Review: A War on Normal People

Review: A War on Normal People

The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future by Andrew Yang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I admit that I hardly paid attention to Andrew Yang during the primaries. I knew that he was for Universal Basic Income (UBI), but little else; and it did not seem to matter, given his pole numbers. But during the economic fallout caused by the coronavirus lockdowns, UBI is starting to look all the more reasonable (especially after I received a direct deposit from the federal government!). So I decided that it was time to take a second look.

This book could easily have been mushy pap—a boilerplate campaign book only published for publicity. Yang could have gone on and on about his good work in Venture for America, all the inspiring young people he met, all the businesses he helped grow, and all of the wonderful places he visited across America. He could have talked about his own story from first generation American to entrepreneur and politician. Some of that is in here, of course; but not nearly as much as one might expect. Instead, Yang has written a serious work on the problems facing America.

Yang covers a remarkable amount of ground in this short book—video game addiction, the importance of malls in communities, the rising cost of universities—but his primary message is fairly simple: Automation is going to eliminate many millions of jobs, and we need to transform the economy accordingly. As someone with many friends in Silicon Valley, Yang speaks convincing on the subject of automation. An obvious example is self-driving cars. Once the technology becomes reliable enough, virtually all driving jobs are threatened. Considering the numbers of people whose work involves transporting either passengers or cargo, this alone can be dramatic. What would happen to all the taxi, bus, and truck drivers of the world?

But according to Yang, self-driving cars would only be the beginning. While automation may call to mind robotic arms laboring in factories, white collar jobs are also liable to being automated. Chances are, if you work in an office, at least some of your work is rote and repetitive; and that means a computer could potentially do it, and do it far better than you can. While most of us are far removed from the world of artificial intelligence, those in the community routinely seem alarmed by the prospect of increasingly powerful A.I. Every year a new program accomplishes another “impossible” task, such as mastering the Chinese game Go. Yang even mentions computer-written symphonies and computer-generated artwork! (I was happy to note, however, that Yang did not seem to think teachers could be automated away.)

This will result in still more intense economic stratification. Many parts of America have already hollowed out as a result of recent economic trends. Most of the country’s factories have closed, destroying some of the most well-compensated blue-collar jobs. The rise of online retail—only accelerated by the coronavirus crisis—threatens to permanently destroy much more employment. Of course, when some jobs are eliminated, other types of jobs come into being. But we cannot rely on this process to correct the imbalance—first, because automation destroys more jobs than it creates (think of the one trouble-shooter for every five self-checkout registers), and second, because the new jobs usually require different skills, and exist in different parts of the country.

There are many proposed solutions in this book, but Yang’s signature idea is UBI. This would be a monthly payment of $1,000, or $12,000 a year, to every citizen over the age of 18; and it would be given a very patriotic name: the Freedom Dividend. Yang proposes to pay for this with a Value Added Tax (VAT) of 10%. (I was actually unaware of the difference between a VAT and a sales tax before reading this book, which is that a VAT must be paid at every step in the production process. This has the added advantage of taxing automated industries, since robots do not pay an income tax.) But the hefty price tag of UBI would also be partially compensated by the reduction or elimination of other government welfare programs. And, of course, if you put more money into the hands of consumers, most of them will spend rather than save it, and this will in turn increase tax revenue.

One obvious objection to UBI is that, by giving money indiscriminately, we will inevitably be giving it to people who do not need it. The most apposite reply to this objection, for me, is that subjecting government assistance to means-testing creates a host of problems. For one, there is a great deal of cumbersome bureaucracy involved in determining whether a particular person ‘deserves’ aide—bureaucracy that would be rendered entirely redundant by UBI, since the checks can be sent out through the IRS. Indeed, this cumbersome bureaucracy only creates added waste, since many NGOs exist simply to help people navigate the complex government paperwork. Of every, say, $100 spent on welfare, what portion of that goes to those in need, and what portion to the paychecks of bureaucrats laboring to determine who gets the money and how they can spend it?

Indiscriminate giving would also eliminate the pesky problem of disincentivizing work. At the moment, Republicans and Democrats are in a dispute over this very issue, as Republicans are arguing that the extra $600 of unemployment money (as part of the coronavirus aid package) will encourage people not to work. While some on the left disagree, personally I think this is a rather strong objection—not to giving people money, but to making the money conditional on not having a job. The same issue is present in many other sorts of government aid, such as disability payments, which cease as soon as the recipient becomes employed. If the money were unconditional, however, then people would have no disincentive to work; on the contrary, they would be able to substantially improve their economic situation by working, perhaps even making enough to start saving and investing.

