Could Universal Basic Income Worsen the United States’ Inequality Problem?
During the 2020 U.S presidential election, Democratic candidate Andrew Yang made a name for himself pitching a radical new idea: Universal Basic Income.
Universal basic income (UBI), as a concept, promises to reduce inequality and work as a bulwark against the disruptive effects of increasing automation by replacing the current welfare system with flat monthly payments. Yang’s pitch for UBI, or the Freedom Dividend as he brands it, promises each American over 18 a no-questions-asked income of $1,000 a month or $12,000 a year. As his campaign website puts it, “this would enable all Americans to pay their bills, educate themselves, start businesses, be more creative, stay healthy, relocate for work, spend time with their children, take care of loved ones, and have a real stake in the future.”
While the utility of replacing the current welfare system with flat monthly payments is itself debatable, the idea of using UBI to support the economy and maintain social stability during an era of automation is dangerous. Yang’s site says on this matter, “Technology is quickly displacing a large number of workers, and the pace will only increase as automation and other forms of artificial intelligence become more advanced. ⅓ of American workers will lose their jobs to automation by 2030. This has the potential to destabilize our economy and society if unaddressed.”
Andrew Yang is one of only a few in American politics taking the issue of automation displacing workers seriously, and he is certainly correct in forecasting the destabilizing of labor markets and social stability due to automation. What is unaddressed by his solution though, either intentionally or unintentionally, is that UBI as he proposes it will extirpate the American worker from any meaningful ownership or stake in the productive economy, reducing much of the population to mere consumers.
As businesses find themselves less in need of human capital in the coming decades, as more work becomes automated, there is a concerning possibility that many American workers will find themselves having no meaningful stake in the productive economy. UBI promises to address their financial needs, however it, as Yang pitches it, appears to exacerbate the crisis of inequality by guaranteeing the continued ownership of ever more efficient production remains in the hands of a small class of owners as the working class transitions to the consuming class.
UBI, in this light, could be interpreted to function as a means to pacify a population of workers who slowly find themselves no longer needed; a vestigial feature in a new era of capitalist productivity.
The core issue then, can be seen not to be the advancement of automated production, but as the continued concentration of control over productive potential in the hands of an increasingly small proportion of the population. After all, why should the automation of mundane or dangerous work be a bad thing? Why must increasing productivity requiring less work be viewed as an obstacle to overcome? This apparent contradiction in how we see developments in the productive economy of the future speaks to the inconsistencies of the common rhetoric surrounding the issue of inequality.
None of this is to say some form of UBI couldn’t be a practical and beneficial policy. What is apparent though, is that implementing UBI to ease the economic and societal ramifications of jobs lost to automation will only increase the disparity in wealth between those who own production and the workers formerly necessary to their operations.