back to article Basic income after automation? That’s not how capitalism works

Philosophers, economists and other academics have long discussed the idea of “basic income” – an unconditional monthly check from the government to every citizen, in an amount at least high enough to cover all basic necessities. Recently, this idea has gained more political traction: Even conservative parties consider it, and …

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    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: One problem with these models

      There are always more things we can buy. Obviously there's a limit, once we've mined all the available metal, but that's going to take a while. Then there are services. Personal shopping, troupes of 30 actors in a disused shopping centre who'll play zombies for a day for your stag do / corporate jolly to shoot paintballs at, fish pedicures, whatever.

      If we've got more leisure time and cash, then we're likely to spend more cash on our leisure time - which then employs someone and so it goes round.

      Automation has tended to change the jobs we do. And we're not going to have general purpose AI and general purpose robots for ages.

  1. Warm Braw Silver badge

    What about the population event-horizon?

    Work & capitalism are essentially products of resource competition. Back in the days of hunter gatherers when you'd secured your food, the rest of the day was free to doss around. Work, in the form of agriculture, came about when the population could not easily be sustained from freely-occurring natural resources. And while increasing productivity has been responsible for giving us more stuff, it's also being responsible for giving stuff to more people.

    Most population experts seem to agree that the human population is not going to rise forever - in fact that it is peaking around now or in the next few decades. And at the same time our personal consumption of stuff (at least in the Western world) has probably peaked too - the physical stuff that people used to have like books, records, radios, cameras, photographs is all disappearing.

    We're never going to get to a point of having an entirely digital economy - we need to eat - but we are going to have an increasingly digital economy. But a digital economy is not resource constrained and can't ultimately function on capitalist lines (as evidenced by streaming fees for musicians) - unless we constrain it artificially. That's where there is potentially a case for a universal income - not in paying people to sit idly by while machines make unwanted shoes.

    1. The Indomitable Gall

      Not to mention resource availability

      The old "increased production" argument also fails to account for the limited resources we have to hand -- we're already churning through natural raw materials at an unsustainable rate (particularly crude oil, possibly the most inherently valuable yet underpriced substance on the planet). Mineral mining operations have negative effects on food production (either directly by digging up farmland, or through environmental pollution in the local area). Increased production is a Very Bad Thing, so we do need to find an alternative pressure valve to cope with increased productivity.

      1. Preston Munchensonton
        Stop

        Re: Not to mention resource availability

        The old "increased production" argument also fails to account for the limited resources we have to hand -- we're already churning through natural raw materials at an unsustainable rate (particularly crude oil, possibly the most inherently valuable yet underpriced substance on the planet).

        If only there was a branch of soft science that dealt with the constraint of resources...

        1. Mephistro Silver badge
          Coat

          Re: Not to mention resource availability (@ Preston Munchensonton)

          "If only there was a branch of soft science that dealt with the constraint of resources..."

          There is! I think it's called "Astrology".

  2. kyndair

    automation has always been difficult

    Automation has always caused societal problems, in response society has evolved (not always without riots etc.). The big problem coming is the types of jobs that will be automated, that is finance, legal and numerous white collar jobs as well as driving etc.. While some people may be able to get other similarly paid work a lot won't and will be left looking at low paid manual work that society deems important enough to be done but expensive to automate and not important in a 'value add' way so there won't be enough to go around.

    When lots of jobs go and there is not enough to go around society will have decide how to progress, it is helpful to have looked at possible choices ahead of time and discussed how they could be implemented rather than sticking your head in the sand and saying that the current capitalist system is perfect and nothing will change is at best a waste of time at worst a distraction.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: automation has always been difficult

      "When lots of jobs go and there is not enough to go around society will have decide how to progress, it is helpful to have looked at possible choices ahead of time and discussed how they could be implemented rather than sticking your head in the sand and saying that the current capitalist system is perfect and nothing will change is at best a waste of time at worst a distraction."

      The reason everyone's sticking their heads in the sand is because all the analyses point to an unpleasant fact (unpleasant because it will involve people dying, which automatically means it could be THEM): the planet is overpopulated, and the problem will only get worse as more people get hopelessly idled. Soon you're going to have a Cold Equations situation where, no matter how you slice it, there won't be enough to go around; people will have to go, and that never sits well, especially when they're voters.

