Universal basic income (UBI) is easy enough to grasp conceptually. The government simply gives people money without regard to employment status and without regard to need. In the United States, one idea gives $1,000 per month to every adult in the country. Given today’s living standards, $2000 per month is more reasonable. Married people get $48,000 per year from the government. Although not quite middle class, the amount is enough to keep people above the poverty line. Bolder proposals would give more money to help ensure people can be in the middle class.
For many people raised in a capitalist moral milieu, the idea of basic income rubs us wrong. People are supposed to earn what they have, not have it given to them. To do this, you will be taking money from some people and giving it to others — in a word, it will be redistribution, a word detested by many. We think jobs are good for people, and without a job, people will cave in to sloth and lives of video games and drugs.
We believe these things because of the moral attitude burned into our consciousness. Social beliefs, schools, church sermons, and even the legal system support this view. But one thing is very odd: Our experience with basic income proves the exact opposite. In fact, we have two experiences with it, and both are exceedingly positive.
The Greatest Basic Income Experiment of All Time
First, we have basic income in America — we just limit it to old people. It is called Social Security and it has been incredibly successful at ending poverty among the elderly. A report from the National Bureau of Economic Research says:
Elderly poverty in the U.S. decreased dramatically during the twentieth century. Between 1960 and 1995, the official poverty rate of those aged 65 and above fell from 35 percent to 10 percent, and research has documented similarly steep declines dating back to at least 1939.
Moreover, few would say that people on social security are slovenly. No. They have very high levels of community involvement, volunteerism, mentorship programs, and more. Why? Because they have the time and they do not need to eat up their days with work-for-income to survive. They live decently and they give back.
Social security’s average monthly benefit is around $1,600 per month, but depending on when people take their retirement, it can be as high as $2,500 per month or more. An average married couple, therefore, might get $3,200 to $5,000 per month. That’s plenty to live on, especially if they have avoided debt for their retirement years.
A Verifying Recent Experiment with Basic Income
In America, we recently experimented with another grand but temporary basic income program. It was disguised as “unemployment benefits” and “stimulus checks” as a response to the COVID pandemic. Many people received ongoing support for quite some time through the pandemic. Many young people, in particular, received their checks and had higher incomes than if they had been working.
Did some fall into video gaming habits? Sure. But huge numbers of them also practiced their arts, learned to cook, or remodeled their homes — again, giving the lie to those who say basic income creates sloth. It doesn’t. It funds creativity and contribution. If the concern is drugs, just look at what our society without basic income is creating. It’s hard to imagine after these two programs that basic income would make it any worse.
Why We Need Basic Income
More and more jobs are being replaced by automation, artificial intelligence, and robots. We hear about robot waiters and baristas, as well as outdoor autonomous robots for delivery. We know that manufacturing companies are increasingly using robots in their operations, and we can see autonomous vehicles testing their way into our lives. And yet, it’s bigger than that:
- Financial services firms are using AI to write stock analyses and reports
- Retail companies are testing robotic greeters
- Fast food is deploying robots to build hamburgers
- 3D printers are manufacturing all kinds of parts
- Driverless cars will soon be eliminating taxi and Uber drivers, and driverless trucks — which are already being used in mines — will be delivering freight
- Hospitals are using robotic bins to move everything from pharmaceuticals to laundry around the hospital
The only job category that is immune requires the physical presence of a human being — think of live musical performances or sporting events. One can watch them on television, but actual presence changes the experience. The point is to be with the person you are with because of what they provide as an experience for you — and no robot or media will replace that. Beyond this category, it is hard to see a sector of the economy that is safe from automation, AI, and robotics.
The Crucial Question: How will I live?
As many have asked, what are all these people going to do when their jobs are automated or roboticized? How will they occupy their time? How will they obtain money, food, and the necessities of life? How will they keep their homes? Millions of people will be without jobs in a short period of time. Right now, the lowest wage jobs in the world are being replaced with robots. Bangladeshis are losing their jobs because shoemakers like Adidas are automating production by replacing people with robots.
Funding Basic Income
There are many proposals for how to fund basic income. Andy Stern, in his book Raising the Floor, calculated the cost of his $1,000 per month basic income program at $1.75–2.5 trillion and provided many ideas for how to fund it. His ideas, however, seem limited to the redeployment of existing program-dedicated money and new taxes.
Another idea proposed by Bill Gates is to fund basic income via a tax on the robots. Essentially, the taxes drawn from individual paychecks, which would be halted when the person is unemployed, could still be paid by the employer of robots. The employer wins because his labor cost has fallen dramatically, the government keeps collecting taxes, and the worker wins because he has an income without working — basic income. Business owners also win because people have enough money to buy their goods.
This approach seems the most reasonable and effective because it is capturing some of the wealth of robot deployment, which is a society-wide phenomenon, and providing a society-wide benefit of stability and goodness of life.
Let’s do what works
We already know that basic income works. Social security and the pandemic program prove it. In the past, funding basic income meant a reorganization of priorities, and that created winners and losers — and therefore, vocal opponents. It came to a political stalemate. But as we develop a more automated, digitalized, robot-driven economy, we can capture the new wealth for the benefit of everyone and fund a basic income program. There will never be another time like this. We can do it, and we should.
This post was previously published on MEDIUM.COM.
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