Boys Raised by Single Parent Do Worse than Girls

A fascinating new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that boys from ‘disadvantaged’ families do worse than girls. The disadvantaged families are predominantly headed by a single female parent.

We find that, relative to their sisters, boys born to disadvantaged families have higher rates of disciplinary problems, lower achievement scores, and fewer high-school completions.

[E]mployment rates of young women are nearly invariant to family marital status, while the employment rates of young adult men from non-married families are eight to ten percentage points below those from married families at all income levels.

In other words, all else equal, non-married status matters only for boys, not for girls. The authors, as well as most commenters on the study, conclude that the sex gap in success must be environmental and not genetic. Apparently, growing up without a father at home is somehow particularly damaging for boys, but not for girls, perhaps because mothers devote relatively more attention to their daughters and sympathize more with the needs of their daughters. In any event, nobody is really quite sure of the reasons, but one way or another, fathers are more important to raising boys than girls. This result supports the longstanding assertion of social conservatives that boys need fathers.

Observers reject a genetic argument in favor of environment, I suspect, because of the study’s focus on siblings. The boys and girls in the study should not differ much genetically because the siblings share at least one, and often two, parents.

An awful lot of research, however, has shown that life outcomes have a strong genetic basis. I’m not convinced, therefore, that the results of the study in question cannot have a genetic explanation.

In particular, life success has been shown to correlate strongly with I.Q. and the personality trait of ‘conscientiousness,’ which is heritable. Conscientiousness is the only one of the Big Five personality traits that predicts career success.

[A]fter general mental ability is taken into account, the other four of the Big Five personality traits do not aid in predicting career success.

And here’s a definition of conscientiousness.

[Conscientious people] exhibit a tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement; they display planned rather than spontaneous behavior; and they are generally organized and dependable.

Men lacking in conscientiousness seem exactly the sort of fathers unable to form stable families and to fulfill fatherly duties. Since they are not dutiful or dependable, the mothers cannot rely on them, and end up heading the household themselves.

Now, I am not a geneticist, but I see no reason why fathers could not pass on their lack of conscientiousness to their sons relatively more than their daughters. Maybe I’m mistaken, but there could be a set of genes that undermine male conscientiousness, but have a relatively muted effect in females. If in terms of heritable conscientiousness, if boys align more with their fathers and girls with their mothers, then genetics can explain the result that boys from broken homes do worse than girls.

If so, then social conservatives might not be correct about the environmental role of fathers. But the age-old wisdom that women should not have kids with irresponsible men would still hold true.

Why It Sucks to be Poor

Mae West said, “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.” But why, exactly, does it suck to be poor in today’s America? In the post below, I noted that poor households do not generally seem to be lacking any of the typical amenities of modern life–food, shelter, appliances, gadgets, health care. I asked rhetorically, what is it that the poor lack the makes them poor?

Well, upon further reflection I would like to, as they say in Congress, revise and extend my remarks. The poor in America lack two important things: safety and schooling. Being poor in America often means living in a dangerous, crime-infested neighborhood. And living in such a neighborhood inevitably means having access only to a crummy, dysfunctional government school. Those are the two primary reasons why people work so hard to stay out of poverty and to afford a house in a decent community: safety and schooling.

Notably, safety and schooling are both services for which the government has assumed responsibility. The primary problems of America’s poor are therefore a direct consequence of government’s failure to fulfill its promise to provide safety and decent schooling. If only the government were effectively enforcing order on the streets and in the schools, being poor might not be so bad.

For most of history, being poor meant being relatively exposed to the hostile forces of nature: famine, flood, disease, the icy winds, and the wolf at the door. Now being poor means being relatively unable to protect yourself from the consequences of government failure. In the post-scarcity world, the remaining ‘hostile force of nature’ is government.

The problem with being poor is self-evidently the failure of government, but of course that won’t stop leftists from arguing that what the poor really need is even more government.

Defining Poverty Up

Online punditry seems to be getting more and more desperate for clickbait. Or at least, that’s the only way I can explain why would publish a sweeping condemnation of capitalism. You heard that right, Forbes trashed capitalism.

