I’m contemplating the universal basic income. As this website deals with technology and society, and I’ve written about the destruction of jobs through automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence, it’s appropriate to examine resolutions to the issues facing society.
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In short, a universal basic income provides people a set amount of cash each payment cycle. If you’re a citizen of a particular country, that government provides you a guaranteed income, no matter what.
An America-centric Viewpoint
Americans often boast about the wealth of their nation and the ability to obtain the mythological American dream. By instituting a universal basic income, America — or any other nation — could effectively eliminate poverty. All social welfare and entitlement programs, such as unemployment insurance, food stamps, bill pay assistance, free or subsidised phone service, Social Security benefits for the elderly and the disabled, could be dispensed with by providing a guaranteed income to the people.
Detractors may object on the grounds that a universal basic income would raise low paying wages, because the guaranteed money would force an increase in the standard of living for citizens.
First, is an improved quality of life a bad thing?
Second, at least in the United States, the economy thrives on consumer spending. Money going to pay utilities, credit card debt, student loans, and escalating insurance costs are not good for the general economy. American citizens need disposable income to spend on superfluous goods and services that are only beneficial to a person after their basic needs of food, water, and shelter have been met.
Show Me the Money
Something to consider while pondering a universal basic income is the secrecy that surrounds wages. Unless it’s the executive pay of a publicly traded corporation, wages tend to be kept in the strictest confidence, with employees being told to keep their salaries, bonuses, and raises a private affair.
The reasons for this can vary, but in our world of big data and the government’s desire for mass collection of information, it makes sense for the people to share in the spoils, so they can make informed decisions about their deserved wages. Corporations should not be allowed to take advantage of their employees, when it’s the workers and consumers who enable those companies to thrive.
There are advocates for a universal basic income on both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum, but those with power are often reluctant to share it — and make no mistake, economic security is a form of power. If anything, political and corporate elites will fight to maintain their power base, while seeking to expand their influence. This should be a major cause for concern as society figures out how to restructure outdated economic models for the new millennia. By allowing elites to control the narrative, the needs of the people are not being considered.
Governmental leaders promoting the universal basic income, whether liberal or conservative, do so because it maintains their position and status. This makes them suspect; politicians are not known for their altruism nor servitude to the people. At the moment, they are needed to legislate on behalf of citizens, but they should be scrutinized for double talk and self-serving addendums.
A basic income designed by venture capitalists in Silicon Valley is more likely to reinforce their power than to strengthen the poor. But a basic income arrived at through the vision and the struggle of those who need it most would help ensure that it meets their needs first. If we’re looking for a way through the robot apocalypse, we can do better than turn to the people who are causing it.
Action is Needed
Another consideration of the universal basic income is the timeliness of its implementation: should society deem this economic model an appropriate course of action.
National and global economies are changing now. Automation is taking a foothold now. The dawn of robotics is here. Narrow AI is already dissolving jobs. If governments wait until the damage has already been incurred, then the gravity of the suffering and time wasted while seeking a resolution will be extended that much greater.
I hate to use the word, but the world has already been “disrupted” by technology. The economic disparity between the rich and poor is growing, caused in part, by technology; the gulf will only grow deeper and wider.
Citizens need to wake the hell up and stop expecting gridlocked governments and self-interested corporations to take care of them. Numbers and collective emotion matter. There is a point at which the powerful take notice of the powerless, but that often requires making the elites vulnerable, and thus afraid.
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Originally published at www.governmentfishbowl.com on February 1, 2015.