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Thursday, June 06, 2019

Review: Utopia for Realists

Utopia For Realists is a book about how to make a better world for people who are not in the top 1%. It is a radical book of policy proposals that are backed by research and data, which ought to be convincing. Bregman is apparently well known as the Universal Basic Income man, and not surprisingly, the book is at its very best when discussing the topic:
Liberia, an experiment was conducted to see what would happen if you give $200 to the shiftiest of the poor. Alcoholics, addicts, and petty criminals were rounded up from the slums. Three years later, what had they spent the money on? Food, clothing, medicine, and small businesses. “If these men didn’t throw away free money,” one of the researchers wondered, “who would?” Yet the “lazy poor people” argument is trotted out time and again. The very persistence of this view has compelled scientists to investigate whether it’s true. Just a few years ago, the prestigious medical journal the Lancet summed up their findings: When the poor receive no-strings cash they actually tend to work harder. (Kindle Loc 360)
And argument that it's too expensive to do this:
 Eradicating poverty in the U.S. would cost only $175 billion, less than 1% of GDP.48 That’s roughly a quarter of U.S. military spending. Winning the war on poverty would be a bargain compared to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which a Harvard study estimated have cost us a staggering $4–$6 trillion. As a matter of fact, all the world’s developed countries had it within their means to wipe out poverty years ago. (Kindle Loc. 485)
When reading this book I've had to re-examine how I thought about society problems. In the past, I've always thought that drug addiction, etc., is a result of unalterable circumstances with no good policy solutions. The thought that the policy prescription that's most effective, efficient, and direct is so easy (those in poverty don't have money, just give them money) and even better, socially beneficial is radical, and worth pursuing:
 A British study discovered that the costs of poverty among children in England top £29 billion ($44 billion) a year.12 According to the researchers, a policy to eliminate poverty “could largely pay for itself.”13 In the U.S., where more than one in five children grow up poor, countless studies have already shown that anti-poverty measures actually work as a cost-cutting instrument.14 Greg Duncan, a professor at the University of California, calculated that lifting an American family out of poverty takes an average of about $4,500 annually–less than the Cherokee casino payouts. In the end, the return on this investment, per child, would be: 12.5% more hours worked $3,000 annual savings on welfare $50,000–$100,000 additional lifetime earnings $10,000–$20,000 additional state tax revenues Professor Duncan concluded that combating poverty “pays for itself by the time the poor children have reached middle age.” (Loc 636)
When I think about what how little with done to combat poverty over the last few years, I think by far the most pernicious problem with the conservative ideology are exemplified by attitudes like the ones expressed in this Quora answer:
Obinna Onwuchekwa
Obinna Onwuchekwa, Libertarianish conservative

People should only have kids they can afford.
You have to be extremely hard-hearted, not to mention without a sense of social justice to have constructed an answer like this. Even if you believed that the parents of children born into poverty do not have a right to escape poverty because they made dumb decisions, that children who themselves were born into that poverty did not choose to be born, and the permanently penalize them or turn them into an under-class by denying them the necessary conditions for an optimal upbringing (which includes having parents that are not economically stressed all the time and hence can provide quality care!) is in the long run not a very smart thing to do. Some of those kids might have the potential to contribute greatly to society, and our current polices simply do not allow them to live up to their potential, and in some cases (as discussed in the previous quote) might turn them into negative elements in society.