UBI, then, has potential appeal for both those on the left and on the right. Those on the left may like it because it is a way of redistributing wealth, while those on the right may like it since it is a way of shrinking the government. The latter statement might seem more far-fetched, but I do think that a solid, conservative case could be made for UBI. After all, Milton Friedman was quite an avid supporter of the concept, for a multitude of reasons: it shrinks government, it reduces government paternalism, it promotes both work and consumption, and it would avoid dividing people into different categories.

This last point merits some comment. Presently, a great deal of anti-welfare rhetoric is concerned with parasitism—the idea that lazy people are simply ‘on the dole,’ dragging down the rest of society. It is the perfect recipe for shame and resentment, since inevitably it divides up society into groups of givers and takers; and even the best government bureaucracy in the world could not hope to distribute money in the fairest way possible. Inevitably, some people who ‘deserve’ aid will not get it; and others who do not ‘deserve’ it will—since no definition of ‘deserving’ will be perfect, and in any case there is no way of perfectly measuring how much somebody ‘deserves.’

UBI works against this psychology in a powerful way, by being entirely indiscriminate. Though the rich would be paying more in taxes than they receive back, they too would receive their monthly payment, and I think this fact alone would help create an added sense of social solidarity. UBI would be something shared by everyone, everywhere, rather than something that marks you out as being poor and dependent, a mark of stigma and shame. This strikes me as quite a positive thing in the age of dramatic political polarization.

Another aspect of UBI that I find deeply appealing is that it will give people the freedom to pursue less well-remunerated, but more socially beneficial, work. As Yang points out, many of the most humanly important jobs—being a parent, an artist, or even an online book reviewer—are quite poorly compensated, if they are compensated at all. An economist might argue that this is justified, since the free market determines the value of work based on supply-and-demand. But I think that this logic will become less appealing as robots start to out-compete humans. Indeed, perhaps automation will erode our faith in the wisdom of markets and meritocracy, since it will be difficult to believe that a delivery drone is more deserving than a delivery driver, even if it gets more work done.

There are, of course, many objections to UBI, one being that it will encourage widespread free-loading. But the evidence for this is quite weak. As Yang demonstrates, in the many UBI trials that have been conducted, work reduction was quite low, mostly taking place among new mothers. And as I mentioned above, our current welfare system arguably encourages free-loading far more effectively than UBI would, since UBI does not disincentive work. In any case, I think all of us—especially new mothers!—could do with a modest reduction in work hours, given the fact that study after study shows that long hours do not benefit productivity. Instead of having humans emulate work machines, then, it would be far better to automate as much work as possible—since machines never sleep, never eat, and never get sick—and focus on the remaining work which really does require a human touch.

Yang addresses many other objections to UBI, and most of his arguments are convincing. I do have one nagging question, however, and it is this: If the purchasing power of the general population is increased across the board, will prices of food and housing correspondingly increase? Though I am economically naïve, it strikes me that this is bound to happen, at least somewhat; and this may partially offset the gains of UBI. But perhaps I am mistaken. Another question is whether automation will go as far as Yang predicts. I found most of his forecasts—particularly about self-driving vehicles—quite compelling. But it does seem possible that the affects will be less sweeping than Yang supposes. For example, I cannot imagine couples turning to an A.I. marriage counselor with the voice of Morgan Freeman, as Yang somewhat fancifully imagines.

In any case, while Yang’s twin themes of automation and UBI are his central message, his book has far more to offer. I particularly appreciated his portrayal of the economic plight facing many parts of America, and the increasingly stark divide between those with and without a college degree. For example, I often find myself forgetting that the majority of American adults do not have degrees, if only because almost all of my friends and family have one. Considering how many jobs—including low-skilled jobs—require a degree, this is a major economic disadvantage nowadays.

The fact that I can forget about this economic disadvantage is a measure of the degree to which different parts of the country are insulated from one another. And the university system is not helping to even the playing field. After all, most of the people who do obtain degrees are already from comparatively better-off families. The university system also does not add to economic diversification, since students are pursuing an increasingly narrow range of majors; and after college, most graduates move to one of a handful of large cities. The result is an increasingly stark economic divide between Americans with college degrees living in large cities, working in a shrinking number of industries, and those living in more rural areas, or hallowed out cities, without degrees. It is an inimical process.

Yang also deserves credit for his mental flexibility. Besides UBI, this book contains a range of proposals, all of them quite new to me. Considering the degree to which political debate is dominated by decades-old proposals, I found this extremely refreshing. Admittedly, I do think that Yang’s Silicon Valley message failed to resonate with the voting public for a reason. While he has much to say about the future of America’s economy, he is less convincing on problems besetting many Americans now, most notably health care. Yang does favor a version of universal coverage, and he has some very intriguing things to say about how technology can change the role of the doctor, but I think it is fair to say that this was a minor part of his book.

