by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Much of universal basic income’s allure lies in its elegant simplicity. Replace all welfare programs with government checks for all. At least that’s how it basically works in theory.
Of course, implementing a universal basic income scheme — particularly in a large, diverse, kludgy nation like the United States — would likely be anything but simple. (The version Switzerland is voting on next week is additive and wouldn’t replace existing programs.) Universal health care sounds pretty straightforward, after all, but ObamaCare is anything but. The only thing the public and policymakers could be sure of would be messy politics and myriad unintended consequences and trade-offs.
Then again, big problems require big solutions — even though they also generate lots of disruption. So if the universal basic income is the big solution, what’s the big problem?
Proponents argue there is one: technological unemployment. It’s probably no coincidence that wonk enthusiasm for universal basic income in the U.S. is growing along with rising public concern about robots taking our jobs. It’s hardly an unfounded fear. Artificial intelligence and robots do seem to be getting ever-more clever and capable. Drones delivering packages. Cars driving themselves. Software winning at Jeopardy! and Go. One widely cited Oxford study estimates that 47 percent of total U.S. employment, “could be automated relatively soon, perhaps over the next decade or two.” So no time like the present to get universal basic income up and running so we can work out the kinks, yes?
But what if the robots don’t take all our jobs? What if they just change them a lot, at least over the next generation or so?
Maybe the real policy priority should be making sure that workers can do more of what robots can’t and a dynamic economy produces a never-ending supply of new jobs for the robots to try and steal. “Journalists and expert commentators overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labor and ignore the strong complementarities that increase productivity, raise earnings, and augment demand for skilled labor,” economist David Autor says. Maybe we should race with the machines as opposed to against them, in the metaphor of MIT’s Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. As for the weak 2000s job market, Autor thinks a series of one-off economic blows — the bursting of the dot-com and housing bubbles, the financial crisis, and China trade shock — are likelier culprits than automation.