James J. Hughes
Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
Trinity College, Hartford CT
Journal of Evolution and
Technology - Vol. 24
Issue 1 – February 2014 - pgs 45-61
Robotics and artificial intelligence are
beginning to fundamentally change the relative profitability and productivity
of investments in capital versus human labor, creating technological
unemployment at all levels of the workforce, from the North to the developing
world. As robotics and expert systems become cheaper and more capable the
percentage of the population that can find employment will also fall, stressing
economies already trying to curtail "entitlements" and adopt
austerity. Two additional technology-driven trends will exacerbate the
structural unemployment crisis in the coming decades, desktop manufacturing and
anti-aging medicine. Desktop manufacturing threatens to disintermediate the
half of all workers involved in translating ideas into products in the hands of
consumers, while anti-aging therapies will increase the old age dependency
ratio of retirees to tax-paying workers. Policies that are being proposed to
protect or create employment will have only a temporary moderating effect on
job loss. Over time these policies, which will impose raise costs, lower the
quality of goods and services, and lower competitiveness, will become fiscally
impossible and lose political support. In order to enjoy the benefits of
technological innovation and longer, healthier lives we will need to combine
policies that control the pace of replacing paid human labor with a universal
basic income guarantee (BIG) provided through taxation and the public ownership
of wealth. The intensifying debate over
the reform of "entitlements" will be the strategic opening for a
campaign for BIG to replace disability and unemployment insurance, Social
Security, and other elements of the welfare state.
For two hundred years economists have occasionally
come to the conclusion that advancing technologies would destroy more jobs than
they created. For instance in his essay Economic
Possibilities for our Grandchildren John Maynard Keynes (1930) predicted
what he called “technological unemployment”
We are being afflicted with a new disease of
which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear
a great deal in the years to come - namely, technological unemployment. This
means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economizing the use of
labor outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labor. (Keynes,
World War Two and the subsequent economic
boom which began absorbing a growing percent of the population into the labor
force soon convinced most economists that worries about technological
unemployment were Luddite hand-wringing. By 1964, however, prospects for rapid
industrial automation convinced three dozen intellectuals, including the
economists Robert Heilbroner and Gunnar Myrdal, to form “The Ad Hoc Committee
on the Triple Revolution” and send a long letter to U.S. President Lyndon B.
Johnson. The three revolutions that the letter described were the revolution in
armaments, which required new international arrangements to avoid apocalypse;
the global human rights revolution, which required a commitment to the democratization
of every country, starting with civil rights for Negroes; and the “cybernation”
revolution, industrial automation, which would cause widespread unemployment
and require the establishment of a universal basic income guarantee(Ad Hoc
Committee on the Triple Revolution, 1964).
Again, the prediction of technological unemployment proved
premature. The next decades did see a decline in employment in manufacturing
facilitated by automation. But the growth of employment in the service sector
and white collar occupations more than compensated for the displacement of
industrial work, as the growth of industry had absorbed displaced farmers in
the century before. In the twentieth century, professional, managerial,
clerical, sales and service employment grew from one quarter of the U.S. labor
force to three quarters (Wyatt and Hecker, 2006).As a result almost all
economists and public policy analysts have continued to dismiss the idea of
technological unemployment and embrace the “compensatory thesis” that all
innovation will create new forms of employment that at least compensates for
the jobs made redundant.
The mechanisms that economists propose drive
this compensatory job creation were summarized in 2000 by the Italian economists Marco
Vivarelli and Mario Pianta as:
Compensation via new machines and products. New machines require new occupations to build and service them,
and make possible the production of new goods and services.
Compensation via decrease in prices.
Each technological revolution reduces the cost of inputs and goods, stimulating
greater demand, and therefore creating more employment.
Compensation via new investments.
Technological modernization increases the profit margins of the owning class,
who then invest in the creation of more employment.
Compensation via decrease in wages. If
wages are allowed to find their equilibrium point, all unemployed workers can
find new jobs at lower wages.
Compensation via increase in wages. And,
directly contrary to the prior model, Keynesian policies distribute some of the increased profitability to workers
as wages, with a consequent demand stimulus on the economy and employment.