      Or to put it another way: Ten people stranded in the middle of an arid, barren desert, and there's only one bottle of water. Solve.

      1. Pompous Git Silver badge

        Re: automation has always been difficult

        no matter how you slice it, there won't be enough to go around

        Yup! The reason the Stone Age ended was because we ran out of rocks.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Don't think of BI as a welfare replacement...

    It's a leap for that article to claim that basic income would be regarded as a charity or a replacement for welfare. Most (all, that I've ever talked to) advocates of basic income describe it thus... that mankind has reached the point of development, via our ingenuity and use of productivity boosting technology, that all the earths resources when fairly distributed could now provide all with a life that satisfies their basic needs, and that everyone should by right have a share of it. Basic income for all would at a stroke turn employment from 'something necessary for survival' to 'something I do if I enjoy the job'. It obviously wouldn't eliminate employment, but those sucky jobs would finally get the pay they deserve.

    Yes, thank you capitalists, you raised us up to this level. But going forward, you're going to have to share now. The times they are a changin'. Damn dirty socialist thoughts. Utopian for sure. My biggest worry is some kind of lukewarm fudge is supposed, and allowed to fail in order to preserve the vested interests of the capital owning class. "We tried 'basic income*' and it crashed and burned, now get back to work, slave! And let us never speak of this again."

    * too early, set at the wrong level, with qualification criteria and strings attached, without necessary social reforms or education or wealth distribution and corporate taxation

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Don't think of BI as a welfare replacement...

      "everyone should by right have a share of it"

      Based on...????

      We like you.

      Your parents couldn't control themselves and popped you out?

      I want to share mine with you?

      I want to share yours?

      Someone else has more than I consider fair, so we're going to just take it?

      WTF people...WTF

    2. DavCrav Silver badge

      Re: Don't think of BI as a welfare replacement...

      "Yes, thank you capitalists, you raised us up to this level. But going forward, you're going to have to share now. The times they are a changin'."

      Unfortunately, we have lots of productivity now because of capitalism. Get rid of the capitalism, and see how long your centrally planned economy keeps productivity that high

  4. RegGuy1

    A History of Britain in Numbers

    These are definitely worth a listen.

    Podcast

    Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, brings to life the numbers that highlight the patterns and trends that have transformed Britain

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03k5dvd/episodes/downloads

  5. codejunky Silver badge

    Hmm

    That is a pretty interesting article. We have gained leisure time from automation but from the side of automating chores. The basic income is an interesting idea as it would be easy to administer and fairly transparent. Unfortunately it would upset the left and right as it would have to be cash for people to spend, it could not be topped up with continuous bribes (or it defeats the point) and people will spend it as they please even on what we consider bad for them.

    Personally I am not convinced of the basic income. I dont think govs could leave it alone but also I wonder if it will just inflate prices as most gov interference does.

  6. AlterTheDeal

    Nonsense from the first line

    The key argument, repeated through the article, is that technological advancement through capitalism never reduces total working hours.

    30 seconds of thought shows how nonsensical this is. For 200,000 years humans essentially spent 100% of waking hours at 'work' - acquiring food and shelter, subsistence farming, etc.

    For the last 200 years the use of technology has only ever reduced those working hours. From agriculture meaning that survival took less than 100% of hours, through to factories and the labour movement changing 'standard hours' from 7 days to 6.5 days to 5 days to 40 hours to 39 hours.

    Not only is that a clear trend, it overstates the comparison. 39 hours work in a developed economy usually provides for excess income and the ability to build capital. The number of hours needed for pure subsistence with no surplus is much less than that. To survive in an equivalent manner to a 18th century serf takes less than 20% of available hours. That's a massive reduction in working hours directly attributable to the deployment of technology.

    1. Ed 13

      Re: Nonsense from the first line

      Indeed. The article's argument is from a very narrow perspective and I think misses a few other issues of Basic Income on a population level.

      One of this is to consider its effect on publicly funded activities. It achieves a reduction in cost of these activities, as the employees minimum wage requirements are already covered, and the biggest cost of any activity is (almost always) the wage bill.