Once you leave the subject of universal basic income, the book is still full of great titbits and I found myself highlighting passage after passage.
Whereas couples worked a combined total of five to six days a week in the 1950s, nowadays it’s closer to seven or eight. At the same time, parenting has become a much more time-intensive job. Research suggests that across national boundaries, parents are dedicating substantially more time to their children.21 In the U.S., working mothers actually spend more time with their kids today than stay-at-home moms did in the 1970s.22 Even citizens of the Netherlands–the nation with the shortest workweek in the world–have felt the steadily increasing weight of work, overtime, care tasks, and education since the 1980s. In 1985 these activities were taking up 43.6 hours a week; by 2005, 48.6 hours.23 Three-quarters of the Dutch workforce is feeling overburdened by time pressures, a quarter habitually works overtime, and one in eight is suffering the symptoms of burnout.2 (Loc 1368)
 Ironically, medieval people were probably closer to achieving the contented idleness of the Land of Plenty than we are today. Around 1300, the calendar was still packed with holidays and feasts. Harvard historian and economist Juliet Schor has estimated that holidays accounted for no less than one-third of the year. In Spain, the share was an astounding five months, and in France, nearly six. Most peasants didn’t work any harder than necessary for their living. “The tempo of life was slow,” Schor writes. “Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure.”29 (Loc 1394)
 A study conducted at Harvard found that Reagan-era tax cuts sparked a mass career switch among the country’s brightest minds, from teachers and engineers to bankers and accountants. Whereas in 1970 twice as many male Harvard grads were still opting for a life devoted to research over banking, twenty years later the balance had flipped, with one and a half times as many alumni employed in finance. (Loc 1704)
 There's a great section on "RCTs" (randomized controlled trials) to determine which interventions in the developing world are most likely to add economic value. It's great stuff and worth reading:
Thanks to RCTs, however, we know that $100 worth of free meals translates into an additional 2.8 years of educational attainment–three times as much as free uniforms. Speaking of proven impact, deworming children with intestinal complaints has been shown to yield 2.9 years of additional schooling for the absurdly small investment of $10 worth of treatment. No armchair philosopher could have predicted that, but since this finding was revealed, tens of millions of children have been dewormed. (Loc 2107)
There's a very salient observation in the book where Bregman says that the best paying jobs in the world are the parasitic ones: investment bankers, financial advisors, mergers and acquisition folks, analysts, ad-tech engineers, etc. We're spending the smarts of those people by having them prey on the foibles of human nature and human society. The worst paying jobs are the really important ones where you make a positive difference to real people day after day (teachers, etc). It's as though we're managing society by saying: "You get to have a real job where you make a difference to people's lives positively. You expect to get paid well too? No way!" That observation touched me deeply.

 I'd say the weakest part of the book is the prescription about immigration. (Bregman claims that open borders would work) There's simply not as much detail there supporting his argument (certainly, no RCT here!) and I'm not sure he's worked through the political challenges there and how one would go about the approach he wants to take here (for instance, he says obviously you can't just open all doors everywhere right away, but doesn't say how you would stage it). But even here, he won so much credibility with me that I found myself wondering if there's some argument he's made in that very short chapter that I'm missing.

The book ends with both a call to action and an indictment of the Clinton model of neo-liberalism, and a plea to both leaders, voters, and people of action to drop the incrementalism and "working within the system" and go back to the radicalism that's won so many victories in the past, such as the demand for voting rights for women, the elimination of slavery, and of course, the 5 day work week:
Historically, Politics was the preserve of the left. Be realistic, demand the impossible! rang the rallying cry of the Paris demonstrators in 1968. The end of slavery, the emancipation of women, the rise of the welfare state–all were progressive ideas that started out as crazy and “irrational” but were ultimately accepted as basic common sense. These days, however, the left seems to have forgotten the art of Politics. Worse, many left-wing thinkers and politicians attempt to quell radical sentiments among their own rank and file in their terror of losing votes. This attitude is one I’ve begun to think of in recent years as the phenomenon of “underdog socialism.” (Loc 2532)
 If you've been a progressive voter for the past 20 years or so, it's hard not to get depressed about how little progress has actually been made towards policy goals that get people excited. This book brings hope that perhaps there are policy options that are radical, yet realistic and effective that the progressive movement has yet to adopt. The book has certainly changed my mind about the effectiveness of cash handouts for poverty reduction, and just that alone makes it worth the read.

Highly recommended!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What's his definition of "escaping poverty"? Bonus points if it takes into account that poverty in, say, the Bay Area is not the same as in, oh, let's go with Fresno for somewhere not *that* far away.

Double bonus points if he's comparing U.S. poverty to third world poverty.