On the Late Show, Stephen Colbert has a recurring comedy bit he calls “Meanwhile.” Not part of the opening monologue, it’s a collection of brief–usually weird or ironic– items culled from the news of the day.
But “meanwhile” also has application to those of us who are fixated on contemporary threats to America’s Constitution and democratic norms. While we worry about the increasingly bizarre behavior of our fellow-Americans who live in a fact-free reality of their own devising, we ignore or just miss the daily challenges posed by technology–everything from the way social media is altering attention spans, to the mounting inability of the nation’s utilities to cope with the damage being done by climate change, to the rush to turn our highways over to self-driving vehicles.
That last item–the (debated) imminence of self-driving cars– is just one element of another under-appreciated threat: the loss of millions of jobs, and the issue of how we will handle the transition to a world where most labor (not just manual labor) is performed by machines. An enormous amount of research suggests that, sooner or later, AI–artificial intelligence–will replace a significant percentage of tasks that now require human performance.
It is easy to “pooh-pooh” those predictions, and to dismiss the likelihood of significant social disruption, by pointing out that someone will have to produce and program those machines, and noting that past technological progress has created as well as destroyed jobs. The cheery optimists insist that nothing is certain, so why worry? (Tell that to the estimated five million people who make their livings driving…)
The Brookings Institution has weighted in. In a paper aptly titled “Preparing for the (non-existent) future of work,” the researchers write,
We analyze how to set up institutions that future-proof our society for a scenario of ever-more-intelligent autonomous machines that substitute for human labor and drive down wages. We lay out three concerns arising from such a scenario, culminating in the economic redundancy of labor, and evaluate recent predictions and objections to these concerns. Then we analyze how to allocate work and income if these concerns start to materialize. As the income produced by autonomous machines rises and the value of labor declines, we find that it is optimal to phase out work, beginning with workers who have low labor productivity and job satisfaction, since they have comparative advantage in enjoying leisure. This is in stark contrast to welfare systems that force individuals with low labor productivity to work. If there are significant wage declines, avoiding mass misery will require other ways of distributing income than labor markets, whether via sufficiently well-distributed capital ownership or via benefits. Recipients could still engage in work for its own sake if they enjoy work amenities such as structure, purpose, and meaning. If work gives rise to positive externalities such as social connections or political stability, or if individuals undervalue the benefits of work because of internalities, then there is a role for public policy to encourage work. However, we conjecture that in the long run, it would be more desirable for society to develop alternative ways of providing these benefits.
You can download the entire paper at the link.
The likelihood that much of world’s work will eventually be done by machines that don’t get sick, don’t need benefits, and can work 24/7 is part of what leads me to support a Universal Basic Income– an “alternative way” of providing a social infrastructure.
Analyzing America’s current polarization provides another argument for a UBI. As political rhetoric makes clear, policies intended to help less fortunate citizens can be delivered in ways that stoke resentments, or in ways that encourage national cohesion. Currently, we’re stoking resentments. (Consider public attitudes toward welfare programs aimed at impoverished communities, and contrast those attitudes with the overwhelming majorities that approve of Social Security and Medicare–universal programs to which virtually everyone contributes and from which virtually everyone who lives long enough benefits.)
I’ve previously observed that we don’t hear angry accusations that “those people” are driving on roads paid for by my taxes. Beneficiaries of programs that include everyone (or almost everyone) are much more likely to escape stigma. If work disappears for a significant percentage of our population, an approach that doesn’t require lawmakers to pick and choose who deserves help would be far less likely to tear the country further apart.
Of course, the armed and dangerous Americans who currently live in crazy-town may make attention to these “meanwhile” matters irrelevant. They involve questions of governance that they disdain, because they involve how best to achieve the common good, and they have absolutely no interest in helping anyone but themselves.