Book Review: The War on Normal People: The Truth About America's Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future
The War on Normal People: The Truth About America's Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future by Andrew Yang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It seems that the world that we have all been preparing for, is on the verge of no longer existing. Technology is changing our economy now in ways that we aren’t fully equipped to understand, let alone control, and as technology continues to consistently advance, the shift of work activities now performed by humans and those performed by machines is going to change also and the shape the future of humanity will take will be the result of complex, changing, challenging and competing technological, political, social and economic forces. While some of these forces are known, there is a lot that is still unknown and the speed at which the unknowns will unfold are difficult to predict. But unless we make a strong effort to make the unknowns, known, the outcome of this emerging battle between technological singularity and economic singularity seems to be just the beginning of social unrest and turmoil. As Eric Weinstein, managing director of Thiel Capital, has stressed, “...we never really saw that capitalism might be defeated by its own child — technology.”
In The War on Normal People, Andrew Yang argues that the sectors where most people tend to work, administration, retail, food service, transportation, and manufacturing, have profound levels of repetitiveness which makes them highly susceptible to automation. Meaning that many of America’s “Normal People” will soon be supplanted by AI software and robotics. Since competition in these sectors is quite fierce, companies are sooner or later, going to be forced to automate to keep up with the competition. Once a single competitor automates, the others will follow by necessity. In many cases, automation is not only cheaper, but also produces better products and services. The natural result is, as Yang relates through conversations he’s had with people in the tech industry, a race to make “Normal” people redundant.
And it’s already happening. Millions of jobs have already begun to be automated away, especially in the manufacturing sector.
A recent White House report has even predicted that 83 percent of jobs where people make less than $20 an hour will be subject to automation or replacement. And according to Wall Street the retail sector is already becoming almost completely uninvestable, in what’s being dubbed the “retail apocalypse,” partly due to in-store self-service and partly due to e-commerce. Next on the chopping block is transportation, as self-driving technology is replacing millions of truck drivers. The food service and administration sectors are likewise just as vulnerable. Even many white-collar jobs will likely disappear.
The fact that Yang doesn’t just focus all of his attention on blue-collar jobs when discussing the looming employment crisis, is something I really appreciated, pointing out that 44 percent of the total jobs, according to the Fed, can be categorized as “routine” which includes high-skilled medical and legal work that students go to college for years to master. For example, Yang relates a recent demonstration held by General Electric, in which some of the country’s best doctors were pitted against a computer to see which could better identify tumors on radiology films. The computer outperformed the doctors with ease. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. New software allows computers to see shades of grey that the human eye can’t, and they can reference films against data sets more numerous than any individual could ever hope to possess.
This all may sound like science fiction, but as Yang says, “We are living in unprecedented times. The future without jobs will come to resemble either the cultivated benevolence of Star Trek or the desperate scramble for resources of Mad Max. Unless there is a dramatic course correction, I fear we are heading toward the latter.” If this doesn’t make you concerned for the future, you are either stupid, wealthy, or both.
Yang’s fundamental message, of course, is that we are already on the verge of this dystopian future, with hundreds of thousands of families and communities being pushed into oblivion, and that Americans are already dealing with the lack of meaningful job opportunities, by getting married less and becoming less and less functional overall. Social mobility has declined, inequality has widened, and precarious employment has become the norm and these sweeping technological changes threaten to undermine what little stability people have left.
We must also understand that once the pace of these technological advances and automation changes goes from linear to exponential, becoming self-improving, self-replicating and distributed, the old business models, governance models, management and technology models are likewise going to be crushed under the weight of an outdated economics of efficiency.
Over the past 40 years, the US government has done precious little to invest in our future. Instead of spending money on things that might make a difference in people’s lives, our politicians would rather spend the majority of their time shutting down the government over some petty political dispute. Time and again difficult decisions have been pushed off for later, and any complicated social issues that have arisen over the years have simply been relegated to the unforgiving "invisible hand of the free market" to resolve. It would appear as if Washington is as bereft of new ideas in social terms as it is of new technological ones.
But Yang not only draws our attention to these current socioeconomic issues, he goes one step further by proposing genuine concrete measures to face them, and ends up making one of the more noteworthy and pragmatic arguments in favor of a universal basic income (UBI) that I’ve heard so far, which is the very centerpiece of his platform as a presidential candidate.
Yang’s unwavering support of a universal basic income (UBI) is just one aspect of his platform however. In the book he outlines three main solutions. First, a UBI of $1,000 a month for every U.S. citizen, over the age of 18, paid for by a 10% value-added tax on all goods and services. Which will be a dramatic expansion of the social safety net that will guarantee tens of millions of Americans at least a $12,000 annual income. Second, by establishing a new, secondary economy based on time rather than money. And third, instituting a tougher and more vigilant and yet dynamic government.
It should also be noted that the idea of a universal basic income (UBI) isn’t a recent one. It has been floating around now for decades, and was almost passed in the US by the Nixon administration in the early 1970s. And currently, there’s more incentive than ever to roll out something just like it as support for a universal basic income (UBI) is higher than ever right now, particularly among the millennial crowd, which should amaze no one as millennials have had to deal with, not only a crumbling economy, but also increasing amounts of debt. People over the age of fifty however, are much more likely to be hostile to the idea. Older generations are also much more likely to blame millennials for our current economic problems. We either got the wrong degree. We still haven’t learned to code. We killed department stores and even chain restaurants. But what millennial-bashing really reveals is the very precariousness of our current economic model that Yang is talking about. A model that is no longer sustainable. It’s already starting to burn out and it threatens far more: a new Great Depression. The first Great Depression was caused because rampant inequality meant that consumers had no money. The engines of industry kept spinning, kept churning out new products, but there was nobody who could afford to purchase them. Right now we are heading for round two.
