Rutger Bregman, who The Guardian has called “the Dutch wunderkind of new ideas”, joins us this week to daydream a better future. Bregman won international fame by taking on everyone from Tucker Carlson to the wealthy elites at Davos on the topic of income inequality, and here he lays out a positive economic vision using the pillars of his book ‘Utopia for Realists’: a universal basic income, open borders, and a 15-hour workweek.
Rutger Bregman is a Dutch historian and author. He has published four books on history, philosophy, and economics. His book ‘History of Progress’ was awarded the Belgian Liberales prize for best nonfiction book of 2013, and the Dutch edition of ‘Utopia for Realists’ became a national bestseller and sparked a basic income movement that made international headlines. The book has been translated into 31 languages. Bregman has twice been nominated for the prestigious European Press Prize for his journalism work at The Correspondent.
‘It feels like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water.’ — This historian wasn’t afraid to confront the billionaires at Davos about their greed pic.twitter.com/TiXSJZd89M
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) January 29, 2019
Rutger Bregman: In my Utopian Society, work and play would become the same thing. Right? Or we would have removed the word work from the dictionary. Poverty’s too expensive. We can’t afford it.
Zach Silk: I love your ambition, but good God, we’re far behind here. We got to be talking about taxes.
Speaker 3: Yes.
Zach Silk: That’s it. Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit.
Speaker 3: From the offices of Civic Ventures in downtown Seattle, this is Pitchfork Economics with Nick Hanauer, one American capitalist take on how we got into this mess, and how we can get out.
Zach Silk: Hey, I’m Zach silk and I’m the president of Civic Ventures. I’m here with Nick.
Nick Hanauer: Hey. We are having a conversation today with Rutger Bregman. He is a Dutch historian and author who’s published four books, but his most important one is Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World. And this was at the foreground of sparking what has become a movement around universal basic income, which is simply the proposition that the government should pay every citizen some stipend. How much? That’s open, and obviously, context dependent, but the idea is that you would get a stipend from the government, which would essentially cover a lot of your basics, and by so doing, give people a lot more freedom and agency in their economic lives.
Zach Silk: And then interestingly the Guardian called him “the Dutch wunderkind of new ideas,” which I’ll have to say, having watched what he’s done at Davos and his TED Talk, I think it’s a pretty good title. Yeah.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah. I think that Rutgers sort of burst on the scene in a more popular way when he was part of a televised discussion or debate at Davos, where he had the courage to call the question on taxes during the conversation about inequality.
Zach Silk: I mean, 1500 private jets flown in here to hear Sir David Attenborough speak about how we’re wrecking the planet. I mean, I heard people talk in the language of participation, and justice, and equality, and transparency, but then, I mean, almost no one raised the real issue of tax avoidance. Right? And of the rich, just not paying their fair share. I mean, it feels like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one’s allowed to speak both.
Nick Hanauer: So articulate and so on the money, on this and threw shade on this ridiculous sort of modern neo-liberal idea that we’ll just do a little bit of charity in the background and it’ll all go away, all these problems, and so he’s super cool, super Cool and articulate a response to that. Yeah. And one of the cool parts about his book and his writing as a whole, as he’s trying to really reimagine work, and what it means to work, and everything I’ve read by him, it’s among the more intriguing things that I’m really interested in engaging with him on.
Zach Silk: And then I have to confess, I lived in Holland for a while, and so I have a little soft spot for the Dutch, so I can’t wait to talk to him.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah. It should be really interesting.
Rutger Bregman: Hi Man.
Nick Hanauer: Hey, well, thank you so much for taking some time to chat with us about economics and stuff like that. And so, say hi to my colleague Zach Silk.
Rutger Bregman: Hi there Zack.
Zach Silk: Hey, how are you? Hey, I lived in Amsterdam for a couple of years.
Rutger Bregman: Really?
Zach Silk: Yeah, so you’re my new Dutch crush? Yeah, I studied at the University of Amsterdam.
Rutger Bregman: Yeah, that’s great.
Zach Silk: Yeah.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah.
Rutger Bregman: When was that? A long time ago or?
Zach Silk: A long time ago. Yeah, in 1999 and 2000. I was there anyway, for some time.
Rutger Bregman: Those were the golden years.
Zach Silk: Yeah, exactly.
Nick Hanauer: Hey, so it’s great to have you with us, and you became our hero. We’d never heard of you before you shook up the Davos crowd, and it was great to see you making that argument about taxes, and how insufficient philanthropy is on that stage. It’s stuff that we’ve been arguing for a long time, but tell us a little bit about how you got on that stage, who made this terrible mistake of inviting you? How did that happen? What were they thinking?