The article contains all the usual bogus arguments that have been around for decades, if not centuries. Capitalism helps only the rich, not the poor. Capitalism pollutes the environment. Yadda, yadda. These arguments have been refuted so many times in both theory and practice that responding to them is really getting tiresome. (The folks at offer a fairly thorough response here.) I mean, without capitalism, this guy wouldn’t even be posting his anti-capitalist screed online. He’d be wearing rags and working in a field somewhere, knee deep in mud.

I would like at this time to discuss, however, the following point made by the author.

[I]n the U.S., 15% of the population lives below the poverty line. For children under the age of 18, that number increases to 20% (see U.S. Census).

Ah, but virtually all of those Americans whom the government defines as ‘poor’ would not have been considered poor only a few decades ago. In most respects, today’s ‘poor’ enjoy a material standard of living that would have been considered middle class only three or four decades ago. The authors at display the following table.

When one actually considers the goods that ‘poor’ Americans possess, their standard of living compares favorably to the middle class from the 1970s–which at that time was the envy of the world.

Many things that most ‘poor’ Americans now have–microwaves, cellphones, computers–almost nobody had in 1971. (By the way, the 83.3 percentage for refrigeration in 1971 is a typo. The actual figure should be 93.3 percent.)

I’m particularly astonished that roughly 80 percent of the poor have air conditioning, which only about 30 percent of Americans had in 1970. Personally, I never lived with air conditioning growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. And yet we considered ourselves middle class. The image of the air-conditioned poor is not one that Charles Dickens would have recognized.

Back in the day, my great-great grandmother Valerie Pelletier was widowed and left with virtually no income or assets. In 1940, she was living with her unmarried daughter in a room in a boarding house in downtown New Bedford, Massachusetts. They had just the one room, and no bathroom or kitchen of their own–they had to share facilities with the other residents. They also had just one bed; yes, my great-great-grandmother and her daughter had to sleep together in the same bed.

Now, the typical ‘poor’ household has air conditioning, television, a car, microwave, fridge, washer, computer, cellphone, stove. They can get health care through Medicaid and free clinics. They also apparently have access to adequate nutrition–even if they often suffer from unhealthy dietary choices–as evidenced by the fact that symptoms of malnutrition in children (underweight, stunted growth) are virtually non-existent in the United States.

At the risk of sounding callous, what are America’s ‘poor’ missing? What do they lack that makes them poor? Ski trips to Aspen?

Poverty sure ain’t what it used to be. Thanks to capitalism.

Thomas Sowell Remembers

Sad news, as Thomas Sowell, at the age of 86, is retiring from his syndicated column.

Thomas Sowell

Sowell is an economist and one of the most astute social observers of his generation. In his farewell column, Sowell reflects on the changes he has seen during his long life in America.

In material things, there has been almost unbelievable progress. Most Americans did not have refrigerators back in 1930, when I was born. Television was little more than an experiment, and such things as air-conditioning or air travel were only for the very rich.

My own family did not have electricity or hot running water, in my early childhood, which was not unusual for blacks in the South in those days.

My dad was born the year after Sowell, and growing up in a northeastern city, he also did not have hot running water.

It is hard to convey to today’s generation the fear that the paralyzing disease of polio inspired, until vaccines put an abrupt end to its long reign of terror in the 1950s.

Most people living in officially defined poverty in the 21st century have things like cable television, microwave ovens and air-conditioning. Most Americans did not have such things, as late as the 1980s. People whom the intelligentsia continue to call the “have-nots” today have things that the “haves” did not have, just a generation ago.

The word ‘poverty’ has indeed been redefined ever upward. Several years ago, the mom of one of my students was outraged when I said that, in America, we don’t really have poverty anymore. She later sent me an article from Newsweek magazine claiming that poverty in America still existed, but I didn’t find the argument very convincing. The fact is that it has long been the case that the ‘poor’ no longer lack the basic necessities of life.

But while the material life of the people has made tremendous progress, in other ways, life has gotten worse.

With all the advances of blacks over the years, nothing so brought home to me the social degeneration in black ghettoes like a visit to a Harlem high school some years ago.

