The case for a universal basic income, open borders, and a 15-hour workweek

Universal basic income. A 15-hour workweek. Open borders. These ideas may strike you as wild, fantastical, maybe even utopian. But that’s exactly the point.

Imagining utopia, writes Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, “isn’t an attempt to predict the future. It’s an attempt to unlock the future. To fling open the windows of our minds.”

He’s right. Bregman is the author of the lovely book Utopia for Realists (as well as the star of the viral Davos speech and Tucker Carlson takedown). I had him on my podcast to discuss not just his vision of utopia, or my vision of utopia, but how to think like a utopian, and why doing so matter most when the days feel so dystopic.

You can listen to our full conversation by subscribing to The Ezra Klein Showwherever you get your podcasts, or streaming it below. A partial transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Ezra Klein

In Utopia for Realists, you write, “in the past, everything was worse. For roughly 99 percent of the world’s history, 99 percent of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick and ugly.”

This is a very Steven Pinker-ish argument, but where he uses that history to push us to value the system we have, you use it to argue for a radical departure of the system we have. So where do you and Pinker differ?

Rutger Bregman

I would say he has a more sanitized view of history. He doesn’t show all the struggles and the fights, and the battles for power that went on [to achieve progress]. It seems quite ironic to me that the Steven Pinkers of today don’t like social justice warriors. The great achievements that they’re so happy about have often been achieved by the social justice warriors of the past.

Ezra Klein

At the beginning of the book, you have this great line, “This book isn’t an attempt to predict the future. It’s an attempt to unlock the future, to fling open the windows of our minds.” Why should we be working backwards from utopia?

Rutger Bregman

We know that every milestone of civilization — the end of slavery, democracy, equal rights for women — were all utopian fantasies in the past. So the point is to come up with new utopias: visions of a radically better society. It was Oscar Wilde who said, “Progress is the realization of utopias.”

My book was an argument against people who view politics as just another form of technocracy or management. I wanted to say, look, I know that there have been horrible utopias in the 20th century, but we shouldn’t throw it all away because progress is all about the realization of utopias.

Ezra Klein

Before we get into the specifics of your utopias, I want to talk about utopian thinking. What do you need to build a vision of utopia? What, is the Rutger Bregman recipe for constructing your own utopia, whatever that might be?

Rutger Bregman

Every utopian vision starts with the injustices of today. For example, nowadays there are millions of people working in jobs that they don’t really care about. They’re writing reports that no one’s ever going to read or building financial products that only destroy wealth.

So then the question is: How would a society look like where people have actually the freedom to decide for themselves what to make of their lives, where work and play become the same thing? And then you can arrive at different things. You can say, well, we need a radically shorter working week. Maybe we need to implement something like a basic income. But it really starts with: What are the problems you’re facing right now? You’re sitting in the office and you’re just depressed.

There’s no one human nature. People change based on how you treat them.

Ezra Klein

It seems to me utopian thinking also needs a view on human nature: how people will respond to radically different scenarios. Utopia for Realists has an implicit idea of human nature that’s important to what it sees as possible, and your upcoming book is an argument for this view. So could you talk a bit about your idea of human nature and how it differs from what is conventional in politics today?

Rutger Bregman

We need to move to a much more hopeful vision of human nature because, otherwise, you can’t do any of these things. You become a cynic and a political change becomes impossible. I’ve had lots of debates about guaranteed basic income with lots of people. You always end up discussing human nature. People believe others are just lazy and need to be forced to do work.

I believe that most people are pretty nice — that we’re generally a cooperative species, that we’re creative, that we like to make our own choices, and that we’re quite playful. There are darker sides, but the point is what you assume in other people is also what you get out of them.

Right now we’ve designed so many of our institutions — our schools, our prisons, our democracy — around the idea that people are fundamentally selfish. The American republic, is based on the idea that people are selfish. [It’s] the Thomas Hobbes worldview: if you don’t have the system then you have a war of all against all.

