Why UBI Probably Won't Save Us

Why UBI Probably Won't Save Us

Let's talk about UBI today.

I love the concept of UBI in principle because I believe that people should be able to live non-coercively in whatever manner they see fit to live. That said, I've always been skeptical that it can actually deliver on its assumed/stated promises.

To even have this discussion requires clarifying what those promises might be and laying down some baseline assumptions about human nature that may or may not be true but which can at least create a structured point framework to debate. If we don't do this, we get a situation like what happened here where neither side particularly feels like it's a good faith conversation or that they're being heard. (I'm not picking on @temujin9 here, he didn't have space or desire to lay things out)

I perceive a little bit of a motte-and-bailey that happens here like so many conversations about social issues where the hype train makes apparent UBI-related claims like "ending undesirable work" or "improving people's overall output because they WANT to work." Then when pressed those claims tend to retreat to something like "well obviously it won't do that, there are issues, but even a marginal improvement is good."

Let me spend 3 seconds weakly steelmanning this.

So if I wanted to argue that UBI was a solution to class woes and automation and even job performance gripes from undermotivated wage workers forced into indentured servitude by society it would probably go something like this...

People need to eat and people need places to live and people need medical care and it's both ethical and humane to provide those things as a baseline to all humans regardless of status AND we have enough wealth in our society to easily do this and still have a surplus.

But also because people need those things to varied degrees and people have different desires and dreams (and tastes), the easiest and best way to do this is fair, universal redistribution via direct wealth transfer from government, letting people spend it as they will.

The reason most people get up and go to work every day is because they feel compelled to in order to put food on the table and a roof over their heads, and this is especially true of people in the lowest socioeconomic positions without much choice in terms of where they work.

If we provided them with a baseline payment to spend however they wanted to (UBI) many of these people who hate their jobs would opt to not work at those jobs and instead do things that improved their personal happiness or society overall instead of clocking in at McDonalds. And in fact EVERYONE would be able to make these tradeoffs if they wanted to and take more risks. You can go explore being a desert hermit for 10 years in this framework at little personal risk and we're glad as a society not to have you doing a bad job in a service role.

Or a bad job as an unhappy accountant. Or CEO. Anything really. UBI is the ultimate optionality promise. It gives people more choices and increases their bargaining power because they're able to opt out of a system that forces them to take what's available.

This is especially good in an era where automation (both AI and robots) will increasingly encroach on the available jobs for people--especially low skilled jobs at the bottom rung of society where people aren't very happy anyway.

If we don't solve this problem via UBI, we will have increasing zero-sum competition for fewer and fewer jobs and society will destabilize as a result. So we have to provide people the means to live their lives whether or not we can match their skills to an open position.

Not only will this be better for stability than forcing them to compete in a cutthroat zero-sum economy with ever diminishing prospects, but it's simply the ethical thing to do for conscious, self-aware humans who we can afford to not let starve (or really violently revolt). The people who DO choose to work in jobs for money above this survival baseline will do so because they actually want to be there, not because they're forced to be there, and so work ethic and performance will also improve and everyone will be happier overall.

Now. This may not be the best steelman in the world, but this is about the correct tone and content level of the claims (backed by varying degrees of studies from whatever site they grabbed the studies from) that I've taken away from hearing people discuss it.

There are a bunch of interesting economic and market questions I have about what guaranteed cash transfers do to labor costs, availability of many kinds of services, and the costs of food, housing, and medical care in this scenario, but I'm not qualified to opine on those. What I'm arguably more qualified to opine on (as it's my usual schtick) is systems thinking and human nature in response to various kinds of emotional and practical incentives and status bids. So we're going to look at this from a social lens and talk about problems I see.

A short digression to underscore some later points: When I was ten years old I never had to worry about whether I would have food on the table, appropriate medical care, or a roof over my head. Those things were assumed as given, and my parents took care of them. I had everything I could want to account for my survival, and while I did have to go to school (and resented it), my summers were blissfully free to do pretty much whatever I wanted. My parents didn't have money to send me to camp, and I roamed around the neighborhood. I spent a lot of time reading and playing with my friends, and even more time playing videogames and watching television, which were about the most stimulating activities I had access to and which kept me very entertained. But inevitably, I got bored with the toys I had eventually. You can only play the same game so many times before it's not fun anymore. Especially not when you know other games exist that you could be playing.

