Automation is Threatening Jobs – is a Basic Income the Solution?

One development rarely talked about in the mainstream media – and likely to take off over the next few decades – is the rise of automation; in robotics, computers and, perhaps, artificial intelligence.

There is no logical reason I can think of that these developments could not, in the long term, hugely benefit the majority of humanity in many extraordinary and currently unimaginable ways. After all, one consequence of this rise in automation leads to the conclusion that the same – or greater – amount of economic output will soon be achievable with a lower requirement for human labour. The more I have thought about this, the more it becomes apparent that there really are very few areas of human labour that couldn’t eventually be replaced by computer software/robotics.

Whilst there have been trends in technology like this in the past, with automation replacing many working class jobs such as robotics in car production and, more recently, automatic tills in supermarkets, what sets this movement apart is perhaps the two following elements.

The first is that there is no reason to believe that other new forms of work will be produced – as has been in the past – that can’t also be automated. Even creative, human-centred jobs are also under threat. Only those professions where there would be a sufficiently large demand and the resources to pay for a human – rather than a just as, if not more, proficient and cheaper computer – would be free from automation. When seriously thought about, this category is exceedingly small and certainly not able to absorb the masses of ‘unemployed’ that will result from the remaining economic and social automation processes.

Take the medical profession. Computers and, importantly, the software that runs on them, have today been developed that are better at correctly diagnosing patients with certain diseases then human doctors. One such example is a computer called Watson that has been developed by IBM. Watson became well known after appearing – and absolutely dominating its human competition – on the popular, human language based US quiz show, Jeopardy. IBM claimed – as of early 2013 – that Watson had ingested and ‘learned’ over 600,000 pieces of medical evidence, 2 million pages from medical journals and up to 1.5 million patient records. This meant that Watson was able to almost double its diagnosis success rate for diseases like lung cancer when compared to human doctors.

Of course, some doctors may argue that the face-to-face nature of their work will protect their jobs from automation. They may be right up to a point. But even the age-old ‘bed side manner’ can, in theory, be simulated and, unlike doctors, these future doctor-bots won’t ever have a bad day or a day off work. Moreover, the success rates of diagnosis combined with what will soon be, in the long-term, a significantly lower cost when compared to the wages of an average doctor, puts even this highly skilled profession at risk from automation. Indeed, in the future, human doctors may only be available to those willing to pay a premium.

The second element to consider is that it would take only a minor development in the capacity of renewable energy sources to create an effective material abundance for most. These developments are still decades away and they would need to coincide with a supportive social support system that does not yet exist.

Of course, one of the few certainties with predictions of the future is that they often turn out to be wrong. Nevertheless, it is difficult for me, when looking at the mechanics of these technologies alone, to not see these developments coming into fruition at some point in the foreseeable future.

Yet this is precisely the danger: materially speaking this is possible, but first we have to get there – and this is not guaranteed in light of the threats I mentioned in more detail in my previous article.

And even if we get there we still face the problem of distribution. An effective abundance may follow from these developments but a reasonable and fair distribution of these resources is far from guaranteed. If there is anything to learn from the reality of past technological development it is that the new technologies – in addition to the real benefits to the material life of most people (particularly in the relatively wealthier West) – will actually function both economically and politically to continue serving the interests of the capitalist elite; facilitating increased profits as a result of increased productivity and rarely contributing, as is very really possible, to higher wages and fewer working hours. As long as this status quo remains there is no reason to believe that it will be any different with this development except, as argued, this time their won’t even necessarily be the creation of the so called ‘bullshit jobs’.

It is also worth framing this in the light of the age old discourse being regurgitated by the Tories and softly echoed by Labour: the idea that the only value in a human being is their value as a worker. The commonly accepted idea that we would receive a ‘fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’ has been eroded. Instead, any form of work – or more accurately, labour – for any pay is considered worthwhile. Whilst those not in work are effectively forced into the position of constant job-seeking or relegated to poverty and destitution.

The welfare state once operated as a safety net for the failure of the economy to produce work for all. If these developments in automation come to fruition then we may find ourselves in a position where there will be very few jobs for people and the long term structural unemployment that will result will cause many a political and social headache.

If the current neoliberal dogma still dictates the terms of the political, economic and social framework in this future then what we are going to see are even greater numbers of people across the world, including evermore people in the developed countries, facing real long-term and crushing poverty, destitution and even starvation. Indeed, for many this is already the reality. I fear, however, that the small islands of progress in the world will soon be swept over by this – the brutal logic of self-regulating markets – if their is not serious change soon.

