We need not fear him. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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.

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South Africa’s new dawn: How Jacob Zuma’s misrule was ended

“We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade.”

On the afternoon of 13 February, as South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma was recalled by his party, the African National Congress (ANC), a popular Johannesburg radio station began receiving calls about a peculiar incident.

A truck had lost its load along the M2 highway and people were scurrying to pick up what they believed to be tiny nuggets of unprocessed gold. The highway became congested as motorists pulled over to join the search. Even for a city that rose from the dust of a gold rush, this was a bizarre scene.

The first radio caller was giddy with excitement, as was the second. The third did what South Africans do best: he made light of an otherwise confusing and anxious day in the young nation’s history. “It’s manna from heaven,” the caller said. “Zuma’s just been recalled and already the roads are paved in gold.” Nine years into the president’s disastrous rule, South Africans had not lost their sense of humour – and were awaiting a new dawn. The police cleared the scene along the M2, no one proclaimed a worthy find and the nation returned to waiting for Zuma’s next move.

Technically, the president did not have to resign as head of state, despite the opposition of the ANC, the proud liberation movement turned ruling party that Zuma led for a decade until December 2017. Realistically, he had no options left.

With an overwhelming majority in parliament, the ANC was ready to table a motion of no confidence the next day. Defiant to the end, these final hours on the eve of Valentine’s Day were Zuma’s last stand.

They called him the “unstoppable tsunami” and with good reason. Zuma damaged South Africa and the ANC in ways only history will fully capture. He wrecked a country struggling to rebuild itself under the shadow of apartheid. Under his rule, the economy stagnated, unemployment rose, poverty grew, violent crime spiked and corruption became endemic.

“South Africa was headed in the wrong direction,” says Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, which governs in cities including Johannesburg and Cape Town. “We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade,” the political analyst Stephen Grootes concludes.

Zuma lurched from one scandal to the next. He was acquitted of rape, avoided almost 800 corruption charges for over a decade and nearly crashed the economy by recklessly firing a respected finance minister. Taxpayers were misled over exorbitant upgrades to his private mansion (a swimming pool was defended as a fire-fighting feature) and his friendship with the controversial Gupta family placed him at the heart of what became known as “state capture”: the looting of state coffers through the corruption of senior government officials.

“State and independent institutions were repurposed for the enrichment and protection of Jacob Zuma,” says political commentator Justice Malala. “He went through the guts of the framework, pulled out the institutions he needed and systematically broke them down or took away their independence.”

The institutions ranged from the tax revenue service to the public broadcaster, from the police to the prosecuting authority, and from the intelligence services to crucial industries such as mining.

Although constitutionally barred from governing beyond 2019, Zuma was widely believed to have engineered a plan to hold on to power (and avoid prosecution) through his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who was campaigning to take over from him. By December, when the ANC met to pick its next leader, who would go on to become the country’s president in 2019, a mood of despair and hopelessness had set in.

The race was close. In the end, 179 votes out of nearly 5,000 cast separated Dlamini-Zuma from her challenger, Cyril Ramaphosa, a former union leader and businessman who had campaigned on an anti-corruption and pro-growth platform.

Ramaphosa’s victory in mid-December was a turning point. It removed the prospect of Zuma’s continued rule, began an instant shift in political power and sparked a moment of renewed hope. Ramaphosa had his own controversies, but was viewed as largely incorruptible. He had risen through the trade unions, served the ANC and built his wealth in the private sector. 

Following Ramaphosa’s election, the extent of state capture emerged through superb investigative journalism.

Politically driven prosecutions fell away, a hugely unpopular nuclear energy deal with Russia was frozen and, as Zuma was being recalled, police cars arrived outside the home of the Gupta family.

And yet, the president refused to leave the Union Buildings quietly, prompting comparisons with Margaret Thatcher. “He was the worst possible combination of ignorance, selfishness and incompetence that could have been inflicted upon the long-suffering people of South Africa,” read an editorial in the Daily Maverick on 13 February. “Now, stripped to the bare essence of being Zuma, the final image emerges, one of the selfish man who cared only for himself.”

Journalist Richard Poplak concluded: “What is born in chaos dies in chaos.”

 Zuma’s departure allows for the rebuilding to begin. The role played by the media, civil society – which found its voice during the Zuma years – and the judiciary (particularly the constitutional court) is being recognised. New president Ramaphosa delivered an inspiring state of the nation address the day after being sworn in.

“You can survive bad leadership, but what you won’t survive is bad institutions,” Mmusi Maimane told me.

There are no delusions over the epic challenges ahead. Unemployment is at 27 per cent (and is much higher for young, black South Africans) and GDP growth is stranded at 1 per cent. However, there is optimism, too: the “lost decade” is over and the Rainbow Nation’s renewal has finally begun. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia