Massive, disruptive change is happening in the world economy. Up to half of all current workers, both white and blue collar, could be driven into unemployment by technology. Automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are fueling a new industrial revolution.
Once again, as in the past when steam, fossil fuels and biotechnology upended lives and fortunes, workers are getting the short end of the stick—this time robots may come for our jobs. Unless, as science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson warns, we become the robots ourselves, first.
Instead of tinkering around the edges, several recent authors make a forceful case for a bold solution to our society’s growing levels of inequality and economic insecurity: a universal basic income (UBI). Andy Stern and Lee Kravitz kicked off the current explosion of discussion around UBI in 2016 with Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream. Their volume, like Annie Lowrey’s new book, Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World, makes a clear argument for giving people money to lift them out of poverty and smooth out their experiences of dislocation as the economy changes around them.
It is the ‘activity-based’ progression of automation that causes the most disruption. Stern starts with the story of his journey up the ladders of labor to the helm of SEIU, and then into a five-year deep dive on the future of work. He describes how labor has become far more productive in the past several decades, but the wages of workers have stagnated. Pieces of what we do, not entire jobs, are more efficient because of the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution. Economist Thomas Piketty’s now-famous equation from his 2013 magnum opus, Capital, sums this up: Since 1979, r (the rate of return on capital) has been greater than g (the rate of economic growth), leading to more inequality.
Lowrey and Stern describe in detail how income inequality is rising, with wealth concentrating at the top. Full-time work with benefits and retirement is becoming rare, and the jobless ‘recovery’ that followed the 2008 financial crash has created low-wage jobs instead of good jobs.
Lots of people around the world live in extreme poverty, including 18.5 million Americans. Stern sums this up well: “Combine technological unemployment with the two great de-couplings (growth from income, and work from jobs), add a dash of globalization and income inequality, and you get a highly combustible brew.”