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Will job loss to AI, robots and automation make universal basic income a necessity?

Source | LinkedIn : By Guy Standing

Suddenly, basic income is sexy. Having worked on it for over thirty years, and having been a co-founder of BIEN, the Basic Income Earth Network set up in 1986, I am delighted. The critics are lashing out, but we have heard all their arguments and have refuted them theoretically and empirically many times. It is the context that has changed, and with it, the power of the rationales for moving in the direction of basic income.

The main justifications for a basic income are that it would correspond to social justice, it would enhance personal and republican freedom and it would provide basic security essential for social, psychological and medical health. The reality today is that gross inequalities reflect a rigged rentier capitalism that mocks ideas of social justice, while too many people lack access to resources and support to give them proper freedom and economic insecurity is pervasive.

The income distribution system that prevailed for most of the second half of the twentieth century has broken down, and it will not come back. The share of total income going to those who depend on labour has dropped dramatically, not just in the United States, but in almost all countries for which we have reliable data. Average real wages have been stagnating or falling in all OECD countries. The precariat, the class of people whose lives are marked by unstable labour, lack of professional identity, indebtedness and loss of basic rights, has been growing everywhere, bringing chronic insecurity, and dangerous political reactions, including support for neo-fascist populists. That will not change without structural changes in the income distribution system.

But here we address one issue that has preoccupied American commentators and prominent plutocrats in the past two years, many of whom have come out in favour of basic income. In the future, will the losses of jobs to AI, robots, and mass automation make basic income an undeniable necessity?

Rightly or wrongly, this is a major reason for the recent topicality of basic income. Martin Ford, Nick Smicek, Alex Williams, and Paul Mason are among those who have argued in influential books that a jobless future makes a basic income essential. The same concerns have added a roll-call of Silicon Valley and other technology titans to the basic income supporters list including Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.

Star bond investor Bill Gross has also come out in support of a basic income as a response to what he perceives as the coming robot-driven ‘end of work’. In July 2016, there was even a Facebook Live roundtable held in the White House on automation and basic income, though in a report issued in December the US President’s Council of Economic Advisers rejected the idea.

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