My Review Of Andy Stern's Book "Raising The Floor"
In his new book, Raising The Floor: How A Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy And Rebuild The American Dream, Andy Stern weighs in on an old idea that has been gaining traction as of late, namely "universal basic income." How the former president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) arrived at considering basic income as a 21st century policy solution to economic inequality is remarkable yet perhaps inevidable.
The book itself reads like an investigative documentary film. Traveling through the United States, Stern picks the brains of today's capitalists, technologists, and social activists in order to figure out what work for the average American will be like in the future in the brave new world of automation and artificial intelligence. Noting that the digital revolution is currently in the process of replacing the industrial revolution in addition to displacing the paradigm of laboring for a living, he proposes a solution: give every single citizen free money from the government, enough to cover the basics in life.
Stern's account is an insider's look rather than an outsider's protest. In other words, he is not Michael Moore. When Stern sits down to chat with Honeywell International CEO David Cote, they are chatting as friendly colleagues in ernest, not sworn enemies bantering for comedic effect. Stern's approach may come as a shock to, say, members of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tea Party movement, but only because neither group has read Prof. G. William Domhoff's research on the social networks and the non-partisan policy discussion groups run by America's power elite (See Who Rules America?).
For his willingness to add his voice to the global conversation about basic income, Stern should be commended. Because he tries to have a serious discussion about the future of work with a member of the Business Roundtable like Cotes, he does a service for those who support basic income. By doing so, Stern advances the idea to the One Percent of the One Percent in a way that is easy for them to digest. Plus, he delivers the topic to the trade union movement in the United States, places where long-time basic income advocate and labor scholar Prof. Guy Standing might not have much cache. His approach furthers the work done by think tank policy experts (i.e. academics) across the ideological spectrum on the topic of basic income for the past few decades.
Like Prof. Standings most recent books on the precariat, Stern's book is written for the layperson. It's a quick read too. In fact, I'm amazed at how fast Stern dismantles the idea of a "job guarantee" as well as "employment by government" as solutions to the automation and globalization of jobs. This takedown runs along the same thought process as Prof. David Graeber's criticism of paperwork and bureaucracy [link] in both the government and corporate spheres, although is there any difference between the two? It should be noted that Graeber is one of the founding members of Occupy Wall Street. One of Graeber's talks with Barbara Jacobson [link] was also my first exposure to the basic income concept.
However, there are a few blind spots in Stern's vision of the path to make UBI a reality, in my humble opinion. First, I have yet to hear why corporations would support basic income, other than to keep consumers buying their goods and services. Corporations still hold the upper hand in Washington and in the other state capitols over the labor force, and at this point, I don't see how anyone could convince corporations to let go of their work-for-wages power and their "we are the job creators" myth. Thus, welfare, as we know it, could continue along with means-testing of benefits and conditional restrictions.
Second, that said, should moderates in the corporate sphere become sympathetic to the growing number of Americans in poverty, administration for a national basic income program would probably more likely develop outside the state's control through some corporate-sector device. In other words, watch for corporations transfer cash under the banner of "corporate social responsibility" as charity to those citizens deemed deserving. I'm thinking this way is likely because corporations already have the infrastructure in place to do it. Whether they hand over the program to the federal government someday as they did with Social Security is a good question.
Third, I tend to believe in Domhoff's strategy for economic structural change in the political arena with minor differences to grassroots organizing. I think instead of supporting a national third party to implement basic income, as Stern suggests, energy should be focused on forming "egalitarian basic income clubs" that influences both of the major political parties at the state level. My example from history is the Non-Partisan League of the early 1900s that took over North Dakota's state government to create the Bank of North Dakota. Members of the NPL were active in both the Republican and Democratic parties. It's true that no other state has a public bank, but 20 years ago, no state allowed same-sex marriage either. Due to organizing precinct-by-precinct state-by-state, enough bills passed legalizing same-sex marriage that the United States reached a tipping point such that a sitting vice president came out in favor of it before the president. We can't fail to mention key decisions made by the lower and higher courts.
Fourth, I think taxes on Wall Street are not necessary in order to fund basic income. Though a long shot, basic income could be implemented through a state-owned public bank like the Bank of North Dakota. It's certainly possible to administer such a program through such an institution. In fact, I think most Americans would prefer that method to funding basic income than through raising taxes because with a public bank, the entire citizenry of the state (i.e. taxpayers) would own the bank and therefore would be entitled to receive shares of its profits in the form of a basic income. With higher sales taxes, cities and counties could then rebuild their infrastructure and provide social services via state rebates. This sales tax rebate scheme is how cities and counties work in Texas anyway. Honestly, I think Americans don't want income ceilings; they want income floors. Otherwise, what would they aspire to be?
In the end, though, I agree with Stern that time is better spent on spreading the word on basic income now than on getting into the merky details of how a basic income should be financed and administered. At the same time, I think the up-in-coming crop of Americans is more open than previous generations to run on the insight of economist Joseph Schumpeter, by way of political economist Gar Alperovitz in his piece Socialism, American-Style: “One of the most significant titles to superiority,” [Schumpeter] suggested, was that public ownership produced profits, which means not having to depend on taxes to raise money."