In the previous blog post, I highlighted how rapidly our world of work is being automated and radically changed by the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI). From China’s iPhone factories, to the giant retail warehouses of the UK, jobs are being lost – and they’re never coming back. In the same way that the Luddites of the 19th century failed to stop the rise of cotton mills, those who try to oppose the changes wrought by AI via local tariffs or protectionist measures, are doomed to fail. Capitalism is like a shark, it must go forward to feed and survive. And it will.
So in this second post, I’m sketching out a case to insist that Universal Basic Income (UBI) is exactly that – universal and applied without restrictions or the sort of judgemental criteria that underpins the existing UK benefits system. It is, in essence, the foundation stone of a new social contract between individual and State.
Politicians: Stop Shaming The Jobless – You Will Soon Be Joining Us
The first thing to note is that the rise of AI and automation means the Victorian notion of `Deserving vs Undeserving Poor’ must be consigned to the history books. The Calvinist idea that work, in itself, has an almost religious value, and therefore a citizen has a moral obligation to work, is going to become utterly outdated – very soon. How can politicians, pundits or irate callers to local radio phone-ins, continue to `shame’ those `lazy-arses’ who cannot find a job, when machines and AI have taken away millions of jobs? This will be the position from about 2025 onwards, as AI and automation really begin to eradicate millions of jobs.
This is the greatest sea change in human history; for the very first time it will NOT be necessary to go out and work to provide for yourself, or your dependents. Basic Income will do exactly what it says on the tin; take care of basic needs. It simply must be applied equally, without bitter slanging matches over `scroungers,’ or the `fat cats at the top.’ There is no point in debating such nonsense because, as I already noted in my earlier post, heart surgeons, barristers and most public sector managers/admin staff are also going to face redundancy, as machines and AI can do their jobs better, and far cheaper. No single sector of society is immune, or exempt from these changes, and the idea that some gilded elite can hold onto their cushy jobs at the top, whilst the rest of us beg for part-time scraps from the table, will only lead to unrest, sectarianism and violent disorder.
That’s not to say that the wealthy elite will not fight to defend their fabulous tax-free lifestyle of course, for that is human nature. But everyone must accept that UBI is a cohesive glue, sticking together a wider society. The Lily Allens and Vladimir Putins of this world will not find a private island 100% safe from the mob, once it is unleashed, and so rich and poor alike must reach a kind of truce, an acceptance of the new, essentially workless, reality.
The Dangers of an Unequal Basic Income
Some politicians may throw fuel on the fire of xenophobia or religious and political sectarianism, by urging governments choose to apply UBI in specific areas, ethnic groups, or zones of high unemployment and perceived `social exclusion.’ Within these laudable aims by politicians to salve the wounds of grievance – often rightly held – there are always the base motives of touting for votes, exploiting social divisions so that one party may win power.
Because one community will see another prosper and effectively become wealthier via the subsidy of UBI, we risk the same divisions as we saw in 1960s Ulster, where a Catholic community were deliberately denied access to decent housing and jobs, enshrined in a local political strategy. The same tribalism can already be seen within the UK, as London continues to pull itself apart from the rest of the country and becomes ever more resentful of `supporting’ the lower wage, `backward’ hinterlands. It would be a social disaster if different bands of UBI were applied in the UK, effectively imprisoning the regional population forever in areas of low growth, infrastructure investment and opportunities. The case for true equality via UBI, irrespective of faith, skin colour, age or geographical location must be made repeatedly, for so much depends upon it.
Debate Now, Apply UBI When The Time Is Right
When we ride on a driverless bus to the town centre, or a robot doctor diagnoses our health problems online, then a machine adeptly performs an operation, the ONLY option will be UBI. But it will be too late to apply it then, when millions are forced into unemployment, lose their homes and feel embittered that the system has utterly failed them. The time to deploy UBI is before the machines take away millions of jobs, not after, when riots have broken out. Without Basic Income, society will fail to glue itself together, as those who are the most cunning, or physically strong, ring-fence the last `human’ jobs for themselves, their chums and family. We cannot let that happen. Every citizen, from aged 18 to 88, should have the same amount.
Young people will be able to start an independent life together. Two persons sharing a joint income of around £1200 per month, is just enough to rent a small flat or house (outside London of course). Those able to work will be able to do so part-time, and use the extra cash to pay for cars, holidays, XBOX, smartphones and everything else that keeps the global economy ticking over. Some job-sharing by law is going to have to be applied, to act as a transition phase and this is especially true in the public sector.
Basic Income will replace most existing means-tested benefits schemes. The State pension, which simply cannot be funded by an ever-shrinking full-time workforce, must be phased out, as UBI is applied. The most socially enhancing feature of UBI is that it frees up people to volunteer, because for the first time ever in history, most people will have the freedom to CHOOSE what kind of work they want to do, as robots and AI take away so many dull, repetitive jobs. Previously, only the rich had the luxury of free time, but in a decade or so, most of us will have that precious time.
These are all parts of the same new contract, a New Deal if you will, that will re-define our way of life.
We have the opportunity to build a much fairer, more equitable and rewarding society. We must face reality and start preparing right now. Politicians are – in the main – still reluctant to discuss how our new AI and automated world will work, but we must hold them to account and demand detailed plans and workable ideas.
- Alastair Walker, @alaistairwriter