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FTR #908 Easy “E’s”: Eugenics, Euthanasia and Extermination (A Message from the Past to the Future)

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This program was recorded in one, 60-minute segment.

Introduction: With technological advances leading some analysts to conclude that the future will feature a largely  “employment-free” world, the concept of a “universal basic income” has taken hold in some circles. Concluding that all people will be given a “workable” sum with which to live, adherents of the concept envision a quasi-utopian world.

We fear the development of something far more dystopic. With the continued popularity of the austerity agenda, despite strong evidence that it is counter-productive, we fear that a largely “employment-free” environment will lead to the elimination of human beings seen as “superfluous.”

The Third Reich’s extermination programs have been popularly viewed as aberration, an occurrence that was separate from “normal” political and historical events. This is not the case. Murderous Nazi racial and social policy were the outgrowth of mainstream intellectual trends that are very much with us today.

At the epicenter of the intellectual nexus underpinning the Nazi extermination programs are the overlapping international eugenics and international mental hygiene movements. Seeking to promote the “right kind” of mental development, the international mental hygiene movement promoted the elevation of the right kind of genetic makeup as a means of realizing its goals. In turn, terminating people born with disabilities, people who were old and poor, sterilizing those with psychological disorders and those with chronic illnesses, advocates of euthanasia paved the way for the Third Reich’s T-4 extermination program.

In time, the T-4 program yielded the broader-based Nazi extermination programs, as those trained in the euthanasia institutions “graduated” to positions in the extermination camps, having acquired the necessary skills and demeanor.

Josef Mengele’s Auschwitz work with twins in many ways highlighted the evolution of mainstream eugenics research. Long preoccupied with the study of twins, eugenicists celebrated the Nazi dictatorship for its ability to use coercion to achieve their objective of detailed, intensive research of the subject.

Lavishly funded by the Rockefeller Foundation well into the tenure of the Third Reich, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes were the primary focal point of eugenics research on twins. Mengele conducted his brutal, lethal research at Auschwitz in conjunction with the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes and his intellectual mentor at that institution, Dr. Freiherr Otmar von Verschuer, filling out paperwork for the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for each of the sets of twins on which he experimented before proceeding with his work.

With physician-assisted suicide legislation gaining in many places, at the same time as the austerity agenda continues to be popular in elite economic and social planning circles, we should be on the alert for lethal, and altogether “final” solutions to the problem of large numbers of economically displaced people.

Most of the program is excerpted from Miscellaneous Archive Show M12, recorded in February of 1988. Other programs dealing with the eugenics movement include: FTR #’s 32, Part I, 32, Part II117, 124, 140, 141534, 664, as well as Miscellaneous Archive Show M60

Program Highlights Include: 

  • The role of Ernst Rudin in shepherding Nazi philosophy from eugenics to euthanasia to extermination.
  • The role Wilhelm Ploetz in shaping the Nazi eugenics program.
  • Review of the Knauer case, a key legal and philosophical step in the realization of the Nazi extermination programs.
  • Enthusiastic reviews of the early Nazi eugenics programs by intellectual counterparts in the United States and other Western countries.
  • The extensive use of extensive official secrecy to further the efficiency of the euthanasia centers.

1. Opening the program, a dialogue between two New York Times economics columnists lifts the curtain on the concept of the Universal Basic Income. We feel that, given the proclivities of the world’s power elites, the probability of a lethal solution to the problem of widespread joblessness is far more probable.

“A Future Without Jobs? Two Views of a Changing Workforce” by Farhad Manjoo and Eduardo Porter; The New York Times; 3/9/2016 [West Coast Edition].

In the utopian (dystopian?) future projected by technological visionaries, few people would have to work. Wealth would be generated by millions upon millions of sophisticated machines. But how would people earn a living?

Silicon Valley has an answer: a universal basic income. But what does that have to do with today’s job market, with many Americans squeezed by globalization and technological change?

Two columnists for Business Day, Farhad Manjoo, who writes State of the Art on Thursdays, and Eduardo Porter, author of Economic Scene on Wednesdays, have just taken on these issues in different ways. So we brought them together for a conversation to help sharpen the debate about America’s economic future.

Eduardo Porter: I read your very interesting column about the universal basic income, the quasi-magical tool to ensure some basic standard of living for everybody when there are no more jobs for people to do. What strikes me about this notion is that it relies on a view of the future that seems to have jelled into a certainty, at least among the technorati on the West Coast.

But the economic numbers that we see today don’t support this view. If robots were eating our lunch, it would show up as fast productivity growth. But as Robert Gordon points out in his new book, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” productivity has slowed sharply. He argues pretty convincingly that future productivity growth will remain fairly modest, much slower than during the burst of American prosperity in mid-20th century.

A problem I have with the idea of a universal basic income — as opposed to, say, wage subsidies or wage insurance to top up the earnings of people who lose their job and must settle for a new job at a lower wage — is that it relies on an unlikely future. It’s not a future with a lot of crummy work for low pay, but essentially a future with little or no paid work at all.

