Arguments like, “but people will stop working if they get free money!” hasn’t been shown true in various studies she cites throughout her article. According to Perry and her studies (which, for sake of argument I’m taking for granted) people tend to reduce their work hours sometimes but usually they don’t change much at all. They keep doing what they’ve been doing, maybe a little better, maybe more efficiently and maybe they switch jobs for a more salaried one. But overall people don’t become video game addicts.
I also like that Perry critiques the work ethic, though I find her appraisal of its effects on the economy off-base. Still, it’s always nice to see a general critique (even if it’s admittedly mild) of the work ethic. The idea that work is in of itself valuable and a good thing is something that Perry suggests as largely disappeared from discourse. I wish I had her optimism on such matters, I tend to be more of an cynical optimist or something.
Lastly, Perry’s points on procrastination and laziness via a paper by Seth Robers are well-taken.
At one point Perry quotes Robers as saying
the tools, knowledge, and networks that made work more productive also made free time more productive – and free time is an especially fertile source of innovation. I have never come across an economist who considered free time productive. But this theory says that hobbies — and the innovations they produced – were in a sense the beginning of where we are now. In the beginning, all innovations came from free time. It is entirely possible that people are more innovative during their free time than during their job. People have more freedom during their free time. They are under less pressure to produce fast results. They are under less pressure to please others. It is entirely possible that the most important innovations in the next fifty years will come from what people do in their free time. (emphasis Perry’s)
But okay, those are my nice words to say about Perry. It’s pretty clear that, overall, they aren’t taking a very radical stance on these sorts of things. And as an anarchist taking radical actions against work is what really matters to me. I don’t mean “radical” as some cute little word either. I mean getting down to the roots of what makes work operate as it does today. I mean to say that if we are really to improve people’s lives we’re going to wan to challenge capitalism and the state, the systems of power that I feel reinforce the evils of work the most.
To the end of improving society Perry is advocating for a universal basic income (which I have mixed feelings on) and part of her argument is to try and get across that people wouldn’t necessarily work less, quit their jobs ,destabilize the economy or generally affect it in some significant way if enacted. But ironically these are all problems I have with the UBI.
I’ll start with her definition:
- It is universal – everyone in a particular political jurisdiction receives it.
- It may be (partly) need-based in its initial award, but in its purest form it is universal in the sense that it goes to everybody. In this form, it is sometimes criticized as “welfare for the rich.”
- Even if it is need-based in the initial award, it is not reduced by increased income after the initial award (often distinguished from a basic income guarantee). In other words, it has a low or zero “take-back rate” or marginal tax rate.
- It lasts for the foreseeable future of the entity providing it (“for life”).
I will accept her definition for sake of argument and also accept that all of the studies that she cite are true and accurate. Most of those studies, by the way, are small case studies based on things sorta like the UBI which, as an anarchist, I sympathize with. I have to do that with arguments for an anarchist society sometimes, so my sympathies to Perry.
But still, these limitations in the studies should be taken into account. I’m sure the fact that a negative income-tax did well in the 1970s (in the US and Canada) sounds promising to some UBI proponents. But the difference in times, governmental structures, technologies, landscape of ideas and culture and lack reproduction of the results all affect my pronounced skepticism. Particularly within the realm of the UBI actually doing much of substance in practice.
Regardless, I always like it when folks use studies and try to base their claims in some empirical research, however limited it may be in practice. To that end, Perry uses a PROGRESA study in Mexico of free money, Belgian lottery winners and negative income-tax systems in Canada and the US in the 70s as I mentioned before.
The results alongside the prediction that “people will work less”?
A study found no significant effect of cash transfers on adult workforce participation, and in the small Belgian study hardly anyone quit their job, and very few reduced the amount that they worked.
As predicted, there was some reduction in labor force participation. People didn’t tend to leave the workforce altogether; they spent more time between jobs or worked fewer hours. Male heads of household reduced their work the least (Widerquist reports between 0% and 9%, depending on the source and the data); single mothers reduced their work a bit more; and married women and teenagers living with their parents reduced their work the most, presumably having equally socially important things to do, such as care for families or study.
Taken together, the studies suggest that a basic income program with no reduction in benefits for money earned will have very little effect on labor force participation. What effect it does have, such as allowing one partner in a two-earner household to work less, is likely socially beneficial.
The main outcome reported by the Belgian lottery winners was that they felt more secure about the future. Of course this is not replicable in a five-year study.
The problem here is that if people are working in jobs they dislike then according to these studies it’s unclear to me that their time there will be reduced. There’s no word on whether the labor force participation shifts to jobs that individuals actually want more than their current job. There’s also nothing here that says that the UBI substantially challenges the state or capitalism. So for me, I just don’t see the appeal in a UBI in terms of effectively challenging work.
Feeling more secure about the future is a great and laudable result, for sure. No qualms there! …But did it actually end up playing out like after the study was concluded? Were there any follow-up studies on these individuals? This isn’t a game of “gotcha” for UBI folks. It’s a real question and one that I think should be taken into account before we get too far ahead of ourselves. The fact that it made people feel better is nice and the fact that other programs helped out married women, teenagers and others who had less to do in the workforce is great. But did these things persist?
I’m happy for people to work less but that’s not, in the end, what I’m after. I would prefer if people didn’t work under state-capitalism at all and only marginally getting us there in some limited aspects doesn’t cut it for my margin of making the UBI worth struggling for. And of course, it would be a struggle in a political landscape that apparently can get Donald Trump as a presidential candidate.
I just don’t feel like anything meaningful is being progressed towards in the long-run. It just seems like we’re marginally improving folks lives and then leaving the rest for state-capitalism to handle. Which, doesn’t tend to end well.
