The thing about gloom and doom–a venue in which I increasingly reside–is that it makes you question some basic assumptions. Privileged people who wake up each day to depressing news about our country’s governance and prospects for social progress have a choice: we can take an “I’ve got mine” approach, ignoring the effects of social disintegration on those less fortunate, or we can try to figure out what went wrong and why, and what it might take to fix it. Obviously, I believe the latter option to be the moral one.
I have concluded that the major, underlying problem we face–in America and the world– is tribalism. Us versus Them. Suspicion of the “Other.” Tribal identities and interests–racial, religious, political–make it infinitely harder to solve other pressing problems.
Rapid social change operates to harden those tribal affiliations.
If my conclusion is correct, we need to determine how a different approach to U.S. social policies might ameliorate tribal antagonisms, rather than exacerbating them.
Look, for example, at America’s (inadequate and patchwork) social safety net. Critics of “welfare” are everywhere. How many times have you heard someone accuse “those people” of abusing the system, how often do you hear someone complain about paying taxes to support “those people” who don’t work? (Yes, I know the data contradicts these assertions, but data rarely convinces those who don’t want to be convinced.)
Now try to think of the last time you heard similar criticisms of Social Security recipients. Crickets, right?
Social Security is a universal program. We all pay taxes into it; we all are entitled to benefit from it. It undercuts those “us versus them” scenarios. Social welfare programs that are universal are less likely to stoke tribal resentments and feed stereotypes; that is one of the appeals of proposals for a Universal Basic Income. But the UBI goes against the ingrained American belief that people should work for what they get.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has a big idea: give 15 local areas federal money so they can guarantee all their residents a job.
The Federal Jobs Guarantee Development Act, announced by Booker on Friday, would establish a three-year pilot program in which the Department of Labor would select up to 15 local areas (defined in the bill as any political subdivision of a state, like a city or a county, or a group of cities and counties) and offer that area funding so that every adult living there is guaranteed a job paying at least $15 an hour (or the prevailing wage for the job in question, whichever’s higher) and offering paid family/sick leave and health benefits.
Booker’s bill is a pilot project to test the policy outcomes and political practicality of a jobs guarantee. The Vox article has a lengthy discussion of the merits and risks of such a proposal, and notes that, ideally, such a program would both improve the lives of lower-income Americans and support Americans’ belief “that people should work to earn their crust.”
“The job guarantee asserts that, if individuals bear a moral duty to work, then society and employers bear a reciprocal moral duty to provide good, dignified work for all,” Jeff Spross added in the influential center-left journal Democracy.
While universal basic income has become a hip talking point, it would be a lot easier to implement if it was attached to a job guarantee program. The reality is that most Americans value work, for themselves as well as others.
Right now, the United States is experiencing massive conflicts of values and interests and world-views. These conflicts are especially dangerous due to the widening gap between the rich and the rest, the predatory behaviors of the political class, and the disintegration of democratic norms.
We comfortable folks can shrug our shoulders, note that Rome fell too, and go about our individual lives–or we can begin the very arduous process of reimagining and reinvigorating American social and governing institutions.