Charles Kenneth Roberts

Politics, History, Culture

Monthly Archives: May 2015

Universal basic income and mechanization in agriculture

A few days ago, The Atlantic published a piece on a guaranteed basic income (what I usually see called a universal basic income, or UBI). I’m a proponent of a basic income, the best system that I think is realistically possible in the short term in the United States, and I think the article does a pretty good job of exploring some of the reasons why.

For those unfamiliar with the idea: The way most universal basic income schemes work is that the government provides everyone in the country with some amount of money that meets the minimum requirements for living, usually either through a negative income tax or (my preferred solution) simply cutting everyone a check. Such a system would entirely replace existing forms of welfare, social insurance, and government incentives (such as tax breaks for things like having kids).

Many experts believe that, unlike in the 20th century, people in this century will not be able to stay one step ahead of automation through education and the occasional skills upgrade. A recent study from Oxford University warns that 47 percent of all existing jobs are susceptible to automation within the next two decades. Worries about robots replacing human labor are showing up more frequently in the mainstream media, including the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Recent books, such as The Second Machine Age and Who Owns the Future, predict that when it comes to robots and labor, this time is different.

There are a few reasons that I think a basic income is desirable. I believe it would be both more efficient and fairer than what the United States has today. Many welfare systems are riddled with corruption, paternalism, and incompetence (and also lots of hardworking and conscientious people, I know). The USA has a confusing and overlapping system of over a hundred different agencies providing some form of social payments or incentives. People think of “welfare” as a thing the government does for the poor, but by far the most significant benefits go to middle and upper class families, often at the expense of the poor. I’ve seen various estimates about how much a program would cost, to being slightly more than the existing American welfare system to costing much less, thanks to the reduced need for bureaucracy and the gains from things like eliminating tax breaks or new efficiencies like decoupling health insurance from employment. Even if it cost slightly more, I think the gains from streamlining the system and eliminating the human costs of our current system would be well worth it.

But I am a historian and this is sort of a history blog, so I should emphasize the historical reasons for this. The United States (and the developed world, and after that the rest of the planet) will soon be at a point where really mass job reduction is going to be a reality. Robots and automation and outsourcing are going to take most people’s jobs, and it will only accelerate. For a long time now, distributing sufficient access to the basics of life, at least in rich countries, has been a moral or political question more than an economic or material one – we have plenty of food and clothes and housing, but getting it to the people who need it is the problem. Such distribution is going to become a greater and greater concern as this process accelerates, and I worry about who will benefit and who will pay the costs of the transition to what should be a post-work or post-scarcity society. We know that automation can end jobs, and we know it can be done in a harmful, even disastrous way. It happened in American agriculture, most intensively in the 1920s-1960s. It doesn’t make me optimistic.

A small subset of farmers did very well in the mechanization of American agriculture. They did so because they had more money and connections, and they had the support of the federal government. A much larger number of farmers did not do so well. They were forced to leave the land or live in what amounted to rural ghettos, with many of them or their descendants still doing so. They failed because they did not have access to the resources necessary for large-scale, mechanized agriculture: the capital for machines, the know-how to buy and use them, the support of the federal government and corporate hierarchy. Some of them found new jobs related to the transition, but most of them did not. The benefits of mechanization did not land equally. Capital-intensive agriculture ran roughshod over rural culture, and we as a nation lost a lot in the transition. Thousands upon thousands of marginal people – the poor, racial minorities – never got their share of the prosperity that this was supposed to provide.

People think of this and similar historical processes as something like natural events, the way that things just happen: creative destruction. Technology changed, and it increased agricultural productivity, so people just decided to quit farming (either because they found other, more remunerative jobs or because they   But that’s not true. There were explicit programs, starting in the 1930s and definitely the 1940s, aimed at a revolution in American agriculture, and it was intentionally not to benefit everyone. (You can learn more about this in my book or Pete Daniel’s excellent Dispossession).

