Basic Income

Basic income – frequently referred to as universal basic income – is a payment from the government to all people in society, regardless of their income or work circumstances, meant to guarantee basic needs like food and shelter as well as enable individuals to pursue their self-improvement and contributions to society.

How It’s Developing

Basic income has become particularly important considering advances in robots and artificial intelligence. Oren Etzioni, CEO of The Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, states of artificial intelligence’s effect on society, “There will be very real disruption. Jobs will be taken away and those people need to be taken care of. People have floated the idea of universal basic income, of negative income tax, of training programs. We have an obligation to figure out how to help people cope with the rapidly changing nature of technology.” [1]

Routine manual labor is frequently mentioned as susceptible to automation – transportation and delivery, manufacturing, etc. – but increasingly, AI could make advances routine cognitive labor including health care, law, reporting, and business. Basic income could be a strategy used by governments to ease the dislocation caused by technological progress, but the strategy would need to be funded by the technology disruptors who have will have produced so much economic surplus that they could collectively afford to liberate much of humanity from both labor and suffering. [2]

Provided the disruptors are willing or required to share their surplus, this liberation of labor could come at a very important time. Real wages for workers have stagnated. Real unemployment and underemployment is a major concern. Many employed individuals have cobbled together part-time work with limited benefits and protections. And many individuals report that they are neither engaged nor satisfied by their work. Basic income could help address a fundamental problem that work is losing its value in a technology-driven society. [3]

The basic income argument has a range of proponents. Government efficiency advocates see a potential cost savings in basic income. In place of social welfare and unemployment insurance programs, the government would provide an even disbursement to citizens. [4] This wouldn’t necessarily mean that everyone would stay home – even with their regular disbursement, individuals could determine whether they wish to continue to work or not. And some research suggests that, rather than weaken the will to work, unconditional regular disbursements could let people manage their careers and education more wisely. [5] For those concerned with the welfare of all members of society, basic income could be a strategy to strengthen the social safety net and redistribute wealth to those from whom opportunity may have been taken away. [6] There is also a feminist argument for basic income that sees this strategy as a way to equalize or reimburse mothers and other caregivers for the significant labor they do, recognizing their labor with a general entitlement equal to other members of society. [7]  

The Finnish government will experiment with basic income by randomly selecting roughly 2,000 unemployed people to receive automatic benefits, absent bureaucratic hassle and any penalties for amassing extra income. [8] Basic income proposals have been considered or are under consideration in Switzerland, France, Canada, the Netherlands, and India. [9] In California, the startup accelerator Y Combinator announced plans to provide 100 families in Oakland with $2,000 a month as an experiment in basic income, stating that “People will be able to volunteer, work, not work, move to another country—anything. We hope basic income promotes freedom, and we want to see how people experience that freedom.” [10]

While basic income is under new consideration, it is not an entirely new idea. Similar policies were tested in both Canada and the United States in the 1960s and 1970s – though assessment of their effects were flawed or abandoned – and Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated for basic income as a tool for the civil rights movement and war on poverty in his book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Writing, “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” [11]

Basic income detractors note that the strategy could limit society’s efforts to adapt and thrive in a new economy and hinder the process in which we figure out the future of work – as well as allowing governments to avoid some of the challenges that have led to the current workforce circumstances, such as failing schools and substandard public services. [12]

Why it Matters

An obvious question. Would the work of library professionals be automated and so result in our own personal needs for a basic income?

At the same time, part of the assumption of a basic income would be that individuals would be free to pursue education and training – and so libraries’ role as spaces for teaching and learning would remain and perhaps become even more popular in a society where individuals are freed from labor and able to pursue their own interests.

Basic income could also liberate people to pursue productive leisure activities – the arts, hobbies, crafts, reading, writing, etc. – and so, again, libraries’ role as spaces for these types of activities would remain and perhaps become even more popular in a basic income society.  

Notes and Resources

[1] “You Can’t Talk About Robots Without Talking About Basic Income.” Wren Handman. Motherboard. May 14, 2016. Available from http://motherboard.vice.com/read/you-cant-talk-about-robots-without-talking-about-basic-income

[2] “A Plan in Case Robots Take the Jobs: Give Everyone a Paycheck.” Farhad Manjoo. The New York Times. March 3, 2016. Available from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/03/technology/plan-to-fight-robot-invasion-at-work-give-everyone-a-paycheck.html

[3] “Welcome To The Post-Work Economy.” Ben Schiller. Fast Company. March 15, 2016. Available from http://www.fastcoexist.com/3056483/welcome-to-the-post-work-economy

[4] “What Would Happen If We Just Gave People Money?” Andrew Flowers. FiveThirtyEight. April 25, 2016. Available from http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/universal-basic-income/

[5] “It’s Payback Time for Women.” Judith Shulevitz. The New York Times. June 28, 2016. Available from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/opinion/sunday/payback-time-for-women.html

[6] “The Case for Giving Everyone Free Money.” Jason Koebler. Motherboard. June 9, 2016. Available from http://motherboard.vice.com/read/the-case-for-giving-everyone-a-universal-basic-income

[7] “It’s Payback Time for Women.” Judith Shulevitz. The New York Times. June 28, 2016. Available from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/opinion/sunday/payback-time-for-women.html

[8] “Free Cash in Finland. Must Be Jobless.” Peter S. Goodman. The New York Times. December 21, 2016. Available from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/17/business/economy/universal-basic-income-finland.html

[9] “Free Cash in Finland. Must Be Jobless.” Peter S. Goodman. The New York Times. December 21, 2016. Available from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/17/business/economy/universal-basic-income-finland.html

[10] “Next year, we will find out if it makes sense to give away money.” Jamie Condliffe. MIT Technology Review. December 19, 2016. Available from https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603186/in-2017-we-will-find-out-if-a-basic-income-makes-sense/

[11] “What Would Happen If We Just Gave People Money?” Andrew Flowers. FiveThirtyEight. April 25, 2016. Available from http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/universal-basic-income/

[12] “The universal basic income is a bad idea whose time will never come.” Allison Schraeger. Quartz. Available from http://qz.com/675517/basic-income/