An idea whose time has maybe come

Is the World Ready for a Guaranteed Basic Income?

Freakonomics Radio:

The gist: a lot of full-time jobs in the modern economy simply don’t pay a living wage. And even those jobs may be obliterated by new technologies. What’s to be done so that financially vulnerable people aren’t just crushed? It may finally be time for an idea that economists have promoted for decades: a guaranteed basic income.

Listen to the episode or read an edited transcript at the link. It’s a good introduction to the potential benefits and pitfalls of guaranteed basic income, as well as information on the results where it has already been tried on a limited basis.

Proposals for guaranteed basic income vary. In some, everybody gets an income just for being alive. In others, there’s means-testing, but without the rigorous qualifications and rules associated with current social welfare programs.

Politicians, social scientists, and economists on both the left and the right have supported guaranteed basic income over the years, including Thomas Paine, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Friedrich Hayek.

Striking out

Why tens of thousands of workers, from Verizon to McDonald’s, are walking off the job Thursday

Jim Tankersley and Brian Fung, at the Washington Post:

Tens of thousands of Americans will decline to report to work Thursday because of labor disputes, a surge that coincides with a fledgling sense of empowerment among workers who struggled for years to reap the gains of the economic recovery and which could mark a political and economic shift in the balance between employers and their employees.

The striking workers will include nearly 40,000 Verizon employees who walked off the job Wednesday in search of assurances that their positions will not be outsourced or automated in the near future, after contract talks with the company stalled.

The ranks also will include thousands of low-wage workers organized by the Fight for $15 campaign, which is pushing to increase the national minimum wage to $15 an hour. Organizers said that Thursday’s strike would be the campaign’s largest and would focus on picketing McDonald’s, one of the country’s largest employers of low-wage workers. The strikers will include McDonald’s employees but also workers from other fast-food chains, nursing homes and at least one university.

With the labor market tightening up, workers get more clout. Good.

The US Chamber of Commerce opposes its own members

How the US Chamber of Commerce fights its own members’ empathy  [Cory Doctorow – Boing Boing ]

80% of Chamber of Commerce members support paid family leave, increases in minimum wage, rules protecting sick time, and guaranteeing predictable work-time and hours. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposes all those things, and lobbies members into supporting the Chamber positions.

On the issue of minimum wage, only 8% of Chamber members oppose the increase – a 10-1 majority favoring. For increased maternity leave it’s 8:1 in favor, and so on.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz conducted a survey of 1,000 business-owners and found overwhelming support for progressive policies. In a webinar leaked to the Center for Media and Democracy, Luntz addresses a group of state chamber execs about how to convince their members to support the policies the lobbying organization favors, rather than being responsive to the views of those members.

His analysis starts with the obvious truth: these policies are grounded in empathy. Employers want these policies for their workers, because if they were in those workers’ shoes, their lives would be intolerable without them.

Luntz advises the chamber to deflect members’ support for humanitarian policies into support for other policies, such as federal coordinated labor policies across the country – which the chamber also lobbies against.

How professional poker players can win big even when they lose

On Planet Money: “We talk to a professional poker player who lost on the first day of poker’s most famous tournament–but went on to get a huge payout. Turns out there’s a game behind the game.”

The “game behind the game:” Professional poker players stake each other, so even if a player loses, he can come out ahead if the players that he stakes win.

Deep Learning Is Going to Teach Us All the Lesson of Our Lives: Jobs Are for Machines

Recent advances in “deep learning,” such as Google’s AlphaGo computer beating a human Go champion repeatedly, are as important as splitting the atom more than 70 years ago, which launched a Cold War that perched the human race on the precipice of extinction for decades, says Scott Santens on Medium.

When machines can do all the jobs, universal basic income might be the only way to keep civilization going, Santens says.

Santens underestimates how fundamental a change that kind of machine intelligence would be. We can barely imagine what that future world would be like. How can we prepare for it?

