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Universal Basic Income: A Universally Bad Idea

We have now entered the age of uncertainty. Welcome to the gig economy, where government shutdowns, unparalleled political instability, terrorism, stock market instability, Brexit and climate change raise more questions than answers. Uncertainty, fueled by an unrelenting, twenty-four-hour news cycle, is, for many of us, increased by today’s technological innovations.

We are overwhelmed by—and submerged in—apps and devices, which are gradually reducing the amount of influence we, as humans, possess. This technology creep is casting an ever more ominous shadow. Arguably, along with climate change, technological encroachment will turn out to be one of the two defining features of the twenty-first century. Fighting this is futile. When we are no longer able to change a state of affairs, we have to rise to the challenge of changing ourselves.

Machine learning and automation will render millions of humans obsolete. In the US, for example, as many as four million truck, bus, delivery and taxi driving jobs will eventually be usurped by autonomous vehicle technology. Already, carmakers like BMW, Daimler and Ford and technology giants like Apple, Uber and Google are developing autonomous vehicle technology. The idea of transportation workers being replaced by these innovations was once the stuff of Asimovesque science fiction—that is no longer the case today.

Life is a process of evolving, an amalgamation of various states through which we have to pass. Where people often fail is that they wish to select a state and remain in it. With the coming revolution, stasis is not an option. Economically and psychologically speaking, to stop is to die.

A wise proverb tells us that the art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order. But how do we preserve order when confronted with profound, never before seen changes? More optimistic folks urge us to remember the industrial revolution. Collectively speaking, it made us stronger. However, comparing the industrial revolution to the technological revolution is like comparing jazz to EDM: yes, they are both forms of music, but they operate along very different lines.

Although the industrial revolution created more jobs, the upcoming revolution will be profoundly different, both in the pace and latitude of change. Today, unlike during the industrial revolution, the growth of new jobs is dwarfed by the erosion of old jobs. The industrial revolution was built around the human touch; the technological revolution is about eliminating it.

According to researchers at the Oxford Martin School, at least one in three jobs is vulnerable to AI and robotics. Routine and repetitive tasks, such as manufacturing, call center work and administrative duties can be (and will be) easily substituted. Over the next two decades, according to the researchers, machines will replace almost half the jobs in the US and China, and around 40 per cent of jobs in the UK.

Of course, not all humans will find themselves without work. However, with the technological revolution largely concentrated around major cities, more and more people will find themselves flocking to the same locations, competing in Hunger Games type competition for limited posts. Ask anyone who has made the move to a major city like London or New York, and they will tell you that moving to these cities is a challenging process, both financially and psychologically. Soaring housing costs mixed with a geographical concentration of opportunity, or, in the case of the people left behind, lack thereof, poses many a problem for leaders around the world.

To some, this disposable dystopia is an affront to humanity. How are we expected to earn a salary if no jobs exist for millions of mere mortals?

Well, how about Universal Basic Income (UBI), a trendy way of describing government cash handouts for each and every adult citizen? UBI advocates include household names like Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Elon Musk. Idealistic notions aside, is it possible to fund such a conceptually appealing idea?

Well, maybe. The idea is this: whenever an employee is replaced by a robot or by software using automation through artificial intelligence or machine learning, the business involved should pay a tax, much as an employee would on her wages. This would create the money needed to fund UBI.

This sounds great. But think about it for a minute—if an employer is simply paying tax on the technology, instead of an employee paying tax on his salary, isn’t this the financial equivalent of a double negative? And even if the automation tax proves to be more lucrative than the traditional tax, will it really provide enough money to fund universal basic income?

Vulnerable workers have every right to be concerned. I’m not just talking about store assistants and taxi drivers—studies show that AI is better than the average doctor at spotting melanomas; and AI is far more efficient than humans at carrying out routine financial assessments, as well as rudimentary legal work. Even Wall Street will feel the brunt: machines will be algorithmically programmed to spot trends and patterns quickly, allowing them to act faster than most human beings. Education will also experience profound changes. In fact, it already has: online education, without direct teacher-student interaction, is already here. We have every right to look for assistance, but UBI doesn’t appear to be the answer.

UBI is financially negligent. By definition, universal means that every single person over the age of eighteen would be a beneficiary. From an economic perspective, even in the richest societies on the planet, UBI, which is designed to provide a modest but respectable standard of living, would be a) unaffordable b) unsustainable and c) likely result in ballooning deficits and financial collapse.

