Friday, April 16, 2021

Centrist Escapism

One good reason for being pleased you're not at the center of the universe, according to, would be that means you're not "he filth and mire of the world, the worst, lowest, most lifeless part of the universe, the bottom story of the house". Illustration by Rauner Special Collections Library.

Dr. Krugman savages Andrew Yang, mayoral candidate ("Andrew Yang Hasn't Done the Math"), over his claim in the 2020 presidential campaign that America's big problem is job loss due to rapid automation, for which the only cure is giving everybody a "universal" "basic" "income" of $1000 a month:

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.

I made similar points back in 2019, eliciting a furious response from Yang, who decried “incomplete statistics” and declared that “I’ve done the math.” But if he had done the math, he didn’t share it with the rest of us; all he offered were anecdotes. Yes, at any given time there are always some workers being displaced by technology. The question is whether this is happening faster now than in the past. The numbers say that it isn’t.

For what it’s worth, my guess is that Yang started preaching the dangers of automation without ever having looked at economic data; it was a story too good to check.

And of course it wouldn't have done the job if the job actually needed to be done. Not only was the monthly allowance absurdly expensive (he calculates around $3 trillion per year, in perpetuity), but idiotically inadequate at the same time for the people who need the money—$12,000 a year in 2020 dollars is not an income!—and not very helpful for those who don't, for that matter: it's not going to help you pull up stakes and move to that place that will change your life forever, or quit your stupid job and start up an amazing company.

The job that needs to be done is a different and less comfortable one; obviously we should be generous in support of the unemployed, and families with children (the problem with UBI programs in general is that they usually aim at abolishing such support, including Yang's program, which was going to force beneficiaries to choose between the allowance and traditional means-tested welfare programs and be financed with a 10% VAT, a double whammy for the poor, even as it enabled tech bros to do date night at The French Laundry or Daniel every month). If we want to deal with our general income stagnation and inequality we need to take a different approach, and one that not everybody wants to discuss:

The real story of inequality and wage stagnation in America has a lot to do with the decline of unions and workers’ loss of bargaining power; but some commentators are uncomfortable talking about power relations and would rather blame technology.

Yang's approach is "centrist escapism", Krugman says, avoiding the issues in favor of what sounds like an easy fix, at least if you don't look at it too closely because you trust the guy with "MATH" on his cap. Centrist because of the way it avoids confronting power relations, and escapist because it asks you to do so little intellectual work it's clear it's never going to happen.

Much worse, for that matter, is Yang's plan for New York, to turn the city into a hub for cryptocurrency, which is nonsensical on its face (why would cryptocurrency want a hub? it's a project of people whose lives are led entirely online), and a terrible idea for independent reasons, because of the horrifying electricity consumption of the industry:

If Bitcoin were a country, it would rank 27th in terms of energy consumption, ahead of countries like Sweden, the Ukraine and Argentina, according to data from the University of Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index. As of April 5th, Bitcoin is on pace to consume about as much electricity this year as all the homes in the mid-Atlantic states.

"In effect, a single bitcoin transaction could actually power nearly 31 US households for a full day,” said Tara Shirvani, a digitalization and infrastructure specialist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. “At its peak, bitcoin was consuming the same amount of energy per year as nearly 7 million U.S. homes.”

(Advocates say it uses a lot of renewable energy, and that's adorbs, but if there isn't a huge amount of renewable energy available in a particular location that just forces consumers to find more non-renewable to make up for what the cryptominers are taking, so it really doesn't help.)

Meanwhile we're still waiting for the Yang campaign to offer up some specific ideas on housing, jobs and the economy, public health, education, the environment and climate resiliency, the city budget, transparency and ethics, and mass transit (he does have some thoughts on policing, but they don't go very far). 

Then again, there is another Universal Basic Income proposal, this one not Universal at all, far from Basic, and much less an Income (it's for $167/month, I'm not making this up, for the 500,000 neediest New Yorkers, whose money will be deposited into an account in Yang's proposed People's Bank, but no information on how many branches he's planning to build in one of the worst urban banking deserts in the country—it's going to take a lot, and getting Senate Banking Committee chair Elizabeth Warren to give us a Post Office Savings Bank is a way better bet).

Really, New York, just forget this guy. 

(And subscribe to Paul Krugman's free newsletter, just out with a very good account of why Trump's corporate tax cut was even stupider than he thought it was in 2017 and must be reversed as in the current Biden proposal.)

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