Will Universal Basic Income Change the Meaning of ‘Success’?

Paying for everyone’s basic needs could impact more than the economy

Tannya D. Jajal
Jun 23, 2018 · 6 min read
Credit: Tang Yau Hoong/Ikon Images/Getty Images

Much of the debate surrounding a universal basic income (UBI) centers on the practicalities of such a policy. On one end of the spectrum, many oppose UBI on the basis that it is a “socialist” policy that heavily taxes earning members of society. On the other end, many agree that UBI may be the only way forward as automation kills millions of jobs.

While practicality and necessity are important to consider — UBI, after all, would impose a major overhaul of economic systems — we need to think beyond feasibility. If we do implement UBI, it will represent a dramatic shift in our society’s fundamental values, with profound implications for how we view happiness and success.

An age-old proposal

In a basic income system, every citizen receives an amount of money from the government. This amount could be, say, $1,000 a month, but it would vary according to the standard of living in a given place. Whatever the amount, let’s assume it’s enough for a human being to live, meet his or her basic needs, and not worry about survival at any given moment.

As we’ve proven time and time again, and as the renowned economist Peter Diamandis explains, we live in a world of abundance. If we choose to implement UBI, we will undoubtedly find a way to do it while also sustaining our economies.

In a world where automation and A.I. far surpass human capabilities in many tasks, UBI also seems to be the moral path. In many regards, it’s the most realistic approach to leveling the playing field between those who reap the economic benefits of automation and those who suffer.

A basic income is also not a new concept. It has existed as a valid political ideology for centuries, beginning with a mention by the infamous Sir Thomas More in his 1516 work, Utopia. The idea of a “universal income” that meets every citizen’s basic needs is one that’s been explored, in depth, by great political and economic thinkers including Thomas Paine, Milton Friedman, Richard Nixon, and Pierre Trudeau.

This time is different

Though we’ve debated the merits of a universal basic income throughout the ages, this time is different. Rapidly advancing technology has transformed UBI from a moral accessory to a moral necessity.

Several of today’s thinkers challenge the notion that we live in one of the most transformative times in history, asserting that because we’ve successfully dealt with technological change in the past, we will be able to deal with it again. We mustn’t worry, they say. As long as people have needs, there will always be jobs.

But that’s where they are wrong. We live in a time where every 20th-century technology is doubling in power and will continue to do so. In fact, we live in the most rapidly evolving time in history and the rate of change itself continues to accelerate. Ray Kurzweil describes this concept as the law of accelerating returns.

By creating and sustaining an education system in which only those who have a certain type of intelligence can succeed, we have ensured that everyone else fails.

In reality, we live in a world where history is no longer a relevant indication of the future. In the 21st century, as Kurzweil predicts, we will not experience 100 years of progress. Instead, we will experience an astronomical 20,000 years of progress (as measured by today’s rate of progress). As the law of accelerating returns suggests: The rate of progress of an evolutionary process increases exponentially over time.

The bottom line: This time is different. This time, we really do need to worry about losing our jobs. More importantly, we need to prepare for it.

The implications of automation

Research by McKinsey and the World Economic Forum tells us that, with existing technology alone, as many as 45 percent of activities individuals today are paid to perform can be automated. Manufacturing, like truck driving, is an industry most affected by automation. Since 2000, technology has replaced the jobs of five million Americans working in manufacturing.

When you consider these statistics against the bigger picture of history, and the exponential trends we face today, finding a solution seems more pressing than ever before.

Some suggest that instead of a basic income, we should pay to retrain and relocate people to areas with an abundance of jobs. This would essentially mean uprooting people from their communities and sending them to technological hubs like San Francisco, Boston, and Toronto.

This isn’t a viable solution. Practically speaking, it would be enormously difficult to retrain and uproot the 3.5 million truck drivers who risk unemployment, for example. Up-skilling those losing their jobs to automation, like factory workers and truck drivers, would also mean retraining them to fill jobs in the vastly different fields of data science and machine learning. Given the massive amounts of data we produce each day, it makes sense that data science and machine learning are the fastest growing sectors in the U.S.

But more importantly, this proposal represents a fundamental flaw in our society. It assumes that “success” is just a matter of fulfilling certain criteria. To succeed, we need to be good at a relatively limited set of skills (measured by test-taking to getting into good colleges), which will ultimately get us jobs in finance, technology, science, consulting, and whatever else.

The assertion that we should simply retrain millions to fill new roles ignores the reality that we’re all different. We have different ways of learning and processing information, and our societal value can be determined in more ways than one.

The idea of “meritocracy,” especially in the U.S., is built on the assumption that, given the same education, everyone has an opportunity to thrive. Implicit in the ideal of American meritocracy is a belief that everyone has the same basic tendencies and aptitudes. We need to dispel this illusion, and UBI may help us do it.

Waking up to multiple intelligences

Howard Gardner introduced the world to the concept of multiple intelligences.

According to Gardner, individuals differ in the strength of seven types of intelligences: visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical. These differences, according to Gardner, challenge an education system that assumes that everyone can learn the same materials in the same way, and that a uniform, universal measure suffices to test student learning.

Like many blue-collar workers, truck drivers and factory workers have not attained a high level of education. This isn’t because they’re incapable. It’s because we live in a society where schools, classrooms, and the metrics used to measure intelligence have failed large sectors of our population. By creating and sustaining an education system in which only those who have a certain type of intelligence (logical-mathematical) can succeed, we’ve ensured that everyone else fails.

Universal basic income gives us the opportunity to redefine success, and even failure. It’s an opportunity for those who don’t necessarily thrive in logical-mathematical skill areas to step away from society’s hamster wheel. An opportunity for schools to stop training everyone to make as much money as possible. With a system of UBI, someone with a type of intelligence that didn’t allow for “success” as defined by the traditional education system may finally have the opportunity to explore that intelligence — and to use it to add value (intangible, non-monetary value, perhaps) to society.

If people have the means and time to explore their interests and passions while having their basic needs met, society might encounter a wake-up call. Perhaps, then, we’ll unlock a world in which we value more than simply the narrow set of skills we do today. Perhaps we’ll finally be able to redefine “success,” and free the term from increasingly outdated ideas about grades, money, and easily-measured skills.

Tannya D. Jajal

Written by

Techno-optimist who is passionate about carving out an exciting future based on advances in exponential technologies. PM @ VMware

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Bots are taking our jobs. Not all at once, but fast enough to make us think twice about the security of our futures. Enter Universal Basic Income — a proposal to give every citizen a guaranteed government stipend, for free. Brilliant solution, utopian fantasy, or all of the above? This collection explores the possibilities.

Bots are taking our jobs. Not all at once, but fast enough to make us think twice about the security of our futures. Enter Universal Basic Income — a proposal to give every citizen a guaranteed government stipend, for free. Brilliant solution, utopian fantasy, or all of the above? This collection explores the possibilities.

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