The former seems to me a not unreasonable forecast — we’ve been losing good jobs for decades, while low-wage employment in the service sector has grown. But no paid work? That’s more a dream (or a nightmare) than a forecast. Even George Jetson takes his briefcase to work every day.

Farhad Manjoo: Because I’m scared that they’ll unleash their bots on me, I should start by defending the techies a bit before I end up agreeing with you.

So, first, I don’t think it’s quite right to say that the proponents of U.B.I. are envisioning a future of no paid work at all. I think they see less paid work than we have today — after software eats the world, they say it’s possible we’ll end up with a society in which there’s not enough work for everyone, and especially not a lot of good work.

They see a future in which a small group of highly skilled tech workers reign supreme, while the rest of the job world resembles the piecemeal, transitional work we see coming out of tech today (Uber drivers, Etsy shopkeepers, people who scrape by on other people’s platforms).

Why does that future call for instituting a basic income instead of the smaller and more feasible labor-policy ideas that you outline? I think they see two reasons. First, techies have a philosophical bent toward big ideas, and U.B.I. is very big.

They see software not just altering the labor market at the margins but fundamentally changing everything about human society. While there will be some work, for most nonprogrammers work will be insecure and unreliable. People could have long stretches of not working at all — and U.B.I. is alone among proposals that would allow you to get a subsidy even if you’re not working at all.

Eduardo Porter: I know what you mean by thinking big. Many of these new technology entrepreneurs think more like engineers than social scientists. In the same breath they will extol the benefits of individual liberty and the market economy and propose some vast reorganization of society following an ambitious blueprint cooked up by an intellectual elite. A few months ago I interviewed Albert Wenger, the venture capitalist you cite in your column. He also told me about his vision of a future world in which work would be superfluous. It made me think of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” or George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”

If there are, in fact, jobs to be had, a universal basic income may not be the best choice of policy. The lack of good work is probably best addressed by making the work better — better paid and more skilled — and equipping workers to perform it, rather than offering a universal payment unrelated to work.

The challenge of less work could just lead to fewer working hours. Others are already moving in this direction. People work much less in many other rich countries: Norwegians work 20 percent fewer hours per year than Americans; Germans 25 percent fewer. They have taken much more of their wealth in the form of leisure rather than money. But they still work for a living.

And, by the way, I’ve read about robots that can program. So maybe the programmers aren’t safe either.

Farhad Manjoo: One key factor in the push for U.B.I., I think, is the idea that it could help reorder social expectations. At the moment we are all defined by work; Western society generally, but especially American society, keeps social score according to what people do and how much they make for it. The dreamiest proponents of U.B.I. see that changing as work goes away. It will be O.K., under this policy, to choose a life of learning instead of a low-paying bad job.

Eduardo Porter: To my mind, a universal basic income functions properly only in a world with little or no paid work because the odds of anybody taking a job when his or her needs are already being met are going to be fairly low. The discussion, I guess, really depends on how high this universal basic income would be. How many of our needs would it satisfy? We already sort of have a universal basic income guarantee. It’s called food stamps, or SNAP. But it’s impossible for people to live on food stamps alone.

This brings to mind something else. You give the techies credit for seriously proposing this as an optimal solution to wrenching technological and economic change. But in a way, isn’t it a cop-out? They’re just passing the bag to the political system. Telling Congress, “You fix it.”

If the idea of robots taking over sounds like science fiction, the idea of the American government agreeing to tax capitalists enough to hand out checks to support the entire working class is in an entirely new category of fantasy.

Farhad Manjoo: Yes, this is perhaps the biggest criticism of U.B.I.: It all sounds too fantastical! It’s straight from sci-fi. And you’re right; many of these proponents aren’t shy about being inspired by fantasies of the future.

But paradoxically, they also see U.B.I. as more politically feasible than some of the other policy proposals you call for. One of the reasons some libertarians and conservatives like U.B.I. is that it is a very simple, efficient and universal form of welfare — everyone gets a monthly check, even the rich, and the government isn’t going to tell you what to spend it on. Its very universality breaks through political opposition. And I should note that it’s not only techies who are for it — Andy Stern, the former head of the S.E.I.U., will soon publish a book calling for a basic income.

Still, like you, I’m skeptical that we’ll see anything close to this sort of proposal anytime soon. Even Bernie Sanders isn’t proposing it. The techies, as usual, are either way ahead of everyone, or they’re living in some other universe. Often it’s hard to tell which is which.

But let’s get back to the question of productivity. You’re right that software hasn’t produced the sort of productivity gains many had said it would. But why do you disagree with the techies that automation is just off beyond the horizon?

Eduardo Porter: I guess some enormous discontinuity right around the corner might vastly expand our prosperity. Joel Mokyr, an economic historian that knows much more than I do about the evolution of technology, argues that the tools and techniques we have developed in recent times — from gene sequencing to electron microscopes to computers that can analyze data at enormous speeds — are about to open up vast new frontiers of possibility. We will be able to invent materials to precisely fit the specifications of our homes and cars and tools, rather than make our homes, cars and tools with whatever materials are available.

The question is whether this could produce another burst of productivity like the one we experienced between 1920 and 1970, which — by the way — was much greater than the mini-productivity boom produced by information technology in the 1990s.