In many ways it could be argued that there has been an effective breakdown of the social contract – if ever such a thing existed. No longer does hard work necessarily pay. No longer are we necessarily seeing the benefits of economic growth. Young people, moreover, are being charged for an education without which they cannot compete in the job market – only to have the effect of reducing the amount of work available for them – creating a generation of graduates looking forward to pouring coffee for boomers and bankers.

But there is an alternative. There can be a future where automation and the consequent lower requirement for labour can bring about abundance. This will provide, at the very least, a long-term, basic, decent and sustainable standard of living for all but only if this same or greater material productive capacity is fairly distributed to all – not just put towards increased profits for a global capitalist elite.

This is possible and there are many suggestions as to how this can be done.

One that I personally advocate – and that is also supported in the UK by the Green Party – is the unconditional basic income; sometimes known as a citizens income. This is the idea that all citizens within a country receive an income – with no conditions or means testing whatsoever and given to rich and poor alike even when in or out of employment – that is able to provide them each with a minimum standard of living. The definition of what a minimum standard of living is of course varies, being greatly influenced by cultural expectations. What is universal, however, is that it should provide the basic needs of food, water and comfortable shelter. We can perhaps also add human rights to this, which would suggest that the minimum standard of living that a basic income should provide would also include such things as culturally appropriate food and the right to a family life.

Indeed, in many ways this can be seen to be a further extension of basic human rights. After all, can any reasonable human being genuinely believe that people don’t have a right to food? Should even the actively lazy and selfish deserve to suffer and be malnourished or die from starvation if they find themselves unable to access an income to provide food?

Some might ask how an unconditional basic income would be paid for. There is no denying that such a policy would have significant costs and would, in some form or another, require slightly higher taxes overall and a much more progressive taxation system that would need to redistribute capital (wealth) instead of just income.

This, after all, is how, today, wealth is accumulating and inequality, as a result, is increasing. It is not necessarily those even with very high traditional (from the labour market) incomes that are causing this rise in inequality, but it is more so those that create an income from capital gains made, often, by holding shares in the stock market or being involved in some form of financial trading. For those that make money this way – and almost the entire super rich make their money this way – their effective tax rate can be in the single digits if they exploit the correct loopholes. Circumventing this social injustice will certainly help pay for an unconditional basic income.

Some proponents, moreover, suggest a progressive VAT system that would replace traditional income tax. By doing this, those that consume the most (not proportionally but in real terms) – presumably the richest in society – end up paying more than those that spend relatively less – and those that spend less are more likely to be the ones for whom the unconditional basic income, which everyone receives, is a greater proportion of their total income. Consequently, this combination of VAT tax without income tax and an unconditional basic income results in a broadly progressive outcome – the rich pay a greater share of their income in tax, which is then distributed to pay for the basic income and other social provisions.

There are also arguments related to the savings that are likely to result from having an unconditional basic income. This includes the reduction in spending on administration and bureaucracy when comparing the administration of an unconditional basic income – being paid automatically into everyones bank account – to modern welfare provisions – that have a large amount of monitoring and means-testing. There may also be reductions in costs associated with other areas as a result of an unconditional basic income. Crime, for example, is often associated with poverty and as an unconditional basic income would effectively eliminate absolute poverty, at least in the UK as it is proposed here, it would very likely remove many of the currently existing reasons and incentives for crime; reducing costs associated with crime and law enforcement.

To those that say that it would allow people to sit around all day doing nothing, I would say in response that, whilst there will always be those who would rather do nothing, they represent an absolutely tiny minority. Moreover, this minority is today likely larger then it would be under a system with an unconditional basic income and more generally egalitarian social structures – as it is our current neoliberal system that often wears people down and saps their creative energies to the point where laziness and excessive hedonism are seen as the only remedies to the general malaise that is the rest of their lives. Many people, understandably perhaps, choose not to take part – where possible – when the game is so clearly rigged.

Furthermore, isn’t the right to be lazy at least a fundamental measure of human freedom? Why is it seen to be absolutely fine to force people into a position of servitude against their will? This is precisely what happens in the UK to the unemployed and, increasingly, the ill and disabled.

Yet, even with that real freedom to exercise one’s right to be lazy, as would be the case with an unconditional basic income, I fundamentally trust in the desire of the vast majority of people to want to make something of their lives and, through that, find some meaning – however that is individually defined.

Moreover, having the security and freedom that comes from an unconditional basic income would allow everyone the time to follow their interests and passions. I am convinced that by giving people this freedom, many will use it to enhance their lives, the lives of their family, those in their community and, ultimately, the rest of society.

So not only would an unconditional basic income facilitate the meeting of fundamental human rights, alleviate absolute poverty through redistribution and provide people with a greater and more equal access to opportunity, but it would also help deal with the distributive issues that are likely to arise from automation. Namely, fewer opportunities for traditional ‘work’ and, if left unchecked, a perhaps inevitable increase in the concentration of wealth to those already in possession of large amounts of capital – already a major social issue even without the pressures of automation.

