How Not to Become John from Wall-E
The Power of Contingent Additions to UBI
Amidst the deep learning and robotics fervor of late, a growing choir of voices is singing the praises of Universal Basic Income. If robots do most of the heavy physical and intellectual lifting, can’t society maintain the same per-capita productivity with less human effort? And if we can, doesn’t that mean we can have plenty of food and shelter and other resources for all humans to consume? In a future economy where most work is fully automated, we can simply distribute shares of that bounty to each citizen.
Sounds like a lovely utopia. It frees us to work on more interesting problems with our time. Universal Basic Income is a safety net that pushes every human up the first couple rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, leaving us to solve only the higher-level challenges of love, esteem, and self-actualization.
We’ve seen this kind of automated bounty before, haven’t we? The prescient 2008 film, Wall-E depicts a temporary society of humans floating through space in an automated economy of sorts — a vessel containing all the resources necessary to feed, clothe, shelter, and transport humans throughout its network of chambers. The humans have become ignorant of their growing midsections and their complacent consumerism.
Wall-E’s moral seems to be that overconsumption is the problem, as is distance from our ancestors’ primal environments and challenges. While there’s kernels of truth to that message, it’s lacks balance. Surely returning to directly tilling the fields isn’t the only way to maintain a healthy physique. There must be some way to share the bounty of a technologically advanced and even fully-automated economy without leading citizens into a public health crisis.
In a potential future of automated and shared bounty, it seems highly likely that the provision of healthcare services would be included in the spoils of that technological progress. It’s in the best interest of the central payer and provider of those healthcare services to ensure that each individual citizen is moving along a healthy trajectory, avoiding preventable disease and flourishing as fully as possible, so as to avoid unnecessary expenditure.
So how does such a society encourage citizens to live healthy lives? Certainly building a culture of health and a supportive community can lead folks in the right direction, cultivating healthy habits and awareness. But humans are imperfect, and culture can be difficult to shape. Is there any way to apply a force field that tends to move humanity in a healthy direction?
Recent research shows that indeed, there is a way to help motivate humans to move in a healthy direction — pay them for it! If you know enough about a person’s situation to know what types of behaviors would lead them to maintain or improve their health, you can simply attach financial gain or loss-aversion incentives to those behaviors, and magically you’ve created a non-compulsory way to encourage the citizens of your automated society to stay healthy and happy.
A key tenet of universal basic income is that it is unconditional. A person need not meet any specific criteria in order to receive it. But perhaps it would be useful to add an extra payment amount, on top of the funding required for subsistence, that can be conditioned on healthy behavior. Do you think John from Wall-E might live a healthier life it he knew it was in his best financial interest?