What Does the Debate on Automation Mean for Basic Income?

03. 24. 2017

we asked some experts from a wide variety of fields to weigh in on how automation shapes the conversation around universal basic income.

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Recently, automation — the idea that advances in technology will make many jobs obsolete — has grabbed headlines around the country. As the debate around automation and deindustrialization continues, we asked some experts from a wide variety of fields to weigh in on how automation shapes the conversation around universal basic income:

“More and more, I’ve felt that linking universal basic income to future automation is a big mistake: The risk of automation lies in the future, and we can’t foresee its timing or severity. It turns UBI into a debate between religions of prediction about the role of technology in the economy. Instead, I think we should focus on why we need a UBI today.

“The best arguments for a universal basic income have nothing to do with the robots taking all the jobs. Already today, the typical person lives in chronic fear of being unable to meet her needs. Already today, the most important question about a person’s income is whether it’s dependable. Already today, we have the resources to provide for all without distorting the incentive to create for those who do. So, if a universal basic income — or some other policy that raises the floor — is ever a good idea, it’s already a good idea today. Stop worrying about robots and start worrying about the world we live in today.
-Roy Bahat, head of Bloomberg Beta venture fund

“While I am currently one of those skeptics who doesn’t see automation massively eliminating jobs today, I do think that in the current system, it will make jobs worse. Although lots of Silicon Valley people seem to believe this job destruction mantra, a lot of economists are much less convinced. But I don’t think UBI advocates can or should try to forecast the future of robotics. UBI could strengthen people in the labor market regardless of the trajectory of automation — and that seems to me a stronger selling point.

“A key problem to me is that technology is being used to generate profits/rents for a few, feeding inequality, and that the benefit of technology in eliminating lousy jobs isn’t helping working people. Rather the technology is increasing what Guy Standing calls the ‘precariat,’ but job quality declines have been going on for 30 years. It is the relative power of business over labor, and not inherent qualities of technology, that to me are the problem and it is to better labor market institutions we should look for solutions, including (perhaps) a well-designed UBI.”
Rick McGahey, Senior Vice President of Programs, Institute for New Economic Thinking

The debate around automation distracts from the problems of low-wage jobs today. It distracts from the fact that we’ve become a low-wage nation of retail and service sector jobs. It distracts from forty years of wage stagnation, from the growing precariousness in the workforce. It distracts from all the reasons today that one uses to make case for UBI.

“I do believe, however, this time is different, and the coming wave of automation will be something we’ve never seen before. I also believe it’s already here. When Lowe’s lays off a chunk of its workforce like it did recently, that’s actually an automation story.

“Changes in the workforce are often much easier to see in hindsight. Isn’t it possible that we’re seeing the results of more than a decade of automation in the fact that 1 in 6 men aren’t working?”
Natalie Foster, co-founder, Economic Security Project

“I like to frame it the other way round altogether: We want more automation as it frees humans to do human things (e.g., being a friend, parent, caregiver, etc). Basic income is the right policy because it will accelerate automation. Basic income is the modern version of making labor expensive. Previously unions did this and expensive labor was an important incentive for investment in machines. Countries that had abundant cheap labor and no unions lagged massively behind in the formation of capital.”
– Albert Wenger, partner, Union Square Ventures

“Although I believe strongly that ‘this time will be different’ with respect to automation, I also agree that the timing of automation’s impacts is hard to predict. Those of us who are watching technology develop are doing a lot of projecting into the future based on early demos and initial working units and the exponential rate of tech development. But there is also the capacity of human organizations to adopt and deploy new tech successfully, as described in Second Machine Age. Tying UBI only to automation I think in the very near term risks easy counter arguments due to technology adoption lags. It’s a very helpful argument in the long run, where it seems inevitable that we will need something like UBI in the face of ever more precarious income.
– Gerald Huff, Silicon Valley manufacturer

“I have been working on UBI for 8 years, and automation has only been a significant piece of the puzzle for me since moving to California 2 years ago. Now it seems that most times I hear about basic income, it is linked to automation. I believe that risks linked to automation provide additional reasons and strengthen our existing reasons to support UBI. But too often, the over-focus on automation distracts us from the myriad of other reasons we may want a UBI for. Whether or not robots are coming for our jobs, we need to expand and improve the safety net to alleviate abject poverty, remunerate care-givers, improve existing (and generally punitive and inefficient) income support schemes, allow those doing bullshit jobs to quit, and so much more. UBI is about freedom, equality and power.

