Everyone an Entrepreneur, No One With a UBI

Michael Slaby

I haven’t talked Universal Basic Income in awhile so I figured it was time to get on my soapbox about this issue. Michael Slaby has an interesting and thought provoking video on entrepreneurs, the UBI and the 30 hour work week that I’ll use as a template for discussing that issue, among others.

Slaby starts by saying:

Look, I think change is scary. I think there is no way around that.

I think what is familiar is easier for people, and not everybody wants disruption and innovation and entrepreneurship; not everybody wants to have seven jobs. That sounds terrible to a lot of people.

I agree with this but disagree with where Slay goes in his conclusion. Being an entrepreneur doesn’t require you to have seven different jobs concurrently. Sometimes being an entrepreneur means owning your own business or opening a side venture. Maybe it means having your own blog where you get paid a small amount of money but it’s good enough.

Whatever the case, Slaby is correct that change is difficult and some folks aren’t interested. But I don’t see this as a compelling reason for much of anything. Many people might be disinterested in global warming being a real event but that hasn’t stopped the hurricanes from forming in the Gulf Coast and elsewhere. It hasn’t stopped many countries suffering enormous heat waves and it hasn’t stopped unnatural weather all across the United States these past few years.

My point being: Change is inevitable, and we shouldn’t stop it just because it can sometimes be scary. On the other hand, I don’t think Slaby necessarily wants change to stop in general but perhaps along certain lines. Maybe he thinks that some people are fine working 9-5 under a boss and other people can be self-creators.

That does appear to be what he believes given that he says:

I think many people are willing to be entrepreneurs given no other option, but a lot of those people would rather just have a job. Like not everybody is a founder. That’s okay, this is not some failure. Founders are sort of unique animals in sort of our social ecosystem.

But the trick then is to change the social ecosystem. If we want people to be more independent and invest themselves in projects that are more likely to enrich their lives personally and financially, collective and personal entrepreneurship is a must. In this economy it’s understandable why people would prefer to not go that route given all of the hurdles you have to climb and the culture around work, but that doesn’t make it a bad idea, we just need to challenge those obstacles.

Contra Slaby, I do actually think it’s a failure of a given social ecosystem if it’s producing many more people who aren’t self-reliant than those who are. Which isn’t to bash people who do 9-5 (I’m in that field) or to make entrepreneurs sound like perfect people because they’re definitely not. But I would rather have an economy where many more people are working on their own personal and collectively important projects than the projects of other people, like bosses.

On the other hand, Slaby does say:

I think the reality is we have to get better at teaching flexibility. We have to teach critical thinking and adaptability to students as part of how we’re preparing people for the future. We also have to be willing—this is where leadership matters a lot—willing to be more ambitious for ourselves. We tend to think about progress in generational terms, “I want my kids to be better off than I am.”

Well, why wait for your kids?

Like if it’s easier and more effective to make something somewhere else we can take on a bigger problem.

That last part is a really important one. This talk about making lives better for your children has always bothered me but I’ve never thought about it very intentionally before. The way that these sorts of sentiments (intentionally or not) push aside the notion of progress and place it after death is a pretty depressing idea, isn’t it? We shouldn’t just wait for our problems to be fixed just in time for new people to be born, instead of making things better now.

And it may be the case that we’re moving into this sort of post-industrial economy, we’re sort of in this complicated shift and industrial jobs are moving and changing.

Value is no longer linearly correlated with work. So in a typical industrial system, if I work more hours I create more value in a relatively linear equation, which is why an hourly wage makes sense.

But in a world where one more hour of work might create 10X more value, but in the world we’re currently in all of that value goes to an investor and none of it goes to me as the worker, hourly wages make no sense.

This is exactly why we should be changing the culture around work. Slaby at least slightly agrees mentioning the idea of a 30 hour work week as the new normal, but that’s not enough. That won’t change the money that gets into the hands of bosses, investors, stock brokers, the government and whomever else our wages get diminished because of.

It won’t change the regulatory system which punishes people for trying to strike out on their own. A system largely designed by big business so that it can easily out-compete the entrepreneurs and smaller businesses.

In any case, I agree with Slaby that this sort of scheme means an hour wage makes little sense. When your wages are constantly getting diminished by external forces, it’s hard to stay happy and encouraged at you’re job. It’s especially hard when (being a lowly employee) you don’t have a lot of control over how the business operates to begin with.

Let’s move on to discussing the UBI:

Look, I think that this concept of shared success and collective progress leads us toward a conversation that invites the question of universal basic income. I think it’s a really interesting idea.

I’m not an expert in it and I’m not convinced that it’s the only answer. I think things like requiring companies to do things like profit-sharing is part of the same conversation that ultimately what universal basic income is about; is that we are collectively creating value and we should collectively share in that value.

I believe in that 100 percent.

I think that we live in a community where accepting the suffering of any of us makes all of us poorer and makes all of us less well-off. And accepting that that is like the default part of the gradient should be unacceptable to us.

Although I appreciate Slaby’s skepticism of the UBI (and we’ll see more further down) I don’t think his solutions are much better. For example, which companies should be forced (“required”) to engage in a particular model of profit-sharing? Only big companies? All companies? Only certain industries? How much money should they invest in these programs?

Who should head some sort of committee so this is “properly regulated” and how would it be ensured that such a committee wasn’t simply taken over by vested businesses interests? What would prevent regulatory capture?

I also believe in collectively sharing (voluntarily) in the value that we all create. But it has to happen in ways that are actually realistic and make some sort of sense. There’s no way to guarantee profit-sharing and some companies likely wouldn’t be able to even afford investing in that kind of idea.

Is the answer a check from our government that creates a minimum layer? Maybe. That may be exactly the kind of public good that the government should create. The question is: who gets it, and how, and when, and what are the cutoffs?

Which is not to say it’s a bad idea, I just think it’s a lot more complicated at the point of implementation than most people talk about, of who qualifies? What if I make enough money?

I mean this is a similar conversation to welfare, who qualifies, at what point am I making enough money that I don’t qualify for that, and does that create a valley or a cliff in my economic well-being and progress that creates problems for people—that people get stuck in this valley, which is very true with especially welfare where you must be working to get to benefit from welfare.

Slaby makes some great points here.

However, one of the commenters on Youtube said, “What part of universal does he not understand?” but I’m not convinced Slaby doesn’t understand that. He may understand the intention of the UBI but he might also not see it as practical without having some cutoffs.

And in any case it’s never truly universal. What about international citizens? What about illegal immigrants? Children? What about discussions regarding animals and personhood? What about criminals? What about the obscenely wealthy?

There are all sorts of classes of people in which it isn’t clear how the UBI (or even if) would apply.

I also think Slaby is correct in another point: That the conversation about UBI mirrors the already-existing conversation about welfare in some troublesome ways. Arguably, the UBI makes those troublesome conversations slightly healthier and perhaps towards greener pastures, but I’m unsure of even that.

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