Some Thoughts on Capitalism, Universal Basic Income, and Automation

The concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI) is not new, but surprisingly few have heard of it or truly understand the reason for it and why, now more than ever, it is vitally important. In simplest terms, UBI is a regular cash payment made to every person. You don’t need to work for it and you can do anything you want with it. Some see it as money for nothing, a lazy person’s way of getting a handout from the rest of society.

Proponents, many of whom don’t actually ‘need’ UBI, see it as a necessary means to keep the wheels of civilization running smoothly as automation increasingly renders many, if not most, of our current jobs redundant.

Automation replacing human workers by the millions is not mere fantasy, and unlike previous ‘industrial’ revolutions, we are entering an age where machines can, and will, do everything we can do. In earlier times, we could always say, “Well, sure machines can do this or that really well, but only humans can do this other thing.” That is no longer the case as we enter a time where there is really nothing that a human can do (I’m talking about ‘jobs’ here) that a machine cannot do.

Pretending the problem isn’t real and suggesting that ‘people are just lazy’ or some other nonsense will bring about a future that will make the world wars seem like the good old days. Yeah, it’s that bad. It’s been said that the devil has work for idle hands. Imagine millions of idle hands, and now imagine that they don’t have enough to eat. More than one revolution or war has started for reasons as mundane as the need to put food on the table. We don’t need to go too far back to find examples. The Arab Spring began as demonstrations over high bread prices.

People have fairly basic needs and desires. Most of these have to do with living well and providing the same for your family. Most of us want to work, but not too hard. Life is, after all, for living. Give most humans a roof over their heads, a safe place to raise kids, food enough to fill bellies, and the chance to explore what the world has to offer, and most people will need little else. Notice I didn’t write ‘want‘ but ‘need‘. ‘Want’ is something else.

The coming, and unstoppable, wave of automation, led by increasingly capable machines and artificial intelligence, will forever change our world. Millions upon millions will find themselves without jobs and without any realistic future job prospects. Telling those people that they just need to suck it up, or to move, or to get retrained, or to find other work so that we can keep the engine of capitalism humming along will only lead to disaster.

Idle hands, remember?

We could, however, just as likely enter something akin to the Star Trek universe (minus the war with Klingons and Romulans) if we understand that defining people by what they do and forcing them to ‘earn’ their right to live, is a thing of the past; a vestigial organ from an earlier time. Like an appendix.

Capitalism is a lot like fossil fuels. It helped create our modern world, but it is starting to cause more harm than good. We can’t just dump capitalism overnight, but we must start to transition away from it. That’s what Universal Basic Income is; the first step in the transition to whatever comes next.

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