Mo­ti­va­tion is an im­por­tant part of the uni­ver­sal ba­sic in­come equa­tion

The Woolwich Observer - - COMMENT - EDITOR'S NOTES

AS SO­CIAL ME­DIA AND our mi­gra­tion to the on­line world threat­ens our pri­vacy and prom­ises a dystopian sur­veil­lance state, we’re also on an ir­re­versible course to mas­sive so­ci­etal changes thanks to a broader ap­pli­ca­tion of tech­nol­ogy. Most no­tably, the ro­bots are com­ing.

That’s not just ro­bots in the sci-fi ver­sion we pic­ture, though there will be those with hu­manoid form, but a catchall term for au­to­ma­tion. It’s a shift that prom­ises to al­ter jobs, in­comes and the very way we live. Whether that sees a de­scent into feu­dal squalor or fi­nally pro­vides for the leisure so­ci­ety long dis­cussed (even as we’ve headed away from it) re­mains to be seen.

Much of the dis­cus­sion about mit­i­gat­ing the down­side re­volves on some form of uni­ver­sal ba­sic in­come that would at a min­i­mum keep peo­ple afloat. That grows in­creas­ingly im­por­tant as au­to­ma­tion moves be­yond re­plac­ing man­ual labour to pretty much ev­ery facet of em­ploy­ment, in­clud­ing pro­fes­sion­als such as doc­tors, lawyers and ac­coun­tants.

We’re al­ready liv­ing in a time of flux. In­creas­ingly, good-pay­ing jobs have dis­ap­peared, re­placed by crappy ser­vice jobs. Well, in part. Fact is, across Canada and the U.S., there are fewer real jobs even as the pop­u­la­tion in­creases. Where the labour hasn’t been sent off­shore, high im­mi­gra­tion lev­els – le­gal or oth­er­wise – have been used to drive down wages and to pro­vide fod­der for our con­sumer so­ci­ety. The one fi­nanced by debt that has, again, reached record lev­els – Cana­di­ans now owe a col­lec­tive $1.9 tril­lion.

In­creas­ingly, those ser­vice jobs – crappy and even those that aren’t – that are hyped by those ea­ger to hide the truth from us are also at risk through au­to­ma­tion. Ma­chines have al­ready dis­placed many work­ers, but even jobs in the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try – wait­ers, hotel work­ers, re­tail clerks – seem des­tined to be re­placed in the shift to au­to­ma­tion and ro­bot­ics. A 2013 Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity study, for in­stance, pre­dicted that ma­chines might be able to per­form half of all U.S. jobs in the next two decades.

New sto­ries about self­driv­ing cars and trucks are in­creas­ingly com­mon­place, with the corol­lary that job losses are likely to fol­low for peo­ple cur­rently mak­ing a liv­ing be­hind the wheel … and the mil­lions of oth­ers in ser­vice jobs that cater to such peo­ple (restau­rants and mo­tels along well-trav­elled routes, for ex­am­ple).

Driver­less tech­nol­ogy al­ready ex­ists to­day, des­tined to dis­place jobs such as truck­ers, cab­bies and couri­ers. Driver­less buses and trains will elim­i­nate the need for tran­sit work­ers, many of them an in­creas­ing bur­den on gov­ern­ments and tax­pay­ers.

Au­to­mated trans­porta­tion, from cars to air­planes, is safer, more ef­fi­cient and much less costly to op­er­ate – com­put­ers don’t fall asleep, take bath­room breaks, drink on the job or a host of other hu­man foibles. For all those rea­sons, driver­less is the fu­ture of trans­porta­tion.

This isn’t science fic­tion any­more. It’s here, and the tech­nol­ogy’s spread is in­evitable. The same trans­for­ma­tion will mi­grate to many fields. Not just McJobs, but into ac­count­ing, medicine, teach­ing and host of other jobs that now pay well, and are typ­i­cally con­sid­ered safe.

Once upon a time, au­to­ma­tion was a panacea that was to lead to a myth­i­cal leisure so­ci­ety – the ma­chines would do the work, while we reaped the ben­e­fit of re­claimed time to do what we wanted rather than the drudgery of work. As we’ve seen so far, tech­nol­ogy has ex­tended work­weeks and dis­placed peo­ple from high-pay­ing to lesser jobs. There’s no rea­son to be­lieve that will change as tech­nol­ogy con­tin­ues to change the way work is done. Which brings us to the idea of a ba­sic in­come: what be­comes of our econ­omy when there are fewer and fewer jobs? In the short term, those at the top of the in­come scale, in­clud­ing the muchdis­cussed 1%ers, make out like ban­dits due to re­duced costs. But if peo­ple don’t have money to spend, who is go­ing to keep the con­sumer so­ci­ety run­ning? With­out some sys­tem to share the fruits of the econ­omy, things start to fall apart. First the econ­omy, then the so­cial order.

