Essay — The Future of Human Value
Text & Photographs By Stefano Cagnato
Andrew Yang, a forty-three-year-old New York native, has been thinking about a way to fix the American economy, individual productivity and happiness, and the well-being of the world, for quite some time. After founding Venture for America, a non-profit that trains young professionals to enter the workforce, he realized there was one solution: Universal Basic Income, or UBI. But, changing the way we view the government and its role in funding our private lives would require a lot of political wrestling. In order to further promote his goals, he decided on a surprising strategy: to run for president of the United States.
Yang’s campaign promise for 2020 is unusual: he offers all U.S. citizens between the ages of 18-64 a check for $1000 every month, no questions asked. Of course, there is more to this monthly check than just “free money.” It is a step toward the vision Yang has for the future of the world—a future in which robots do the unwanted jobs and humans have the time and resources to pursue worthwhile and fulfilling lives. However, UBI is not a final solution. It is a step toward the right direction, a step toward undoing a lot of the inequality our current economic system has created. In order to create a better tomorrow, a strong cultural shift must occur for us to truly begin to value human lives in humane ways.
The idea of a guaranteed income goes back a few hundred years. While it took different forms, the idea that the state should exercise compassion toward its citizens can be traced back to Johannes Ludovicus Vives, a Valencian humanist writing in the first half of the 1500s. Later, Thomas Paine proposed a “ground-rent” that would be used to pay every person until the age of fifty. Bertrand Russell, at the beginning of the 20th century, proposed “that a certain small income, sufficient for necessaries, should be secured to all, whether they work or not, and that a larger income...should be given to those who are willing to engage in some work which the community recognizes as useful.” The end goal of a guaranteed income is and has always been the improvement of society at large.
In the late 60s and early 70s, UBI-type ideas were a vibrant topic of political discussion in the United States. Thousands of American economists supported a 1968 petition to Congress arguing for some guaranteed income. A year later, Nixon himself as president publicly presented the Family Assistance Plan (FAP) to support low-income families with a guaranteed income. FAP made it through the House of Representatives but failed to go through the Senate, and after Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, the topic fell to the back of the list and stayed there. Since then, efforts to establish a UBI moved to Europe, where governments have slowly been introducing the concept and studying its effects. In 2017, Finland “began paying a random but mandatory sample of 2,000 unemployed people aged 25 to 58 a monthly €560,” according to The Guardian. However, to this day we do not have a study of UBI large enough to proclaim with extreme confidence its benefits to society.
So, why, in 2020, give every American a check without requiring anything in return? We are utterly unprepared for the toll automation is already taking on our job market. In the next twelve years, a third of all Americans will lose their jobs to automation. That is a dark future to accept, but we have two options: do what current politicians are doing, which is nothing, or accept the reality of the current conditions of the first world and choose a solution to tackle the problem. UBI is one such solution, and Yang believes it “would provide money to cover the basics for Americans while enabling us to look for a better job, start our own business, go back to school, take care of our loved ones or work towards our next opportunity.” As machines take over the lower-skilled routine jobs currently performed by humans, we will have to discover other ways for people to obtain the funds to pay for necessary goods and services like food and rent.
Take the most popular example posed when discussing UBI. Truck drivers, of which there are 3.5 million, most of whom are men, are facing the pressure of the success of self-driving trucks. Or we can look at Amazon Go, a brick-and-mortar store in Seattle that does away with the checkout process through cameras that scan the products as you pick them off the shelves. By doing so, they are getting rid of cashiers, who currently hold more than 3.5 million jobs in the US. Even bank tellers are feeling the pressure of losing their jobs thanks to online banking. The blow of automation will mostly affect countries whose economies depend on low-cost production. Foreign Policy reports that “56 percent of salaried workers in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam — are at high risk of being replaced by machines.” We must accept that it is not a matter of if automation will replace jobs, but rather when.