(Vivarelli and Pianta, 2000)
The sluggish job growth since the 2008
global economic crisis has now begun to again call these presumptions into
question. The labor force participation rate in the United States and other
industrialized countries climbed from World War Two until the 2008 recession,
but has declined since then. In the United States the employment-to-population
ratio has now declined to a thirty-five year low. Part of this decline is due
to the front edge of the Baby Boom reaching retirement age, and part is due to
the outsourcing of jobs to developing countries. But a growing number of
economists are acknowledging that there are also structural reasons for the
rate of job growth since 2008 being too slow to keep up with population growth.
United States Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate, 16
Years and Older
Bureau of Labor Standards, 2014)
Contrary to the compensatory thesis, far
fewer skilled workers are needed to maintain automated industries than are
displaced by that automation. The postindustrial economy does create many new
occupations, but in each case there is a calculus around the productivity that
can be achieved by increasing investment in human labor versus automation, and
this calculus has steadily shifted towards capital investment in machines. This
capital investment drives the growth in productivity.Although increased
productivity has also driven increased corporate profits, contrary to the
compensatory expectation these profits have not been re-invested in wages or
employment. In the United States in the last decade, productivity and corporate
profits have grown while employment declined and wages remained flat (Mishel and
Shierholz, 2013; Greenhouse, 2013).
Net Productivity and Real Hourly Compensation, 1948-2012
Corporate Profits and Employee Compensation as a Share of
the US GDP
Increased profits have instead drivenfurther
capital investment, speculation and the dramatic increase of wealth among the
“one percent.”Nor does increased demand for increasingly inexpensive products,
such as computers and other electronics, drive employment growth, as is
evidenced by the investments in automation and downsizing in those industries.
In the last two decades in the United States, as information technology
exploded, employment in the manufacturing of computers and electronics has
dropped by half (BLS, 2014). Employment in computer programming and other
information technology support jobs has risen, but not enough to compensate for
the jobs lost to automation. Again, part of the loss or slow growth in these
high-tech jobs can be attributed to globalized production and outsourcing, but
part is also due to advances in automation and enhanced productivity.
Although the recent decline in the
employment-to-population ratio is one sign of technological unemployment, the
effect can also be seen in a much longer trend in the decline in the number of
hours of work and the stability of jobs. The number of hours twore employedk
per year has steadily declined in most industrialized countries from about
3,000 hours a year at the turn of the 20th century to about 1,500-1,900 hours per year in the 21st century
(Pianta and Vivarelli, 2000; Huberman and Minns, 2007).In
just the last decade, the hours worked per year by the employed in the OECDcountries
on average fell from 1844 hours in 2000 to 1765 hours in 2012 (OECDStats, 2014).At
same time, there has been an increase in part-time and temporary employment. In
the OECD the proportion of the work-force in permanent employment has fallen
from 81% in 1980 to 74% in 2012 (OECDStats, 2014).
As a consequence of these signs that there
are structural causes for the decline of employment a growing number of
economists, including most notably Paul Krugman and the MIT authors of the 2011
Race Against the Machine Erik
Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, have begun to address whether we are seeing
technological unemployment. In the next section I will begin to sketch out an
argument for why emerging technologies, including desk-top manufacturing and
anti-aging medicine, will exacerbate unemployment and the dependency ratio.
Then I will turn to some of the policy proposals that are already being made to
protect or create employment, and why these will only provide a temporary
moderation of the pace of technological displacement. In the last section I
will discuss why the demand for a universal basic income guarantee will have
its strategic opening in an era of technological unemployment and
intergenerational conflict over “entitlement reform.”