[Deep Learning Is Going to Teach Us All the Lesson of Our Lives: Jobs Are for Machines / Scott Santens / Medium]

Solar has won. Even if coal were free to burn, power stations couldn’t compete

Last week, for the first time in memory, the wholesale price of electricity in Queensland fell into negative territory – in the middle of the day.

For several days the price, normally around $40-$50 a megawatt hour, hovered in and around zero. Prices were deflated throughout the week, largely because of the influence of one of the newest, biggest power stations in the state – rooftop solar.

Solar has won. Even if coal were free to burn, power stations couldn’t compete

Yay! I have a political label!

I haven’t been comfortable calling myself “conservative” or “progressive,” which are the two major labels floating around American discourse.

I certainly don’t identify with either political party. Even though I’m a registered Democrat and have always voted the straight Democrat party line, I’m often voting against the Republicans, who are wedded to a pernicious social conservative platform.

I’m drawn to elements of market capitalism, socialism, Objectivism, and libertarianism, contradictory though those philosophies are. While I’m a religious unbeliever, and push back hard against attempts to make religious policy into law, I respect that religion is a source of strength, wisdom, and comfort to billions of people.

So I’ve flailed around in trying to describe my political beliefs.

Until now.

I’m a liberal.

This is satisfactory as a political label, in that people sort-of know what it means. It’s also appealing in that it’s a word that has fallen out of favor. People like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter despise liberals. It’s good to be despised by people like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.

What is a liberal? Edmund Fawcett tackles the question in, “Reclaiming liberalism: Liberalism is not dead – its ideals are more important than ever – but it must change radically to survive in the future.”

At its broadest, liberalism is about improving people’s lives while treating them alike and shielding them from undue power. Four ideas in particular seem to have guided liberals through their history.

The first is that the clash of interests and beliefs in society is inescapable. Social harmony, the nostalgic dream of conservatives and the brotherly hope of socialists, is neither achievable nor desirable – because harmony stifles creativity and blocks initiative. Meanwhile conflict, if tamed and put to use as competition in a stable political order, could bear fruit as argument, experiment and exchange.

I like political arguments. I enjoy reading both conservative and progressive blogs. To tell the truth, I actually like conservative blogs like Hot Air and even Breitbart and Drudge Report better than progressive blogs as a class. On the other hand, the progressive Talking Points Memo is emerging as my favorite source of national news.

Secondly, human power is not to be trusted. However well power behaves, it cannot be counted on to behave well. Be it the power of state, market, social majorities or ethical authorities, the superior power of some people over others tends inevitably to arbitrariness and domination unless resisted and checked. Preventing the domination of society by any one interest, faith or class is, accordingly, a cardinal liberal aim.

America’s failure to grasp this point drives me crazy. Progressives say Big Business is evil. Conservatives say Big Government is evil. I say yes to both.

Or, more precisely, both Big Business and Big Government are necessary forces, but left unchecked they can do great damage. They’re powerful, dangerous tools. When managed correctly, they manage each other.

Also, government is better at some things, and business is better at others. For some things, government and business need to work together in the form of government contracts and incentives.

Liberals also hold that, contrary to traditional wisdom, human life can improve. Progress for the better is both possible and desirable, for society as a whole and for people one by one, through education above all, particularly moral education.

Finally, the framework of public life has to show everyone civic respect, whatever they believe and whoever they are. Such respect requires not intruding on people’s property or privacy; not obstructing their chosen aims and enterprises; and not excluding anyone from such protections and permissions because they’re useless to society or socially despised.

This point about civic respect is arguably the most difficult to put in practice. It’s why I’m ultimately sympathetic to Holly Lobby, even though they’re wrong. Holly Lobby has a right to withhold payment for birth control it considers immoral — but it should not exercise that right.

By insisting on pursuing all its ideals at once and in parallel, liberalism made a high bid. It was never easy to better people’s lives while letting them alone, nor was it ever easy to respect people’s beliefs while improving their minds. At the same time government could protect markets from state power, or people from market power, and give majorities their say while protecting minorities. Liberalism’s high bid has made it a doctrine of hope but equally an engine of disappointment….