“Depicting automation as anything more than one reason among many to support UBI may also be detrimental to the progressive case for UBI. It makes it sound as though the case for UBI relies on the questionable premise that unbridled automation is inevitable and/or desirable. This risks alienating those who believe that the future of automation is not necessarily a matter of prediction, but also a matter of democratic control and political choices. Technological developments are not a tsunami we can do nothing about. They are complex processes that involve governmental subsidies, deliberations, regulations and political decisions. In a democratic society, all stakeholders — including workers likely to become displaced — must have a say. UBI can feature in those deliberations and settlements, but it should not be taken to be the policy proposal offered as a consolation prize for inevitable automation. There is space in the basic income movement for those who want more market regulations and increased bargaining power for workers. UBI, in other words, can be defended without giving up on democratic control over automation.

“For these reasons, we should not allow the story of UBI to be a single story of automation. Increased risks related to automation are just another strong reason to push for UBI, no more and no less.”
– Juliana Bidadanure, Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Stanford University

“I think it’s likely that we will face job destruction problems from automation in our lifetime. That’s what, in my mind, makes this potentially different from other times in which we’ve seen big advancements in automation. My question is whether this process will begin in 5 years or 50 years. Our first data point about the effects of larger scale job destruction will probably be the arrival of autonomous trucks. When we start seeing the effects from that, this discussion will get pretty concrete.”
– Ron Carmel, co-founder, Indie Fund

“While we’ve found the automation argument to be convincing for some folks, it seems to turn a lot of people off — on one hand, you have many people who refuse to believe that automation is actually going to lead to the decimation of available jobs. On the other hand, when people fully buy into automation replacing everything, UBI starts to feel like an insufficient solution, since what will you do with $12k per year if there’s literally no work out there.”
– Jim Pugh, co-founder, Universal Income Project

“I would advise differentiating between two automation-related messages. The first is that robots are taking all our jobs and we need UBI as a back stop. That is more reactive, and has questionable macroeconomics underlying it. But there is a more positive and realistic message, in my view: UBI, by providing a floor for economic security, helps enable creative disruption and automation and all the rest by letting market dynamism go full throttle.
– Samuel Hammond, Poverty and Welfare Policy Analyst, Niskanen Center

“I think there is a strong case that rising inequality is actually limiting economic growth by limiting aggregate demand. If that’s right, then some of the weakness in the job market, especially at the low end, is self-perpetuating. But that’s actually another good argument for a UBI or a similar policy — giving cash to people would stimulate aggregate demand, and therefore job creation, at least some of which would be in sectors that aren’t as automation-sensitive.”
– Brishen Rogers, Associate Professor, Temple University School of Law

“I am concerned that currently too much of the headline on UBI is about the fears of automation and that is putting some people off engaging — people who doubt the threat of substantial automation and therefore doubt the need for a UBI. My response is that its not a zero-sum game of either jobs or UBI. We should be thinking of both citizens benefiting from taxation/income from public goods plus having good meaningful, secure, empowering ‘work’. That said we also need to be being sophisticated in the ways we think about the nature of ‘work’ in the future.”
– Jules Peck, Director, Great Transformation

“I believe the argument that we need to do this now because the current situation demands it appeals more broadly and resonates with more people. However, to specific audiences and at specific points in a political/economic discussion, the argument that UBI will speed the pace of market change is very effective, especially when I’m talking about the pace of change required to address climate change and our consumption patterns. We need to move to a whole new economic model and it is status quo ways of supporting oneself and one’s family (labor) that holds us back. We need full on, full speed change. People hate change and hate the insecurity that comes with it. UBI softens the blow, even though it doesn’t remove it.”
– Robin Chase, author, “Peers Inc”

“While automation has increased the productivity of manufacturing workers, it has also displaced a third of manufacturing workers over the past 35 years…as manufacturing wages have stagnated. While the manufacturing industry has gained, the manufacturing workforce has suffered. Technological advancement has winners and losers, with significant political consequences. We ignore that at our own peril.”
– Moshe Y. Vardi, professor of computer science, Rice University