Many of today’s basic income proponents are libertarians and view the policy as a means of compensating losers, or as an excuse to repeal wage per hour or collective bargaining laws. Few are concerned about public goods, workers’ and capital owners’ entitlements within the firm, the power of various social groups, the ability of workers to organize collectively, and the question of what constitutes good work, not just jobs.
An alternative case for basic income draws from classic commitments to social democracy, or an economic system in which the state limits corporate power, ensures a decent standard of living for all, and encourages decent work. In the social democratic view, however, a basic income would be only part of the solution to economic and social inequalities—we also need a revamped public sector and a new and different collective bargaining system. Indeed, without such broader reforms, a basic income could do more harm than good.
This agenda will of course make zero progress during the Trump administration. But questions surrounding work and rising inequality are not going away. After all, Trump exploited fears of a jobless or insecure future in his campaign, signaling a return to our industrial heyday, with good-paying factory jobs implicitly promised to whites, men, and Christians. On the left, meanwhile, there is grassroots energy and momentum to think big and to address these issues head on, in all their complexity. But we still need a vision of good work and its place in our society, one that recognizes how our economy—and our working class—have changed dramatically in recent decades. I do not think for a moment that I have all the answers. But I do think an ambitious agenda around technology, work, and welfare can be a focal point and political resource for organizers, and perhaps even candidates, in the years to come.
And what if it was a mistake from the start? The Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the creation of the United States of America—what if all this was a terrible idea, and what if the injustices and madness of American life since then have occurred not in spite of the virtues of the Founding Fathers but because of them? The Revolution, this argument might run, was a needless and brutal bit of slaveholders’ panic mixed with Enlightenment argle-bargle, producing a country that was always marked for violence and disruption and demagogy. Look north to Canada, or south to Australia, and you will see different possibilities of peaceful evolution away from Britain, toward sane and whole, more equitable and less sanguinary countries. No revolution, and slavery might have ended, as it did elsewhere in the British Empire, more peacefully and sooner. No “peculiar institution,” no hideous Civil War and appalling aftermath. Instead, an orderly development of the interior—less violent, and less inclined to celebrate the desperado over the peaceful peasant. We could have ended with a social-democratic commonwealth that stretched from north to south, a near-continent-wide Canada.
It’s an anxiety that suffuses any company town: What if the factory—or the shipyard or the mine or the base or (in this case) the luxe resort that employs 1,800 people and is older than the town itself—were to close? Even a mere change in hotel policy could make life more difficult.
For years, these were the preoccupations of White Sulphur Springs. Then something much bigger happened, something that went beyond the old town-versus-resort divide, something that in fact brought townspeople and the company into an intimate embrace that surprised just about everyone involved. On June 23, 2016, it started raining.
Sarah Manguso’s new book of aphorisms 300 Arguments is the best example of this genre I’ve experienced since reading Nietzsche in college. But saying it like that makes the genre sound like a coherent thing, which it is not. It also makes it sound…developmental.
Collections of aphorisms are hardly a growth sector; bookstores don’t dedicate sections to them. But a college course on aphorisms strikes me increasingly as a good idea.
As an astrobiologist I spend a lot of my time working in the lab with samples from some of the most extreme places on Earth, investigating how life might survive on other worlds in our solar system and what signs of their existence we could detect. If there is biology beyond the Earth, the vast majority of life in the Galaxy will be microbial—hardy single-celled life forms that tolerate a much greater range of conditions than more complex organisms can. To be honest, my own point of view is pretty pessimistic. Don’t get me wrong—if the Earth received an alien tweet tomorrow, or some other text message beamed at us by radio or laser pulse, then I’d be absolutely thrilled. So far, though, we’ve seen no convincing evidence of other civilizations among the stars in our skies.
But let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that there are one or more star-faring alien civilizations in the Milky Way. We’re all familiar with Hollywood’s darker depictions of what aliens might do when they come to the Earth: zapping the White House, harvesting humanity for food like a herd of cattle, or sucking our oceans dry. These scenarios make great films, but don’t really stand up to rational scrutiny. So let’s run through a thought experiment on what reasons aliens might possibly have to visit the Earth, not because I reckon we need to ready our defenses or assemble a welcoming party, but because I think considering these possibilities is a great way of exploring many of the core themes of the science of astrobiology.
One of my favorite sounds in the world is the voice of the late comedian Bernie Mac. I often think of an early performance of his, on the nineties standup showcase “Def Comedy Jam.” The routine, slightly less than six minutes long, is songlike in structure—after each cluster of two or three jokes, Mac yells “Kick it!” and a snippet of cheesy, drum-heavy hip-hop plays. Between these punctuations, he affects poses that would fit as comfortably within a twelve-bar blues as they do on the dimly lit Def Jam stage: sexual bravado, profane delight, sly self-deprecation, dismay and gathering confusion at a rapidly changing world. “I ain’t come here for no foolishness,” he says toward the beginning of the set, his double negative signalling playfulness and threat in equal measure. “You don’t understand,” he says again and again, sometimes stretching “understand” into four or five syllables. Then, with swift, hilarious anger, like Jackie Gleason’s: “I ain’t scared of you motherfuckers.” The “r” in “scared” is barely audible, and the subsequent profanity is a fluid, tossed-off “muhfuckas.”
Bernie Mac is, in other words—and this is the source of my love—an expert speaker of Black English, which is the subject of the recent book “Talking Back, Talking Black” (Bellevue), by the linguist, writer, and Columbia professor John McWhorter. In the book, McWhorter offers an explanation, a defense, and, most heartening, a celebration of the dialect that has become, he argues, an American lingua franca.
Yet there’s a reason Qiu’s work earned her a cult following — a reason that her novels are so fiercely loved, by so many, as well as taught in high schools, produced as theater, and cited reverently by other novelists. All of Qiu’s works contain a lush beauty, if you know where to look for it. In Notes of a Crocodile, for example, the true object of the narrator’s affection is not a lover but the city. Like Paris in Last Words from Montmartre, Taipei in Notes takes on a cinematic quality, its description often more generous and more loving than any snapshots of its human objets d’amour. While Lazi admits that she “can’t conceivably depict” her lover, Xiao Fan, the narrator’s infatuation with Taipei comes through in her description of the “magnificent night scene, gorgeous and restrained” across which the city unfolds during a ride on the Number 74 bus. Lending an exhilarating urgency to the novel, meanwhile, Notes also conveys an irrepressible excitement about the possibilities of gender and sexuality at a time when mainstream characterizations of those possibilities had not yet hardened into the current obsession with marriage equality as the benchmark of LGBTQ liberation.