We need not fear him. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Learning to live with machines

We need to take the idea of a universal basic income seriously.

Hollywood thinks robots are scary. Films like The Terminator, The Matrix and Blade Runner imagine pretty miserable futures for humanity. The dead world of Pixar's WALL-E might just be the bleakest of them all.

We have more to look forward to than dystopia. Automation technology is going to make our lives easier. But it’s also going to put a lot of people out of work. Taxi drivers, journalists and athletes have everything to fear from self-driving cars, algorithmically-generated news and robotic arms that play a decent game of table tennis. The question of how to absorb these legions of unemployed is going to become a major policy issue.

It would be irresponsible to predict that “jobpocalypse” is around the corner. The T-800 is unlikely to replace dentists, rabbis and gym instructors: a recent Oxford University study found that “only” 47 per cent of US employment is at risk of computerisation within the next decade or two. This will relieve those who already have trouble sleeping in an age of proliferating doom scenarios. But it has not stopped Microsoft founder Bill Gates from worrying about our preparedness for a future in which men and women compete with machines for work. Speaking to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, earlier this month, Gates argued that we are unready for mass automation:

… technology in general will make capital more attractive than labor over time. Software substitution, you know, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses … It’s progressing … And so, you know, we have to adjust, and these things are coming fast. Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower, and I don’t think people have that in their mental model.

Gates’s solution to the looming unemployment crisis lacks imagination. He thinks governments should prop up demand for unskilled labour by lowering statutory minimum wages and reforming tax codes. In other words, politicians should beg corporations to continue hiring individuals in the meatspace and accept that living standards will stall. What will happen when machines become so cheap as to eliminate the need for paid labour is anyone’s guess. Nobody could accuse philanthropist Gates of indifference towards the poor. But there has to be a better way.

An unconditional basic income offers one way out of this dilemma. The concept is simple: have the state pay a lump cash sum into the bank account of every citizen at a regular interval. A minimum standard of living would thus be guaranteed to all whether or not they participate in the labour force. Goodbye poverty, hello robot martinis.

In a piece written last year for the NS, Alex Hern examined the pros and cons of the basic income principle. He concluded that it makes sense from an economic perspective but will never catch on politically. A universal safety net would upset the balance between capital and labour and offend sensibilities about the moral necessity of work. (Conservatives really should be for a basic income, if only because it would eliminate the bureaucracy needed to distribute means-tested transfer payments like pension credit. Milton Friedman was a great advocate of the so-called negative income tax.)

The Swiss may be about to prove Alex wrong when they vote on implementing a basic income of 2,500 francs per month. The rest of us will be more receptive to reform when the machines arrive in earnest and put half of society on the street. Automation will make some of us so fabulously wealthy that we shouldn't think twice about spreading the wealth.

Until then, basic income must become part of our policy vocabulary. Agitation for a higher minimum wage yielded encouraging results at the last Budget. A growing number of employers are adopting living wage policies. Basic income represents the next demand for anyone interested in wealth equality, whether or not they think the robots are coming. Indeed, a recent Rolling Stone article called universal social security one of the five economic reforms Millennials should be fighting for. That story generated over 50,000 Facebook likes and 10,000 comments. Radical income redistribution is a way off. It may never arrive. But it's something worth talking about.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.