Rachel Suirski concludes the author’s note in her new speculative fiction novel, January 15With this observation.

  1. Money can make life easier, but it can’t solve everything.
  2. Adding money to a system with underlying problems will not fix those problems by itself.
  3. After any major change, some people will be good, some people will be bad, and many people will be both good and bad.
  4. Although the future is unfolding, it will not be to my standards. I don’t hope there will always be results. Some of them will oppose my beliefs about the world.
  5. I’m definitely wrong about something. (9)

It’s a refreshingly humble, lightly skeptical opening, and one that tells me that I was in good hands before the book really started.

This modesty and skepticism is especially important for Econlog readers, as Suwirsky’s novel is a vision of an imaginary future America where the Universal Basic Income (UBI) Act has been voted on. I came across a book made for an instructive work, focused on “teaching” the reader to take one or the other perspective on UBI, but Swirsky’s novel maintains this sense of humble question and inquiry everywhere. And it’s all good for him.

The book consists of four intertwined stories told from the perspectives of four different female characters, Hannah, Janelle, Olivia and Sarah. Their stories begin on the morning of January 15, now known as “Windfall Day,” when people receive their UBI payments. Suirski admits in his author’s note that he chose to pretend that this “practical aspect of running UBI” was fairly non-abrasive. He is aware that this is unlikely, though, and that people are waiting for their checks, waiting for complicated and delayed EFT transactions, and those who are worried that this is another shortcut to the long line at the bank as another way to get data on behalf of the government. People point to her awareness of some of them when the stories she is most interested in telling never go unnoticed.

And these stories are interesting and complex. Hannah, for example, is an abusive woman, a fugitive, and their two children are hiding from her ex. For that, UBI has paid them enough to escape domestic violence. But it also provides his ex-wife with an annual income increase that raises funds for a drug and alcohol search in retaliation. For January 15th and UBI Hanner, an annual reminder of the way he was released and how much he was trapped.

Janelle is a black journalist whose story allows Swirsky some latitude to explore the racial complexities associated with an idea about UBI. When Janelle goes about her day, interviewing people about their plans for Windfall Day and their views on UBI, she and her younger sister argue about UBI’s justice. Has it done enough to address the economic crisis created by the limited opportunities for generations of people of color in America-has it done anything? Is this a way to stop the discussion of inequality? For Janelle, UBI has allowed her to take care of her since the death of her younger sister’s parents. It’s hard to remember that personal angle between her sister, Neva, a burnt-out teen worker, who sees and wants to resolve inequalities.

Olivia is a young college student who returns to her hometown for a Windfall Day party, which she and her wealthy friends refer to as “Waste Day.” Their goal, motivated by the request of a podcast pair known as C&C, is to waste their UBI payments as explicitly and disrespectfully as possible. It would have been easy for these sections of the book to have been anything more than critical critiques of very wealthy people, and there are some in it, but Schwarski is interested in an in-depth discussion here on questions of wealth and responsibility. His partying college students ranged from drunken sexual harassment, to the discussion of breaking the jug of a Han dynasty in I Wei Wei, to a Peter Singer-inspired debate over how much one’s wealth should be given to the poor and when one deserves to criticize others. How much they give or don’t give.

For me, the least functional parts of the novel were dedicated to Sarah’s story. Sarah, a pregnant teenage bride in a polygamous splinter group in Utah, walks with her sister’s wives to demand her UBI payment. Along the way, we learn that the gang is beating and expelling young men, since there aren’t enough women to go there, and they are still demanding UBI payments for those young men. Less rich and complex than other stories, Sarah’s story has a clear correct and incorrect structure. The splinter group is clearly wrong and evil. Sarah must give it up. UBI is definitely the thing that will allow him to do this. It’s not a bad story, but its clear morality has been felt by me, somewhat simplistic after the complexity of the other sections.

January 15 Is a good read. This is a particularly good read for those interested in UBI or those interested in literature that presents complex economic problems in a subtle way. We will be interested to know what other EconLog readers think about it, what lessons they can add to it, and whether this book and this review will be available in time to inspire any curriculum change for the coming academic year.

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