Former Vice President Joe Biden jumped into the political fray last week with both feet, taking on the concept of universal basic income (UBI) in a blog post.
This should have sparked some breathless “horserace” coverage (“He’s definitely running for president!”), as well as a substantive policy critique (automation poses a serious challenge to our future, and policy-makers will have to grapple with how to manage it).
Instead, it was mostly overshadowed by other news.
But what is UBI, and why does Biden oppose it?
“The theory is that automation will result in so many lost jobs that the only plausible answer is some type of guaranteed government check with no strings attached,” Biden blogged at the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute.
“While I appreciate concerns from Silicon Valley executives about what their innovations may do to American incomes, I believe they’re selling American workers short,” he continued. “Our children and grandchildren deserve the promise we’ve had: the skills to get ahead, the chance to earn a paycheck, and a steady job that rewards hard work.”
I’m glad someone is finally saying this. But will Biden’s comments put him on the wrong side of history? “Biden’s jab at [UBI] is, no doubt, self-interested, but it comes from a place of pride in the traditional American ethos of personal responsibility and industriousness,” writes Noah Rothman in Commentary. “Unfortunately for him and those who would join him in this internecine fight, they are vastly outmanned,” Rothman writes, by what he calls the “post-labor left.”
Maybe. But what good is winning the nomination if you can’t beat Trump? And here, Biden’s opposition to UBI isn’t just good policy, it’s also good politics.
Biden might be perfectly positioned to appeal to erstwhile Democratic voters living in the Rust Belt. “If you’re looking for someone who can simultaneously persuade the angry mobs to put away the pitchforks and still bring white working-class voters back into the Democratic fold, perhaps you’ve found your answer in the Pride of Scranton,” writes Bill Scher at Politico magazine.
Right after the election, I interviewed my mom—a Pennsylvania Trump voter—about her decision to support The Donald. “I really believe that people want to work,” she told me. “The people of central Pennsylvania voted for change. They want jobs. And they want their self-esteem back. And there’s nothing like earning a paycheck—getting a paycheck on Friday night—to perk up your ego.”
These voters don’t want handouts—they want jobs. This is an entirely healthy instinct. As American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks wrote back in 2010, “Earned success gives people a sense of meaning about their lives. And meaning also is a key to human flourishing.”
Now compare Brooks’ worldview to this line from Biden’s blog post: “My father used to have an expression. He’d say, ‘Joey, a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about your self-respect. It’s about your place in your community.’” This is a message that will resonate with Trump voters in Middle America.
The tech industry, as Biden insinuates, might prefer the government to give us money—presumably so that we aren’t so upset when they replace us. But taking care of our physical needs won’t compensate for the spiritual loss that would come from millions of aimless Americans playing video games in their basements.
In fairness to the tech giants, what Biden sees as dystopian, they see as utopian. It’s possible that UBI could simply free us up to pursue our true passions, not constitute our entire paycheck. Nothing is to say that you have to check out completely. Let’s say you want to write the great American novel. Maybe not having to worry as much about making ends meet would allow you to find your life’s work. That’s kind of what Mark Zuckerberg thinks, at least.
Like many issues these days, UBI has strange bedfellows. Libertarian-leaning author and political scientist Charles Murray has suggested that our government should give every American $10,000 when they turn 21. Murray argues that this stipend, combined with a minimum wage job, would allow anyone to live above the poverty line. He also notes that three people could pool their income and would then have $30,000 per year to live on.
The catch is that Murray’s program would replace all the existing welfare programs and entitlements. Good luck with that. Just as many conservatives are suspicious that a value-added tax would never actually replace income tax (were it to gain steam), the odds are this “mincome” wouldn’t replace other “safety net” programs—it would just be one more government handout.
Other unintended consequences are cause for concern. Some economists worry about inflation. If subsidizing education drives up the cost of school, wouldn’t subsidizing life drive up the price of living? People disagree on this.
Joe Biden isn’t even running for president yet, and he has already provided us with one of the most interesting public policy debates of the year. Biden dismisses UBI, but doesn’t offer any solutions for how to deal with the rise of automation. He will obviously have to do that if he wants to make this a signature issue.
Still, this debate is a welcome reprieve from the incessant Russia/North Korea chatter, but it could prove equally challenging for the domestic side of the ledger.
What happens if automation essentially replaces most of our jobs? Conservatives who want everyone to be an entrepreneur will be out of touch, but so will materialist progressives who fail to appreciate the human need for meaningful work and purpose.
As Joe Biden might say, this issue is a big F-ing deal.