While I don’t have a crystal ball, I do know that investors don’t seem to think so. Long-term interest rates have been gradually declining for a fairly long time. This would suggest that investors do not expect a very high rate of return on their future investments. R.&D. intensity is slowing down, and the rate at which new businesses are formed is also slowing.

Little in these dynamics suggests a high-tech utopia — or dystopia, for that matter — in the offing.

2. Most of the program consists of an excerpting of  Miscellaneous Archive Show M12, recorded in February of 1988. The program traces the evolution of German eugenics thinking, its evolution into a eugenics program and the gradual intensification and escalation of that program into the full-blown Nazi extermination programs.

 

Discussion

One comment for “FTR #908 Easy “E’s”: Eugenics, Euthanasia and Extermination (A Message from the Past to the Future)”

  1. Charles Murray, the academic of choice for contemporary eugenicists, recently had another piece advocating a Universal Basic Income. Or, rather, advocating his specific vision for how a Universal Basic Income (UBI) should work. It’s an important piece because it serves as a warning for the phase in the far-right’s attack on public services in the context of the employment environment of the future where hyper-automation and AI make a growing percentage of populace as basically redundant. Because as Murray makes clear in the article below, he agrees that automation and AI are potentially going to transform the nature of and employment in coming years and stable, non-poverty wage jobs are going to be increasingly out of reach for a growing segment of the populace.

    And while a UBI would seem like exactly the kind of thing society would want in that kind of future, there are a few strings attached to the the UBI Murray has in mind: it must replace all public assistance programs and the safety-net: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, housing subsidies, welfare for single women and every other kind of welfare and social-services program must be replaced with the UBI or Murray sees it as an inevitable failure that would just result in people living on the dole and societal implosion. And no extra income for children.

    What’s the level of income Murray envisions for the UBI? $13,000 per year, with $3,000 allocated towards medical care. So individuals will have $10k to live on and that’s going to replace Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, housing subsidies, welfare for single women and every other kind of welfare and social-services program. And no extra income for kids. Keep in mind that the poverty level for a single individual in the US is around $11k for a single individual and $23k for a family of four and there’s presumably public assistance programs that are supplementing that income. So Murray’s plan is for the UBI to replace the current safety-net with something that will presumably make many poor individuals much poorer. Especially when you consider the potential cost of medical expenses that are covered by programs like Medicaid. As Murray sees it, the private charity and social groups will step in to cover the newly created gaps in things like medical costs and other needs that can’t be adequately paid for with an individual’s the UBI. So in addition to shifting many existing social services into private sector functions that are paid for with the UBI, Murray’s plan also assumes that private charity will just step in to also fill in the gaps. In other words, Murray’s UBI is basically a catalyst to privatize the public saftey-net.

    But Murray’s version of the UBI does envision creating one big new kind of saftey-net in American society: individuals will now feel safe and secure in just telling people who are still in need that they are on their own and if the UBI can’t cover their costs, oh well. And by giving people the new found freedom to just say, “we no longer feel any responsibility to those in need because they have a (poverty-level) UBI,” individuals will feel more personal responsibility and therefore become better, more virtuous people.

    That’s seriously how Murray’s version of the UBI is supposed to work. It’s a reminder that the list of Charles Murray’s lifetime accomplishments includes smearing the idea of a Universal Basic Income:

    The Wall Street Journal

    A Guaranteed Income for Every American
    Replacing the welfare state with an annual grant is the best way to cope with a radically changing U.S. jobs market—and to revitalize America’s civic culture

    By Charles Murray
    June 3, 2016 11:59 a.m. ET

    When people learn that I want to replace the welfare state with a universal basic income, or UBI, the response I almost always get goes something like this: “But people will just use it to live off the rest of us!” “People will waste their lives!” Or, as they would have put it in a bygone age, a guaranteed income will foster idleness and vice. I see it differently. I think that a UBI is our only hope to deal with a coming labor market unlike any in human history and that it represents our best hope to revitalize American civil society.

    The great free-market economist Milton Friedman originated the idea of a guaranteed income just after World War II. An experiment using a bastardized version of his “negative income tax” was tried in the 1970s, with disappointing results. But as transfer payments continued to soar while the poverty rate remained stuck at more than 10% of the population, the appeal of a guaranteed income persisted: If you want to end poverty, just give people money. As of 2016, the UBI has become a live policy option. Finland is planning a pilot project for a UBI next year, and Switzerland is voting this weekend on a referendum to install a UBI.

    The UBI has brought together odd bedfellows. Its advocates on the left see it as a move toward social justice; its libertarian supporters (like Friedman) see it as the least damaging way for the government to transfer wealth from some citizens to others. Either way, the UBI is an idea whose time has finally come, but it has to be done right.

    First, my big caveat: A UBI will do the good things I claim only if it replaces all other transfer payments and the bureaucracies that oversee them. If the guaranteed income is an add-on to the existing system, it will be as destructive as its critics fear.

