WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Today it’s already a fact that more and more jobs are being automated by machines, faced with societal unrest and mass unemployment Governments around the world are now turning to the idea of providing an Universal Basic Income for everyone.
What would you do if somebody gave you a few hundred, or a few thousand pounds each month to spend on whatever you wanted? Would you quit your job? Retrain and look for a better one? Spend more time with your family? Eat better food? Go to the cinema everyday?
These are the very questions being asked and raised by a growing chorus of thinkers and campaigners around the world – from the leaders of the World Economic Forum, the World Bank and the G8 to Silicon Valley businessmen and conservative philosophers who increasingly seem to believe that an Universal Basic Income (UBI) might be the only way to solve a number of impending societal wide economic problems.
The changing jobs market
Over the next twenty years experts estimate that between 35% and 45% of all of today’s jobs will have been automated and replaced by increasingly sophisticated, and pervasive, emerging technologies. Combined with an ageing population, wage inequality and a continued gender pay gap many Governments are beginning to feel that we’re headed into an era of increased instability that will be characterized by societal inequality, hardship and even civil unrest.
For now at least it’s the technology conundrum that leaders believe poses the greatest risk to society and their nations security and we can split the technologies that will have the greatest impact on the job markets into two groups.
“Individual Emerging Technologies” such as Artificial Intelligence, Machine Vision and Bots and “Aggregated Emerging Technologies” that combine different technologies together to create platforms that include Autonomous Vehicles, Avatars, Cloud platforms, Drones, the Internet of Everything, Robots, Smarter Cities, Wearables and Telehealth.
Some of the world’s best self learning Artificial and Cognitive computer systems are already replacing advisors, artists, attorneys, commentators, consultants, doctors, film directors, investigators, journalists, musicians, paralegals, teachers, translators and even the data scientists who created the original Algorithmic Models. Machine Vision systems are replacing quality inspectors, security analysts and security guards and Bots are replacing administrative staff, call center agents, customer service clerks, FX traders, lawyers, retail assistants and sales people.
In the AET space Autonomous Vehicles – from cars and trucks to aircraft and half a million ton cargo ships are reducing the need for drivers, operating crews, pilots, sailors and even traffic wardens. Avatars are replacing actors, bank tellers, teachers and support staff. Cloud platforms have reduced the need for change managers, enterprise architects and operations staff while the Internet of Everything is reducing the need for engineers, facilities managers and maintenance workers. Drones are replacing counter terrorism officers, delivery drivers, maintenance staff and surveyors. Robots have already replaced many of the Blue Collar factory and warehouse jobs and now they’re replacing bar staff, maintenance workers, porters, soldiers, surgeons and waiters. Smarter Cities are reducing the need for police, street cleaners and a myriad of other public servants while Wearables and Telehealth are both reducing the demand for secondary care workers, doctors and personal trainers.
So, if almost half of todays jobs vanish, and, crucially, no one thus far has been able to pin down what new jobs could be created as has been the case with past industrial shifts then, as government leaders have been finding out and discussing there are only a few feasible options.
We work for the love of it
Okay maybe not. Apparently most of us go to work to earn money so that they can live and sustain a lifestyle. Therefore it follows that as those sources of income dry up then Governments will be motivated to find alternative ways of helping those people not just live and survive but thrive and that’s where UBI comes in.
UBI – the proposal to give a flat, non means tested payment to every citizen though is an old idea. It has been around for centuries, and for centuries its proponents have largely been dismissed as utopian, insane, or both. This year, however, that insanity has started to become a political reality. Finland, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Romania, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States are all debating giving their citizens unconditional stipends of at least $800 per month and earlier this year the liberal Canadian Government passed a bill to roll UBI out to all of the fourteen million residents living in Ontario.
“Basic income is about power, about letting it go,” said Michael Bohmeyer, a former entrepreneur who runs Mein Grundeinkommen, Germany’s UBI experiment.
“It’s about trusting people. It gives them the freedom to say no and to ask the question – how do I really want to live? Basic income is not a left-wing idea, or a right-wing one. It’s a humanist idea. It strengthens human beings against today’s capitalistic wage driven system and it gives them the freedom to rethink it.”
That is the sort of freedom that sounds like blasphemy to conventional “free-market” economists. In today’s economies individuals have the freedom to choose how they are exploited – but they cannot choose to escape exploitation, unless they are born wealthy. Basic income seeks to change that, not just because it is the right thing to do but because the looming jobs crisis may soon leave world governments, whatever their orthodoxy, with no other choice.
“If we don’t take the necessary step to disconnect work and income, humans will have to compete more and more with computers,” Bohmeyer explains.
“This is a competition we will lose sooner than we think and the result will be mass unemployment,” he says, “and no money left for consumption.”
With that in mind, Bohmeyer began an experiment in “anti-capitalism” that has been more successful than he could have imagined and, much to the critics dismay the results of his trial have been witnessed in other countries that have trialed UBI.
39 people, chosen at random from a pool of applicants, received $1,300 a month and almost (but, admittedly, not everyone) spent the year twiddling their thumbs. One quit his job at a call centre to retrain as a pre-school teacher, another found that the removal of daily stress about work and money cleared up his chronic illness. Others found fulfilling jobs, having given up on the prospect years earlier, and almost all have been sleeping better, worrying less and focusing more on family life.
What would society look like if that sort of “financial” freedom was available to everyone – if advances in technology and productivity could benefit not only the very rich but all of us?
UBI is an idea that manages to be simple, practical and wildly, unthinkably radical at the same time. It’s simple because it is the only concrete, even vaguely workable solution that has so far been offered to tackle the oncoming tsunamis.
Practical and wildly radical
It’s practical because basic income is that rare thing, that socio-economic unicorn – a compromise that’s received positive coverage from almost everyone, from financial columnists to feminist campaigners, from libertarian techno-millionaires to young, left-wing organisers. And it’s radical because, in its simplicity, in its pragmatism, unconditional basic income is a proposal that requires us to rethink the economic and ethical framework of capitalism that has governed our lives for hundreds of generations and, apparently, all it requires is that we trust one another.
The organising principle of modern economics is that without the threat of starvation, homelessness and poverty, people will not be motivated to work. There is no such thing as individual gumption or community spirit, in short, that human beings, left to their own devices, will inevitably sit on the sofa and eat crisps until the species collapses into a quagmire of entropy and episodic television. Fear, under the guise of poverty and homelessness, therefore, is necessary.
The notion of an economic system based on trust and mutual aid rather than fear, shame and loss still sounds like a fairy tale. But as more and more jobs are automated away, as mandatory wage labour systems wither as a way of “organizing” society, even the most conservative governments may find themselves with no other option than to embrace the concept of UBI.
Society, it seems, has a choice and by all accounts the clock is ticking. We can choose to struggle harder each year to survive or we can choose to trust each other enough that everyone can share in the rewards of technology. It is blasphemous, unthinkable – but astonishingly an increasing chorus of countries seem to be coming around to the idea that it might also be the only practical alternative we have.