Beware of false friends

There’s a website called “Curious Apes” that published an article called “You’ll have to choose sooner than you think: Basic Income or Dystopian Slavery”, which a friend linked on Facebook. It’s an extended argument for the Basic Income Guarantee that rehashes a bunch of right-wing talking points.

I got annoyed and commented on FB:

1) cherry-picked Kurzweil graph? Check!
2) “the machines are coming for our jobs”? Check!
3) “work” defined narrowly? Check!
4) Socialism incorrectly defined/described? Check!
5) assuming away any negative effects of the basic income? Check!

I realized at the end that this by a US-American for US-American, so some of the distortions are explainable. And I’ll give points for pointing out that the loss of brainless jobs is not a bad thing.

All in all: “There’s nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view I hold dear.” — Daniel Dennett

The editor of the FB account replied with such choice words as:

Cynicism and negativity are far less helpful than the article[.]
[…]
To assume it’s going to solve the world’s problems is an immature and naive thought, and obviously just an excuse for you to taut your ego while you provide zero substance to the conversation.

I don’t mean to be aggressive or condescending, but if you’re as intelligent as you want everyone to believe from your comment, you must realize how pointlessly negative your comment was, and how such trolling adds little-to-nothing to the greater dialogue this article is attempting to create.

and asked for more constructive criticism.

So I wrote some up but don’t want to have only FB benefit from that write-up.


—–

You’re right – that wasn’t a constructive comment. Frankly speaking, I am tired of constructively responding to left-leaning posts that use right-wing concepts to make their point.
Also: this has nothing to do with intelligence whatsoever. Parties, media, and think tanks all over the world are staffed with very intelligent people that are working to convince us that half-baked solutions are the best we can hope for. What it is about is informing oneself properly, especially about ideas/concepts/arguments that have been around for a bit, you know, like Kurzweil’s graph, the robot apocalypse, “work” , “socialism”, and the basic income.

I find it therefore rather interesting that you make this about intelligence and ego, instead of the contents of the post.

So let’s get constructive:

  1. Kurzweil graph: this is a very attractive idea and one that everyone seems to know intuitively – everyone alive in the 20th/21st century has seen remarkable technological progress come and go, so it feels as if things change at a pace nowadays that is unprecedented. But, I’ll let PZ Myers take it from here:

    [W]hat it actually represents is the proximity of the familiar. We are much more aware of innovations in our current time and environment, and the farther back we look, the blurrier the distinctions get. We may think it’s a grand step forward to have these fancy cell phones that don’t tie you to a cord coming from the wall, but there was also a time when people thought it was radical to be using this new bow & arrow thingie, instead of the good ol’ atlatl. We just lump that prior event into a “flinging pointy things” category and don’t think much of it. When Kurzweil reifies biases that way, he gets garbage, like this graph, out. (http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/02/09/singularly-silly-singularity/)

    Maybe this kind of criticism is kinda arcane, you could say. Well, it’s linked from the Wikipedia entry on Kurzweil’s idea (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity#Criticisms), easily accessible to everyone.

  2. “machines are coming for our jobs”: the basic premise is of course correct – machines that can replace humans for doing certain jobs offer the possibility of replacing them in doing those jobs. But here’s the thing: the decision about whether this replacement happens is driven by PROFIT decisions made by the businesses in question. There’s a reason that Amazon employs wage slaves in its warehouses and that a lot of industrial production is done in low-wage countries by humans, instead of using machines in high-wage countries.

    So, no

    And these jobs will be lost at the same speed at which the technology is advancing—which is blindingly fast.

    is simply not true. Those jobs will be lost at the same speed at which it is more profitable for companies to replace them. If it remains more profitable to pay someone a poverty wage instead of investing in a robot than this job will remain around. And btw, this:

    Policy and bureaucracy move at an ancient pace, more accustomed to a medieval era than a modern, sci-fi’esque one[.]

    Bureaucracies have been remarkably quick to adjust to the changes brought about by mass production, for instance, what would be new nowadays?

    This relationship is rather well understood on the right: the threat of automation is used all the time to discipline wage demands. And you know which example is typically given? Truck drivers, as in

    Self-driving vehicles alone stand to put an end to the ~ 8.7 million jobs supported by the trucking industry.

    Now, as I wrote, bonus points to the author for getting it right that replacing such jobs – mind-numbing, exhausting, dangerous – by automation is actually not necessarily a bad thing. And pointing out that once we reach such a point, we can produce most of humans need to live and live well without having to work long hours: “[T]hen we’ve reached a point of abundance where very few people will truly need to work—or at least not as much as the inhumane hours we currently work.”

    Thing is, we have already reached that point, have for quite a while. It’s an oft-remarked phenomenon that (formerly) industrialized countries feature a mix of people working a lot of overtime, and people that work less than they’d need to to earn enough to live and people that are unemployed. We could produce much more efficiently, in terms of resource use, and human labor, than we do nowadays. And why don’t we? Because it’s not profitable enough. Hell, Keynes knew that 80 ! years ago! Marx suspected this more than 100 years ago!

  3. narrow definition of “work”: and as a side note, what is “work”? The article limits work to the things humans are being paid for – “jobs”. This is how he gets away with

    few people will truly need to work

    The flip-side of this, another right-wing talking point, is that if you can’t get paid for it, it’s not work. You know, this thing that they tell liberal arts majors, or people who want to produce art. This is why coaching a university basketball team is considered “work”, whereas coaching a little-league team is a “hobby”. This is why cleaning someone else’s house for money means you’re employed, whereas being a man staying home and taking care of home and children makes you “unemployed” or “not participating” in the labor force.

