Automation and its Role in the Basic Income Movement

For so many people, including both hosts of the podcast, the entry point to basic income was concerns about automation and how it could create an economy that requires many fewer employees. In this discussion episode, Owen and Jim delve into the pluses and minuses of automation’s primacy in the basic income discussion, and what a more rounded rationale for basic income looks like.

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Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh. Something that comes up very, very often in basic income conversations and media coverage is a strong connection between basic income and automation. The idea that basic income is a solution for or at least is very closely, innately tied together with this idea that automation will drastically change our workspace in the relatively near future.

Owen: Yes, and I think this is how we both initially came to the idea of basic income. We wanted to take this episode to discuss the pros and cons of tying these two things together and why it’s happened so much so far.

We imagine most of our listeners are pretty familiar with automation and a lot of the discussion around that. There are a lot of really good resources that you can dig up pretty easily if you are not. We’ll give a quick overview of what we are talking about when we talk about automation and basic income, but spend most of this episode talking about more of the discussion in how these two have been linked.

In terms of what we’re talking about when we say that many jobs could be a threat, there’s, for instance, a study that came out of Oxford that 47% of jobs are at risk of being automated. There are other similar studies that produce results in that catastrophic range.

Jim: Right, and the idea that not only could automation replace a lot of the types of jobs that you more traditionally think about being automated, these more mechanical rote jobs, but as artificial intelligence gets more sophisticated and smarter, there may actually be a lot of mental work that becomes at risk of being replaced as well. Work done by doctors, lawyers, professions that in the past it really didn’t seem like there was any reason to be concerned around.

All this together creates this pretty terrifying specter of what the future might look like. That if most of the work that gets done today through paid jobs can be automated and will be automated, suddenly we are looking at the scenario where most jobs are gone, most people don’t have a path to paid employment, and therefore we need to do something radically different than what we have today, perhaps basic income.

Owen: Right, and a lot of the most prominent, most public advocates for basic income are people who come at it from an automation angle; Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, and the presidential candidate Andrew Yang.

Jim: Yes, I think you see, if you are just looking at media coverage, so often it is about these very high profile people who have spoken out in favor of basic income. At least with the view that they think we need basic income with this assumption that we’re moving towards that future that looks like that.

Because of that, because there has been so much coverage of it, because you do have these high profile folks who are talking about it or running for president on it, I think very often that just becomes this internalized idea that those have that these two things go together and that they are tied to one another. If you look at the online conversation, this is very, very common. What people post about on Twitter or wherever else, it’s saying, “Automation is coming soon, therefore, basic income.”

Owen: Right, and I find this anecdotally, I get the reverse a lot of the time where I start talking about basic income and someone assumes it’s because of automation. These two things are very intertwined right now, and there are good things and bad things about that. One good thing is it’s bringing a lot of urgency to the conversation. It would be a little strange if there wasn’t anything driving basic income to suddenly try to introduce this very radical kind of out of nowhere policy, but automation makes people think of it kind of naturally.

Jim: For me, the metaphor that I feel like fits really well here is the boiling frog one. You’ll often hear this in the context of climate change, but the premise is essentially that if you take a frog and you put it in a pool of water, it will sit there. If you gradually crank up the heat on that water, the frog just sits there. Because it’s a gradual increase, it’s always just like, “Okay, I’m just chilling here,” and you can keep doing that up until you cook the frog.

In contrast, if you suddenly increase the temperature a lot, that’s a shock and a jolt, and it causes the frog to hop out. With the challenges that we’re seeing in our economy, there’s so much that’s already not working for people that I think many of us in the basic income space feel that regardless of what happens with automation, we should have basic income today.

But because those things have gradually gotten worse and worse over time, there has never been that big push, certainly at least in DC, to pursue a policy of the magnitude of basic income. Automation suddenly creates this image of change so drastic, so incredibly different than what we see right now that it kind of knocks people into this headspace of, “Oh, wait, we do need to rethink so much stuff.” So it has that effect of creating that temperature spike that jolts people into a different headspace here.

Owen: Yes, and I think that is one of the hopes of the automation conversation is that people get the jolt and then you can maybe then take a step back and say, “Well, we can also look at how much economic insecurity there’s right now.” There’s that widely-cited stat of about half of American families can’t afford an unexpected $400 expense. Once you start talking about that and you see the research on cash transfers, then maybe we can bring some of these people along into the wider, “Let’s just do this regardless of what happens with automation discussion.”