Rutger Bregman: Okay. What happened is that, I was invited to Davos to talk about my book Utopia for Realists, which is a book about all sorts of Utopian crazy ideas, right? The central argument of the book is that every milestone of civilization, the end of slavery, or democracy, or equal rights for men and women, these have all been utopian fantasies once. I thought that the big problem of today is not so much that we don’t have a good, but that we don’t know where to go next. In the book, I have a couple of, yeah, utopian, crazy and reasonable ideas, and one of those ideas is universal basic income. Now, when I wrote this book into 2014, that was a completely forgotten idea. There were very few people around the globe talking and writing about it.
But in the years, after my book was published, it became more and more popular, especially in Silicon Valley, lots of people, tech CEOs became interested in the idea because they were worrying about the threads of automation, and they were thinking about the robots are going to come in and are going to take all these jobs. I guess there were feeling a little bit guilty about that and got interested in basic income. Now at that point, if you wanted anyone to give a talk on basic income, and you would start googling, you would find that there would be like 10 people in the world writing about it, and nine of them would be old and gray, and one of them was me.
I guess that’s what helped me. I was just a lucky, so I had the opportunity to do a TED Talk, et Cetera, and all that kind of stuff about it. And then they invited me to Davos with the idea, I guess, that I was just some harmless thought later with a couple of nice ideas. That also really was my intention in Davos to talk about my book, and about basic income, and about new research into poverty, but as I was there, I got more and more uncomfortable.
Nick Hanauer: You told me to interrupt record, but you didn’t have a grand plan to talk about taxes when you went in, is that-
Rutger Bregman: No, no, not at all. No, not at all. It was only the day before at, the panel. I got there on Monday and on Friday was the last day of the conference, and I knew I was going to participate in a panel that was going to be televised, and pretty great opportunity to promote your book. Right? That was my original plan, but as I said, I became more and more uncomfortable. On Thursday, I was talking to my wife, and I was explaining how bizarre this whole world was. Everyone was talking about feminism, and participation, and equality, and all those wonderful things, but no one was talking about taxes, about actually paying your fair share.
Yeah, she said, “Why don’t you just the hijack the conference and give a speech about this.” That’s when I went to my hotel room and I just… Yeah, I wrote the short speech, and I didn’t expect much of it. And on that Friday, the first opportunity I got, I think the moderator asked me something about my book, something about poverty, I forgot what it was exactly, and I just decided to ignore the question and go ahead.
Nick Hanauer: I love it. I mean, the cool part for us was that you did call the question, and the most important question in a context that really needs to hear that. Our work, of course, is to disrupt the neo-liberal orthodoxy, and so we’re super excited to connect with people who are even more ambitious than we are. Even if we don’t altogether agree with some of the ideas that we hear from folks, we definitely know that the orthodoxy is wrong, right? We’re 100% certain about that. What replaces it is less clear, but we know that we’d have to work hard, I think, to find a better set of ideas.
Rutger Bregman: Yeah, I agree. I agree. I’m just so excited about what’s been happening in the past couple of years. When I published this book, it didn’t feel mainstream at all, but nowadays, with politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Greta Thunberg, the Scandinavian girl, talking about climate change, I mean, it’s such a different zeitgeist already and that things are happening so quickly right now. Very exciting.
Nick Hanauer: Absolutely. We were reflecting, our team at Civic Ventures had an offsite yesterday and talked about the environment change. One of the things that we highlighted was that at least of the people who are running for President is Democrats and there are a lot of them there. The policy agendas that they represent are so much more ambitious than they were four years ago. I mean, just, you almost can’t even see a connection to what Hillary Clinton’s economic agenda was, and the agendas of the people who are running today. And the conversation really has shifted, and I think shifted, and I think that people really do recognize that we have to take some bold steps if we are to improve society generally and heal the problems of the past.
Rutger Bregman: Yeah. And this is what real politics looks like, right? It’s what real progress looks like. It’s about crazy ideas that start on the fringes and then start moving towards the center, and suddenly things that were completely unreasonable a couple of years have become common sense with regard to climate change. I was reading some my own stuff from five or six years ago and I was actually quite shocked how-
Zach Silk: How timid?
Nick Hanauer: Yeah.
Rutger Bregman: Yeah. Very timid. I guess I wanted to be nuanced or something like that, but I was like, “Yeah, it’s a big problem, but you know, we’ll probably solve it.” And something like that. I don’t know. I could never write something like that again.
Zach Silk: Interesting. Yeah. Rutger, part of the reason we wanted to talk, of course, is you wrote this book and one of the things that we really appreciate are people that are willing to do big bold ideation. Could you unpack the ideas that you have in the book just briefly for us and then we’re going to tick them off one by one?