I really wanted to play Mortal Kombat on my gameboy. In addition to our baseline material needs, my parents believed in teaching us about working so we had a weekly allowance of $5 that we'd get if we did all of our chores.

Mortal Kombat cost $30. A fortune. Six weeks of saving was an eternity as a 10-year old. Half my summer! And there were a lot of chores. It was technically optional, but if we didn't do them, we didn't get our allowance. A fair deal.

But my parents both worked opposite shifts AND were going to school, so enforcement of the quality of the chores took some effort. I wanted Mortal Kombat SO BAD. That was the endgame. And other kids got Mortal Kombat without having to work for six weeks. The idea that I had to do chores to get it AND saved seemed like a very raw deal to me. I didn't care about the quality of the finished chores nor did I want to be doing them--I felt very coerced by my desire, even though the action was optional.

It never occurred to me to just be grateful that my baseline needs were being met. That was a given! An entitlement! So I did the chores, but I only did them as well as I absolutely had to in order to get my allowance. The saving was torture enough.

If I could make them look "good enough" that they passed my weary parents muster, I'd get paid--and that was all that mattered. And even if I didn't do ALL of them, I soon discovered that I could sometimes whine or argue my way into getting my allowance anyway by making excuses or promising to do a better job next week. I managed to get that allowance every week for 6 weeks, by hook or by crook. When I had finally saved up the $30 to buy Mortal Kombat, I was elated! The pinnacle of success! And that feeling lasted for about 6 hours.

I played it a little, realized it wasn't as fun as I had hoped, and within a week had moved on to something else. This scenario played out again in a bigger way when I was a teenager and wanted a car (and to go to the movies, and to pay for weed, and to buy stuff for my girlfriend).

But obviously those things are more expensive than a $5 allowance would cover. Once again, my material needs were met. I had food, shelter--I even had the internet, the library, and all the games and music I could pirate at this point. In theory I had plenty to keep myself busy without spending a cent of my own money. But my friends often had more money than I did because they came from families that were more well-off or they had jobs. I also needed the car to go visit them or go to parties. So if I didn't have these things, I felt like I was missing out (and also like I was a loser). I had everything I could want for survival, but I was still DYING to be able to get a job, because I wanted much more than the basics.

I didn't care what that job was, really. I just wanted some arrangement by which I could earn money to buy things I wanted. I worked at a different job every summer, and liked some better than others. I took the best thing I could get usually. I really WANTED to work at GameStop (free game rentals for "market research") or Dairy Queen (where they exclusively hired hot girls), but never landed them. I kind of resented that I could never get the jobs I actually wanted. Instead I made do with stints at Taco Johns, the movie theater, Sears Electronics sales, and Eddie Bauer.

I was an acceptable employee at best... just like many teens are. I mean, I never stole anything or was rude to customers that I can remember. But I didn't exactly come into work every day feeling lucky to be there and ready to do my part to create a wonderful customer experience in the name of my employer. I did take some measure of professional pride in my work (and always have). Maybe I slacked on folding the clothes sometimes, or I didn't clean the sticky theater floor as well as I could have, or whatever. But I tried to do the job I was paid to do.

It wasn't even JUST me being a lazy teenager that encouraged this half-assed behavior. Everyone did it. It was uncool to try super hard at being the model Taco Johns employee. Everyone had a similarly jaded attitude toward being there. Even my bosses shared this aesthetic. I learned how to open a beer bottle on a table edge from my cool older lady boss at Eddie Bauer. At the movie theater, my boss only cared that we did things well enough that she wouldn't get in trouble and could get promoted.

But then, these places weren't really what anyone thought of as "career jobs" even if it's not polite to say so. We were all there for the same reason: we wanted a paycheck to buy things we wanted or needed. Nobody believed in the corporate training visionary hype. Nobody's end game is to manage an Eddie Bauer in a mall. It's neither fun nor exciting. It's just a thing you do for money while you try to get to something better (or not, in which case you're still not drinking the kool-aid--you've just given up).

So I resented the work I "had" to be doing. Even though as a teenager living at home, I didn't technically have to be there. It was totally optional for me. I even cared about doing a good job. But it still wasn't top notch work, and how helpful I wanted to be really came down to how helpful I was feeling that day with everything else in my life going on and the demeanor of the particular customer I was interacting with. Highly situational. Highly variable. This is a very human way to perform.