    Second, the system has to be designed with certain key features. In my version, every American citizen age 21 and older would get a $13,000 annual grant deposited electronically into a bank account in monthly installments. Three thousand dollars must be used for health insurance (a complicated provision I won’t try to explain here), leaving every adult with $10,000 in disposable annual income for the rest of their lives.

    People can make up to $30,000 in earned income without losing a penny of the grant. After $30,000, a graduated surtax reimburses part of the grant, which would drop to $6,500 (but no lower) when an individual reaches $60,000 of earned income. Why should people making good incomes retain any part of the UBI? Because they will be losing Social Security and Medicare, and they need to be compensated.

    The UBI is to be financed by getting rid of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, housing subsidies, welfare for single women and every other kind of welfare and social-services program, as well as agricultural subsidies and corporate welfare. As of 2014, the annual cost of a UBI would have been about $200 billion cheaper than the current system. By 2020, it would be nearly a trillion dollars cheaper.

    Finally, an acknowledgment: Yes, some people will idle away their lives under my UBI plan. But that is already a problem. As of 2015, the Current Population Survey tells us that 18% of unmarried males and 23% of unmarried women ages 25 through 54—people of prime working age—weren’t even in the labor force. Just about all of them were already living off other people’s money. The question isn’t whether a UBI will discourage work, but whether it will make the existing problem significantly worse.

    I don’t think it would. Under the current system, taking a job makes you ineligible for many welfare benefits or makes them subject to extremely high marginal tax rates. Under my version of the UBI, taking a job is pure profit with no downside until you reach $30,000—at which point you’re bringing home way too much ($40,000 net) to be deterred from work by the imposition of a surtax.

    Some people who would otherwise work will surely drop out of the labor force under the UBI, but others who are now on welfare or disability will enter the labor force. It is prudent to assume that net voluntary dropout from the labor force will increase, but there is no reason to think that it will be large enough to make the UBI unworkable.

    Involuntary dropout from the labor force is another matter, which brings me to a key point: We are approaching a labor market in which entire trades and professions will be mere shadows of what they once were. I’m familiar with the retort: People have been worried about technology destroying jobs since the Luddites, and they have always been wrong. But the case for “this time is different” has a lot going for it.

    When cars and trucks started to displace horse-drawn vehicles, it didn’t take much imagination to see that jobs for drivers would replace jobs lost for teamsters, and that car mechanics would be in demand even as jobs for stable boys vanished. It takes a better imagination than mine to come up with new blue-collar occupations that will replace more than a fraction of the jobs (now numbering 4 million) that taxi drivers and truck drivers will lose when driverless vehicles take over. Advances in 3-D printing and “contour craft” technology will put at risk the jobs of many of the 14 million people now employed in production and construction.

    The list goes on, and it also includes millions of white-collar jobs formerly thought to be safe. For decades, progress in artificial intelligence lagged behind the hype. In the past few years, AI has come of age. Last spring, for example, a computer program defeated a grandmaster in the classic Asian board game of Go a decade sooner than had been expected. It wasn’t done by software written to play Go but by software that taught itself to play—a landmark advance. Future generations of college graduates should take note.

    Exactly how bad is the job situation going to be? An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study concluded that 9% of American jobs are at risk. Two Oxford scholars estimate that as many as 47% of American jobs are at risk. Even the optimistic scenario portends a serious problem. Whatever the case, it will need to be possible, within a few decades, for a life well lived in the U.S. not to involve a job as traditionally defined. A UBI will be an essential part of the transition to that unprecedented world.

    The good news is that a well-designed UBI can do much more than help us to cope with disaster. It also could provide an invaluable benefit: injecting new resources and new energy into an American civic culture that has historically been one of our greatest assets but that has deteriorated alarmingly in recent decades.

    A key feature of American exceptionalism has been the propensity of Americans to create voluntary organizations for dealing with local problems. Tocqueville was just one of the early European observers who marveled at this phenomenon in the 19th and early 20th centuries. By the time the New Deal began, American associations for providing mutual assistance and aiding the poor involved broad networks, engaging people from the top to the bottom of society, spontaneously formed by ordinary citizens.

    These groups provided sophisticated and effective social services and social insurance of every sort, not just in rural towns or small cities but also in the largest and most impersonal of megalopolises. To get a sense of how extensive these networks were, consider this: When one small Midwestern state, Iowa, mounted a food-conservation program during World War I, it engaged the participation of 2,873 church congregations and 9,630 chapters of 31 different secular fraternal associations.

    Did these networks successfully deal with all the human needs of their day? No. But that isn’t the right question. In that era, the U.S. had just a fraction of today’s national wealth. The correct question is: What if the same level of activity went into civil society’s efforts to deal with today’s needs—and financed with today’s wealth?

    The advent of the New Deal and then of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society displaced many of the most ambitious voluntary efforts to deal with the needs of the poor. It was a predictable response. Why continue to contribute to a private program to feed the hungry when the government is spending billions of dollars on food stamps and nutrition programs? Why continue the mutual insurance program of your fraternal organization once Social Security is installed? Voluntary organizations continued to thrive, but most of them turned to needs less subject to crowding out by the federal government.

