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.