When I looked out the window at the park across the street, I mentioned that, as a child, I used to walk my dog in that park. Looks of horror came over the students’ faces, at the thought of a kid going into the hell hole which that park had become in their time.

When I have mentioned sleeping out on a fire escape in Harlem during hot summer nights, before most people could afford air-conditioning, young people have looked at me like I was a man from Mars. But blacks and whites alike had been sleeping out on fire escapes in New York since the 19th century. They did not have to contend with gunshots flying around during the night.

The crime rate in 1940 was indeed much lower than today. And at that time, the incarceration rate was barely one-fourth has high as today. To get the incarceration rate down to the 1940 level would require releasing something like 70 percent of today’s prisoners. We could start with the non-violent offenders, of course, but releasing that many criminals would no doubt require releasing many dangerous predators. I frankly shudder to think how high today’s crime rate would reach if we returned to the incarceration rates of the past.

So the long-term trend is material progress, but social regress. Exit question: Are the two phenomena related? Does material progress tend to erode social mores and restraints?

Should the Minimum Wage be $25?

A recent working paper by economists at UMass argues that increases in the legal minimum wage have not kept up with inflation and increases in worker productivity. Specifically, they argue that, relative to the level of productivity that prevailed in 1968, the same minimum wage in 2014 would have to be $25.50 per hour!

[A]fter correcting for inflation, today’s $7.25 federal minimum is about 33 percent lower than the $10.85 figure as of 1968—46 years ago. This long-term deterioration in the real value of the minimum wage is even more dramatic after we recognize that average labor productivity has risen by roughly 135 percent since 1968. This means that, if the federal minimum wage had risen in step with both inflation and average labor productivity since 1968, the federal minimum today would be $25.50 an hour.

If this conclusion were literally true, it would mean that the U.S. could right now impose a minimum wage of $25.50 without experiencing consequences significantly more adverse than were seen in 1968. And the fact is that the 1968 minimum wage did not devastate the fast food industry, destroy the market for low-skilled labor, or lead to widespread unemployment. Indeed, the unemployment rate for 1968 was under 4 percent.

But unfortunately, the authors’ calculations are not correct. In particular, the authors overestimate the amount of inflation since 1968.

As we’ve pointed out before, the Consumer Price Index tends to overestimate the rate of inflation. In other words, the CPI is inherently biased towards reporting that prices have increased more than they really have. The bias is rooted in a number of different problems, including the failure to account for the fact that, when prices go up, consumers will switch to lower-priced substitutes. Another source of bias is that the CPI does not account for all the ways in which goods and services improve in quality.

A 1996 report by a commission headed by Stanford economist Michael Boskin concluded that from 1978 to 1996 the CPI overestimated the rate of inflation by an average of 1.1 percentage points per year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1978 had introduced some changes that actually made the bias worse by about 0.2 percentage points. Prior to 1978, therefore, the bias was about 0.9 percentage points. After 1996, the BLS made some improvements that brought the bias down to about 0.8 or 0.9. (See Boskin’s transcript here.)

The authors of the UMass study maintain that, just to keep up with inflation, the minimum wage in 2014 would have needed to be $10.85. They obtain this figure by multiplying the actual 1968 minimum wage of $1.60 by the proportionate increase in the CPI. The CPI in 1968 was about 34.8, and in 2014 was about 236. The CPI therefore increased by a factor of 6.78 (236 divided by 34.8). Multiplying $1.60 by 6.78 gives a wage of $10.85.

If Boskin is correct, however, the CPI overestimated the increase in the price level by 0.9 percentage points per year. Over 46 years, the cumulative overestimation amounts to 51 percent. If the price level in 1968 were 34.8, then the actual price level in 2014 was only 156, not 236. Prices therefore increased by a factor of 4.48. The 2014 wage that equals the 1968 wage is therefore only $1.60 x 4.48 = $7.17, which is remarkably close to the current federal minimum of $7.25, and less than the minimum imposed by most states (West Virginia, one of the poorest states, enforces $8.75).

