Krugman Argues Costly Universal Basic Income (UBI) Not Justified by Automation

(p. A22) [Andrew] Yang’s claim to fame is his argument that we’re facing social and economic crises because rapid automation is destroying good jobs and that the solution is universal basic income — a monthly check of $1,000 to every American adult. Many people find that argument persuasive, and one can imagine a world in which both Yang’s diagnosis and his prescription would be right.

But that’s not the world we’re living in now, and there’s little indication that it’s where we’re going any time soon.

Let’s do a fact check: Are we actually experiencing rapid automation — that is, a rapid reduction in the number of workers it takes to produce a given amount of stuff? That would imply a rapid rise in the amount of stuff produced by each worker still employed — that is, rapidly rising productivity.

But that’s not what we’re seeing. In fact, the lead article in the current issue of the Monthly Labor Review, published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is an attempt to understand the productivity slowdown — the historically low growth in productivity since 2005. This slowdown has been especially pronounced in manufacturing, which has seen hardly any productivity rise over the past decade.

. . .

The recently enacted American Rescue Plan gave most adults a one-time $1,400 payment, at a cost of $411 billion.

. . .

. . . the Yang proposal to pay $12,000 a year would cost more than eight times as much every year — well over $3 trillion a year, in perpetuity. Even if you aren’t much worried about either debt or inflationary overheating right now (which I’m not), you have to think that sustained spending at that rate would both cause problems and conflict with other priorities, from infrastructure to child care.

For the full commentary, see:

Paul Krugman. “Andrew Yang Hasn’t Done the Math.” The New York Times (Friday, April 16, 2021): A22.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed first name, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 15, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

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