When I was a little older, after I had graduated college, I now finally DID have to get job to provide for myself. No more free ride at home (not that I wanted to accept anyway). My first job after college wasn't a good fit on either side and I quit after three months. An interview opportunity came up with Amazon and I landed it.

Now, this was different from any job I'd ever worked before.

You guys probably can't imagine how much I drank the Kool-Aid on this one. I was SO PSYCHED to be getting a job at Amazon. This was my dream company at the time. I'd always loved reading and books. Amazon was THE digital bookstore and it was all new and shiny.

I'd bought a first gen Kindle and had been blown away by the potential of an e-Reader I could store an entire library on. Revolutionary. I was such an Amazon fan it was silly. I dragged my Kindle everywhere and raved to strangers on the bus about how amazing it was and how they should get one.

I registered the website "ILoveMyKindle.com" to blog about how cool it was (until Amazon's lawyers took it). I eagerly read my Amazon onboarding materials and was amazed by the story we heard in training about Jeff Bezos launched the company through pure grit and frugality out of his parents' suburban garage (haaaard eyeroll now). When I walked through the doors of Amazon HQ on my first day of work I felt so awed and professional and grateful to be part of such a cool and huge and prestigious company. I WANTED to be there so badly. I was THRILLED to be doing cool work for them. All of this shine lasted about three months until the day to day of the job that wasn't nearly as interesting or well-organized or rewarding as I had hoped sank in.

It was just a job. Like all my other jobs. I was in ops, so not doing anything groundbreaking. It was extremely demanding, and I had lots of opportunities to learn and grow. But like any human, petty resentments and frustrations often popped up that interfered with me doing my best work. I didn't really like the culture. Didn't like some of the work. I still didn't have to be there, of course. The world is full of jobs I could have worked, many of them less demanding and more laid back or better aligned with my preferences.

But I wanted the money and the prestige of my job at Amazon too much to look for something else. So I had good days and bad days. I did some really great work and accomplished some useful and impactful things. I also had some massive screw ups, one of which took several months of my time to fix. Even though this was about the best situation I could have hoped for given my skills and background at the time, I wasn't exactly wildly grateful and showing up every day thrilled to be there. The job was just a job. I tried to do good work and didn't always manage it.

Eventually, when I'd had enough and gotten sick of it and decided the money wasn't worth it anymore, I left... but I'd never really bought the hype again and tended to think that the people who did were either lucky or delusional. So now that I've taken you down a 40+ tweet tangent about how I'm a bad employee, you might find yourself wondering what any of this has to do with UBI.

Well, here's the thing. With each of these three situations, the novelty of the baseline faded into the background. When all my material needs were being met, I still had to contend with status and boredom and the petty dramas of seeking growth and novelty and new stuff (that someone had to make so I had to work to pay for it). And even after my material needs were no longer being met and I got myself into a position that I had been wildly excited about, it still faded into a new normal and new dissatisfactions and desires emerged from my new baseline that reflected the changed circumstances. In all of these cases, regardless of the degree to which my needs were being met by someone else, the work I was doing was varied in quality depending mostly on my mood, environment, and personal stress level.

The work was never the point. The money was always the point. Regardless of my personal financial situation and freedom (from child to teen to autonomous adult with an externally prestigious job) I was always keeping an eye on what my peers had and my status relative to those around me and my current ability to demonstrate it. It didn't matter that I was making twice what I had expected to make out of college with a secure job in the middle of the 2008 job market crash, because all of my friends were in the same situation, and some of THEM could afford to throw trays of shots around on weekends.

This isn't a story about my unique failings--all of these things are very common, very human responses to relative status situations. Humans need, like, and pay attention to pecking orders and form them by default wherever they don't exist. Even when they're mostly trying to do a good job and take pride in their work (like I was), people will fail at times.

I'm also pretty competent. I had coworkers who did much worse and much less work than I did. A guy at the movie theater used to steal from the till. All of these people (including the guys lying to me and jerking me around at my RV adventure) are justifying their actions through their own lenses.

"everyone does it"

"the world's not fair and I'm gonna get mine"

"it won't matter if I slack off here today a little"

So let's keep all of this in mind and come back to examine those UBI steelman claims I made at the beginning of this thread.

This assumption is misleading and incorrect and responsible for many of the questionable claims made about UBI, in my opinion. People have all kinds of reasons for wanting to go to work, and usually it's more than for the provision of basic needs.

