Sam Harris the Socialist: Part Two

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On the most recent episode of the Waking Up Podcast, Sam Harris spoke with Andrew Yang, excuse me, Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang, where they discussed Yang’s proposal for his version of a universal basic income (UBI). He calls it the “Freedom Dividend.” At a $1000 a month, Yang asserts that this (along with other more radical and interesting ideas) is a solution – albeit a temporary one – to some the ills of our current epoch mainly due to the loss of meaningful, if not regular, work namely through automation.

Yang has a number of different policy proposals on his website. They are worth looking at, seriously. There are innovative and social-democrat ideas. While he doesn’t call himself a democratic socialist as Bernie Sanders uses it (though I think they have quite a bit in common) Yang also doesn’t say he is a social democrat. Indeed, his website has a fairly not-so-nuanced discussion of where he stands on the issue of capitalism. His big three issues are UBI, Medicare for All, and Human Capitalism.

In a few words: he’s for it.

“We need to move to a new form of capitalism – Human Capitalism – that’s geared towards maximizing human well-being and fulfillment. The central tenets of Human Capitalism are:

  • Humans are more important than money
  • The unit of a Human Capitalism economy is each person, not each dollar
  • Markets exist to serve our common goals and values

The focus of our economy should be to maximize human welfare. Sometimes this aligns with a purely capitalist approach, where different entities compete for the best ideas. But there are plenty of times when a capitalist system leads to suboptimal outcomes. Think of an airline refusing to honor your ticket because they can get more money from a customer who purchases last-minute, or a pharmaceutical company charging extortionate rates for a life-saving drug because the customers are desperate.”

This is music to a modern liberal’s ears. The Dave Rubin’s of the world would love it. But for me, the question seems as obvious as the problem posed by automation to jobs – the problem with the economic system, with capitalism. In the first article I wrote about Harris being a Socialist (the title of which was/is a bit tongue and cheek, in case you missed it) I talked about how it is a shame that Sam doesn’t consider or do an episode on the larger philosophical issues that underpin and truly explain the social ills, the listing of which took up nearly a third of the entire episode. While it is no doubt good to be reminded of just how bad thing are, the issues the pair discussed – from suicides to opioids to “young men in their twenties playing video games in their moms basement” – are issues of alienation and relate quite directly to the way wealth is generated in the society. It goes back pretty fast to Marx!

Indeed, the whole reason for instituting a universal basic income is the same reason any welfare program is instituted. The proposer does not wish to upset the basic economic underpinnings of the society, and so needs to find some way to solve the problem. In our case that problem is automation, which is the essentially the problem of overproduction gone mad. The basic problem of overproduction is simple: We have, thanks to capitalism, incredible productive power and can, by using said power, get ourselves into a post scarcity world by judicious and planned use of those forces. But instead, capitalism functions on a wage-profit system whereby employers pay a wage that is less the price of the commodity at the marketplace. Therefore, there is never enough money in the hands of the workers to buy the things they produce. This fundamental imbalance is part of the system, and therefore goes unaddressed and eventually business can no longer sell what they’ve produced, which causes crises.

The most recent version of this phenomenon has been the building over the last fifty years. Highlighted and then papered over in 2008, this period of late-stage-monopoly-finance-capitalism has been marked by businesses not hiring or firing more and more people (by automation or outsourcing), while maintaining rising commodity prices, papering over the difference with widespread debt to maintain profit margins. Given both the job loss from automation (making repayment of that debt impossible) and the bursting of a giant credit bubble, the next crisis could easily spell the end for the whole system. There is that specter again.

But before that, in steps a Universal Basic Income, where one’s ability to participate in the market is decoupled from work – mostly. As Yang admits, his proposal of a $1000 a month dividend is not a sufficient amount for most to be a wage replacement (it would provide less then then poverty line in the United States) so it is meant to be a supplement. Therefore, the fundamentals of the economic system stay in place. Without addressing the larger economic and philosophic issues with neoliberal-late stage-monopoly-finance-capitalism, there is no reason to assume that the larger issue of capitalism – primarily its instability – will somehow vanish.

So, unfortunately, rather than hearing a deeper discussion of the fundamental problems, listeners of the podcast were instead handed a litany of the social and economic problems, and examples of market failures related and unrelated to issue surrounding automation. Yang admits the bias, the problem isn’t neo-liberal capitalism (only so far as it ignores the looming problem) because “we have plenty of money, it’s just how it is distributed that is the problem.”

The pair discussed how they would both respond to the most common critique of the concern about job loss and automation – that this has happened before (the industrial revolution!) and we found jobs for everyone. Both Harris and Yang dismiss this obviously erroneous view. Yes, there was a massive technological revolution that brought industry, but, as Yang mentions, it also came with a lot of violence – in the form of bourgeois-capitalist revolutions that took place around the world. The fact that technology-fueled automation, especially after 200 years of capitalist rule, plays the role of destroying the working class and disallowing them from seizing control. This is radically different than the steam engine and even modern industry which did employ – how ever precariously – a massive number of people, enough to make the industrial working class that Marx, and I, still pin hope upon.

Finally, after thirty-nine minutes of the expressions of the failing system, Harris finally gets down a bit deeper. He says, for some, it “seems akin to socialism and even communism [emphasis his] for people, but you make it clear that this need not and does not entail creating more government bureaucracy…” There I was hoping that the deeper discussion was coming. But it wasn’t.

Now they did briefly explore Yang’s idea for a digital social currency, which is a genuinely interesting idea about the role of valuable, but not marketable, aspects of human life in late stage capitalism. For that they deserve genuine credit and praise. But it was frustrating to hear Harris quickly parade out a fairly easily dismissible trope about socialism and communism (he also often employs the “just look at history fallacy” when the words creep up), and then use it as a bait and switch to talk about something else entirely. As I wrote in the first post in this theme, Harris could quite easily have a qualified Marxist economist (my vote was Richard Wolff) on the podcast to straighten this out and make Harris realize that the issues on which he agreed with Yang are fairly straightforward Marxist (gasp) ideas.

But it gets better, the solutions we propose are not just giving people money and still making them do menial work without any modicum of control. Instead, ours is a goal to reshape the very foundations of society. There is no good reason Harris, or others such as Joe Rogan or David Rubin, couldn’t have a qualified, sane, and well-spoken socialist to clear up their misconceptions and do so generally. Harris was obviously intrigued by the notion of a digital social currency and liked the idea of time-banking – something currently building in the Washington D.C. metro area – and so he is open to more radical ideas.

I am not sure what the hang up about socialism or communism is all about, frankly. Maybe he, and others so hung up, would do well to learn the actual definitions of these words to see how far their notion is from reality.

As they parted ways Harris praised Yang’s presidential ambitions and the policy proposals discussed. And Yang’s policies do sound grand in the context of confinement in the current socio-political-economic order. But as the automation/technological revolution’s economic impacts continue to get worse, the real “unavoidable question” will demand to be answered. And so while UBI is not, on the whole, a bad idea (it does solve some problems), it is simply not the answer to the genuinely unavoidable question – can we do better than capitalism?

I wait to hear Sam’s response to that question. You can probably guess mine.

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