Thursday, July 7, 2016

Can we talk about something wonky?

Universal Basic Income. 

Clinton's just proposed free state college tuition. Which, great. If that goes through, maybe there will be some Federal dollars to make up for the decreases in state funding. But how much can free college really accomplish when a substantial number of matriculants arrive unprepared? When student characteristics account for as much as 87% of the variance in graduation rate, there's only so much an institution can do. Even the best-designed program, one that doubles the graduation rate, only gets you up to around 50%. Besides, most institutions aren't in a position to pony up an additional $4700 per student per year, even if such a program ultimately reduces the cost per graduate.  

And even if we knock down every possible obstacle (?!) in order to get university diplomas into the hands of as many people as possible, what happens at the other end? 

According to the folks at the New York Fed, "perhaps a quarter of those who earn a bachelor's degree pay the costs to attend school but reap little, if any, economic benefit." That's now, with 34% of American adults holding bachelor's degrees. Does anyone think that increasing the number of college graduates will make this better? 

In the words of the NYT:  The college degree is becoming the new high school diploma: the new minimum requirement, albeit an expensive one, for getting even the lowest-level job. It's necessary but not sufficient; graduates find that they've bought themselves a hunting license, not a golden ticket. 

Middle-class jobs are disappearing  "as industries with low average pay grow significantly and mid-range industries wither." Low-paying jobs are replacing midlevel ones. 

Obviously (it's obvious to me, anyway) this is an issue that higher ed can't solve by itself. And credential inflation isn't going to fix this. 

Universal Basic Income. It sounds intriguing to me, but I don't know enough about it. What do you think? What's the answer? 

- Frankie


  1. I'm not so sure. A universal basic income would certainly beat having a significant portion of the population live in hopeless poverty, and would solve the problem of social security disability (and probably some other programs) serving as a substitute safety net. If structured correctly, it would also give the people who receive it the dignity of choice (rather than trying to structure their lives, families, etc. to meet a bunch of requirements that may be well-intentioned, but may or may not actually fit their circumstances all that well). I'm too lazy to look it up right now, but I believe that aid organizations working with refugees have found that their clients prefer money, or vouchers that can be exchanged for a range of basic needs (food, clothing, basic furnishings/equipment for whatever shelter is available) to handouts of same. This approach also tends to be better for local economies (which adjust to meet actual needs).

    On the other hand (and maybe this is my Puritan/Calvinist roots showing, or at least my tendency to get a bit more conservative as I get older), I do think there's real satisfaction and dignity in work, and setting up systems that might discourage work is not a good idea. I think I might go for a higher minimum wage (because the jobs that are available, while menial, really are important; when we talk about service work, we're talking about cleaning and food prep and moving goods around and making them available to us and basic maintenance of infrastructure and the care of the very young, very old, and sick/disabled, after all).

    And I'd very much like to see more state funding of higher ed, up to and including free college (or at least free community college, with some limits on how many courses you can fail before you start having to pay, at least for a while). Since college (or at least post-high-school vocational training) is still the ticket to the better-paying jobs, and since our K-12 funding system is so closely tied to property taxes (which means it's really hard to untangle just why K-12 outcomes are so closely tied to income/family background), I want to make sure that everyone at least has a chance to try out college, at whatever age(s) they're ready to do so, at the same time that I don't want to see people pushed into college (and college debt) if it's not right for them.

    I'd also go for universal health care (which would eliminate the cause of a lot of bankruptcies/family economic crises), universal free daycare (and/or a parents-of-young-children stipend for parents who choose to keep preschoolers at home; at the very least, we need longer, compensated parental leave), a guarantee of basic housing, and guaranteed assisted-living/nursing care (with, once again, options to compensate family or other caregivers who work in the home).

    But that means I'm choosing a bunch of things that I consider worthwhile, and eliminating others. So maybe just making money available for people to spend on what they think is worthwhile makes sense? I'm not sure.

