why universal basic income won’t save us from mass automation

Universal basic income is pitched as the best possible solution to tens of millions of jobs being taken over by code and machines. But it's another populist bumper sticker solution to a complicated problem.

robots in car assembly plant

According to a Russian expression, hope is the last thing to die, and in the age of automation, the idea of a universal basic income, a check you get for merely existing, keeps being brought up again and again and again. It’s not surprising that it’s such a persistent idea. It’s a simple-sounding solution to a very complicated problems with lots of aggravating factors. For left-leaning populists, it would be a windfall they could use to build a financial cushion and help get their lives back on track after a round of layoffs. For socialists, automating daily drudgery is a critical step in establishing a worker’s paradise in which freed from the shackles of jobs as we know them in order to survive, the proletariat can renegotiate their relationship with those who can’t automate core aspects of their business.

Unfortunately, once you start talking about the nitty-gritty details of how any universal basic income system would be implemented, you hit a whole lot of roadblocks. Deciding exactly how big of a check to cut and to whom, especially when you consider that living costs can be vastly different from one zip code to another, and that the process will require a radical overhaul of the tax code and tax collection mechanisms, is a very complicated problem requiring a whole lot of logistical proposals and cultural debates to get off the ground as anything more than a series of fluffy op-eds and one-off experiments here and there. This is why so many articles advocating it stick to painting a rose-tinted verbal utopia.

Now, all that said, it would be a net positive to automate as much routine work as we can. It’s often unhealthy for humans because it can be tedious, mind-numbing, and physically damaging, with humans ending up being evaluated and fired by machines in a situation that should be an absurdist joke in a sitcom, but is actually starting to happen in real life. Add in wage stagnation and decline in net worth over the last four decades, and the current system looks an awful lot like a mechanized version of feudalism. Of course we want to break out of it. We sat through history classes where we were told in great detail about the plight of the average person under such systems and the vast improvements in their lives once they collapsed.

the trap of modern techno-feudalism

It may be a good time to remember that what killed feudalism was the Black Plague. After the disease wiped out a third of Europe, the resulting shortage of farmers and craftspeople finally gave workers the upper hand in negotiations and triggered the system’s end. But today, as workers are being replaced by pliant machinery and we’re pretty sure no doomsday plague is coming to kill over 300 million people, how could we redefine companies’ and governments’ views on struggling workers? What upper hand could they possibly have when companies cast them aside after a robot or an app takes over for them? A large percentage of the workforce is going to be out of a job and desperate to make ends meet.

According to the web’s socialists, this would be the perfect time for workers to form unions and force employers now looking for humans to do work only humans are truly capable of doing to negotiate on their terms. Unfortunately, there will be two problems with that idea. The first is that decades of union busting have given many companies a playbook to prevent organizing in the first place. The second is that desperate workers living off government assistance and faced with steadily rising costs of living will have every incentive to cross any picket lines and ignore any union contracts if offered just a slightly better compensation package than they had at their previous jobs because it’s better than that they’d have: nothing.

Ultimately, what has to happen to break the current race to the bottom is the legislative end of self-destructive supply-side economic policies which offer massive tax breaks for the 1% and their companies if they promise to pretty please maybe try to employ some people if they’d be so kind, and don’t even need to come through on their big promises of turning the places where they plan to open offices or plants into lands of milk and honey. Because what happens to the workers they lay off in favor of machines isn’t their responsibility, and they can always look for an overseas market if the one in which they’re based doesn’t have enough customers, they’re given every incentive to cut, slash, lay off, outsource, and automate instead of being good corporate citizens who care about the impact they have.

how the one percent and governments gave the world the finger

It’s not that the 1% is made of villains, it’s that it’s selfish and lacks empathy. They’re not out to replace humanity with robots, they’re just trying to maximize their wealth and profits and don’t really care what happens to those they cast aside, shrugging that the governments can figure it out, just as long as it’s not using their money. Meanwhile, a lot of lawmakers are afflicted with the just world fallacy and believe the poor and the unemployed did something to deserve to be poor and the unemployed as not to admit that the system they’ve helped set up isn’t fair and fails most of its participants. The end result? Some 65% to 80% of people are fighting for scraps while the top 0.1% is hoarding trillions across the world, not quite sure what to do with all their wealth, and making even more money than they can give away every year.

We need new, radical approaches to where to go as nations and societies, and we have ideas on how to do that while tackling climate change, defusing supervolcanoes, and exploring space. But in order for any of them to be possible, governments have to stop categorically refusing to invest even small percentages of their annual budgets into giving the vast majority of their citizens breathing room to make sure they can afford the basics, get healthcare, and have access to education that will get them new jobs. When they do try, they often fail to do due diligence and proper, sober assessments, and enable scammers looking to take advantage of the truly hard up and potentially desperate. Investing into what’s obviously coming down the road is simply not on their radars. They want to cheaply and quickly paper over problems, not to fix them.

No number of union protests or manifestos about automatic checks from a government in a robot-enabled socialist utopia is going to fix this wanton neglect and disregard for anything even remotely useful in preparing for the future. Only wholesale changes in our politicians could do that, and it’s absurd to think that the same lawmakers who think of the poor as less than human are also going to send them enough money to live on, few questions asked. And until we vote out the current incompetent, paranoid, bigoted gerontocracy, and elect enough public servants with the appetite to actually change things and enact bold, long term plans to direct our technological and scientific resources into making the world a better place, this cycle of misery and woe is guaranteed to continue, claiming more and more victims along the way.

# tech // automation / jobs / universal basic income

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