In an effort to help those who are or will be unemployed, some have proposed retraining programs. However, studies show a majority of those who go through retraining either stay unemployed or do not stay in jobs for which they were trained. They also do not make as much money in their new jobs, making this solution seem unfair. In fact, the entire premise of retraining is flawed when we consider that the titans of the new economy aren’t job creators. Forty years ago, there was a correlation between the amount of customers and the amount of employees a company had. The new business model relies on algorithms being able to service many new customers online, doing away with many of the job-creating elements of late 20th-century capitalism. To put it in perspective: in 1979, General Motors had over 850 thousand employees worldwide, according to Foreign Policy. Today, Alphabet (Google’s parent corporation) “is the third-largest company in the world by market capitalization but has only about 75,000 employees.” Furthermore, this is a problem because the jobs that these new companies do create (and that will not be overtaken by automation) “require more education and skills than those that will be lost.” UBI takes care of a lot of these problems. With an extra check each month, those who lost their jobs to automation can subsidize their income while they choose which path to take.
The benefits of UBI are extensive. First and foremost, giving people more economic security has been shown to improve physical and mental health while simultaneously reducing violence and domestic abuse. Studies have shown that poverty impedes cognitive function, in some cases by 13 IQ points; UBI would help those in dire straits from perpetuating poverty cycles. In terms of labor, UBI would give workers more bargaining power and encourage entrepreneurship. Workers would be much less likely to perform jobs that are not a good fit, leaving more time spent in creative endeavors and the formation of social institutions or organizations that aid local and global communities. And, perhaps most importantly, workers would not be encouraged to stop working. Many of us gain meaning, status, skills, networks and friendships through work, and this will likely not change anytime soon. $12,000 a year is not enough to live on, and seeking an additional source of income will likely be necessary. UBI only makes it much easier to find a job that provides more of a sense of purpose rather than just the bare minimum to pay the bills. So far, UBI sounds like it could solve many of our current problems. But, as you might imagine, not everyone is on board.
Negative perceptions of UBI stem from perceived biases about the working class that are, in turn, reinforced by the media. In 2011, Fox News famously ran a news segment where they claimed 99.6% of “poor” households have a refrigerator, implying you cannot be poor if you have a refrigerator, and that this kind of item provides some sort of luxurious lifestyle. On the contrary, due to automation and moving jobs overseas, consumer materials such as refrigerators and microwaves have become much more affordable, while essential services such as rent and insurance have increased immensely. The Wall Street Journal reports rent has increased 18% over the last five years. So, whether we talk about refrigerators, or shift the focus of the conversation to discuss cell phones and TVs, we are using the wrong barometer to measure the conditions of life for poor people in America.
Imagine for a moment that you believe this premise—that poor people don’t have refrigerators; that poor people spend most of their money on drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes (“temptation goods”); that poor people rely on the welfare state to subsidize their lack of employment. If this is part of your mindset, how can the idea of giving everyone $1000 a month even be considered? Yang is quite aware of these preconceptions; he has a short FAQ section in his website dedicated to answering some of the most common questions about UBI and its implementation in our current economic system. A recent study published in Economic Development and Cultural Change found that cash transfer programs can actually reduce the amount of spending on temptation goods.
But, putting aside preconceived notions of poor people, is UBI really a facet of what we would consider part of the better future that was promised by the information age? What this comes down to is our perception of the future, which is mostly based on how the media portrays what the future has in store. Jerry L. Salvaggio argues that the media portrays new technology in ways that benefit those same corporations with the ultimate goal of “fostering a technological ideology.” It is not a coincidence that CNBC and Huffington Post write headlines that promote the view of UBI as a “cash handout” and “free money”. This is important because these are the venues through which the public learns about innovations, whether they are technological or social. The ways in which UBI is presented in the media affects its public perception, and ultimately, its ability to become social policy and its ensuing efficacy. Robert Jacobson tells us promises of the future can be used as propaganda—“it is necessary to ensure that the discourse about the future is not controlled by corporate interests whose main goals are efficiency, control, and profitability.” By controlling the narrative, the media ultimately controls social growth.
Ideologies aren’t created in a lab; they form organically through the interactions between people and social institutions. Automation and further advancements in technology will not magically create a better society. As T. R. Young wrote, “Any knowledge process mediated by an existing social structure will tend to reproduce that structure.” New technologies are created to reinforce current ideologies. Danish professor Lars Qvortrup tells us “technology is a tool that functions in accordance with the social system to which it belongs.” In essence, capitalism will create technologies that produce the same elements of the system, one of which is inequality. It is clear that capitalism exacerbates inequality. Hegel argued that capitalism was not a society of equal citizens, but rather a society of social inequalities.
