Work is More Than A Source of Income

I completely agree that Universal Basic Income is a good idea. But I think that’s just the beginning of the discussion.

I had a fascinating conversation recently with MIT economist David Autor. I asked him if there were any good economic studies of various countries that had some equivalent to universal basic income — Indian reservations with Casinos, Norway, Saudi Arabia came up as possibilities.

Autor said that there haven’t been any good published studies, but his informal observations were eye opening. On Indian reservations, there has been some nastiness about “voting people off the island” — i.e. voting people out of the tribe in order to concentrate the benefits, but there is apparently some evidence that it has done good things in terms of improving quality of life and engagement. In Saudi Arabia, where most forms of work are looked down upon and half the population (i.e. women) are not allowed to work outside the home at all, universal income has led to a situation in which most non-government work is done by guest workers, the privileged classes mostly work at sinecure jobs for the government, and there is a culture of luxury and indulgence among those classes.

Norway seems to have got it right. As I recall, David said “Everyone works. Just not that much.” Norway has very high labor force participation, but also very generous social benefits, allowing people lots of time to care for family and friends and engage in social activity. The key, he said, was that all kinds of work are seen as having dignity.

That question of what we dignify as work and that people get social status and satisfaction from is a thread that runs through the Next:Economy summit. Laszlo Bock told me an amazing story, which he in turn heard from Zeynep Ton (also a speaker at the event) about a hospital janitor who went out of his way to change the pictures in the rooms of people in a coma, in hopes that it would make a small difference to them. (Since this story is retold twice over, I hope I got it right.

Anne Marie Slaughter, also a speaker at the event, notes that “Caring is our most important work.” She identifies the low value that we as a society place on this work as something we have to reverse. That low valuation on caring is what drives women out of the workforce, for example, as they take time to care for children, aging parents, and other family members.

The dignity of work more broadly strikes me as a key question. If everyone has a basic income, we will still need people to get value from what they do. In addition to caring, sharing is work.

I think that a lot of what people do on social media, entertaining their friends, is a kind of work that we don’t appreciate. Cory Doctorow’s first book, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, depicts a world of abundance in which the economy is based on reputation, people compete to impress each other, and are paid in a reputation currency.

One could argue that Likes on Facebook, YouTube, and other social media platforms are a prototype of this kind of reputation economy.

It may seem far fetched to think of social media as a kind of work, but I like to point out that we consider a poet or a novelist to be “working,” even though their books might sell to a tiny audience, or to no one at all; we consider an actor to be working at their career even if all they do is audition, and put food on the table by waiting tables.

Work is a source of meaning and identity. And we will need to couple that with basic income if it is to succeed.

Finally, I’m not convinced that the robots and AIs are really going to take all our jobs. Evidence from the agricultural and industrial revolutions argues otherwise. But more compellingly, as Nick Hanauer notes, “We’re not going to run out of work till we run out of problems.”

There are huge unsolved problems in the world today. We have to rebuild infrastructure, deal with climate change, make sure that aging populations get the care they need, feed the billions of new people entering the world and the billions graduating to the middle class, figure out why rich countries are demoting people from the middle class, and much much more.

That’s why I’ve organized the Next:Economy Summit: to start a conversation about all these issues. We don’t have all the answers we need yet, but I’m betting that if we work at it, the Next Economy we build can be a better one than the one we have today. We have to commit to making it so.

Founder and CEO, O'Reilly Media. Watching the alpha geeks, sharing their stories, helping the future unfold.