  7. old_IT_guy

    o rly?

    many reasoned arguments presented in the comments to the effect of "what a load of bollocks".

    I completely agree.

  8. Tom 7 Silver badge

    Slight problem

    the logical conclusion of this is two very rich people owning half the factories each and only having each other to sell to.

    Not having a basic income once automation comes in results in a serious shrinking of the market for all products except theft.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Slight problem

      "the logical conclusion of this is two very rich people owning half the factories each and only having each other to sell to."

      You say that as if it's a bad thing, but perhaps these two (or say, four or five) may well be content with the walled garden if the proles are kept out. Or they could just fight winner takes all, after which no competition means the winner no longer has to share or divvy.

  9. Mark Dempster

    Universal Basic Income

    I think a few people are missing the point about basic income. The idea is that it's set at a level that means no-one HAS to work if they don't want to; their basic needs are covered. Much like (in theory, if not in practice) unemployment benefit, etc. It also removes the need for the welfare system as it is now, as we all get it (I imagine the severely .disabled might need additional help, but it does come down to what level the UBI is set at)

    A certain proportion of the population will still want to work, to top up their income so that they can have whatever luxuries they'd like. Or just for their own personal satisfaction. Increasingly, though, full-time employment won't be needed (or, indeed, available) - so larger numbers of people might work a few hours each.

    It's getting toward the nirvana promised in Star Trek, without all the whizzing around space. It's a great idea in theory, but might be very difficult to transition to. The countries that are planning to experiment with it will be very much worth watching.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Universal Basic Income

      UBI also means different things to different people. For some it's a utopian idea of only working when it suits you in an automated economy. That looks far enough in the future to me to still be science Fiction.

      To others, it's a way of saving loads of admin money, by abandoning a huge chunk of means tested benefits (pensions, tax credits, unemployment etc). You also lose your tax free allownces on income of course. The basic income is lower, I think the theory is it's to cover basics but not housing - but then you can do without some complex and expensive government benefits admin. Plus you don't get the huge marginal increases in taxation that are caused by the banding on benefits, where it's possible to work a couple of hours longer a week and actually lose money because of the benefits you lose.

      1. Casapaz

        Re: Universal Basic Income

        I totally agree,

        But, don't say that too loudly otherwise people might start to think of welfare as a positive thing rather than some dirty poverty tax that we all have to pay for.

    2. Casapaz

      Re: Universal Basic Income

      Actually, I don't think most people would stop working because of UBI. Most people would work more on things that they want to do and get done. (and i'm not talking about arts/poetry/childcare etc)

      Many more people could re-train their skills and work because suddenly there would be a huge increase in availible jobs because most of the Lower and middle classes could afford to buy stuff and spend money without fear of becoming destitute and poor with no job.

  10. Danny 5

    Simple

    Apply this article to the taxi driver, or the trucker. Will automation result in other jobs opening up for these people, once their taxi/truck has become completely autonomous?

    Is the answer yes, the article is valid.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Simple

      "Will automation result in other jobs opening up for these people, once their taxi/truck has become completely autonomous?"

      Yes, operating the tow trucks to rescue all the autonomous HGVs that have become stuck having been satnaved into routes which were totally unsuitable.

      1. kyndair

        Re: Simple

        even if that job opened up it would be a fraction of the previous workforce and soon taken over by autonomous recovery vehicles

  11. David Pollard
    Pint

    Remember Ted Heath?

    His greatest, and possibly only, success is rarely recognised. The major social experiment he conducted in 1974, when he introduced the three day week, was.ahead of its time. Sadly it didn't catch on.

  12. Big_Boomer

    And thus we see the inherent flaw in Capitalism, it requires population growth. More people buying more stuff is an absolute requirement. We need to sell more shoes to grow our company, but people only have 2 feet, therefore we need more people or we need them to buy more shoes. That is how "Marketing" got invented so they could persuade people to buy stuff they don't need or even want, all in the name of growth.

    The idea of Basic Income is excellent. Since everyone will get BI regardless of what they do (or don't do) people will be freer to choose what they want to do, and if what they choose generates more income for them, then great, but if not then their kids won't starve. Paid work will become graded according to how difficult it is to get someone capable of doing it to actually do it. Want to buy a house, but making crocheted doilies isn't generating enough income for you? Spend a year cleaning portable toilets and buy that house for cash. :D

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      "but people only have 2 feet, therefore we need more people or we need them to buy more shoes."

