Basic income, a solution to automation?

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Note: This article was initially published in Spanish and can be found here.

It is absolutely necessary to find formulas that allow in the near future the subsistence of people who can not return to work due to the automation of their jobs.

Previously, in the article “Artificial intelligence and corporate social responsibility”I raised some of the risks that new technologies are already introducing in our lifes.

Today I am going to talk about another one of those dilemmas that derive from technologies that will force millions of people all over the planet to be unemployed for the rest of their lives.

Many people have not yet realized the threat to their current job that the development of new solutions is causing.

Without going any further, and with all due respect for the group of workers who defend their interests, I am surprised by the manifestations of taxi drivers in many cities of Spain and the rest of the world against the interference in their sector of companies such as Uber or Cabify.

And it surprises me because these transport professionals simply stay on the surface, where other people come to compete for their work, but they do not see under that surface that this work is destined to be done by autonomous cars without driver at a time not too far.

Those companies simply want to get their foot in the passenger transport business with some drivers who work for them, but this drivers also do not seem to realize that these companies will erase them from the equation of their business when the cars work alone and once they have obtained a dominant position in the sector.

None of the drivers seem to observe that it is their job that is going to change. Some attribute the blame to some “new” companies in the game and the lack of regulation, and the others only see for now that they benefit from its recent introduction in the market.

Maybe I’m wrong and some (the oldest drivers) have already realized and think “for the time I have left to retire, I will continue as if nothing happens and those who come later will really have the problems”.

Or maybe in a few years these professionals will look back thinking about those days when they were manifesting against other companies and workers and that will seem anecdotal when they see that the city is full of autonomous cars and that was what they should have fought against (fruitlessly), and for what they were not prepared looking for work alternatives (maybe not so simple).

But, what will happen to those workers who are not yet of retirement age and lose their jobs because of technological advances and automation, not only in the transport sector but in many others?

The workforce that will never work again.

The title sounds hard, but unfortunately it will be like that. It is a certainty, it only remains to know exactly when it will happen. The worst disadvantage of new technologies will be the large number of people who will become hopelessly condemned to eternal unemployment.

This is the dilemma to which I refer at the beginning of the article. A problem that must be solved before the risk materializes in a harsh reality.

Some will say that the same thing happened in the industrial revolution and that those people ended working in another kind of jobs.

But the situation now does not seem the same as then. Those workers “relocated” then were in jobs that could not be technified as those that had taken their previous job. But now we are talking about even automating tasks of “intellectual” type and very specialized, so it is absurd and/or innocent to think of simple quick and easy relocations like those of those times, and even more without education and specific training and appropriate technicians .

And it is not going to be a “problem of the first world” because it is precisely in developing countries where there are more unskilled and repetitive jobs and in which automation still is easier to achieve and is capable of eliminating a lot of labor if companies bet on their introduction.

The basic income, a possible solution?

Beyond the reconversion of the labor force to other types of jobs and the difficulties already mentioned, a possible solution that is being considered to allow the subsistence of those workers displaced by automation (or taken to the extreme for the entire population whether it works or not) is the so-called universal basic income.

It is a solution not without controversy and for which there are different opinions on its convenience and effectiveness.

At present, different “experiments” are being carried out in this regard, as can be seen from an article published in Público, with Finland appearing to be receiving more attention from experts and governments.

The conclusions of the Finnish experiment will be known in 2019 and until now it seems that its beneficiaries have recovered their optimism in their situation, have been able to diversify their income and some have also started entrepreneurial initiatives.

Other countries or regions that are testing the system to a greater or lesser extent are Kenya, India, Uganda Oakland (USA), Ontario (Canada) or Utrecht (Holland).

Well-known businessmen like Marck Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, or Elon Musk of Tesla, among others, consider that the basic income will be necessary sooner rather than later and that it will be unavoidable to implement.

The problem is in what way this would be done and where would the necessary money end up being distributed among the group that decides to be the beneficiary, this last source also of divergences.

A report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) argues that it is not possible to have systems based on basic income without a substantial tax reform with new taxes, because if the financing came only through the budgets of existing social assistance it would have a very negative effect among the lower social classes.

Another study conducted in the United States by the Roosevelt Institute states that a universal basic income could make the US economy trillions of dollars bigger than it is now and permanently.

Among the disadvantages or problems that a basic income can bring is, in addition to the foreseeable tax increase, the possibility that if the amounts of the rent are high, it is being promoted that its beneficiaries do not look for new jobs, the fact that an income in a place can make a living but in another one in which the cost of the life is higher does not arrive to subsist, or the generation of a sector of population that does not generate anything for the society.

Among the benefits, apart from ensuring the subsistence of people who can not work, would be the existence of a group of people who are capable of devoting themselves to intellectual and humanistic tasks that help the rest of society, or that are dedicated to cultivating hobbies and activities that make them grow as people who could not do the jobs they were working on before they became unemployed.

As we can see, there are different opinions on this, most theoretical since there are not yet real, varied and solid results of the experiments that are being carried out.

What role should companies have in all this?

The role that companies have in all this is still undefined but, beyond the theories that say that companies should pay taxes for machines that have made workers end up unemployed and thereby generate money to pay the basic income, companies should start moving, especially large multinational companies.

Trying to leave all this merely in the hands of governments and in a solution like paying more taxes is an entirely unrealistic solution if other measures are not included through innovative ideas and the corporate social responsibility of organizations.

Will we see all this? I do not really know, but I think that not studying it, proposing it and implementing it seriously would leave millions of people around the world in the lurch.