Rutger Bregman: Sure. Well, as I said, the first and most important idea in the book, is the idea of a universal basic income, which has become much more popular in the past couple of years. It’s even a little bit mainstream right now. I have this feeling that it’s even not very utopian idea anymore. It’s almost like, “Oh, this is another guy arguing for basic income. That’s boring. We’ve heard that.” This is the response I get sometimes these days. But, I mean, the general idea is obviously very simple, right? You give a monthly grant, which is enough to pay for your basic needs; food, shelter, clothing, a bit of education and it’s completely unconditional. You get a no matter what, you don’t have to apply for it. No one’s going to tell you what you have to do with it, what you have to do for it. It’s just your birthright basically. The only thing that you need is that you’re alive, right? That you’re, you have a beating heart. That’s enough. This is very, very simple idea with a very old history and some fascinating implications.
Nick Hanauer: I’m curious because, well, we’ll just be honest about it. We’ve been a little UBI skeptical here at our shop, but not for the reasons that many others would be. I think one of our worries is that in a neo-liberal order, I don’t know, our corporate overlords would find a way to turn this into a subsidy. We have something in here in the United States called the EITC, which is an earned income tax credit.
Rutger Bregman: Yeah. I know that.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, sure. It approximates a UBI in some ways, but we have such low labor standards in most of the country that you basically end up subsidizing Walmart. It’s an excuse for Walmart not to pay its workers enough to get by without EITC.
Rutger Bregman: Yeah.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah. Let me just expand on that because I think this is a super interesting tension. Things like the EITC are every tech CEO and Wall Street titan’s favorite remedy for poverty and inequality. But speaking as tech CEO, and a CEO, generally, what I can tell you is… and as an owner of a lot of stock and having a lot of wealth tied up in the stock market, the countervailing argument, of course, is that this is just a way for the titans of industry to get the public to subsidize their profits and the wages that they pay workers. I mean, obviously, the higher the EITC, the less basic income or whatever form of it takes, the less pressure there is on companies to pay their workers adequately in the absence of those things, and the higher profits can be, which drives the multiple of earnings that generates share price increases.
And so from my own point of view, I haven’t been a fan of EITC because I think it distracts from the more immediate work of requiring companies to pay people enough to get by without government assistance, and the insistence that if you cannot figure out how to do that, you should go find another line of work. This should be the sync in on essentially of running a business, is that figure out how to pay your workers enough to lead dignified lives. And if your products and services can’t support that, well then you should go be a ballet dancer or a firefighter. Those are noble professions too. The world will not run out of hamburgers, we can be quite sure of that. Anyway-
Rutger Bregman: There’s so much to say about this. Maybe in the first place this is also my European perspective. For me, a basic income is absolutely a supplement to the other great achievements of welfare state. Right? As someone from the Netherlands, universal healthcare is absolutely non-negotiable. Right?
Zach Silk: Yeah, exactly. We don’t have that.
Rutger Bregman: Which is, you know internationally the exception. But universal healthcare is incredibly popular in all those countries that have it. It’s much more efficient than this private thing that you have in the US. Our life expectancy is actually going down. So-
Nick Hanauer: Our healthcare system is largely the world’s largest price fixing scheme. It’s what it is.
Rutger Bregman: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And the vast majority of Americans, including Republicans and including Fox News viewers is in favor of Medicare for all. That’s also one of the really interesting that thing that more and more people have come to realize is that actually all these policies, like higher taxes on the rich, Medicare paid maternity leave-
Zach Silk: Raising wages.
Rutger Bregman: Yeah. Which are absolutely common sense in Europe, are now becoming more and more cold sense in the US as well. Actually, some would argue that they’ve been common sense among the republic’s since the early 90s. If you look at the Awesome! Gallup, people have been in favor of this all the time. It’s just that right-wing politicians have been really good at distracting us, and Democrats have been-
Zach Silk: Equally complicit.
Rutger Bregman: Complicit all the time. Yeah.
Zach Silk: Equally complicit if you’re being honest.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah.
Rutger Bregman: Yeah, so that’s important. Basic income is really a supplement. There are versions of a basic income out there, which would only make things worse, right? Many right-wing Libertarians would love to see a small basic income that won’t help you much and, indeed, will basically be subsidy for employers. But what if we would have a basic income that would be actually enough to live on in addition to guaranteed health care and all the other stuff and quality public education, then it would act as a universal strike fund, right? And workers would have much more bargaining power because they can always say, “You know what? I can always fall back on my basic income. I can always go on strike.” Now what would happen, I think, in such a basic income society, is that the people who do the most socially valuable jobs like the teachers, and the garbage collectors, and the nurses who now have relatively low wages, they get more bargaining power, they start earning more.
