On another ‘radical fringe’ idea of America’s future

Every American worker, apparently, in the minds of Block and Piven. (AP file photo)

Every American worker, apparently, in the minds of Block and Piven. (AP file photo)

No week spent discussing the “radical fringe” in politics would be complete without reviewing one of the most insidious political arguments I’ve seen so far in 2016.

The argument appeared this week on the website of The Nation, a left-wing magazine, in a piece by Fred Block and Frances Fox Piven titled “A Basic Income Would Upend America’s Work Ethic — and That’s a Good Thing.” The notion of a basic income or a universal basic income has been debated many times over the years, and that debate has reappeared in recent months as some people fret about robots replacing workers on a mass scale (something no previous wave of technology has managed, by the way). But “basic income” is a concept with varying definitions. Here’s how the authors define it: “the idea that every citizen is entitled to an income sufficient to cover basic needs.”

If this sounds attractive, it is meant to be so. The actual aim here doesn’t come until a few paragraphs later: “decoupling money and work by giving money to everyone.” Put another way: Don’t reform welfare; put everyone on it.

Suddenly, we’re not talking about modifying or even expanding the safety net for the poor. A basic income as a means of welfare reform is the only reason, as Block and Piven slyly put it, “the Koch brothers’ favorite think tank, the Cato Institute, has revisited the idea.” Yes, some scholars at Cato as well as other libertarians and even conservatives have done so. But they’ve done so explicitly as a means of replacing the welfare state (see the second paragraph here for an example). Block and Piven insinuate Cato’s support is different when, by way of contrast with Cato, they say support on the right for a basic income has “historically” owed to “hostility to welfare-state programs.” In fact, Cato has revisited the idea for the same reason men like Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Charles Murray considered it: All of them believe the welfare state serves the poor rather poorly.

Suffice it to say, though, none of the above conservatives and libertarians are entertaining the idea of “decoupling money and work by giving money to everyone.” Block and Piven have something far more radical in mind.

***

Block and Piven never come out and call it a “universal” basic income — the kind the Swiss recently rejected, which would have paid every single citizen the equivalent of $2,800 a month — but that’s the only version of the idea that conforms to what they wrote. After all, “giving money to everyone” would seem to include everyone. There is somewhat of a contradiction in their acknowledgment that the enormous sums of tax revenues it would take to fund a basic income would threaten “the regrettable bipartisan consensus that there must be no increase in the tax burden on middle-income households.” But how many middle-income households would remain in the work force in a world in which money and work were decoupled? (As an aside, it is refreshing that Block and Piven acknowledge broad taxes on many Americans would be needed to fund such a program, when everyone from Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders say only “the rich” need to pay.)

Indeed, how many middle-class households would Block and Piven want to keep working? Work — excuse me, the “tyranny of wage labor” — seems to be their main enemy. “It is not just another reform,” they insist; “it is a proposal that makes us think about what it is we are here on earth to do.” That’s rather too broad a goal to be limited to just the poor. (And speaking of “tyranny,” if you think you are uncomfortably confined by the golden handcuffs of your employer, wait until you and the rest of us are dependent for our income on a government that can impose its will with the force of law and, if necessary, violence. That is actual tyranny.)

Where, though, do Block and Piven think the ideas for the consumer goods being “churn(ed) out by automated factories” are going to come from? Where, even, will the robots doing the work come from? And future improvements in those robots? Who is going to spend time dreaming up new products, services and machines when they could be enjoying “a rich leisure life” and “a dense social life,” without worrying about how the mortgage will be paid? What’s more, what happens if those robots cost more to operate than we expect? Where will we get the tax revenues to pay for a basic-income raise, in order for people to afford the higher prices of the goods those robots produce, once people leave the work that’s been decoupled from the money? Their serene picture of a life spent at leisure ignores all this.