Even when people's basic needs are completely met, they'll develop things they want that will require money, and those desires will feel coercive to the same degree that "food and shelter" does now for most people.

Yes, I mean that. Let me explain.

Most of you (I know there are exceptions around) have not ever actually faced starvation or exposure to the elements as a real threat to your survival except by choice. The odds of you reading this tweet and having been in that situation EVER are very low. The concept of needing UBI for "food and shelter" type needs is extremely questionable, because they're coercive constructs you've created in your own head to validate your frustration at your coercive-feeling work environment. But if you were willing live in a van and eat ramen and broccoli for most meals (and make your kids do that too if you have kids), you could get by with a much shorter work week than you have now.

Work sucks, but you put up with it because you want more than baseline. In fact, your definition of "baseline" probably varies WILDLY depending on how you grew up and your current life situation.

I have a very hard time imagining a baseline for most people that would be acceptable and didn't include internet. How about AC? Fresh fruit? At this point you're going to be negotiating acceptable baseline values. But guess what!

As soon as you establish them, that's the new baseline. Everyone will have access to the same things. And you're going to want something else. This is okay and normal and human. We even have a solution for that! If you want internet and videogames and fresh fruit and a pet dog, you can get a part-time job.

But soon you want other things too, so you work a little harder for the better title and higher pay for your time. You want the nice office. Before long you're cranking out 50-60 hour weeks to compete for another raise to support your preferred standard of living, and suddenly you look around and you're like "why the hell am I still working??? I hate this job. We have UBI. This isn't right."

Of course you could quit. You're not going to starve, after all. But you'd have to default on your mortgage and move your family into the cheaper apartments for UBI non-working people and you know what THOSE people are like. You don't want your kids in that environment. So you're right back where you started in a coercive position that you've constructed for yourself that you can't walk away from (because you won't accept the lower standard of living it would require--nor will your husband and kids).

Here's another bad assumption. People who are unhappy rarely make dramatic changes to their lifestyle to fix it. Instead they tend to find ways to keep what they like about their situation while dodging the unpleasant parts (like responsibility).

The vast majority of Americans could technically opt out of their current work and lifestyle situation if they wanted to accept the changes it requires. But they don't.

It's notable when they do.

It's far, far more common to see people phone it in and underperform instead. The "useless coworker" trope is so common that it's ubiquitous. You KNOW who your useless coworkers are right now. They're the ones who just kind of suck at their jobs, but keep them because firing people is hard or they're good at doing the bare minimum to keep the position. This is because they don't actually care about the work or the job or the company, nor do they NEED the job to provide for baseline living needs, but they WANT the money and status that comes with it and are trying to get away with doing as little as possible to stay there.

In practice, most people are not actually this adventurous. The idea that you're going to go self-actualize because someone is paying your rent and food is just not true for most people.

If you didn't "have" to work, 99% of people would just go do some half-assed art projects (if they're super creative) and then go watch Netflix or play League of Legends until they got bored enough that they needed money for some other hobby. This may seem cynical, but I really don't think I'm wrong here. It's like how everyone imagines they'd write a book if they only had the time.

I hate to tell you this, but you already have the time and you prioritize other things. It's hard to be creative and to contribute. And believe me... I understand the argument that work is so exhausting that there's no room for play or exploration. I'm sympathetic to it. I lived that and was thrilled when I broke free (for the time being anyway--and I still work like crazy).

But the absence of a purpose can also lead to stagnation, and unless you're one of those rare people who's extremely intrinsically motivated (in which case you probably don't need UBI anyway), you're unlikely to do anything with your free time other than entertain yourself. Even worse, you will probably feel bad about this. People tend to feel resentful on both ends of a deal where they get something for nothing because it creates an implicit obligation on one end and implicit resentment on the other. Like me, when I was edging in on ways to shirk my chores while still angling for Mortal Kombat, whatever your baseline is will just feel like an entitlement eventually and you'll resent being "forced" to do more to meet your new list of desires.

This claim is far from a proven fact. I don't have data at my fingertips and don't feel like digging, but we weathered both the industrial revolution and the advent of the internet. How many new (and unexpected) jobs were created by each?