This is basically one of the most interesting aspects of a proper basic income, is that it could help us move towards a society where the people who earn the most also do the most valuable jobs and vice versa. Right? Because if say, the marketeers go on strike, or the bankers go on strike, or the corporate tax lawyers or whatever, we don’t really care if they go on strike. It’s like, “Yeah, sure, go on strike. We don’t care.” I’ve got one story in my book about bankers going on strike and this happened in Athens in the 1970s. The strike last for six months and nothing happened and then the bankers came back to work, right?
I always love that way of thinking about it. And this is the most important thing that I’m trying to do on the book. It’s sort of to redefine what work even is and to ask the question, “Who are the real wealth creators? And I think that a proper basic income could be truly transformative here. But if you have something like an earned income tax credit, which is only for people who have a job, right, it’s not for people who don’t have a job, then sure that’s going to be just a subsidy for employers.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah. It’s interesting. Again, the Dutch perspective and the American perspective are so different because we start from such an entirely different base. And I guess, from our perspective, just in the context of the real politic of actually creating change at scale right now in our country, we can make so much progress so fast by, for instance, raising the minimum wage of $15 an hour, re-establishing the overtime threshold, pushing through some version of Medicare for all, whatever it would be, some approximation of the healthcare system that you and people in every other developed country have. Then maybe in the glorious future we could start talking about supplementing people’s income in some way.
There is a policy proposal that seems more realistic in the United States, certainly less expensive, which is the idea of a universal basic job, that the government would commit itself to employing people and giving them a job if they become unemployed. One of the reasons, I think this is a powerful idea, first of all, costs a lot less, but it also gives people more bargaining power. Right? Is it? You have given people an alternative which is good to being treated poorly or being exploited in the private market. Have you done an analysis of that idea?
Rutger Bregman: Yeah, I’ve read quite a bit about it. I’m not any sympathetic to the idea, but there is one downside though, right, because the government’s going to decide what’s going to be the useful work. And historically, the government has not always been good at that.
Zach Silk: Neither is the private sector, neither is the private sector. I just would like to point out.
Rutger Bregman: Okay. I believe in people themselves. Yeah. I think that’s the big difference here. If you would give people universal basic income, they can decide for themselves what kind of work they want to do, whether they want to care for their kids, or for the elderly, or start a new company or move to a different city.in that sense, I do believe in individual enterprise and individual freedom, but you got to give people the means first to make those decisions. And the other thing is, I know there are a lot of people out there who believe that basic income would be too expensive that we can’t afford it. It’s important to really delve into the numbers here. In the first place, you got to distinguish between the net cost and the gross cost, right?
Usually, what happens in the media is that people say, “Oh, basic incomes would be so expensive. If you give 200 or 250 million people or basic income and that will be these many trillions of dollars. We can never afford this.” But those are the gross costs, right? Because many people will get a basic income and pay the same amount in additional taxes to fund the basic income, and nothing will change for them basically. You’ve got to look at how much redistribution will happen and that’s a much smaller sum and that’s obviously the real cost of a basic income. Then the other thing is what you got to look at, is the return, right? The return on the investment. And what I try to show in my book is that it’s a pretty terrific investment basically.
Eradicating poverty, you get lower crime rates, kids do better in school, health improves in many ways, so this is the kind of thinking that I tried to apply a lot in the book. Also, when it comes to homelessness, by the way, it’s just, poverty is too expensive. We can’t afford it. Homelessness is too expensive. We can’t afford it. And it’s much cheaper to solve these problems directly with the most simplest solution, right? If people are homeless, give them a home, if people are poor, give them money. It’s quite simple. That’s why in the end I’m more sympathetic to the idea of just trusting people themselves and giving them the means, but if I would be a politician, I mean, job guarantee would be much better than no job guarantee at all. Right? I’m not sort of totally against it. Right?
Zach Silk: Yeah. Interesting. Rutger, other ideas that were in the book they include this 15-hour work week principle. Can you talk a little bit more about that and what do you think that looks like in practically?
Rutger Bregman: Yeah, sure. Well, you guys have probably heard of this famous essay that’s been mentioned in these days by John Maynard Keynes. He wrote in the 1930s, at the beginning of it, it’s called Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, and Keynes may two predictions basically. The first prediction was, we’ll get a lot richer, and the second prediction was that we would use all that wealth to work a little bit less every year and every decade.
