Cutting the Gordian Knot of Technological Unemployment with Unconditional Basic Income
Invisible Sheep, the Missing Right, and the Return of Common Wealth
In the opening of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, viewers are shown a historic moment in time where primitive man used the first tool. It was a bone, and used like a club, it allowed a physically weaker group to overpower a physically stronger group. The story is of course fictional, but at some point in time we as humans did use our first tool, and ever since that day, directly because of our tool usage, we as a species have been able to accomplish increasingly more with increasingly less. Buckminster Fuller referred to this process as “ephemeralization.” The theoretical endpoint of this process exists as an asymptote that we can only approach but never reach, where we gain the ability to accomplish everything with nothing. This should sound great. It is. But there’s a catch. There’s always a catch.
What’s the catch?
The catch is of our own making. The catch, and it’s a big one, is two-fold. First, we require the exchange of money for the basic necessities of life like food and shelter. And second, we require the exchange of work in order to obtain money. The result of this pairing is that we systematically require the exchange of work to stay alive. So as long as everyone can exchange their labor for income, moral issues of involuntary servitude aside, everyone can then theoretically survive in a system where private property is established and enforced. However, tool use throws an unavoidable wrench into this system.
That wrench is technological unemployment.
The ability to find paid work is rooted within supply and demand. If there is a demand for your labor, and few can supply it in the same way you do, you will do well. If many can supply it just like you, you may not do so well, but you may also manage to get by if you’re lucky. However, we’ve been busy building tools far beyond those made out of bone, and these newer tools are increasingly able to meet our demand for labor without any need for us. So the question becomes, if machines can supply the demand for labor, and at a lower price point, what happens to the ability of living human beings to work, and therefore to live, and even to obtain what all the machines are producing?
There can only be three solutions to this self-created conundrum based on our two-fold catch. We can either stop requiring the exchange of money for basic needs, essentially making certain things like food, water, and shelter entirely free. Or we can guarantee that everyone can always find paid work for enough income to exchange for the fulfillment of basic needs. Or we can stop requiring the exchange of work for money by paying everyone an income whether they work or not, and the amount would just need to be sufficient enough to cover basic needs.
The first option would destroy the price system for basic goods and services. This would in turn destroy the ability to calculate just what to produce, how much of it produce, and where it’s needed. This option is a planned economy for basic goods and services. The second would guarantee that in a world of machines able to do an increasing amount of work better than us humans, the work we could guarantee to ourselves would be increasingly pointless — the equivalent of digging holes and filling them. This is the job guarantee (JG). The third would fully preserve the price system and entirely avoid the pitfalls of unnecessary work. In fact, it would not only preserve the price system, but enhance it, and it would not only avoid the creation of unnecessary work, it would reduce it. That third option is the unconditional basic income (UBI).
If technological unemployment is the Gordian knot of the 21st century, basic income is the sword that cuts through it. By simply severing the connection between income and work through the unconditional provision of an income for life always sufficient for basic needs, the fear of technological unemployment is removed. It doesn’t stop there though, because the right to a basic income has repercussions beyond the removal of fear, and these repercussions are themselves systemically transformative.
To understand just how transformative basic income thus stands to be, we must first more closely examine the full magnitude of technological unemployment as something that is not a problem that exists in the future, but one that is already here. To claim everyone is just crying wolf is false. Sheep are actively being eaten as we speak. We just don’t choose to see it. Then we must look at the economic system we’ve created with new eyes to see the core problem that’s been with us for so long we accept it as normal, and that’s the inability of anyone without sufficient property to say no to working for those who own most of it. And finally we must come to recognize our interdependence within an economic system where our growing productivity is our common heritage, and thus our common wealth no one person or group can claim a monopoly to. As productivity grows with ongoing automation, as too should the basic income grow as a kind of prosperity dividend. What is at first basic should eventually be the right of every citizen shareholder to the vast wealth of an automated nation.
