At Harvard’s commencement last month, dropout Mark Zuckerberg told eager graduates to create a new social contract for their generation: “We should have a society that measures progress not just by economic metrics like GDP, but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful.” He then said to applause: “We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things.” Who wouldn’t like three grand a month?
Having the government provide citizens with a universal basic income is the most bankrupt idea since socialism, but others in Silicon Valley still have been proselytizing money for nothing. “There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said at the World Government Summit in Dubai earlier this year. “I think some kind of universal basic income is going to be necessary.”
Robert Reich, President Clinton’s labor secretary, summed up the wrongheaded thinking a few months ago: “We will get to a point, all our societies, where technology is displacing so many jobs, not just menial jobs but also professional jobs, that we’re going to have to take seriously the notion of a universal basic income.”
This is a false premise. All through history, automation has created more jobs than it destroyed. Washboards and wringers were replaced by increasingly inexpensive washing machines, while more women entered the workforce. Automated manufacturing and one-click buying has upended retail, yet throughout the U.S. millions of jobs go unfilled. With Amazon’s proposed purchase of Whole Foods , the online giant is primed finally to bring efficiency to the last mile of grocery shopping—but don’t count on all grocery jobs to disappear.
The economics, which they apparently stopped teaching at Harvard, are straightforward: Lowering the cost of goods and services through automation allows capital—financial and human—to attack even harder problems. Wake me up when we run out of problems.
These kinds of predictions aren’t new, and they’ve been wrong almost always. In 1930 John Maynard Keynes envisioned that his grandchildren would have a 15-hour workweek. Sam Altman, who runs the startup incubator Y Combinator, dabbles in similarly bold but meaningless statements. “We think everyone should have enough money to meet their basic needs—no matter what, especially if there are enough resources to make it possible,” he wrote last year, while admitting he has no idea “how it should look or how to pay for it.”
Where to begin? First, the cost of a universal basic income would make free college for everyone look like austerity. The cost of anything the government touches tends to increase well faster than inflation—education, health care, housing. Price signals get distorted, but since Uncle Sam is paying, no one seems to care. Anyway, why stop at $3,000 a month? Why not $4,000 a month or $40,000? Everyone deserves a MacArthur genius grant!
If last year’s presidential election proved anything, it’s that people want jobs, not handouts. The education system needs reform, but there are already two billion mobile classrooms built into smartphones world-wide. Paying people not to work means you’ll never get them back into the workforce. Why would you want to work when you can bang on a drum all day?
The U.S. is already turning European—I really think so. Remember the Obama administration’s “Life of Julia,” which glorified the nanny state? Every year more Democrats push single-payer health care because competition is deemed too messy. The safety net now has a safety net. These are all on the riverbank of paying people not to work. Universal basic income would be the final drowning of capitalism.
The bigger question is why all these Silicon Valley bigwigs are intent on giving away other people’s money. Perhaps it’s a misplaced sense of shame for their riches. Worse, some believe they are chosen to carry society on their backs while the teeming masses can be paid to idle along. Well, as long as they download the latest apps and are given enough to pay for wireless internet and an iPhone upgrade every few years. Facebook and videogames are already huge mind sinks. Add Mr. Musk’s Neuralink direct brain interface and no one will ever get off the couch.
Most millennials are hardworking and motivated, but have you noticed that the talk of universal basic income comes just as marijuana legalization is making more gains than ever? It’s already been legalized for recreational use in eight states and for medicinal purposes in 29. Universal basic income, combined with legal weed, could ruin an entire generation. We’ll never get them out of our collective basements. Thanks, Zuck.