Ask an expert who’s worried about jobs being automated away by robots/AI what we should do, and almost all of them will say, create a Universal Basic Income. When millions of Americans can’t count on being able to find a job, at a minimum we need to make sure nobody starves. And Universal Basic Income has a lot of other advantages. It gives people more freedom – they can decide to spend their time volunteering, creating a small business or co-op, etc. it would give more people the kind of financial cushion they need to create a startup business or co-op. It would strengthen the leverage of workers who still have a job – treat people like crap and they can walk away because they know they have a cushion.
But Universal Basic Income isn’t just the beginning of the conversation about what we should do. Most of the time, it’s also the end of it. And that’s a problem, because although UBI will undoubtedly be a piece of the solution, it’s not enough.
1) Universal Basic Income is too Basic
Sometimes it feels like UBI advocates forget the “basic” part of Universal Basic Income. Most UBI proposals would give every adult citizen around $10,000 a year. If you’re trying to prevent people from falling into poverty, that’s not bad. But if millions of Americans are losing their jobs and have little or no hope of getting a good paying job in the future, will they really think $10,000 a year – or $20,000 a year if they are married – is enough? Considering that median household income in the Atlanta metro region is around $60,000 a year and in Baltimore, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, Denver, and Boston it’s over $70,000 a year, is this at all realistic? Especially when we aren’t talking about a cushion to get folks through a temporary crunch but rather for the rest of their lives and their children’s lives?
2) Universal Basic Income isn’t Politically Sustainable — And Could Lead to Much Worse
Some advocates think Universal Basic Income will be politically sustainable because Silicon Valley is into it right now, others because elites are afraid of the alternative – peasants with pitchforks.
But remember Romney’s “makers vs. takers”? The takers he was talking about were mostly people who work hard in really low-wage jobs. Now imagine a world in which more and more Americans have no hope of ever having a job or otherwise officially contributing to the production of the economy – Ayn Rand’s worst nightmare. How do you think the elites, who are already convinced today that they are the engine that keeps the economy running, will react to that? Assuming that they will simply accept it seems like a very risky bet. At a minimum, they would seem just as likely to use every pretext – such as the constant weather crises due to climate change – to chip away at it. And it could just as easily go in a very scary direction: if we have far more people than jobs, a handful of elites might decide that maybe the problem isn’t too few jobs, it’s too many people.
3) Universal Basic Income Doesn’t Address the Balance of Economic Power
The biggest problem with Universal Basic Income is that it doesn’t address the growing imbalance of power between the 1% and everyone else. In an economy where more and more of the wealth, power, and critical skills/knowledge that will be accumulated at the top, this is not a recipe for success. If the last few decades have taught us anything, it’s that our solution to the robot/AI unemployment crisis needs to change the balance of power by increasing the economic power of everyday Americans.