      The only consequence of having two feet is that shoes are bought in pairs. The relationship between numbers of feet and numbers of shoes is that the latter is an ever increasing integer multiple of the former.

      1. Vic
        Joke

        shoes are bought in pairs

        *Ahem*

        Vic.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "Paid work will become graded according to how difficult it is to get someone capable of doing it to actually do it. " -- It already is. Check your wage packet.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        No it isn't

        Spend a day as a binman and spend a day in HR.

        See which you complain about more. See which pays more!

        Spend a summers day on first line and then spend a summers day painting your roof.

        There are loads of examples.

        Plus, in my spare time I'm a guitarist. Should you have my paid jobs because you find the songs harder to play than me?

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

          Re: No it isn't

          That's what the Labour market is. Obviously there are distortions, but binmen get paid less not because they don't work hard, but because there's no shortage of binmen. Whereas HR departments require people to have a university degree for some reason and no soul - which is a smaller subset of the population than those able to walk and lift a bin.

          When companies can't recruit people to do the job, then they put the wages up, or train their own staff to do the new thing. Well admittedly they first complain about lazy people not wanting to work, then complain the government doesn't train enough people, and then do those things. On the way though, they look at automation. One reason why UK productivity hasn't risen in the last few years is that it's been relatively easy to employ people, as we've had a fast-expanding workforce and relatively stagnant wages - which gives less incentive to take the risk in buying capital plant to do a job. Even if the plant can do it cheaper than employing people, you've got to tie a lot of money up in it for a long time.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It's True...

    Employment will always find a way.

    For example, when someone finally builds an electric monk and all the preists get laid off, there will be an increased demand for Holistic detectives.

    1. Mutton Jeff

      Re: It's True...

      I so want one a those!

    2. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
      Happy

      Re: It's True...

      Electric monks don't cause unemployment.

      Their job is not to replace priests, but to believe them, so that you don't have to waste your time doing so and/or listening to their sermons. So you could argue that the electric monk is a job-saving device, as well as a labour saving one...

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Automation means there is more to think about and more to go wrong but does deliver consistency

    Yes I would love a monthly paycheck to sit on the sofer outside by house in my dressing gown with a beer on my cornflakes and wave at everyone going to work, bu who deserves a basic income?

    My mom is a medical secretary, every day she sends letters to people that are ill because they can't be bothered to wash.. seriously same with people who have smoked 40 cigs a day and now can't breath should we care, probably not.

    But if there is a family with both parents working and can't put food on the table, perhaps yes.

    Same for an 18-year-old with no parents. has a job but nowhere to live, when does the government step in.

    So how about a GDP contribution tax, the less you contribute to GDP the more tax you have to pay, it on your arse but have plenty of shares, you pay, boozed up all day you pay, own a factory and work 1 day a week you pay

    1. billat29

      Well, AC. You assume that BI would be sufficient to pay for beer. Bad assumption on many levels.

      And maybe you need to tell your dear mother that not being bothered to wash is actually a symptom of a number of recognised conditions.

      But then it is your mother that I would like to do out of a job. Not because I have anything against her - but because her role needs to be made obsolete. Medical secretaries are there because medicine runs in an archaic, inefficient and costly manner.

      But I digress.........

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The automation in the past was mainly automating the labor not the skill. The job still required skilled workers, it just reduced the effort required by the workers and increased the speed.

    Over the last couple of decades skill has been slowly automated. The automation rate of the skill set is increasing, reducing the need for manual labor and skilled labor.

    The only jobs that will be left in the short term (relatively) are the design and running of the systems and software. So software designers, engineering, etc. In the log term not much, especially if AI comes about as they are jobs that AI will target, creativity.

    Steam and Electric age, reducing manual labor

    Computer age, reducing skilled labor

    AI age, reducing creativity needs.

    What is left after that for us to do?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yvs7f4UaKLo

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      That's if you believe AI is going to replace accountants and lawyer, doctors and the like. Not to mention musicians, personal shoppers, fish pedicure specialists, party organisers.

