Give People Money by Annie Lowrey
Written by Ashley Kelmore, Posted in Reviews
Anyone interested in changing the world, addressing poverty, or fixing the ills of capitalism.
In a nutshell:
What would the world — or just the US — look like if every single person received money every single month. Regardless of need. Regardless of ability to work. Just to keep them at a baseline level of existence, out of poverty.
Worth quoting (so much – sorry!):
“We no longer have a jobs crisis … but we do have a good-jobs crisis, a more permanent, festering problem that started more than a generation ago.”
“…we find no evidence that cash transfers reduce the labor supply, while service sector workers appear to have increased their hours of work.”
“Providing the poor with those steps might mean seeing them as deserving for no other reason than their poverty — something that is not and has never been part of this country’s social contract. We believe that there is a moral difference between taking a home mortgage interest deduction and receiving a Section 8 voucher.”
Why I chose it:
The train to a friend’s wedding was delayed, so we had some time and I hadn’t brought a book (damn tiny fancy purses). Said fuck it and bought this. I met said friend in a philosophy program where I first heard universal basic income even mentioned, so it seemed appropriate.
This book is FASCINATING. I was expecting an examination of Universal Basic Income (UBI) and how it can help in places in the world where people live on less than $2 per day, and it does offer that. But author Lowrey spends the majority of the book looking at what UBI could do for the US. And after reading it, I’m still a bit up in the air about how it can work in practice, but absolutely on board for it in theory.
Lowrey’s starts by looking at the reality that jobs are going to start shrinking in hours and eventually going away as we become a more automated society. Driverless cars and trucks will put loads of people out of work — what are we to do with them? Some sectors will shrink and disappear (coal mining), and we haven’t necessarily seen the commensurate growth in other sectors. If everyone was guaranteed enough money to survive, then those who do not want to work 40+ hour weeks, or those who can’t, wouldn’t be subjected to life lived homeless.
But that’s not the main point of Lowrey’s book. We don’t need UBI because some jobs are going away; we need UBI because it can help address numerous societal wrongs right here in the US. Her chapter on racism and how US policies over the years have kept people of color from acquiring wealth and a rate anywhere near that of white people is brilliant, and a chapter I will be referring back to often. She also explores how the care economy and the work that women overwhelmingly do is completely undervalued, and a UBI could raise those workers up. And of course she is deeply interested in the overall poverty rate in the US. I think this is an absolutely true and desperately sad statement:
“The issue is not that the Unites States cannot pull its people above the poverty line, but that it does not want to.”
Lowrey is not oblivious to the problems of implementation. We already have a serious issue in the US of people disparaging and looking down upon people living in poverty; if benefits programs were re-organized and some of the benefits middle-class people have become used to getting go away, that resentment will build. Plus, if everyone in the US gets UBI, how we decide who qualifies? Only citizens? Legal residents? What will that do to a country that is already so deeply fucked up when it comes to immigration?
Finally, she looks at how we might pay for this, and this is the one area that I wish she spent more time on (and what brings this from a five-star to a four-star book for me). I have zero problem with giving people money for existing. I don’t think we should sentence people to lives without homes or health care because their ability or desire to work doesn’t match mine. But the money has to come from somewhere, right? Taxes on workers? Businesses? Carbon? ROBOTS? (seriously, it’s an interesting idea).
There is not enough political will for this to be a real thing in the US right now. But I think it deserves serious examination. There is no reason why anyone in the US — let along the world — should be living in poverty. No reason. We just have to have the courage to make some real changes.
Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it (and buy copies for other people)
What do you think of this notion that we will work fewer and fewer hours? Technologically, we already live in a post-hunger, post-homelessness utopia. In fact, since the industrial revolution our species has had the capability to feed and house everyone unconditionally. Compared to even as late as medieval times, we are impossibly powerful and wealthy. Yet people still work long long hours in developed countries, especially when compared to the fact that many hunter-gatherers only work a few hours a day. Yet there are still people in the USA who die on the streets of treatable conditions.
