Suppose the government mailed you a no-strings-attached check for $1,200 every month. What would you do with the money? Stow it away in a contingency fund? Invest it? Given the additional spending power, would you be comfortable reducing your hours at work? Maybe you’d quit your job altogether, after saving up checks to fund a brand new business venture, or perhaps you’d simply pack up and take that extra-long vacation you’ve always dreamed about.
Such are the questions posed to the public by an increasingly vocal band of researchers, economists, politicians and entrepreneurs, all grappling to validate or disprove the social practicality of instituting a universal basic income (UBI). The idea behind UBI is simple: everyone—regardless of their income, employment status, or other variables—receives an incremental sum every month, in payments that span the course of a lifetime.
With every job lost to automation, the case for UBI becomes harder to ignore. There is compelling evidence to indicate that we may be teetering on the brink of a new industrial revolution, where factory operations are guided by AI and robots carry out traditionally blue collar tasks. A 2013 Oxford study estimates that 47% of US jobs could be automated within 20 years, and last year, the White House Council of Economic Advisors predicted that workers earning less than $20 an hour have an 83% chance of losing their jobs to automation within the same timeframe.
While the circumstances are certainly different, concerns for the economic well-being of average folks have been raised for centuries, especially in advance of massive change. Relevant ideas were floated amid the renaissance by 16th century social philosopher Thomas More, and the concept of a minimum income piqued the curiosity of Thomas Paine, founding father and author of the famed revolutionary treatise “Common Sense.” Conservative economists such as Friedrich Hayek thought UBI could provide a sensible alternative to overbearing social welfare programs, while Civil Rights giants like Martin Luther King considered it on moral grounds. The notion of a basic income even captivated the likes of Richard Nixon; his administration experimented with UBI policies in several states.
The debate over UBI has a habit of erupting during times of great social or technological upheaval, but the rise of robotics may have fundamentally altered the way economic patterns played out in the past, when the job displacement in wake of monumental technology shifts was offset by the creation of fresh—and usually better—job opportunities. According to software entrepreneur Martin Ford, the types of routine, predictable work between which less-educated employees have traditionally migrated following a technological revolution are exactly the jobs that will be automated in the future. Only this time, says Ford, the dispersal will occur not just across agriculture and manufacturing, but nearly every industry.
Critics of UBI note that even by conservative estimates, such a program would cost the US trillions per year. They argue that a basic income would disincentivize innovation by rewarding people for nothing, and they think it might be jumping the gun to assume that the industrial revolution in its automated form will not end up creating entirely new—and presently unfathomable—fields of employment in the future, just like its predecessors.
Automation will reshape the professional landscape for many, but the exact form of the future’s job market remains inconclusive. Forecasting is useful, but only time can truly tell whether any economic boon that might result from relying on the labor of unpaid robots could produce a surplus substantial enough to fund UBI’s tremendous expenses, or if those who reap the profits of automation would even be willing to cut the check. If—–as some predict—it could, and they would, it’s still unsettled whether UBI would have a net positive effect on its recipients lives and the state of the economy in the long run.