To offset the effects of the UBI vortex, one can envisage a world in which governments, in an effort to fund this utopian concept, reallocate resources from other areas such as education and healthcare. Also, in theory, UBI undermines the concept of social unity. Unconditionally rewarding people for simply breathing could very well result in communal collapse, a sort of societal decay. Even if UBI does become a reality, money is no substitute for meaning, especially if it’s, to quote Mark Knopfler, “money for nothing.”

Finding That Something

In a world full of ups and downs, obsessions, depressions and recessions, it’s very difficult to find true meaning in life. To paraphrase Dostoyevsky, the mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for. Many of us derive meaning from our jobs. Of course, the meaning of life differs from individual to individual, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life on a daily basis.

Life is a rather amorphous condition, but work appears to imbue it with greater definition. If asked to introduce yourself, you might respond, Hi, my name is Susan, and I work as a nurse. In Viktor Frankl’s seminal text, Man’s Search for Meaning, he writes, “those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how.’” UBI may provide us with a how, but can it provide us with a why?

Our identity is shaped by meaning, or a lack thereof. An individual who once enjoyed meaning in his or her life, but now lacks any, may be suffering from what I refer to as identity displacement. Industrial-era jobs fortified the working and middle classes; when meaningful job opportunities start to vanish, so do our identities. Voltaire cautions that, “work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice and need.” With UBI, perhaps there is little reason to worry about need. That still leaves us with boredom and vice.

But, if people want to laze about in their pants, have casual sex and/or play video games 24/7, who cares? Well, honestly, we should all care. Although there is no universally accepted definition of boredom, it is not simply another way of describing apathy. Boredom is a mental state that stems from a lack of stimulation, and this lack of stimulation leaves people craving relief. People don’t enjoy being bored, and research shows that boredom exerts a profound influence, behaviorally, medically and socially.

In studies of depression and binge-eating, for example, boredom is often listed as the number one trigger. According to Scientific American writer Maggie Koerth-Baker, US teenagers who report being bored are 50% more likely than their more stimulated peers to start smoking, drinking and dabbling in drugs.

Boredom often leads us down ill-advised paths. In a 2010 study conducted at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, 85 people were told they would get $5 if they answered 10 out of 15 questions correctly in a math test. Each participant was told that their computer had a glitch. Some were told the right answer would appear if they pressed the space bar. Others were told that if they didn’t press the enter key within five seconds the answer would appear on their screen.

Those in the second group—the ones who were told to wait five seconds—were more likely to cheat than those who had to press the spacebar. It seems the devil makes work for idle hands, even those left idle for a mere five seconds. Furthermore, Charles Murray, the political scientist known for his work on IQ and race, has written extensively on social conditions and the manner in which they have changed over the past half century, especially for the working classes:

In societies where the chances of secure employment is low, divorce rates, crime rates, and the number of children being raised outside nuclear families tend to be higher than average.

 UBI, for all its purported strengths, may provide us with a way of living … but it cannot provide us with a reason for living.

Some proponents of UBI will argue that, with more and more free time, people will dedicate themselves to the creation of artistic and musical masterpieces. Some will, but let me ask you this: when you have a couple of hours free and two competing impulses—to exercise or to binge watch Netflix—which do you usually follow? Choosing the couch is as human as eating and mating. We are inherently lazy, which may be a sort of residual trait carried over from our ancestors’ days of conserving energy for the next hunt.

Maybe this helps explain why, when it comes to actual hobbies and interests, we seem to be actively seeking out fewer new experiences. Maybe technology is to blame. Although it’s hard to blame technology alone for such a radical ideological shift, I challenge you to pinpoint a more obvious culprit.

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21 comments

  1. There are some fair criticisms listed here, but ultimately I feel this article presents a false dichotomy.

    While UBI may not be a perfect solution – and it is definitely worth considering the pro’s and con’s of such a system – the real question is what happen if we implement some sort of UBI vs what happens if we don’t.

    If you think the election of Trump was bad for the country, wait until 10 million more jobs are lost in the next ~10 years due to automation and we have no real social safety net. UBI will not let those who have lost their careers thrive, but it will help them survive and meet basic needs.

