The end of progress

Posted on September 05, 2017 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 0 Comments

Technological revolutions are ultimately good for all of us.

Yes, OK, not everyone benefits equally or immediately. When Henry Ford came along with his automobile assembly lines, for example, he disappeared thousands of honest, well-paying-for-the-times jobs (e.g. blacksmiths, saddle makers, carriage builders, farriers) into history’s dark hole. But even as those jobs went away, the new auto industry created the need for more, better trained, better paid workers: steelmakers, assembly-line workers, road builders, car salesmen, used car salesmen, auto mechanics, gas station attendants, oil drillers and refiners, etc.

After all was disrupted, the end result was still a net gain for society.

That has always been the implicit promise of technology: the jobs technology eliminates will inevitably be replaced by new and better ones.

But what happens when technological disruption no longer leads to new and better jobs, when technology simply leads to more technology?

In the next few decades, we already know driverless cars will make millions of delivery drivers, taxi operators, long-haul drivers, bus drivers, traffic cops, auto-body repair shops, automobile insurance salespeople, parking lot attendants, car rental agents… redundant. A University of Oxford study says 47 per cent of U.S. jobs will be at risk in the next two decades because of artificial intelligence and automation. Initially, the big losers will be lower-skilled workers, but, “as software gets smarter, that too is subject to change.”

This time, writes Martin Ford, the author of The Rise of The Robots, “we can’t educate our way out of this.”

Naysayers have long said that a guaranteed annual income, regardess of whether it was earned, would only encourage laziness and be incredibly expensive. Times, and mindsets, are changing.

Which leads us to… a basic annual income.

The idea—that everyone should get a certain amount of money every month, regardless of whether they earned it, to spend in any way they see fit—has been around since at least the 1500s and Thomas More’s Utopia.

For most of that time, the idea has been heretical in our survival-of-the-fittest, earn-your-keep world. A guaranteed income, argue the business and political naysayers, would only encourage laziness and be incredibly expensive.

Until now.

“Why Free Money Could Be The Future of Work,” trumpeted a recent headline in FORTUNE, pointing to ongoing guaranteed annual income experiments in at least a dozen countries. Silicon Valley titans like Mark Zuckerberg are not only publicly touting the idea, some executives there are conducting their own experiments.

Intriguingly, Canada was one of the first western countries to toy with a guaranteed “mincome.” During the 1970s (before changing political winds killed the scheme), residents of Dauphin, Manitoba, received a modest monthly cheque.

The long buried results show people there didn’t reduce their hours of work. Instead, writes, Kaylie Tiessej, a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives economist, the extra income “empowered [people] to make good decisions for themselves and their families, which led to better, long-term outcomes.” Unexpected ones too: more students finished high school, hospital, doctor and mental health visits were reduced, even domestic assault reports declined.

Giving people cash, suggests says UK economist Guy Standing, actually “energized people [and] it increased entrepreneurial activities.”

It is past time for us to be thinking about this idea once again. Today’s technological revolution is not going to go away. Automation will make more and more of us productively redundant.

We live in an incredibly rich society, but that wealth is unequally distributed—and getting more so. In many ways, frustration with inequality created the mutant Donald Trump, who won the American presidency by blaming everything but inevitable automation for workers’ woes. When his supporters discover (and they will) Trump can’t make America even OK again, let alone bring back their jobs—what then?

Will we find a fairer way for everyone to share in the benefits of automation? Or will we have a revolution?

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