Megan McArdle discusses the recent defeat of a Swiss referendum to give every citizen a guaranteed basic income here. As usual, she’s an interesting read, but this is the part that I found most thought-provoking:
Handing out a universal benefit of any size at all will be fantastically expensive. You can make it smaller, of course, but then you don’t get any of the vaunted benefits: It doesn’t prevent the benefit cliffs, doesn’t encourage entrepreneurship, doesn’t lessen the distortions of all the in-kind benefits you’ve left in place.
I suspect this is why the advocates of a UBI have recently become so interested in the problem of robots taking our jobs. The idea is that automation will make human labor so worthless, and make humanity so fantastically wealthy, that we practically won’t notice if we siphon a considerable amount of that money into a benefit that will, effectively, allow people to be permanently unemployed without starving to death. I’m skeptical of this story for a number of reasons — starting with the fact that “the machines are about to put us all out of work” has been a staple of science fiction for a century without coming noticeably closer to science reality. This time may be different, of course; even the boy who cried wolf eventually did come across a predator.
I’m not skeptical of robots taking jobs. This will become a problem, and as much as I’m reflexively against the idea of a UBI it might be a solution, at least for a short term, as robots massively disrupt society both economically and culturally.
NPR has a calculator to determine how likely a job is to be replaced by robots. It is not convincing:
Many interesting thoughts from this article by Vivek Wadhwa.
I think his time horizon is too short but. . .
Within two decades, we will have almost unlimited energy, food, and clean water; advances in medicine will allow us to live longer and healthier lives; robots will drive our cars, manufacture our goods, and do our chores.
There won’t be much work for human beings. Self-driving cars will be commercially available by the end of this decade and will eventually displace human drivers—just as automobiles displaced the horse and buggy—and will eliminate the jobs of taxi, bus, and truck drivers. Drones will take the jobs of postmen and delivery people.
The debates of the next decade will be about whether we should allow human beings to drive at all on public roads. The pesky humans crash into each other, suffer from road rage, rush headlong into traffic jams, and need to be monitored by traffic police. Yes, we won’t need traffic cops either.
“The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”
It’s not all roses and sunshine either. With rampant and rapid automation societies will struggle –culturally, legally, and economically — to adjust fast enough and probably not be very successful in the short run. I do like Mr Wadhwa’s solution though: “The only solution that I see is a shrinking work week. We may perhaps be working for 10 to 20 hours a week instead of the 40 for which we do today.”
I’m a big fan of working less.