    1. TOP NOBEL PRIZE LEVEL ECONOMISTS ENDORSE UNIVERSAL BASIC INCOME. UBI is endorsed  by winners of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, commonly referred to as the “economics Nobel prize”. The economists were participating in the 6th Lindau meeting on economic sciences, which ran from 22nd to 26th of June this year in the picturesque town of Lindau, Germany. https://www.forbes.com/sites/francescoppola/2017/08/31/top-economists-endorse-universal-basic-income/#110e59d115ae
      Martin Luther King Jr. in advocating for a Guaranteed Basic Income (UBI) said,
      “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of proceeding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.
        “Beyond these advantages, a host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security. The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts between husband, wife and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated.”
      – Martin Luther King Jr. Speaking on UBI at Stanford
      http://www.scottsantens.com/martin-luther-king-jr-basic-income-mlk

      – 5 Reasons Why Martin Luther King Jr. Supported a Guaranteed Income, a UBI for All Americans
      https://medium.com/@0rf/why-martin-luther-king-jr-supported-a-guaranteed-income-c2188b559978

    2. Andrew Yang’s $12K Freedom Dividend (UBI) vs Federal Jobs Guarantee (FJG)
      A jobs guarantee is a well-intended but terrible idea. FJG leads to armies of dystopian laborers forced to do makework to survive amid a growing mass of bureaucrats.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H52fQbxamP0
      5. The more people handling the money between the Feds and the ultimate Payee, the more the opportunities and incentives for corruption, graft, fraud, creating a ginormous boondoggle for grifters. A FJG will result in a Daily Jubilee Festival of federal legislative lobbyists and pork trading, require multiple levels of federal oversight bureaucracies, state legislative boondoggles, state project managers, private consultants and project managers, much coordination between multiple companies and subcontractors, all of which will result in skimming off the cream and culling of the pork.
      6. Millions of workers in FJG will be forced to work in dead end jobs, in indentured servitude to stay alive, have warmth and shelter, food and clothing, at the mercy of their bosses, co-workers, and reams of overworked ombudsman to help resolve disputes and abuses.
      7. A Freedom Dividend UBI, has Efficiency and Impartialness. Making Basic Income UNIVERSAL —
      A. ELIMINATES the hated and counterproductive WELFARE CLIFF, which disincentivizes people from contributing, creating, producing, and working more;
      B. ELIMINATES STIGMA, resentment, recriminations, and potential strife between those who receive it and those who don’t;
      C. ELIMINATES the angst, the invasion of privacy, the fear and BUREAUCRACY OF MEANS TESTING;
      D. ELIMINATES the temptation and INDUSTRY OF FRAUD, allegations of fraud, investigations for fraud;
      E. ELIMINATES tying up the CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM into determination of fraud, obtaining restitution for fraud, and punishment for fraud; and
      F. GIVES the LIBERTY of CHOICE to citizen shareholders receiving the Freedom Dividend.
      8. Now, if there is enacted a UBI of $1K a month, and then a Federal Jobs Guarantee on top of UBI will be more interesting and meaningful. The UBI is the backstop and the foundation, and the FJG will provide possibilities to help guide those who wish to earn more and provide services to societal needs. Workers in FJG will then have options to change jobs without fear of being destitute.
      A. The problem of greasy and sticky fingers in the FJG structure, bureaucracy and money flow remains;
      B. But the problem of locked in choiceless dystopian laborers will abate.

