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David Simon, creator of the popular HBO series “The Wire,” and most recently “The Deuce,” has voiced his support for a system of wealth distribution known as universal basic income, in which every citizen receives a regular sum of money just for being alive.
“I think we’ve reached the point in terms of the death of work, and where we’re going in society and automation, that we should already be guaranteeing people a basic income,” Simon recently told New Yorker editor David Remnick on The New Yorker Radio Hour podcast.
Simon’s body of work, which includes news articles, books, and TV shows, has focused extensively on the nature of American labor. “The Wire” centered on the drug trade in Baltimore, Maryland in the early 2000s. “The Deuce,” currently in its first season, explores prostitution in New York City in the early 1970s.
In his podcast interview, Simon pointed to the threat of robotic automation as grounds for implementing basic income. Economists have issued numerous forecasts that predict huge swaths of the American workforce, perhaps as much as 50%, could lose their job over the next 20 years to highly intelligent software and factory robots.
Advocates of basic income say redistributing the wealth produced by those efficient systems – in effect, something akin to a dividend – would give people the means to avoid menial work and still live above the poverty line.
Basic income would be “an incredible boon to the country, and it would honestly take into account that we don’t need as many Americans to run this economy as we once did,” Simon said.
Critics of basic income tend to voice two big concerns about the system: that giving people free money will sap the drive to work out of potential employees, and that people (especially those in poverty) will spend the money on bad habits.
Simon disagreed, arguing that families who receive between $20,000 and $40,000 a year, depending on the size of the basic income payments, would actually boost the country’s prosperity.
“You give families that kind of money, it’s all going back into the economy,” he said. “It’s not going into mutual funds. It’s going right back into the economy.”
There haven’t been any major formal studies in developed countries to determine whether people who get a basic income would work less or use the money to buy things like drugs and alcohol. But studies in the developing world have suggested that when people receive cash transfers on a regular basis, they are most likely to spend the money on education, home repair, or starting or growing a business.
Research in these developing nations has also found that alcohol and tobacco use may decline with basic income, as some experts suspect the extra money alleviates stress and makes people less inclined to drink or smoke to cope with a negative situation.