    This was a bad trade, in my view. Government agencies are the worst of all mechanisms for dealing with human needs. They are necessarily bound by rules applied uniformly to people who have the same problems on paper but who will respond differently to different forms of help. Whether religious or secular, nongovernmental organization are inherently better able to tailor their services to local conditions and individual cases.

    Under my UBI plan, the entire bureaucratic apparatus of government social workers would disappear, but Americans would still possess their historic sympathy and social concern. And the wealth in private hands would be greater than ever before. It is no pipe dream to imagine the restoration, on an unprecedented scale, of a great American tradition of voluntary efforts to meet human needs. It is how Americans, left to themselves, have always responded. Figuratively, and perhaps literally, it is in our DNA.

    Regardless of what voluntary agencies do (or fail to do), nobody will starve in the streets. Everybody will know that, even if they can’t find any job at all, they can live a decent existence if they are cooperative enough to pool their grants with one or two other people. The social isolates who don’t cooperate will also be getting their own monthly deposit of $833.

    Some people will still behave irresponsibly and be in need before that deposit arrives, but the UBI will radically change the social framework within which they seek help: Everybody will know that everybody else has an income stream. It will be possible to say to the irresponsible what can’t be said now: “We won’t let you starve before you get your next deposit, but it’s time for you to get your act together. Don’t try to tell us you’re helpless, because we know you aren’t.”

    The known presence of an income stream would transform a wide range of social and personal interactions. The unemployed guy living with his girlfriend will be told that he has to start paying part of the rent or move out, changing the dynamics of their relationship for the better. The guy who does have a low-income job can think about marriage differently if his new family’s income will be at least $35,000 a year instead of just his own earned $15,000.

    Or consider the unemployed young man who fathers a child. Today, society is unable to make him shoulder responsibility. Under a UBI, a judge could order part of his monthly grant to be extracted for child support before he ever sees it. The lesson wouldn’t be lost on his male friends.

    Or consider teenage girls from poor neighborhoods who have friends turning 21. They watch—and learn—as some of their older friends use their new monthly income to rent their own apartments, buy nice clothes or pay for tuition, while others have to use the money to pay for diapers and baby food, still living with their mothers because they need help with day care.

    These are just a few possible scenarios, but multiply the effects of such interactions by the millions of times they would occur throughout the nation every day. The availability of a guaranteed income wouldn’t relieve individuals of responsibility for the consequences of their actions. It would instead, paradoxically, impose responsibilities that didn’t exist before, which would be a good thing.

    My version of a UBI would do nothing to stage-manage their lives. In place of little bundles of benefits to be used as a bureaucracy specifies, they would get $10,000 a year to use as they wish. It wouldn’t be charity—every citizen who has turned 21 gets the same thing, deposited monthly into that most respectable of possessions, a bank account.

    A UBI would present the most disadvantaged among us with an open road to the middle class if they put their minds to it. It would say to people who have never had reason to believe it before: “Your future is in your hands.” And that would be the truth.

    The UBI is to be financed by getting rid of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, housing subsidies, welfare for single women and every other kind of welfare and social-services program, as well as agricultural subsidies and corporate welfare. As of 2014, the annual cost of a UBI would have been about $200 billion cheaper than the current system. By 2020, it would be nearly a trillion dollars cheaper.”
    Yep, somehow social costs would be hundreds of billions of dollars cheaper under Murray’s UBI plan. How does accomplish this while still provided the same level of public services or better? By not providing then and just telling people “you better start pulling those bootstraps because you’re on your own!”


    Under my UBI plan, the entire bureaucratic apparatus of government social workers would disappear, but Americans would still possess their historic sympathy and social concern. And the wealth in private hands would be greater than ever before. It is no pipe dream to imagine the restoration, on an unprecedented scale, of a great American tradition of voluntary efforts to meet human needs. It is how Americans, left to themselves, have always responded. Figuratively, and perhaps literally, it is in our DNA.

    Regardless of what voluntary agencies do (or fail to do), nobody will starve in the streets. Everybody will know that, even if they can’t find any job at all, they can live a decent existence if they are cooperative enough to pool their grants with one or two other people. The social isolates who don’t cooperate will also be getting their own monthly deposit of $833.

    Some people will still behave irresponsibly and be in need before that deposit arrives, but the UBI will radically change the social framework within which they seek help: Everybody will know that everybody else has an income stream. It will be possible to say to the irresponsible what can’t be said now: “We won’t let you starve before you get your next deposit, but it’s time for you to get your act together. Don’t try to tell us you’re helpless, because we know you aren’t.”

    These are just a few possible scenarios, but multiply the effects of such interactions by the millions of times they would occur throughout the nation every day. The availability of a guaranteed income wouldn’t relieve individuals of responsibility for the consequences of their actions. It would instead, paradoxically, impose responsibilities that didn’t exist before, which would be a good thing.

    A UBI would present the most disadvantaged among us with an open road to the middle class if they put their minds to it. It would say to people who have never had reason to believe it before: “Your future is in your hands.” And that would be the truth.