  2. @Frankie: It would not be immodest to include a link to your blog at the bottom of the post. It used to happen automatically; the "new" set-up kind of prevents it from happening automatically. This question comes to mind because I was wondering whether I recognize the new photo. It is a new photo, isn't it? And I was thinking that it didn't look like a horribly (wonderfully?) fuzzified CM porn-star graphic, or the previous Frankie photo. So I was going to click on the link to see... but there is no link. But what do I know? I've been drunk since I saw that video early this morning of the minutes after the cop killed that 32-year-old in his car in Minnesota. What really made me start crying was the cinematographer's 4-year-old daughter saying, "It's ok, Mommy. I'm here with you." Fuck this shit.

    1. The avatar was made for this post by the RGM.Like all other avatars on the page, they are not intended to represent the actual community member.

  3. The money for this program would be better spent helping poor people get jobs, rather than sending them and middle class students to college, with the hope that they get jobs later. That's less likely to happen when the program sets up incentives to get them into college, rather than get them into a job. Middle class kids (I think the income cutoff is $125K) would be happy to take the money but other people need it more.

  4. it would help reverse the "kids are your employers" dynamic. It would also help my students take a more reasonable class-load. Many take 5,6 or even 7 classes (which I ranted about earlier) to save money. Require a C average and go for it.

  5. Using some of that college algebra no longer required at MSU and assuming no structural changes to the economy as a consequence of this, putting college degrees into the hands of 50% of the population would triple the number of graduates who reap little, if any, economic benefit from those degrees, to fully half the degrees awarded. I don’t see how this would be much of an improvement over the potentially soul-deadening effects of Universal Basic Income that people worry about: at least people on UBI don’t have to go to college. And of course, this ratio would be lower at Harvard, and higher at MSU. What purpose that serves for egalitarianism I don’t know: it seems to me likely to make the college admissions frenzy even more frenzied.

    Universal Basic Income isn’t a new idea. Richard Nixon, who also founded the Environmental Protection Agency, wanted to implement it and a universal health-care system as agenda items during his second term, but the Watergate scandal intervened. And didn’t Edward Bellamy talk about it in “Looking Back,” or was he just talking about credit cards? If it happens, I doubt it will be implemented first in the U.S.A.: we’re still too queasy about socialism, with too many people in Congress fretting, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” The Roman army insisted that all soldiers do some kind of work, even if it was just digging holes and filling them back in, if there wasn’t anything useful to do such as building bridges or walls, during the long periods of waiting between battles that all armies have.

    I find it hard to see not having Universal Basic Income eventually, when automation makes most of the workforce redundant. This was forecasted some time ago: The Jetsons premiered in 1962, and Alfred Hitchcock decried it on his TV show. Economists have long not taken it seriously, treating it as science fiction, or at best something Alvin Toffler would think about. It doesn’t seem so far-fetched now, does it? NPR now has a calculator for estimating the chances that your job will be automated. (The calculator says it’s 3.2% for college professors.) It’s based up on likelihoods calculated for 700 jobs by a couple economists. (Astronomers got 4%.) I tried to read this paper, but found it hard to figure out exactly what they based these calculations on.

    I know that the first fatal accident in a driverless car was announced just last week, so I expect that will put them back maybe ten years, in time for my friend from 9th grade in 1972 to be able to retire from his career as a truck driver. Still, they are coming, and out will go 3-5 million jobs when they do.

    1. Driving was one of the few jobs working-class people still could do, in the first novel by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was “Player Piano.” (He would later give it a B.) Professional athletes, bartenders, and very few others did, and on the other side of the river was where the managers and engineers lived. Rather than a UBI, though, they had everybody be in something similar to the WPA: they called them “the Reeks and Wrecks,” which tells you how they felt about it.

      Marshall Brain, the author of “How Things Work,” foresees big advances in automation technology all at once in the 2030s. He wrote a free online novella, “Manna,” about it. It’s better in technical details than plot.

