Can UBI Heal America’s Psychological Pandemic?
Allow me to paint you a picture, through inundation of facts. Diagnoses of depression are on the rise in the United States. Under 1 in 50 Americans were on anti-depressants thirty years ago. Today, 1 in 9 are. Over the last decade, deaths from overdoses on opiates skyrocketed. Between 1999 and 2016, suicide rates increased in 49 out of 50 states (and are still rising). From 1967 to 2017, the percentage of the American population living alone nearly doubled. In his book, Lost Connections, author Johann Hari explains that, when asked how many close friends someone could call in case of crisis or emergency, the most common answer for Americans had declined from “five” to “zero”. It does not end there.
Income inequality has increased, while wages have remained fixed. Nationally, a rising number of Americans choose to live in their cars because they cannot find affordable housing. The percentage of the American population in the labor force since the baby boom is now at an all time low, just over 62% today from about 67% 1989. In that same period, the percentage of working Americans who said their job gave them a sense of identity declined from 57% to 51%. Despite a shrinking workforce, the number of Americans working multiple jobs has been on the rise.
What picture am I trying to paint here?
America has had a problem with its psychological health. People are less happy, and this unhappiness is tied to socioeconomic trends. On the surface, this seems like saying that people have less money and are merely upset about that fact, but it goes deeper than that. The problems of the American economy have not only made day-to-day life tougher; they have also tampered with the human condition in ways that have caught us by surprise. They have separated the harmony between short-term and long-term pursuits, leading millions to feel increasingly nihilistic. At the aggregate, these feelings have very harmful effects.
A Life without Meaning
Human beings are social creatures. By and large, we find fulfillment in being useful and relevant. We evolved these tendencies to survive a hundred thousand years of harsh conditions as hunter-gatherers. The human genome has not adapted as quickly as human society in the last five millennia, and so we still possess these ancient traits and desires. The notion of belonging to a tribe or a clan is central to us, as is doing our part to help the tribe. Contrary to fears of many conservatives, the life of a leech is innately unpopular.
What happens when our ability to find meaning is lost? Current observations provide that answer. People become depressed, become addicted to opiates, and die en masse from overdoses. At least, that is the answer we get in the current day. Our ancestors from thousands of years ago had no opiates to distract them from their woes, so we have to assume that they only got depressed. Thus, drugs, legal or illegal, are our short-sighted solution to a hereditary curse.
In a famous experiment known as the “Rat Park” by psychologist Bruce K. Alexander, it was shown just how much depression is a relevant factor to addiction. Previous studies had demonstrated that caged, isolated rats, when given a choice between plain water or water laced with LSD/cocaine, would choose the drugged equivalent, become addicted, and eventually poison themselves to death. In Alexander’s version, rats were given such a choice of water in larger environment, with ample food, toys, and even rat companions. These rats showed lower rates of addiction or had none at all.
The implications for humans facing similar issues with addiction are massive. It indicates that something has occurred in the American environment to lead to more depression (and more addiction by extension). The changes are likely found in the data cited at the start of this article. The conclusion is that the American economy has changed in a fundamental way, at our psychological expense. Where even our tribal forefathers were able to work not only for their own survival but for the survival of their community as a whole, subsistence today is no longer paired with meaning.
What some might call “late-stage capitalism” has robbed us of this essential, human experience. Many find themselves in a life without meaning. This is because they work long hours at jobs that they never wanted to do. These are jobs that they know anyone else could do. Nothing about this job makes them important. Many of these people go to homes where they live alone, and if they do co-habitate, their housemates are often away too.
People are thus increasingly disconnected from their friends and families, who are all in a rush to make payments by the skin of their teeth, just so they can do it again next week. People are unable to save, to take time off, and to build toward something bigger than themselves. Instead, they are forced into a state of monotony, if they do manage to find employment. If they cannot find employment (which is true of many Americans in the fallout of free trade, automation, and the 2008 Recession), they feel even more useless. Where labor at one point was more likely to give us both subsistence and meaning concurrently (especially in tribal times), now it gives us the former at the expense of the latter.
Finding Meaning Once Again
While Universal Basic Income (UBI) is usually promoted for its economic advantages, the idea here is that it would also help to reduce this psychological pandemic of depression that is sweeping America. If subsistence is, for millions of Americans, a barrier to finding meaning, then the problem of subsistence is what needs to be solved. UBI would be a step toward that.
It would allow people a baseline of financial security to ease the transition into new, more fulfilling work. For those working over forty hours every week, it would give them the time to relax and restore their connection with their fellow human beings. For those out of work, they would no longer have the shame of being a leech. At the very least, because UBI is universal, they would be no more of a leech than anyone else. It would give people more of a chance to pursue constructive hobbies, in the arts, athletics, personal adventure, and volunteerism. It would give people the control, as well as the sense of control, that is necessary to lead a meaningful life.
While it would work as a subsidy to demand along Keynesian principles, UBI would also heal some of our cultural wounds made evident by the opioid crisis. I merely submit that we tackle that problem sooner rather than later.