One more thing I will add on the pro side of the specter of automation is that I don’t see it as having a partisan lens right now. I think people of all stripes can see this as an issue that’s coming. We’re talking about this as a rhetorical thing, but it is true that automation may– it already is, probably, and certainly could have drastic effects on our economy going forward and that affects Democrats as well as Republicans. I don’t think there’s one side saying, “This is going to happen,” and another side saying, “No, it isn’t.”

Jim: On a related note, I think that the advantage of these two being seen as tied together is if there’s suddenly a big incident of automation causing massive job loss all of a sudden, then if those are tied together, maybe there will be a natural response by elected officials to say, “Oh, okay, maybe we should pass the basic income now.” If that can be teeing up basic income as a response there, then maybe there’s a lot of value in that.

Owen: Yes, and I think the challenge for us right now is to get basic income into the zeitgeist enough that that is the response as opposed to something else I guess.

Jim: Besides the reasons that we should be tying this together, we wanted to talk a bit more about the reasons why tying this together could potentially have some downsides and could be dangerous when thinking about the long-term trajectory of basic income.

One is that if we are explicitly saying that when we have this massive job loss we need basic income, it’s setting basic income up as a response to a future threat rather than the response to challenges today. In that scenario, even though you could say, “Oh, we should do basic income now so we are ready for that point,” generally, that’s not the way a policy-making in this country works.

People pass things when they feel like they are necessary. So it could mean that we run up against some pretty challenging obstacles when thinking about how do we actually move policy to provide people with basic income forward if we’re saying, “We just need to be ready for this,” as opposed to, “We need this right now.”

Owen: Right, and I feel like that can be especially dangerous here because I think automation happens more slowly than people tend to think it does because it’s happening at different speeds in different ways across all different industries. It’s hard to have one moment where it’s like, before, automation wasn’t a threat and now it is, and it’s a headline in the news and everyone is talking about it. I feel like it’s much more at a local level.

I spoke to a candidate for governor in Michigan, who is no longer a candidate, but he was talking about how after the recession when a lot of car manufacturers lost their jobs, a lot of those jobs didn’t come back because of automation. So you have these kind of mini-moments, but I don’t think we have a broad national moment to point to. I think framing it as a future threat, you might not ever know the moment when that threat arrives.

Jim: I think another thing is, if your entire framing is that basic income is a response to automation, you risk occluding the other really, really important and good reasons why we should have basic income. A lot of the things we talked about in the past: the way that basic income would address racial inequities in our current system; the way that basic income could empower women in a way that’s not currently possible; the way that basically income could encourage more people to pursue the paths of lives they wouldn’t have otherwise had an opportunity to.

If the way that you talk about basic income is solely in that automation frame, it would be very dangerous that people just wouldn’t even appreciate those other things. Not only does it mean that you potentially lose those strong arguments, that may then affect the specifics of whatever policy ends up being proposed.

Assuming we do get to a point where people are ready to pass something here, if it’s being designed solely with the idea that, “Oh, automation is taking jobs from people who have them today, let’s figure out something to do about that,” as opposed to, “Let’s make sure that we design this program in a way that is achieving those other benefits that we think could be really transformative about basic income.”

Owen: Yes, along those lines, if you’re only solving for automation, then saying, “Okay, we have all these truck drivers who are making $70,000 a year plus benefits, and they just lost those jobs, but we’re just going to give them a $1,000 a month and not worry about them,” that doesn’t sound like much of a response. So you would probably have a good counter to say, “Well, we should do jobs training or something else instead.” I think only focusing on automation again leaves out all the good it can do, and it does seem like an insufficient response to widespread job loss.

Jim: If you are one of those truck drivers or anyone else that we talk about or think may be in a position where their job is at high risk of automation — admittedly, I think that doing more studies and getting more experience around what the specific response is — but it is very hard to accept some hypothetical idea that really puts your livelihood at risk.

That is something that– it just creates cognitive dissonance for most people when you say, “Oh, sure, you have a good job now, but five years from now, maybe a computer will be doing that, and you don’t have training, and you’re going to be in this terrible spot,” a lot of people won’t even listen to what you have to say after that. So you’re potentially setting up your rationale as one that immediately shuts down a lot of the potential reception that might exist out there for this idea.

