If you are like me, and happened to catch some clips of the most recent Google I/O conference floating around the internet, you may have at first been amazed by Google Duplex. This is Google’s new assistant that can hold phone conversations with people with them not even having the slightest idea that they are talking to a machine. I was absolutely amazed when I first saw this (I mean, who wouldn’t be). Yet soon a small sense of dread crept in. I began to think of just how smart our machines had gotten. They will soon be able to drive our cars and trucks for us and soon even talk to other people to book appointments for us. So, what happens to the human beings that used to do all that stuff. Where will they go? An Oxford University study estimates that A.I. will be in a position to replace as much as 47% of the jobs in the United States. 47%! Let that number sink in for just a bit, and consider that even at its worst, the great recession of 2008 only so an unemployment rate that inched up to 10%.
How do we solve this impending disaster? Is there any simple, effective solution that would just make this go away? Well there is, and its called the Universal Basic Income (UBI). The theory behind a UBI is to give everyone, regardless of income or employment status a salary. No strings attached. This is madness, you say? Well I am here to argue that not only is this something we must do in order to survive the future but is rather something we should do in order to thrive in it.
The world is changing rapidly and the government policies of the 50’s and 60’s that created the social net we all enjoy today just won’t cut it anymore. As technology increasingly takes more and more well-paying yet low-skilled jobs, inequality is rising and with it, extreme financial poverty. A UBI will blunt the impact of this inequality on society. The technology that is allowing businesses to move forward with more efficient robots in place of human workers was built over generations, after years of collective effort and public money. Companies have every right to try and improve their business. I wouldn’t want it any other way. But since they are doing this with technology that all our ancestors helped build with their effort and tax dollars, shouldn’t the benefits of that technology now be more evenly distributed? With this moral justification of a UBI, we can now proceed to use it combat the extreme inequality that awaits us.
A Universal Basic Income is also far more efficient than the current welfare net at keeping people out of poverty. The best way it does this is by getting rid of the problem of the poverty trap. Suppose you are unemployed and thus have to take welfare checks. Yet if you find work that places your income just above the threshold needed to qualify for welfare you might still be living in poverty but will no longer the receive the assistance of welfare. In effect you’re trapped. It’s in these types of situations that a UBI really shines. With a UBI, the unemployed can confidently search for work, or take the time they need to go back to school if need it. This allows people to work in a way in which they are truly able to thrive not just work just to get by.
Since the year 2000, Gallup, the polling company has attempted to figure out what people really think of their work. What it found was that staggering 87% of workers are, as Gallup puts it, “emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive.” In other words, a lot people really, really look forward to the weekend. Yet does it have to be this way? Shouldn’t something we spend the entirety of our adult lives doing be something that more of us enjoy? It definitely should. Yet as long as people look for work for the sole purpose of paying the bills, this is what we’ll end up with. It’s a situation that is bad for employers and bad for employees. A universal basic income will provide people with the space to find employment that they will truly enjoy, even if it means spending a little extra time in school.
A universal basic income also makes the relationship between employer and employee a more equal one. It is true that we as a society have come a long way from the child labour days of the early 20th century, but still. Even with strong worker protection laws, employees are often faced with the situation of working in places they just aren’t comfortable with, tolerating treatment they would rather do without. This situation will continue unless workers have a genuine say in where they choose to work. If someone is free to leave whenever he/she chooses without worrying about paying the bills you will have a situation where workers can truly stand up for and defend their rights.
The welfare net as we currently now it is really patch work of many smaller nets bound together. There’s a whole bunch of programs giving specific amounts of money to parents with one child, with single parents, with grandparents and so on for every demographic slice you can imagine. If you don’t realize what you are owed or forgot to file in the forms, well too bad for you. To back up this patch work of nets is a cacophony of federal, provincial and municipal departments, making sure money flows where its supposed it. A UBI removes this complexity. Instead of a patchwork, you have just one net. And instead of many tubes of money, you have just one. No applications required.
The pace of technology means the future is going to be a very different place than our present. A universal basic income is just the kind of solution we need to not only survive the challenges that will face us, but to thrive in them.