nonfiction november: be/ask/become the expert

For the third week of Nonfiction November, Be/Ask/Become the Expert, I’m choosing to recommend three books on Universal Basic Income (UBI), a policy proposal advocated by  progressives, libertarians, and neoliberals alike.

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The prompt for Nonfiction November Week 3 (Nov. 12 to Nov. 16) is Be/Ask/Become the Expert and can be found at Julz Reads:

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

This week’s prompt inspired me to read a few books that have been in my TBR pile for some time, each related to the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI), so I’m choosing to “be the expert” and recommend three books on the topic.

I had little familiarity with the topic before this week, but I’ve seen it steadily appear in the news over the past twelve months, whether in The New Yorker over the summer or  Slate earlier in the fall. It’s likely to become at least a point of debate in upcoming American elections, so I wanted to familiarize myself with the subject.

For those who might not know,  Universal Basic Income, as defined by basicincome.org, is simply “a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement.”

From Kenya to Finland, pilot programs testing out this radical and exciting idea are starting to pop up around the world, and it’s not hard to see why. The policy offers a potential solution to the increasingly unwieldy problems posed by automation, inequality, and bureaucratic inefficiency. In theory UBI is a truly bipartisan idea, appealing to venture capitalists and democratic socialists alike, but as Annie Lowrey has noted, it’s hardly a silver bullet capable of slaying political division. The policy has the potential to either shrink a country’s social safety net or expand it massively; a growing number of thinkers, activists, and politicians might be embracing the idea, but they’re doing so for a wide array of reasons.

Because the arguments for supporting UBI vary dramatically, I’m recommending three books written from vastly different perspectives: Give People Money by Annie LowreyThe War on Normal People by Andrew Yang, and Basic Income by Philippe van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght. The synopses for each can be found here.

fullsizeoutput_2b93Give People Money is by far the most accessible of the three titles. Written in easy-to-read prose, the book is a balanced and uncontroversial introduction to the topic. Lowrey overviews the global UBI movement, sketches the idea’s surprisingly lengthy history, and considers why so many people are drawn to it. The policy, Lowrey explains, might help address impending waves of technological unemployment (“the prospect that robots will soon take all our jobs”), grating inequality and wage stagnation, and the inefficiency of existing welfare programs across the world. More than anything else Lowrey’s invested in UBI as a way to lessen inequality, but she acknowledges the policy’s limitations and recognizes that others support it for different reasons. The book avoids answering how UBI might be implemented on a large scale, and it’s casual in its use of sources.

fullsizeoutput_2b92A stark contrast to Give People Money, Andrew Yang’s The War on Normal People offers a staunchly capitalist and polemical take on the subject. Yang, an entrepreneur with presidential ambitions, claims that mass technological unemployment is imminent, an idea Lowrey dismisses as hyperbolic, and he argues that UBI is the only way the “normal people” of the American middle class will be able to avoid destitution. If capitalism is to continue and social upheaval is to be averted, Yang suggests, the government must immediately replace the existing social safety net with UBI. The author roots his argument in America and libertarianism, whereas Lowrey’s perspective is global and fairly nonpartisan, and he sources casually but more frequently than she does.

fullsizeoutput_2b94Scholarly and detailed, Basic Income is less of an introduction to the topic and more of a thorough defense of the policy, from a firmly leftist point of view. Published by Harvard University Press, the book is meticulously sourced, and it contains a wealth of information on the subject. The War on Normal People and Give People Money both move at a quick pace and feature highly readable prose, whereas Basic Income is academic and deliberate. This book seems written for those who are interested or involved in rigorously debating the policy, and it’s not likely to appeal to many outside of that audience. I found it fairly difficult to finish, but it raises many interesting points.

20 thoughts on “nonfiction november: be/ask/become the expert

  1. Great topic! I just had someone asking for books on UBI, so this will be a tremendously useful resource. Have you read SQUEEZED by Alyssa Quart? That one goes into UBI, too, while looking broadly at income in America.

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    1. I have not read Squeezed, but it looks fascinating! I appreciate the introduction. It sounds like it’s what I thought Yang’s book would be—a look at the shrinking middle class in America, as it relates to UBI. The War on Normal People turned out to be mostly about automation, which I hadn’t expected.

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    1. Thanks, Cathy! It was interesting to see the authors reach such different conclusions from each other, despite their shared support for UBI in some form.

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    1. The author did a great job of personalizing her argument and telling the stories of those who could be positively affected by UBI. I’m really interested in reading her journalism now!

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  2. I’ve got Give People Money on my list to help introduce me to the idea other than tidbits I’ve picked up from articles or podcasts. Thanks for the resources and a short summary of what each entails!

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    1. You’re probably in the perfect position to read the book, then. The author travels around the globe, exploring places where pilot programs are beginning and discussing different facets of UBI. Thanks for stopping by!

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    1. The topic’s really been surging in popularity lately – it’ll be interesting to see how and when it enters serious political debate. Thanks for stopping by!

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  3. Oh wow, I love this topic! I’ve been trying to do more reading that makes me think and these definitely seem to fit the bill. I’ve had some really good and some not so good experiences with books from university presses, so I’m particularly interested in getting better at picking these books that have an academic bent but that are still enjoyable to read. Thanks for a great list!

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    1. Glad this could be of use to you, Katie! I definitely get what you mean about books from university presses. They tend to be hit or miss for me as well. I have found that reading author interviews, if they’re available online, can be a helpful way of figuring out whether or not their book would be enjoyable to read.

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