I have a very different view. I think there are lots of great examples of companies and countries and organizations around the globe that have moved to a different view of human nature where you actually trust people to make their own choices. And it brings out the best in people.

Ezra Klein

I love this idea that we get out of people what we expect of them. Tell me about the places where you think they do that. What is a place, a company, a country that has a very different expectation of people?

Rutger Bregman

One of my favorite examples is a Dutch organization called Buurtzorg. It’s a neighborhood care [organization]. Since 2006, they’ve built this organization, now with 15,000 employees, of nurses and they’ve ditched all the managers. So there are no managers in the company anymore. It’s just self-guiding, self-directing teams of around 12, 13 nurses. They manage themselves and it turns out it’s cheaper, it’s more effective, clients are happier, etc. And it’s based on this whole philosophy that if you trust people then you don’t need to manage and control.

And, if you go around the globe, then you see that there are countries, like Scandinavia and Holland, with high levels of social trust.

Ezra Klein

One of the things that critics will say when you bring up Scandinavian countries is that they have high levels of social trust because they’re very small and homogenous. There’s this idea that as you become a larger, more diverse country people just mistrust each other more. What do you say to those critics?

Rutger Bregman

They have a point, but I think they overplay their hand. Let me give you one example. Since the ’50s and ’60s we’ve seen so much social science about how human beings are “groupish” — [that] we like to live in groups and our empathy is connected with our xenophobia. For example, in the Robber’s Cave experimentfrom the ’50s there were two groups of kids going to summer camp and they had this immediate war. It’s always used as an example of how groupish people are even when they’re 5 or 6 years old.

But there’s a really interesting new book out by Gina Perry who went into the archives and found that the researchers had already tried this experiment but didn’t publish the first version because the kids became great friends. Same is true for famous experiments like the Stanford prison experiment. The archives have opened up, and it turns out that for 50 years, it was basically a lie. So, I do see the point, but I think that nowadays a lot of people are overplaying that argument. Human beings also have a great capacity for friendship and overcoming group boundaries.

The utopian case for a universal basic income

Ezra Klein

Let’s dig into to some of the dimensions of your utopia. Make the utopian case for universal basic income (UBI).

Rutger Bregman

Universal basic income is all about freedom. That’s the most important argument for it. It’s about the freedom to make your own choices. It’s about the freedom to say “yes” to the things that you want to do, and it’s about the freedom to say “no” to things you don’t like — a boss that harasses you or a wife or husband that you don’t really like anymore. If we move to the details, most people would say it’s a monthly grant enough to pay for your basic needs like food, shelter, clothing, and it’s absolutely unconditional so you can decide for yourself what you want to do with it.

Ezra Klein

As you probably know, I’ve lived a lot with the idea of UBI because my wife Annie Lowrey wrote an amazing book on it called Give People Money.

Rutger Bregman

And it’s a much better book than mine.

Ezra Klein

Well, I’m not here to compare, but obviously she’s the world’s greatest writer. So, I’ve thought a lot about UBI, and it has always struck me that the case for it is typically made in dystopian terms, where I think the case is very weak, instead of in utopian terms, where I think it’s quite strong.

This is a disagreement I have, among others, with Andrew Yang. If automation is going to take every job, then UBI doesn’t do all that much for you. If you’re driving a truck making $75,000 a year and the robots took your job and now you get $12,000 or $15,000 UBI, that’s not a good situation.

Whereas, to your point, if the idea is that we should just build society differently — that everybody should have the basics taken care of; that we want people to be able to search for jobs that fit them, and if they can’t find one, you don’t have to work a terrible job in order to eat — that’s always struck me as a much more encouraging vision.

Rutger Bregman

I absolutely agree with you. I think the automation argument is probably the worst argument for basic income out there. We should never underestimate capitalism’s extraordinary ability to come up with new bullshit jobs.

There’s a recent academic study by two Dutch economists where 20,000 people from 40 countries were asked the question, “Do you think your job has anything of value to society?” It turns out that around 25 percent isn’t really sure. So, this is what they call — I think the politically correct term is “socially meaningless jobs.”

