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What a 60-Year-Old Film Teaches Us About the Universal Basic Income Debate

Connie M. Razza
Katharine Hepburn in Desk Set

This weekend I watched Desk Set (again—I am a sucker for Katharine Hepburn’s romantic comedies). 

In the movie, Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) leads a team of sharp and snappy reference librarians at a television network. They answer all kinds of questions with great ease—many from memory—and demonstrate tremendous skill at getting the answers they don’t already know. The tension of the film is introduced when Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy), the developer of a remarkable computer system, comes to install the new technology in the department. The women in the reference library—and, yes, they are all women—fear that they will be completely displaced by this newfangled machine. Sumner is likeable, good-natured, well intentioned, and completely oblivious to the fear he has inspired. The film optimistically bears out Sumner’s vision: the computer is not supposed to and, the film makes clear, cannot replace the women; it merely supplements their capacity.

I am summarizing this 60-year-old film in a blog about contemporary policy issues because we—again—are facing the question of our orientation to new technologies and labor. Some people revel in the prospect of a jobless future, while others fear it. Many more suggest that we won’t have a jobless future, but we will need to reconsider how our labor market, our systems of social provision, and our commitment to the common good will function.

I invite you to join a particularly robust conversation of this in the Forum of the Boston Review. The conversation hinges on the question of “basic income in a just society,” but grapples with issues of social provision more broadly, the shape of work, and the politics of demanding basic income and/or guaranteed jobs. The concept of basic income can refer to a wide range of proposals for unconditional cash grants that secure basic needs (by supplementing other income or by directly providing enough cash to secure food, housing, care, and other goods and services needed to subsist) for participants in society (sometimes defined as residents and other times as citizens). Underlying much of the conversation about basic income is an effort to respond to the changing structure of the economy and the labor market.

  • The lead essay by Brishen Rogers lays a strong groundwork for the broader social infrastructure needed—“basic income and other economic security guarantees, vastly expanded social programs, and new rules to encourage social bargaining”—as we experience these shifts.
  • Annette Bernhardt argues that we must add “control over technology” to the progressive agenda, gaining a voice over which technologies are developed and how they are used to participate in and organize work. This governance question is an important addition to Rogers’ social infrastructure.
  • Dorian Warren argues that basic income with a pro-rated amount for black Americans is a preferable model, because it provides a more equitable base income, with some reparative value for the historic stripping of resources from black individuals, families, and communities.
  • In an article in the print edition, David Stein reminds us that the Civil-Rights movement’s iteration of a basic income fight was deeply tied to a fight for “federal governmental guarantees to employment, at living wages, where people are located, and in areas that serve social needs—rather than those of the market.” This joint demand was tied to both a drive for full enfranchisement in the society and a more holistic understanding of economic well-being for people too long locked out of full participation in the economy, despite their long labors.
  • My own essay flags the need to structure any demand for basic income around restructuring the power of working-class communities and communities of color within our broader society.

Join in the conversation.