Zach Silk: Yeah. Lots of work done.
Rutger Bregman: That prediction could not to be true, but we’re much, much richer than we were in the 1930s.
Zach Silk: He probably slightly underestimated that.
Rutger Bregman: Yeah, he did. He said it would be about four to eight times as rich. I think we’re already five or six times as rich. But the second prediction, obviously, yeah, it didn’t turn out to be true actually, especially in the US. People since the 1980s have been working more and more and more. I was recently reading this piece on work ism, which seems to be a real thing about people being totally obsessed with their work and defining their whole identity around their work, work, work.
Zach Silk: We definitely resemble that remark.
Rutger Bregman: Yeah.
Zach Silk: Yeah.
Rutger Bregman: And it’s fascinating if you read Keynes essay, but also the work of so many others. There’s an essay written by Isaac Asimov, the great science fiction writer, in the 1960s, I believe this was, and he was asked by the New York Times to make some predictions for the future. And the thing he was most certain about was that boredom was going to be the great challenge of the future, and that the psychiatry would be the biggest profession because all these planned psychiatrists would have to treat all those people who would be suffering from boredom. Right? And it’s pretty much the other way round. We have a huge number of psychiatrists, but they’re mostly treating people who are suffering from burnouts, and work related depressions and that and that kinda thing. Something went terribly, terribly wrong there, and in the book I sort of asked the question, “How did this happen? Can we turn it around?”
Nick Hanauer: Yeah. Again, if you’re American, we start from such an insanely low base and so in addition to the $15 minimum wage, which is one of the sort of our signature efforts, the other thing that we’re working on super hard is the overtime threshold in the United States, which is the wage threshold below which your employers are required to pay you time and a half for your efforts.
Zach Silk: Yeah. The foundational labor laws in the United States basically created a minimum wage and this idea was maximum hours. This is sort of like a good modern principle that had governed the labor market, but over time, the top, the overtime top has been basically blown off so that people can work extraordinary hours for very little pay, so there’s effectively no maximum hour threshold or incentive for employers to not work employees sometimes as much as 60, 70 hours a week with no additional compensation.
Nick Hanauer: Right. And this is one of the reasons why the wealthy have captured such a high proportion of the benefits of economic growth and productivity increases over the last 40 years. Because today, the overtime threshold only includes 7% of salaried workers. Get this. If you earn more than $23,600 year in the United States of America, and your boss pitches you a fake title, like assistant manager, they can make you work 70 hours a week and only pay you for the first 40. Mind you, you’re probably earning eight, or nine or $10 an hour to begin with. Right? This is one of the great challenges and we’re in the process of trying to change that in our state. Actually, we’ll be among the first and most ambitious standards in the nation. But I would be pleased if we get people to get paid for more than 40 hours a week. I love your ambition, but good God, we’re far behind here.
Rutger Bregman: Yeah. You know, the funny thing is that, obviously, I first wrote this book in Dutch. Now, Holland has the shortest working week in the world according to OACD stats. Some people ask me like, “Why did, why did you make this point?” But still I wrote it first in Dutch. Well, what I was seeing and many others were seeing as well is that, also in the Netherlands, we’re working harder and harder, and there was this rise in burnout, et cetera. But then, for example, the book was translated to Japanese and I was like, “Holland is paradise compared to Japan.” I’ve never seen so many bullshit jobs in my life.
Many people doing jobs that absolutely they don’t need to be doing. You just walk around in the streets in Tokyo and there’s roadworks going on and there six or seven people standing next to it and just waving like, “Go past it, go to the right, go to the left.” You like, Dah, obviously, there’s no other way to go.” That was something I realized during this international book tour that things can get way worse. It’s also something actually some of my colleagues have realized. I’m part of a journalism platform called The Correspondent, that has just expanded into English. And some of my friends moved to New York for more than a year to hire people and to make people enthusiastic about the project. They could sort of experience what American life is compared to living in Amsterdam.
It’s really interesting some things that you realize. For example, yeah, salaries and wages are in general much higher in New York than in Amsterdam. But then you have to pay so much money for your health care. I mean, I pay around, what is it, a hundred euros a month for full healthcare coverage and that’s it. And then some of my colleagues were suddenly paying, what was it, like $2,000 a month for a family or something like that. I can’t really remember, but a lot of money. And if you mentioned these numbers in Holland, people are shocked. They can’t believe it. They say, “No, you mean for a year.” “No, no, no, no. It’s for a month.”
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, I know. So let me get, let me ask you a question though, Erica, how many hours a week do you work personally?
Rutger Bregman: Well, it depends on how you define work. Either zero or 90.
