- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Nearly half of Americans support a universal basic income (UBI) program to offset jobs lost to robots and artificial intelligence, according to a new Gallup poll.

What that means in the most basic of terms is this: Nearly half of Americans support the idea of tax dollars being used to pay people for the prime reason of being alive.

Come again?

Yes, that’s a pretty eye-opening finding for a country that rose to greatness on the old bootstrap approach to self-reliance — for a nation that’s still supposedly capitalistic and, dare it be said, limited in government powers.

Paying people to breathe would seem to run counter to that.

But UBI has its supporters, particularly in the technology and corporate worlds — and here’s why.

UBI has been undercutting discussions on robotic development in recent years as a means of providing for the those in society who find themselves on the unemployment line, displaced by technology. Some of the most vulnerable to automation: Food services’ workers, manufacturing employees and those in transportation, warehousing and even agriculture and retail.

Corporate chiefs want the savings from automation without the bad PR that comes from mass layoffs. So it’s easy to see why companies, by and large, support the UBI.

Researchers and scientists, meanwhile, see it as the natural next step in the progress of artificial intelligence.

Depending on who’s asked, the actual estimate of the looming artificial intelligence-related unemployment fallout varies widely. One famous study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne for the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, published in September 2013, analyzed 702 different occupations in the United States and found roughly 47 percent of them were at risk of computerization.

Another, more recent study from the McKinsey Global Institute, released January 2017, found that “about half the activities people are paid to do globally could theoretically be automated using currently demonstrated technologies.”

Research firm PwC, meanwhile, predicted just a few months later that about 40 percent of U.S. jobs could become filled by robots within 15 years — sending a significant portion of America’s workforce scurrying for alternative sources of revenue.

Enter, UBI.

“I think we’ll end up doing universal basic income,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk told a World Government Summit crowd in Dubai in February 2017. “It’s going to be necessary … There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better.”

Billionaire Richard Branson similarly told CNN in February 2018 that cash hand-outs were the way to offset unemployment caused by technological gain.

“I think, with the coming on of AI and other things, there is certainly a danger of income inequality,” he said, adding that a UBI should be established “so that there is nobody that is having to sleep on the street. One hundred percent, I think that is really important.”

Finland’s been testing a national UBI for a while; The New York Times noted its progress in a July 2017 story with a headline that blasted, “Why Finland’s Basic Income Experiment Isn’t Working.”

India, meanwhile, has been flirting with the idea, and may replace its welfare system with a UBI program within the next couple years. And Stockton, California, just started a Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration initiative that gives $500 a month to the city’s poorest residents — a takeoff of UBI, minus the technology job-loss angle.

But as a top-down federal government program in America? America, home of the free, land of the hard-working, country of the “no thanks, I don’t take charity” types?

It shouldn’t be. Yet Gallup said 48 percent in the United States now support a universal basic income program, and 46 percent would approve higher taxes to pay for it. Predictably enough, perhaps, it’s the younger generations who like the idea of receiving the hand-out most. Fifty-four percent of those between the ages of 18 and 35 said they liked the idea of the UBI, versus only 38 percent of those over the age of 66.

Still, the long-term consequences have to be considered. Yes, technology is coming, and yes, that means jobs lost to robots and machines. The automatic fix doesn’t have to be government hand-out, though. Not only could a UBI put a drain on the hard-working and taxpaying citizens of America. But also — and even worse — the principle of a UBI is distinctly anti-American.

As Thomas Straubhaar with the University of Hamburg put it, in his “On the Economics of a Universal Basic Income” article in mid-2017, the UBI, at its full implementation, is cradle-to-grave welfare.

It’s a nanny stater’s dream.

“The UBI is an unconditional cash payment that flows monthly from the state budget to everybody,” Mr. Straubhaar wrote. “It is transferred from public to private accounts throughout an entire lifetime, from birth to death, without any application or preconditions to be fulfilled by the beneficiary. It is supposed to cover the socio-cultural subsistence minimum.”

Does that sound like something the Founding Fathers would have approved as they were considering the pros and cons of a powerful federal force versus a system of state and individual rights?

No, not at all.

The real answer to the technological torrent that’s coming is not for humans to say, “Oh, well, the robots are here. Time to head home and cash my UBI check.” The real solution is for companies to recognize the full value of their employees and start now to retrain the best and the brightest for alternative positions, and simultaneously, for the currently employed to take note of the warnings and to respond accordingly — to respond as self-reliant Americans always do.

More education? More training? More attention toward broadening skills and talents? Whatever it takes. That’s the American way.

Entrepreneurship. Initiative. Guts, grit, determination and pluck. When adversity knocks, Americans open the door.

Right? Right.

Not right.

Sadly, as Gallup shows, fewer and fewer believe similarly. More and more just want the free money.

Cheryl Chumley can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter, @ckchumley.


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