Warnings of oncoming technological unemployment have been with us for over a century. Over and over again someone has called attention to the ability of capital in the form of machines to replace labor in the form of humans. This fear has been expressed so often, people refer to it as the Luddite Fallacy. It’s actively considered fallacious to point out the very real potential that machines can do the work of humans to the point that human labor sees as much demand as horse labor after the introduction of cars. And so here we are today, where very smart people are looking around at all the jobs that still exist and are actively being created, and then claiming it as evidence in support of a perceived fantasy of technological unemployment. The thing is, we aren’t looking closely enough at the jobs we have, because we need jobs, and thus it’s in our own interest to not look closely enough. Never underestimate the unwillingness of someone to see the reality, if their lives depend on seeing a fantasy.
The invention of the computer did indeed change the way we work forever. Beginning in the 70s, we have been eliminating jobs involving a medium amount of skill — consider, for instance, manufacturing as we replaced car assembly line workers with robots. And what jobs we couldn’t automate, we used our new technologies to pack up and ship offshore to places like China and India where labor was cheaper. In place of those jobs that made up the heart of the middle class, we created and grew the service industry in its place. For decades we’ve created more and more low skill jobs — think fast food restaurants — to fill the holes in the labor market cored out by technology. Since 1990 even the growth of jobs defined as involving routine tasks has ended. More than that, because not having a job and simultaneously not being impoverished is something we’ve never really allowed as a real choice, we’ve perpetuated and even created jobs that need not exist.
In an article for Strike! Magazine in August of 2013, David Graeber refers to this kind of employment as “bullshit jobs,” e.g. lobbyists and telemarketers as opposed to actually important work like refuse collection and nursing. This is what’s likely behind the huge percentages of people all over the world who don’t feel engaged or even feel actively disengaged by their jobs — estimated at 87 percent. People are increasingly spending their days in jobs where they are not actually working, plastered instead to their social network feeds and smartphones. People are clocking in 47 hours of work a week in jobs that require only 40 and oftentimes working for only 25–30 hours. This is a huge drag on productivity and a monumental waste of human potential.
Meanwhile, it’s more than just the binary situation of job or no job. Jobs themselves have been in the process of transforming from full-time decades-long careers to a series of non-full-time alternative jobs that are bounced among in terms of years, months, and even hours instead of decades. This century alone something new has taken over, and that’s the growth of these forms of alternative work where people are no longer really considered employees but alternative workers. Such alternative work is in the form of temp agency workers, on-call workers, independent contractors, and freelancers. Some call it the 1099 economy, short for the different form required by the IRS at tax time for “nonemployees.” In fact, since 2005, all nine million net newly created jobs are in this sector.
It’s the rise of short-term and self-employment where employee benefits and rights have gone by the wayside, and though many love the greater sense of autonomy, a greater sense of insecurity comes right along with it. Even more recently the gig economy has been born, where self-employment has been taskified, and it’s up to everyone to patch together sufficient income on a minute by minute basis, never knowing for sure if they’ll be able to cover the rent like they once could with a long-term, steady paycheck.
All the above is the invisible flock of sheep being eaten one by one as we turn our heads away and claim technological unemployment is a fantasy. Technological unemployment cannot exist in the way we’ve always feared, where no new jobs are created as a result of elimination, as long as we require the existence of jobs. We will instead fill that hole with useless jobs, and jobs ripe for replacement as soon as the technology becomes cheaper than the cost of desperate workers willing to work for handfuls of pocket change in order to get by. Technological unemployment is so much more than actual unemployment. Because technology allows the greater granularity of breaking jobs into tasks — taskification — another facet of technological unemployment is technological underemployment. In other words, it’s not just about automation, it’s about atomization.
Meanwhile our existing safety nets are not built to handle such realities. It’s one thing to maybe once in a lifetime need to meet with a program administrator and jump through their hoops for financial assistance. It’s entirely another for bureaucracy to become a perpetual fact of life, where you never know if you’ll meet the requirements, and you must make the decision of whether taking that part-time job/gig as an Uber driver is even worth it if you’re going to lose your benefits and be faced with the possibility of trying to jump through all those hoops all over again. Our safety nets are not built for flexibility. They are sticky. They ensnare. They trap. What we need is a firm non-stick springboard of a floor that lies underneath everyone and requires no bureaucracy. It would always be there. It would be under full-timers. It would be under part-timers. It would be under sub-contractors. It would be underneath everyone in the gig economy. It would even be under would-be entrepreneurs. Unconditional basic income would be such a bureaucracy-free universal floor built for maximum flexibility and propulsion.
