Basic income versus the robots

An economic all-stars match-up.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the idea of a citizen's income: the state replacing the vast majority of the benefit system with one cash payment made to everyone, regardless of employment or income.

The advantages of such a change are legion. At a stroke, the thorny issues of incentives are done away with, since work always pays; the deadweight loss associated with means testing disappears (albeit replaced with the deadweight loss of giving money to people who don't need it); those most likely to fall through the cracks of a regimented welfare state find the barrier to re-entry done away with; and it allows for a recognition of the value of certain types of non-market labour, like caring or raising children.

The New York Times' Paul Krugman and the Financial Times' Izabella Kaminska now wade into the fray, proposing another advantage of the policy: its redistributive effect.

Now, redistribution is already, prima facie, one of the absolute best things a government can do. Simply put, rich people don't need money, and poor people do. All else being equal, taking some money from rich people and giving it to poor people is therefore the absolute best way to improve worldwide welfare we know of.

The problem is that all else is not equal: the act of taking and giving money changes people's actions in material ways. Giving or taking money from people changes their incentives, and may lead to sub-optimal decisions. So even if, on first assessment, redistribution is great, it may not be quite as effective as it ought to be.

But Krugman and Kaminska argue that there's a strong chance that redistribution will get significantly more important in the near future. That's because, they fear, all our jobs will be taken by robots.

(Well, alright, not robots exactly. Think of "robots" as a short-hand for a huge amount of automation, from factories running with fewer staff, through genuine robots doing work like caring for the elderly, all the way to the replacement of white-collar jobs in journalism or law with algorithms which can write financial stories or legal documents automatically).

For the most part, all our jobs being taken by robots isn't that bad a thing. What that would mean in practice is that we would have the same standard of living that we have now, and wouldn't need to work for it. That's actually pretty great.

The problem comes when the benefits from increased automation accrue, not to society at large, but to one small subset of society: the robot owners. (In other words, the problem comes when automation meets capitalism. But let's not go there)

Krugman writes:

I’ve noted before that the nature of rising inequality in America changed around 2000. Until then, it was all about worker versus worker; the distribution of income between labor and capital — between wages and profits, if you like — had been stable for decades. Since then, however, labor’s share of the pie has fallen sharply. As it turns out, this is not a uniquely American phenomenon. A new report from the International Labor Organization points out that the same thing has been happening in many other countries, which is what you’d expect to see if global technological trends were turning against workers.

And Kaminska adds:

The new inequality we are seeing has little to do with how well educated you are. It’s hard to penetrate beyond the barrier on education alone. The new inequality is about capital owners and non-capital owners.

And increasingly, it’s about technology capital owners. Those who own the robots and the tech are becoming the new landlord rentier types.

If automation does squeeze the labour market – even if it's just temporarily – then a basic income may be a good way to respond to it. That's especially the case if its implemented somewhat pre-emptively, avoiding the massive social upheaval caused during the last time technology disrupted the labour market this way: the industrial revolution. That only shook out fully once half the ruling class had been massacred in the First World War, and the Labour Party nationalised many of the companies owned by the other half.

More than being just an evergreen idea, a basic income is a policy whose time has definitely come.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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7 problems with the Snooper’s Charter, according to the experts

In short: it was written by people who "do not know how the internet works".

A group of representatives from the UK Internet Service Provider’s Association (ISPA) headed to the Home Office on Tuesday to point out a long list of problems they had with the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill (that’s Snooper’s Charter to you and me). Below are simplified summaries of their main points, taken from the written evidence submitted by Adrian Kennard, of Andrews and Arnold, a small ISP, to the department after the meeting. 

The crucial thing to note is that these people know what they're talking about - the run the providers which would need to completely change their practices to comply with the bill if it passed into law. And their objections aren't based on cost or fiddliness - they're about how unworkable many of the bill's stipulations actually are. 

1. The types of records the government wants collected aren’t that useful

The IP Bill places a lot of emphasis on “Internet Connection Records”; i.e. a list of domains you’ve visited, but not the specific pages visited or messages sent.

But in an age of apps and social media, where we view vast amounts of information through single domains like Twitter or Facebook, this information might not even help investigators much, as connections can last for days, or even months. Kennard gives the example of a missing girl, used as a hypothetical case by the security services to argue for greater powers:

 "If the mobile provider was even able to tell that she had used twitter at all (which is not as easy as it sounds), it would show that the phone had been connected to twitter 24 hours a day, and probably Facebook as well… this emotive example is seriously flawed”

And these connection records are only going to get less relevant over time - an increasing number of websites including Facebook and Google encrypt their website under "https", which would make finding the name of the website visited far more difficult.

2. …but they’re still a massive invasion of privacy

Even though these records may be useless when someone needs to be found or monitored, the retention of Internet Connection Records (IRCs) is still very invasive – and can actually yield more information than call records, which Theresa May has repeatedly claimed are the non-digital equivalent of ICRs. 

Kennard notes: “[These records] can be used to profile them and identify preferences, political views, sexual orientation, spending habits and much more. It is useful to criminals as it would easily confirm the bank used, and the time people leave the house, and so on”. 

This information might not help find a missing girl, but could build a profile of her which could be used by criminals, or for over-invasive state surveillance. 

3. "Internet Connection Records" aren’t actually a thing

The concept of a list of domain names visited by a user referred to in the bill is actually a new term, derived from “Call Data Record”. Compiling them is possible, but won't be an easy or automatic process.

Again, this strongly implies that those writing the bill are using their knowledge of telecommunications surveillance, not internet era-appropriate information. Kennard calls for the term to be removed, or at least its “vague and nondescript nature” made clear in the bill.

4. The surveillance won’t be consistent and could be easy to dodge

In its meeting with the ISPA, the Home Office implied that smaller Internet service providers won't be forced to collect these ICR records, as it would use up a lot of their resources. But this means those seeking to avoid surveillance could simply move over to a smaller provider.

5. Conservative spin is dictating the way we view the bill 

May and the Home Office are keen for us to see the surveillance in the bill as passive: internet service providers must simply log the domains we visit, which will be looked at in the event that we are the subject of an investigation. But as Kennard notes, “I am quite sure the same argument would not work if, for example, the law required a camera in every room in your house”. This is a vast new power the government is asking for – we shouldn’t allow it to play it down.

6. The bill would allow our devices to be bugged

Or, in the jargon, used in the draft bill, subjected to “equipment interference”. This could include surveillance of everything on a phone or laptop, or even turning on its camera or webcam to watch someone. The bill actually calls for “bulk equipment interference” – when surely, as Kennard notes, “this power…should only be targeted at the most serious of criminal suspects" at most.

7. The ability to bug devices would make them less secure

Devices can only be subject to “equipment interference” if they have existing vulnerabilities, which could also be exploited by criminals and hackers. If security services know about these vulnerabilities, they should tell the manufacturer about them. As Kennard writes, allowing equipment interference "encourages the intelligence services to keep vulnerabilities secret” so they don't lose surveillance methods. Meanwhile, though, they're laying the population open to hacks from cyber criminals. 


So there you have it  – a compelling soup of misused and made up terms, and ethically concerning new powers. Great stuff. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.