Automation and AI are novel and scary and come at scales we've never seen before, but that's also been true of prior leaps, and somehow we've settled into ways of living regardless. It's not at all clear that AI and automation are in any way responsible for economic woes... Or that new jobs won't become available. I think about this a lot. It's definitely startling. But how many filing and office jobs should have been eliminated by computers and just changed in character?

Furthermore, many of those "low class" jobs are jobs that will not easily be replaced by robots and AI... they're far more resilient against this than white collar work, because they're often unpleasant and difficult and low value to automate. And work ethic is just as variable across low status humans as high status humans. If anything, lower classes have work ethic baked into their value system in a way that higher classes don't and thus are more likely to do good work absent an innate desire to produce quality. I think the average janitor is going to have a harder time sleeping at night because he didn't do his job very well today than the average CEO will.

And that's even before we consider the scale of harm each role is capable of doing via poor performance. Many service industry jobs exist only because we WANT to interact with a human being. There are tons of service jobs a screen could perform if we wanted to have it do so. How that becomes Moloch in action is a whole different thread. But people prefer talking to humans.

Like many arguments advanced by middle class professional types, what I often hear behind the words when I see hand-wringing about automation replacement of low-class jobs is actually anxiety about encroaching AI replacement of middle class jobs. If you really cared about poor people's suffering, there's probably work you could be doing today that's a lot more impactful (though less personally rewarding) than lobbying for a financial benefit that fuels daydreams of escaping your job.

I'll be more concerned about things like this when I see AI and automation ACTUALLY eliminating industries and positions en masse where skilled workers can't pivot or retrain easily to something else, and that's not happening yet.

I share your angst about the economy and the difficulty of work and the cost of health care and the splintering and unraveling of society in front of us, but I just don't see how handing out checks fixes that. Lack of money isn't the core problem here. They'll print money for you all day long if you shout hard enough, but the underlying issue is the squeeze of real value and meaningful work and actual opportunity to make a life for yourself and your loved ones that you can care about without being a slave to someone else. That's the real issue I hear behind people's demands for UBI, and I think it cuts to the core of the unstated actual desire.

Fiat capital won't fix your problems if it doesn't change the underlying game. You need to fix the lack of autonomy and opportunity and power. When people ask for UBI, that's what they want, and they see money (or lack of money and debt) as a barrier to getting to that. But it's a shell game with that mental framework.

Money has no intrinsic value and they can give you more of it without changing your position. You'll never, ever see people with a majority of the power willingly give it up to people with less power. You wouldn't either. Don't pretend. If you would, you are the most exceptional human I've ever met. The only actual way out of the game is to create alternate avenues of meaning and value in your life in line with your actual needs and core values and work hard at bringing them about.

You need to find ways to not play the game you're being asked to play. This is very, very hard. Both hard to do, and hard to know WHAT to do. Harder still if you're vulnerable, or feel trapped by circumstance, or are ACTUALLY trapped by circumstance as many people are.

So this is why I'm not persuaded that UBI is any kind of panacea or that it can deliver on any of the breathless promises it makes. Keep in mind I didn't even dive into the throwaway point below which is several additional essays worth of material.

I think AT BEST we'd see little to no actual impact of UBI in many people's lives and many, many negative and unexpected externalities, interruptions of vital services, social unrest, and other problems. At worst, who the hell knows? Maybe you'd accidentally destroy the entire economy and shatter supply chains necessary for vital services overnight.

At least we have practice with that from COVID.

But I'll leave those questions to the economists.

I'll now respond to some of the more interesting comments and questions on the thread.

Yes, and I think this is an aspirational daydream of middle class white collar workers more than an actual sustainable reality. You can only chat with friends for so long before you need to go do other things (or your hobbies will cost money).

Additionally, when people do this now we rarely value them for it or see there position as especially enviable. I know a lot of stay at home moms who don't especially like it and want to get back to work ASAP because "time with the kids" isn't quite as idyllic as hoped. Hmm I think this is a good point and I probably need to think about this more. I guess in this case the argument for UBI is different than the ones I usually hear, though, and more along the lines of an argument for welfare.

I think that status games are intrinsic to human nature and not part of any particular system. It takes a LOT of effort to keep a group entirely egalitarian and I'm not sure it can even be successfully done. Status is innately understood.

Comments from a friend in my texts:


This is arguably one of the best arguments against UBI, all this other stuff aside, to be honest. Would you like to pay 40% additional taxes to the U.S. gov't for any job you do work or deflate the value of your currency to a large unpredictable degree?

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