      On the other hand there’s this, excerpted from Bill Joy’s essay, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us”:

      “…if the elite consists of soft-hearted liberals, they may decide to play the role of good shepherds to the rest of the human race. They will see to it that everyone’s physical needs are satisfied, that all children are raised under psychologically hygienic conditions, that everyone has a wholesome hobby to keep him busy, and that anyone who may become dissatisfied undergoes “treatment” to cure his “problem.” Of course, life will be so purposeless that people will have to be biologically or psychologically engineered either to remove their need for the power process or make them “sublimate” their drive for power into some harmless hobby. These engineered human beings may be happy in such a society, but they will most certainly not be free. They will have been reduced to the status of domestic animals.”

      This was written by Theodore Kaczynski : the Unabomber. Just about the only perspective more insane would be to vote for Donald Trump: he’ll use his small hands to push the button and start a nuclear war in no time, and those of us left will all be back to subsistence farming and traditional values, so we won’t have to worry about UBI until industrialization returns in a few centuries. Just great.

      Or, yet again, have you ever read “Farewell to the Master,” the short story that the 1951 film “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was based on? At the end, a reporter is talking with the robot, Gnut (who can talk in the story, in the film, the robot is Gort, who doesn’t), about Klaatu, his master. Gnut replies, "You misunderstand, I am the master."

    2. Oh heck, none my my hyperlinks copied over. Here they are, in long form:

      The Jetsons

      NPR now has a calculator for estimating the chances that your job will be automated.

      ...ikelihoods calculated for 700 jobs by a couple economists... online novella, “Manna...”

    3. The only obvious alternative (to a universal basic income) that I see as a short-term solution to the creeping arrival of the post-scarcity economy would be France's approach to the work week: not only can't you be forced to work more than N hours a week, but you aren't even allowed to.

      When I was part of a collaboration in France I had colleague prevented from entering the site because they had already logged 35 hours that week. And I got a mild talking to for staying long enough one day that my weekly total reached 37 hours.

      I suspect that cultures that select a basic income will out compete those that go with enforced ever-shortening work weeks. But there is going to be some severe resistance in this country: it's not in keeping with the 'Merica we grew up with, much less the one our legends tell us about.

      Of course our culture isn't "post-scarcity" in the science fictional sense of "anyone can have anything for the asking", but it has reached the point where basic sustenance and shelter and safety can be procured for everyone without every able-bodied person working flat out toward that goal.

  6. Rather than artificially raising the lower limit of how much money every person can earn, why not just artificially lower the price of everything every person needs to buy?

  7. I think a basic assumption about what happens on the other end is: economic growth will eventually absorb all those extra college graduates, eventually, much like industrialization spurred economic growth that eventually absorbed all those extra farmers driven off their land by modernization of farming during the late 1700s and early 1800s. The economy did eventually grow enough to absorb them, but not before decades of hardship, written about so wonderfully by Dickens. Again, just great.

    A problem with this assumption is that economic growth is pretty anemic these days, and has been for some time. Thomas Piketty, in "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," says that basic structural changes in the economy have ensured that growth will be anemic for some time.

    A counterpoint is "The Next 200 Years," by Hermann Kahn, published in 1976. He describes the rise of the service economy and the knowledge and information economy in some detail, but much of what he discusses may never happen, for example, self-driving cars will be here long before anyone emigrates into Outer Space. (If Mr. Trump gets his way, immigration to America will end soon; on the other hand, practical fusion energy would be useful for solving the problem of fresh water, which is getting rather noticeable here in California.) Keep in mind, this was from the author of "Thinking the Unthinkable."

    And of course, for a basic discussion of what underlies the assumptions behind economics, it's hard to beat "Small is Beautiful," by E. F. Schumacher. Real economists will roll their eyes at my mention of that, of course: what will be advocating next, we all hold class outside, drop acid, and make love? More to the point, since it's so hard to get good acid these days, are reading Freud and Marx still essential for a good education? I'm not so sure. The people most qualified to talk about this, economists, don't appear to be talking about it much.

    1. Another thing that has happened (and which I think I saw someone writing about recently, but I can't find it offhand) is that a lot of "service" work that was mostly done outside the paid economy in the mid-20th century -- i.e. that done by women who focused primarily on caring for their families and homes -- has shifted to the paid economy. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make that work more visible, and has probably shifted it, on average, to less-educated workers.