A good starting point is the simple reality that most of what we all receive as “income” far, far exceeds what anyone can claim as the result of the “work” they actually do in the here and now. Once this fully documented reality is understood, the moral case for a basic income for all becomes very different from conventional understandings. The starting point is recognition that most “income” is, in fact, a gift of the past.
It’s obviously the case that an hour of labor results in far more economic production than in the past. It’s always seemed fairly obvious to me that this has more to do with the level of technology than with the level of worker productivity. It’s always puzzled me that most people seem to have some other explanation. Populism at its best wants workers to get a larger share of the GDP than they’re getting, so they argue that today’s workers are more productive than yesterday’s workers and therefore deserve more income. Like me, they see something fundamentally wrong about the fact that almost all of the gains accrue to the top level of the social-economic food chain, but their framing of the issue in terms of a more productive generation of workers always seemed weak to me. I want the left to be bringing strong, highly defensible arguments to the table. The dark side of populism, nationalism (particularly non-underdog nationalism), notes that first world workers of today are involved in a larger magnitude of economic production, not only compared to their counterparts from the past, but to their counterparts from developing nations. The hired guns singing for their supper at the pro-market think tanks want to neutralize populism; at least the positive kind, so they argue that the productivity gains are due to more productive capital rather than more productive labor. They even ápply their skill at sophistry to coming up with demeaning concepts such as “zero marginal productivity (ZMP) workers.” Gar Alperowitz’ claim that “…most of what we all receive as “income” far, far exceeds what anyone can claim as the result of the “work” they actually do in the here and now…” raises the possibility that the real source of income is neither the marginal product of labor nor that of capital. Defeating marginalist theory would go a long way toward restoring the long-lost dignity of labor.
A nice bonus about the idea that income in the present is a gift from the past (if true) is that it could contribute to neutralizing the strain of pro-austerity ideology known as deficit hawkery. The deficit hawks complain that measures to make life in the present less austere or precarious (which they refer to by the insulting term “entitlements”) are the moral equivalent of stealing resources from future generations. Alperowitz’ hypothesis would suggest that most of the valuable resources available to future generations will consist of advancing knowledge, some of which is advancing even as we speak. Without a doubt at least some of this knowledge is being advanced by poor-as-churchmice adjuncts or maybe even in a few cases unpaid enthusiast programmers and other technical hobbyists who might be similar in some ways to me.
One thing that would make me very enthusiastic would be a solid mathematical model that demonstrates that “wealth creation” (utility creation? social welfare creation?) is more characteristic of the processes like discovering, tinkering, learning and expositing what one learns, than of processes like earning profits, or even working. It would be neat if there were a think tank for that.