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by Graham Peters

The new economic trend … universal basic income

The White House recently calculated that by the year twenty-twenty, there is an eighty-three percent chance that a worker earning less than twenty dollars per hour will lose his or her job to a robot [i]. In a world where automation is fast becoming the norm (factories in China for instance, have begun eliminating the workforce in favour of robots[ii]), there is growing concern about what comes next. If ever robots take over the multitude of jobs for which they can be programmed, then we are likely to see unemployment on a scale never before encountered in the history of industrialized society. This mass shift in company policies would mean that huge corporations could make goods at a highly accelerated rate, but it would also mean that the poor and the uneducated would have far less opportunity for work; whole generations would be without the means to make money. Without money, there is no way for normal people to buy products. Without the ability to buy, there is no way to sell. The most basic foundations of the economy would collapse.

In response to this very real threat, economists have come up with the idea of Universal Basic Income[iii]. The concept is fairly simple. The government of your country provide every citizen irrespective of age or wealth, with a sum of money at regular intervals. This sum is sufficient to cover basic rent and food. This means that nobody need slog at a nine-to-five just to avoid starvation or homelessness.

Imagine that. Imagine a life where money wasn’t a hindrance to your freedom. A world where, rather than planning your future and that of your children around the means and ends to make some cash, you instead planned it around doing what you really want to do, knowing you will neither starve nor freeze. It’s a world where workers have more options and more rights; a world where people aren’t trapped in a dead end struggle to survive. A world where freedom really is that[iv]. That’s the promise.

It’s not without its problems, though. The argument is often made that UBI would render the need for a job moot; why would anybody want to do anything if they didn’t have to? If nobody worked, this would stagnate the economy. But contrary to the opinion of the right, countries never have enough available jobs for everyone in the country anyway; there are always unemployed people, and automation is only going to make that worse. Likewise, providing everyone with a basic income while they are out of work, as many countries have done for decades, does not make the likelihood of those people finding a job and working, less. If anything, having money for rent and food increases health, happiness, and the likelihood that people will pursue a career. To oppose test-running this system (which is proposed in light of a future where automation is the norm) for fear of inadvertently increasing unemployment rates, is like being in the middle of a plane crash over the Atlantic, afraid to try a life jacket policy in-case it discourages people to swim. Mass unemployment, like the deep, icy water, is inevitable one way or the other.

Another argument against the proposal is that working people would have to be more heavily taxed in order to facilitate UBI. However, if large companies do decide to employ robots to do their work, the extra profits from not having human workers, who remember require breaks and benefits and paid time off, would easily provide the taxes sufficient to implement this system. But, crucially, this is only the case if UBI is actually implemented. Think about it: if governments weren’t to implement a UBI system, then all those people who lose their jobs to robots won’t have money to buy the products these companies make, and so the companies will make less profits. UBI couldn’t possibly cost a heavily automated country more than a stagnant economy would cost it.

What UBI would do, is free people to pursue the type of work they really want to do. Since there is no necessity for people to leave school and get a job straight away, the incentive for a high-earning career trajectory will exist only in those whose intrinsic motivations are monetary. For the rest of us, UBI would herald an age where we might pursue our passions rather than our livelihoods.

That sounds like a much better world, in my opinion.