Yet if this book fails as political marketing, it succeeds in being both a thoughtful meditation on the problems facing the average American, and a set of bold proposals to address these problems. While so many politicians come across as blindly ideological, stupidly partisan, or simply as creatures of the political system, Yang is intelligent, imaginative, and unconventional. I hope that this is not the last we hear from him.

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Quotes & Commentary #70: Graeber

Quotes & Commentary #70: Graeber

Economies around the world have, increasingly, become vast engines for producing nonsense.

—David Graeber

Humans are strange creatures: we can twist any event to reinforce the beliefs that we already hold. One would hope that this were not the case; after all, the entire premise of science is that experiences can correct beliefs. But it seems that this is not always the case. The coronavirus crisis is showcasing this tendency in all its irrational glory. Everyone—from progressives to conservatives—is convinced that this crisis reveals why the other side was wrong. Yet this mental phenomenon does not even have to take a political form. Exercise fanatics, for example, will use the crisis to reinforce their obsession, while doomsday preppers must feel awfully vindicated right about now.

I suppose I should join this crowd and offer my own little pet theory. A few months ago I read the book Bullshit Jobs, by David Graeber, and was entranced. It describes a widespread phenomenon: that many people harbor the secret conviction that their job is absolutely pointless. Reading this was an immense emotional vindication for me, since I myself had worked a job that I found to be pointless, and I experienced many of the harmful psychological effects that Graeber describes. But the problem is more than psychological. I think all of us have run into people whose jobs seem to serve little to no socially beneficial function. This can take many forms. A secretary whose only job is to answer the phone three times a day; an administrator whose job is to get college professors to upload their syllabuses into a central database; or the many hundreds of thousands of people employed in the United States processing health insurance claims.

Now that so many sectors of the economy are essentially shut down, perhaps this will give us an opportunity to reflect on which jobs are bullshit and which are not. I am not suggesting, of course, that everyone who has been sent home has a useless job. To the contrary, I think that most parents with kids at home would agree (I hope) that teachers have quite a challenging and important job. Likewise, now that we are sorely missing the pleasures of bars and restaurants, we must be grateful to all the people who made that possible. During this dark time, the humble cashiers in our grocery stores have become heroes. And this is not to mention the garbage collectors, police officers, and above all the doctors and nurses.

My point is that so many jobs which are commonly seen as low-skill and which are thus badly paid are now the ones we are relying on, or missing, most of all. Meanwhile, the sorts of jobs that are lampooned in Graeber’s book—the corporate lawyers, the college administrators, the creative vice presidents—I suspect are not sorely missed. Perhaps, then, this will motivate us in the future to better compensate those in these normally overlooked professions. Of course, I must pause and remind myself of the basic economic principle of supply and demand. The market is not a moral machine (fortunately or unfortunately); and rewards are not given away for merit.

Still, we have the means to make people’s lives easier. One way—popularized most recently by Andrew Yang—is Universal Basic Income: simply giving every citizen a certain amount of money each month that would be enough to cover basic expenses. In attenuated form, this is what the government is already proposing to do during the crisis: mailing every American a check for $1,000 dollars to help the many people who are out of work. David Graeber is also in favor of the idea, partly because it would allow so many people to escape the world of bullshit work. That is, having a financial cushion would give people the freedom to leave their work when they feel they are not doing anything productive or valuable. And this freedom would make a big difference in the job market in general, since it would give employees far more negotiating power. Jobs would have to be reasonably appealing if they wished to attract people who already had enough money to live on. Thus, this could benefit those with highly-paid but useless work, as well as those with badly-paid but useful work.

Maybe it is inappropriate to think of utopian schemes while we are in the midst of a crisis. And of course I am guilty of the same sin of seeing the situation through my own ideology. I ended my review of Graeber’s book by calling for a movement dedicated towards the expansion of leisure time. Ironically, nowadays I greatly miss the freedom to go to work. When you actually believe that you are contributing to society, working becomes a great source of meaning in your life. A world without work is not one I want to live in. But if we can dream for a few moments, I would ask you to imagine a world where work is more flexible, more negociable, and more meaningful. Will this crisis edge us in that direction? Perhaps I can be indulged for a moment of optimism at a time when all the news is bad news.

Quotes & Commentary #69: Keynes

Quotes & Commentary #69: Keynes

It is astonishing what foolish things one can temporarily believe if one thinks too long alone, particularly in economics (along with the other moral sciences), where it is often impossible to bring one’s ideas to a conclusive test either formal or experimental.