That’s the inflation adjustment. What about keeping up with labor productivity? The authors use the 135 percent increase in ‘average labor productivity.’ This, however, is not the correct figure to use. The problem is that minimum wage earners are not ‘average’; they are low skilled. Moreover, for the past several decades, incomes of people who are relatively skilled and educated have increased faster than those who are less skilled and educated. In other words, productivity gains have been smaller at the bottom than at the top.

But let’s assume that minimum wagers should have kept pace with the average wage for all non-supervisory production employees. In 1968, the average wage was $3.03, and in 2014 it was about $20.60. That implies an increase by a factor of 6.8. Multiplying this factor by $1.60 gives a hypothetical minimum wage of $10.88.

A minimum wage of $10.88 is admittedly substantially higher than the current federal minimum of $7.25, but not too far off from where many states are setting their minimums (Massachusetts, for instance, goes to $11 on January 1).

$10.88 is also nowhere close to $25.50. In fact, $25.50 is higher than the current average wage in manufacturing. Frankly, we can’t believe anyone would seriously consider it feasible to impose a minimum wage that exceeds even the current average wage. Leave it to UMass.

And none of this changes the fact that the right minimum wage is, of course, zero.

The Myth of Food Deserts

By now, most people are familiar with the concept of the ‘food desert,’ a poor neighborhood where residents do not have access to a grocery store selling healthy foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables. Recently, I found myself at a social gathering where the topic of food deserts came up and folks were shocked when I told them that food deserts are a myth. In fact, every serious study that has examined the issue has concluded that food deserts don’t exist.

The theory of food deserts actually has two components. The first is that poor people lack access to stores selling healthy foods. This notion has been promulgated by no less a personage than First Lady Michelle Obama.

“For 10 years,” [Michelle] Obama explained at a speech following her tour of the Fresh Grocer, “folks had to buy their groceries at convenience stores and gas stations, where usually, they don’t have a lot of fresh food—if any—to choose from.”

The second component states that this lack of access accounts for why poor people have unhealthy diets. It follows that if access were expanded, poor people would improve their diets by eating more healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. In short, the ‘food environment’ influences the diets and health outcomes of poor people.

Both components of the food desert theory are contradicted by the evidence. First, it is not true that poor people lack access to grocery stores.

[Dr. Helen] Lee also notes in her study that, on closer inspection, food deserts don’t actually exist in the U.S., at least not as a national problem—on average, poor neighborhoods have more grocery stores than wealthier neighborhoods. Even before Obama’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative was announced in 2010, studies suggested that the food desert explanation for obesity wasn’t right. A report from Department of Agriculture researchers presented to Congress in 2009 also showed more grocery stores in poor neighborhoods. In 2012, USDA researchers crunched the data again and found once more that low-income neighborhoods had more—not fewer—grocery stores.

Second, increasing access to fruits and vegetables doesn’t mean people will buy them. Many studies have in fact found that opening a new store does not cause people to change their diets.

Obesity levels don’t drop when low-income city neighborhoods have or get grocery stores. A 2011 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed no connection between access to grocery stores and more healthful diets using 15 years’ worth of data from more than 5,000 people in five cities. One 2012 study showed that the local food environment did not influence the diet of middle-school children in California. Another 2012 study, published in Social Science and Medicine, used national data on store availability and a multiyear study of grade-schoolers to show no connection between food environment and diet. And this month, a study in Health Affairs examined one of the Philadelphia grocery stores that opened with help from the Fresh Food Financing Initiative. The authors found that the store had no significant impact on reducing obesity or increasing daily fruit and vegetable consumption in the four years since it opened.

That last study refers to the program initiated by Michelle Obama, which apparently accomplished nothing.

The above excerpt was published in Slate in February, 2014. This month’s issue of Scientific American reports on yet another study.

Sadler, Gilliland, and Arku examined the impact of a retail-based intervention in a socioeconomically disadvantaged area of Flint…their research found the introduction of a grocery store in the area did not have a significant impact on fruit and vegetable consumption. Further, there was an increase in the amount of prepared and fast foods consumed during the 17 months the grocery store was open.

Poor people just tend to have lousy eating habits. Maybe cooking classes and more information on nutrition would help, but the focus on ‘food deserts’ is misguided.

