Talking About Money Book Club: Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman
“You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots.”
Please read Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman. I enjoyed this book because it pushed me outside my typical thinking when it comes to ways to eradicate poverty. In my social work training and practice I am accustomed to making relatively small tweaks to existing practice, all in the hopes that this latest tweak will be the one to make a noticeable impact. In Bregman’s book he blows up the existing ways of doing anti-poverty work and invites readers into a whole new world. Let’s look at a few of the themes that he presents:
Universal Basic Income
Give poor people money. Audacious! Outrageous! But it actually works. Bregman begins with describing an experiment in London where a local charity decided to give cash to thirteen chronically homeless people. Nothing was expected of them in return.
Guess what happened? They found housing. Their health improved. They pursued education. Their relationships improved. As opposed to the public benefit programs of today that demand that individuals jump through various hoops in order to receive resources that won’t quite make a difference, researchers in the London study learned that giving people cash can and will improve people’s lives.
And this was not the only example of success for universal basic income. Bregman describes examples from all over the globe where simply giving people money with no strings attached leads to better standards of living. Do you know that then-President Nixon almost signed into law unconditional income for all poor families in 1969? Amazing.
For those of you who work in human services, can you conceive of operating in a space where those without money were simply given money? Frankly, this makes my head spin a little for the newness of the concept, but I am willing to give it a try. In fact, I remember a time when I was a new mom and I wanted to stay home with my son while he was a baby. I remember thinking, “If I only had an additional $500 each month, I could really make this parenting gig work.” I would have felt confident that I could commit my energy to taking care of my little guy while having the peace of mind that my bills would be paid. Is that too much to ask on behalf of American parents? I don’t think so.
A Shorter Workweek
You may be familiar with the 1930 speech given by economist John Maynard Keynes titled, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” when he predicted a future with a fifteen-hour workweek. Yeah, right. With the rise of mechanical work in the first half of the 20th century, experts predicted that there would be nowhere for American workers to go besides on vacation. A shorter workweek was inevitable. All that additional time for contemplating your naval (as my mother-in-law likes to say)!
But instead, Americans went to the shopping mall. Leisure was replaced with consumption. And to top it all off, the feminist revolution put more women into the workforce. The average family work week became even longer and free time became even scarcer.
To make this ball of yarn even more tangled, the rise of technology has blurred the lines between work and play, as you can be sitting on a beach in Tahiti while on a conference call with a client. So are you working during your vacation? Or are you serving your clients while sipping a drink with a paper umbrella? And is there a difference?
Add to this that some experts believe that the human mind is only creatively productive for six hours a day. So to what end is this round-the-clock working, at your desk or on the beach? Research reveals the negative effect of all of this “on”-ness, namely increases in stress, worsening climate change, more accidents, greater unemployment, slower emancipation of women, fewer jobs for elders, and overall greater inequality. What a list of downers.
I have a question about how civil society is supposed to run when everyone is always working and never has time to perform the volunteer work that was done by bored housewives in the 1970’s. Who is supposed to run the parent committees at the public schools? What about the neighborhood associations? And the advisory boards for community groups? “I’m sorry, I can’t. I’m too busy” has simultaneously become the universal excuse for not lending a hand to support our communities, and a show of status where business connotes a higher rank in society.
(I could go on and on here, but I will save this rant for a future blog post…)
People do want shorter workweeks, and in surveys they claim that they would exchange money for time. But workers cannot make that individual decision while existing in a wholly unequal society. A shift to a shorter workweek needs to come from government policy that supports workers of all kinds, from part-timers to parents to elders.
Taxing Capital Rather Than Labor
The robots are coming to take our jobs. Forget that, they’re here. Bregman sites that median wages have decreased 14% in the 40 years between 1969 and 2009. When we combine the capability of humans with the capability of machines, we have more available labor than we need and this compresses wages.
Along with this sizable decrease in wages has come a shift in who holds wealth and how much wealth they actually have. It used to be that two-thirds of a country’s wealth sat in the hands of the country’s labor, while one-third sat in the pockets of capital owners. While other factors have played a role (decline of labor unions, growth of financial sector, lower taxes on capital, rise of Asia), the growth of technology has shifted that breakdown to 58% labor/42% capital. There is now more wealth in capital and that wealth is held by far fewer people than in earlier decades. And that capital is taxed at a lower rate that how labor is taxed, meaning that a few people are hoarding more resources to the detriment of many, many others who need more money to survive.
And at the pace that things are going, more machines are going to take more jobs. There will still be great jobs for the highly educated and there will still be unskilled jobs that still need to get done, but the middle-skill job market will continue to be hollowed out and replaced by machines that can do these tasks faster and more precisely. For a country that prides itself on its robust middle class, the American middle class is going to become an endangered species (for lack of a better term).
So what do we do about the middle class, those of fewer and fewer jobs that are nonetheless highly taxed and motivated to work? One answer appears to be to levy progressive taxes on wealth, whether or not it has political support. We’ll see what our leaders decide to do in the coming years with our tax code, as the rich get richer and regular families struggle to get by, public services are cut thin, and roads and bridges continue to crumble.