So, even if you do not agree with this proposed policy solution to the issues of automation I present, what should nevertheless be clear is that automation has and will continue to cause profound changes throughout society and our everyday lives. Without suitable social protection measures – like the unconditional basic income – automation will likely exacerbate already existing systemic problems – particularly issues of inequality. We, but ultimately our politicians, therefore, urgently need to pre-empt this and prepare real, collective solutions. If these solutions also have other benefits related to increasing social justice, reducing poverty and furthering the application of fundamental human rights then this only makes the need to fight for and bring these policies into reality more urgent.

Impending Threats to Civilisation, Tory Austerity and the Future of Democracy in Britain.

I’ll start off by making one element of my political views abundantly clear: I believe that the Tory party in the UK offers no hope for the vast majority of people in this country and, with their Liberal Democrat enablers, they have, over the course of this parliament, been responsible for some of the most vile and divisive policies. It has been claimed that these policies bring about a kind of fairness for those homogeneously defined social groups known as ‘hard working families’ and ‘strivers’.

Your wages may be low and decreasing; you may have a stressful life spending so much of your waking life in a job you hate and you may be struggling to simply make ends meets – but don’t worry, the Tories solution to your hardship is to make the lives of those even more hard pushed then you, even worse.

If you’re looking for work, or unable to work due to being mentally ill or disabled, then you will face new taxes, increasing sanctions and a general social stigma (conveniently created by the major Tory allies in the Murdoch press and the overtly neoliberal Daily Mail).

The reality is that this is a classic divide and rule tactic. It’s hard to say if it is deliberate. I’m sure for some Tory politicians it is a well thought out strategy to gradually erode the welfare state and public services, in order to create a so-believed free market utopia. I suspect that for others this is a form of self-deluded well-meaningness born from a disconnect from the socioeconomic realities of their lamented ‘hard working families’ and ‘strivers’.

Regardless of intentions, these policies and their effects are real and increasingly undeniable. And those that support them – whether ignorantly or with volition – are part of a socioeconomic dogma that if allowed to continue will re-institute the kind of class divisions and socioeconomic inequalities last seen in Britain in the 19th C.

Indeed, the economic statistics, as so succinctly highlighted by Thomas Piketty in his latest book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, suggest we are reaching a period of economic inequality only seen since the dark period of the Satanic Mills.

To be fair, in Britain and most other Western countries at least, those that find themselves in the lower economic percentiles are materially far better off then their 19th C equivalents. And, at least for now, there is in Britain a relatively functioning, although increasingly limited and punitive, welfare state. But this is not a reason not to change these dynamics, which, nevertheless, are creating unnecessary hardship and suffering for millions of people across the country. Surely the fact that hundreds of thousands of people now have to go to a food bank to avoid starvation is a testament to the need for urgent action.

So what are the Tories’ stated reasoning behind these policies – which can be put more generally under the label of ‘austerity’?

First of all, they would argue that austerity is the necessary response to the overspending of the last Labour government. Moreover, Labour oversaw the effects of the 2008 US housing crash: the credit crunch and subsequent ‘great recession’ of 2008. So, if only we would wait it out, the Tories’ austerity will resolve all of this by reversing the evil of spending and, in the process, they promise, create a stronger economy positioned for the challenge of a modern, competitive and increasingly interconnected global economy.

Whilst I don’t think Labour are completely innocent (I’ll come on to this later) it is to me strikingly obvious and indeed the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that these austerity policies have increased rates of poverty and contributed further to the last three decades of rising inequality, further deepening social hierarchies and further limiting social mobility (see the Oxfam report on UK austerity here and this Guardian article discussing a study on social mobility in the UK).

So whilst I am making a case against the Tories and their anti-social justice policy of austerity over the last four years, I think that a perhaps even bigger crime is that by focusing on austerity and, ultimately, the interests of an element of the capitalist elite, this government has absolutely failed to take seriously or in anyway deal with any of the numerous impending threats to, not just the people of Britain, but likely the entire global population and even modern civilisation itself.

These threats include the impending global climate crisis, where sea levels are expected to rise to levels that will increasingly threaten populations and coastlines; the ongoing human caused mass extinction of species; rising political and religious fundamentalisms throughout much of the world (see ISIS and fascism in Europe as examples); and the current potential threat of increasing automation on the existence of jobs for many workers around the world (see my following article on automation for a discussion of this). Regarding the threats mentioned here, Noam Chomsky’s article here and Slavoj Zizeks’ talk here are worth looking at for a greater insight into these impending threats.

