Matt Bruenig has a post up going back to one of his favorite wells- trolling UBI critics. My first instinct is similar to Seth Ackerman’s instincts in regard to Matt Yglesias trolling: “Now, right away I know what you’re thinking: IGNORE IT, IT’S A TROLL. And obviously I know that.. As the old saying goes, ask not for whom Yggy trolls, he trolls for thee.” Like Ackerman however, I couldn’t help myself.
The problems begin with his first premise “Some argue that the UBI is bad because it would discourage work”. Of course, I’m sure you can find some UBI critic who makes this simplistic criticism. However, it is not the substance of most criticisms and it is certainly not the substance of critics like Stephanie Kelton or Pavlina Tcherneva. It doesn’t advance the substance of the ongoing (perhaps interminable…) policy debate between UBI advocates and UBI critics to attack these nameless simplistic critics of UBI in this way- well except to cast aspersions about people like Kelton and Tcherneva by associating them with this straw man. We’ll return to this point. The bottom line is, the actual criticism of UBI isn’t that it “discourages work.” The main criticism of UBI from people like Tcherneva is that UBI attempts to make it easier for people to not work using money without redistributing obligations to work to others- the way wealth does. To formulate this point as I have in other posts on this blog- to give people a property right in subsistence you need to abridge capitalist property rights and have a mechanism for equitably (not equally!!!) distributing work. Traditional formulations of UBI do not have the second two and therefore they do not do the first.
This first simplistic premise is the key to Bruenig’s whole misleading argument. “If getting income without having to work for it is bad, and wealth allows you to get income without having to work for it, then that means wealth is also bad”. The problem with wealth of course is not that it allows one to have an income “without work” but that it imposes a larger obligation to work on others undemocratically and grants them greater control over the production process. For those with wealth to be able to realize the proceeds of wealth as output, someone else has to produce output that they don’t themselves consume. Other forms of passive income- child allowances and social security for example- serve a democratically decided public purpose and are premised on the explicit or implicit obligation of “prime age” workers (as a group) to work. An equitable distribution of work does not imply that every single human must work the same amount.
This leads to Bruenig’s truly outrageous charge that the logic of “UBI Critics” is implicitly premised on the idea that the racial wealth gap is good.
“If wealth is bad in this particular way, then that means having less wealth is better than having more wealth. This is because having less wealth means you receive less non-work income and are therefore less vulnerable to the toxic effects of receiving non-work income.”
The racial wealth gap refers to a situation in the United States where Blacks and Latinos have far less wealth than Whites. Normally this is seen as bad for Blacks and Latinos. But if the argument above is correct, then that means the racial wealth gap is actually good for Blacks and Latinos because it ensures that they receive far less non-work income.
Note how what Bruenig presents as the logic of “UBI critics” is actually the exact opposite of the logic presented above. Further the logic above much more closely represents the views of the UBI critics Bruenig most routinely interacts with. From the logic above it follows that the racial wealth gap- just like the wealth gap as a whole- is bad because it inequitably and undemocratically redistributes the obligation to work to black and latinx people. Worse, this obligation to work is concentrated in the worst paying and worst condition jobs both because the lack of access to wealth creates barriers to educational attainment and because white people with control over the means of production crowd African Americans into low wage occupations (See Michelle Holder’s excellent recent book “African American Men and the Labor Market during the Great Recession”).
Further it gives white people, through their inequitable control of wealth, an undemocratic and profoundly undesirable control of the working conditions and lives of people of color up to the present day. In short, inequitable distributions of work emerge first and foremost from inequitable distributions of wealth and attacking wealth inequality- as JG advocates overwhelmingly support- is a key piece of moving towards a society with equitable distributions of work. Further, in reality many UBI critics are also for reducing work. Hyman Minsky pushed for a “4 hour workday” movement over thirty years ago. The challenge is redistributing work equitably and it is notable that creating social and democratic mechanisms for the equitable distribution of work is not part of the UBI narrative.
Like Yglesias, Bruenig knows there are holes in his argument and that they don’t apply to his most common interlocutors. The point of his post (and tweets) isn’t actually to prove his premise- which is absurd- it’s to cast innuendo and doubt about the beliefs and intentions of UBI critics. I will let the reader make their own judgement about the desirability- and frankly the ethics- of such a rhetorical posture.