      The argument that plans like Yang’s Freedom Dividend would DISINCENTIVIZE work is a common criticism of UBI, and the logic is usually rooted in a longstanding criticism of welfare: Giving people free money makes them lazy.
      But there’s a fundamental difference between welfare and UBI: Welfare essentially rewards people for not getting a job, because doing so would mean they can’t receive money anymore. This disincentivizes work. In contrast, people wouldn’t have to meet any conditions to receive Yang’s Freedom Dividend, meaning there’d be NO DISINCENTIVE to contribute their services or to work.
      The Mother of Invention is Our Laziness and our need to create better, easier solutions to the difficulties in our Lives. Technology is how we make things easier for ourselves, our lives, our society. Technology is the product of our inventive search to reduce the hardship of our survival, our labors, in the procurement of our needs. Technology is the child of our capitalistic organizational product to increase efficiencies and reduce costs.
      Our industrious focus on the value added by technology overlooks the harmful effects of its displacement of the value added by human labor. More and more lower income people, lesser skilled people, lesser educated and lesser trained people, lesser adaptable people, and now even skilled workers and competent managers are being displaced from their sources of livelihood and income.
      The technological causes of their displacement are often obscured to those displaced. There is not a one-for-one in situs displacement. Technology is remotely centered in different office parks, in different industrial parks, in different automated warehouses, in a bank of servers linked to the ‘cloud.’
      The resulting economy of financial scarcity for those displaced by technology, however overloads our senses with multiple stresses and the mindset of scarcity, and our IQ actually drops 13%. https://www.princeton.edu/news/2013/08/29/poor-concentration-poverty-reduces-brainpower-needed-navigating-other-areas-life
      By providing core basic financial resources, Yang provides a base foundation of abundance and allows us to think harder in alternative creative ways when our jobs are displaced by technology. When things get tough, the tough get thinking harder. Yang is making it possible for Americans to think harder in times of stress, become creative and inventive, with their time and energy to contribute, work and thrive in local communities of abundance in spite of technological displacement.

  2. I wonder how can a person that has studied at the university write such an article. You have not even mentioned a single study of UBI pilot projects, while there are quite a few out there and they show exactly the opposite of what you argue.

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    1. OK, anonymous, how about August of 2018. when the government of Ontario, Canada, announced it was ending a pilot program to guarantee residents a universal basic income. The program, scheduled to run three years, lasted just 15 months.

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      1. The decision to end the Ontario program was not based on any financial grounds, rather the ideology of a very C(c)onservative Premier.

      2. “The lives of more than 400 low-income Ontarians receiving a basic income under the province’s three-year pilot project were showing “significant improvements” before the Ford government killed the experiment last summer, according to a new report.

        Participants reported less stress and depression, fewer health problems and a greater ability to work, buy healthy food, upgrade their education and secure stable housing, says the report being released Monday by the Basic Income Canada Network.”

        Toronto Star March 4th 2018,

        You have yet to show any study, merely an anectdote of a political move.

    1. The guy who wrote this article may have a job that he likes. What of the (likely) majority that don’t like their job, and don’t have the means or opportunity to change to something that fulfills them? They could go on the dole, get treated as second class and constantly get hounded by government Bureaucrats. They are not likely to maximize their potential then are they?

  3. It does seem the UBI concept would become a conscience salving way to justify a UBI non starving poor, a wealthy technocracy and a mega rich class of owners of the machines.
    A reorganisation (not simple capitalism) might pull way back on the third mega rich category and re-assign that wealth into societal infrastructure and endeavours (Mars here we come), public research, into health, renewables etc and enable people to build stuff eg say build their own homes. Lots of self improvement moderate wealth accumulation around doing satisfying constructive and artistic type stuff ie reward for work – not necesarily employed for someone else’s wealth accumulation. Need freedom and fair reward doing satisfying stuff and the idea of mega exploitation itself becomes an undesirable thing. Say even Politics and honesty and transparency and all that sort of utopian dream stuff might get a bit of a look in. The existing systems are absolutely certainly corrupt even the so called model versions. ( I am not referring to the US which is a long way short of a good form of democracy).

  4. I’m for it. Yeah, there will be problems. The cheques shouldn’t be so big that you don’t want to find a job as well, and they should displace all sorts of various social interventions as well.

  5. The article acknowledges that job growth due to automation is dwarfed by job destruction from the same, presents one model of how you might extract the money to pay for a UBI, says that this won’t work, presents no alternative, and then spends the rest of its time complaining that people’s lives without work would be meaningless because most people won’t suddenly become polymaths. Boo hoo.

    You guys know the Maslow hierarchy right? You should worry about how people are going to find meaning without work AFTER you’ve solved the problem of how people are going to find sustenance without jobs.

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    1. To walk back my tone but not the content:

      Robots are, barring a luddite uprising, permanently displacing humans to fill slots in an economic engine and not generating nearly as many more slots in return. This much the present article seems to acknowledge.

      But the new ones are genuinely harder to fill, so at best re-skilling is a temporary misdirection, until all the industries that demand a certain strata of labor skill, that the robots currently meet, fully take advantage of it. This is not just musical chairs. This is a rising waterline. (This is sort of also aimed at another Areo UBI article that just went up.)

