What lies in the future? What is inevitable, what is possible, what is inherent and what is to be chosen?
Paul Jorion’s introduction to the French translation of James Livingston’s No More Work is an essay on these questions in relation to the future of work, and of resource distribution beyond wages. Jorion neatly challenges the link between livelihood and work. But though Jorion echoes Livingston’s deep skepticism of our attachment to (and moralization of) work (or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, of wage labor), he falls into three common traps in thinking about such futures. These are the trap of assumed human innateness, the trap of historical determinism, and the trap of faulty arithmetic.
Yes, arithmetic. In fact, Jorion’s math is the least interesting, the most common and the least contentious of the three traps – but perhaps the most important to set right. This is a fundamental mistake in understanding the cost of a universal basic income. As Livingston (and many others) points out, by guaranteeing a livelihood to all, a UBI could help divorce distribution from work, enable bargaining for shorter hours and decenter the economic primacy of labor. Yet Jorion dismisses UBI in passing as unrealistically expensive. (Though Jorion’s alternative to UBI – abolishing money – can hardly call realism as its greatest strength.)
One cannot blame Jorion for this: he merely repeats an all-too-common mistake (in his case, the mistake he duplicates was made by UCL researchers). This is a confusion between what economists call the ‘gross’ (or upfront) and the ‘net’ (or true) cost of UBI.
To understand the difference between ‘gross’ and ‘net’ or true cost, think through this simple example: a room of 15 people want to institute a room-wide universal basic income of $2 per person. The upfront, gross cost of the policy would be $30. The 10 richest people in the room are asked to contribute $3 each towards funding it. After they each put in $3, raising the total $30 needed, everyone in the room gets their $2 universal basic income. Because the 10 richest people in the room contributed $3, and then got $2 back as the UBI, their real, net contribution is in fact $1 each. Thus the true, net cost of the UBI (the money actually redistributed) is $10.
(This, by the way, is why UBI is arithmetically identical to a negative income tax: in the room above, a UBI of $2 per capita funded by the 10 richest people in the room is equivalent to a negative income tax of $2 to the poorest 5 people in the room, paid for by a positive tax of $1 each on the 10 richest people.)
In short, when a UBI is paid for by taxes, the first part of those taxes is simply clawing-back the UBI itself from those that don’t need it. This resolves what I call UBI’s ‘billionaire dilemma’: why give Bill Gates a basic income? The answer is simply that Bill Gates will give his basic income back – and also pay for someone else’s – when he files his taxes. Bill Gates isn’t actually hanging on to his UBI, but his taxes aren’t really as high as they seem either.
To reiterate: the real cost of UBI cannot be calculated by simply multiplying the population by the size of the UBI (which is exactly what those UCL researchers Jorion cites do): you have to know what proportion of the population will end up being net beneficiaries and what proportion will be net contributors. It’s arithmetically incorrect to include the UBI of net contributors in your cost calculations, because they return their UBI when paying taxes, so in effect you’re double counting. When this is taken into account, the true cost of UBI (the extra money you’re actually taking and redistributing) is a fraction (usually between a tenth and a fourth) of the gross cost.
Now that we’ve set to rest the question of what is possible (and fiscally, a UBI is certainly realistic), we can look at what (if anything) is inevitable. Jorion follows the line of many a tech billionaire in Silicon Valley in seeing the death of work as the inevitable outcome of technological change and productivity growth: the sole question that remains is what happens to the surplus population no longer needed by the labor market? But other paths are possible. We could continue our spiral of consumption, climate change and planetary death be damned, offsetting mechanization and productivity growth by manufacturing ever more needs and wants. If we keep consuming more, we can all be kept busy laboring to fulfill these wants – even if the machines can do ever more. Or we can be so convinced that income must come through work that we could create what the anthropologist David Graeber calls ‘bullshit jobs’. These are jobs that have little social or economic value beyond the justification of a pay check: think paper shufflers and hedge fund managers.
Obviously, neither of these alternatives are great. But they are completely consistent with the path of many wealthy countries through the 20th and into the 21st century: instead of distributing the gains of mechanization and productivity growth by shortening working hours, we increased our consumption – and allowed the rich to make off with a growing proportion of these gains, deepening inequality. If this has been happening over the past 70 years, why not in the future?
A future of liberation from wage labor is not determined or inevitable. It will be a fight, and a fight that must be fought on all fronts at once – legislative, cultural, social, organizational, institutional. We need laws that cut down the work day – or the work week, or the work year. We need to stop moralizing hard work and effort. We need distribution of resources outside of wages. We need not only labor, but also leisure unions. We need to see the end of work as a utopia in which we can finally flourish, not a dystopia of misery, passive consumption and alienation. To construct this utopia, we need to create sources of meaning, worth, value, engagement, social standing and community outside of wage work. We need, in short, new moral, social and political imaginaries.
This leaves me with Jorion’s third set of assumptions – his claims about human nature. We are made to be explorers, conquerors, colonizers, risk takers he argues. We must send the youth out to explore and colonize space: the only other option is boredom and passivity. These are Western, post-Enlightenment, colonialist, male visions of human nature on display. They ignore the full range of human experience, joys and possibilities. These possibilities could include exploration and conquest, sure, but also the joy of creating, thinking and caring, of making music, playing with ideas, and interacting with and nurturing other humans. From birth, we are not anything: we are what our society teaches us to value and find meaningful. Hopefully, questioning the centrality of wage labor in this will allow us to find value and meaning in a broader set of activities, beyond our current glorification of entrepreneurship and veneration of hard work.