Free For All

I think automation is just getting going by the likes of Amazon, autonomous driving, and behavioral algorithms. Should it follow typical diffusion of innovation models, our future will soon be on auto-pilot. And not just driving, but lots of stuff that is repetitive and easily replicated, such as factory work, construction, food prep, transportation, insurance renewals, and financial services transactions will soon all be executed by autonomous artificial intelligence (AI). Entire industries will be on auto-pilot, more or less.

This means a lot of people will no longer be needed to do that work as robot-to-worker ratios soar. What will these people do? I’m sure they’ll be a lot of political bluster and reflexive pullback, but in the end, I think these people will simply not have to work. How will they earn a living then? Maybe they won’t have to worry about that too much. One solution I hear more and more about is Universal Basic Income (UBI). UBI is basically giving people a certain amount money, a basic income, free of charge or obligation. No needs test, everyone gets a stipend, regardless of current status.

As a typical industrious American, my initial reaction was not positive. Overall, it just sounded lazy and, in the end, not beneficial to those receiving or giving; nothing breakthrough, or even clever about it. But then I did a bit of homework on the matter, and my opinion is starting to change.

While the concept of UBI may sound like the outcome of twenty-first century liberalism, it’s roots are old and deep. Over two hundred years ago one of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Paine, advocated “a citizen’s dividend to all United States citizens.” Noted Nobel Prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek promoted a “wage floor, which nobody need fall even when he is unable to provide for himself.” Even current conservative man of the moment Paul Ryan has proposed that states commingle different forms of federal anti-poverty funding—food stamps, housing assistance, and more—into a single funding stream.

The thought is that free from the constraints of having to [continually] prove a ‘needs-based’ model to receive assistance, all people would have a basic ‘floor’ from which to build their lives, say $10,0000 per year. From there, people could control how to direct their lives, rather than living a life prescribed by the government―a blending of neoliberalism and reform conservatism.

Proponents of such a model believe we’d see a rapid reduction in poverty and crime, and an increase in creativity and innovation―especially among the young and old; to those most vulnerable, ten grand a year would mean the world.

Pieces of such a model already exist in one form or another, right here in our country. For years the state of Alaska through the Alaska Permanent Fund has made an annual distribution of thousands of dollars to all state residents―absolutely free money.  Stockton, California’s 27-year old mayor is getting ready to pilot a program where all residents of the town will be given $500 monthly, no strings attached. Further afield, the UBI model is currently being discussed, tweaked and/or tested all over the world, from Finland and the Netherlands, to France, India, and Kenya; the nature of the concept is not constrained by geography, politics, or current economic strength. I find such an idea very intriguing.

While there are many arguments for and against UBI, the fact remains the idea is quickly gaining traction as we evolve from an industrial-based world economy to an information-based model. The vast effects of such a rotation are not yet fully comprehended by financiers, politicians, and certainly not your Uber driver―who may soon need it most. Yet such a fundamental shift will require an equally radical response to counter the effects of this transformation of toil. UBI might be a step in that direction.

If you want to part of the solution and help the extremely poverty stricken today, go to Give Directly and launch a UBI of your own for someone less fortunate.

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