Universal Income Will Be Necessary


Chase Raz

April 20, 2017

Unemployment line during the Great Depression

The concept of a Universal Basic Income, or UBI, is continually growing in the United States and other highly developed nations. UBI is an economic practice that guarantees a baseline income that is set at a level balanced to ensure that necessities are met when evaluated against a social minimum. Want more than basic or minimum?  That's where business or employment reenter the picture, after all, someone has to pay the taxes to fund the basic incomes.

The economic motivation behind UBI is to eliminate the need for complex social welfare programs--ranging from food stamps to unemployment benefits--in a world where technological advancement displaces workers from virtually all industries.

There are, of course, other approaches besides UBI such as Negative Income Tax (NIT) and Guaranteed Minimum Income (GMI), but these are nuanced in their approach and address a similar concept to UBI, albeit utilizing vastly different mechanisms.

UBI as a concept has been circulating in business and technology networks for decades, but most recently was brought to light in the latest round of attention by Elon Musk (of course) who, in late 2016, stated that he believes artificial intelligence would both make it possible and require us to implement some form of UBI as labor is displaced by technology.

The idea of UBI can be traced back hundreds of years, but major discussion appeared first in the United States during the 1960s thanks to efforts of economists and technologists whose thinking were profoundly impacted by the dawn of both the nuclear and computer ages and the post-WWII shift towards large scale production.  One of the most vocal proponents in favor of an income guarantee was Robert Theobald, economist and author of The Challenge of Abundance.  As a side note, this book is one of my most prized items in the "1960s collection" of my personal library.

In my technology classes, I've prepared those entering the workforce for the potentiality of UBI for many years.  It is quite disconcerting for many students to hear me profess, "the current day in age is the first in which we simply don't need the productive work of all of you."  Uncomfortable?  Yes, but beyond your work not being necessary, it might actually become actively unwanted!  In the future, your attempt at work in most fields will create a marginal decline in productivity compared to what an automated solution will be able to produce.  Again, truth isn't always comfortable.


There is at least some solace: technical pursuits, like developing machine learning and artificial intelligence, are not only safe from immediate elimination but are also ripe for growth.  If all else fails, know that creative work will also be in higher demand as human economics shift from the routine labor to the creation of shared cultural experiences.