Writing a weekly blog can be a daunting task especially amid teaching, research and, of course, the ongoing graphic novel. I can only imagine the challenge for those who do it daily. Thank goodness for friends who send me articles. This week the piece comes from The New York Times tech writer Farhad Manjoo. The article is entitled, “A Plan in Case Robots Take the Jobs: Give Everyone a Paycheck.” The topic follows nicely on the heels of last week’s blog about the inevitability of robot-companions. Unfortunately, both the author and the people behind this idea appear to be woefully out of touch with reality.
Here is the premise: After robots and AI have become ubiquitous and mundane, what will we do with ourselves? “How will society function after humanity has been made redundant? Technologists and economists have been grappling with this fear for decades, but in the last few years, one idea has gained widespread interest — including from some of the very technologists who are now building the bot-ruled future,” asks Manjoo.
The answer, strangely enough, seems to be coming from venture capitalists and millionaires like Albert Wenger, who is writing a book on the idea of U.B. I. — universal basic income — and Sam Altman, president of the tech incubator Y Combinator. Apparently, they think that $1,000 a month would be about right, “…about enough to cover housing, food, health care and other basic needs for many Americans.”
This equation, $12,000 per year, possibly works for the desperately poor in rural Mississippi. Perhaps it is intended for some 28-year-old citizen with no family or social life. Of course, there would be no money for that iPhone, or cable service. Such a mythical person has a $300 rent controlled apartment (utilities included), benefits covered by the government, doesn’t own a car, or buy gas or insurance, and then maybe doesn’t eat either. Though these millionaires clearly have no clue about what it costs the average American to eek out a living, they have identified some other fundamental questions:
“When you give everyone free money, what do people do with their time? Do they goof off, or do they try to pursue more meaningful pursuits? Do they become more entrepreneurial? How would U.B.I. affect economic inequality? How would it alter people’s psychology and mood? Do we, as a species, need to be employed to feel fulfilled, or is that merely a legacy of postindustrial capitalism?”
The Times article continues with, “Proponents say these questions will be answered by research, which in turn will prompt political change. For now, they argue the proposal is affordable if we alter tax and welfare policies to pay for it, and if we account for the ways technological progress in health care and energy will reduce the amount necessary to provide a basic cost of living.”
Often, the people that float ideas like this paint them as utopia, but I have a couple of additional questions. Why are venture capitalists interested in this notion? Will they also reduce their income to $1,000 per month? Seriously, that never happens. Instead, we see progressives in government and finance using an equation like this: “One thousand for you. One hundred thousand for me. One thousand for you. One hundred thousand for me…”
Fortunately, it is an unlikely scenario, because it would not move us toward equality but toward a permanent under-class forever dependent on those who have. Scary.