Without some mechanism to ensure that the benefits of economic and mechanical transitions are shared at least somewhat equally, wealth and position will further concentrate among the already wealthy and well-positioned. Instead of automation ending jobs in just agriculture, it’s going to be ending jobs everywhere. Where are those people going to go?


“just scaling it back”

From The Daily Tarheel (via Aaron Bady)

Thursday morning, the Board of Governors educational planning committee voted to discontinue 46 degree programs across the UNC-System, including one at UNC-Chapel Hill: human biology. The entire Board voted Friday to adopt the recommendations voted on by the committee Thursday.


Long said he didn’t think the programs addressed by the report necessarily needed more scrutiny.

“We’re capitalists, and we have to look at what the demand is, and we have to respond to the demand.”

There are two different strains to the outrage over this story (and similar ones, like the disaster happening in Louisiana higher education), and I want to be clear about them. Part of it is squishy humanists and such, like me, people who believe in the importance of education for its own sake and the value of liberal arts in providing a more rounded and useful citizen, people who are concerned about the growing corporatization of higher education, etc etc. But there’s also a more practical, tangible issue which underlines the deep hypocrisy and dishonesty of these types of higher ed cost-cutters. The program goes something like this:

1. Go to college when tuition is relatively low, in large part because of public funding for higher education.

2. Create a system where having a college degree is directly linked to income level and income mobility, and where the number of jobs which require a college degree is growing.

3. Drastically cut state funding for higher education and create a punitive student loan system.

4. Blame it on the market (“We’re capitalists”), the budget, hard-headed realism about financial necessities.

This drives me to hair-pulling outrage, and you don’t just see it involving higher education. In the workplace and health care, social and family structure, everywhere: we see people using what used to be considered public goods and then pulling the ladder up after themselves.

It’s not even that critics of spending money on higher education, or unions, or social protections are wrong, exactly. It’s the hypocrisy – fraud, really – that gets me. Steven Long (the “We’re capitalists” guy) graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1982. That year, the university considerably raised tuition rates for resident students to $318 per year (PDF page 18), which according to the CPI is $779.67 in 2015 dollars, or about $7600 less than tuition at UNC today. People like Long take advantage of such opportunities to get into a position where they can then dismantle them, all in the posture of budgetary sanctimony, a kind of double-dealing that’s become the norm at every level of American policy making.

Thinking about teaching online

I am teaching a class online at GPC for the first time this summer (American history since 1865), and I am completely re-doing my course. Part of this is because of some things I’ve been thinking about, partly because of the example of my colleague George Pabis, partly because of technological limitations, and partly building on previous online teaching. My online classes have previously included a number of reading quizzes and exams. I’ve decided to make this course entirely based around online discussion and essays. Half of my students’ grades will come from online discussions, and half will come from three essays turned in over the course of the semester.

It’s a mistake, I think, to just try to create an online course that is simply an electronic version of a face-to-face course. But I think teaching online can simulate part of the best part of teaching in person – the seminar style class, where students can bring up ideas and sharpen their thinking by asking questions and by responding to questions and statements proposed by an instructor or other students. Potentially, online discussions can do this even better, as there is no time limit, a capacity for multiple participants conversing at the same time, and direct individualized feedback. It’s going to lose some of the intimacy and immediacy of face-to-face discussions, but its other virtues can at least partially compensate for that.

So I am taking that approach in putting this class together. Every week, students will have a collection of primary sources, textbook chapters, and online documentaries. I will ask some questions or present some ideas about those, and students will (hopefully!) do so as well. This will encourage students to understand the issues of American history from various perspectives – the people at the time, other students, “official” or professional history, and of course themselves. I hope that students do most of the work in framing the kinds of questions that we need to be asking, but that’s a skill they will learn, and I know I’ll have to do most of the leading at least at the beginning of the semester.

In a practical sense, I think this will mean having a collection of different discussions every week. Some students will be more interested in or inspired by particular topics and documentaries than others. I expect some chunk of the conversation to revolve around factual discussions of particular events and their importance or cause-and-effect relationships, while others will be more analytical in addressing particular documentaries or primary documents.

