Basic Income, Not Basic Jobs: Against Hijacking Utopia

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Basic Income, Not Basic Jobs: Against Hijacking Utopia

Rating: 8/10

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High-Level Thoughts

This is a great summary from Slate Star Codex about why "basic jobs" are a terrible idea compared to "basic income," despite the amount of positive coverage the idea seems to be getting.

Summary Notes

Basic income cuts the Gordian knot by proposing that everyone is entitled to support, whether theyre disabled or not. Disabled people can get their money without gatekeeping, and theres no reward for foul play.

Basic jobs abandons this solution and takes us right back to the current system. If youre abled enough to perform a government job, youve got to do it. Who decides if youre abled enough? The Kafkaesque gatekeepers. And so we get the same bureaucratic despair, the same attempts to cheat the system, and the same perverse incentives.

60% of the jobless are disabled. 15% are traditional unemployed people looking for a new job. And another 10% to 15% are people caring for their sick family members.

Basic jobs once again drops the ball on this problem. If your mother is dying, you can’t be there to help her, because the government is going to make you dig ditches and fill them in again all day to satisfy people’s worry that somebody somewhere might be getting money without doing enough make-work to “deserve” it.

Poor people’s two largest expenses are housing and transportation. Guaranteed jobs have to be somewhere. Most of them will be in big cities, because that’s where everybody is. The ones in the country will be few and far between. That means to get to your government-mandated job, you’ll either need to live in the big city or have a car. Living in the big city means tripling your monthly rent. Having a car means car payments, insurance payments, repair payments, gas payments, and incidentals.

Private industry deals with bad workers by firing them; nobody has a good plan for how basic jobs would replace this

If you fire them, then you’re not a basic jobs guarantee. You’re a basic-jobs-for-skilled-workers-whom-bosses-like guarantee. We already have one of those – it’s called capitalism, maybe you’ve heard of it. But a real solution to poverty would have to encompass everybody, not just people who are good at working within the system.

Private employees deal with bad workplaces by quitting them; nobody has a good plan for how basic jobs would replace this

Basic income would give everyone who wants to work the same opportunity as my friend – the ability to take a year off, cultivate yourself, learn stuff, go to school, build your resume – without it being a financial disaster. Basic jobs would leave everyone in the same position as my patient – forced to work 40+ hours a week, commute however many hours a week, good luck finding time to earn yourself a ticket out of that lifestyle while still staying sane.

Basic income is unlimited runway. Entrepreneurs can feel free to try out crazy ideas without the constant pressure of losing their shirt; people in between jobs can feel free to spend time looking for options they can tolerate.

The pressure to cut corners will get overwhelming. It’s hard to cut corners on basic income – either citizens get their checks or they don’t. It’s simple to cut corners on basic jobs. You do it the same way Amazon does – you let working conditions degrade to intolerable levels. What are your workers going to do do? Quit?

Being self-employed costs you a lot of the supposed psychological benefits of work. You might not be leaving the house. You might not be interacting with other people. But studies find that the self-employed are happier than the other-employed, even though they work longer hours and have less job security.

I accept the very many studies that show this, but I do wonder if this has more to do with contingent features of unemployment than with work being necessary to human flourishing. For example, unemployed people are chronically low on money. Unemployed people face stigma and constant social pressure to get employment. Unemployed people live in a society built around and emphasizing jobs. Unemployed people may have pre-existing problems in their lives that led to their unemployment. Unemployed people sometimes suffer from disabilities or chronic pain. Unemployed people have no friends to hang out with during business hours because everyone else is working.

The best studies on homemakers find that women who want to be homemakers are happier as homemakers and sadder if forced to work, and women who want to work are happier as workers and sadder if forced to stay at home. I would not be surprised if there are some people who are happiest working, and others who are happiest pursuing leisure activities. A basic income would make it easier for both groups to get what they want.

Some of my concern here comes from my concern (mentioned above) that basic-job-havers would not be very good employees, and that you would probably save money by handing needy people a check and separately hiring some super-efficient megacorporation to make your flowerbeds.

But another part comes from asking myself – which would I rather have? More flowerbeds and sidewalks? Or forty extra hours a week to spend seeing friends and family, or pursuing hobbies that I love? Framed this way, the answer is super-obvious – and remember, I love my job.

Basic income is a real shot at utopia. Basic jobs takes that energy and idealism, and redirects it to perpetuate some of the worst parts of the current system. It’s better than nothing. But not by much.

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