An­other ques­tion for gov­ern­ments now in the pock­ets of the cor­po­rate in­ter­ests – those 1%ers again – who is go­ing to pay the taxes when the tax li­a­bil­ity makes it im­pos­si­ble to make a liv­ing wage while a per­son tries to string to­gether a series of low-pay­ing, tem­po­rary and ca­sual op­por­tu­ni­ties to work? The fan­ci­ful gig econ­omy leaves peo­ple im­pov­er­ished and no co­he­sive tax sys­tem.

On the topic of taxes, a levy on fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions and wealth trans­fer is a com­mon sug­ges­tion as a source of the money needed for a uni­ver­sal ba­sic in­come plan. A truly uni­ver­sal plan would also al­low for the dis­con­tin­u­a­tion of many so­cial pro­grams such as wel­fare, sav­ing bil­lions, and the elim­i­na­tion of whole gov­ern­ment de­part­ments, sav­ing bil­lions more.

In the U.S., a two per cent wealth tax would be enough to pro­vide $12,000 a year to each of the 126 mil­lion house­holds in the country, sug­gests Paul Buch­heit, au­thor of Dis­pos­able Amer­i­cans: Ex­treme Cap­i­tal­ism and the Case for a Guar­an­teed In­come.

He ar­gues such a tax is easy to justify given that the in­fra­struc­ture and most of the ba­sic re­search that al­lows for wealth to be gen­er­ated is paid for by the pub­lic.

With all the changes com­ing down the pike, we’ve got to do some­thing.

“So­ci­ety sim­ply can’t keep up with tech­nol­ogy. As for the skep­tics who cite the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion and its job-en­hanc­ing af­ter­math (which ac­tu­ally took 60 years to de­velop), the McKin­sey Global In­sti­tute says that so­ci­ety is be­ing trans­formed at a pace ‘ten times faster and at 300 times the scale’ of the rad­i­cal changes of 200 years ago,” Buch­heit notes.

But while even some of the wealth­i­est cor­po­ratists – the likes of Mark Zucker­berg and Elon Musk – have talked about a ba-

sic in­come, we have to be wary of their mo­tives, sug­gests writer Chris Hedges, equat­ing their ver­sions to a band-aid on a fes­ter­ing wound.

“The oli­garchs do not pro­pose struc­tural change. They do not want busi­nesses and the mar­ket­place reg­u­lated. They do not sup­port la­bor unions. They will not pay a liv­ing wage to their bonded la­bor in the de­vel­op­ing world or the Amer­i­can work­ers in their ware­houses and ship­ping cen­ters or driv­ing their de­liv­ery ve­hi­cles,” he writes in a col­umn this week.

“They have no in­ten­tion of es­tab­lish­ing free col­lege ed­u­ca­tion, uni­ver­sal gov­ern­ment health or ad­e­quate pen­sions. They seek, rather, a mech­a­nism to con­tinue to ex­ploit des­per­ate work­ers earn­ing sub­sis­tence wages and whom they can hire and fire at will. The hellish fac­to­ries and sweat­shops in China and the de­vel­op­ing world where work­ers earn less than a dol­lar an hour will con­tinue to churn out the oli­garchs’ prod­ucts and swell their ob­scene wealth. Amer­ica will con­tinue to be trans­formed into a dein­dus­tri­al­ized waste­land. The ar­chi­tects of our ne­ofeu­dal­ism call on the gov­ern­ment to pay a guar­an­teed ba­sic in­come so they can con­tinue to feed upon us like swarms of long­nose lancetfish, which de­vour oth­ers in their own species.”

The point is that such peo­ple have ul­te­rior mo­tives for their ver­sion of a uni­ver­sal ba­sic in­come, much of it to be funded on the backs of gov­ern­ment. And gov­ern­ments don’t care about the av­er­age cit­i­zen, but they do care about their own en­ti­tle­ments, the vast ma­jor­ity of which come from raid­ing our wal­lets, not through the largesse of those who buy off the politi­cians.

We’re right to be skep­ti­cal about so­lu­tions fash­ioned in that quar­ter.

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