The Robots Can Save Us: Automation, Basic Income, and the return of a true market economy

This is quickly becoming one of my favourite quotes from The Simpsons.  This episode was released in 1997 - before military tacticians were even considering drones - but once again The Simpsons were ahead of the curve.  

To me, though, this quote doesn't only pertain to the military, but many other industries as well.  It's becoming clear that farmingmining, manufacturing, and even article writing can be automated (well fuck).  Even seemingly innocuous developments such as self driving cars may dismantle transportation and inner city transit industries. Automation is cheaper and more efficient for corporations, so why would they keep humans around to do a worse job?  The Automated Revolution will happen in our life time, and it is vital that governments and corporations adjust accordingly.  We will always need  people to build and maintain these robots, but there is no way these maintenance jobs will be enough to fill the employment gaps that automation will leave in its wake.  

Many believe that the answer is Universal Basic Income (UBI).  UBI is a form of social security which will give citizens an unconditional sum of money.  When they say unconditional, they mean it.  You will receive that amount of money regardless of your salary, status, health, or credit score.  

That's pretty friggin' communist, Mike.

Calm down, Other Mike.  Yes receiving income from the state may appear to be in line with the tenants of communism, but I would argue that UBI presents a new and different way of exploring the citizen-state relationship, and it will ultimately reinvigorate our market economy.  

The first thing to consider is that it puts power back into the hands of the people.  While there are many different approaches to UBI, the general consensus is that it would relieve the pressure currently placed on state run welfare systems.  To put it simply (very very simply) the money that the state usually spends on the welfare system, whether it be the bureaucracy or the actual money itself, will be distributed evenly across the board.  It effectively eliminates a government organization and hands power directly back to the people.  

But people are lazy! If given a basic income they'll just sit around getting drunk all day!

That probably says more about you than it does humanity, Other Mike.  It's not like this idea is coming out of no where.  Dauphin, Manitoba experimented with the idea over 40 years ago.  It nearly eliminated poverty in the small city, but once the Conservative took power provincially and federally, they had no interest in pursuing the idea.  It makes sense.  They didn't have robots available to take over mining and manufacturing jobs.  But today we do.  

People had the freedom to pursue their interests in Dauphin.  A hairdresser could go to work and feel safe knowing that she could always feed her family and her kids could stay in school.

Today, this would be embodied by a slew of new small businesses. Starting a business is already easier than ever with the advent of online marketplaces, but with the freedom of UBI and automation, citizens will have the ability to pursue their passion.  Most new businesses will either go under or fail to evolve beyond niche markets, but UBI will catalyze the growth of new brands and innovation.  Who knows what type of technical or cultural innovations that are stuck up in the heads of factory workers who are focused on working so their families doesn't die? New art, new tech, and really delicious pastries could all be the direct result of UBI.

It's not just the little guy who will benefit from automation.  It goes without saying that companies will pursue automation due to its cost effectiveness and efficiency.  Goods will be cheaper to produce, and with the expanding global market, companies will be pressured to keep their prices competitive.  

How cheap can things get?

Well, you know how most things are cheap because they come from China, or other places with extremely low standards of workplace conditions? Well, as cited before, production is proving to be more efficient in China since turning to automation.  One factory saw a 162% increase in production and had errors reduce from 25% to below 5%.  Basically, these robots are cheaper than slave labour.

I'm not one to put my trust into the hands of billionaires (like I have a choice, amirite?), but the necessity to keep costs down due to global competition will only be a dent in the profits they stand to make from automation.

Speaking of the billionaires, aren't they going to try to shut UBI down? How can giving away large sums of money to the poor possibly help their agenda? Well, you still need consumers, and as automation approaches, we're being faced with the reality that 35% of future jobs will be outsourced to machines.  Keeping that percentage of people destitute isn't good for anyone.  It's the type of thing that leads to death, squalor, anger and eventual revolution.  They'll give us our paltry UBI.

So automation leads to a job gap, and these jobs will be supplanted by a Universal Basic Income.  If you still think I'm crazy, just know that countries like Canada, Finland, and the Netherlands are already taking steps to establish a UBI.  The province of Ontario is releasing their UBI plan in 2017.  

Will these two things necessarily go hand in hand? Of course not.  Along the way we're sure to find some rogue state that manages to automate their nation's industries, nationalize production, and pocket the profits while their people starve.  It's what humans do.  But when automation becomes internationally ubiquitous, nations that adopt some form of UBI will assert themselves as the moral authority.  

Of course, this will lead to a slew of other problems.  I look forward to the day where a national controversy erupts over the suspension of UBI to convicts and immigrants.  Heated debates over cutting off people's lifelines because they were in possession of some illegal drugs will erupt in many of the UBI nations - you heard it hear first.  And frankly, it's a debate I look forward to.