I think there are 2 things going on here that feed into each other. Firstly, the capitalist system will create new jobs that weren’t necessary before and suddenly become “necessary”. Industrialization unemployed many farmers but then they became factory workers. Maybe automation will unemploy drivers and they will become robot managers. Obviously with huge social upheaval in the short to medium term while people are retrained.
Secondly and more importantly, there’s the capitalist mindset in which human worth in linked to economic productivity. Take homelessness: as a society and a civilization, we are perfectly capable of housing everyone unconditionally. Homelessness exists because those in power (who are powerful because they succeeded in the capitalist system,) don’t believe that those who aren’t economically productive deserve shelter.
There is opposition (from the right) to UBI because they don’t like the idea of people being entitled to basic needs without being economically productive. Going from our present system to a system where people are entitled to basic living without being coerced to work would be a huge change in our mindset as a society.
Part of why we work is because we subscribe to this mindset and that we want to feel like we deserve the $$ we earn and therefore that those who don’t make $$ don’t deserve it. Homelessness exists because it makes the non-homeless feel better about themselves. “Look at Jim over there. I’m not a lazy worthless bum like Jim. I work hard and deserve every penny that I make.”
We know that social change (in a leftist direction) only happens when the powerful are coerced and threatened. I predict that we will only see UBI when we have massive, widespread unemployment and unrest in the middle class due to automation. We’ve had mass youth unemployment in Europe since 2008. We’ve had working poverty in the US for ages. But revolutions only happen when the middle class get involved (see almost every historical example ever). When we see white collar workers being replaced by robots, suddenly wealthy people will more power will be on the streets and the gov will pass UBI to calm the storm, just like FDR passed the New Deal to avoid unrest in the wake of the Great Depression and like Atlee’s Labour government passed huge, sweeping socialist reforms, including the NHS, in light of the popularity of the Beveridge Report and post-war rationing.
If the automation revolution is going to be as impactful on production as the industrial revolution was, there’s gonna have to be a mindset revolution too. The rise of machines in the 19th century was a fundamentally centralising change (because factories need an owner to organise and invest) that concentrated wealth and led to the Gilded Age and robber barons (btw a time when the Gini coefficient was less than it is now) and Dickensian child labour, which was eventually corrected by post WW2 socialist policies across the Western world west of the iron curtain (which, despite flying the flag of “capitalism”, was far more socialist than our current society). Automation promises to be another revolutionary technology in production which further centralises wealth and power (because the robots have to be controlled, organised, invested in from a central “location”). Let’s hope that it doesn’t take another world war for us to evolve to a resource distribution mindset that is fit for the age, from our current capitalist mindset that places money above human dignity, health, opportunity, and lives.
And whether it does take another world war definitely isn’t settled. We’re seeing a rise of fascist politics across the world precisely because our capitalist system isn’t delivering on the growth and development that it promises. Millenials are as a whole going to be much poorer than our parents. Just like in the first half of the 20th century, our technology has progressed but our social systems and mindset have not, in that automation technology, globalisation, and the deregulation of the world economy since the late 70s have led to concentration of wealth that our social systems haven’t managed to redistribute so that most people can enjoy the benefits and lower costs of automation and globalisation rather than be the victims of it through losing their jobs or have less wages and job security due to a hyper capitalist race to the bottom. And fascism is attractive because people like easy explanations and easy solutions (blame immigrants, blame the poor, blame anyone but those who are actually benefiting: the rich), and the rich and powerful are more than happy to let this misconception happen, not knowing or perhaps not caring (check out New Zealand’s billionaire house buying as a bolt-hole) that while feeding fascism and propping up this non-viable hypercapitalist system pads their wallets in the short term, in the medium term we’re all heading off the cliff into the void of chaos and anarchy — this time round with nuclear weapons.