When robots eat your job, will a basic income save you?

AJ+
AJ+
Feb 7, 2018 · 5 min read

By Christopher Dare

The robots are coming! The robots are coming! And they’re coming for our jobs, according to the headlines. It’s a common saying here in Silicon Valley that no matter what job you do, there’s a startup working hard to automate it.

You might be skeptical that a machine is about to take over your career. But tech experts are concerned. Here at AJ+, we’re looking into the future of work with a new series, Robot Revolution. We spoke with entrepreneurs, futurists and politicians about the upcoming tectonic shift in employment — and with some of the workers who could lose their footing.

So what are some options for smoothing the transition? One proposal is to give everyone a universal basic income (UBI). The premise is simple: The government takes a fixed amount of money — probably not enough to live large, but definitely enough to help — and distributes that to each citizen. Usually monthly.

No requirements. No strings.

If your first reaction is “that’s socialism!” then consider this: Basic income has attracted a wide variety of political bedfellows. Various versions of UBI have seen support from free market economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, tech titans Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, labor unions, feminists and even Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s an idea whose time may have come, if the current tests are any indication. Basic income experiments are being run in Finland, Canada, Kenya, India and in Oakland, California, by tech entrepreneur Sam Altman.

Why are so many people interested in UBI? Here are some reasons — and some objections.

  • A safety net: There isn’t much room for debate here: Studies have consistently shown that cash transfers, pegged to the right amount, are effective at reducing poverty. But some conservatives worry that a UBI would make people more dependent on government.
  • Job flexibility: Employers have been pushing for a leaner workforce, and a basic income could help workers between gigs, since it wouldn’t expire like unemployment. On the other hand, job seekers may not be as desperate to take the first thing that comes their way, so companies might have to sweeten the deal.
  • Less bureaucracy: Libertarians feel that it would be a lot simpler and cheaper to give everyone money than to maintain a range of welfare agencies that administer benefits. But liberals argue that the government will always do a better job of ensuring that things like healthcare and housing are affordable.
  • Responsibility: Libertarians favor trusting people to know how to use their money best, rather than letting the government do it for them. Liberals counter that cash payments won’t reduce inequality if lower-income people continue to face higher relative costs of living and other structural barriers to saving.
  • Purchasing power: Companies need customers, and a UBI might stimulate the economy in a more regular, robust way. Critics have suggested that could lead to price inflation, but there isn’t much evidence for that.
  • It’s universal! If everyone has a stake, then a UBI would be politically dangerous for Congress to play games with. Though if funding a basic income means a reduction in established services, like Social Security, then you might end up with a taxpayer revolt.

All this push and pull should tell you something: There’s no single thing called “basic income.” Like any political terrain, it’s a range of proposals being fought over by different groups with different agendas. And make no mistake: One of those sides aims to use basic income to replace the entire welfare state. That plan comes across loud and clear from American political scientist Charles Murray — previously known for dubious arguments about racial hierarchies in intelligence. His revised 2016 book In Our Hands proposes to get rid of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, unemployment insurance, housing assistance, food stamps and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, among others. All of that would be replaced by UBI.

In response, liberals point out not just that the welfare state is actually very efficient, but that government agencies do a better job than cash payments of guaranteeing access to basic resources. Take the price of housing. In the U.S., rent hit an all-time high in 2017, and homeownership keeps declining. If a basic income doesn’t rise in proportion to housing costs, and if cities don’t control soaring rents, critics argue that UBI won’t amount to much more than a tax transfer to landlords.

Here in San Francisco, where AJ+ is based, out-of-control housing costs mean people of lower income keep getting pushed further and further away from the jobs they have to commute to. Part 2 of our Robot Revolution series looks at how cities may be transformed by the rise in automation:

When you pull back, the debate about basic income is really about larger questions, like the nature of work itself. Does everyone need a job? Do people need to be employed full-time, or only when work is necessary? If many of our jobs were automated, and a social safety net gave each person the freedom to define work for themselves — caring for elders, greening a neighborhood, launching a startup — would that outcome be more socialist or libertarian?

One recent book, Peter Frase’s Four Futures, takes for granted that most jobs will eventually be automated, and illustrates a quartet of outcomes depending on how we solve the question of scarcity of resources. Two of the endgames are pretty bleak, like scenes from cult ’80s movies that poke fun at mindless bureaucracy or eternal war.

It’s hard not to feel that note of pessimism in the U.S. National identity here has long been intertwined with the Protestant work ethic, imbuing the virtues of hard labor with the same aura as religious salvation. Just in the last few weeks, news stories have highlighted Republicans’ plan to impose work requirements on programs like Medicaid, subsidized housing and other forms of welfare.

But some outcomes are more optimistic. Various strains of what’s being called “accelerationism” argue that we should embrace the sci-fi aspects of the emerging manufacturing environment — by, for example, demanding the full automation of most jobs along with a standard of living that meets most people’s basic needs. Some of these trends lead to surprisingly rosy visions for the future.

What’s clear is that something will need to be done to address growing inequality. In the U.S., productivity (how much companies produce) has risen over 73% since 1973, while real wages haven’t really grown in half a century. Some pundits have conjured up fears of a popular rebellion, but it’s not clear whether massive job losses would lead to mobs with torches and pitchforks. After all, as once-reliable industries have reduced their need for workers, the same areas have been hit by the opioid epidemic and rashes of suicides in the farming and mining sectors, among others.

The final video in our series addresses automation and inequality — as well as some of the proposed solutions:

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