The UBI and its “Hold my Beer” Moment

Simpsons did it!

Perhaps you’re unaware but there’s a meme going around these days to tune of:

  • X does something stupid
  • Y mocks X for doing stupid thing and implies they can do better
  • To do this, they say, “Hold my beer” implying the act will be filled with even less rationality than the previous act

I believe that, with all due respect, Samuel Hammond’s pro-work argument for a Universal Basic Income is a prime example of this meme. The UBI is already a heavily flawed idea that I’ve criticized from time to time on this site. But usually the arguments I’ve seen for the UBI is it would free us from work and give us more time for our individual pursuits. This is a classic case of sympathetic reasoning for (relatively) unsympathetic ends.

But at least in those situations the people making the arguments have some solid intentions. They accept the UBI may disfavor certain modes of work but it’ll also likely keep people motivated to do things to replace their former income with new sources of income that they’re more likely to enjoy. Perhaps artistic pursuits or something deeply personal (i.e. a low-level dream they’ve always had) or maybe they can better afford to take care of their children, family or neighborhood in more tangible ways, who knows?

The point is that (at least according to the few studies I’ve read on the UBI by doing my articles) it likely wouldn’t cause much of an effect on how folks actually spend their time. They may spend a little less time at the job or they may reinvest it into a job they’ve been wanting but, for whatever reason, couldn’t get. Maybe they needed more consistent money to seed so they could start up this new project.

Regardless, it is unlikely anything like $1000 a month (for sake of example) would cause a dramatic shift in people’s behavior towards work. Most of it would go towards paying mortgages, rent, food, clothing, things related to their families or children, upkeep for their homes, insurance fees and I could keep going (adulting is hard!).

So, to be clear, my claim isn’t that Hammond is necessarily wrong that the UBI isn’t a threat to work, he’s actually right. But, from my perspective, this is actually a bad thing and not a good thing. It’s funny to think about, but from my perspective, Hammond is touting what I think is the worst quality of the UBI (its lack of radical threat to the status quo) and suggesting that this is at least part of why we (or at least conservatives) should support it.

There’s another problem in all of these debates and I know I’ve gone on and on about it but: No one is defining what work is. Apart from some sort of oblique reference to “jobs” and equating it to work, I don’t really understand what a pro-work argument actually entails arguing for. I suppose Hammond is just generally suggesting that people would more or less…keep doing what they’re doing? Except with more money!

On another note, Hammond is, in part at least, responding to a writer at Business Insider named Josh Barro who (ironically) is making the worst case against the UBI: It would increase our resentment towards work so we shouldn’t try it. But again, this is actually perhaps the best thing about the UBI (its supposed capacity to undermine the centering of work in society) and Barro is lamenting it.

I know I’m not making arguments one way or the other (then again I don’t have much of a stake in this particular debate) against Barro or Hammond but part of what I’m doing is denoting how absurd both sides of this debate are. Or, at least that’s my own perspective on this. On one side we have people touting the worst aspects of X as its best quality and on the other we have people naysaying the best parts and saying they’re terrible!

It’s hard not to feel like an Anthropologist on Mars sometimes, I tell you.

Interestingly Barro uses some points I’d use against Hammond:

Over the past four decades, work has become less effective as a way to provide income, because wage growth has lagged behind economic growth and wages themselves have become more unequal across the skills spectrum.

Workforce participation has also declined, meaning that even as work is getting less fulfilling for those who do work, a growing share of adults does not work or try to work.

Our society is increasingly destabilized. Trust in institutions is low, and participation in institutions is declining. People are less likely to attend church. They are less likely to be members of unions. Their families are smaller. They change jobs more often.

Barros isn’t really wrong about any of these points! It’s just that…well…this doesn’t mean that we should try to reinvest in any of these particular institutions. It doesn’t mean much because it is working with the presumption that “Our society” and the way its structured is just and fair, but as Hammond and I agree, it isn’t.

But Hammond’s solution to that, by his own admission no less, wouldn’t actually change people much in terms of their daily habits or investments. It wouldn’t radically change people’s focuses on their jobs or what they’re doing in their lives. And if that’s the case (and I agree with Hammond that it is) then I don’t see what the UBI is offering if Barros is right (and I think he is, but for differing conclusions in mind, obviously).

Reducing faith in society, in the nuclear family, in having careers, in valuing work over our own dignity (has anyone met many people who have dignity while working? I haven’t met many), none of these things are inherently bad. It’s only bad if we presume that all of these things are inherently good and necessary, but I don’t see that being argued for anywhere.

Now, of course, that’s because people take it as a given that our society is just (certainly many folks from Business Insider would at any rate) but some solutions, while not being worse than the disease also aren’t as good as its proponents think. Though, heck, if it’s any consolation I agree with Hammond that the UBI is likely a much better solution relative to sticking with what we have…but the problem is, that isn’t saying much.

There’s a cute (I don’t know what else to call it) little section at the end from Hammond that I thought was pretty funny (though not intentionally so):

A wise tweeter once said it’s dangerous to make bad arguments for a good idea. In the case of UBI, the worst argument of all is the notion that it can spare us from the drudgery of work, and usher in an era of post-scarcity. Fortunately, only a fringe element of UBI supporters actually suggest using it in this way. Much more common is the idea that Artificial Intelligence and automation are about to eliminate most forms of work anyway, leaving UBI as an insurance policy of last resort.

This futurist focus has unfortunately given UBI an anti-work association, making it the perfect foil for champions of a culture of work to signal their virtuosity. But in lieu of the technological singularity, a UBI is still far and away a superior way of arranging the social safety-net compared to the status quo. UBI’s critics should stop attacking what they think UBI represents and instead begin to grapple with its substance.

Just so it’s clear, I don’t (and am not about to) make the argument that the UBI would usher in post-scarcity. That’d be ridiculous seeing how there’s not even enough information to say it’d even notably change the current routines at work. I think, at this point, that Hammond and the other folks I’ve read have pretty well convinced me what I already thought: The UBI isn’t any real threat to the status quo.

On the other hand, I’m not really convinced that the post-scarcity argument is the worst argument. To be fair, that’s likely my biases coming into play because I appreciate the reasoning and logic behind it, even if the reasoning is unsound and its leading to a conclusion I disagree with.

No, what seems like the worst argument is what Hammond is doing. He’s playing into the hands of conservatives and saying, “No, no! It’s totally fine, you can still have your oppressive system and basically nothing will change on the margins for people who have lost faith in your shitty system!”

So, maybe they’re on the fringe and not “popular”.

But hey, at least their argument sounds attractive.

Want to make your individual “UBI” donation?

Check out my Patreon where even as much as $5 a month would really help me out.


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