Ezra Klein

But I think people know that by the politically incorrect term, which is “bullshit.”

Rutger Bregman

Yes. The concept is from David Graeber, the American anthropologist who wrote a great book about it. Well, nowadays it’s 25 percent, but it could be 50 percent in the future. It could be 75 percent. It could be 100 percent. We could theoretically live in some kind of dystopia where we’re all just pretending to work and sending emails and writing unnecessary reports, and the robots are doing all the real, valuable work.

Ezra Klein

Have you seen any data on what kinds of jobs tend to get classified by people as meaningless?

Rutger Bregman

The two economists [from this study] have shown that there are actually four timesas many bullshit jobs in the private sector as in the public sector. We so often hear the story about the government being wasteful. But if you ask people themselves, those in the private sector are much more likely to see their job as useless.

Now, who are these people? They often have wonderful LinkedIn profiles, went to Ivy League universities, have excellent salaries. They work in marketing, finance, etc. Still, at the end of the day, if you give them a beer or two, they’ll admit that their job is perfectly useless. If we actually rewarded people for the value of the work they do, I think that many bankers would earn a negative salary while many nurses and teachers will be millionaires.

Ezra Klein

I think this is an important point. I suspect that a lot of what makes a job feel useful or useless to someone is whether or not it involves directly caring for other people. If you’re doing work where you can understand the way it’s making somebody else’s life better, then it is a job of clear utility. The public sector has a lot of care jobs — teachers, sanitation workers, healthcare workers, soldiers. You can really understand what those jobs do, whereas at very high levels of the knowledge economy, sometimes you don’t.

To trace this back to computers, I am very skeptical that computers are going to replace care jobs because I think that we are very good at inventing more care jobs. The analogy I always use here is we have a lot more yoga teachers now than we did a couple of years ago. By the logic of automation, there’s no reason to have all these yoga teachers. You can just go on YouTube and get a video from the best yoga teacher for free. But people go.

It seems to me that the future of our economy is going to be more deeply in service jobs. The question, then, is whether or not we’re able to value them to the degree that we should. Right now, we have a lot of jobs that do a lot of work for people, but we’ve cleaved them off from a sense of social status and respect and value. And we’ve attached that value to these other jobs that people suspect are not creating anything for anyone. It’s a sick equilibrium.

Rutger Bregman

And if we assume that the more valuable jobs are often in the public sector, and we also assume that as technology advances and our factories become more efficient, then it’s only logical that we’ll start paying more money to nurses and teachers and care workers — because we can actually afford it. So, I think that in any utopian society, it’s only logical that the size of government increases. As the private sector becomes more efficient, we can actually afford to have better health care and a better educational system, etc.

Economists talk about how it’s some kind of problem that government is not efficient enough compared to the private sector, but I think that’s actually the point. The point of the future is that we can have a huge amount of inefficiency because that’s what makes life meaningful. Good care is inefficient. You actually have to talk some to someone to have the meaningful relationship. If you want to make health care more efficient, you usually destroy it.

Ezra Klein

What you’re saying, I think, is that in your utopia, the way we value things like work will not be based off of direct market contributions and considerations — that there is some other way we are going to assign value to things different than the way we do it now.

Rutger Bregman

I think the market can still help us. This is one of the most important effects of a guaranteed basic income. If you actually give those garbage collectors and nurses and teachers more bargaining power, they can always go on strike. And we know what happens when the garbage collectors go on strike — it’s terrible disaster.

So, in a scenario where we will have a basic income their wages will simply have to go up. This is just standard economics. Then, if all those people who are doing jobs that don’t really matter, say telemarketers, go on strike, then we won’t care, so their wages may go down a little bit. I can imagine that in the long run, in a basic income society, the wages of people will much better reflect the social value that they contribute.

Ezra Klein

I’ve gone from being relatively negative on UBI to feeling much more positively towards it, and a lot of that is the worker power argument. As you said, if you have a UBI, it is a lot easier to decide not to take a job or to organize around your job to make it better.

