Did you know that 50 years ago, during the Nixon administration, the U.S. almost passed a bill creating a universal basic income? Test cases and studies had been done, all evidence supported the idea as feasible and universally beneficial, and it had widespread public and political support. Experts at the time were also predicting vastly reduced workweeks as machines replaced the need for human labor, so it made sense to provide income since there wouldn't be enough work to go around. Then the narrative changed. As predicted, essential work has since become a smaller and smaller part of the economy, but instead of leisure and meaningful pursuits, we have replaced it with what Bregman calls "bullshit jobs." We're now working harder than ever even as inequality has grown drastically and the government safety net has been reduced.
In this book, Bregman tells this story and many others in the hopes of changing our controlling narratives about work and the role of government. He makes a convincing case that the world now has more aggregate wealth than ever before in history and living conditions are better than they have ever been, and provides plenty of evidence that if we simply found better ways to share--to redistribute--that wealth we would all be better off. As predicted, machines are gradually taking over most labor and most jobs aren't really needed except as ways to create unnecessary wealth.
Bregman advocates for three big ideas: universal basic income, a 15-hour workweek, and open borders. He argues that if we found a way to make these a reality, we would all--even the wealthy--have an improved standard of living. If only we can find a way to tell the story so these ideas seem natural and logical instead of radical, they might even be possible (his final chapter is titled, "How Ideas Change the World"). It's an intriguing, fascinating, and (for me, at least) inspiring argument, well-documented and supported with research.
Highly accessible and entertaining writing, in addition to offering interesting content.
A few snippets:
Before the invention of the GDP, economists were rarely quoted by the press, but in the years after World War II they became a fixture in the papers. They had mastered a trick no one else could do: managing reality and predicting the future.
Economic growth can yield either more leisure or more consumption. From 1850 until 1980, we got both, but since then, it is mostly consumption that has increased. Even where real incomes have stayed the same and inequality has exploded, the consumption craze has continued, but on credit.
There's something that is vital to the future of our world, and that's a mechanism for redistribution. We have to devise a system to ensure that everybody benefits from this Second Machine Age, a system that compensates the losers as well as the winners. For 200 years that system was the labor market, which ceaselessly churned out new jobs and, in so doing, distributed the fruits of progress. But for how much longer? What if the Luddites' fears were premature, but ultimately prophetic? What if most of us are doomed, in the long run, to lose the race against the machine?
What can be done?
The purpose of a shorter workweek is not so we can all sit around doing nothing, but so we can spend more time on the things that genuinely matter to us.
In the end, it's not the market or technology that decides what has real value, but society. If we want this century to be one in which all of us get richer, then we'll need to free ourselves of the dogma that all work is meaningful. And, while we're at it, let's also get rid of the fallacy that a higher salary is automatically a reflection of societal value.