Universal Basic Income: We Might Not Want It, But We'll Probably Need It

Universal Basic Income: We Might Not Want It, But We'll Probably Need It

It's not really a myth: robots are coming for your job.

 If you work in a factory, you should definitely be concerned about your long-term career prospects. But, as it turns out, factory workers are not the only ones who should be worried. If you are an insurance underwriter, futurism.com estimates that 99% of those in your profession are at risk of losing their job to a robot. If you work in agriculture or fast food, the number drops to a not-so-comforting 97%. 88% of construction laborers are at risk as well, along with 79% of truck drivers and 68% of mail carriers. 

 Tech giant Elon Musk has called a universal basic income "necessary" for the future 

Tech giant Elon Musk has called a universal basic income "necessary" for the future 

That's a lot of American jobs, and nearly all Americans will be affected. Futurism's estimates indicate that large cities like Fresno and New York stand to lose 54% and 40% of their jobs to automation respectively, while the loss low-skilled jobs in rural areas will leave millions unemployed across the heartland without conveniently proximate options for alternate employment. 

Numbers like these are certainly in dispute, however. While reputable economists like Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee from MIT have written several books - Race Against the Machine and The Second Machine Age -  on the dangers of automation to the American workplace, other economists insists that workplace evolution is more likely than elimination, and that very few (less than 5%) of American jobs are at danger of replacement within the next 3-5 years. 

But for the sake of pessimism, let's imagine a particularly undesirable, but not unrealistic, situation: 20% of American jobs are replaced by artificially intelligent robots in the next 20 years. Enter the universal basic income, or UBI: a sum of money provided by the government on a regular basis to all of its citizens, paid for with tax dollars. 

Current popular support for a universal basic income with a 5% unemployment rate (full employment) is around 46%, so one can only imagine that popular support would be far higher if 1 in 5 Americans were out of a job. But these numbers were produced before details of a potential UBI were provided to respondents, and most UBI proposals look far different than one might expect.

 A recent campaign for a UBI in Switzerland fell flat, garnering little support

A recent campaign for a UBI in Switzerland fell flat, garnering little support

For example, most UBI's run far lower than a minimum wage job, around 10,000 a year, making it impossible for anyone to really live off of it. Not to mention that most UBI proposals also involve the revocation of many other government benefits, like insurance subsidies, food subsidies, housing subsidies, etc. This sounds like good news to those that oppose the welfare state, but unless the money provided contingent upon certain circumstances, the government and the taxpayer would have really no control over how its money is being spend by he who receives it. 

Here exists one of the main difficulties in a UBI. If the money is provided based on certain circumstances and able to be revoked if regulations are violated, it's really not a UBI and looks quite similar to our current government assistance programs: a series of boxes to be checked in order to receive monetary aid. A true universal basic income would be provided indiscriminately - one might say universally - without relevant restrictions on its use. This is where most people trip up, with a clear majority rejecting the idea of unfettered use or universal distribution. 

 A study done by Medium found that when Americans learned more about the details of a Uni their support dropped sharply

A study done by Medium found that when Americans learned more about the details of a Uni their support dropped sharply

In reality, most people don't know much about a universal basic income, but particularly in America, the more they learn about it the more they dislike it. Americans don't like the idea that everyone, regardless of income, would receive only from the government, with no restrictions on its use, paid for by tax dollars. And the elimination of other welfare programs doesn't seem to help public opinion. Proponents of a UBI point to an "elimination of poverty," a boost of innovation, or a liberation of lower class Americans from vicious cycles of part time work. Unfortunately people can't get past the idea of undeserved compensation, and many of those Americans who stand to benefit financially from a UBI clearly don't support its implementation. 

 The devil is in the details -- most Americans oppose basic tenants of a UBI, despite the apparent appeal of the idea overall

The devil is in the details -- most Americans oppose basic tenants of a UBI, despite the apparent appeal of the idea overall

Now maybe I'm making too big of a deal out of public opinion. In reality public opinion has be shown to have absolutely zero effect on policy outcomes, so maybe we should watch corporate  lobbying agendas in the next few decades for any indication of any measures towards an universal basic income. Most everyone agrees that increased automation will occur, but not to what degree. But what nobody disputes is that the workforce will be changing in the next few decades as it always has, and government policy towards work and income subsidy may need to as well. 

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