The concept of a guaranteed income for all has been circulating for centuries, with its popularity ebbing and flowing with the tide of current events. Proponents of a universal basic income (UBI), despite the fact that it is still widely regarded as a radical idea, now see UBI as the solution to some of the biggest issues facing modern workers, including wage inequality, job insecurity, and the potential loss of jobs due to artificial intelligence.
During the recent summit at Bletchley Park, Elon Musk expressed his belief that the advancement of AI would mean “no job is needed” and that a job could only be for “personal satisfaction.” Karl Widerquist, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University-Qatar and an economist and political theorist, has a different take on it.
According to him, you don’t necessarily end up jobless for the rest of your life even if AI eliminates your job. As you move down the labour market, lower-paying professions become more and more crowded.
According to Widerquist, the development of AI will force white-collar workers into the gig economy and other low-wage, unstable jobs, at least in the near future. He worries that this change in the workforce would result in lower pay and working conditions as well as greater inequality.
According to Widerquist, a UBI policy in reaction to AI and automation would fix employers’ unfair distribution of the benefits of economic growth, which is at least partially driven by automation, among their workforce.
Some even go farther, citing UBI as a dividend owed to workers for their contribution to the creation and sharing of knowledge that serves as the basis for AI models like ChatGPT. The editor of the website Basic Income Today, Scott Santens, questions why it should only be a few companies that profit from the capital and human labour that each of us has contributed to?
According to Utrecht University associate professor of public sector economics Loek Groot, universal basic income (UBI) presents a similarly promising alternative if workers are ever forced to leave their jobs due to automation and are unable to find new ones.
Groot and colleagues’ 2017–2019 study in the Netherlands involved providing a basic income to jobless people who had previously received social assistance. According to the report, there has been a rise in labour market participation. According to Groot, this was caused by the removal of the conditions that were previously placed on job seekers, as well as the penalties for not meeting those conditions, in addition to the financial assistance given by the UBI.
In particular, individuals who were released from obligations to find and accept employment had a higher chance of landing a permanent contract—the opposite of the kind of precarious employment that Widerquist had described.
Although most UBI experiments do not demonstrate that the policy encourages workers to completely exit the labour force, some have reduced their working hours as a result of receiving higher payments. According to Groot, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If it’s obvious that there aren’t enough jobs for everyone, then why try to force them all into paid employment? Says he. What reason is there to deny those with viable alternatives the chance to earn the basic income by working less or not at all?
Retraining or upgrading one’s skills are examples of “good alternatives.” The policy may also reinterpret what society has historically considered work. Incentives could be offered to women who care for elderly relatives or raise children, two tasks that are customarily performed without compensation.
Since2017, the largest UBI programme in the world has been operating in Kenya, giving nearly 5,000 people a daily payment of roughly 75 cents (62p). Donor-funded and run by GiveDirectly, the trial will last for a period of 12 years. Professor of applied economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Tavneet Suri, a member of GiveDirectly’s research team, reports that she has thus far observed some unexpected outcomes.
People are indeed quitting low-paying jobs, according to her. They are going out and establishing businesses, and because there is money around, the businesses are flourishing. The unanticipated surge in entrepreneurship has yielded favourable outcomes for wage earners as well, as a reduction in the workforce has resulted in higher compensation.
If there is a 20% growth in businesses in a developing nation, those individuals will be responsible for paying taxes, according to Suri. Due to the fact that farmers—who employ a large portion of the Kenyan labour force—generally pay no taxes, a large number of people find themselves in tax brackets and begin making purchases. And sales tax is actually one of the main sources of income for the government.
Additionally, according to Suri and her colleagues, workers have not left the labour force and the increased purchasing power has helped local economies. But Suri is wary of this. She claims that before a government-backed universal basic income (UBI) programme is given serious consideration, it must be demonstrated to be genuinely beneficial in a nation where poverty is still a greater concern for workers than automation.
Rosanna Merola, a macroeconomist and researcher at the International Labour Organization, has thought of a very different strategy for nations where automation is a bigger concern: a robot tax. Merola characterized the idea of taxing businesses that use robots to replace human labour in order to finance a universal basic income (UBI) as “philosophically appealing, if currently unrealistic” in a research paper from 2022.
According to her, suggestions regarding the practical application of a robot tax are still quite vague. The difficulty of defining what a “robot” is and how to tax it is likely to be dealt with by legislators. It’s still unclear what constitutes a robot and a machine, or what separates a computer programme from artificial intelligence.
Merola does think that the idea of a robot tax could be expanded to cover AI in more recognizable forms, like large language models like ChatGPT, though. She suggests that businesses that use AI to drive revenue or automate tasks may have to pay taxes on the profits made from these AI-driven operations. Alternatively, governments may impose taxes on the gathering, processing, or selling of data, which is a major component of AI, and use the proceeds to offset the employment losses caused by the technology.
According to Joe Chrisp, a researcher at the University of Bath’s Universal Income Beacon, discussions about automation in the workplace occasionally resemble “counsel of despair.” Crisp considers himself a “friendly sceptic,” but he does think that a universal basic income could benefit workers.
While some contend that AI might push workers into the gig economy and that a universal basic income (UBI) could help pull them out, Chrisp argues that instead of encouraging people to find more stable employment, a policy like this runs the risk of encouraging the growth of these kinds of jobs.
Joe Chrisp, a researcher at the Universal Income Beacon at the University of Bath, says conversations about workplace automation sometimes sound like “counsel of despair.” Although Crisp describes himself as a “friendly sceptic,” he acknowledges that workers might gain from a universal basic income.
While some argue that a universal basic income (UBI) could help pull workers out of the gig economy and that AI might push workers into it, Chrisp contends that a policy like this runs the risk of encouraging the growth of these kinds of jobs rather than encouraging people to find more stable employment.
Chrisp concurs that a medium-term plan is needed to assist employees in finding new positions in a shifting economy. In the near future, it is also necessary to find a safety net for those same workers. He is not, however, persuaded that a single policy could address a problem as complicated as how AI affects employment.
He finds it quite depressing that many people who are unable to find employment in the labour market would be provided with a stable income indefinitely under a universal basic income (UBI). The question of whether or not those jobs are good ones is one that we can’t truly answer, but capitalist economies are very good at producing work that people can do for pay.