Nick Hanauer: Okay. Yeah. Okay. Me Too. Here’s the problem, and I think it’s a fascinating problem, I don’t think there’s any answer to it. Let me stipulate that the neo-liberal ideology, right? In all its glorious splendor, the idea that the only thing that matters is money, the only organizing principle in human society should be competition, that price equals value, all of this nonsense. It all needs to go right? It’s all bullshit. It’s corrosive. We got to get by it. And yet, for my own part like you, I either work zero or 90. I don’t know what the answer is, but certainly, I make enough money sitting on my ass in a couple of hours what most Americans earn in a year, but I work obsessively. I can’t stop myself and all of my wealthy friends do the same, more or less, right?
People are ambitious. They love what they do, they find meaning and challenge in the work. I rotated from a career largely in being an entrepreneur to now being a social entrepreneur. I’m obsessive about it, and the idea of ratchet and get down to 15 hours a week, I’m not sure I could do that. I think that, me, and Zach, and you, our energy requires an outlet. How do we square these things?
Rutger Bregman: I think that Keynes vision was that at some point in the future we would arrive at a society where everyone could basically do what you and I are able to do, right. Just to follow our intrinsic motivation and trying to contribute to projects that we care about. And that only 15 hours a week would be paid work just to pay the bills basically. I guess that’s what we got to do. We got to properly define what we mean when we say work. And in my Utopian Society, work and play would become the same thing, right? Or we would have removed or work from the dictionary. I think that’s what we’re talking about here. And then it becomes a bit meaningless to say, “Oh, are you working 60 or 70 hours a week or whatever.” The most important thing is, is when you work, do you care about your work? Do you think you contribute in any way? And this is why this whole concept of socially meaningless jobs has become so fascinating to me.
Nick Hanauer: I both agree and disagree with this frame. One of the things that I have a big problem with is the idea of work, which is not socially valuable. I find that that view is highly elitist because for sure in a society and a commercial society that devalues people by paying them so little that they can’t lead dignified lives, you have debased them, and exploited them, and devalued them, I think in really corrosive ways. But in an in a sufficiently inclusive society, where every job is treated with respect and every worker is treated with dignity, people can imbue lots of activities in life with meaning and importance. And-
Rutger Bregman: I agree, but sorry to interrupt you. I meant it the other way around, actually. When I talk about socially meaningless jobs, I’m talking about people with beautiful LinkedIn profiles, who went to the best universities, and have excellent salaries, and are working in consultancy, or marketing, or banking, but still at the end of the day, I have this feeling that they don’t contribute anything. And it’s not me saying this, it’s people themselves saying it about their own jobs.
This is the response I got so often also from readers from my book who said, “You know what? I don’t have a meaningless job, but my job is part-time meaningless. What I do is, I earn a lot of money, saying, as some consultancy firm that I don’t care about, but then I use all that money and I’m participating in this philanthropic project or whatever. Right? That’s what I mean. Often it seems that we live in an economy that is upside down, right, where the people who earn the most contribute the least, and the people who earn the least contribute the most.
Nick Hanauer: Let me just challenge your thinking on that because I think that that has less to do with the nature of the job itself and more to do with the construction of our markets. That is to say, there are so many people who work for companies that are just objectively harming the world. Right? This is one of the reasons why the work is so meaningless, is because you go to work every day engaged in an effort which is largely corrosive to the public good. It’s not that lawyering in and of itself is meaningless or harmful, but it certainly is, if you’re defending giant insurance companies from nasty people with health problems, right? That’s the thing I think that makes work meaningless to people as they just feel like, “Well, I’m working super hard but not bringing any value into people’s lives other than the shareholders who own my company.”
Rutger Bregman: Exactly. I guess that the neo-Liberal framework or the framework of the Third Way, the Social Democrats that took over in the UK, Tony Blair, et Cetera, I guess their framework was that the only thing that government should do or one of the most important things that government should do, is to provide people with skills. Right? Education, education, education. And if you do that, that’s enough. What they forgot is that what really matters is what people do with their skills, right? You can be a great lawyer and waste those skills. You can be a great developer, or a great banker or whatever, and waste those skills. I think that’s one of the great, great tragedies of our time, is that we’re wasting so much talent.
There are so many people who are way too smart to work on Wall Street. They are way too smart to work in Silicon Valley. In this era of climate change, they need to be engineers or something like that. Right? They need to be working on real solution to the greatest challenge of humanity that we’re facing right now. And they’re developing these algorithms to let us click on that. And they’re developing these terrible destructive financial products. It’s not just about the skills, it’s about what do you actually do with the skills. And I agree with you. It’s all about market design. We could easily design the market in a different way, that it would become more profitable to be an engineer working on climate change.