Question: If food deserts are a myth, why do we keep hearing so much about them?

Answer: The myth is promoted by shady non-profits as a way to get government grant money.

Does the Pope Understand Economics?

Pope Francis over the past couple of years has stirred up quite a bit of controversy with his statements on economics. Of course, we would never presume to challenge the pronouncements of Pope Francis in the areas of theology and Catholic doctrine, but on economics, his views do seem dangerously foolish. Consider, for instance, an interview that Francis gave to La Stampa, an Italian daily, back in 2014. He devotes much of his focus to the duty to help the poor, which is fine.

“Jesus tells us that it is the ‘protocol’ on the basis of which we will be judged, it is what we read in Chapter 25 of Matthew: I had hunger, I had thirst, I was in prison, I was sick, I was naked and you helped me: dressed me, visited me, you took care of me,” the pontiff continues.

“This is the touchstone.”

Fair enough. But later the pope declares:

Markets and financial speculation cannot enjoy absolute autonomy.

What does this mean? Where would we see markets enjoying “absolute autonomy”? We doubt that Pope Francis means to critique merely the theoretical construct of completely unfettered markets. An economy with absolutely no regulation or interference with market activity remains the dream of only a tiny number of anarchists and radical libertarians, and exists nowhere in the world. Almost no professional economists advocate totally unfettered markets in everything. This position amounts, therefore, to little more than a straw man.

So assuming that Pope Francis does not intend to attack only a straw man, we must therefore conclude that he means to critique relatively market-oriented economies as they exist today. But if so, then this contradicts his stated desire to alleviate poverty. Because the fact is that the only places in the world that have successfully eradicated poverty, the places where even the relative poor enjoy a standard of living that is enviable by world and historical standards, are places where the bulk of economic activity is organized by markets.

Back in the stone age, everybody in the world was poor. As recently as a few hundred years ago, everyone except a tiny percentage in the aristocracy basically existed near the subsistence level. The only places in recorded history where the teeming masses managed to escape this grinding poverty were places with market-based economies.

In the world today, widespread prosperity exists almost entirely in three broad regions: East Asia, North America, and Western Europe. Prosperity in these regions is so widespread that poor people from the rest of the world are desperate to migrate there. These wealthy areas comprise many nations with very different cultures and histories, but they have one thing in common: a market-based economy.

If Pope Francis is serious about alleviating poverty, he should be promoting markets, not attacking them.

More specifically, here is Pope Francis commenting on youth unemployment, an especially big problem in Southern Europe.

I have the impression that in the developed countries there are many millions of young people under 25 years that don’t have work. I have called them “nor-nor”, because they don’t study and they don’t work: they don’t study because they don’t have possibility to do so, don’t work because they can’t find it.

But youth unemployment is a big problem only in those “developed countries” like Spain, France, and Italy where the government tightly controls and regulates the labor market. Youth unemployment is much lower in places like the U.S., the U.K., Taiwan, and Hong Kong, where labor markets are relatively free of state interventions like steep minimum wages, licensing requirements, forced unionism, and laws making it almost impossible for employers to fire an employee (making employers reluctant to hire people in the first place).

If Pope Francis is really serious about youth unemployment, he should actively promote freer labor markets.

Supposedly quoting Pope Paul VI from 1967, Francis says the following.

Private property does not constitute an unconditional and absolute right, and that no one is authorized to reserve for their exclusive use what he does not need, when others lack necessities.

The last thing the world’s poor need today is a 1960s-style attack on property rights. Property rights are essential not only to the proper functioning of markets, but to political and human rights as well. Much misery was caused in the 20th century by undermining property rights, not least in the pope’s home region of Latin America.

Although Pope Francis has repeatedly denied that his views are Marxist, his statement on property reflects a Marxist perspective. Indeed, it leads naturally to Vladimir Lenin’s famous formulation: Who? Whom? Who gets to decide how much wealth someone really ‘needs’? Who decides, and on what basis, what will be taken from whom, and given to whom?