Technological Unemployment and the Dependency Ratio
Disintermediation and Desk-Top Manufacturing
In their 2013 study “The Future of
Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerization?” Frey and Osborne
analyzed the task and skill demands of 700 occupational categories, and the progress
being made in computerizing routine tasks and decisions. They determined that
half of all employment in the United States is at highrisk of being automated
within the next two decades, including most of the occupations in manufacturing,
transportation and logistics, and office and administrative support. In
addition they find that many service occupations are vulnerable to replacement
with mobile and dexterous robots. Most of the jobs they see as at high risk are
lower paying, but they also predict the automation of a variety of well-paid
jobs requiring cognitive skills, such as medical diagnosis, legal analysis and
financial services.However they discount the likelihood of artificial
intelligence making much progress at replacing jobs that require human
creativity and social intelligence, such as fashion design, public relations
and scientific research. They hopefully conclude that “as technology races
ahead, low-skillworkers will reallocate to tasks that are non-susceptible to
computerisation –i.e., tasks requiring creative and social intelligence” (Frey
and Osborne, 2013).
Probability of Computerisation
Recreational therapists 0.003
Personal trainers 0.007
Chemical engineers 0.02
Fire fighters 0.17
Health technologists 0.40
Commercial pilots 0.55
Word processors/typists 0.81
Estate agents 0.86
Technical writers 0.89
Retail sales assistants 0.92
(Frey and Osborne, 2013)
Since it is unlikely that half the work
force could retrain for these creative and social intelligence occupations, or
that the economy could absorb that many graphic designers, lobbyists and social
workers, Frey and Osborne’s prediction still strongly supports a scenario of
technological unemployment. But what if the capabilities of artificial
intelligence, information technologies and robotics also encroach on creativity
and social intelligence? Wearable health devices and distance consulting with
fitness experts (e.g. FitOrbit and Optimized Fitness) is already encroaching of
face-to-face personal training and therapy (Zolfagharifard2013). Scientific
research is already being impacted by automation, with automated lab processes
and data analysis dramatically increasing research productivity, and progress
even being made on automating hypothesis generation (Savage, 2012). In the era of Big Data, scientific progress
will be increasingly dependent on the automation of scientific discovery.
Anotherprofession that many have suggested
would be immune to automation is sex work. In Love and Sex with Robots, however, David Levy (2008) makes a
convincing case that advances in robotics and artificial intelligence are
converging to enable the creation of cheap and flexible sex surrogates, with
programming that would provide a passable simulacra of human sexual creativity
and social intelligence. Even if progress along those lines is slower than Levy
predicted,the Internet has already dramatically transformed the market for
sexual gratification. Online advertising has displaced streetwalking and
brothels (Cunnigham and Kendall, 2011; Vekshin, 2013). Online pornography and
interactive video services have displaced the peepshow and adult video store. The
most successful online sex stars can have many orders of magnitude more
“clients” than any face-to-face stripper.
The impact of the Internet on employment
illustrates another less often addressed source of technological unemployment,
the disintermediation of producer and consumer. Information technologies not
only enabled the outsourcing of call support and other services to the
developing world, but the elimination of many intermediary services.ATMs
displaced bank tellers. Online airline websites have displaced the travel
agent, and online retailers such as Amazon have displaced the bookstore and an
increasingly number of brick and mortar stores. Online news has displaced the
newspaper, and online communication has displaced postal workers.
Another sector grappling with the possible
disintermediating effects of information technology is education, where many
believe that online education can dramatically boost teacher productivity and
control the escalation of university tuition. Research is proceeding on
computer-aided instruction and grading, to replace the twentieth century model
of credit hour-based exposure to teachers in classrooms with a twenty first
century model in which students proceed at a more rapid pace to skill
certification through online readings, videos and tests.
The dislocating impacts of disintermediation
are likely to be greatly exacerbated by progress in 3D printing and desktop
manufacturing. Although consumer-accessible 3D printing has been focused on
desktop manufacturing with materials like plastic, major investments are being
made by firms in the United States, Europe and even China in industrial 3D
printers that can make objects as big as automobiles (Wang, 2014; Gardner,
2014). As nanotechnology progresses
eventually molecular manufacturing equipment capable of making a wide variety
of objects will be accessible for consumers.Currently about half of all jobs in
industrialized economies are involved in the manufacturing, transportation and
sale of things. In a future in which increasing numbers of things can be made
to order in the factory, store or home from electronic designs many of those
jobs between the designer and the consumer will also be displaced (Copeland,
2012; Manners-Bell and Lyon, 2012).
