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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Conservatives should be able to get behind a universal basic income, too

by David Atkins

Yesterday at the Washington Monthly I riffed on my own Hullabaloo bit from Friday on universal basic income, but more importantly on Max Ehrenfreund's at the Washington Post to explore the potential bipartisan appeal of UBI:

This is one of the beautiful things about universal basic income: it has legitimate cross-partisan appeal, even if it seems wacky at first glance to centrists (who are often the very last people to recognize a good policy idea when they see one.)

To a conservative, a direct money grant is an opportunity to shed cumbersome government bureaucracy, consolidating a number of overlapping needs-based targeted grants with a single, universal, simplified program that costs far less to administer.

To those of a more futurist and progressive slant like myself, the basic universal income is an answer to the problems of globalization, mechanization, deskilling and flattening of the labor force. While there have certainly been myriad political decisions made to further the interests of the very wealthy over those of the middle class, there has also been a “natural” workforce shift in which a large number of jobs that used to be done by humans are either done by machine, or have simply become redundant with the advent on online business models, or have been replaced with much cheaper labor abroad.

Part of this is natural technological churn that has been with us since the industrial revolution. But the advent of both the Internet and smart machines combined with the rapid pace of globalization make the current mechanization phenomenon different from those that have come before. A huge number of manufacturing jobs are already gone as we already know. Service jobs are following on their heels both due to online business models and mechanized replacement: self-driving cars will put cabbies, truck drivers and the entire auto sales industry out of business; chain restaurants are already taking orders using tablets; etc.

Soon enough the white collar jobs will follow as big data analysis sees everyone from stock analysts to diagnosticians replaced with programs that can do their jobs better than any human.

There just aren’t going to be enough jobs to go around. That doesn’t mean there isn’t enough productive work to be done, whether it be in rebuilding America’s infrastructure, implementing an Apollo program for green energy and conservation, or just giving people the freedom to be creative, build businesses, and follow their dreams without fear of ruin. But the old model of capital ownership grudgingly needing human labor at a decent price in order to take surplus value and profit off of that labor isn’t going to work anymore for the majority of people.
We're going to get there, or we hit some sort of history-changing technological singularity, or society breaks down. Or some combination of the above.

It would be nice if we could move the process along a bit faster and stop spending so much time defending the systemically unsustainable and morally untenable status quo.