Its most obvious current failing is letting the power of the market run out of control. A direct consequence, rising inequality, has become the number-one topic in public debate. The economic arguments on this question are old.

Since the late 19th century, liberal thinking about the economy has gone back and forth between using the state to tame market power and using the market to tame state power. After 1945, liberal democracies appeared to get the balance right. Then in the 1980s, following a decade of inflation, joblessness and tax revolts, the balance swung strongly away from the state towards market power. Super-returns for a few and stagnant wages for the many have created social inequalities that are ethically offensive and, in a liberal democracy, politically unsustainable. Something has to give.

For the free-market right, the capitalist engine spreads its benefits in the end. If in the meantime it spreads inequality, so be it. On this reading, the egalitarian hopes of liberal democracy have to give. Left-wing liberals, meanwhile, see no inevitabilities here. Capitalism spreads inequality, they believe, if politics allows it to. They continue to trust the capacity of politics to tame markets, and so, for them, untrammeled capitalism has to give.

I would not say liberals have let the market run out of control. Quite the contrary: Government in the West acts to preserve Big Business against outside forces. If markets were free, Aero would be legal and big banks and auto companies would have been allowed to go out of business (while government would have stepped in to protect employees from the damage done by feckless upper management and investors). Government propping up Big Business is one of the biggest threats faced by Western civilization (although Big Business itself is necessary and beneficial).

Liberalism is currently flailing. In the United States, neither political party is liberal. Liberalism needs a 21st Century framework to operate, just as it found frameworks in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

“As employees we may be suffering but as consumers, we live like kings.”

We can fly to Dubrovnik for £22, £500 will buy us more computing power than NASA had when they put a man on the moon, Tinder makes hooking up a breeze. Our life expectancy is higher, we eat better, dress better, have more entertainment options than any humans in history. Within living memory, an orange was an acceptable Christmas present. Today even people in council estates buy each other electronic toys that would have amazed James Bond fifteen years ago.

If you are creative, you can publish your short stories on Tumblr, make a movie on your mobile phone, post it on YouTube where millions might see it. Swedish design that not that long ago was the height of modernist sophistication is now available to the hoi polloi at IKEA. Peasants in Mexico wear fashionable clothes made in China. Peasants in Iraq have satellite dishes and watch the World Cup live. It is schizophrenic: as workers we have few rights and less power. As consumers, we live like gods.

Our unheard of affluence as consumers, our precarious existence as workers both stem from the same source: inexorable productivity increases. Every year, as technology advances we can make more goods and services with fewer inputs of labour and capital. It used to take dozens of men to unload a ship. Today one man on a computer and another on a crane are faster than 100 longshoremen could ever be. When I started in television, producing a broadcast quality news story required a cameraman, soundman, editor, reporter, producer, and transmission engineer. Today, one person can fulfil all of those functions and generally will get paid less than any one of us used to.

Productivity increases boost our societal wealth and so make us all collectively richer but they also make more of us redundant.

Good article, but it falls into the massive misconception that everybody believes nowadays, that “technology” and “productivity” are natural forces beyond human control, like gravity, forest fires, and hurricanes.

Funny how these “technology” and “productivity” forces seem to hurt everybody in the workplace except for the investor class. The rich get richer. How extraordinarily lucky for them.

The central paradox of the 21st Century

The rise of the voluntariat: How companies like Coursera extract profits from volunteer labor

The Rise of the Voluntariat: How companies like Coursera extract profits from volunteer labor

Coursera, a for-profit company, is using volunteers to translate online classes. Geoff Shullenberger, writing at Jacobin magazine, compares the “voluntariat” to social media companies, which also profit from unpaid labor (all those like and updates — indeed, some idiots pay companies like WordPress for the privilege of working for them — oh, wait, I do that).

The voluntariat is also like unpaid internships.

These trends depress wages for people — like professional translators — who can’t afford to work for free.

Karl Marx is making a comeback


Donald Harvey wants you to imagine life without capitalism. Harvey, a professor of anthropology and geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is the author of Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism.

The book represents a distillation of Harvey’s 40-year study of Karl Marx, and in its own way a bid to change the conversation about what’s not working and what’s possible—especially when many have consigned Marx to history’s dustbin.

