syzygysue writes over at Think Left that the UK needs eight million new jobs to provide full employment. I believe this is true, but I also believe that it cannot and will not happen. There will be less and less jobs per head of population as manufacturing and logistics become more and more automated. Even in China it is proving cheaper to put thousands of robots in factories than to employ people with all of their foibles and demands, such as being paid a fair wage.
Working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses are abysmal, driving people past their breaking point and Tesco isn’t a whole lot better. People take these jobs because they are desperate to work but they shouldn’t have to accept such conditions. Humans are being used as mere cogs in a vast and uncaring machine and frankly, cogs do a better job of being cogs than humans do. We should accept automation wherever possible even as it puts people out of work.
But if people are put out of work by machines, how will they survive? To quote union leader Walter Reuther when Henry Ford asked how he would get robots to pay union fees, “How will you get them [robots] to buy your cars?”
The answer is that everyone put out of work by machines must receive an income from the general pool of wealth. A share in the profits of the machines as it were. In fact I will go further and suggest that everyone, regardless of other means, should receive this income. It goes by the name of Basic Income, Citizen’s Income, Minimum Income, Mincome, Guaranteed Income and probably some others. It is a salary paid by the government to every citizen, regardless of means, without asking anything of them in return. They are not required to look for work, or to volunteer for a charity, or to do community service, or anything else. It must be unconditional.
A little-known experiment took place in Canada in the seventies and put the principles of basic income to the test. It wasn’t quite the same thing – it was effectively a tax credit which was means tested and paid to those without any other income however it placed no requirements on the recipient and so it is a reasonable comparison to basic income. The trial was known as Mincome and it topped up the income of everyone in the town to at least the minimum level. The experiment was wildly successful in reducing poverty and bringing health benefits such as an 8.5% reduction in hospital visits. The trial was abandoned when a change of government brought new priorities but one of the people involved recently did a radio interview about it and it is worth a listen.
A Town Without Poverty (Note, video is black to start with.)
So how would basic income be paid for? It would replace the tax allowance for a start. If everyone received a few thousand pounds a year then they wouldn’t need tax relief on the first ten thousand pounds a year of their income. It would replace pensions, which are a vast chunk of the welfare budget. It would replace nearly all benefits, in one stroke removing means testing, the work capability assessment, and the stress and stigma of the current system. The rate of taxes would be adjusted to make up any remaining shortfall.
But wouldn’t people stop work if they didn’t have to earn a living? No, actually. Few people want to live on an income that allows for no luxuries or extras. People aspire to get more, and they are prepared to work for that. What is likely to happen is a rise in jobshares and part time work to top up the basic income, thus solving the problem of there not being any jobs for people who are unemployed at the moment. Actually, some people would stop paid employment but on the whole it is people should stop because they have other roles outside of the workplace that are just as valuable. Carers, parents, those in education, those who volunteer to help others. All are valuable roles that are losing out because people are required to work so much to get by. Writers, artists, entrepreneurs and more could all go and focus on creating what they want to create and we all benefit from that.
I believe that basic income is inevitable. If it doesn’t happen then society will collapse completely under the weight of poverty as our production becomes automated and people are treated like machines. That is not good enough though, and I believe we should introduce Basic Income today so that we can be a caring and civilised society.
FT: Obama must face the rise of the robots (Free registration required.)
FT: Foxconn looks to a robotic future (Free registration required)
Basic income guarantee [Wikipedia]