Basic Universal Income Gets on the National and International Policy Agenda

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Perhaps because of the June 5 vote in Switzerland, media outlets have recently focused increased attention on proposals for a basic universal income.  This is not a proposal whose time has come, but it is continuing its steady march toward the center of the national and international political agenda.

As I explained in my InfoWorld column last week, the idea of providing some level of income maintenance to everyone in society has been around for generations, but the driver of the current discussion seems to be the growing sense that artificial intelligence and machine learning are going to make fundamental changes in the nature and availability of work.  A basic universal income hedges against these possible labor market disruptions by separating income and work. 

The conservative political scientist, Charles Murray, recently took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to reiterate his argument that a basic universal income would be cheaper and more efficient than current public support programs, and would have the added advantage of responding what he thinks is the real possibility of technological unemployment from the next generation of really smart machines. 

The Economist gave a respectful hearing to the idea that a basic universal income is “a way of assuring a living for all in a world of robots and artificial intelligence.” They even granted that a “universal basic income might just make sense in a world of technological upheaval.”

But the magazine cast a cold eye on the inevitability of technological unemployment:

“Silicon Valley visionaries could be wrong in their belief that a thriving 21st-century economy will be one where jobs go to robots faster than new jobs can be created, and that a universal income is the way to make that transition humane. The capitalist system has been remarkably good at finding new ways to work as it gets rid of old ones.” 

“Worries that technological advance would mean the end of employment have, thus far, always proved misguided; as jobs on the farm were destroyed, work in the factory was created. Today’s angst over robots and artificial intelligence may well turn out to be another in a long line of such scares.”

New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter accepted the reality of increased economic inequality and wage stagnation over the last several decades.  But he didn’t blame the problem on technology and dismissed as “fanciful” the idea that “robots are about to take over all the jobs in the world.” Still, he acknowledged that machine learning and AI seem more disruptive than technologies of the past and so concerns about technological unemployment deserve more respect.

The increased discussion prompted the U.S. tech think tank, ITIF, to release another white paper rejecting the idea that innovative technology can create long-term permanent unemployment. They dismiss the idea that artificial intelligence creates a novel dynamic wherein machines can fill new jobs faster than humans can develop new job-related skills.

Artificial intelligence raises key questions about the nature of work.  Jobs can be redesigned to augment and complement human capacities, so that a continuing role for human talent is engineered into new work processes.  But this might need to be a matter of conscious choice rather than an outcome that will occur automatically.

A universal basic income, even in the absence of permanent technological job displacement, might ease the transition to a reengineered workplaces as artificial intelligence is implemented in one segment of productive activity after another.  This could take some time. As economic historian Paul David has pointed out, factory electrification took four decades to diffuse through the economy.  

A universal basic income might also provide a spur to innovation and creativity.  As Venture capitalist Roy Bahat says, "Many who struggle to work while inventing new things might see an income floor as an open door to a world they might otherwise never have considered at all...." 

The Swiss vote on a universal basic income has gotten as far as it has thanks to two German-Swiss filmmakers, Enno Schmidt and Daniel Häni, whose 2008 documentary called “Grundeinkommen” made the case for this far reaching social and economic reform.

But the ballot proposal lost 3 to 1 in Switzerland on June 5.  So is that the end of it?  No.  Finland is planning to conduct a basic income pilot in 2017 which would provide 10,000 people with a €550 check every month, tax-free and without conditions.  The Canadian province of Ontario is also conducting a basic income experiment

Just a few years ago, who would have thought a quarter of the voters in one of the world’s richest countries would favor a universal basic income?  It is not yet an idea whose time has come, but it is on the agenda and moving forward.  The even more complex issue of the future of work in an age of artificial intelligences is already upon us.

Mark Mark MacCarthy, Senior Vice President, Public Policy at SIIA, directs SIIA’s public policy initiatives in the areas of intellectual property enforcement, information privacy, cybersecurity, cloud computing and the promotion of educational technology. Follow Mark on Twitter at @Mark_MacCarthy.