Qvortrup understands the current state of affairs through a Hegelian lens, writing that “the scenarios of the information society are not consciously produced to belie or escape from capitalism. Rather, these scenarios must be understood as expressions of the very hopes and dreams that our capitalist society produces.” He concludes that “information technology is a means to secure capitalism’s continued existence rather than create a new society.” In the information sector, Fred Fejes argues, “capitalism will flourish, and the tensions, conflicts, and inequalities inherent in a capitalist society will be intensified.” It is clear that, within our current system, elements of inequality will pervade society. However, there are avenues through which a capitalist society can improve for the better.
Though capitalism aggravates inequality, according to Qvortrup, it also “produces dreams of decentralization and increased life quality.” The question then becomes how to establish these values in concrete forms. Decentralization calls for a type of direct democracy, a system in which the individual has a direct vote on policies. The advent of technology will create what Qvortrup refers to as “instant democracy,” and in a world where we all hold smartphones, it is not too difficult to imagine. However, Qvortrup doesn’t see this as a complete positive, claiming “instant democracy implies that the horizontal relations between citizens are eliminated, leaving only the vertical communication flows between the rulers and the individual citizens.” This leaves behind the relationships people form with each other and therefore the “social power” we have to affect policy.
Along with elements of social welfare like UBI, decentralization can help usher in the digital utopia. Currently, the Estonian government is a great example of how decentralization can work within a capitalist society. The project known as e-Estonia aims to make all bureaucratic processes digital—today, “citizens can vote from their laptops and challenge parking tickets from home.” The digitization of citizens’ records and government agencies allows for the labor force to exist in the cloud, so to speak. This makes it easy for anyone who works for Estonian companies or institutions to pay taxes from wherever they live and in the amounts that pertain to their allowances from the state. It is a step toward a borderless society. Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas said in a statement that the way we manage and process data “needs to reflect our freedoms, our interests, and our values, and it must draw out out the economic and societal potential of its use.” Toward the end of his statement, Ratas claimed we need to “rethink our entire labor market and labor relationships, our education and training systems, and our social systems more generally.”
Furthermore, we can pair a decentralized state with elements of quantified human interaction such as time-banking. In time-banking, people perform services for others in the community. In TimeBanks USA, you gain one credit to your name for every hour of service, which can then be used to request a service of your own. For example, you could spend an hour helping a neighbor move, and, two months later, have a neighbor help you paint your fence. Whereas our current system values work at different levels, this system always values human time equally, no matter the task performed. In the Grundisse, Marx explains “the exchange of values is the productive, real basis of all equality and freedom.” TimeBanks agrees with this notion, stating in their website that “regardless of whether we value what we do in different ways, we share a fundamental equality as human beings.” By endorsing a time-value currency, they are promoting reciprocity and the creation of valuable social networks. Moreover, they are promoting work that may not always pay money, work such as improving our families, neighborhoods, and our democracy. Time credits are excellent at honoring that work.
Of course, like any major change to any social system, there are potential negative aspects to UBI. First and foremost, it’s expensive. Oxford University professor Ian Goldin calls UBI “financially irresponsible.” Andrew Yang’s plan of $1000 a month would cost the government over a trillion dollars a year, but since many of those who currently receive government aid will opt for the UBI check, government spending on welfare systems will decrease significantly. Yang also proposes funding America’s UBI through a Value-Added Tax (VAT), much like European nations do, but many are unsatisfied with the proposal. Yang, however, sees it as an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone—not only will the VAT fund the UBI program; it also makes it harder for corporations to hide their profits and avoid paying their fare share of taxes. Even Forbes published the following headline in 2016: “Of Course We Can Afford A Universal Basic Income: Do We Want One Though?” Still, fears about UBI’s effects on the economy should be taken seriously and the discussion of the economic feasibility of UBI should be at the forefront of this proposal.
