"Rose is stealthy," UFC fighter Luke Rockhold tells me as he slams another shot of tequila. We are in Bozeman, Montana watching the early July UFC fights at the Spectator Bar & Grill, and Rose Namajunas has just won by split decision.
Rockhold and I both grew up in Santa Cruz and happened to be in Bozeman at the same time. Around the table sit three of Rockhold's friends and, next to him, a model named Jessica. Jessica is a brunette with 90,000 Instagram followers and a resting genial expression of delighted surprise. "You look like Ariana Grande," one waitress gushes. Our table is situated at the center of the bar and every so often a fan walks up to Rockhold to request an autograph or photo, and he graciously obliges.
Around the time I first witnessed someone get knocked out cold at a high school party, I decided that instead of pursuing the art of physical combat, I would instead learn how to say "sorry" in four languages and run fast. So sitting next to a guy who famously mauls people for a living makes me feel a little uneasy, like I'm driving a car with loose wheels—everything is fine right now, but a hard left could be fatal.
After watching a few rounds of attempted murder, Jessica asks what I do for a living. "I'm a writer,” I say, trying to sound confident about my career path. "Right now I'm working on a story about Universal Basic Income." Jessica gets up from her seat next to Rockhold, walks around the table, grabs my forearm, and eagerly professes, "I'm a model, but when I was a kid I wanted to be a journalist."
I have been traveling alone for two months, backpacking through remote mountain ranges and sleeping out of my Subaru, which I’ve christened “Jodie Forester.” The last time I experienced the fillip of human touch was around the time Kanye visited the Oval Office. Jessica has soft skin and smells of cinnamon. In a desperate effort to prolong this flood of dopamine, I launch into the thrilling concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI).
UBI is a deeply American idea. It was first proposed by writer Thomas Paine who, in 1776, published the first pamphlet promoting American independence. In his book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for no-strings-attached cash payments for every American as a means of achieving economic justice. In the wake of COVID-19, this concept is gaining ground and mayors in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and nine other U.S. cities are launching pilot programs. Michael Tubbs, the 29-year-old mayor of Stockton, California, launched the first pilot program back in 2017, giving $500 monthly to 125 residents. Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang has been a Paul Revere on this issue, warning that UBI is the only way to support Americans put out of work by job-killing robots.
Jessica's hand seductively moves from my forearm to my shoulder. This model is either drunk or high on ecstasy, or my breadth of knowledge is just that impressive. Wait 'til I hit her with some stats about income inequality!
Within the next 12 years, one out of every three Americans will be at risk of losing their jobs due to automation. In just a few short years, America will mint Jeff Bezos as the world's first trillionaire. Meanwhile, 63 percent of Americans can’t afford an unexpected $500 bill. Thomas Piketty, a leading economist, said income inequality in the United States today is "probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world."
Since 2000, four million manufacturing jobs have been supplanted with robots. There are 3.5 million truck drivers in this country—it's the most common job in 29 states. Robot trucks are already making deliveries in Colorado, and within the next decade, human-driven trucks are predicted to go the way of the horse and carriage. The average trucker is a 49-year-old guy with a high school education. Please don't say he should just learn to code. The five most common jobs in America are administrative, retail, food service, truck driving and manufacturing. They comprise about half of all jobs. Consider this the next time you're in the self-checkout line at Safeway or driving past an EVERYTHING MUST GO! sign on your drive home.
Trickle-down economics is a lie. The rich are very skilled at consolidating wealth and moving it around in sneaky ways to remain tax-free, but have never intended to help poor people. Amazon paid zero taxes last year, and Warren Buffett famously said, "I pay lower taxes than my secretary."
Andrew Yang's proposal is monthly, no-strings-attached $1,000 dividend for every American over the age of 18.
"That sounds like socialism," Jessica says a little too loudly. In a sweaty flash, I realize that I am in a blood-red state, flirting with a UFC fighter’s date, wearing a Patagonia “Free The Rivers” T-shirt. The idea of a skinny California "socialist" going missing in these parts is not out of the question. I dig deep, summon my inner Noam Chomsky and forge ahead. Socialism is defined as the government seizing the means of production, I tell her. For example, if the government took over Amazon, that would be socialism. UBI is capitalism, but instead of starting at zero, citizens are given a financial head start. Thirty-seven years ago, Alaska decided that in exchange for allowing oil companies to exploit their resources, the state's residents should all share equally in the profits. So, ever since, Alaskans have received a dividend of between $1,000 and $2,000 per year, funded exclusively with oil money.
Technology is the oil of the 21st century. UBI would be paid for through a value-added tax that would be placed on the biggest winners of the current economy—large tech companies like Amazon, Google and Uber. This tax has been instituted in nearly every industrialized country except the United States. The total cost of paying every American $1,000 per month would cost roughly $3 trillion, but that number drops to $1.8 trillion when you take into account the savings on incarceration, homeless services and emergency-room healthcare. The Roosevelt Institute found that $12,000 per year per adult would permanently grow the economy by about 13 percent. It would also increase jobs by about 2 percent, and expand the labor force by about 4.5 million people.
"I feel like people would just spend the money on drugs and stuff," Jessica says. She's asking all the right questions. I think I’m in love. I picture our future together. We're on horseback. Her arms are tightly clasped around my waist as we gallop along a tropical beach, ruby sand crabs scurrying for shelter. We ride until we come across a secluded cove, dismount and watch the sunset while discussing the titillating subjects of gerrymandering, the electoral college and Alan Greenspan.
With my mind bifurcated between Temptation Island and the possibility that Rockhold could go dark and rip my spine out of my throat, I decide that I've gone this far and I may as well make a last ditch effort for the end zone. I give Jessica my best masculine stare, take a deep breath, and tell her that in many of the studies where cash was given to the poor, there has been no increase in drug use. In fact, many people reduce their substance abuse. In pilot programs, people spent money on things like child care, car repairs and groceries. As Dutch philosopher Rutger Bregman puts it, "Poverty is not a lack of character. It's a lack of cash."
"Don't talk shit if you can't back it up!" Rockhold shouts at the TV as a fighter appears to twist his opponent into a life-size piece of fusilli.
"Wow, that's so interesting," Jessica says quizzically. Then in a perfect non sequitur, she asks, "Have you ever read Becoming Supernatural by Joe Dispenza?" “No,” I answer. One of Rockhold's friends chimes in: "That's the guy who wrote You Are The Placebo, right?" In a single capricious moment, the smell of cinnamon drifts toward Mr. Placebo.
Ideas about human optimization and personal growth will always be more attractive than those about class warfare and economics. They align with the deeply held American belief that anyone can climb the social ladder and achieve their dreams as long as they believe in themselves. As luck would have it, these self-help books tend to be passed around the manor born. I sigh and look up at the losing fighter curled in the fetal position on the screen, his disfigured face reminiscent of something from Picasso's early Cubist work. “Man,” I think, "his medical bills are gonna be expensive."Find the author on Instagram, and check out his podcast here.