Something that has pushed my thinking on this a lot is the rise of surveillance capitalism. The way we’re using technology to organize workers lives is not just dehumanizing, but it makes it quite impossible to have a normal life. You now have people working at McDonald’s or an Amazon warehouse, and their every move is being clocked and managed, they can’t predict their hours because of just-in-time scheduling.

Technology is robbing workers of power at the same time that unions are getting weaker, and those two trends together are really dangerous. But, let me offer the counterarguments. The big one I hear is that if you have a UBI, of say $15,000 a year, people will not work. You will rob the creative energy of the population. Is that true?

Rutger Bregman

What I tried to do in the book is to see this as an empirical question. When you look at experiments that have been done since the 70s you see the same thing over and over again. Sometimes there’s a small reduction in working hours, but it’s never really something to worry about, and it’s always compensated by people doing other useful stuff.

There have been huge [UBI] experiments in the US. One of them was in Seattle where a thousand families received this basic income. What researchers found is that health improves, mental health improves, kids do better in school, etc. At the same time, you had a really nice experiment in a small town called Dauphin in Canada.

For four years, hundreds of families received a basic income. Same results. Crime goes down, kids do much better in school, health improves. In this case, they had a reduction in the hospitalization rate of around 8.8 percent which is quite a lot. Then there’s also the whole literature around cash transfers that you’re probably fmiliar with. Around the globe, NGOs and governments have been experimenting with just giving the poor money and it turns out the poor are the real experts in their lives.

Sometimes there’s a small reduction in working hours, but it’s never really something to worry about and it’s always compensated by people doing other useful stuff.

Ezra Klein

When people hear that UBI doesn’t do a lot to change working patterns, it feels counter-intuitive. But I think it shouldn’t be. First, these UBIs tend to be small. You’re talking about $12,000 a year and most people do not want to make $12,000 a year. Second, given people’s work ethics and their work motivations, it’s strange to imagine that some kind of basic living standard would rob people of interest in working.

I can imagine that argument applying to people with really terrible jobs, but maybe people with really terrible jobs either should be paid a lot more or shouldn’t do them. But just look around. People work for status. They work for meaning. They work because they want more money than they have. It’s not clear to me what UBI would do to disrupt that.

Rutger Bregman

Just look at prisons. How do they punish prisoners? Often by saying they can’t work. I think that people want to contribute — they want to do something meaningful in their lives. Why would you want to organize all your institutions around the 1 percent of people who are lazy instead of around the 99 percent who actually want to contribute something?

The 15-hour workweek, and what Keynes got wrong

Ezra Klein

Talk to me about the case for 15-hour work week.

Rutger Bregman

This goes back to a very famous essay by the British economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930 titled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.” In that essay, Keynes makes two predictions. First, he says we’ll probably be four to eight times lot richer in 2030. And it turns out he was actually more or less right.

The second prediction was that we will use that wealth to start working less because that’s what we had been doing since 1850. So again, he extrapolated into the future and said we’ll probably have a working week of about 15 hours. That sounds crazy now, but it was mainstream back then. Up until the ’60s and the ’70s, almost all the sociologists and philosophers were all talking about the real challenge of the future, which was going to be boredom.

I think what Keynes got wrong is that he imagined that this was a force of economics that we would follow, but it’s actually about real political battles that have to be fought. And [starting] in the 1980s, especially in the US, workers started losing those battles.

Ezra Klein

Political battles [probably] figure into this, but I don’t think that explains all this trend. For example, you and I both work quite a bit more than 15 hours a week, even though we could almost certainly meet our economic needs working less. And people generally work longer hours as they go up the income scale. Keynes thought we’d trade the extra income for time but we trade the extra income for things, we trade it to keep up with each other, we trade it for status.

So, I’m sure there are political choices that are implicated in this, but there also seem to be cultural or even human nature questions here.

Rutger Bregman

If I could write the book again, I would have a more explicit discussion of what work actually is. What I’m arguing for in my book is that we should move towards a society where way more people have the freedom to do work that is actually meaningful. Maybe in such a society, where everyone has that opportunity, we won’t call it work anymore. We’ll just call it play because, let’s be honest, we’re not doing this podcast for the money.