    Modern forms of production don’t do away with work – it does away with drudgery. The first way of phrasing it makes it a threat, the second a promise. And again, the author wants to points out the promise but he does so by using the language of threats – “jobs will be lost” instead of “interesting work will become possible”.

  4. incorrect definition of “socialism”: but this was a detour. Back to the issue: in a capitalist economy, with a profit motive as over-riding goal, the use of technology is driven by whether it’s cheaper or not. So if you wanna talk about changing things, if you wanna talk about “utopias”, you won’t get around talking about alternatives to capitalism. Enter socialism, and to quote an easy-to-access source of information, Wikipedia, again:

    Socialism is a range of economic and social systems characterised by social ownership and democratic control of the means of production; as well as the political ideologies, theories, and movements that aim at their establishment.[8] Social ownership may refer to forms of public, cooperative, or collective ownership; to citizen ownership of equity; or to any combination of these. Although there are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them, social ownership is the common element shared by its various forms.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialism)

    Let me repeat this: “social ownership [of the means of production] is the common element shared by its various forms.” Government-provided infrastructure and services – all those things listed in the article as supposedly due to socialism – will necessarily be part of a socialist society but are perfectly compatible with capitalist socities, and all kinds of dictatorships. Hell, even the libertarians, who couldn’t be further removed from socialism, are in favor of governments organizing police forces and a judicial system (with a few hardcore exceptions).

    Making this distortion, which as I wrote in my initial post is unfortunately rather common in the US, extremely narrows the idea of socialism. It also reproduces yet another talking point of the political right, which works towards dismantling all kinds of public social services but calling them “socialist” and hoping that this will work as a scare term – just listen to the Republican party.

  5. basic income: which brings me finally to the policy prescription that all of those points are supposed to underpin: the universal basic income. I’ll be upfront: the way it is proposed in this article, the UBI amounts to subsidies to private corporations – if corporations pay poverty wages or replace higher-wage jobs by machines, their consumers disappear, a phenomen we’ve been seeing particularly starkly in the Eurozone. By offering the UBI to the people, the state generates the missing demand, essentially bailing out private corporations. Qualitatively this is not different from the “Aufstocker” in Germany that get public assistance because their salary is not high enough to survive, or food stamps in the US.

    The formulation is not mine but it’s very fitting, so I’ll use it here: the UBI turns people into “consumption units” – you get money not because you do something productive for society (which admittedly is already not the case) but because you are supposed to spend it to consume. Which clashes with the article’s utopia relieving people from having to be

    consumerist robots to a callous and uncaring economy, and instead can be beacons of happiness and passion who contribute to society their joy and inspirational creativity.

    Along the way, if consumption stays at the same level as today, and automation is cheaper than current wages, this means that corporate profits go up, as goes the income of everyone who is linked to them. So in the best-case scenario, economic inequality increases even further, given more power to a very few.

    But this is admittedly more of a ideological argument. In more practical terms, there are services that will be very hard to replace by automation and that will be needed in a livable society. In medical care and especially in the care for the elderly and/or handicapped, replacing human contact is not a good idea. The envisioned state would have police, fire fighters, a bureaucracy that deals with taxes etc. If everyone gets the UBI, where’s the motivation to do those jobs coming from? I agree with the author’s assumption that most people are inherently good but if they turn out to be not (or if just not enough of them are willing to put in the hours needed – because shorter workdays for nurses means that we need more of them, for instance), those services become scarce. And this is where

    Let’s simply say every citizen gets $2000 a month. This would cover rent, transportation fees, food, nightlife, and the splurging or saving toward big purchases such as an Oculus Rift or a trip to Spain.

    blows up. It’s the same fallacy as w.r.t. personal savings for retirement: we cannot know how much products and services will cost in the future, which also means that we cannot say for sure how much money is enough.

    Unless, that is, we have price controls. At which point the question comes up: if the state is supposed to pay out enough money to each person so that they can afford food, shelter, etc., why not have the state directly buy up output and make it available to people for free? Free food in government-run grocery stores, free housing in government-owned buildings, free transport in government-owned light and heavy rail, free eduction in government-run universities, free health-care in government-run hospitals, free government-provided culture in museums/theaters/cinemas – the list goes on and on? So why would one advocate a UBI over government-provided necessities in the first place? However, government-provided services also doesn’t solve the question of where one finds the people to work those jobs!

    For a longer discussion why the UBI is not a good idea, I propose Bill Mitchell: http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=13025 but others make very structured arguments against it as well.

  6. No need for changing government spending: while I am in favor of reducing US military spending, there is absolutely no need for the US government to cut military spending to finance the UBI. The US government is a currency-issuing government, as are most others outside the Eurozone. If there were the political will, the US government give the UBI to every person in the US tomorrow (given that the bureaucracy is in place) without having to cut any other spending. Currency-issuing governments are not revenue-constrained, another thing that the right wing likes to deny because it allows them to push for cutting social security.

I’ve realized by now that some of the commenters on the article have made similar points before, one pointing to the very interesting Four Futures article. I hope they were perceived as being more constructive than mine.

But I can’t help but point a final thing out: I didn’t expect the article to “solve the world’s problems” and I didn’t expect scientific writing in economics from a computer science major. I do expect someone who aims to create a “greater dialogue” that he doesn’t advance the other side’s cause.

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This entry was posted in democracy, developed countries, housing, neo-liberalism, standards of living, techno utopianism. Bookmark the permalink.

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