Cross-posted at Education Week.
I remember when I was in high school reading sci-fi novels about disembodied humans—only the brains left, floating in some unidentified liquid in a transparent ball—connected to their environment by a gaggle of wires to a machine that enabled them to communicate with each other, gain sustenance and carry on, sort of. The novel explained that this was all that was left of humankind. All the work needed to sustain them was done by automated machinery, designed and built long ago by real humans. And I remember being horrified, not at all convinced that this would be a “life” worth living. What would make it possible, of course, would be enormous advances in science and technology, advances that would postpone death indefinitely and, at the same time, enable automated devices to do everything we needed to have done.
I could not help remembering these vivid images when I learned recently that a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have become rather excited about a policy proposal they are advancing to deal with the social and economic consequences of advancing automation. The idea has been around for a long time under various names—universal basic income, unconditional basic income, social dividend, guaranteed annual income, citizen’s income, negative income tax—but what all of the schemes amount to is a system under which all citizens would be entitled to a guaranteed check from the government that would be enough to pay for all the basics—food, clothing, medical care, etc.—whether or not they are working and—in most versions—contingent on nothing.
It turns out that the citizens of Switzerland will soon be voting on whether they want their government to set up experiments that would implement such policies (the current government is opposed). Finland and the Netherlands are studying the idea. Members of the French parliament have supported the idea of doing an experiment. Think tanks all over the world are debating their merits. People are writing papers and holding conferences on the theoretical foundations of such policies as well as the likely consequences of adopting them.
The idea of government guaranteeing a basic income has made for strange bedfellows. Libertarians like the guarantee because they see it as a way to minimize government’s role. Just add up all the current forms of government assistance to citizens and families and cut a check for the per citizen expenditure and fire all the people who now staff the government agencies at all levels of government who are now involved in getting the services to their intended clients. Liberals like it because they see the guarantee as a way to put the client in charge of their own lives and to lift the poor out of poverty. More recently, they see it as a way to tamp down the resurgent far right by putting a floor under the evaporating income of workers, especially in Europe. Conservatives—Milton Friedman was one of its advocates—like it because it stops the proliferation of government agencies in its tracks and because it solves the problem of the “poverty gap.” That is the problem caused by the fact that, under the rules of income-contingent support programs of all kinds, the support ends when the individual gets paying work, which creates a disincentive to work. Under the basic income plan, everyone gets the basic income, whether or not they are working, so there is no disincentive to work. The overhead now involved in administering government programs would be cut to the bone—just the cost of cutting the checks and getting them to the recipients—so the same amount of money would go much further.
The interesting question is why many leaders of the Silicon Valley community—not usually given to backing political proposals in their official capacity—are putting their weight behind it. What they say is that they are in a position to understand the potential of technology to destroy jobs better than anyone and they want to take a responsible position by offering a way to deal with the social upheaval that is likely to occur as hundreds of thousands and then millions of jobs disappear in the onrush of automation. They point for an example to the potential for automated driving to put millions of taxi drivers, truck drivers, bus drivers and limo drivers out of work. This, they say, is only the tip of the iceberg; much more of the same is right around the corner.
My purpose here is not to debate the merits of the basic income guarantee proposals. They come in many shapes and sizes, but there is very little evidence concerning the actual effects of such policies on human behavior. What interests me is that the idea has attracted so much attention in so many places, particularly in Silicon Valley.
Among the leaders of Silicon Valley who are interest in these proposals is Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator, who has committed $10 million of his own money to an experimental trial of the guaranteed basic income idea. Matt Krisloff, the manager of the project is quoted as saying that “We think there could be a possibility where 95 percent—or a vast majority—of people won’t be able to contribute to the workforce…. We need to start preparing for that transformation.”
“Basic income is about wanting to embrace automation,” said Albert Wenger, who is a partner in Union Square Ventures. Wenger thinks humanity will be better off spending less time on tasks that can be automated and more on fighting climate change, exploring space, and preventing the next pandemic. Providing a guaranteed basic income will, he thinks, allow innovation to flourish.
But Sam Altman is quoted as saying that the minimum wage jobs will get innovated away and the people holding them will be an “idle class.” “Government will just have to give these people money.”
Really! This puts the matter in its starkest form. Are we in fact facing a future in which advancing automation will make it unnecessary for most humans to work? A world in which there will be plenty everywhere we look and the only question that remains will be how that plenty is divided? A report just came out showing that, since the Great Recession, most of the job growth has been among knowledge workers, not blue-collar workers. Some have argued that this data shows that automation is not eliminating jobs, just ratcheting up the level of education required to secure the jobs that will be available. Others say that the jury is still very much out on this point, that it is much too early to tell whether advancing automation will have the devastating effects predicted by Altman, Krisloff and a growing number of others.
What should those of us in the education community make of all this?
I must say that my first reaction to the pronouncements of Altman and Kristoff was to imagine how the supporters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders would respond if they could hear what these two gentleman had to say. These two entrepreneurs are, perhaps unwittingly, casting up an image of the world in which a handful of people like themselves pile up enormous fortunes doing work they love while a far larger number of people are provided pittances by the government to lead lives of “leisure.” It is, in my view, attitudes like this that are fueling no small part of the resentment powering this election cycle. If the people rebelling now feel that they have been cast aside, just wait until they are told that their services are no longer needed and government will take care of them with a handout. As I see it, the most devastating aspect of the condition of many people now out of work is the damage to their self-respect, their image of themselves as contributors to their family and their community, the kind of self-respect that comes from the dignity conferred by work that is valued by the community. The redoubled rebellion is unlikely to be quelled by announcements that those on this new dole are now free to think deep thoughts about protecting the environment.
Consider what the educator might have to do if this vision of automated life comes to pass. We would be sorting students into two bins, one bin for the few masters of the universe who get the great jobs, create the future and amass enough money to make sure that it is their children who succeed them and not the children of the others who are not as fortunate as they to be in the driver’s seat when the ball got rolling. And then there will be the bin for the others, who really do notneed all those wonderful skills that the masters of the universe need, because they will not need to earn a living and will not have an opportunity to gain the dignity that comes with paid work.
And how will we decide which bin to put each child into? We could do it on “merit,” but, given the overwhelming advantages enjoyed by the master class, we might just as well tell them that their children will automatically be assigned to an education designed to prepare them for the jobs their parents have.
You may think that I am conjuring this picture up out of thin wisps of reality, that these are not choices we are ever likely to have to make, that it will all work out. I am not so sure. I think the advance of automation will be much swifter than most people think, that we will have to decide what sort of economy—and society—we want, and that, if we want an economy that can provide good jobs and rewarding work for everyone, we will have to devise policies to make that happen, policies that are not even being discussed in this election. I will be most interested in learning what you think about these issues.