A universal basic income only makes sense if Americans change how they think about work

Ezra Klein in Vox:

Eduardo Porter’s broadside against a universal basic income focuses almost entirely on the cost and efficiency of cutting every American a check that would keep them out of poverty. But the harder — and more important — question around a UBI is about how it interacts with our culture of work. And the truth is I have no idea how to answer it.

Here is the question: Could we respect people who live off a universal basic income?

Porter thinks not. Work, he writes, “is not just what people do for a living. It is a source of status. It organizes people’s lives. It offers an opportunity for progress. None of this can be replaced by a check.”

Later, he says that “in this world … where work remains an important social, psychological and economic anchor, there are better tools to help than giving every American a monthly check.”

Notice what he did there. “In this world.” So long as any discussion of a universal basic income is predicated on those three words, then I agree: It’s a bad idea. But the whole argument over a UBI, as I see it, is about the legitimacy of those three words. A UBI is the kind of radical policy that asks whether we actually need to live in this world, or whether there are better worlds on offer, if only we have the political and cultural courage to find them.

Does work — as currently conceived — have to be our primary source of status? Should it organize our lives? And can those dynamics be changed by a check?

Human beings are almost endlessly adaptable. Studies show that even the worst tragedies — the loss of a family member, the loss of a limb — only temporarily cut their happiness. But there are some conditions we never quite get used to. Among them is an extended bout of unemployment.

 “Compared with other negative experiences, the life satisfaction of the unemployed does not restore itself even after having been unemployed for a long time,” write economists Clemens Hetschko, Andreas Knabe, and Ronnie Schöb.

One major theory is that the pain of unemployment comes from the loss of social status. “Worker” is an identity you can be proud of, even if you don’t like your job. Having to recategorize yourself as “unemployed” robs you of your self-respect — and self-respect, it turns out, matters more than mere limbs.

More here.