When Andrew Yang visited Iowa during the run up to the 2020 Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses he talked about Universal Basic Income and a Freedom Dividend. I thought he must be on crack.
What other politician would go for free money? Yang anticipated my response.
“You may be thinking, This will never happen,” he wrote in his campaign book The War on Normal People: The Truth about America’s Disappearing Jobs and why Universal Basic Income is our Future. “And if it did, wouldn’t it cause runaway inflation? Enable generations of wastrels?”
“In a future without jobs, people will need to be able to provide for themselves and their basic needs,” Yang wrote. “Eventually, the government will need to intervene in order to prevent widespread squalor, despair, and violence. The sooner the government acts, the more high-functioning our society will be.”
Along came the coronavirus.
The coronavirus pandemic brings into focus what scientists and others have been pointing out for a while: humanity is due for a new way of life. Any job or profession that interacts directly with people was devastated by the economic downturn as the virus spread throughout the world. People in the arts were hit particularly hard: live theatrical performers, dancers, musicians, amusement park operators, and people who support the arts were suddenly without work. Large corporations were hit as people used less shampoo and deodorant, less gasoline and diesel fuel, and reduced restaurant meals dramatically. When we add the impact of technology, automation and robotics to the mix, the number of jobs is expected to contract as global population increases. It seems unlikely these kinds of jobs will return to the way they were prior to the pandemic.
Much has been written about the global explosion of population and its consequences. This from Wikipedia is typical:
“The United Nations Population Division expects world population, currently at 7.8 billion, to level out at or soon after the end of the 21st Century at 10.9 billion, assuming a continuing decrease in the global average fertility rate from 2.5 births per woman during the 2015–2020 period to 1.9 in 2095–2100.”
How will all these people live? The society we adopted during the rise of agriculture and industrialization provided for humanity. It is also wrecking the planet to the extent we have entered a new geological era.
In their book The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene, authors Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin suggest coping with human-made changes in society and our environment will lead us to a new way of life. How we will work in the near future is an open question highlighted by the massive unemployment resulting from the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Longer term, things have to change.
This has implications for capitalism particularly. Owners of capital have been on a consistent pursuit of investment opportunities that serve to increase capital. Where labor is part of the business, it serves the profitability of the owners.
When I worked in transportation and logistics I knew some Pennsylvania-based capitalists who sold gasoline at truck stops and convenience stores. When a new housing development appeared, they noticed, and believed if they built a nearby convenience store it would be successful. “A lot of rooftops there,” they would say. Their analysis was not wrong. They had facilities all over the northeast United States. At issue was creating a return on investment based on assumptions about cost of gasoline, labor, environmental compliance and consumer habits. Creating jobs wasn’t the priority and whatever they paid, it was at or slightly above the market labor rates.
“Most people don’t own very much,” wrote Lewis and Maslin. “In today’s world they are required to sell their labor in order to obtain what they need to live.” This has given rise to labor unions, structured pay and benefits packages, and working conditions conducive to profitability. “The owners of resources live on the profits they extract from the labor-sellers, and reinvest some of those profits in order to further increase productivity to produce more goods and services.” It’s a simple expression of the capitalism.
I don’t know what the future holds although some form of Universal Basic Income would address how we might get along with many more people and fewer of the kind of jobs to which we have become accustomed. Yang wasn’t wrong. Whatever today’s politics are, they must adapt to a future where human needs are cared for and wealth is more equitably distributed.
How we get there is an open question.