Longevity, the old-age
dependency ratio and the “entitlement debate”
A second major dynamic that will frame
responses to technological unemployment will be the growing ratio of retirees
to working age adults, known as the old-age dependency ratio. As fertility
rates have fallen world-wide life expectancies have risen. As a consequence,
even without technological unemployment, most industrialized countries are
facing a decline in the ratio between the number of workers contributing to
state health and pension systems and the seniors dependent on those systems. Japan, China and Europe will experience the
most dramatic impacts of this shift, while the U.S., with a higher immigration
and fertility rate, will see a slower impact. Nonetheless, just given current
linear trends, the proportion of the U.S. population over 65 will rise from thirteen
percent today to more than twenty percent by 2050. The ratio of workers to
beneficiaries of Social Security dropped from 5-to-1 in 1960 to 3-to-1 in 2012,
and based on linear trends will drop to 2-to-1 in 2030.
In response to rising life expectancy and associated
pension and medical costs, governments around the world have been cutting
benefits and attempting to raise the retirement age to encourage seniors to
stay in the labor force. As a
consequence of these policies, a low rate of savings, and declining rates of senior
disability, older people are staying in the labor force at a higher rate.
Indeed, in the United States labor force participation by people over 55 rose
in the last decade while most of the employment impacts of the 2008 recession
were seen in declines in employment for workers under 55. Contrary to the common
assumption that younger workers will have the best chance at avoiding
technological redundancy, in their 2012 “Smart Machines and Long-Term Misery,”
Jeffrey Sachs and Laurence Kotlikoff propose that the impact of technological
unemployment will likely be borne most heavily by younger workers with fewer
accumulated skills, leading to an intensification of the current inequality
between the relatively affluent seniors and the impoverished young and
middle-aged. This will contribute to political demands for “generational
equity” and “entitlement reform” to trim Social Security and Medicare.
Predictions of unsustainable old-age
dependency ratios are currently based on the linear historical trends in
improving life expectancy and declining fertility. But technological innovations are likely to
have non-linear effects on the old-age dependency ratio as well. Pending
advances in medical therapies, from pharmacological therapies that slow the
aging process, to tissue engineering that regrows and repairs organs, to
advances in therapies for dementias, cancers and heart disease, are all likely
to increase healthy life expectancy more rapidly than even the impressive rate
seen in the last century. The caveat of healthy
life expectancy is important here, because an increase in the years seniors
are sick and disabled would have an even more dramatic impact on the
unsustainability of the dependency ratio. In a 2012 paper on “longevity risk”
the IMF estimated that if projected average life spans were to increase just
three years by 2050 aging-related costs would increase by 50 percent. But an
increase in healthy life expectancy achieved through therapies which slow the
aging process could instead create a net “longevity dividend,” by reducing
medical and nursing related burdens and increasing labor force participation to
a degree that more than compensates for increased pension and Social Security
costs (Olshanky, 2013).
If technological unemployment proceeds at
the pace suggested above, however, it will have a dramatic impact not only on
the capacity of the labor market to absorb seniors, but also on the fiscal
stability of governments, squeezed between declining tax revenues and growing
burdens on the social safety net. When this scenario is combined with that of
rising life expectancy and a growing number of seniors attempting to remain in
the labor force in order to supplement under-funded pensions and meager Social
Security, the fight over reform of “entitlements” and the welfare state will be
explosive in the coming decades.
Policy Responses to Technological Unemployment
Vivarelli and Pianta (2000) suggest that the
last two pieces of the compensatory dogma - that technological unemployment is
impossible - are that either (a) wages will be allowed to fall to a level where
people find jobs, or that (b) redistribution and Keynesian stimulus will be
used to buoy the economy. Although there will undoubtedly continue to be
advocates for eliminating minimum wages and unemployment insurance to allow the
market to “find equilibrium,” the technological unemployment scenario is one in
which the wage at which a human competes with a robot is below subsistence, if
any. Attempts to stimulate job growth with redistribution and stimulus will
also fail to generate employment, and will in fact merely accelerate
unemployment, so long as the fundamental profitability of investment in
automation is greater than the profitability of investment in humans.