Ezra Klein

Oh no, I am — it’s the extreme financial incentives that get me to do this.

Rutger Bregman

Exactly, this proves my point. It’s really about how you define work. As a writer with a little bit of success, you get the freedom to do whatever you want. You have your basic income and that’s exactly the kind of society I would want for everyone.

It reminds me of a policy that we had in the ’70s and the ’80s in the Netherlands where artists got a basic income, and the only thing they had to do was produce art. The problem with this basic income for artists was that it made artists much too productive. So up until this day, the cities and municipalities have this problem where we have warehouses full of art from the ’70s and the ’80s, and we have no idea what to do with it.

Ezra Klein

Do you want to talk a little bit about how one would even implement a 15-hour workweek? In utopia, what enforces this idea?

Rutger Bregman

There are a lot of different policies you’d need. There are simple things like paternity leave. You can just have laws saying that you can’t work more than 50 or 60 hours a week, laws against [unpaid] overtime. Then you can have unions who bargain for it. Unions often say we want higher wages, but they could also say we want to work 5 percent less. Unions used to do that more often than they do now.

Ezra Klein

There’s a difference, though, between the freedom to work less and the mandate to work less. I’ll just use myself as an example here. Maybe it would be better if I only worked 40 hours a week or 35 hours a week or 30 hours a week, but I wouldn’t want to. So I want it to be possible for people to work a lot less, but I’m always turned off by things where you couldn’t work more. It seems like you need something that is a culture and a possibility, not a policy and a structure.

Rutger Bregman

That’s a good point. I think that it has become meaningless to look at paid work alone. People have been spending so much more time on their kids nowadays than 20 to 30 years ago. A stay-at-home mom in the 70s spent less time on her kids than a working mother does now. Is that work? Is that leisure?

Ezra Klein

I understand why those hours end up in these conversations, but I don’t like it. I hate the idea of defining the time we spend with our children as works. Our categories here aren’t great. There are parts of parenting that I would think of as work. Then, there are parts of parenting that I wish I had all the time in the world to do. It seems to me that the difference here is about things that are meaningful and sustaining versus things that are not. The categories are weaker than I think we give them credit for.

Rutger Bregman

Yeah. And if you look at the ideological history of this thing called work, often what we call work is work that contributes towards GDP. Then if you delve into the history of GDP, you find they obviously could have included unpaid work in GDP. They chose not to because mostly women were doing it. So, [GDP] is a highly ideological definition of work that economists chose [in the 1930s], and up until this day, we still use this indicator of economic progress.

Ezra Klein

If we’re blowing open the windows of our mind here, I would want to go a lot further than that. It’s wild how much we undervalue the utterly core labor of keeping the human species going and learning and capable and clothed. In my utopia, where you’re valuing things differently, we would value care work very differently. I would like to see care work treated as a job that is at least at the median wage. How you’d have to structure society to do that as an interesting question. But it is certainly not an impossible thing. It is simply a different thing.

I don’t always get the opportunity to offer this rant, but I am very frustrated by the conversation that emerges around the gender wage gap where people will say that a lot of it has to do with the motherhood penalty, it’s about how many hours mothers can work or what kind of jobs they take after they have a kid, so the gender wage gap is a myth.

That doesn’t explain away the gender wage gap — it just identifies its mechanism. The idea that if, in addition to doing paid work, you are also caring for children, then you should take a wage penalty, is wild. I’m planting my flag on this: If you are working a hard job and caring for a kid, society should not be penalizing you for that — it should be rewarding you for that. Rant over. Thank you for attending my Ted Talk.

The case for open borders

Ezra Klein

I want to move us to open borders. Make the case for me.

Rutger Bregman

As I said earlier, your utopia for the future starts with the injustices of today. And I think you can easily make the argument that borders are the biggest source of inequality worldwide. 60 percent of your income is dependent simply on where you were born — something that you didn’t choose.

