Douglas Burns
Douglas Burns

September 6, 2018

It feels, sounds and smells like surrender of the basic, motivating values of more than 40 years for me. And it will to most of you, too.

The facts, though, are not on our side. They are quite possibly with a man who sounds an awful lot like a canary in a cornfield.

Instinct and impulse and itch tell me what presidential candidate Andrew Yang is prescribing, the idea of a universal basic income of $1,000 a month for all people age 18 to 64, no questions asked (spend it on drugs or day care), is something of a suicide pill for our way of life here in rural Iowa.

It’s socialism, right? The ultimate reward for lazy living, the elevation of the couched and cushioned to an unthinkable respectability, the triumph of White Trash Nation. Men who once came home with dirt under their nails will instead be scraping the Cheetoh staining from their cuticles.

After all, I’ve had an income stream, small jobs and then a career, since age 7, when I carried the Indianola Record Herald newspaper before moving to the family business and delivering the Carroll Daily Times Herald to subscribers on 18th and 21st streets and North West Street and Quint Avenue, five days a week.

Work, especially of the hard variety, is what, as much as anything, defines us.

There’s surely no reason to fear technology, the masters of the future, the Nerd Empire collecting and segregating wealth and careers to the coasts. It’ll no doubt sort itself out, just as the Industrial Revolution did.

Jobs that disappear today are going to be replaced by new and better ones, with more pay, just as when the buggy whips gave way to the car or when General Electric left Carroll, Iowa, in the 1990s, and other businesses filled the breach, right?

The reality is different from this fantasy of fairness as technology is drawing a line, a hard one, cratering into our nation, between a few winners (Seattle and Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas) and the rest of us, economic refugees who don’t know we are refugees yet.

Yang, an entrepreneur with a tech pedigree, lays this out for us in his groundbreaking book, “The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future.”

He’s here in Iowa now, as an announced candidate for the presidency in 2020, with a host of ideas, but one big, big one, the universal basic income, a concept Iowa 4th Congressional District Democrats supported in their convention platform this spring in Fort Dodge.

“We have to start owning the reality that technology is advancing in ways that will challenge many of our notions about work and value,” Yang said in the 30-minute conversation with the Daily Times Herald.

Simply put, the jobs are going and they aren’t coming back, Yang said. Further, he says, there won’t be enough jobs for Americans, soon, which is hard to imagine when we have a 1.9 percent unemployment rate in Carroll County, but the worm, Yang says, is turning quickly. Robots and artificial intelligence and corporate greed are chewing at the foundations of our way of life, built on the promise of a work ethic — fair pay for a day and all that other mother jazz.

“The rise of the machine that makes human work obsolete has long been thought to be science fiction,” Yang writes in “Normal People.” “Today, this is the reality we face.”

The Federal Reserve categorizes about 62 million jobs (44 percent in America) as routine.

Case in point: Driving a truck is the most popular job in 29 states — and there are 3.5 million truck drivers nationally.

Vast numbers of these drivers soon will be out of work as driver-less trucks take their places, Yang said. It comes down to the math: Morgan Stanley estimates automated freight delivery will save $168 billion a year.

In protests, angry, out-of-work truck drivers could park their trucks on the highways, jack-knife the rigs, and otherwise turn Interstate 80 and Interstate 95 into impassable parking lots, Yang said.

The displays of civil unrest from the truckers could make the women’s marches and #metoo movement of the Trump era look tame by comparison, Yang said.

“It really could,” Yang said in the interview.

Or, as he writes in the book, “The challenge we must overcome is that humans need work more than work needs us.”

Yang would pay for the universal basic income with a 10 percent value-added tax (VAT) on goods and services that would hit people with the most money, buying the most things, the hardest. Companies like Amazon would pay the most into the system, Yang suggests.

The universal basic incomes isn’t designed to fund an American citizens’ full existence, but rather, realign an unfair economy by moving more money from tech enclaves on the coasts to distressed areas of the nation. Iowans could literally get some bites out of Apple.

So won’t young people just use the money from his primary prescription, the universal basic income to play video games while older people drink more booze?

“What people say very often is that they themselves would do something very positive and productive where they would pay their bills, pay for (ear) tubing for their children, take care of some sort of improvements to their home,” Yang said.

Some people will make bad decisions with the money, but the good news, Yang said, is that each month another check comes, and people can change and use the universal basic income to improve their situations.

“That’s what’s going to happen in the vast majority of cases,” he said.

Yang said he is rejecting the suggestion from urban advocates to index the universal basic income so it is higher in more expensive cities. This means, under his plan, with $1,000 going to every citizen, regardless of where they live, that a rebalancing of urban and rural economies will take place, Yang said.

“It will have a much higher functional impact for rural Americans,” Yang said.

At its best, the universal basic income will free people to be entrepreneurs, to take risks, get involved in small businesses of their own rather than holding onto corporate slots for health-care coverage.

Yang said his plan will put $16 billion a year into the hands of Iowans, and create more than 40,000 new jobs in Iowa.

“I intend to make that case to Iowans from now until the caucuses and hopefully win,” Yang said.

His argument demands to be heard, whether you ultimately agree or not.