Yet despite the books tagline, this isn’t fundamentally a book about universal basic income (UBI). It’s more about markets, and our attitudes surrounding them. As Yang says, “If we insist on seeing ourselves as inputs into the economic machine we are doomed. We have to make this economy work for people as fast as possible.” Markets should be a tool that society uses to its advantage, not something it must be a slave to and in this new emerging economy we will have no choice but to rethink what we label as ‘work’, or more to the point, what we label as ‘valuable.’
As Yang rightfully points out our current metric, gross domestic product (GDP) is a useless metric for measuring our progress as a society. Our market currently doesn’t value things that are vital to human existence, i.e. family, creativity, meaning and purpose.
Right now the market is overrunning everything and we must get past the idea that unless the market says that what you contribute to society is valuable, then it must be worthless. We have no choice but to rethink what it means to be a contributing member of society. The stay at home mom, or dad increasingly, who may not have a job, but who still nevertheless, gets up every morning and gets the kids ready for school, helps with homework, cleans the house, and still finds time to fix dinner, and even volunteer at the local shelter, still contributes to society. Even though the market doesn’t recognize these contributions as valuable. As Yang says in the book, “Our economic system must shift to focus on bettering the lot of the average person. Capitalism has to be made to serve human ends and goals, rather than have our humanity subverted to serve the marketplace. We shape the system. We own it, not the other way around.”
The War on Normal People also comes to stand as a serious rebuttal to some of the more optimistic thinkers, such as Thomas Friedman and futurist Ray Kurzweil, who believe that Americans can just simply be transformed into lifelong learners, and thus keep pace with changes in the workplace. But as Yang points out, “Some liberals imagine that we might be able to retrain hundreds of thousands of truckers as software engineers or some other occupation. But the reality is that federally funded retraining programs have an effectiveness rate of between zero and 15% when applied to manufacturing workers, and fewer than 10% of workers qualify for retraining programs as are currently offered anyway.” Adding, “We need to invest in education, job training and placement, apprenticeships, relocation, entrepreneurship, and tax incentives - anything to help make hiring and retaining workers appealing. And then we should acknowledge that, for millions of people, it’s still not going to work.” The oncoming wave of technological unemployment is going to be severe and the challenge we currently face, as Yang writes, “is that humans need work more than work needs us.”
However, it’s not just that the future is going to be a place where people can’t find work but that it’s going to be a place where people will no longer need to work.
Scott Santens, a writer and UBI activist, has written that, “Human labor is increasingly unnecessary and even economically unviable compared to machine labor. And yet we still insist on money to pay for what our machines are making for us. As long as this remains true, we must begin providing ourselves the money required to purchase what the machines are producing. Without a technological dividend, the engine that is our economy will seize, or we will fight against technological progress itself in the same way some once destroyed their machine replacements. Without non-work income, we will actually fight to keep from being replaced by the technology we built to replace us. To allow this to happen would be truly foolish, for what is the entire purpose of technology but to free us to pursue all we wish to pursue? Fearing the loss of jobs shouldn’t be a fear at all. It should be welcomed. It should be freeing. No one should be asking what we’re going to do if computers take our jobs. We should all be asking what we get to do once freed from them.”
Never in the history of the United States would there be anything more conducive to freedom and independence than a universal basic income (UBI). Without economic freedom, liberty is a useless and callous abstract notion that lacks any real meaning for real people.
Just think for a moment about all the talent and creativity that is squandered, and has been squandered over the centuries, due to the necessity of work. Think about the hopes that are dashed when we tell our children that they can’t pursue what they’re passionate about, simply because they will need to earn a living. Think about this. We tell our children that they must earn their right to live. We are born into a world that wasn’t of our choosing and then forced into wage slavery if we want to stay alive. Fifty years from now, people will look back in embarrassment that we allowed an economic system to use the fear of not being able to eat as a way to incentivize people to work. It’s appalling and anyone who would advocate for such an arrangement should rightfully be labeled a monster. This, as far as I’m concerned, is why a universal basic income (UBI) is so important and so needed. People would finally be able to exist without having to tolerate a job they hate, and consequently, a life they hate. It would allow people to go home and do something useful with their lives. What’s the number one death bed regret? That we didn’t spend more time with the people we love the most. A universal basic income (UBI) would finally give us that time.
A universal basic income (UBI) would also have the added benefit of putting power back into the hands of the working class. In other words, it would right the power imbalances that are inherent in our current economic system, leading to a more egalitarian society overall. It would even improve the bargaining power of millions of low-wage workers forcing employers to increase wages, add benefits and improve conditions in order to retain employees.
In addition, if a universal basic income (UBI) replaced specific programs for the poor, it would have the added benefit of reducing government bureaucracy, minimizing government interference in people’s lives and it would allow people to avoid the social stigma that so often accompanies government assistance programs. By virtue of being available to everyone, a universal basic income (UBI) would not only guarantee the material existence of everyone in our society; it would establish a baseline for what membership in that society really means.
Mark Zuckerberg, in a commencement address at Harvard said, “Every generation expands its definition of equality. Now it’s time for our generation to define a new social contract. We should have a society that measures progress not by economic metrics like GDP but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful. We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things.”
This book has proven to be an eye-opening and insightful analysis concerning our present situation and Yang has done a very effective job at highlighting our upcoming, and fast approaching, employment crisis. He also brings a very unique credibility to the subject, given his entrepreneurship as founder of the nonprofit Venture for America. But more importantly what Yang’s book has done, for me at least, is that it has provided me with a renewed sense of hope. Whether or not he is correct in either his assessments or his prescriptions. Our ability to hope is what will drive us forward into the future. Without it, we will go nowhere and we’ve been without it for sometime now.