Another counter-argument claims UBI thwarts the public’s motivation and ambitions. Receiving free money each month will generate a “lifetime of dependence,” as Goldin claims. This dependence, however, is already a growing issue; in 2015, the Current Population Survey showed that 18% of unmarried men and 23% of unmarried women between the ages of 25 and 54 were not in the workforce. We should not worry about UBI causing this dependence, but rather if UBI will make it worse. But Yang’s campaign provides enough evidence to support their claims that UBI actually stimulates the public; with more resources and a stronger safety net, people are more likely to participate in entrepreneurship, social institutions, and actually meaningful work. Current welfare programs may sometimes take away benefits from recipients who pursue career options (for example, if you are on disability, getting a job means you are not disabled). Establishing UBI would remove the problems with participating in a society while receiving benefits. Even giving a check to the rich would help by removing the stigma from receiving cash transfers from the government—those with money are more likely to pay into a system from which they are receiving benefits.
Putting aside the counter-arguments, there are no other concrete solutions being proposed to argue against something like UBI. George Zarkadakis says we need to “reinvent democracy in a post-work future.” Goldin himself argues that “to reverse rising inequality and social dislocation we need to radically change the way we think about income and work.” We agree on the premise that the current system values the wrong elements about human society, but we disagree on the solution. Goldin and others like him chide corporate and political leaders who postpone discussions about the future of jobs, but they, too, fail to further that discussion by not promoting any alternative solutions to the problems at hand. If policy makers cannot propose a better solution to the automation of jobs and the problem of work, we cannot have a productive discussion on the topic. Furthermore, the public seems to be willing to entertain UBI as a good alternative. As of 2017, Politico reports that 43% of Americans support some form of UBI.
In 1972, Yoneji Masuda and the Japan Computer Usage Development Institute presented a plan to the Japanese government with the purpose of creating “a society that brings about a general flourishing state of human intellectual creativity, instead of affluent material consumption.” The plan, set to be completed by the year 2000, had three phases:
Phase 1. - In which technology does the work previously done for humans based on automation.
Phase 2. - In which technology makes possible the realization of a work that man could never do before. Knowledge creation, leading to enlargement of the mental work of man.
Phase 3. - In which socio-economic structures are transformed into new social and economic systems, a result of the first two phases of development.
Phase 1 is well under way. We are very obviously leading towards a world of automation where machines are doing the work previously done by humans. Phase 2, however, is not fully realized. We have software and algorithms that do work we could have not previously imagine or at a scale that was previously impossible (such as mathematical problems or network analysis). In fact, there is a current debate as to whether Google’s engineers fully understand the algorithm they’ve created. With machine learning on the rise, we will soon live in a time where machines create their own algorithms and we might not be equipped to fully understand them.
But it is Phase 3 which we cannot forego. We must follow Masuda’s example and allow for a transformation of our society toward a system that rewards what makes us human. Folks on both sides of the debate on UBI are right: humans need a sense of purpose. Therefore, we need to redefine work. We need to shift our current value of human life from “efficiency, control, and profitability” to some other system of value, one that values respect for one another, creativity, and quality of life. We might not be able to rid ourselves entirely of inequality or harmful ideologies, but we can work to create a world where human value is truly equal.
UBI, by itself, is not a sustainable solution. By giving people money every month we are trusting they will use it to grow themselves and support their families, but we cannot control how it is ultimately used. We must pair UBI with some sort of societal shift in which we begin to demonstrate to each other that we believe, truly, that each person’s life is worth living. The reality is, technology is advancing at a faster rate than our social policies and values are. The ways in which we value each other has not changed, and therefore the value we place on productivity and efficiency remain the same. But how can we compete with the productivity of an automated machine? We must, then, change how we value each other’s worth, change how societies value human life and experience, and let technology serve us under that purpose.
Frédéric Bastiat famously said: “the state is that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else.” Americans value hard work and self-promotion, ambition and entrepreneurship. Giving everybody free money each month is something quite paradoxical to American values, but how are people supposed to work for their money when there is no work available, or when their jobs are taken over by automation? Will Americans redefine “work” to fit within the current standards of American values, or will we have to change the very same values that Americans currently hold? This, in essence, is the end of the American dream. Now we must dream something bigger—a cosmopolitan dream suitable for the zenith of the information age.
Disclaimer: I never promised anyone that I was going to be sane or rational. I’m not trying to persuade anyone of anything one way or another. Agreeing or disagreeing with me accomplishes nothing.
- James Sass