Considering these potentially catastrophic incompetencies of this government, it is clear to me that something needs to change. But what are the political alternatives?

The first, and perhaps most obvious, ‘alternative’ is voting for and electing the official opposition, Labour. But what, at best, might this achieve? Will Labour reverse the harsh neoliberal policies of the Tories? Will they deal with any of the numerous impending crises I have suggested we face?

To the last two questions, I suspect not. And the best we can hope for is the installation of the ‘lesser of two evils’. History shows that, since the creation of ‘New Labour’, the differences between Labour and the Tories are largely superficial. And, coming back to the issue of the Great Recession, there is no doubt that Labours’ gifts to the city of London, addiction to cheap credit and their overwhelming acceptance of the Anglo-Saxon neoliberal global consensus was very much apart of, and certainly not a protection from, the sudden collapse of the US credit fuelled housing bubble and the following global recession.

So whilst, as Noam Chomsky and others have stated, the centre left ‘lesser of two evils’ often does, in comparison to the centre right alternative, produce materially better results for the majority of people in Western ‘democracies’, I am increasingly convinced that the next few decades are, for the majority of ordinary people, unusually decisive with regards to the potential consequences they are likely to have for the quality of peoples livelihoods and their standards of living in the foreseeable future.

If Labour is nothing more then a less sociopathic version of the Tories, then what is the real political alternative?

This is where things become problematic. Personally, based on my ideological perspective and regarding an attempt to deal with some of the issues I talked about above, the Green Party would appear like a real political alternative.

They propose real efforts to deal with climate change; to modernise the economy into a green, truly sustainable economy; to introduce a basic income (a favourite of mine for at least partly dealing with the distributive issues arising from increasing automation and the resulting fewer jobs); a proposed £10 minimum wage; a pro-trade union policy; progressive taxation; an end to austerity; a commitment to reverse the privatisation of the NHS; a proposal to get rid of university fees; and many other actually progressive policies that would, in my view, start to deal with the issues we face and, in the process, create a more socially just society where opportunities are open to all regardless of their socioeconomic background.

Surely, then, this is the answer, if you, like me, desire these policies and a progressive and socially just politics? After all, although you won’t have heard this from the mainstream media, the Greens have seen a 40% increase in membership in the last year alone, are polling as high as the Liberal Democrats at 6%, already have an elected MP, Caroline Lucas, and, when internet users are asked on voteforpolicies.org.uk to rate policies, not parties, the highest percentage of people (nearly 26%) end up choosing the Greens.

But, unfortunately, the reality is that we are still dominated by a highly influential and predominantly right wing media that is owned by and represents the interests primarily of one of two types of elite (the distinctions between them becoming increasingly less relevant): the political elite and the capitalist elite.

Furthermore, the structure of our first past the post electoral system makes the election of the Greens a statistical improbability, even with a massive shift in support for them. The best a third party can hope for, short of an effective revolution (or massive media attention as seen in conjunction with the ‘rise’ of UKIP) is to, like the Liberal Democrats, achieve a minor position in a coalition with one of the two main parties. Achieving this for the Greens would of course be better then nothing, but for me this highlights what should be, in Britain, one of the major political aims: to, as part of a wider movement for the spread of democracy in Britain, win a restructuring of our electoral system from first past to post to proportional representation (PR).

This would, to a greater or lesser extent, remove some of the incentives for voting for the lesser of two evils simply as a tactic to avoid ‘the other party’ getting in. This would free many, though of course not all, to vote based on their political beliefs and, if the policy based voting intention website holds true for the general population, people would rationally end up voting for the Greens – or at least I can hope.

Of course the reality of PR won’t be the silver bullet I am perhaps making it out to be. But we are structurally straight jacketed from having any real chance of voting in a political alternative and historically low turnouts indicate people are fully aware of this lack of choice. Indeed, the massive turnout for the recent Scottish referendum on independence shows what happens when people are presented with real political choices. This is why winning a PR electoral system that allows people to make real political decisions is one, of many, steps required to bring about a more democratic and socially just political system in Britain.

Both new and traditional methods of political campaigning, civil disobedience and protests need to be adopted by the grass roots to bring about this change. It certainly won’t come about willingly from Labour or the Tories. This is no doubt a major challenge and will require massive and sustained political pressure. But it can be achieved if enough people understand and take seriously the threats not taking this action poses for them, the society they live in and potentially many others across the world.

As for the upcoming election, I am still undecided as to whether I should vote tactically – Labour in an attempt to avoid the Tories – or based on my political convictions – the Greens. Either way, a radical transformation of the electoral system needs to be won if we are to achieve social justice, have a truly democratic society and work to reverse the rule of the wealthy (currently being even more deeply entrenched through Tory austerity). The sooner we achieve this, the better.