Or maybe their picture simply omits it. For someone will own those factories, as well as the large farms also referenced in the article. Who? The government? There’s no suggestion of that in the piece, though it wouldn’t exactly surprise me if that’s what they had in mind. But if not the government, would it be private citizens? If so, won’t they be the prime beneficiaries of such a system, as they’d be the only people in line to reap more than a basic income? Won’t that invariably exacerbate what Block and Piven decry as “the huge gap between the ostentatious wealth of the billionaires and the misery of those who can find only the most degraded forms of work”? We just won’t be doing “degraded” work anymore, whatever that means. (Another way Block and Piven misrepresent the right’s attitude toward this issue is to ignore completely the renewed emphasis among conservatives of the inherent value and dignity to be found in work of all kinds.)

Here lies a hidden element of this whole idea. Yes, the current environment in which this idea is being discussed is amid concerns technological advances that, some people believe, will lead to mass unemployment. But that’s not the argument Block and Piven are making; they are making it for its own sake. That’s hardly surprising, considering Piven has been espousing this idea for literally 50 years — even endorsing an artificially sparked crisis to force its adoption if need be (the infamous Cloward-Piven strategy).

***

Finally, it’s worth noting that Block and Piven botch their retelling of a “myth” they blame for our holding up work as “one of the most elemental pillars of our civic religion”:

“Remember the myth of the Garden of Eden, shared by all the Abrahamic creeds, Christian and Muslim and Jewish traditions alike. Once upon a time, the story goes, God was generous. He created Adam and Eve and gave them a garden of plenty in which to live. But although there were many trees with many fruits, they were tempted by the serpent and disobeyed God’s warning not to bite into the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. For this sin they were cast out of the garden and made to struggle for their subsistence. They had sinned, and so ever after they were made to work for their livelihood. Work is our punishment, the story goes, and our redemption.”

Like the serpent, though, Block and Piven must mislead in order to create their temptation. Contrary to what one might believe by reading their account of the story above, work existed before original sin. Right before the part Block and Piven quote about the trees with many fruits, which comes from Genesis 2:16-17, is verse 15:

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (emphasis added)

So work did not originate as some kind of punishment, nor is that what it is today. For those of us who believe the “myth” Block and Piven have twisted for their own use — and a great many people who don’t — work is central to our humanity. It helps explain “what it is we are here on earth to do.” It’s how we don’t end up like this:

Reader Comments 0

86 comments
Dave Fedack
Dave Fedack

Today I had a letter published in the Sunday AJC on a similar but equally important topic. Let me say that normally I disagree with Mr. Wingfield but I respect him as a person and I think he is a very talented writer.

AndyManUSA#45
AndyManUSA#45

"Surprisingly (or not), they also discovered that in these instances involving individuals, conservatives are actually more willing to help blacks than liberals are." 


http://thefederalist.com/2016/08/25/conservatisms-racism-isnt-think/


Not "surprising" at all. The liberals have had plenty of opportunities to help the blacks and have been promising to do just that for a half a century or more, they just never get around to actually doing it.



Lil_Barry_Bailout
Lil_Barry_Bailout

Leftists think personal charity might lessen demand for bigger government. Being charitable is blasphemy to them.

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

If anyone is looking for the hard-left fringe, look no further than the AJC political blogs. Bookman, has moved so far left that even a GPS couldn't get him back to the center. His dwindling followers can only cheer his outrageous disjointed commentary.

xxxzzz
xxxzzz

@SGTGrit He's turned into a DNC mouthpiece.  I turned him off once he jumped the shark on Trump being a Russian stooge.

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

@xxxzzz @SGTGrit I long since decided not to give him a click, he has about 3 dozen robotic servants, who refuse to accept any rational argument or evidence against their group think.  It is just an ultra-left delusional echo chamber.

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

@RafeHollister @xxxzzz @SGTGrit 

He appears to have lost many of his long time regulars. There are still the trolls who look for any post that challenges their group think and get their fellow robots to pile on rather than offer up a debate. If their feelings get hurt they'll immediately email Jay, to complain.

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

@xxxzzz @SGTGrit They are right, comedy is a nonexistent art form today.  It died on the alter of political correctness and insane levels of sensitivity. 



MarkVV
MarkVV

@RafeHollister @xxxzzz @SGTGrit Luckily, Kyle has not that many of those robotic, ultra-right servants, who refuse to accept any rational argument or evidence against their group think. But there are still quite a few here.