Perry’s second prediction that people won’t become entrepreneurs is also distressing:
In the PROGRESA study, adults tended to try to shift their work from poorer-paying home-based work toward salaried work. Zero winners of the Belgian lottery became self-employed. Entrepreneurship is a risky and self-selected endeavor.
So if people aren’t going to change their jobs much except move to more intensive ones, if they’re not going to work for themselves and they’re going to continue to work under bosses…what exactly has been changed? Structurally, I mean, it just seems people have had a few things taken off their back. But why would this last? Wouldn’t capitalism correct itself?
If a UBI isn’t helping create alternatives for individuals then what’s the point? Just to have a little bit more money on the side while still working at jobs you may not like, for companies you aren’t invested (literally or figuratively) in, in an economy that has largely stagnated your wages for decades now? That doesn’t seem appealing to me.
When I look at work as an economic activity, I see subjugation of workers under bosses and the oppression that follows from being under their finger tips. Constantly having to depend on the permission of the bosses to make the most basic decisions. Can they go to the bathroom? Can they just give the guy 10% off and not make such a big deal for everyone involved? Can that homeless guy stay in here for a few more minutes instead of freezing in the snow?
I also see the deprivation of people’s time, energy and lives. People are sticking around in places they feel low-investment in with folks they likely don’t enjoy in fields of work that have become barren of fun for them. And why wouldn’t they? When you’re forced to do it for over 40 hours in a given week how in the world could something still be fun?
These are all dramatic things that need dramatic actions and a radical strike at what makes work tick. Trying to eradicate the very much real work ethic that’s still in play (even if people aren’t as loud or obvious as they used to be about it) is going to take a lot more than giving people a few hundred bucks in their pockets.
Finally, I’ll move on to a discussion of Perry’s ideas of the work ethic:
Ancients would have laughed at the notion that work is ennobling, says Baumeister; they had no such illusions. Work was to be avoided if possible. The work ethic was invented during industrialization, when religious justifications for social structures and work were fading. If work were valuable in and of itself, then people could always be motivated to work hard.
The new work ethic ultimately failed. It proposed that work was at once an act of self-fulfillment and an act of self-denial; but how could this be? It promised value based on individual self-determination, but in practice delivered work in corporations and bureaucracies. Social mobility proved to be limited. Working less and consuming more proved to be more attractive than working for work’s sake. The motivation of individual self-esteem and prestige through a career proved more sturdy than the motivation of the work ethic.
What I don’t understand is that if it failed and we’re in all of these restrictive contexts (corporations, bureaucracies and low social mobility) then why would a UBI be desirable? I mean, if things don’t actually affect the job market in any substantial way then what’s the point? More to the point in what way did the “new work ethic” fail? It’s caused many people across many cultures to suffer. The Japanese still seem to be involving themselves in this ethic when they kill themselves over their lack of commitment to work.
Many people still seem to have an internalized sense of work similar to this. Many politicians and people in the news are lauding the prospect of “jobs” and saying how much hard work is to be valued in the pursuit of some fanciful American Dream.
Is the ethic “dead” in that it didn’t accomplish what it wanted?
Here too, I’m not so sure. It seems like the intention behind these sorts of ethics is to get social mobility limited and confine people to corporations and faceless bureaucracies.
I mean, if you ask me the work ethic was wildly successful.
The work ethic is still called upon by those who work in order to feel superior to those who don’t – and feeling comparatively more valuable than others is an important basis for a sense of meaning in life. But the work ethic was never very real, and has ceased to be much of a motivation.
We probably do not need to worry about universal basic income “eroding” it. Researchers should measure loneliness and depression, social participation, and the sense of meaning and happiness, not just workforce participation, in the study and control groups.
I don’t know what “never very real” means. But I’m sure the individuals who decided to sacrifice their families, time spent with friends and enjoyable activities, might have a few words to say about it not being “real”. Was it “not real” in the sense that it’s a false idea that we should take meaning out of work in of itself? Sure, that’s agreeable.
If I’m not being clear though the real problem is that Perry isn’t clear in what way the work ethic was “false”. As a result, it’s hard to get at whether I disagree or agree. And just to be clear, I read and read this section more than a few times.
What good is work? The more it is not necessary to the economy, the more value it must provide to the individual worker. Work provides a sense of being valuable and not a burden, and gives people opportunities for social interaction and daily ritual. If they can find other ways to provide for these needs, then perhaps work is not so necessary.
People are mostly not very creative. We will not each come up with a new, fulfilling way to live life without work. Rather, a few innovators will come up with new ways of life, which will spread. In this way, rare human creativity and the more universal ritual stance (doing the same thing over and over) could interact to usher in whole new ways of peopling.
The first part is one of the better passages in this piece but the second falls flat for me.
People aren’t creative? Based on what? The studies you’re suggesting have nothing to do with claims about whether people are creative or not. So where exactly is the evidence coming in for claims like this?
On the other hand, let’s presume Perry is right. Well in that case maybe the lack of social mobility and being confined into corporations makes people less creative. That seems like something that’s pretty plausible to me and falls within her own logic. But in the meantime, according to Perry, us non-creative people should be…what? Dependent on the few creative people who do the work for us? That sounds like a good elitist argument for government but not one I find particularly appealing or convincing. And if that isn’t the conclusion of her argument then I’m unsure what is.
And I guess that’s my main takeaway from this article: Okay, but so what?
To the radical, the UBI seems like a dead end.
And hell, to the reformer it may as well be too.
If you enjoyed this article you can contribute to my own personal UBI…which I guess defeats the point.
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