    “Some people will still behave irresponsibly and be in need before that deposit arrives, but the UBI will radically change the social framework within which they seek help: Everybody will know that everybody else has an income stream. It will be possible to say to the irresponsible what can’t be said now: “We won’t let you starve before you get your next deposit, but it’s time for you to get your act together. Don’t try to tell us you’re helpless, because we know you aren’t.”
    Oh how nice. After gutting all social welfare programs and effectively making the poor poorer, American society will just become like one giant family where no one is allowed to starve. What exactly we’ll do when it isn’t, “We won’t let you starve before you get your next deposit, but it’s time for you to get your act together. Don’t try to tell us you’re helpless, because we know you aren’t,” but instead, “We won’t let you die from [insert expensive medical circumstance] before you get your next deposit, but it’s time for you to get your act together. Don’t try to tell us you’re helpless, because we know you aren’t,” is unclear, but presumably private charity will assume the growing medical expenses of an increasingly poor aging American population or, you know, just tell them “Don’t try to tell us you’re helpless, because we know you aren’t.” Either response appears to be a viable option under Murray’s plan. After all, the threat of letting people starve is is key ingredient of Murray’s UBI secret sauce.

    And, again, since there’s a very high probably that getting rid of the minimum wage would also be part of any UBI plan note how Murray sells his UBI plan as a response to a future job market where automation and AI make quality employment


    Exactly how bad is the job situation going to be? An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study concluded that 9% of American jobs are at risk. Two Oxford scholars estimate that as many as 47% of American jobs are at risk. Even the optimistic scenario portends a serious problem. Whatever the case, it will need to be possible, within a few decades, for a life well lived in the U.S. not to involve a job as traditionally defined. A UBI will be an essential part of the transition to that unprecedented world.

    The good news is that a well-designed UBI can do much more than help us to cope with disaster. It also could provide an invaluable benefit: injecting new resources and new energy into an American civic culture that has historically been one of our greatest assets but that has deteriorated alarmingly in recent decades.

    So we need a UBI to address the looming job-pocalypse. But the UBI is going to be a poverty-level income, with no backup for when medical or other expenses exceed that poverty level, and the only way to achieve non-poverty-level income is to get the extra income in the job-pocalypse job market. That should go well:

    Backchannel

    Say Goodbye To Your Highly Skilled Job. It’s Now a “Human Intelligence Task.”
    Digital crowdworkers don’t only do menial tasks like data entry. They’re smart, capable, and hungrier than any algorithm. And they work for cheap.

    Mark Harris
    6/6/2016

    Harry K. sits at his desk in Vancouver, Canada, scanning sepia-tinted swirls, loops and blobs on his computer screen. Every second or so, he jabs at his mouse and adds a fluorescent dot to the image. After a minute, a new image pops up in front of him.

    Harry is tagging images of cells removed from breast cancers. It’s a painstaking job but not a difficult one, he says: “It’s like playing Etch A Sketch or a video game where you color in certain dots.”

    Harry found the gig on Crowdflower, a crowdworking platform. Usually that cell-tagging task would be the job of pathologists, who typically start their careers with annual salaries of around $200,000—an hourly wage of about $80. Harry, on the other hand, earns just four cents for annotating a batch of five images, which takes him between two to eight minutes. His hourly wage is about 60 cents.

    Granted, Harry can’t perform most of the tasks in a pathologist’s repertoire. But in 2016—11 years after the launch of the ur-platform, Amazon Mechanical Turk—crowdworking (sometimes also called crowdsourcing) is eating into increasingly high-skilled jobs. The engineers who are developing this model of labor have a bold ambition to atomize entire careers into micro-tasks that almost anyone, anywhere in the world, can carry out online. They’re banking on the idea that any technology that can make a complex process 100 times cheaper, as in Harry’s case, will spread like wildfire.

    Perhaps it’s inevitable that in a few years, software will swallow up these jobs, too. But as the tech conversation has fixated on how artificial intelligence will affect the job market, crowdwork has quietly grown in impact and scale.

    The next jobs to receive the crowd treatment? Doctors, managers and teachers.

    ———–

    When Amazon revealed Mechanical Turk in 2005, the service became an overnight hit. It was the first online platform to allow businesses to post small jobs (called ‘HITs,’ short for ‘human intelligence tasks’), and it quickly attracted a global pool of under-employed people eager to tackle these jobs for equally small rewards. Workers, or ‘turkers,’ choose which tasks to accept, and how long to work. They might, for example, check websites for opening hours, categorize images, or answer survey questions.

    Isaac Nichols, now Chief Product Officer of the platform zCrowd, was part of the team that developed Mechanical Turk. The original intent was to use crowdworkers to clean up the company’s databases, extract information from photos, and complete listings for CDs and MP3s. “We had a huge need for a workforce to do this work, but managing that was complicated in terms of hiring, staffing, and seasonality of the work,” he says.

    Amazon realized that if it was facing these kinds of issues, other companies in the digital ecosystem were likely also suffering. “Mechanical Turk was designed from the ground-up to be an external tool,” says Nichols. It wasn’t long before other crowdworking platforms soon popped up. “If you have a task that almost anyone in the world can do, then there’s a seemingly infinite supply of people willing to do it,” says Lukas Biewald, founder of CrowdFlower, the platform Harry uses. If you needed to pitch the concept to a venture capitalist in an elevator, you could say crowdworking is Uber for brains.