MarkVV
MarkVV

@RafeHollister @xxxzzz @SGTGrit  Luckily, Kyle has not that many of those robotic, ultra-right servants, who refuse to accept any rational argument or evidence against their group think. But there are still quite a few here.

MarkVV
MarkVV

Many conservatives on this blog appear to have a difficulty of differentiating between the idea of a social program and its execution. They consider flaws of execution to be flaws of the idea. Few if any kind of human endeavor is executed flawlessly, but that does not disprove its legitimacy.

xxxzzz
xxxzzz

@MarkVV You miss the point.  Lacking the profit motive, government usually poorly executes programs.  It is inherent in the idea.

MarkVV
MarkVV

@xxxzzz @MarkVV With a profit motive, private sector often poorly serves the customers. It is inherent in the human behavior.

Lil_Barry_Bailout
Lil_Barry_Bailout

The crucial difference being that only government gets to use force against its "customers". In the private sector, choice and free will rules.

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

@MarkVV 

Unless it's too flawed beyond legitimacy. As Kyle, points out in his topic commentary.

Lil_Barry_Bailout
Lil_Barry_Bailout

Who said that? One of the most important purposes of government is to protect and safeguard our rights. Some amount of police, courts, and regulation are necessary given human nature.

Lil_Barry_Bailout
Lil_Barry_Bailout

Obozocare isn't cratering due to failures of execution, it's cratering due to math, economics, and Democrat takers gaming the system to get healthcare without paying.

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

@MarkVV Execution that ignores human nature in its development, as most government programs do, is doomed to fail.  Politicians have to pretend that folks will all be good little children in order to foster their legislation.  I'm guessing that to acknowledge human failings of ones supporters costs you votes.  


Have you noticed that most fast food joints now have instituted some napkin control programs, because please take only what you need, never seemed to catch hold.  Human nature should be built into every design.

Lil_Barry_Bailout
Lil_Barry_Bailout

And if it weren't for Democrats, we'd barely need any police at all.

Starik
Starik

@Lil_Barry_Bailout How about roads, water supplies, airports and other government agencies like the military?  Jails and prisons don't appear to work well when privatized.

xxxzzz
xxxzzz

@MarkVV @xxxzzz If you poorly serve the customers, you go out of business.  If government poorly serves its customers, its managers get more employees.

iwd
iwd

Really Mr. Wingfield, is this all you have to try to raise up your side?  Let's see, your radical fringe spews hate, racism, and violence, even from the mouth of its leader. The leader your party has nominated. A leader supported now by a substantial majority of your party. And it rallies, horribly vicious and dangerous language is encouraged and expected....Meanwhile, this radical fringe is merely proposing the concept that all US families have the right to a basic standard of living - in the strongest country on the planet.  Many rich countries have such standards and use housing allowances and real universal health care to provide these. hardly even a radical notion when looking at most first-world countries.


RoadScholar
RoadScholar

@iwd Trump recently said that there is now a "war on farmers" Of course we allegedly have the war on Christmas, religion, conservatives, the rich, making healthcare available for all, drugs, ...I could go on.

Persecution complex? Did he get this and other dilemmas from the Nat'l Enquirer? Or is he mind melding with LBB?

MarkVV
MarkVV

I do not know any details about how and when Block and Piven believe their ideas may become reality. But I find questions and objections like Kyle’s,

“Who is going to spend time dreaming up new products, services and machines when they could be enjoying “a rich leisure life” and “a dense social life,” without worrying about how the mortgage will be paid?”

remarkably pessimistic about the human nature, if he believes that people who would lack material worries would also lack the intellectual curiosity and desire to create new things.

MarkVV
MarkVV

There were always people who found “utopian” those things that exceeded their imagination. A few hundred years ago many people would have found “utopian” the idea that you can have a mall, handheld device with which to talk to people virtually anywhere on the earth, or watch on a screen in your living room what is happening at that time many thousand miles away. Even much more recently many people would have found “utopian” the idea to send 20-gram weight spacecrafts to other stars in our galaxy and send back pictures.

But the resistance to innovation and change also exists in the area of human relations. A few thousand years ago many people would have scoffed at the idea that there is something wrong with keeping people in slavery, especially people of different race and skin color. (Well, in a country you might know, there were such people only a few hundred years ago.) And today many people consider social programs, which people in other developed countries take as integral parts of their life, as unacceptable.