One reason I want to do this is because the concept of “digital citizenship” has been on my mind a lot lately, especially in terms of communication and proper behavior. I am an inveterate reader of the comments section of websites, even though I know I shouldn’t because, generally speaking, the comments sections of most websites is just the worst kind of garbage. But when I think about what citizenship is going to look like in the future, I think it’s going to look a lot like, well, this: blogs, social media posts, commenting on blogs and social media. Things aren’t going to be exactly the same now as they are today, as we ride the space bus to space school, but written online communication is going to be the foundation of some political and cultural participation for American citizens. We are already at the point where non-professional bloggers or groups of bloggers and users like Power Line or Daily Kos can influence at least the margins of political debate, and often more; that’s only going to become more important.

Toward this end, teaching students how to talk intelligently, civilly, and convincingly in an online discussion forum won’t just test their knowledge of American history (although it will) – it will better prepare them to be active and useful participants in society, which is ultimately the purpose of all this stuff. In a lot of ways, the internet is going to make this job easier; students already post of social media or blogs. They’re already writers and thinkers and debaters. All I have to do, in the context of American history, is improve the skills that students already have.

FREAKquently Harassed Minorities

The new Freakonomics book, When to Rob a Bank, comes out next week, on May 5. I enjoy the Freakonomics podcast, and I think I would really like this book. But I don’t feel comfortable buying it, although that’s not because I particularly disagree with Stephen Levitt and Steve Dubner. I mean, I often do, but I think that’s partly professional biases – I am a professionally trained historian, while they are approaching the world from an economist’s perspective, which I frequently find unhelpful or incorrect – and partly just people disagreeing. But more than that, I don’t want to buy their book because I worry that the Freakonomics guys are wicked.

I say this because of the I-guess-pretty-well-known-at-this-point terrorism section of SuperFreakonomics. In the book, Levitt and Dubner wrote that because it seems unlikely that a terrorist would buy life insurance, any smart terrorist who wanted to evade detection would buy life insurance from the bank. But this was a lie, or more accurately, a trick; here’s how Levitt described it in a 2014 episode of the podcast:

And this whole thing in the SuperFreakonomics book about life insurance was just a complete and total lie. It was made up from beginning to end. Nobody buys life insurance from their bank. I mean, there was some products that people could buy, but nobody purchased it. I mean I’m guessing that a handful of all of our listeners on this podcast have ever bought life insurance from the bank. So what in the world, why would we make this up, what were we talking about. Well here’s the idea: If nobody buys life insurance from the bank, but we managed to get the tabloids in the U.K. and the TV stations to say look these guys are looking for terrorists, and they say if you’re a terrorist and you buy life insurance then you’ll be off their radar screen.* I mean, if I’m not a terrorist, I don’t pay any attention to it. If I’m a terrorist I think twice and I say, hmmm, maybe if I buy life insurance that will get me off their radar screen. And if you are a really, really dumb terrorist, hopefully what you do is you go to the bank and you purchase life insurance. Because of course it’s a trick. And we’re watching to see who, after SuperFreakonomics, comes out and the tabloids write about it shows up at the bank and buys life insurance. And our guess is that the kind of person that buys life insurance when they think it gets you off the hook as a terrorist is much more likely to be a terrorist than a regular person. In other words, by pulling off this scam we manage to get some set of terrorists, the really, really dumb ones, to go to the bank and essentially announce, ‘I am a terrorist.’

I remember listening to this podcast last summer. I was walking my dogs, and I backed the podcast up twice to make sure that I understood correctly. I even briefly unsubscribed from the podcast (although I subscribed again later).

There are many, many things wrong with this plan. It’s obviously bad journalism and unethical; a reader now has no reason to trust anything else written by Dubner and Levitt. Sure, you can argue that the potential gains outweighs the loss; that does not mean that it’s not a problem. Dubner and Levitt knowingly sold a dishonest book. There’s also the fact that, since we are given absolutely no evidence about the results, there’s no reason to think this project was at all successful. As far as we know, they lied and plotted for nothing.