—John Maynard Keynes

I have been thinking a lot about Keynes lately, and not only because I am reading a massive biography of his life. Keynes is one of those perennial thinkers whom we can never seem to escape. He exerted enormous influence during his lifetime and dominated economic thought and policy for thirty years after his death. Then, as inevitably happened, the Keynesian orthodoxy became too successful for its own good. His ideas came to be taken for granted, and his innovations became the conventional wisdom that the cleverest economists of the next generation came to reject. This ushered in the age of Neoliberalism—with Margeret Thatcher, Ronald Reagen, and Milton Friedman as the great standard-bearers—and the decline in Keynesian thought.

And yet, whenever there is a serious problem with the economy, everyone instinctively returns to Keynes. It was he who most convincingly analyzed the sources of economic recession and depression, and then plotted a way out of it. He was writing, after all, in the wake of the Great Depression.

To oversimplify the basic idea of Keynes’s analysis, it is this: High unemployment leads to a lack of demand, and a lack of demand can push financial systems beyond the breaking point. Put another way, the economy can be envisioned as an enormously complex machine that is composed of millions of cogs. Some cogs are small, some are large, and all are connected—either proximally or distantly. If one small cog stops working, then it may cause some local disturbances, but the whole machine can continue to chug along. But if too many cogs fail at the same time, the machine can come to a grinding halt.

As the coronavirus shuts down huge sections of the economy, this is exactly the scenario we are facing. Waiters, bartenders, actors, musicians, taxi drivers, factory workers—so many people face lay-offs and unemployment as businesses prepare to shut down. Besides this, if we are locked into our homes, then there are now far fewer places where people can spend their money, even if they have money to spend. It is inevitable that some people will not be able to afford rent, that some businesses will go under, and that much of the money that is available to circulate will remain unused in bank accounts. People are not going to be buying houses, or cars, or dogs, or much of anything in the coming weeks (besides toilet paper, of course).

Now, in a capitalist economy, anyone’s problem is also my problem, since buying and spending are so intimately related. The money you spend eventually becomes the money I receive, and vice versa. Thus, if there is a increase in unemployment (limiting the money you receive), an increase in bankruptcies (limiting the money the banks receive), and a decrease in spending (limiting the money I receive), then we have a recipe for serious economic contraction. A wave of bankruptcies inevitably puts pressure on banks; and if banks begin to collapse, then we are in grave trouble. Whether or not we like to admit it, banks provide an essential service in the economy, one which we all rely on. To return to my crude cog analogy, the banks are some of the biggest cogs of all; and if they stop turning, nothing else can move.

Keynes’s solution to this dilemma was essentially to use the government’s almost limitless ability to borrow money, and inject as much cash into the economy as possible. In other words, the idea is to stimulate demand, so that people can continue to spend money. It is an idea that has been criticized by so-called ‘responsible’ people for generations. Can the government really afford to go into so much debt during a recession? Can such artificial measures actually prop up an ailing economy? Can we tolerate such a huge degree of government involvement in a liberal society?

Republicans—and to a lesser extent, even Democrats—have been sharply critical of Keynesian economics over the years. When Obama wanted a stimulus package for the 2008 financial crisis, he faced endless opposition and criticism from the Republican party. And now that we are facing an economic crisis on a comparable scale, the Republicans are turning without hesitation to Keynes: hundreds of billions in stimulus, and even resorting to mailing checks to every American. One could hardly imagine a more straightforwardly Keynesian solution than this. Keynes had this to say about how the government could deal with a recession:

If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.

This is the closest that Keynes got to the notion of simply giving people money. Paying people for absolutely useless work is better than nothing, since at least then people are being paid; and if they are being paid, they can spend their money; and if they spend their money, I can get paid; and so on. If this were a different kind of crisis—a kind where we did not have to practice social distancing—then perhaps we could imagine large-scale infrastructure projects as a way of combating recession. But now, we must resort to the even more radical idea of paying Americans to do nothing. Maybe Andrew Yang’s notion of a universal basic income is not so far after all?

Well, here is where I must warn my readers (all three of you) that I am really quite clueless when it comes to economics, so everything written here must be read in that spirit of ignorance. However, I think that Keynes’s quote is also quite relevant for non-economic reasons. As so often true in economics, we are facing an entirely novel situation. This is a crisis without precedent, and that means that all of our ideas of how to cope with the crisis are untested. The closest historical precedent to the coronavirus is the 1918 flu pandemic; and yet there are important differences between both the disease and the historical situation. We are thus operating without ‘conclusive tests,’ in Keynes’s words, of our ideas. It remains to be seen which country’s approach will be the wisest.

In the meantime, Keynes is an example for us to follow: an intellectual who responded to a historical crisis with both ingenuity and rigor. Let us hope there are many more like him.