The time to prepare ourselves for the future was yesterday. The effects of technology are not around the corner. They’re in our past and they’re here right now. And it’s directly because we’ve never instituted basic income, and in so doing made working fully voluntary, that we’ve not allowed our jobs to disappear without replacement. The boy cried wolf, and the boy was right. We just happen to have created a world where seeing dead sheep is considered delusional, when really the world where we create useless work and look the other way as inequality grows and economic security shrinks is what’s truly delusional. The granting of a basic income will release us all from this collective delusion.
The Missing Right
What lies at the heart of the invisible sheep problem is our inability to say no to jobs. Without that power, we are effectively enslaved. To live we must eat. To eat we must have money. To have money we must sell our labor. There is no real option to just live off the land with our own sweat because all the land is owned. And so we must toil for those who own land. There is no other name for that but slavery, but we don’t call it that. Instead we call it the labor market. But anyone interested in free markets must care about free people within those markets, and the only way for people to be free is to be granted the right of refusal to work for others.
Once one understands how important the right of refusal is, much more comes into focus. There can be no individual bargaining power without the right to refuse. Being able to walk away means being able to negotiate the true value of human labor. If human labor were thus priced accurately in a free labor market, low demand jobs would be rewarded more because fewer people would be willing to do them unless paid sufficiently, and where the cost of human labor becomes higher than the cost of automation, machines can be welcomed to fill that job.
Think garbage collector. If no one wanted to do that work for $30,000 per year because they already have a basic income of $12,000 per year, an offer of $100,000 per year in additional income would attract many to do that job. If the cost of automating that job is the equivalent of $90,000 per year, automation is then the cheaper option and no one need do that job anymore. The result is the complete transformation of a social system built around a goal of full employment, where everyone has a job, to a new goal of full unemployment where as many jobs as possible are offloaded to machines, granting people the ability to pursue whatever is most important to them as living breathing humans with limited lifespans.
The right to refuse is even so important it lies underneath all other rights. Do you really have the right to free speech as long as you’re afraid of being fired? How many times have you wanted to say something, and decided against it, just in case? When was the last time you considered taking to the streets in an act of civil disobedience, but feared the repercussions to your present and future employment? How many times has someone somewhere not voted out of fear they’d be late for their job, and potentially lose it? For those who most value the right to bear arms, do you really have that right if you can’t afford to purchase the arms? To what else can that be applied? How many things in life do we think of as right that don’t truly exist due to lack of money or fear of economic destitution?
Arguably, it’s the right to a basic income that makes all other rights actually possible. People become free to speak their minds with the fear of destitution off the table. People become free to march in the streets and to get to work late because voting was more important. With a guarantee of economic security, all other rights are empowered. Without the recognition of economic rights, all other rights are infringed. Basic income is our missing economic right, from which our other incomplete rights become complete.
Finally achieving the ability to say “No” after the adoption of basic income changes the rules of the game entirely. It represents the dawn of recognition that any advanced society should pursue not full employment, but full unemployment. Society prospers when every member within it is fully free to prosper.
The Return of Common Wealth
No one person can claim 100% ownership of their wealth. It’s all fractions of the whole. As the saying goes, no one person can make a pencil. As simple a creation as that seems, it is the collective work of humanity. The wood comes from somewhere. The graphite comes from somewhere else. The eraser and what comprises it comes from elsewhere. Shipping networks transport raw materials that are made into component parts that are manufactured into a finished product that is shipped all over the world. More than that, no one alive thought of the pencil. That person is long dead.
We all prosper because of knowledge from the past, passed down to us. This is our collective “something for nothing” we all enjoy on the one hand, while deriding the idea of something for nothing on the other. Civilization itself is something for nothing. It is the result of billions of interdependent parts working together as part of a social system known as humanity.