The real problem with this, though, is all the innocent people who heard this, followed the advice, and ended up being harassed or investigated unfairly. We know that their have been increases in hate crimes against Muslims in both the United States and Europe. We know that the governments of various western nations intensify their scrutiny of Muslim and Muslim-ish people – anyone with brown skin or who seems vaguely Middle Eastern. What’s the larger population: innocent Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent who might want to use this as a way to reduce official harassment, or terrorists who will get caught as a result? How many actual terror attacks can this possibly have reduced (given that we must be talking about the dumbest possible terrorists who are likely a greater threat to themselves than to others), and how can you say that it’s worth the additional problems it poses to well-meaning innocents?

What’s particularly shocking to me is that there’s absolutely no evidence that I’ve seen that Levitt and Dubner even considered this possibility. The only concern from the podcast is that people called them idiots for giving away this anti-terrorist tool. It apparently made their book tour tougher; that’s the most regret we get.

This suggests two possibilities: One, Levitt and Dubner just don’t care. This is a chance to do something useful and clever; you’ve gotta break a few eggs, etc etc. This seems plausible, although the total lack of concern is really chilling. Two, and I think more likely, it never occurred to the authors. They’re well-off white guys from the United States; the lived experience of poor brown Muslims in Europe is so distant from their reality as to be unimaginable. When people talk about the value of diversity and affirmative action and all that, this is part of what they mean. It seems clear to me that Levitt and Dubner simply did not think about this. Everything in society is built for their convenience – why would they have to worry about extra police scrutiny or unofficial harassment? Why would they have to worry about it happening to someone else?

I long ago decided that it’s necessary to divide the artist’s personal failings or sins from the art in all but the most egregious cases. I still watch Woody Allen and Roman Polanski movies, I still listen to Dr. Dre and Michael Jackson. That doesn’t mean I accept all art or all of the kinds of arguments that art makes (I still haven’t seen, and won’t see, Zero Dark Thirty, The Interview, or American Sniper for reasons completely unrelated to the ideology of the filmmakers, but rather because of the films themselves). But broken people produce art; sometimes they’re self-destructive, and sometimes they are destructive of others. That’s part of being human. And, just practically, it’s virtually impossible to navigate culture without aiding or promoting or paying some awful person.

Non-fiction seems like it should be different, though. The Freakonomics empire (five books, a movie, a popular website, a podcast, and a lucrative lecture circuit) is trying to make data-driven empirical arguments with real world significance and impact. Dubner and Levitt are trying to change the way people think and act, to influence policy. The kind of shortcomings in this anti-terrorist plan from SuperFreakonomics suggest some deep, fundamental flaw in their thinking, such that everything else that they propose should at least be suspect. It’s like listening to a historian who is a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, or a scientist who is anti-vaccines; it doesn’t mean that somebody is automatically wrong about something else, but it does mean a listener should be extra careful when evaluating their ideas. Put more directly: buying this book feels like an endorsement of Levitt and Dubner in a way that watching Carnage doesn’t feel like an endorsement of Polanski.

All that said, this is an extremely convenient position for me to take. I listen to the free material that the Freakonomics people produce, but I expect – indeed refuse on stated principle – to pay anything in return. And I’m not sure if any of this would be tenable if I had some actual influence or power. I don’t mind someone listening to Chris Brown, but if I had influence, would I allow him to, say, talk to a college graduating class? Is it different for collaborative fields like film making, in contrast to more personal work like singers or comedians? It can all be very dispiriting, and I’m not sure where to go with it. It makes me think of this great tweet:

*I am not afraid to admit ignorance: I didn’t know that buying insurance from a bank is weird. I am an adult American professional. I have a PhD! And I didn’t know, or didn’t ever really think about it. It’s easy for me to imagine that poor immigrants wouldn’t know this, either.