Universal Basic Income and the philosophy of work

There’s an interesting article over on The Week. It’s by Damon Linker, and it’s about “The spiritual ruin of a universal basic income“.

Universal Basic Income (UBI), as you may know, is the proposal for the government to give everyone a basic living wage, whether they work or not. Combined with universal access to affordable medical care, it would remove the two main worries of modern life.

Part of the reasoning behind it is that artificial intelligence and robotic automation (AI&R), are killing all the jobs, and we need to either find something for people to do, or pay them for doing nothing. We find ourselves on the cusp of a revolution, even mightier than the Industrial Revolution itself. Pretty soon we will move from a society of scarcity to a society of plenty.

One of the problems is the lingering morality of that revolution, indeed, of all of history up to this point.  The old world was driven by scarcity. You worked for your living, or you were a freeloader. OK, if you were rich you were a special kind of freeloader, living in a Potemkin village called “job creator”, but mostly it was workers and layabouts. In modern times, conservatives want to limit the support you get, in an effort to force you to find work — the assumption being that if you don’t have to work, you won’t. The liberals want to give you more help finding that new job, with retraining programs and the like, but both sides want you to get back on your feet as soon as possible. So, what if it isn’t possible?

Those who forecast the impact of technology tend to overestimate the short term effects, and underestimate the long term. Bell thought that every town would soon have a telephone. Diesel thought the market for cars was limited, because there were only so many people who could be trained as chauffeurs. The long-term impact of AI&R can be roughed out already, but we don’t really have a handle on what long-term means in this situation.

One possible scenario is this: X number of years from now, we will have a small financial elite, who own most of the money. There will be a somewhat larger professional class, who have meaningful jobs running the AI&R economy, or providing high level services, like entertainment (or maybe not, consider the popularity of vocaloids). Their income will be 1% of what the elite are “earning”. And then there will be the vast, overwhelming majority of citizens who no longer have jobs and have no way of getting a job, and who earn nothing. These unfortunates will be given a minuscule stipend, or ‘dole’, and will live in the most wretched of conditions.

The theory is that UBI would fight this, first, by being large enough to remove the wretchedness, and second, by being a basic entitlement, given to all. Yes, all. The financial elite, the ones who hit 100 x UBI in stock income a few minutes after the new year starts, would still get it.  The working elite, who may bring in 2 X UBI per month, will get it. And the non-working poor will get it, not as a gift but as a right. No stigma. It’s one result of the society of plenty. The question that Linker asks is, will it work?

Most people simply aren’t equipped to lead lives of self-directed flourishing. In a world of widespread, permanent unemployment, we’d be far more likely to see throngs of people spending their days giving themselves over to obsessive video gaming, immersion in virtual-reality porn, and drug addiction, as they desperately grasp for a chemically induced substitution for the real-world fulfillment now placed permanently off limits to them. It would be a psychological and spiritual disaster.

I can see it being a problem. And if it’s a problem, it will be a bigger one than just layabout angst. Consider youth — easily bored, old enough to act without supervision, but with poor impulse control. That’s a recipe for crime, gang warfare, terrorism; not for poverty or ideology, but for something to do.

Linker recommends hanging on to the old jobs as much as possible

Maybe the left needs to … start proposing new ways to disincentivize businesses from embracing every form of automation that appears on the horizon. (Think of a steep tax on goods and services produced with certain forms of technology.)

In essence, we would pay companies to hire people to do jobs that robots could do better. In a way, this is on par with the old Great Depression “paying people to rake leaves in national forests.”

A different approach is changing how we do primary and secondary education. We stop training people to be good little cogs in the industrial machine, and educate them on how to live when independently wealthy in a constrained sort of way. The concept of fulfilment through work, as discussed in the article is yet another artefact of the society of scarcity. Persons who have gotten the equivalent of the UBI, through disability payments or the like, often become depressed. That’s because they are unemployed in an age that values employment above all else. Change what constitutes a life of value, and you change the reaction to the UBI.

We could go even further, and change our definition of what self-directed flourishing is. If people sit around in a library, reading complex tomes and thinking deep thoughts, that’s an active life of the mind. If people sit around in a VR headset, solving ever-more complex puzzles and improving their twitch muscle reaction time, that’s — what? A desperate grasp for a substitute for real world fulfilment? We all can’t be Einstein, and there’s not enough motel wall space in the world to hold the paintings of everyone striving for artistic fulfilment.

As I said a few months ago, in a different context, there was a mid-80’s spoof in the April edition of, I think, Analog magazine. It was an announcement for a new game, a game called Life (not Conway’s, but, as one slowly realized, real life). The article talked about possible adventures on a water-world with multiple continents and thousands of cultures, and an expansion pack to extend the game to the planet’s airless moon “as soon as we straighten out some issues with a subcontractor”.

The takeaway line, which has stuck with me to this day, is this:

In Life, you set your own victory conditions.

You get to set those conditions, and you get to decide if you have won. Maybe we need to re-think what victory means.

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One Response to “Universal Basic Income and the philosophy of work”

  1. zencat2 Says:

    Could also redefine what counts as money.

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