    More than a decade later, dozens of crowdworking platforms now serve up tiny units of labor to millions of workers around the world. Last year, the JPMorgan Chase Institute looked at the anonymized accounts of 6.3m of its customers, and found that over 265,000 people had received income from online economy platforms. This includes so-called capital platforms like Uber or AirBnB, which encourage people to monetize their possessions. These have made money for an estimated 3 percent of Americans, compared with only around 1 percent of Americans (about 3 million people) for crowdworking.

    But crowdworking is growing faster, having increased more than tenfold in the last three years. The money crowdworkers earned grew even more dramatically between 2012 and 2015—by a factor of 54. Most crowdworkers initially turn to digital labor to supplement low earnings or fill gaps between traditional jobs, but once they start, they tend to do more of it.

    Unlike Uber drivers or many TaskRabbit laborers, who usually have to be physically present wherever they are needed, digital workers can earn money from coffee shops or kitchen tables anywhere in the world. And unlike the design, writing and coding professionals you can find on platforms like Upwork or Elance, most crowdworkers need no particular skills or training. Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, calls these workers “fungible, sought only for their reliability and low cost.” Tech workers sometimes use a more visceral term: meatware.

    ———–

    The downside of making something 100 times cheaper means that someone—and probably lots of people—are losing money. A few pathologists needing to retrain might not upset you, but how exactly can people like Harry live on 60 cents an hour? In 2010, researchers at New York University calculated the median wage of Mechanical Turk workers at $1.38 an hour. While a few experienced crowdworkers say they earn between $5 and $12 an hour, many requesters continue to pay far below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 (which does not apply to independent contractors).

    For example, a recent job post by the University of California, Los Angeles, required workers to complete a 45-minute survey for $1.13, equivalent to $1.50 an hour, with the risk of forfeiting the entire payment should they answer a single question incorrectly. And some payments are actually falling.

    “When I started working originally on the legal HITs, it was 25 cents each,” says Serana Winter, a 34-year old Ohioan specializing in processing legal documents. “We now do them for 15 cents a HIT. Four used to get me to a dollar, now it takes seven.”

    She estimates that “I can do 8 hours of work and make $30, if I’m lucky.” Winter uses zCrowd, which adds an efficient workflow management system within Mechanical Turk, and she puts in a full eight-hour shift several days a week. She is also working towards a bachelor’s degree in health and wellness, so the flexible hours make it worth it for her.

    Isaac Nichols, zCrowd’s founder, admits that pricing is tricky. “What’s difficult is that you’re dealing with averages, but every job is slightly different. We often have workers who get 7, 8 or 9 bucks an hour,” he says. “I’d love to pay more but [there are] some upper bounds in terms of what our customers want to pay.”

    So I decided to ask them. I wanted to know why anyone would work for such small change, and whether they felt pressured, exploited?—?or perhaps even empowered as part of this revolution in labor.

    One thing they have in common is their concern over pay. Nearly half say that crowdworking is rarely or never fairly paid, and twice as many think that pay is decreasing rather than increasing. “Even requesters who once paid a fair wage drop that wage when they realize that there is someone out there who will keep working on their HITs for pennies,” says one worker.

    (I also ran a larger survey, asking 209 turkers how much they actually earned, day in, day out. The average hourly rate they reported was $3.25, with a third earning less than $3. Fewer than one in ten crowdworkers said they earned $7 an hour or more).

    Several crowdworkers feel like they are in a race to the bottom, not just with human rivals, but with machines, too. “Some of [my work] could possibly be as easily done automated,” says a 27-year old worker from Florida. “It is really up to the requester if they want a computer to complete it or have it done by a human being. If they find it cheaper to do automated, they will more than likely go that route.”

    Perhaps such mechanical work is better handled by machines anyway. Hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs in developed countries have been replaced by assembly line robots. Many of the routine image recognition and translation tasks carried out by human turkers are now being targeted by AI researchers. A startup called Mirador, for example, asked turkers to classify 50,000 images as ‘nude’ or ‘not nude’. Once its deep learning software had been trained on that data, the human workers were no longer needed. (Arguably, this is a great use for automation, as software can automatically sift pornographic, violent or disturbing imagery from social media without a human having to suffer it.)

    “Algorithms are going to take a piece of the work,” admits Isaac Nichols. “It’s a slow, powerful steady process,” agrees Lukas Biewald. “What we see is that people will move little pieces to automated systems over time.”

    Adam Devine, a vice president at WorkFusion, another crowdworking platform, goes further. “There is absolutely no future where a person is reading information and simply keying in data.” For example, one of WorkFusion’s clients processes payment records between banks in different countries. These documents arrive from global banks in emails, spreadsheet files, PDFs and even faxes. Workers then have to transcribe each one perfectly. According to Devine, a single mistake can cost half a billion dollars.

