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The War on Normal People

25 Aug 2018

I have been thinking about universal basic income (UBI) a lot lately, and luckily enough so have a lot of other people. The New York Times book review had a review of two books about UBI, so I decided to pick up one of them to further my interest. The War on Normal People has a subtitle of "The Truth About America's Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future" which made me think it was going to be heavy on the justification for UBI. The book instead is more an argument for why the author thinks "automation" is finally going to hit the economy in the next decade or two and result in so much unemployment that a UBI, among other things, is necessary.

The books breaks down into three sections: what is happening to jobs, what is happening to us, and solutions. The first section can be summarized as machines have already displaced a lot of jobs and it is only going to get worse. The second section says the lack of purpose and income associated with long term unemployment causes health and psychological problems that have already begun to ruin society and it is only going to get worse. Both these first two sections have some fascinating data as well as a lot of bleak news.

It's quite plausible that as steady and predictable work and income become more and more rare, our culture is becoming dumber, more impulsive, and even more racist and misogynist due to an increased bandwidth tax as people jump from island to island trying to stay one step ahead of the economic tide.

There is not a lot of positive outlook in these first two sections and rightly so. The unemployment rate is farcical in that it does not measure unemployment in the sense that most people think of it. A real measure which incorporates underemployment as well as labor market participation rates paints a much more dire picture than the healthy top line number. He paints a dark picture of the future, but more so rightly states that we are already in dark times. Take for example, 22 percent of men between 21 and 30 with less than a bachelor's degree reported not working at all in the previous year. If you think that the education caveat there makes that less strinking, consider that only about 32 percent have a bachelor's degree or more, so that means roughly 15 percent of the total 21 to 30 age bracket of men are not in the labor force. A lot of them are simply not looking for jobs and therefore are not considered unemployed by the traditional metric. That is a crazy high number that is only going to get worse.

The part I really came to this book for was the solutions. This is where I was a bit let down. It read like someone who sat down with his buddies and just started throwing out some crazy ideas. The part on UBI is decent, short and to the point, but I wish it had been expounded upon. The rest of the solutions are just things he thinks would be a good idea with a smattering of referential support. All of his ideas are relevant because they address real problems that need to be fixed like giving people meaning in a post-work world and fixing health care. But nonetheless, it seemed rushed and not really that well thought through.

Overall this was a decent book for understanding a bit about where we are and a bit about some proposed solutions on the path forward. I am planning on writing something a bit longer on UBI so I will have to get some more sources and I feel that this one will end up being not as good as the other stuff out there.


Category: book