Suppose that the current property owner refuses to surrender his property. Is Francis prepared to condone thievery by the have-nots against the haves? Is it morally legitimate to overcome the owner’s resistance by force? Is Pope Francis prepared to advocate force–pointing guns–at those who have more wealth than he thinks they ‘need’? Because if it’s the government that is doing the redistributing, then that’s how the government obtains property: at gunpoint.

It’s one thing to say that the rich should give to the poor of their own accord, but quite another to say they have no right to their property. Denying property rights opens the door to expropriation, strife, and misery.

Has Pope Francis really thought through the implications of his economic pronouncements? We know he is very well schooled in theology, but did he ever take a course in economics? He really needs either to educate himself or to stick to his areas of expertise.

Universal Income: Gaining Traction?

The idea of a universal basic income–provided by the government to every adult citizen–received considerable attention during the 1960s and 1970s as a potential anti-poverty measure. The idea was never enacted, and then laid dormant for several decades. As we reported previously, however, the idea has resurfaced recently in Silicon Valley, for the purpose of relieving distress caused by the loss of jobs to automation.

Now it appears that the universal basic income (UBI) is being given serious consideration in countries all over the world, including Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Finland. Switzerland will vote on UBI in a national referendum in June, although the proposal is not expected to pass, and the government officially opposes the policy. In Finland, the government is moving forward on starting a pilot project next year involving about 10,000 individuals. Under the Finnish model, every adult citizen would receive a tax-free stipend of about $900 per month. The UBI would effectively replace most of Finland’s current welfare programs.

The UBI offers several advantages over conventional welfare programs. First, it eliminates the incentive for fraud. Second, it saves resources by rolling back most of the massive welfare bureaucracy that administers means-tested programs. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the UBI does not create the same disincentives for work as do conventional welfare programs. Right now, means-tested programs like Medicaid, Obamacare, and food stamps create huge disincentives to work because once someone starts making money, they lose their benefits. The UBI, in contrast, is always provided regardless of income.

As an anti-poverty device, the UBI is in most respects preferable to the current welfare state, which explains why Milton Friedman championed the idea in the 1960s and 1970s. As we wrote previously, however, we do worry that freedom could be placed in peril if a critical mass of the population becomes dependent upon government and otherwise unemployable due to robots and automation.

Parenthetically, we note that Finland’s welfare state must be extraordinarily generous if it spends the equivalent of $900 per month for every adult citizen. By comparison, the United States spends on means-tested programs roughly $1 trillion per year. That’s a big welfare state, but dividing that figure by some 250 million adults yields less than $400 per month.

Why Do Socialists Hate Charity?

As we wrote recently, America’s trillion-dollar welfare state mostly displaced private charities that served the poor prior to the 1960s. This crowding out of private charity by the state was perhaps not unintentional. For socialists, replacing charity with welfare is not a bug, but a feature of their program.

Consider, for example, the following New York Times article from way back in 1981 that somebody dug up online. The article quotes America’s currently most popular avowed socialist, Bernie Sanders, saying “I don’t believe in charities.”


Why would anybody prefer to assign responsibility for poverty relief to government rather than to private charity? Judging by peoples’ actions, almost nobody believes that government welfare is more effective. That’s why rich people often bequeath huge sums to charitable organizations, but almost nobody leaves money to the U.S. Treasury. Millions of Americans make private, charitable contributions, but almost nobody willingly overpays their taxes. Nobody really believes that government does more good with the money it spends than would private charities.

So again, why would socialists like Sanders prefer government to charity? The answer is that their cosmology places government at the center of the universe, and they don’t want their precious government to face any competition. Like Mussolini, they believe in the dictum: “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

You know, the actual definition of fascism.

The Return of the Guaranteed Income–and the End of Freedom?

The idea of a guaranteed income, which was the subject of much debate during the 1970s but not much since then, appears to be making a comeback.

It’s the latest big idea among tech elites, as those in Silicon Valley struggle to cope with growing public unease over the effects digital technologies have had on jobs and income inequality. Dressed up as “universal basic income,” the idea is to give everyone—in some versions, every adult—a fixed sum every month. It’s not a lot of money, but—so the argument goes—it would help people survive as jobs are increasingly lost to robots, software, and automation.