    Devine says that by toggling back and forth between a human worker training an algorithm, and an algorithm that makes a mistake and is corrected by a human, WorkFusion can achieve near-perfect accuracy at a fifth of the cost of using people alone. And as machines get smarter, the illegible writing and scrawled numbers that currently need human input will get fewer and fewer. “The workers don’t even realize that they’re working on an interface that’s ultimately going to remove a lot of the work they’re doing,” says Devine.

    A few people in my survey said that they had learned skills like typing, research and coding on the job, but only a quarter said that they actually wanted to be stretched by their work online. Even those that do aspire to more interesting tasks have low expectations about forging a career from them. “I would like more challenging work,” says a 38-year old worker living in Wisconsin, “But they’d probably not pay enough anyway.”

    One 28-year old New Yorker with a master’s degree thinks that crowdworking has expanded her knowledge base slightly, “but I wouldn’t say I’ve gained any real world skills.” Perhaps this is the real danger. Increasingly sophisticated systems are making it ever easier to atomize some daily duties of doctors, lawyers, teachers and managers into discrete tasks, but the skills lost at the top do not seem to be trickling down to the crowd.

    We are at a turning point for crowdworking. In one scenario, the crowd continues to grow and expand, but the work remains mundane, repetitious and poorly paid. Eventually, much of it gets automated completely.

    In another, as crowdworking expands, the incremental jobs require more responsibility, more social interaction, and more genuine intelligence than today’s mechanized chores. Fairly paid work becomes available to almost anyone, anywhere with access to a computer. This in turn entices some of the 40 percent of Americans who are of working age but not currently employed to rejoin the workforce.

    “It’s not about creating some new kind of magical computational data center of the workplace,” says Praveen Paritosh. “It’s more about building a platform in the digital world that follows the model of being humane and being a good co-worker and being pleasant to work with. I know that there will problems as we go along. But the bigger problem would be if crowdworking dies before it gets there.”

    Crowdworking’s current woes foreshadow a problem that will only become more acute as AI matures. Do we have the political and social will to transform the way we live and work, to embrace the efficiencies of automation without discarding the tremendous creativity and flexibility of human beings? If we can’t, the world of work will be a much poorer—and probably even more poorly paid—place.

    “The downside of making something 100 times cheaper means that someone—and probably lots of people—are losing money. A few pathologists needing to retrain might not upset you, but how exactly can people like Harry live on 60 cents an hour? In 2010, researchers at New York University calculated the median wage of Mechanical Turk workers at $1.38 an hour. While a few experienced crowdworkers say they earn between $5 and $12 an hour, many requesters continue to pay far below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 (which does not apply to independent contractors).”
    Have fun working you way out of UBI poverty in the job market where making something 100 times cheaper by reducing labor costs is the new hot thing and a long-term employment mega-trend. And remember, you and you alone are responsible for your future under the new UBI ethos. What a great recipe for invigorating America’s civic culture!

    Part of what makes Murray’s UBI-trolling so unfortunate is that it really is one of those policy tools that could be invaluable, but not if folks like Murray trash the concept in advance. Or do worse and actually get the Murray UBI implemented as law. Because let’s imagine a UBI on top of basic services like healthcare. One that allows people to live in dignity without having go out and get a Mechanical Turk job for scraps.

    What kind of economy would that create? Well, the “non-poverty UBI + services” model would basically act as a public union, which could have a profoundly positive impact on the ‘disposable’ labor market that’s emerged in recent years. And the stronger that “public union”, the higher wages would be and more people would be tempted to enter the labor market.

    But let’s also not forget one of the biggest positive impacts a “non-poverty UBI + services” model could have on the US labor market: It would finally free of the labor force for the biggest “Mechanical Turk” job in the country. A job that no one gets paid to do but requires virtually everyone to do anyway. Democracy.

    Think about it: while the main positive features of democracy that we’re taught to celebrate is that, regardless of the quality of the government, at least that government has a semblance of legitimacy, that’s really just one of its main benefit. Because don’t forget that democracy is also a giant exercise in crowd-sourcing and utilizing the ‘wisdom of crowds’ to shape and direct public policies across a broad array of different issues. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work…as a giant Mechanical Turk-like exercise in information digestion and analysis. Except unlike the Turk jobs, where you’re net output is accumulation of a series of microtasks for pennies apiece all under the direction of some central organization, with democracy we (hope) voters are freely and independently taking in all sorts of information from a variety of sources and the final output comes in the form of voting for the kinds of policy-makers who seem the most likely to achieve better results for everyone. So it’s a very different Mechanical Turk-like task than what Amazon is peddling. And it’s far more vital, especially in an increasingly economically and environmentally stressed out world where intelligent collective sacrifice is going to be a critical survival skill. And in a Mechanical Turk future, where hours of human potential are wasted on a microtask race to the bottom, that critical Mechanical Turk-like unpaid job called democracy is going to continue to face major labor shortages.

    So let’s hope the debate over the potential utility of a Universal Basic Income isn’t dominated by the Charles Murrays of the world. Because the most important job in the world requires us all. And it doesn’t pay. At all.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | June 11, 2016, 3:37 pm

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