Nick Hanauer: That’s right.
Zach Silk: Rather than monetizing humanity’s deepest vulnerabilities at Facebook.
Rutger Bregman: Exactly.
Nick Hanauer: Rutger, you’ve got one final pillar of your book, which is this idea of open borders and I want to make sure we could get to that before we close. Could you unpack it for us a little bit?
Rutger Bregman: Sure. Well, this is definitely the most radical idea of my book, right? I mean, as I said, basic income is almost become mainstream right now, but opening borders, well, that’s a different story, I guess. As a historian, what I always like to do is to zoom out and to ask a very simple question, “What will the historians of the future think of us?” Right? We can look back and say, “The Middle Ages” and say, “Oh, these were terrible people. These were barbarians. Right? They had tortured, they had witch hunts and all those, that kind of stuff. And we’re so civilized these days.” But then probably the historians will look back on us and think maybe in the same way about us. And then the question is, “What are the things we do right now that are absolutely barbarian?” Right? That our grandchildren or people after them will look at with disgust.
And I think one of the obvious things here is borders, right? We have a system of international borders that is basically apartheid on a global scale. 60% of your income is dependent on the simple fact, where you were born, if you were lucky or not. And most of the arguments we have against immigration, against opening those borders are really, really bad. We think that, “Oh, these immigrants come and steal our jobs, or they drive wages down, or they destroy social cohesion, or they never go back, right? You’ve got all these arguments, and I go over them in the book and I tried to show that actually most of them are simply not true.
Now, I know that’s not a very popular thing, but I thought it was important to write on the final chapter.
Zach Silk: As you point out, for some of us, the world does have open borders.
Rutger Bregman: Very true. Yeah.
Zach Silk: Yeah, exactly.
Nick Hanauer: Exactly.
Zach Silk: My guess, did you meet quite a few of them at Davos.? You had no trouble crossing borders?
Rutger Bregman: Yes. Or flying in to see David Attenborough speak about climate change. No. And I mean it’s also for goods and some services also, right? I mean, iPhones can go around the globe, bananas can go around the globe-
Nick Hanauer: But people can.
Rutger Bregman: Exactly. That’s the most valuable factor of production.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah. We don’t have free trade. Goods can move, money can move, but not people.
Rutger Bregman: Yeah. The interesting thing here, is again, from an historical perspective, is that borders are quite a recent invention just as the nation state. The nation state is an invention of the 19th century. Right? Germans, and Italians, and French people, they really had to be made, they didn’t exist. They were instructed in systems of schools where they learned how to be French and they learned how to be German. And the same is true for borders. It’s an invention of the early 20th century, especially after the first world war.
Before that, there were some countries that issued passports like the Ottoman Empire and Russia, but they were seen as backward countries. The fascinating things about the system we have right now, is the perversity of it. To give one example, the US-Mexico border, this whole idea of building a wall, right? The irony is so great because if you look at the data and what you see is that in the 60s, you already had quite a few Mexican immigrants going to the US to work there for a bit. But most of them went back. Around 85% went back after a couple of years. They earned our money, they missed their family, they wanted to go back. Then the US started militarizing the border in the 70s and the 80s, and it became much more difficult to go back to make the journey.
When you at mid-journey, you’re like, “Ah, I don’t want to do this ever again. People stayed, and in the 80s and in the 90s, only 15% of all those immigrants went back. The result of building walls was that you get way more illegal immigrants. Millions, millions, more illegal immigrants because of walls. Now, just imagine what would happen if they had built that wall or it really ever got build, the problem will only get worse. Right? You don’t actually solve it here. And that’s just one of those examples, is that we’ve got so many things just totally wrong about immigration.
Zach Silk: Hey, Rutger, We’ve only got a couple moments left. I thought I would ask, are there policies? What’s next?
Rutger Bregman: Yeah.
Zach Silk: Or concepts that you’re thinking about now?
Rutger Bregman: The next work?
Zach Silk: Yeah, what’s the next utopia?
Rutger Bregman: Okay. Every discussion I had around basic income, or a shorter work week, or relying on people’s intrinsic motivation, in the end, I was always talking about human nature with people. And so many people would say to me, right, Rutger, I love your ideas, but human beings are just not like that, right? In the end we’re just selfish and civilization is only thin layer and as soon as something happens, a war or a natural disaster, we will be beast again, animals, that’s what we are. I love all your ideas, but it’s never really going to happen.
