Universal Basic Income: Utopian reaction to a Dystopian scenario

Harper Lee published her Pulitzer Prize winning book, To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. A couple of years later, Gregory Peck won an Academy for Best Actor in his role as Atticus in the movie adaptation. Quite a remarkable book.

What many do not realize is Lee was given a grant by friends to take off work for a year and concentrate on writing the book. Her story has fired the imagination of many who would like all of us to find similar friends and get a similar grant. Imagine what wonderful things we could produce. They call it a Universal Basic Income and our angel would be the government. We would all get an amount irrespective of our work status. Not a one time gift, an annual one.

No matter that Lee was a unicorn as authors go, and few of us will have such success or that we should all strive to find a similar angel in our personal networks, not expect it from the government, but the idea is getting wide play. President Barack Obama in a recent interview with Wired talked about it. Ok, so as a lame duck President he will not get too far with it, but the Swiss already held a referendum about it earlier this year (it lost but is expected to come up for consideration again in a couple of years), and several governments around the world are debating it.

I have several questions about the concept before we rush off and commit much time and money

Why are we panicking over sensational analysis of job losses?

Two Oxford researchers think nearly half the US workforce is susceptible to being eliminated by automation. Gartner says a third. Those are clearly catastrophic numbers. But…how about we dissect that analysis first? I do so in my book, Silicon Collar and in this blog post. There are many flaws with those and other alarmist reports, and before we spend trillions in new social programs we owe it to ourselves to commission more independent analysis, this time with practitioners included, not just by academics and analysts.

Last century of automation shows gradual job losses which societies adjusted to

For my book I analyzed a century of technologies in the form of UPC scanners, ATM, email and others and how they only gradually impacted jobs. Here are some of the examples

  • An early version of the ATM machine was introduced in 1960. Six decades later and even with mobile banking taking off, we still have over 90,000 bank branches across the U.S., employing over half a million tellers and other employees
  • The UPC code and scanner were patented in 1952. It took the grocery industry two decades to start to widely adopt it. The end result was not loss of checkout jobs. It improved inventory control and led to an explosion of SKUs. Even today, with self-check out kiosks in many stores, those jobs have not disappeared.
  • We have been predicting the death of “snail mail” for decades as email, texting, Skype, Facetime, and social media have become our preferred methods of communicating with each other. Unbelievably, the US Postal Service business has gone up — it sorts half the world’s paper-based mail and packages and keeps over half a million workers employed.
  • With digital voice mailboxes and most of us doing our own word processing and travel arrangements, who needs secretaries or administrative assistants? Well, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that category still employs nearly four million workers in the US.

In the book, I show what I call societal circuit breakers to automation and leads to an evolution, not revolution in jobs.

Modern automation is similarly impacting jobs — just gradually

People say modern technologies will kill many more jobs. I say show me. Artificial Intelligence? IBM’s Watson has been hyped for 5 years and so far has not replaced a single job even after massive investment. Yann LeCun, director of AI research at Facebook, recently commented, “ we are a long way from machines that are as intelligent as humans — or even rats. So far, we’ve seen only 5% of what AI can do.” Robotics? Japan is the world leader and for 5 years they have tried to use robots for their nuclear clean up. Everyone of those robots has failed. Forget nuclear clean up — how about tidying your hair? David Bruemmer, president and CTO of 5D Robotics, recently described how intimidating a hairdresser’s job looks to a robot. Autonomous cars? Our laws and infrastructure will not be ready for years if not decades.

I have many more examples in my book, but don’t take my word for it. Let’s commission an independent review of automation and job impact in the past few decades and how our societies have adjusted without a UBI needed.

Plenty of new jobs being created

As I told Dennis Howlett there is no single version of the truth when it comes to job estimates. I have described an “Alt-Job” economy of workers in franchises, on platforms ( iStore, Amazon fulfillment, eBay work at home, Uber etc.) and a whole new categories of services — alternative health like acupuncturists, herbalists, pet care etc. — none of which our parents enjoyed. These jobs are not well tracked. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has also reported for 3+ years 4+ million unfilled jobs in each of its monthly reports in the better tracked part of the labor economy. The IRS reports if you exclude the top 1% the rest of us plebs still report $ 10 trillion in income a year. Our workforce is creative enough to keep creating new opportunities — not wait for a dole.

Why are we hell bent on hurting the dignity which comes from work?

Most of us grew up reading Richard Scarry’s illustrated books where anthropomorphic animals went about their daily lives in Busytown. One of his most popular books, What Do People Do All Day? showed these characters like Grocer Cat at work.

For eons, many of us have derived our self-esteem from our work lives. In fact, many of us continue with names which reflect the trades of our ancestors. It could be the Chinese Chong (derived from bow maker), the English Weaver, the Egyptian El-Mofti (from Arabic for legal expert), German Baumgartner (related to orchard), or the Indian Bhattacharya (from Sanskrit for teacher) — and there are thousands of other names derived from occupations in various societies.

Instead of UBI, I would prefer an enhanced Earned Income Credit. Let’s supplement, as needed, the incomes of those who get a good’s night sleep after accomplishing something they feel good about during the day.

What could we do with UBI funding?

UBI fans point to all kinds of funding sources — repurposed unemployment benefits, raise corporate taxes etc. I am not sure it would cover even a fraction of what UBI would cost if we truly mean “universal” — every one in a region gets the benefits.

Here’s how I would like to instead spend the money. We have three major issues in the workforce — drugs (misuse is endemic in certain industries), anger management (made worse by the recent Presidential election), and stress (especially in our veterans,broader ones caused by fear of job loss from machines etc.). Let’s spend on therapies to make these workers much more productive again. Let’s invest in solving our Grand Challenges — in next-gen infrastructure, healthcare, energy, space travel. That will generate a bunch of new jobs.

We are letting our pessimism drive us to a social program which will cripple many economies. Even worse, it will dent work ethic. For most of us work equals dignity and immense satisfaction from accomplishing something each day. Why are we trying to destroy that?

Final thought: why not sponsor our own Harper Lees, not involve the government?