      Actually this argument forgets skilled trades and small manufacturers. We make a unique product in the water industry, but only sell a few thousand a year. The market is probably ten times that - but only if people choose to comply with the regulations - which they won't unless forced. So only those at risk of inspection buy our kit.

      In that circumstance automating the manufacturing process would cost us hundreds of thousands and cause our prices to rise massively. The only way it would be financially viable to automate production of that unit is if we first invented the robot water regulations inspector to drum up trade...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        "Actually this argument forgets skilled trades and small manufacturers. We make a unique product in the water industry, but only sell a few thousand a year. The market is probably ten times that - but only if people choose to comply with the regulations - which they won't unless forced. So only those at risk of inspection buy our kit."

        And what happens when someone else comes up with a way to cheaply do short runs on demand using techniques like 3D printing (not necessarily for the part itself but perhaps to produce molds)? Then they can plunk down because they can combine many short orders and still be profitable because their works are more versatile and can switch jobs more easily.

  16. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
    FAIL

    Gawd this article is

    not exactly very good

    Take one example, the company I attend every day

    35 years ago it employed 4 lathe setters, 4 mill setters, 2 inspectors, and about 30 machine operators

    It ran 18 hrs a day (double shift) and kept the owner in Jags and foriegn holidays (and the operators were treated like crap in a classic industrial setting)

    Now, we have robots and computer controlled machines, the company employs 4 lathe setters, 4 mill setters , 1 inspector, and 7 operators, spread across the same double shift system

    We produce about 50% more than 35 years ago

    That is the cause of the unemployment in manufacturing , and more to the point, what does happen when 1000's more jobs go as a result of automation....... 25% of the workforce sitting idle anyone?

  17. Mutton Jeff

    Bring on the automated commentard system

    Bring on the automated commentard system!

  18. Anonymous Blowhard

    "Other industrialized countries have seen similar increases of work productivity without a decline in work-hours. Many European countries recently raised the retirement age, effectively increasing the absolute number of work-hours per life."

    I think this statement is missing the point that the raised retirement age is to prevent a pensions crisis; the average life expectancy increased a lot between 1950 and 2000 so many of the people working today are not saving for their own retirement, they are still paying for the retirement of the previous generation of workers who got lucky in the life-expectancy versus actuaries-estimates failure.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      "many of the people working today are not saving for their own retirement, they are still paying for the retirement of the previous generation of workers who got lucky in the life-expectancy versus actuaries-estimates failure."

      The real problem here is that, at least in the UK, the state and the Civil Service pension schemes are essentially Ponzi arrangements. I'm not sure if there was any actuarial planning at all when they were set up. If the IR, as it then was, had had a genuine contributory pension scheme along the lines of private industry's funds I doubt that they'd have done away with tax relief on dividends of such funds or taken the short termist enforcement of contribution "holidays" which have left so many of those private pension schemes in deficit.

    2. THMONSTER
      Terminator

      work work

      Raise the pension age to 100 and work them to death with a damned good whipping if they get their telegram just to weed the weaker ones out.

      It's the only way the country will survive.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: work work

        One thing. How do you deal with the families of those who die working AND have the power of the vote? That's always been the problem of just cutting people loose and forcing population control. That goes against human instinct (which was geared more for environments when people tended to die much younger and under rougher conditions) which in turn results in a lot of cheating and distortion (ask China how their population program is turning out--they now have a massive imbalance of the sexes). How do you deal with this problem without making a better human first?

  19. Julz

    amanfrommars...

  20. heyrick Silver badge

    I'm not paid a lot

    I work in a factory. Traded stress for less pay, I'm financially poorer but happier.

    Anyway - I'm not alone. There are loads of low wage workers in the western world. The obvious question is that if a basic income from the government covers the necessities of life...well...what exactly then is our incentive to even bother going to work?

    1. kyndair

      Re: I'm not paid a lot

      The problem is with general purpose robots on the way even a lot of the low paid jobs will be gotten rid of, then on top of that there's the ai issue that will take over a lot of the clerical and skilled workers and even creative workers, this will include code monkeys and helldesk fodder the last employed person could well be the final programmer that sets the final ai going

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I'm not paid a lot

      Things beyond the means of basic income.

      Holidays, for example.

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