Once there is a growing acceptance that we
have entered a radically new economic paradigm, there will be a new set of
policy options proposed and implemented in response to the dependency crisis
and technological unemployment, including a basic income guarantee. In their paper
in this issue of the Journal of Evolution
and Technology, “Technology, Unemployment & Policy Options: Navigating
the Transition to a Better World” Gary E. Marchant, Yvonne Stevens and James
Hennessy do an excellent job of outlining many of these policy options. The
options run the gamut from marginal tweaks to radical reforms of political
economy to utopian hand-waving, and from unattractive to attractive. Let’s
consider them in the context of the scenario painted above.
A. Protecting Employment
One long-standing policy approach to
impending technological unemployment is to protect employment by mandating
human workers, or imposing regulatory speed-bumps to innovation. Examples
include agricultural tariffs and subsidies intended to protect small farms from
agribusiness, or the ban on self-serve gasoline in New Jersey.
But these policies increase the cost of the
goods and services for both domestic and international consumers, thereby reducing
international competitiveness. They also often lower the quality and
convenience of goods and services. As robotics and automation advance political
support for policies that force humans to continue doing what can be better and
more cheaply done by machines will weaken.
Another common proposal has been to
re-distribute employment with job-sharing, more vacations, or a shorter work
week. This approach has a lot of merit, and the evidence from Europe is that
industries can maintain a high level of productivity with shorter work-weeks
Relationship Between Hours Worked Per Person per Year and
Clearly the quality of life of the American
worker, who works about 400 hours more per year than European workers, would especially
benefit from a shorter work-week or work-life.
But there is scant evidence that shortening
the work-week, increasing vacation hours or encouraging job-sharing will
increase employment (Crepon, Leclair, and Roux, 2005). These policies impose
extra job training and administrative costs, and the loss of consistency and
continuity of workers sharing jobs. If the policies mandate that workers’
annual compensation remains the same for fewer hours this policy increases the
cost of labor and further tips employers towards investment in automation. The
35 work week adopted by France in 2000 actually reduced overall employment
(Estevão and Sá, 2007), and lack of enthusiasm for the law led to relaxation of
overtime regulations so that the average work week climbed back to almost 40
hours per week .
Another way to redistribute employment is to
lower mandatory retirement ages, opening opportunities for younger workers.
This approach would exacerbate the old-age dependency ratio, although with the
goal of reducing the dependency of the younger unemployed. More importantly
however it would force skilled workers out of the labor force in exchange for
unskilled workers. Since all the current political pressure is towards raising
the retirement age this seems like an unlikely policy.
There is almost unanimous policy support for
the idea of increasing the education of the work force as a way to encourage
high tech economic growth and shift workers from low wage jobs to higher wage
jobs with more automation-resistant skills. In the era of austerity governments
have been cutting support for higher education, but it is possible that support
could be found for subsidies that encourage young people to stay in school
longer, reducing their burden on labor market.
Governments are also likely to respond to
technological unemployment with attempts to expand public employment and/or
national service for the young. Clearly there are many social and
infrastructural needs that could be addressed with corps of road-builders,
tree-planters, and care-givers for the elderly. A vigorous expansion of public
employment is unlikely to be eitherfiscallyor politically sustainable however. Public
sector employment is far more expensive than simple cash transfers or
educational subsidies for students. Politically,
there is unlikely to be support for expanding public sector employment when the
same technological trends that make workers redundant in private sector
employment will also make human labor redundant in the public sector. We are
likely already seeing the impacts of information technologies’ impact on
increased productivity and a declining need for workers in the public sector. While
every previous post-WWII recession in the United States led to an increase in
public sector employment as part of Keynesian stimulus, this one has seen a
decline in public employment.
