Getting Paid in Our Jobless Future

Only a guaranteed basic income can ensure economic growth, technological innovation and social welfare

By James Hughes
9/22/2003 8:19 AM

On March 22, 1964 The Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution sent a long letter to US President Lyndon B. Johnson. The letter was signed by 34 left-wing intellectuals, including leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society Todd Gitlin and Tom Hayden, leaders of the US Socialist Party Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington, the Nobel-winning biologist Linus Pauling, the economists Robert Heilbroner and Gunnar Myrdal, the futurist Robert Theobald and my cousin (five times removed) the sociologist Everett C. Hughes.

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 democratization of every country, starting with civil rights for Negroes and the "cybernation" revolution, automation, which would require the establishment of a universal basic income since there would soon be widespread structural unemployment.

"The traditional link between jobs and incomes is being broken," the letter reads. "The economy of abundance can sustain all citizens in comfort and economic security whether or not they engage in what is commonly reckoned as work. Wealth produced by machines rather than by men is still wealth," it continues. Therefore society should provide "every individual and every family with an adequate income as a matter of right."

The authors were off about how imminent the changes were that they predicted. But history has proven them right on all three counts. We're trying to create international institutions to control weapons of mass destruction and to extend human rights and democracy. (I mean, not the Bush administration, but Canada, Europe and a lot of the rest of the world.) And we are beginning to see that the New Wired Hyper-Economy is not the endlessly expanding Dow Jones prophesied during the late 90s bubble, but a job-loss economy of automation and globalization.

Responding to the Triple Revolutions piece in the New York Review of Books in 1965, the sociologist Daniel Bell dismissed the idea that there would soon be widespread unemployment from automation since it was only impacting a couple of industries. Evidence of such an effect would require that there be rising productivity economy-wide at the same time as rising unemployment.

Flash forward to the job-loss recovery of 2003. Since 2001, the US has lost 2.7 million jobs. As the economy has picked up none of those jobs are coming back. They have all either gone to the developing world or been taken by machines. As a consequence the economic recovery has seen strong gains in productivity. According to the US Labor Department, the amount an employee produces for each hour of work rose almost 2% just between April and June of 2004.

The problem with this scenario is that you can't sustain economic growth for very long if no one can buy stuff. Which is where the self-interest of the capitalist class meets the redistributive enthusiasm of the left.

Specter of roboticization

Take Marshall Brain for instance. Brain was a computer scientist at North Carolina State University, and then started a software training company in early 1992. In 1998 he founded the extremely lucrative HowStuffWorks Website and line of books. Ernst & Young named him a top entrepreneur in 1999.

But a specter is haunting Marshall Brain, the specter of roboticization and unemployment. His latest writings are his Robotic Nation series, which predicts that by 2055 half of all the jobs in the US economy will have been automated. Unless there is a sudden surge in the labor market for poets, professors and preachers, lots of people are going to be structurally unemployed, and that's without accounting for the bleed of jobs to the developing world.

In the "new economy," high-paid manufacturing jobs are being replaced by minimum-wage service-industry jobs, and Brain thinks that most of those jobs will also go to computers once they can parse natural speech. In fact, his accompanying novelette, Manna, opens with the line "it was funny or inevitable or symbolic that the robotic takeover did not start at MIT, NASA, Microsoft or Ford. It started at a Burger-G restaurant in Cary, NC on May 17, 2010."

If uploads come first

What is to be done? Well, if you are a libertarian economist like our newly infamous, transhumanist friend Robin Hanson, author of the Terror DAQ concept, all this means is that people should invest in the stock market and live off the dividends when the NASDAQ hits 10 million.

In his classic "If Uploads Come First," Hanson thinks the economic consequences of in silico intelligence would be that all meat-based people, and almost all virtual people, would end up unemployed or working at subsistence wages, while a small, virtual elite accumulates astronomical wealth. (Actually there wouldn't be too many unemployed folks since they would just be eliminated by Darwinian selection.)

This is Hanson's optimistic scenario. After all, Hanson says, society will be so rich that we'll all be able to live comfortably at the bottom, with just a little diversification of our stock portfolios. We'll like it that way since the elimination of the weak will select for "capable people willing to work for low wages, who value life even when life is hard."

If, Hanson concedes, some people are still too lazy to have invested well and so selfish that they insist that uploads shouldn't be able to take their jobs, then "politicians would do better to tax uploads and copies, rather than forbidding them, and give the proceeds to those who would otherwise lose out. Total wealth would grow more slowly than it otherwise would, but grow faster than without uploads." Better the welfare state than Luddite machine-bashing.

Unleashing human potential

Back to our entrepreneur Marshall Brain, who sees redistribution of the robotic economy's wealth as the optimistic scenario.

In his article "Robotic Freedom," Brain argues that every American adult should receive an annual income of US$25,000 from the federal government. This would save capitalism by keeping the demand-side strong, eliminate poverty, establish general economic security and give people the leisure to spend long years in school learning to do something that robots can't. Brain suggests that a universal basic income would unleash enormous creativity, and points out that J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book while on the dole as a single mom in England.

Brain proposes that a national account be created to provide the basic income payments, and that it be funded from a variety of sources. Money could come from the dividends on a national mutual fund invested in the stock market, from corporate fines and from the sale of national resources. For instance, all Alaskans get a US$1,500 annual check from the Alaska Permanent Fund created by the sale of publicly owned oil. But part of the resources should also come from the "extremely" wealthy since, Brain notes, "Robots will turbocharge the concentration of wealth."

The pedigree for Brain's proposal goes back much farther than the Triple Revolution manifesto. The French Revolutionary Condorcet proposed a universal welfare system, and it featured in the utopian visions of Saint-Simon and Fourier. The computer scientist Hans Moravec also comes to the same conclusions as Brain in his book Robot.

"Incremental expansion of such a subsidy would let money from robot industries, collected as corporate taxes, be returned to the general population as pension payments," Moravec argues. "By gradually lowering the retirement age, most of the population would eventually be supported. The money could be distributed under other names, but calling it a pension is meaningful symbolism. Social Security pension payments begun at birth would subsidize a long, comfortable retirement for the entire original-model human race."

A BIG movement

Today there is a growing international basic income guarantee or BIG movement, even in the US and in Canada, prepared to make a reality of the vision of Condorcet, Moravec, Brain and the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution.

The economists and activists in the BIG movement are demonstrating how basic income would make the economy more efficient as well as more just and more secure. Even the Bush administration appears to be a convert, at least for our new colony Iraq. The US imperial regency says that Iraq's oil wealth belongs to the Iraqi people, and that it will ensure that the oil wealth funds a generous level of social services. Hey Cheney, how about occupying Connecticut next?

The Luddites have no faith that democracy can allow everyone to benefit from technological innovation, and the libertopians think that we don't need democracy since we have the stock market.

But Brain, BIG and all their visionary predecessors aim to prove that democracies can provide universal economic benefits while advancing the technological innovation necessary to pay for them. I think that it's time we all got on board the bus to robotic freedom.

The US Basic Income Guarantee Network will meet in Washington, D.C. for its third congress on February 20 to 22, 2004. The Basic Income European Network will meet in Barcelona, Spain for its 10th congress on September 19 to 20, 2004.

James Hughes, PhD, teaches Health Policy at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut and serves as the Executive Director of the World Transhumanist Association. Dr. Hughes also produces the weekly syndicated public affairs talk show Changesurfer Radio and contributes to the democratic transhumanist Cyborg Democracy blog. Dr. Hughes' book Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future will be published by Westview Press in November.

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