Elon Musk on why the world needs a Universal [basic] Income
High-tech mechanization will make it necessary for states to provide citizens with a basic income to ease social inequality, according to serial tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.
During a live session at the World Government Summit in Dubai in February 2017, SpaceX founder and Tesla CEO Musk said that the knock-on effects of robots and artificial intelligence taking away employment was something policymakers should watch.
Musk said the pace of technological change was leading to “a massive social challenge. And I think ultimately we will have to have some kind of universal basic income (UBI). I don’t think we’re going to have a choice.”
A robot world
Academics, business leaders, and politicians have become increasingly concerned about the effects of technological developments on the employment chances of future generations.
While jobs such as low-skilled factory tasks were automated long ago, the ability of machines to carry out ever-more complex tasks means that even elements of well-paid, middle-class jobs such as doctors and lawyers are also being performed by machines.
IBM chief executive Ginni Rometty says “there is not one more important [topic] for all of us” than the potential of technology to create inequality by concentrating huge wealth in the hands of a few.
Musk told the Dubai summit that UBI “means that unemployed people will be paid across the globe.
“Machines, robots are taking over. There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better.”
Heart of the debate
Although UBI trials are underway around the world, there are arguments about whether it can work – and whether cash-strapped governments can afford it.
Critics say such state “top-ups” could be an excuse to offer lower wages, undermine trades unions’ collective bargaining abilities, promote intergenerational idleness, and cost states money they can ill afford.
Some add it would be a disincentive to working and give more money to the wealthy if it is used to finance debt.
But Guy Standing, author of Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen, points out that it would increase the freedom of workers to do what they want, including: “the freedom to refuse a job that is onerous, boring, low-paying or just nasty; the freedom to stay in a job that is none of the above but which could not be accepted if financial necessity dictated [otherwise]”.
He says UBI could let people do things they want or need to, such as caring for relatives, undertake creative projects, study and have children.
Quoting Cato’s comment “never is a man more active than when he does nothing,” Standing says periods of idleness are good for individuals and society: “Many great historical figures, from Galileo to Adam Smith, made their contribution to society precisely because they were ‘idle’ in the conventional economic sense.”
Search for a deeper meaning
Elon Musk says a harder challenge will be to give meaning to people’s lives: “A lot of people they derive their meaning from their employment, so, if you don’t have [work] if you’re not needed … what’s the meaning? … Do you feel useless?”
But Standing argues a basic income would allow more people to pursue their passions, which he says could yield big benefits for society “through the encouragement of entrepreneurship … creative endeavor and through socially valuable pursuits at all levels”.
He gives the example of author Virginia Woolf who said: “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.
“Our societies need people to have more leisure, not only for personal downtime but for strengthening ties with family and friends taking part in civic and political life”, Standing writes.
‘This is not the tax-paying droid you’re looking for…’
Standing says that UBI can also help reduce the costs to government, and in one long-term Indian trial showed improvements in nutrition, health, and school attendance.
It also leveled inequalities by helping the disabled more than the able, women more than men, and lower caste households more than high-caste ones.
Positive economic effects included more work and labor, raised productivity and output, and reduced inequality, with a growth in extra self-employed work.
Yet governments fret about the bill. The Swiss voted in 2017 rejected a plan to introduce a basic income of about $1,500 a month for all citizens after critics it would have meant service cuts or higher taxes.
Others like Bill Gates suggest that robots should be taxed to provide incomes, although the European Union rejected the idea as a “tax on progress”.
The future is never certain. As with previous industrial revolutions, mechanization may in its way lead to more human work rather than less.
But governments still need to plan for the eventuality that more automation has the potential to create a rising, restless, unhappy and unemployed underclass if robots leave the workers without jobs – and without incomes.
Article by Adam Jezzard @World Government Summit