FIGMO2
FIGMO2

Looking at the picture atop Kyle's article, I examined it closely for ankle chains. Made me reflect back to 1996 wherein an Alabama prisoner was shot by a guard BECAUSE?

One prisoner attacked another prisoner with a bush ax.

"No more chain gangs!" declared the SPLC because incidences such as that are "BOUND" to happen among prisoners.

Hellooooooooooo!

Human nature.

Now prisoners aren't required to work but can if they so desire. The prisoners that cut the roadsides in Clayton County seem to enjoy doing it. Others remain in prison insisting they be provided proper gym equipment to accommodate their physical workouts.

Hellooooooooooo!

Two different kinds of human nature. Those that enjoy labor and those that enjoy what the government provides. 

FIGMO2
FIGMO2

Liberalism, socialism, and progressivism have never been reality focused anyway, because they never take into account human nature.

BOOM!

I've got it--we'll implement a one-child policy!

Which would begin the slow process of eliminating the human capital needed to fund Block & Piven's utopia.

Look no further than Medicare for proof of human nature and how the government can manipulate it for their own purpose.

If you retire before age 65 without health coverage

If you retire before you’re 65 and lose your job-based health plan when you do, you can use the Health Insurance Marketplace to buy a plan.

THEN? The price goes up due to the nature of some humans.

I've said it before and I'll say it again...

mankind and utopia cannot occupy the same vessel.

The cork will always pop. 

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

@MarkVV @FIGMO2 

Often imagination results in something productive, however, imagining something utopian in nature is just fantasy.

FIGMO2
FIGMO2

@MarkVV @FIGMO2

I don't have to imagine human nature. It's apparent everywhere I look.  


AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@SGTGrit @FIGMO2


Medicare, social security, and veteran's benefits did not exist in the past. In that past they would have seemed utopian. 


Surely you constantly urge your congressperson to rid us of these parasitic programs. 


I also assume that you refuse to partake, now or in the future, of these programs that are paid by the producers of this country. Go ahead., pop the cork on this one.

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

@AvgGeorgian @SGTGrit @FIGMO2 

The three entitlements you reference are not utopian by any stretch of the imagination now or at the time of implementation. 

Medicare requires some form of out of pocket expense to make it functional and you pay into it. Social Security alone provides very little in providing a comfortable retirement. Veteran benefits are available as a result of serving the country through military service and there isn't anything utopian about war. I've paid my share of taxes during my career in the private sector and served my country through military service.

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

@AvgGeorgian @SGTGrit @FIGMO2 

Oh, I neglected to mention that Medicare and Social Security are both about broke and the VA is no longer properly serving veterans.

FIGMO2
FIGMO2

@AvgGeorgian @SGTGrit @FIGMO2

Medicare and Social Security were, in essence, a ponzi scheme set to pop without much needed reform.

I have no problem with reform but have prepared my future to get along without it.

Veterans deserve all they get but recent reviews and media reports suggest they ain't gettin' much and many have died waiting for what they were entitled to get.


RoyalDawg
RoyalDawg

@AvgGeorgian @SGTGrit @FIGMO2 There is a difference between "insurance" that the recipient has paid for and a give-away. By definition, medicare, social security and veterans benefits are true  "entitlements" as the recipients have BOUGHT them; they have no place in this discussion.

MarkVV
MarkVV

@FIGMO2 I have not said it, but I will say it now: 

Some people cannot see beyond their unimaginative horizon.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Lil_Barry_Bailout


Lil'babay, I am shocked that you and I are in agreement!


In GA, the governor, legislature, and board of regents constantly raise tuition and fees on the backs of students in debt. Why? lack of focus on productive programs and curriculum, wasted money on buildings and administration, and the rigid, mandatory 4 year length of all programs.

Lil_Barry_Bailout
Lil_Barry_Bailout

This effect is obvious in higher education, for just one example. The price rises to suck up as much "free" money as possible, as well as the borrowing capacity of students and families. This prompts whining for ever more subsidies, handouts, and loans that won't be repaid (with a little help from Democrat politician co-conspirators).