I liked this article, but I thought there were a few issues to address.
People are talking a lot about Universal Basic Incomes for a number of reasons: we are imagining a world where people will become obsolete the world is filled with superfluous people who must be fed, and, and as the author pointed out, UBI is easier to think about and imagine in a world filled with people who don’t like to think very much.
I think the first proposition, that people will become superfluous, is a flawed analysis. Yes, AI and robots will make many career choices obsolete, but that doesn’t mean people will become unnecessary — or in other words completely lose utility for the economic system. AI and robots have and will increase productivity, which will mean that we will produce more per person than before. It is amazing how we FAIL to imagine how the future will be when the world is more productive. This has been a characteristic of human thought for centuries. We cannot understand how added production will never outstrip the limitless wants of human desire. In fact I think it is fair to say that the more you give people the more they want. So I think the issue of chronic unemployment may be no more true today than when the steam engine, the cotton gin, the railroads, or the automobile were all introduced with calls of alarm that mule drivers, hand weavers, pony express riders, and horse drawn wagoneers were all losing their jobs.
However, although the last 500 years has seen the eruption of change created by the Age of Discovery, the Industrial Age, and now the Silicon Age which have brought on an unprecedented increase in prosperity on every scale of measure, it has also increased the numbers who somehow get lost with the progress; those that fall through the cracks as the ground tectonically erupts in greater and more frenetic advances creating new lands and new opportunities that not everyone can understand and participate in. For thousands of years the poor have been part of human culture. But they were an understood part because the underlying nature of society itself did not dramatically change. From the beginnings of agriculture thousands of years ago to the feudal system of the medieval times little changed. The adoption of bronze simply meant fewer stone tools, and the adoption of iron meant fewer stone and bronze tools. Swords got sharper, bowls were more attractive, plows became slightly more efficient, etc. They were not revolutionary changes like the modern world has experienced with powered engines and computer sciences. The technological advances of the ancient world did not leave vast sections of the population behind. Today’s advanced technology does just that.
Personally I am against both Universal Jobs Programs and Universal Basic Income. I think both are based upon false premises, and thus will result in false conclusions.
However, it is clear that we need some form of welfare to take care of those chronically lost and helpless, and those that simply need a helping hand to assist them in the painful adjustment caused by sudden and unexpected changes created by modern technological progress. This is what we have right now. Welfare programs. Which work best?
We already have experimented with Basic Income programs (just not Universal programs), and most have resulted in societal disasters too numerous to describe here. We have also experimented in Jobs Programs (again just not Universal) and have seen much better results. Yes, getting the government involved in providing or guaranteeing jobs results in chronic examples of incompetence, waste, and corruption, but there have also been ways of limiting the negatives while providing the basic goal of gainful employment and income to those in need. An example of a successful welfare program is the US Earned Income Tax Credit which rewards families who work by lifting them out of poverty with a reverse income tax scheme. Perhaps this is even a combination of the Jobs and Income approach.
Providing Jobs is always better than just providing only Money. And I like the ideas this author comes up with. Decentralize the process giving local ‘townhalls’ the ability to figure out for themselves what and how to best deal with their local problems. Also, I like the idea of encouraging a return to the soil and the manual trades that may have been eliminated in the past and may be completely lost in the future. Just because a giant factory run by an AI and using robots makes more beer (or whatever…) at a lower price does not mean we as a society have to choose that alternative. We may not even need to have the government pay people to do these jobs, or even need to provide huge subsidies for them, so much as get the government out of the way so that people are able to do what they like with what they have in their homes, yards, and garages; a return to cottage industries but with a much more humane and dignified approach.
Yes, those people in trades made superfluous by technology may need help to find another trade, but the people themselves need not be made superfluous. And yes, there may need to be changes in how we think about our lives if we want people to pursue local agriculture and manual trades. Our food is much more sanitary and safe now than it was in the past; we will probably need to adjust to the idea of buying food from our neighbors rather than from large multi-national corporations that use the latest technology to produce the most sanitary and appealing foods delivered to our doors by robots that do everything from growing, picking, and processing the crops, to then preparing, packaging, and delivering the food in nice shiny containers ready to be served. The same can be said of almost everything. Would you prefer to go to the IKEA website of the future and order your furniture delivered and assembled to your house the next day by a sole workman (if even that) using robots to assemble and place the furniture, or a local craftsman who spent years learning his trade, and will spend days if not months making your furniture? Both futures have their trade offs.
Either way, we have already experimented with the idea of throwing money at the problem of societal poverty, and we already discovered that the societal costs are much greater than the benefits. If we end up having this problem of mass unemployment caused by technological progress, let us look to Jobs as a better solution.