“I was tired of hearing Marx quoted in ways that struck me as completely wrong,” Harvey says in his office at CUNY, around the corner from the Empire State Building. “Who I am writing for is, in a sense, anybody who says, Who is this guy Marx? I wanted to make it simple enough so that people could get into it, without being simplistic.”

Mapping a New Economy: The geographer David Harvey says fixing inequality will take more than tinkering

Chinese millionaires import Western butlers, inspired by Downton Abbey

It’s not just China. The butler business is booming.

For that, you can thank our New Gilded Age, with a wealth gap that’s become a yawning chasm. There are currently more millionaires worldwide than ever—the total jumped by 10 percent in 2012 alone—which means a huge demand for those who serve the super-rich, like the butler. The Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern oil barons, and Asian moguls buying up expensive real estate in and around London are also exporting the Euro-aristocratic lifestyle back home. Thirty-five years ago, there were only a few hundred butlers left in Britain; today there are roughly 10,000, plus thousands more abroad, including the fastest-growing butler market of them all, China. “For the Chinese, it’s a status thing,” says Sara Vestin Rahmini, who founded Bespoke Bureau. “They’re like, ‘Just send us somebody who looks British, who looks European.’ “

GQ: What it’s like to be a billionaire’s butler.

“How Piketty’s Bombshell Book Blows Up Libertarian Fantasies”

“How Piketty’s Bombshell Book Blows Up Libertarian Fantasies”

I haven’t read the Pikkety book, but based on reviews and articles his thesis seems to boil down to this: Throughout much of history, most of the wealth in most societies was locked up in family fortunes. The only way to become wealthy was to be born into it or marry into it. 

That all changed in the West following the Great Depression and in the regulated economies of the mid/late 20th Century. Because we all grew up in that world, we view that as normal. But it’s not — it’s highly unusual.  

And the West is rapidly moving back toward the norm. Forget the 1% – if you want to get rich, you’d better be part of the 0.01 percent that owns most of society’s wealth. And the only way to get into that group is to be born into it, or marry into it. 

The wrong-headed policies promoted by libertarians and their ilk, who hate any form of tax on the rich, such as inheritance taxes, have ensured that big fortunes in America are getting bigger, and they will play a much more prominent role in the direction of our society and economy if we continue on the present path.

What we are headed for, after several decades of free market mania, is superinequality, possibly such as the world has never seen. In this world, more and more wealth will be gained off the backs of the 99 percent, and less and less will be earned through hard work.

Which essentially means freedom for the rich, and no one else.

Of course the US is an oligarchy – we keep electing rich people

Why do the rich and business keep getting their way in public policy, even when their views conflict with what the vast majority of Americans want? One reason is because most of our elected officials are rich. 

Millionaires make up just 3 percent of the country, but they have a majority of the House of Representatives, a filibuster-proof super-majority of the Senate, a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court, and the Presidency. Working-class Americans in manual-labor and service-industry jobs make up more than half the country since the start of the 20th Century, but only a maximum 2 percent of Congress held blue-collar jobs before getting into politics. 

Alexander Hamilton once argued that working-class Americans see wealthier people as “their natural patron[s] and friend[s]” and that workers know “that however great the confidence they may justly feel in their own good sense, their interests can be more effectually promoted by the merchant than by themselves.” The idea has been with us ever since.

Unfortunately, economic policy just isn’t that simple. Americans from different classes don’talways have the same interests or want the same policies. As pollsters have known for decades – and as Gilens, Page, and others have shown – working-class Americans are more likely to support higher minimum wages, more progressive taxes, and a stronger social safety net. Affluent Americans, on the other hand, are more likely to support hobbling labor unions and giving tax breaks to the wealthy….

People who have always had health insurance, who have no worries about funding their retirements, and who can afford private schools and expensive colleges for their children [decide] policies for the vast majority of Americans who live on shakier economic ground.

Link: Of Course The U.S. Is An ‘Oligarchy’ – We Keep Electing The Rich