Training: When Money Grows on Trees

The cartoon on the first page of the article I want to tell you about is all bright colors and happy faces. People sit under a verdant tree picnicking and snatching dollar bills from the tree’s green crown. But turn the page, and you’ll see the grass below the tree where the happy guitar-playing, poetry-writing picnickers once sat is worn into a rut by a troop of despondent, stoop-shouldered, glassy-eyed, and generally bewildered-looking people caught in a haze of dirty gray-green.

The article attempts to offer a perspective on something called “universal basic income.” This a bit of a far-out, but rapidly emerging, socio-economic gimmick that turns out to be centuries old (American patriot Thomas Paine was an advocate three centuries ago) and has been hauled out and dusted off as a solution to a number of potentially evolving, but not yet materialized, economic challenges. The basic idea is that governments provide their citizens with a fixed monthly income, one goal being to compensate people who have lost their jobs to technology, a second to even an economic playing field that seems to favor the haves over have-nots.

Master everything from OSHA regulations, to high-tech safety equipment in this FREE Special Report: Construction Safety Topics That Can Save Lives. Download it now!

Some examples are actually in place and others are about to be established. For example, in a small Brazilian town outside Rio de Janeiro, 150,000 residents are eligible to receive a gratuitous monthly payment of $3 each, made possible through their share of Rio’s state oil royalties. Finland is scheduled to initiate a trial program next year, and Alaska (yes, our Alaska) currently pays each and every resident a dividend from the state’s oil-fueled Permanent Fund. (Last year it was just more than $2,000.)

A number of factors appear to be responsible for the resurrection of this quirky idea. First, typical workers’ wages have grown at a leaden pace in recent years, less than that the GDP per person.

Second, digital technology—primarily robots and artificial intelligence—has sparked a fear that a large spectrum of jobs will be disappearing in the not-too-distant future.

Add Grading & Excavation Contractor Weekly to  your newsletter preferences and keep up with the latest articles on grading and excavation: construction equipment, insurance, materials, safety, software, and trucks and trailers.    

And third, income inequality in western countries continues to rise. An Oxford University study has estimated that as many as 47% of American jobs will be highly susceptible to automation in the next two decades. These findings are disputed by another study from researchers at the Centre for European Economic Research, who point out that many jobs involve “bundles” of tasks, many that machines can’t handle. (Robots, in case you aren’t aware, are not very good at interpersonal communication.) Seen from the bundling perspective, things don’t look that dire
—only 9% of current jobs are at risk.

But don’t underestimate employers obsessed with increasing profits and cutting expenses. There’s no reason to think, for example, that those multi-skilled jobs won’t come un-bundled, or that human interaction won’t be dismissed as a necessity.

Pizza Hut, for example, is installing a robot called “Pepper” in some of its Asian restaurants. The robot will perform such interaction-based skills as taking orders and payments. It’s interesting that while we create machines that displace human interaction, we persist in giving our creations human names.

Obviously, there is no shortage of pluses and minuses on either side of the arguments for and against the universal wage. Fundamental questions include where will the money come from, and how would such programs would be administered.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, questions center around the nature of work. Take, for example, the economic argument that work as an institution forms a central function in our capitalistic society as the fundamental mechanism for allocating spending power. Seen from this perspective, work sets in motion a productive, revolving spiral: I work, providing a needed product or service. I get paid for what I do and buy goods and services made or provided by other people, and the beat goes on. A robot doesn’t need food or shoes for its offspring or a new suit to stay in fashion, a new computer, or the latest version of the iPhone.

On an entirely different level, sociologists argue that work provides us with structure, meaning, and identity. This sense of identity and value that work conveys is reflected in our shorthand answer to the question—”What do you do?”

“I’m a backhoe operator,” we say; or, “I’m an estimator in a contractor’s office.” “I’m a field supervisor for a construction company.” We don’t answer, “I drive a backhoe”, or, “I write.”

Actually I did that for a while. I adopted, “I write” as a ploy to head off the inevitable next question: “What do you write?” After a while, I gave it up. “I write” limited what I do to the act of applying pen to paper—or in this digital age, fingers to keyboard. It doesn’t consider all that happens prior to that—research, interviews, multiple drafts, sitting bolt upright at 3 a.m. with an idea or the solution to a structural problem—or what I do after I get the words down on paper, selling what I write, marketing my words, etc. It also doesn’t consider all of the years I have invested in the effort, the long slow years of skill development, the challenges I’ve faced and mastered, the way that work is bound up into my life . . . how the person I am, and the skills that I have, were transformed to benefit myself and society.

Critics of universal income argue that without the structure and satisfactions of work, we will dissolve into a society of alienated, demoralized, unmotivated loafers like the people in the darkened cartoon stuck endlessly circulating the dollar-dropping money tree. This position is challenged by universal income advocates who argue that without the necessity of earning a living, without the draining drudgery of a daily job, creativity will bloom, to the benefit of individuals and society.

Are we all capable of such heights, do you think? And even so, do not some of us, many of us, look forward in varying degrees to the satisfactions that come with going to work every day—the shared problem-solving, communication with our coworkers, the feeling of accomplishment from a job well done, the challenges we’re faced and surmounted . . . the continuity that work brings to our lives?

I recently came back from a trip to Monument Valley. We added the visit to the end of two weeks motoring around the American southwest, and we were short on time. Should we take the self-guided tour, steering our rented sedan from butte to butte, oohing and awing and guessing at their significance. Neither of us found this appealing.

Finally, we decided on a guided jeep tour, and as luck would have it, we found ourselves bumping over the dirt roads with a young Navajo man who had spent his life in the valley. He rattled off the set script about which butte was which, the story behind the names, and their subsequent notoriety such as the Chevrolet commercial shot atop one of the most picturesque of the formations. To this, he had stories about how he had climbed this or that butte as a boy, about finding a cable from an old uranium mine still up there, how that tumble of rocks over there was new—how the process of wind and water erosion had caused the sandstone in one area to arch, in another to slough off huge chunks of crumbling rock. Stories of escaping rattlesnakes and thunderstorms, of visiting his grandmother who still lived in the canyon without water and electricity, explaining to us what that was like, instructing us gently on the Navajo relationship to the land. Through him we saw a depth and appreciation of the geology, the landscape and the myths and beliefs of “The People,” all delivered with a care and ease that verified the breath and veracity of his what he told us.

Toward the end of our time with him, he took us through a stretch of backcountry to a cave. We were instructed to leave the jeep and lie back against a tilted rock wall and look up. What we saw was a hole in the roof of the cave that framed an oval patch of sky. The young man explained the natural forces that had caused the hole to be there, and how he and his friends had first discovered the place. Then he took out a flute, explained that this was his avocation, and as my friend and I lay staring out the hole in the top of the cave to blue sky above us, he played. We were mesmerized.

The spell was broken by the noisy arrival of another jeep. The driver jumped out and pointed to where the three of us were lying there against the rock looking up, my friend and I still transfixed by our young guide’s flute playing, and gestured that the newcomers should come forward and do the same. We abandoned our spot so they would have room. The new people did what the guide told them, looked up, saw the hole in the roof of the cave, nodded, smiled, jumped back in the jeep, and drove away.

At the time I thought how lucky we were to have drawn this guide, and how much he had enriched our experience of Monument Valley. But looking back, I see now how fortunate this young man is to have a job that allows him to carry forward the threads of his life and experience into a worthwhile profession, to gain satisfaction from it, and be paid for aptitude and skills that are his alone, and far beyond what anyone could have taught him.