Public Sector Jobs Gained or Lost in Recessions
York Times, 2013)
Although the number of the non-military
workers in the U.S. federal government, including postal workers, is the same
two and a half million that it was in the 1960s, today that is only two percent
of the population compared to 4.3 percent in 1966. Including state and local
employees the proportion of public employees in the population has fallen from
10% in 2000 to a thirty year low of 9%. Likewise public sector employment has
fallen throughout the industrialized world in response to post-2008 austerity
The size of militaries in the
industrialized world has have also declined as militaries shifted to more
capital-intensive military infrastructure. Since the 1950s the U.S. military
has shrunk by half from 3 million active duty military personnel to 1.4 million
today. The EU has seen a reduction of military personnel from 2.5 million in
1999 to 2 million today. The growing use of drones and robotics in the field
also reduces the need for infantry. The U.S. Army projects that military
robotics will displace a quarter of combat soldiers by 2030 (Atherton, 2014).
Short of public employment and national
service, in the National Review
Michael Strain (2013) lists other ways that governments might facilitate
private sector employment, includinga government relocation service and subsidy
to serve areas or sectors that are experiencing a labor shortage, or a lump-sum
payment to unemployed workers who secure employment. In The Lights in the Tunnel Martin Ford (2009) suggests that a way to
address technological unemployment would be to have governments incentivize
employers to hire part-time workers and then provide income subsidies to those
part-time workers. These policies may slow the pace of technological
displacement, but will not to have any impact on the long-term trend.
Enhancing Human Workers
Public investment in education for
non-automatable skills is one way to enhance workers to better compete against
machines. In Race Against the Machine
McAfee and Brynjolfsson conclude that our best bet is to try “racing with the
machines,” and in their new book The
Second Machine Age they attempt to spell that out. Like Frey and Osborne
(2013), they suggest that humans can find employment if they focus on education
for creative and social intelligence jobs.
Which human skills will still be in demand?
We have yet to see a truly creative computer, or an innovative or
entrepreneurial one. Nor have we seen a piece of digital gear that could unite
people behind a common cause, or comfort a sick child with a gentle caress and
knowing smile. And robots are still nowhere near able to repair a bridge or
furnace, or care for a frail or injured person. (McAfee and Brynjolfsson, 2014)
But some futurists have also proposed thatnew
forms of cognitive and cybernetic enhancementcould allow humans to continue to
have an edge on computers in the competition for high skill jobs. For instance
in his classic paper “The Coming Technological Singularity” VernorVinge (1993)
proposed that the way for humans to attempt to avoid being made redundant by
artificial intelligence was to engage in “intelligence amplification” (IA)
through genetic engineering, brain-computer interfaces, and computer-facilitated
networking. “It's very likely that IA is a much easier road to the achievement
of superhumanity than pure AI. In humans, the hardest development problems have
already been solved. Building up from within ourselves ought to be easier than
figuring out first what we really are and then building machines that are all
of that (Vinge, 1993).”
Computers are doubling in memory and speed
every two years however. It is pretty unlikely that human beings will ever be
able to keep up with the speed of automation without merging with it completely
in ways that most people currently consider unattractive (“cyborgs”), and which
would, in any case, make both politics and economics completely unpredictable
(“the Singularity”). Human enhancement
is also likely to exacerbate unemployment, since the most enhanced workers are
likely to be capable of physical and cognitive labor that displaces greater
numbers of less enhanced workers.
Finally there are the proposals of
techno-utopians, many of them libertarians, who believe that no political
solutions for technological unemployment will be desirable or necessary since
we are entering into a period of superabundance. In these scenarios the cost of
goods and services will drop, the charitable super-rich will effortlessly
subsidize the masses, and the unemployed with have access to 3D printers that
will make whatever they need. One such optimist futurist is the economist Robin
Hanson, who has for the last twenty years predicted widespread unemployment due
to competition with machine intelligence or uploaded brain. In Hanson’s (1998,
2008) scenario economic wealth will grow so rapidly and exponentially that any
share of the bonanza in a citizen’s stock portfolio will provide a comfortable
This of course elides how we are to ensure
that all citizens have stock portfolios, and the dystopian consequences of the
current trend toward inequality of wealth being radically worsened.But Hanson
and the techno-utopians have half of the answer. If the tremendous wealth
created by the coming acceleration of automation can be wrested from the
current owners of capital through progressive taxation and expropriation, and
there is a dramatic decline in the cost of living from automated industries,
then it becomes much more fiscally feasible to provide everyone with a basic
level of economic security.