At that point, I realized that my next book would have to be a much more ambitious book basically about human nature where I would have to debunk this whole pessimistic, cynical view of what human beings are like, and to go over all the new, exciting evidence we have from psychology, and from sociology, and from economics, even from history, that shows that actually, “Well, most people are pretty nice.”
Zach Silk: Yeah, of course.
Rutger Bregman: And they’re fundamentally caring social species. That’s what the next book is going to be about. It’s going to be published in Dutch in September, and in English next year.
Zach Silk: I love it. Well, I’m giving a TED Talk on that in July. We’re highly aligned. That’s so great. Tell us, why do you do this work? What did your mom and dad do to you that make you?
Rutger Bregman: Oh, that’s a great question. My mom is a teacher and my father is a Protestant minister, so I guess I’m following in their footsteps.
Zach Silk: Lives of service.
Rutger Bregman: Yeah. I mean, the basic lesson of history for me is that things can be different. There’s nothing inevitable about the way we’ve structured our society and economy right now, It can all change. That makes history such a subversive, such a radical science to me. If you tell people a theoretical story or make a theoretical argument about how basic income could work, or how we could shorten the work week, people are a bit like, “Mm. It’s skeptical. Is that ever going to happen?”
But then if you tell them the real story about real people, or real experiments that happened in the past where this actually worked, you tell them that actually in the US in the 1970s, almost implemented a guaranteed basic income, under Richard Nixon, they’re like, “Whoa, what happened there?” Right? History really helps you to open up your mind and to see new possibilities. And that’s what I’m trying to help people do and with my work.
Nick Hanauer: Fantastic. Fantastic. Well, this has been a terrific conversation. We look forward to your next book.
Rutger Bregman: Thank you for all the work you’re doing.
Zach Silk: Yeah. Okay.
Rutger Bregman: Bye bye.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah. So that was a really fascinating conversation with Rutger Bregman, obviously, a very smart guy.
Zach Silk: Yeah.
Nick Hanauer: Wunderkind was pretty accurate.
Zach Silk: I’ll tell you, I’ve obviously listened to all the podcasts we’ve done and we’ve done some credible interviews, but that was one of them.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, he’s very sharp, very smart, and has thought in a very nuanced way about a lot of these really important issues. And as I reflect on these really ambitious ideas like MMT, for instance, from my own perspective, what we know to be certain is that a lot of the existing ideas are wrong and not working and we need to be open to the possibility of new ones.
Zach Silk: Certainly, his idea about a 15-hour work week and universal basic income, and tearing down the borders, these are very ambitious ideas, and particularly as we were talking about from the American perspective where we can’t even get big profitable companies to pay their workers enough to get by without food stamps. Well, he says Utopian.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah.
Zach Silk: One of the things I really appreciated about is, often, utopians by their very nature are very dogmatic, but he’s not at all. I found him to just be incredibly engaging, and thoughtful, and was willing to roll through these ideas with us and our challenges with it. It was cool, really.
Nick Hanauer: I think being a historian in particular makes you a more powerful and useful analyzer of social constructs. I mean, one of the problems with economics is that it’s so insular and so much of it assumes that the existing structures can’t change.
Zach Silk: And literally are historical.
Nick Hanauer: It’s right.
Zach Silk: It’s like one of the natures that it cleans.
Nick Hanauer: Says his story. It doesn’t matter where it happened. But I zooming out and thinking about the world historically is a great perspective. There’s this Oscar Wilde quote, “Progress is the realization of utopias.” And I think that’s largely true as he pointed out. Certainly, from the point of view of people from 300 years ago, we live in utopia today and from the point of view of somebody 300 years, hence, hopefully if human beings survived, will have made the same kind of progress.
Zach Silk: Yeah. Great. That was awesome. And if you haven’t had a chance to read it, you should go out and get his book.
Nick Hanauer: Hey. So I’m really excited that in the next episode of Pitchfork Economics, we’re going to directly address the decline of worker power with two of my favorite people, the Labor leader, David Ralph and the economist Larry Michelle. It should be really interesting.
Speaker 3: Pitchfork economics is produced by Civic Ventures. The magic happens in Seattle in partnership with Large Media. That’s L-A-R-J media and The Young Turks Network. Find us on Twitter and Facebook @civicaction. Follow our writing on medium @civic skunk works and peek behind the podcast scenes on Instagram @pitchforkeconomics. And one more, you should definitely follow nick on Twitter @NickHanauer. As always, a big thank you to our guests and thanks to you for listening from our team at Civic Ventures, Nick Hanauer, Zach Silk, Jasmine weaver, Jessyn Farrell, Stephanie Ervin, David Goldstein, Paul Constant, Stephen Paolini and Annie Fadely. See you next week.