Lots of continued buzz these days in technology circles about Universal Basic Income because it’s assumed UBI is the best (or only) solution for a future where automation and AI dramatically shrink the number of jobs available. Although the American economy has already experienced a pretty significant shift in jobs over the past half-century towards roles that are thought to be less exposed to these risks, there are many signs of economic dislocation among the middle and lower classes today.
I’m actually quite bearish near/medium term on UBI as the right solution. Not because of any philosophical opposition and certainly not because I think it’s economically impossible, but rather because UBI tends to ignore the self-worth aspect of a job. We’ll make the numbers work far sooner than we’ll be able to change the societal aspects of how, in our culture, your job is a source of identity, pride and connectedness. My best guess is that any UBI initiative is going to need to coincide with a pretty dramatic and sustained cultural shift where we start to value other ways of contributing — volunteerism and civic participation, artistic expression, mastery of skills outside a work environment.
Large portions of America right now doesn’t believe the institution of government works for them or respects them. And our current President is exploiting this feeling to further suggest government is broken, perhaps irreparably. In 2018 and 2020 the Democrats need to unify behind a platform that is aggressively worker-friendly. We’re not going to navigate further technology-driven disruptions unless our country’s citizens believe we’re doing it together. Otherwise I fear we’re going to continue to break apart or regulate away innovation and put the US economy at risk of missing the coming advances in robotics, AI, automation and bioscience.
The technology industry is no longer an underdog. It’s a giant. A clumsy giant when it comes to fully understanding the attention and skepticism our power is attracting. For both moral and strategic reasons, we should be lining up to support progressive politicians on three main platforms.
- Increase the minimum wage to $15. That’s the message – $15. If you end up indexing that geographically against cost of living, that can be figured out in the details. But the top-line message is $15.
- Portable benefits cosponsored by public and private (health, disability, unemployment, etc). Your safety net isn’t tied to employment, it’s tied to citizenship. And businesses will pay their portion proportional to the percent of hours or income they provide.
- Vocational training. Rethink government-subsidized student loans and employer tax breaks to provide incentives for continuous upskilling of employees. There are going to be jobs, we just can’t always predict the skills needed. So let’s rebuild our education system to think about keeping people employable.
I’m also a strong believer in small business (with an emphasis on women and non-white entrepreneurs who traditionally haven’t been supported in wealth creation), immigration (especially into America’s colleges and universities), collective bargaining via unions and simplified tax codes. I lack expertise in these policy areas generally and also acknowledge there’s always a study or think tank which argues the other side of any of these issues. But at both a system-level (what set of changes do we need to make in concert) and at an emotional one (what is going to bring us back together), this is where I land.
If we can get behind a small number of understandable and implementable benefits for the majority of American workers I believe we can cross party lines and unify those who feel destabilized by wealth inequality. And with that renewed trust and new leaders, we can create the foundation to longterm implement UBI or other more radical notions. But we can’t start there today and we can’t get there if we don’t do something now.