What’s to be done with the dumb?

Society seems split into two camps on the matter of intelligence. Side A believes that everyone is secretly smart, but for a variety of reasons (bad teachers, TV, racism, sexism, etc) their true intelligence isn’t showing. Side B believes that some people really are stupid, because they are bad people, and they therefore deserve to suffer.

Out in reality, however, there are plenty of good, decent people who, through no fault of their own, are not smart.

I’m not making my usual jest wherein I claim that about 75% people are morons. I am speaking of the bottom 40% or so of people who have no particular talents or aptitudes of use in the modern economy. For any job that isn’t pure manual labor, they will almost always be competing with candidates who are smarter, quicker, or better credentialed than they are. Life itself will constantly present them with confusing or impenetrable choices–and it will only get worse as they age.

The agricultural economy–which we lived in until 7 decades ago, more or less–could accommodate plenty of people of modest intellects so long as they were hard-working and honest. A family with a dull son or daughter could, if everyone liked each other, still find a way for them to contribute, and would help keep them warm and comfortable in turn.

When you own your own business, be it a farm or otherwise, you can employ a relative or two. When you are employed by someone else, you don’t have that option. Back in the early 1800s, about 80% of people were essentially self-employed or worked on family farms. Today, about 80% of people are employees, working for someone else.

Agriculture is now largely mechanized, and most of the other low-IQ jobs, whether in stores or factories, are headed the same direction. Self-driving cars may soon replace most of the demand for cabbies and truckers, while check-out kiosks automate retail sales. I wouldn’t be surprised to see whole restaurants that are essentially giant vending machines with tables, soon.

The hopeful version of this story says that for every job automated, a new one is created. The invention of the tractor and combine didn’t put people out of work; the freed-up agricultural workers moved to the city and started doing manufacturing jobs. Without automation in the countryside we couldn’t have had so many factories because there would have been no one to work them. Modern automation therefore won’t put people out of jobs, long-term, so much as enable them to work new jobs.

The less hopeful point of view says that we are quickly automating all of the jobs that dumb people can do, and that the new economy requires significantly more intelligence than the old. So, yes, there are new jobs–but dumb people can’t do them.

If the pessimistic view is correct, what options do we have? People are uncomfortable with just letting folks starve to death. We already have Welfare. This seems suboptimal, and people worry that many of those who receive it aren’t virtuously dumb, but crafty and lazy. Makework jobs are another option. If not awful, they can let people feel productive and like they’ve earned their income, but of course they can be awful, and someone else has to make sure the fake job doesn’t result in any real damage. (If they could work unsupervised, they wouldn’t need fake jobs.) Our economy already has a lot of fake jobs, created to make it look like we’re all busy adults doing important things and prevent the poor from burning down civilization.

People have been floating UBI (universal basic income) as another solution. Basically, all of the benefits of welfare without all of the complicated paperwork or the nagging feeling that some lazy bum is getting a better deal than you because everyone gets the exact same deal.

UBI would ideally be offset via an increase in sales taxes (since the money is initially likely to go directly to consumption) to avoid hyperinflation. This is where we get into “modern monetary theory,” which basically says (I think) that it doesn’t really matter whether the gov’t taxes and then spends or spends and then taxes so long as the numbers balance in the end. Of course, this is Yang’s big presidential idea. I think it’s a fascinating idea (I’ve been tossing it around but haven’t had a whole lot to say about it for about fifteen years) and would love to see the independent nation of California or Boston try it out first.

UBI doesn’t exactly solve the problem of the dumb–who still need help from other people to not get scammed by Nigerian princes–but it could simplify and thus streamline our current system, which is really quite unwieldy.