Unleashing human potential — technology, ‘robot tax’ and the basic income.

Those of you who have worked on any long term project will know — it is hard to keep track of the wider world when most of your time is dedicated to bringing that project to completion. While my PhD research has led me to keep a close eye on developments in Catalonia (for instance), a few other noteworthy political developments have evaded my notice.

One of those is Jeremy Corbyn’s mention of a ‘robot tax’, taxing AI automation in a growing number of domains — the idea being (and it is hard to argue against this) that automation will gradually replace low-skilled jobs employing real people with ‘robots’. The fear in itself is not new — yet there is a growing feeling that this process of automation is increasing, to the point where political action and planning is now required to address it.

The clear underpinning of Jeremy Corbyn’s (and many others’) argument is the idea that automation threatens employment and pushes low-skilled, poor workers out of a job, depriving them of what little income they were able to gather through work. This ‘labour-focused’ view of automation raises a few questions that need to be discussed before characterising automation as a threat to the poorest people in our society.

For most still today, employment within a company or a public service remains the single most important way for an individual, a household, a family to sustain itself. It is a major priority for politicians and voters alike, one of the key priorities of our education system and one of the key elements around which our entire welfare system is constructed.

Unsurprisingly, policies that protect and enhance worker living or working standards continue to have a significant legitimacy across the political spectrum, but most notably on the left for movements (like Labour) whose historical purpose was to represent the interests of employed labour against employers and capital owners. Automation, from this perspective, serves the interests of employers by cutting labour costs significantly, leaving low-skill workers in a position where, without significant (and costly) training, their ability to earn a living is increasingly compromised as low-skilled job numbers fall.

In the short-term, and all things remaining equal, automation can and probably will have this effect, at least to an extent. Automation will indeed remove the need for human labour in a range of industries, and for the most part low-skill jobs will continue to be the simplest to automate.

In the long run however, it is our responsibility to consider the exact nature of the jobs that are being lost, and the ask whether people employed in these jobs benefit from being in them — whether we, as a society, consider employment in these jobs as something both worthwhile for society as a whole, and as a viable way to maximise the potential of every individual within our society.

While such jobs provide an opportunity for many people to earn a living, the working conditions and pay associated with low-skill jobs are far from ideal. From the perspective of the worker, these jobs are often tedious, offer little chance for career advancement or personal fulfilment, and frequently do not pay enough for anything more than paycheck-to-paycheck living. From the perspective of society, many of these low-skill jobs are a drain on the welfare state, with low pay being subsidised by us all in the form of in-work benefits.

Many individuals and families do rely on low-pay jobs to survive and sustain themselves, but many are also locked into these jobs — with enough pay to survive, but never enough pay to build up personal wealth or afford training and adult education to open up new career paths. Can automation, beyond the initial destructive effects it can have, provide an escape route for the poorest workers in our society?

In short, yes — but not on its own. In and of itself, automation can and will reduce ongoing labour costs; this implies unemployment for individuals, and a reduction in jobs available for human labour. Best case scenario, reductions in labour costs can lead to a reduction in prices for consumers (unlikely), or an increase in corporation profit margins that may find its way into further investment (also uncertain). Worst case, profit margins increase, and the savings made from reduced labour costs do not go on to benefit society as a whole at all — meaning the only people who stand to benefit from automation are the companies, businesses, or even public administrations that introduce it.

Instead of slowing down automation, embracing it in a way that benefits society as a whole is one the major challenges of the coming decades. One of the solutions, and the one that I advocate here, is the introduction of a universal, basic income, granted to all citizens within a given country with no conditions and no strings attached.

What is the connection between automation and a basic income? To put it concisely, many people within our societies end up in low-skill, low-paid jobs out of necessity — and while automation destroys those jobs, it does little to remove the necessity of employment. A universal, basic income does just that.

While the idea is seen by many as utopian, it has slowly gathered steam across many countries: suggested by the Scottish National Party and the Green Party in Britain, the idea was also one of the fundamental policies at the heart of Benoit Hamon’s platform, France’s unsuccessful socialist presidential candidate in 2017. Similar policies are being considered in countries such as Canada, and other examples of can be found across the Western world.

What are the benefits of such an income? By removing the necessity of labour, it provides an opportunity for all citizens to escape from, and then refuse, exploitative jobs: companies will no longer be able to rely on the necessity of labour to push wages and working conditions down — companies will be compelled to make employment offers attractive for all.

A universal, basic income would also liberate entrepreneurship, by removing some of the risk associated with starting up a business venture. A successful business would still yield the same rewards for daring and innovative entrepreneurs, but individuals would no longer have to rely on business success to secure the very basics they need to survive. While this changes little for successful and thriving businesses, it is a significant difference for new and struggling business-owners who cannot quite clear a living wage out of their businesses’ revenue — far from having any adverse effect on entrepreneurship, a basic income makes entrepreneurship viable and affordable to more people.

Aside from this, a universal basic income also provides the opportunity for individuals to pursue activities that are not adequately rewarded in today’s market economy — activities that are still essential to the wellbeing, prosperity and development of a healthy society. Whether it sports, music, literature or all other types of arts, these career paths will become a viable option for all, potentially unleashing a wave of creativity from which society would benefit immensely.

Far from nurturing a lazy, work-shy society, a universal basic income would redirect ‘human resources’ away from tedious, low-pay jobs that benefit only a few towards other occupations and activities whose broader benefits to both the individual and society are far more attractive than what is currently available to the poorest and least skilled. Automation, on the other hand, ensures that this process can take place without a degradation in service provision — services which become automated will continue to exist, but will no longer lock a human being into a poor quality job with little in the way of future career prospects or personal development.

One of the major objections otherwise raised against the idea of a universal basic income is cost. While taxes could be raised on corporations to collect some of the savings brought about by reduced labour costs, one of the major ways in which a basic universal income can be funded is by replacing the welfare state outright — with such an income, an argument can be made that most of the welfare payments currently available to people in Britain would become redundant; at the very least, all in-work benefits, unemployment benefits and many other smaller benefits introduced to complement low incomes will no longer be necessary. In addition to this, the cost of administrating these benefits, and the cost of tackling fraud, will also be reduced significantly — with no conditions or requirements, the universal basic income would be relatively straight-forward to administer, and virtually impossible to claim fraudulently.

While it is normal that protecting employment and employees’ rights continues to be a politically potent objective, perhaps the best way to protect workers in our society is to shield them from the worst, least fulfilling, lowest-paid jobs — automation, coupled with the introduction of a universal basic income, provides a way to both remove some of the more menial jobs currently available in our job market, while removing the necessity for work that forces so many of our people into these jobs in the first place. Embracing automation, rather than viewing with suspicion or taxing it, provides a gateway towards a society in which individual freedom, entrepreneurship, creativity, and security can thrive in ways that many can only dream of today.

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