Most of the arguments we have against immigration — they’ll take our jobs, they’re all lazy, they’re all criminals, they’re all terrorists, etc. — don’t stand up to the data, and many immigration policies nowadays are counterproductive. [For example], if you build higher walls, as the US did in the 70s and 80s when it basically militarized the wall with Mexico, you get more illegal immigrants. Because they still come, but they don’t want to leave anymore because the journey is simply so harsh and difficult.

Ezra Klein

On a values level and an emotional level, I’m very pro open borders. But, I’m quite pessimistic about our ability as human beings to sustain them. To me, the last decade and in both American and European politics have been a warning of the dangers of immigration to political stability. So, I’ve become more skeptical that we could politically manage very high levels of immigration.

And I worry about the tensions between parts of your project. If you believe that more immigration is a very important form of justice, and you also believe that you should have UBI, or things of that nature, then you get into a tension. People don’t want to be too generous if they feel that generosity is going to go to people who aren’t like them. So how do you handle that?

Rutger Bregman

It’s important to emphasize that the tension is not specific to UBI. We already have it with the current welfare state and with our current democracy. You always have to answer the question, when are you going to give immigrants access to the welfare state? When do they get the right to vote? I think you can make the argument that you need to create some kind of second-class citizenship. You would say that people can actually come and work, but they don’t get immediate access to UBI, universal health care etc. Then, when they pay, a certain amount of taxes or whatever, then you give them access.

Now, I know there are a lot of people who say, “Well, that’s horrible: Then you have this second-class citizenship.” Yeah, but you know what, we now have third-class citizenship because people aren’t even allowed to come. So, actually, second-class citizenship will be an improvement here.

I fully agree with you that the open borders is the most utopian part of my book. But 200 years from now, borders and the way we treat animals will rank among our biggest crimes.

Ezra Klein

I appreciate you bringing up the way we treat animals in there, and I like the way you put that a lot. I think it’s important to recognize that second-class citizenship in a place might be better than third-class citizenship on the outside. Sometimes I think people underestimate how bad the current system is for the people who can’t move freely, so stopping them from migrating entirely is not better than letting them migrate, even if they don’t have full participation in the fruits of the society they are joining.

Rutger Bregman

I just want to make one other point. After the election of Trump and after Brexit, you had all these discussions: Is this about economics or is it about culture? But I think that opposition just gets it wrong. It’s really about how you frame things. One of the things that I try to do in the book is to use right-wing language to defend progressive ideals.

One example is poverty. Often, when people talk about poverty, they say we need to help them — that it’s a terrible to live in poverty. In the book, I try to use more right-wing entrepreneurial language and say “poverty is just expensive. We can’t afford it.” It’s a different kind of language. You could do the same thing with patriotism.

Ezra Klein

I actually think that’s a very weak position argue from because as soon as somebody puts forward a study showing the opposite, you’re screwed. The thing that I like in your book is that it’s about a vision of what society should be. It’s about human dignity. It’s about giving people the platform on which to stand to live a flourishing life. It’s not an investment and its not form of charity. It’s a form of constructing a society that we collectively think is just. And I worry you’re falling into the trap when you’re arguing based on rates of return.

I think the best argument for why you should not have poverty is that in in a rich society, it is unjust to have poverty. I want to credit this argument to my wife who makes it more eloquently than I do, but every day you have child poverty in America is a day you are choosing to have child poverty in America. It could end tomorrow.

We have chosen that children are going to be in poverty, and that is not because they don’t work hard enough, and it is not because they did badly in school, and it’s not because they’ve done anything to deserve it. It is because we have chosen to let them languish there when we could change it. What I like about more utopian thinking is that you can just say, if you were building it from scratch, you just wouldn’t build it this way, because this way is wrong.

Rutger Bregman

It’s just a different way of trying to help people change their views. I experiment quite a bit with this because I’m really interested in not only convincing people are already on my side, but instead convincing people who are more centrist or even right wing. It can be politically more effective to use a different kind of language to make the same point.

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