The article correctly notes that the idea was championed, back in the day, by the great economist Milton Friedman.

A government-supplied guaranteed basic income is not a new idea. An earlier incarnation, called the negative income tax, was pitched by the conservative economist Milton Friedman in the early 1960s as a way to curtail the growing government antipoverty programs of that era. In the 1972 presidential campaign, both Richard Nixon and his liberal Democrat challenger, George McGovern, supported some version of the idea. And in recent times, the basic income has regained popularity among some policy makers. This week, it was reported that Ontario is considering a pilot project to begin next year. And there are calls for the U.K. to follow suit.

Milton Friedman all his life eschewed the label ‘conservative,’ but he’s dead now, so we suppose this journalist can get away with calling him whatever he wants.

More importantly, Friedman intended the negative income tax to serve as an anti-poverty measure that would obviate the need for a welfare state. Now, in contrast, the motivation seems to be to support people made unemployable by automation. Silicon Valley apparently does believe, as we reported here, that most jobs that exist today will eventually be eliminated by automation, robots, and artificial intelligence. That will leave people not just unemployed, but unemployable. If people can no longer work to support themselves, it follows that they’ll have to be supported by others. Hence the guaranteed income, or as they’re calling it now, ‘universal basic income’ (U.B.I.).

But what will people who don’t work do with themselves? What will they make of their lives? In the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo paints a somewhat utopian picture.

The most idealistic thinkers see the plan as a way to foster the sort of quasi-utopian future we’ve only encountered in science fiction universes like that of “Star Trek.” As computers perform more of our work, we’d all be free to become artists, scholars, entrepreneurs or otherwise engage our passions in a society no longer centered on the drudgery of daily labor.


[M]y conversations with techies interested in U.B.I. revealed a sincerity and sophistication about the idea. They aren’t ashamed or afraid of automation, and they don’t see U.B.I. merely as a defense of the current social order. Instead they see automation and U.B.I. as the most optimistic path toward wider social progress.

“I think it’s a bad use of a human to spend 20 years of their life driving a truck back and forth across the United States,” Mr. Wenger said. “That’s not what we aspire to do as humans — it’s a bad use of a human brain — and automation and basic income is a development that will free us to do lots of incredible things that are more aligned with what it means to be human.”

Well, putting down truck driving sounds to us like typical elitist disrespect for the jobs done by the working class. We notice that the article didn’t specify what exactly the former truck driver should be doing with his days. Sitting at home and making really bad oil paintings? Watching DVDs all day?

What obsolete workers will do was a question that came up recently in a fascinating interview, conducted by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, of the celebrated Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. The historian doesn’t envisage us all becoming “artists, scholars, and entrepreneurs.”

I don’t have a solution, and the biggest question maybe in economics and politics of the coming decades will be what to do with all these useless people. I don’t think we have an economic model for that. My best guess, which is just a guess, is that food will not be a problem. With that kind of technology, you will be able to produce food to feed everybody. The problem is more boredom, and what to do with people, and how will they find some sense of meaning in life when they are basically meaningless, worthless.

My best guess at present is a combination of drugs and computer games as a solution for most … it’s already happening. Under different titles, different headings, you see more and more people spending more and more time, or solving their inner problems with drugs and computer games, both legal drugs and illegal drugs.

Look, a job is more than just a source of income. A job is how people, to a considerable degree, define their identities, and earn dignity and self-respect. How will people attain dignity and self-respect if they’re just doing drugs and video games?

Moreover, can people who become totally dependent on the state for their sustenance maintain their rights and freedoms? In the past, the ruling class granted the ordinary man various measures of freedom because the ruling class needed from him two things: 1) to pay taxes and 2) to serve in the armed forces in order to defend the realm. But once the ordinary man no longer performs those two functions, what can he do to purchase his freedom? Why should the ruling class continue to respect his freedom?

To put it another way, how can we trust the government not to use U.B.I. to control behavior? We have already seen in recent years increasing hostility to speech that contradicts the views of the political elites. What assurance do we have that the government will not cut someone’s U.B.I. for, say, expressing disapproval of ‘gay marriage’? Or of immigration? Can people who don’t work retain their freedom and independence?

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