Finland was experimenting with a scheme resembling a universal basic income since 2016 but recently axed the funding for it. The initial 800 euros a month in unconditional income had been skimped down to 560 and eventually lost enough political support to keep it going. UBI advocates were excited by the prospect of the Finnish policy, in part because it would give researchers another opportunity to gather another solid dataset analyzing the effects of unconditional income payments. While I too am disappointed the Finnish government has pulled the plug on the policy, I am slowly drifting more into the “Jobs Guarantee” camp as time goes on. Giving cash to people has its benefits, but I don’t think it amply addresses the pressures high-income countries face from increased automation and globalization.

A Universal Basic Income – UBI – is a sum of money given to every citizen in a polity regardless of income and with no conditions attached. Though the amount of money and all the nuances can differ, that’s the basic idea. Unlike food stamps, the money does not need to be spent on food. Unlike TANF, the money is given to everyone regardless of income or need. The idea has diverse bipartisan support in a time when finding bipartisan support for anything is hard to come by. Those on the political left tend to support UBI because it gives everyone a base level of income, liberates many from the drudgery of bad jobs, and can give individuals the opportunity to pursue creative pursuits or take risks that they’d otherwise shy away from when struggling to pay rent. Those on the political right tend to support UBI because many UBI proposals get rid of all the clunkiness of a welfare state and replace it with one check: Forget all the administrative costs and bureaucracy involved in running dozens and dozens of agencies with different goals, all of these are eliminated and replaced by a simple transfer mechanism.

I was initially drawn to the idea of UBI for the reasons beloved by both the political right and left. It promises a simple, clean solution that’s more empowering and less paternalistic than telling people how they need to spend their money. Most importantly, the success thus far of charities like Give Directly in lower-income countries compared to old-fashioned targeted aid confirms a basic tenet of UBI: Give people money and they can be trusted to spend it optimally.

But high-income countries like the United States and Scandinavia are not like the beneficiaries of Give Directly. In many ways, high-income countries today are a land of plenty. We have no widespread shortage of basic material necessities like housing, infrastructure, food, or clean drinking water. One could argue the most significant economic pressures affecting high-income countries today are most strongly experienced by those left behind by increasing automation and globalization. Liberalized trade and capital policies are a net positive for the world, I still believe, but the downside effects to the “losers” of globalization were under predicted. As robots replace old middle-class jobs and rust belt work is sent overseas, many people are left with few work alternatives and can turn to opioids or scorched-earth politicians to soothe the pain.

The loss these communities feel is one of income, sure. But it’s also a loss of the myriad non-income benefits of employment: identity, community, purpose, and meaning. Middle Eastern Gulf countries that have significantly higher income because citizens are given a share of oil revenues don’t experience life satisfaction levels as high as their income would suggest. In fact, some evidence suggests their happiness level is more closely related to the income they have “earned” (in the traditional sense of the word) than what they have access to. To me, this shows the magnitude of neglect the policy commentariat has given to the importance of employment for life satisfaction that is unrelated to income.

I’m not advocating the elimination of the welfare state, or even against some sort of UBI altogether. Instead, I think UBI fans need to realize it is not the panacea they make it out to be. Economists specifically are too stuck in their models that suggest utility is purely a function of income. Models of the labor market that imply people frictionlessly moving from the coal mines to pink-collar healthcare jobs or from manufacturing to computer programming totally neglect these aspects. Equilibria in labor markets is a beautiful idea on the blackboard, but people do not effortlessly move across the country or world like electronic money. Among other issues, the old-fashioned rust-belt American men will not suddenly become nurses because “that’s where the work is.” Their identity, sometimes for generations, is tied strongly to a certain type of employment, and coal miners will struggle with the identity change of becoming a male nurse. In the same way, the professional class in America during a recession will shun working at a hardware store or cleaning houses and instead prefer unemployment, largely because it does not fit their identity. And despite the caricature of Welfare Queens or lazy people on the dole, the vast majority of people get purpose and meaning out of their job. Giving them a UBI check will help them pay the rent and put food on the table (nontrivial matters to take care of), but it won’t give them the community or purpose that showing up to work gives them.

A public Jobs Guarantee – the hot topic right now on Economics Twitter – has varied manifestations, but all proposals seemingly target this benefit of employment. I’m skeptical on many grounds, though I have hope that a good proposal emerges. A JG can act complementary with a UBI, so I don’t mean to dismiss the benefits of UBI entirely or see it as one-or-the-other. Instead, I think UBI cheerleaders need to realize that giving money will be a significantly incomplete substitute for the purpose/community/identity that a job gives.

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