Strategic Openings for a Basic Income Guarantee
The computer scientist Hans Moravecprojected
in 1995 that robots would eventually
displace humans, and briefly proposed what he considered the obvious solution:
“When industry is totally automated and hyper-efficient, it will create so much
wealth that retirement can begin at birth. We'll levy a tax on corporations and
distribute the money to everyone as lifetime social-security payments." Similarly, the labor economist Andre Gorz
(1983, 1999) proposed in the 1980s that automation would lead to a basic income
Today the growing signs of technological
unemployment and the gathering old-age dependency crisis are creating the
material preconditions for campaigns for a basic income guarantee. The BIG proposal offers a way to fundamentally
renegotiate the Social Security and pension system, progressive taxation and
the Earned Income tax credit, the retirement age, and disability and
unemployment insurance in a way that is attractive,for different reasons, to
progressives, libertarians and fiscal conservatives. Karl Widerquist has
recently pointed out how basic income has become a Rorschach test for the
divided American polity, as Left and Right respectively saluted the twinned
articles “Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For” (Myerson,
2014) and “Five conservative reforms millennials should be fighting for”
(Matthews, 2014), each of which proposed a basic income guarantee. While
Myerson framed BIG as “Social Security for all,” in the conservative version
BIG is pitched as a way to “tear down the welfare bureaucracy.”
Subsequently, the Huffington Post sponsored
a poll that asked “Would you favor or oppose expanding Social Security to every
American, regardless of age, to guarantee a basic income to every American?” Although 54% were opposed, 35% were in favor,
which is a startlingly large base of support for a policy framed from the Left.
As Widerquist points out, if the policy was framed more favorably towards the
center as a way to both reduce the cost and intrusiveness of the welfare state,
and to ensure widespread economic security, even more support could be
garnered. In the coming heated debates over intergenerational equity,
entitlement reform and amelioration of technological unemployment such a
coalition could be built.
Even without discontinuous technological
progress in artificial intelligence and longevity therapies a central political
fact in the coming decades in the industrialized world will be the
intergenerational conflict over the burden of senior healthcare and pensions.
If there is a discontinuous acceleration in longevity due to new therapies the
forces demanding the raising of the retirement age and the restriction of
senior benefits will be strengthened. We prepare for those strategic openings
today by having parties adopt BIG as a plank, promoting referenda like the
pending one in Switzerland, and building the BIG policy debate among both the
public and in academe.
Marchant, Stevens and Hennessy (2014) argue
that a basic income guarantee would have a “corrosive effect on the social
fabric, would not address the need for people to have a meaningful purpose to
their lives, and would likely be politically infeasible in this era of
government cut-backs and retrenchment.”
On the contrary, just as universal health care and the welfare state
became a centerpiece of social solidarity in most of the industrialized world,
the campaign for a BIG could be the way to bridge the corrosive effect of
intergenerational conflict, and provide the only feasible political solution to
the intractable dilemmas of technological unemployment and a radical longevity.
The major drawback of an attempt at a
nonpartisan coalition for BIG, however, is that, in a future with a shrinking
labor force and income tax base, state revenues will have to be expanded in
order to provide a livable level of BIG. Putting all the current Social
Security, unemployment and disability insurance, Earned Income tax credits,
food stamps and other means-tested benefits into a BIG would only provide about
$5000 per adult American. Steep increases in progressive taxation, consumption
taxes and expansions of public ownership would be required to expand the level
of BIG to a reasonable amount. These
policies are likely to be fought vigorously by the conservative wing of a BIG
coalition, and face an even steeper effort at winning public support. Two of
the other proposals pitched by Myerson in Rolling Stone however were a land
value tax and expansion of public ownership through the creation of a
“sovereign wealth fund” to buy corporate stock. These were only supported by
25% and 31% respectively, which is still remarkable in a country in which
“socialism” is anathema. But growing support for radical policies will grow in
the wrenching decades ahead.
Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple
Revolution. 1964. The Triple Revolution: Cybernation, Weaponry, and Human
Atheron, K.D. 2014. Robots May
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