Guaranteed Income the Future of Economic Life?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about guaranteed income as a response to increasing technological unemployment. Technological unemployment is unemployment that is caused by increasing automation of manufacturing, retail jobs, and analytical jobs that are now done by robots, 3-D printers, self-checkouts, and machine-learning algorithms. In recent years, academic studies have found that almost half of jobs in the US are at risk for becoming obsolete due to increasing technological innovation: http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/The_Future_of_Employment.pdf.
This sounds like great news – we all get to do exactly what we want with our lives! Except for the problem of income – if 50% of people lose their jobs, then how will that half of us earn an income? And, what would be the broad economic effect of this level of job loss? A recession, a depression?
I have been thinking about this problem for some time now, and technological unemployment is one of the major reasons that I’m so focused on downshifting my consumption, finding meaning outside of paid work, and trying to set up investment income sources to provide for our basic needs. Of course, these actions are simply a personal solution, but I’m also very interested in public solutions to these potential future developments.
My research on the topic has led me to the concept of a guaranteed basic income. This is the idea that the government would tax those (like corporations) profiting from the high-tech machines that are providing for all of our society’s material good consumption, and then distributing a basic level of income to cover necessities for everyone. There would be no means-testing, no administration needed to distribute/administer the welfare – everyone would get it. While some argue that this would be a disincentive to work or that providing such a benefit to higher income people is unecessary, one major political benefit of such a program is that it would provide universal citizen eligibility, and thus would be broadly popular across the political spectrum.
I have brought up this topic of guaranteed income at dinners with friends and acquaintances over the past year, and I was shocked at the response. One couple equated such an idea with communism and was visibily angry at my bringing it up. I did not expect that response, but I realize that many people do not have the sociological imagination to envision a social system that is vastly different that the current drudgery of office, factory, and service industry work in which people are coerced into jobs that lack autonomy and intrisic meaning because they want to eat and have a roof to sleep under.
Another dinner party critic told me, “I don’t know what people will do with their lives if the don’t have meaningful work to focus on.” That was exactly my point: most people’s work is not intrinsically meaningful! If freed from this necessity, what would the workers do? Well, what do children of wealthy, elite families do with their lives? They become artists, academics, writers, film makers, pursue meaningful professional and civic lives, etc. This is meaningful work – that work that springs from ones passions. If we think towards a radical future in which machines increasingly do the hard labor for us, why shouldn’t we have an equally advanced social system that allows everyone to reach their fullest potential? Isn’t this what John Maynard Keynes was referring to in his 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren?”
Fortunately, Robert Reich just made a video about the universal basic income, and he does the idea more justice than I can myself!