As automation and AI destroy millions of middle-income jobs, permanently forcing (primarily male) workers from the workforce, Americans are beginning to reconsider their attitudes toward a radical policy tool that’s popular among some segments of the left: Universal Basic Income.
According to CNBC, a recent poll conducted by Northeastern University and Gallup found that 48% of Americans support the measure. In an association that’s hardly a coincidence, the poll also showed that three-quarters of Americans believe machines will take away more jobs than they’ll generate…
Unsurprisingly 65% of Democrats want to see a universal basic income and 54% of people between the ages of 18 and 35 do. In comparison, just 28% of Republicans support UBI.
While proposals for universal basic income programs vary, the most common one is a system in which the federal government sends out regular checks to everyone, regardless of their earnings or employment. That system is being tested in Canada and Finland, as well as Stockton, California, which recently emerged from bankruptcy but remains mired in poverty.
Support for UBI and wariness about automation/AI have become closely linked in the public consciousness. The movement has even inspired America’s first “anti-automation” presidential candidate: New York businessman Andrew Yang is launching a “longer-than-long-shot bid” for the 2020 Democratic nomination, on a platform of adopting a “freedom dividend” (a fancy term for UBI), to help offset the impact of automation.
Advocates say all of the UBI-focused experiments being conducted are an opportunity to show that the policy could boost both productivity, as well as individual happiness and overall wellbeing.
“The claim is often made that if you give people a basic income, they’ll become lazy and stop doing work,” said Guy Standing, co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network. “It’s an insult to the human condition. Basic incomes tend to increase people’s work rather than reduce it.”
Political philosopher and economist Karl Widerquist remembers a poll from 10 years ago that showed just 12 percent of Americans approved of a universal basic income.
“It’s an enormous increase in support,” Widerquist said.
“We don’t need to threaten people with homelessness and poverty to get them to work,” he added.
“It’s capitalism where income doesn’t start at zero.”
Of course, the odds of UBI actually being enacted in the US are highly unlikely.
Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, estimates that a program providing everyone with $10,000 annually could cost more than $3 trillion a year, a bill that is more likely to increase poverty than reduce it.
“This single-year figure equals more than three-fourths of the entire yearly federal budget – and double the entire budget outside Social Security, Medicare, defense, and interest payments,” Greenstein wrote in a CBPP commentary last year.
Still, a recent McKinsey study found that automation could eliminate up to 800 million jobs by 2030…
…If such a dire outlook comes to pass, the US – and practically every government – will need to devise a plan for mitigating the devastating impact this will have on employment.