Land value too is its own clear example of wealth created collectively. When something we own goes up in value as the result of our doing nothing, that added value is the result of everything and everyone around the land, not anything we ourselves did. Similarly, transport a piece of high-priced metropolitan land into the middle of nowhere, with no one else around, no resources, no infrastructure, no nothing, and the value of the land becomes nothing. It should be clear that the increasing value of land should be shared with the ones creating the value, which is everyone.
Advancing technology is also common wealth, the result of those today standing on the shoulders of the giants of the past. Additionally, it’s even the result of tax dollars being invested into the public research and development that makes all the advancements possible. The iPhone wasn’t created in a vacuum by Apple. It was built on the technologies pioneered by government-funded research. Big data isn’t created in a vacuum either. It is the result of our collective interactions. It is the mining of natural resources where the mines are each and every one of us, and the ore is the information we all create through our interactions with each other. Market research firm IDC has estimated that by 2019, the US market alone for big data and the tech to mine it (and by it I mean us) will be worth $98 billion.
We are completely surrounded by uncompensated commonly created wealth. Now, this isn’t to say that 100% of all wealth should be shared among all equally. It’s simply the recognition that a fraction of all wealth should be justly shared with everyone, because that fraction is created by everyone. And as productivity continues to grow, as our society continues to achieve more and more with less and less — Fuller’s ephemeralization process — that productivity should be recognized as the shared creation it is and compensated appropriately.
This is where basic income becomes more than basic income. The idea of a basic income is simply the starting point. It is the recognition that at the very least, our collective wealth creation and our right to say no to each other in a technologically advancing world should be met with an absolute minimum of sufficient access to resources to have all our basic needs met. And as technology continues to advance and productivity continues to grow, our unconditional access to all resources should grow as well because we are all in some way contributing to all of it. In ways impossible to measure, we interdependently grow our collective prosperity, and it should be recognized with a growing dividend — a prosperity dividend — universally provided without condition.
As prosperity continues to grow, the eventual endpoint of basic income is thus an amount of access to resources that can only be considered effectively infinite. By effectively infinite, I mean the ongoing process of ephemeralization through advancing technology will allow the meeting of wants and needs with fewer and fewer resources. Whereas 20% of a $20 trillion economy is $4 trillion, 20% of a $200 trillion economy is $40 trillion, which is the difference between a $12,000 per year basic income and a $120,000 per year prosperity dividend. The higher the minimum amount, and the cheaper the goods and services possible to spend it on, the harder it is to spend all of it, and therefore it increasingly becomes effectively infinite.
Once everyone receives as a minimum an amount of access to resources that goes so far that most people find it difficult to ever actually “spend” it, and work is increasingly motivated not by money but by the pursuit of meaning, money itself loses meaning. The result is something more like an economy based on resources instead of money, where what is possible is measured by if we can physically achieve it instead of if we can “afford” it. Some may call this postcapitalism. Others may call it a Star Trek economy. Still others may call it a resource-based economy. But it doesn’t really matter what we call it, because it lies beyond, and only if we make that first all important step together — unconditional income.
The connection between work and income must be severed. That Gordian Knot of our own creation must be undone. Our growing insecurity must be ended. Our inability to say no must be abolished. And our interdependent creation of our thus far uncompensated common wealth building must be compensated.
An unconditional basic income achieves all of these things. It is far more than what some see as “a few crumbs” tossed to the great masses as compensation for technological unemployment. Basic income is the abolition of enslavement once and for all, and the beginning of a new kind of society built on higher achievements of purpose than just toil for paychecks. It is the destiny of a species that picked up its first tool and imagined a way to use it to achieve all that could not otherwise be achieved without it.
Is basic income a sufficient response to technological unemployment? It’s more than that. It’s the most important response of all. It is a collective step that is humanity’s next giant leap.
The above essay is a pre-edited and updated version of my chapter published in the book: Surviving the Machine Age, published by Palgrave Macmillan.
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