Book Review: Utopia for Realists

February 5, 2019
Confidence: highly likely

Rutger Bergman’s Utopia for Realists is a book whose primary thesis is that we should have a guaranteed minimum income (GMI).

I must admit, I was pretty sold on a guaranteed minimum income before reading this book. I hadn’t thought too much about it, besides the fact that lots of smart people I know say it’s a good idea, and that obviously we’re going to need a solution to what happens to humans after we automate away all of the jobs.

After reading this book, I am significantly less on-board with the idea.

What it boils down to is that Utopia for Realists isn’t very good. If these are the best arguments for a GMI, well… let’s hope that they’re not the best arguments for a GMI.

I can’t make up my mind on whether this book is merely incompetent or actively dishonest.

For example, the book discusses the Speenhamland system, which it describes as an early form of GMI, and then discusses a contemporary report which described it as a failed experiment. But then Utopia for Realists turns around with the sentence “more recent research has revealed that the Speenhamland system was actually a success.” A description of how the original study was supposedly flawed, but no citation to back it up. No reference to which “more recent research” reveals resounding success. There are lots of other citations in the book. Why not one here?

Utopia makes some other bold claims without backing them up; here’s a few that bothered me enough to mark them down:

  • “Ultimately, the perfect, self-regulating market proved an illusion.”
  • “The historian Brian Steesland… emphasizes that, had Nixon’s plan gone ahead, the ramifications would have been huge… No longer would there be such a thing as the ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving poor’ [no citation]”

There was another time I wanted to check a source. The book makes a case for “giving housing/money to homeless people is cheaper than dealing with the consequences of not” via a case study. I’m willing to believe this; prevention is usually a better strategy than treatment. OK, fine. What I wanted to check was the cost breakdown; Utopia describes the project as costing $217 million, and being responsible for getting 6,500 people off of the streets over nine years. This struck me as being exorbitantly expensive, and I wanted to check their methodologies and math.

The given citation for this “unmitigated success” was to a random pdf on the Utrecht municipal website which doesn’t exist anymore. I didn’t try any harder than this to find the document. The citation describing the experiment points to a Dutch news site (that Google annoyingly refuses to translate) that looks more like an op-ed than anything official, but more damningly, doesn’t provide any links closer to the original source.

Bregman’s grasp of economics is pretty tenuous. For example:

From a certain perspective, [Bastiat] says, breaking a window sounds like a fine idea. “Imagine it costs six francs to repair the damage. And imagine that this creates a commercial gain of six francs—I confess there’s no arguing with this reasoning. The glazier comes along, does his work, and happily pockets six francs…” [emphasis mine]

No arguing? Except that the glazier charges a fair price to replace the window, so he is only marginally better off after replacing the window, but the world has lost one window and the owner is the worse-off for it.

He goes on:

Unlike the manufacture of a fridge or a car, history lessons and doctor’s [sic] checkups can’t simply be made “more efficient.”

This is absurdly stupid. We’ve all taken classes that were long-winded and boring. The quality of a teacher has a huge bearing on how efficiently we learn from them. Websites like Khan Academy are teaching entire university courses in a fraction of the time it would take to do through the usual channels. Doctors’ checkups can and have been made more efficient; it’s not an accident that doctors carry stethoscopes and have access to MRI machines.

But Bergman persists:

… the government is gobbling up a growing share of the economic pie… this phenomenon is now known as “Baumol’s cost disease,” basically says that prices in labor-intensive sectors such as healthcare and education increase faster than prices in sectors where most of the work can be more extensively automated… shouldn’t we be calling this a blessing, rather than a disease? After all, the more efficient our factories and our computers, the less efficient our healthcare and education need to be; that is, the more time we have left to attend to the old and infirm and to organize education on a more personal scale.

When you’re obsessed with efficient and productivity, it’s difficult to see the real value of education and care. Which is why so many politicians and taxpayers alike see only the costs. They don’t realize that the richer a country becomes the more it should be spending on teachers and doctors.

No no no no no no. Cost disease doesn’t say “we spend too much on healthcare and education.” It says “we spend too much on healthcare and education on the margin.” Which is to say that in less cost-diseased countries, spending an additional $1,000 will buy you a lot more than the same additional $1,000 in a more cost-diseased place.

Cost disease is the phenomenon that we’re paying more to get less. For example, Thailand has a booming dentistry industry among Australians because you can get the same quality work done for significantly less money. This isn’t “exploiting Thai workers” nor is it “taking jobs away from Australians”—it’s just Australian cost disease.

A significantly smaller portion of the book describes the fifteen-hour workweek is an ideal one. Sure! Sounds good! But, Bergman says, “breaking the vicious cycle [of the 40 hour workweek] will require collective action—by companies, or better yet, by countries.”

I don’t get this one. If you want to work less than 40 hours, just… work less than 40 hours? Nobody is forcing you, except your spending habits. As it happens, life is actually pretty cheap. Find a small apartment, share it with some roommates, and eat a lot of rice. You can definitely manage to do it for less than $800 a month if you’re willing to shop around—and especially if you’re willing to move.

The secret is to just not spend money. That means stop eating lavish meals. Don’t get a pet. Don’t buy a vehicle. Stop drinking and smoking and give up whatever other vices you have that cost a bunch of money. It sounds dumb, but the secret to not working very much is to not need a lot of money.

And then use your extra time to learn how to do something valuable so that you can work even less.

At the end of the day, I get the strong impression that this book was written backwards. Bergman very clearly believes in his cause, and has worked backwards trying to find arguments that support it—as evidenced by the sloppy citation work, numerous straw-men and gross-misunderstanding of the arguments against his point of view.

It’s a particularly bad sign when a book is so bad that it makes people on your side agree with you less after reading it. Give this one a miss, but if you’re looking for a significantly better resource championing MGI, look no further than Slate Star Codex’s take on same.