A Game of Privilege


Note: In the time since I wrote this post, my opinions about taxation have changed. I no longer view taxation as a way to fund government spending. Instead, I see it as a tool to remove excess money from the economy. In my — admittedly controversial — opinion, government spending need not balance with tax revenues.

We can pay for a basic income through deficit spending or some other form of money creation.

Our society holds the rich and the poor to different standards. We expect the poor to earn a living. We expect them to work hard and to contribute to society in some measurable way. We consider long-term unemployment among the poor to be a condition that primarily afflicts the lazy. The poor aren't free to abstain from work as the rich are. We indoctrinate poor people with the idea that their hard work will one day be rewarded.

This work ethic is so pervasive that even self-identified champions of the poor often fight for jobs, job training, and labor rights. They believe that employment is the way out of poverty. The idea that some people are being kept from the American dream seems like an injustice. But what if it's not? What if the American dream is broken and we're causing damage by fighting for it? What if the American dream has been teaching the poor to resent themselves and each other for being unemployed?

The job market is an interesting game. Among those competing for jobs, some have more privilege than others. We live in a racist, sexist, classist, homophobic society and people will always have biases of one sort or another. Does it make sense to subject our least privileged citizens to a system in which those biases can stand as an obstacle to living a happy healthy life?

In my first post, I asked the following question:

As automation progresses, is it reasonable for us to continue to expect jobs to provide for people's basic needs and beyond?

Using data compiled by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a November 2013 article in The Economist examines the decades-long decrease in labor's worldwide share of total income. Essentially, we're producing more stuff using less work.

That sort of decline is not supposed to happen.
— "Labour pains: All around the world, labour is losing out to capital"
The Economist 2 Nov. 2013

In February, I discussed how the internet is giving learners everywhere access to better educational resources. In doing so, it's making many teachers redundant. And last month, I explored the extinction of intellectual property along with the jobs that depend on it.

Technology's impact on the labor market doesn't end there. IBM's Watson will one day make memorizing medical information obsolete just as GPS has done for driving directions. Driverless vehicles will utterly transform transportation-based industries. And don't think for a second that Walmart will hesitate to replace their employees when automation becomes cheaper than labor. No routine task is immune to automation. And that's a good thing.

A declining labor share isn't what economists thought was supposed to happen, but isn't it what we should want to happen? The more wealth we can generate and the less human labor it requires, the better. We want people to be as rich and as free as possible.

It is no longer reasonable to expect people to be supported by jobs. Sadly, while the days of relying on a living wage are behind us, the days of expecting people to earn a living are not. And by forcing poor people to get jobs, we're forcing them to play a game they're less and less likely to win. In the long run, the job market becomes a losing proposition for most workers regardless of privilege.

Capitalism is a wonderful wealth-generating machine, but it's terrible at distributing that wealth. Our society is richer than ever before, but our wealth is becoming more concentrated as we rely less on human labor. We know our economy can afford to provide for everyone because, when we were far less rich, we supported people through wages. But, with wage labor no longer up to the task, how do we properly distribute our wealth today?

Well, there's a solution that's been gaining popularity in the past few years and it's so obvious you just might miss it: basic income. Basic income is the idea that the government gives everyone free money no questions asked. A basic income would afford people the freedom not to look for work. They could still work if they wanted to, but working would become optional meaning that some employers might have to increase wages to keep their employees.

I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached.
— Bertrand Russell In Praise of Idleness 1932

Paying for a basic income might be tricky. It will likely involve a combination of raising taxes and shutting down some of the bulky inefficient social programs we're supporting today. But we can start small. Every little bit helps. If we implement basic income incrementally, we'll have no need for a violent revolution or any other craziness.

As long as we continue to think of work as a necessity and as long as we consider employment to be a human right, any unfairness in the labor market will only be exacerbated as jobs disappear. As people become more desperate, it might even seem as though we're losing some of the progress we made during the civil rights movement. And maybe we are. But a basic income can help repair that damage and facilitate a freer and more open society.

Many of humanity's greatest achievements have been borne of effort that nobody ever would have thought to pay for. Imagine the potential for innovation we would unlock by allowing people to spend their time how they choose.