An excellent recent article in Wired, The Paradox of Universal Basic Income, made several interesting points about, among other things, the impact of political motivation on basic income schemes (principally the decision by a conservative government in Finland to only give basic income to the unemployed). It’s a good read.
But why is a magazine known for its focus on technology talking about social security reform? I feel like since I first discovered basic income back in 2015 the loudest voices on the global stage have been coming from billionaires, especially those in Silicon Valley. This shouldn’t be a surprise given that anything someone of such a profile says or does necessarily generates media attention, but it reflects the fact that the most high profile argument for basic income seems to be the forthcoming automation revolution. In other words, basic income is positioned as a preventative measure against things to come.
This troubles me. Besides ignoring the fact that a basic income is necessary even without automation because of its ability to address the failures of the current system, these tech billionaires are talking about the automation revolution without acknowledging that they are the ones responsible for it. Its like a landlord advocating for more social housing for the tenants they are about to evict. I mean, yeah, thanks for supporting my cause, but would you mind not exacerbating the problem it addresses at the same time?
Whenever I give a talk on basic income, without fail someone will accuse me of Malthusian scaremongering about increased unemployment. Why won’t this tech revolution create new jobs in the same way the industrial revolution did?
For starters, the reason this revolution is different is because it is ‘brainwork’ that is disappearing, rather than physical labour. Technology is not at the point yet where you can speak to an AI without wishing a person could be there to help you, so surely you, the reader, couldn’t be replaced with a software program that could do your job as well as you? The sad answer is that you’re right, and it doesn’t matter. Think about the last time you navigated an automated telephone system. Was that as good or better than speaking to a human being right away? Of course not, but they were replaced anyway, because ‘good enough’ trumps ‘perfect’ whenever the price is right. And this is where Google, Amazon, IBM and a million little start-ups are taking us.
It is a step forward that our leading lights actually care, or profess to care, what happens to the rest of us when they make our work (and by extension, those of us narrowly specialised in this work) unnecessary. All they are doing is asking for a solid floor to society upon which they can widen inequality in their favour, and ensure there is money in the pockets of the population to buy their products. A modern twist on Company Scrip where workers exchange tokens for goods at an employer-operated store in lieu of a cash salary.
On balance, I do believe that the backing of these tech moguls for a basic income helps more than it hurts, but we need to claim the narrative back for the human rights argument for eliminating today’s poverty, and improving the quality of life for all of us right now, and not let basic income become too strongly entwined with a single argument based on a problem that is yet to fully manifest. And let’s not forget the role our would-be patrons play in this crisis of their own making.
Ben Simmons, CBINS Trustee – @vforfive