Owen: Yes, and I guess another case where climate change is a good analogy and that it’s hard to have people understand a distant threat to themselves. Another way that this idea can make people kind of shut down or even get angry is that it feels like you’re surrendering to some inevitable future where the robots are coming and there’s nothing we can do about them. You hear people saying, “Well, couldn’t we just not build those robots? Couldn’t we design an economy that actually supports people?”

Those are worthy conversations as well, but I think again, it’s just leaving out all the reasons why a basic income would be completely transformative regardless or including the idea that automation could be coming for a lot of jobs. Where I’ve seen this most visibly for me is in the labor space, where people are saying, “You’re just going to let our jobs go away. You’ve already moved on from a world where we have these jobs.” And that gets people angry and makes people defensive.

Jim: I’ve heard a number of basic income advocates, when they’re presented with that argument that, “Oh, we can just choose not to automate,” they’ll say, “You’re saying you’re standing in the way of progress.” If you automate, it means you’re being more efficient. It means that overall you’re doing more with less, which should be a good thing.

They’ll say, “Look at history. Anytime you try to stand in the way of progress, it’s never actually worked out.” This is a bad approach to respond to automation, that they believe is very soon coming. I think that particularly now you’re actually starting to hear some proposals in how we might respond to that in a way that doesn’t actually respond against progress but does ensure that we are setting up workers and empowering people so that when there is potential for automation, it would only be done if it did leave people well off.

I think a great example of this is the recent proposal from Senator Elizabeth Warren where she says that corporations, publicly traded corporations should be required that 40 percent of their board seats are elected by workers of the company. It’s actually giving workers in this company a voice in how the company governance.

In that scenario, you can imagine it would be a lot harder for a company to suddenly say, “Oh, we’ve got this new tech that allows us to replace a million people. We’re going to go do it,” if those million people actually have chosen as some sort of leaders in company governance in a way where they have a strong say in the direction of the company. Maybe they figure out some sort of solution that moves towards that and also helps out the workers, but it’s a lot harder to then imagine this sudden shift where tons and tons of people are left with nothing.

Owen: Yes, and just continuing that example for a second: maybe the solution is, okay, we can’t stop technological progress as much as we’d like, but maybe those workers get an equity stake. I feel like that’s– a lot of what people just want is for the workers who are maybe getting screwed over in the future is to just give them a share of that pie because then it’s more okay if the money is not just getting siphoned up to just a handful of already very rich people who already own these companies.

Jim: The final reason why using automation as the rationale for basic income makes me nervous is that it sets up basic income as a policy that is against something. That this terrible thing that’s happening, therefore basic income, rather than basic income because this opens up this transformative world of possibilities for us.

The thing that comes to mind when I think about this is– let’s imagine a popular movement that could hopefully exist in the very near future, a big popular movement, millions of people involved advocating for basic income. What are the signs you’re going to see at those rallies? Is it going to be “Robots are coming, basic income now”? Or is it going to be “True freedom, racial justice, gender equality, therefore basic income”?

From my experience, I can’t think of a single movement that is really done in that oppositional way. I can think of a protest, but if we’re actually talking about this powerful grassroots movement that’s going to shepherd this policy into existence, it has to be about what basic income is for and not what it’s against.

Owen: I think automation works really well, it’s kind of the cherry on top of, “Here’s all the reasons why this would be wonderful and transformative and exciting for our society and also by the way it would help inoculate us against this potential future threat which is being discussed about a lot.” Just, “The robots are coming, and we need to rally against them,” I feel like that’s a difficult sell.

Jim: Right, maybe it’s a wake-up call, but I think as your raison d’être for basic income, I think there’s the challenges that we just laid out.

Owen: I feel like automation is such a part of this conversation, and we don’t need to shut that down or say that you’re wrong for talking about automation, especially because it is bringing a lot of people into the conversation. It’s just important to be conscious as an advocate for UBI or just someone who likes to talk about it or listen to podcasts about it that it is just one part of a real panoply of reasons to be talking about this.

Jim: Well, that’ll do it for this episode. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davison. If you liked what you hear, please do rate and review the Basic Income Podcast on Apple Podcast or the podcast service of your choice, and please do tell your friends about this. We are always looking for new listeners. We’ll talk to you next time.

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