An Idea Whose Time is Coming

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Benoit Hamon, the French Socialist Party candidate chosen by primary voters this week, has a plan.  He wants to provide everyone in France with a basic income.  The idea has been around for generations.  Why now?  Because Hamon thinks robots are coming for our jobs and we’re going to need to share the wealth they create.

U.S. companies and entrepreneurs are flirting with the idea as well. If advanced artificial intelligence can really replace workers at all skill levels, then there might not be enough work to go around.  Brynjolffson and McAfee warn that education and skills training might not keep pace with rapidly advancing technological change – by the time workers learned new skills they would already be made obsolete by the evolution of smart machines.

Of course, this hasn’t really happened up to now.  Automation and computer technology have created more jobs than they destroy. When companies introduce automation, it cheapens the costs of production so much that they need new workers to keep up with the increased demand. That’s why introducing ATM machines lowered the cost of branch banks, making it economical to open more branches, and creating more jobs for bank tellers.  It’s why robots in warehouses mean fewer workers per warehouse, but a lot more warehouses and more warehousing jobs for people.

But the new jobs often need new skills. One way to keep up with technological change is take on the challenge of racing with machines.  We need better skills programs to match people to 21st Century jobs.  How else will we keep up with the demand for workers in high paying manufacturing jobs?

There’s no question that our economy over the long haul might become less labor intensive. Over the years, the amount of time spent at work has declined dramatically – from almost 60 hours per week in 1900, to 50.6 hours per week in 1930, and to around 41 hours per week today.  We have enormous leisure time that was unheard of 100 years ago – shorter working days and weeks, vacations, holidays, and retirement.  John Maynard Keynes thought that the workweek would shorten to 15 hours due to “our discovery of means of economizing the use of labor outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labor.”  Artificial intelligence might finally be realizing this dream of increased productivity and leisure time.

If our personal income stayed the same and we gained more leisure, we’d all be better off. But right now people are paid only for the work they do, and there’s no guarantee that fewer hours of work would generate the same level of income.  Moreover, some people will not be able to find work at all as machines become increasingly capable.  It is unrealistic to expect that all truck drivers replaced by autonomous vehicles will find new jobs as coders.

Enter the universal basic income. Under such a plan everyone would get a certain amount just for being alive.  The French socialist proposal was for “the introduction of a 750-euros ($810) a month payment to all citizens.”  Some estimate this would cost 480 billion euros a year, equal to 22 percent of France’s entire economic output. A tax on industrial robots could help to pay for it.  This is quite a radical change from current institutional customs and procedures.

Robots will make us richer, and as Hamon says a universal basic income is a way to share this bounty.  Of course, it is only prudent first to try to race more effectively with the machines through improved skills training before we go down this road.  An improved social safety net might care for those displaced by automation. But it is worth keeping an eye on what the society of future might look like and how work will change its purpose and meaning when we need to do less of it.

Mark Mark MacCarthy, Senior Vice President, Public Policy at SIIA, directs SIIA’s public policy initiatives in the areas of intellectual property enforcement, information privacy, cybersecurity, cloud computing and the promotion of educational technology. Follow Mark on Twitter at @Mark_MacCarthy.