      There will be enough people who simply won’t be able to make the cut. If they can’t “contribute”, they’ll become a “burden”.

      I have my issues with the premise of just how meaning-starved people would be when they aren’t in need, but granting it, I’m sure we’d love for that to be the problem we have to solve instead.

      I take more issue with the implicit sense that meaning is the harder problem and deserves more attention than coping with the machines that will out-“contribute” people of increasing labor skill level through the foreseeable future.

  6. Some people like to wax on about how UBI may usher in some kind of golden age of science, art, and understanding. I think this is utopian twaddle. I look at the world of the 2000 AD / Judge Dredd series as a more probable outcome. Under a rampant UBI scheme, each live human living completely on UBI payments is a problem — a mouth to feed, one of the herd that produces nothing of value. I think we have at least a moderate probability of flirting with the inconsequentiality of humanity, or at least of most humans. I think it’ll be hard to decide if our world is more Orwellian or Huxleyan.

    The intersection of wild new technologies — the AR / VR / online-merge-offline metaverse, deep learning and synthetic cognition, tiny ubiquitous “Internet of Everything” surveillance drones feeding trillions of pieces of realtime data per second into a central command AI, and eventually brain-to-computer and brain-to-brain communication (both one-way — mind reading and mind control — and two-way — digital telepathy and the hive mind) will make for sweeping changes that we’ll hardly be equipped to keep up with. The future of individual sovereignty and privacy is bleak (http://www.privacysurgeon.org/blog/incision/a-letter-from-the-future-warns-of-the-true-privacy-dystopia/).

    Alternatives? Dunno. But another “letter from the future,” by the World Economic Forum in late 2016, provides for some notional possibility: https://www.forbes.com/sites/worldeconomicforum/2016/11/10/shopping-i-cant-really-remember-what-that-is-or-how-differently-well-live-in-2030/

    There’s a lament toward the end that reads thusly: “My biggest concern is all the people who do not live in our city. Those we lost on the way. Those who decided that it became too much, all this technology. Those who felt obsolete and useless when robots and AI took over big parts of our jobs. Those who got upset with the political system and turned against it. They live different kind of lives outside of the city. Some have formed little self-supplying communities. Others just stayed in the empty and abandoned houses in small 19th century villages.”

    If I’m still around, you may well find me living in one of those “self-supplying communities.”

    1. “one of the herd that produces nothing of value” – Contrary to your negative view of humanity, there are plenty of people who do contribute a great deal without gtting paid for it. And, conversely, there are plenty of jobs which don’t really contribute much of value and which we might be better off if people didn’t do them. Some of the work lawyers do … real estate agents …

      1. No argument really, with either of your contentions. I don’t think I, personally, have a negative view of humanity. I think I am, instead, attributing a negative view of humanity to a set of authorities in a future scenario where government UBI has taken over as the soul source of income and therefore livelihood for a significant swath of the population. I am pessimistic, though, that a majority of people will both choose to and be empowered to contribute positively to society under such an apparatus.

  7. There is already a lot of resentment from middle and upper-middle class tax payers toward those who don’t pay enough tax to cover their own costs to government. Those who shoulder the tax burden feel like they do everything, and others leech off of them.

    Imagine a country where 40% of the people are paid not to work, and the other 60% have to toil all day at their jobs, feeling as though they are supporting the massive raft of freeloaders. Never mind whether they are right or wrong about their actually carrying the load, as tax revenue may be derived from machine work, as the author points out. But the perception among working folk that they work to keep the country running while half the country is paid to watch daytime television… seems like a disaster in the making to me.

  8. There are always jobs, they are just different ones, and they pay so little that people have to work two of them to afford basic necessities. UBI could supplement, but not replace, earnings. The job category I see most replaceable, teachers. If kids were paid half as much to test out half of them would finish high school in a couple years. Most current classes can be had for free on the net.

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  9. This article does a good job of arguing that UBI is bad, and acknowledges why it’s even a discussion point in the first place, but does absolutely nothing to provide for an alternative, rendering it kinda pointless. “People without work have a sense of lacking reason to live,” well thanks, how does the presence or absence of UBI have anything to do with the fact that these people will be out of work regardless? You can’t put half the planet out of work and expect everything will be fine without some massive change in how society functions.

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