How to Keep Our Robots, Lose Our Jobs, And Prosper

How to Keep Our Robots, Lose Our Jobs, And Prosper

It's not as crazy as it sounds, but would require a fundamental shift.
March 1, 2017, 2:30pm

The Ontario government is getting closer to starting its planned trial of a basic income—essentially topping up the incomes of people below a particular economic threshold. Understandably, some are worried about how financially sustainable a basic income will be, and how it will actually work in practice.

Policy experts are increasingly looking to basic income to stabilize a society where humans are being replaced by robots in the workforce. Bill Gates and some politicians have gone so far as to call for a tax on robots to slow down their adoption.


But how about this: Let's forget about all that and make our oil companies and other resource extractors, such as companies that pump groundwater for private sale, pay for society's well-being. That way, we can keep our robots and prosper, too.

Read More: The Future of Robot Labor Is the Future of Capitalism

The idea isn't so crazy, and was discussed on Monday by former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis in an essay for Al Jazeera. Varoufakis claims that instead of a basic income and an accompanying tax on robots entering the workforce, a better way to deal with increasing automation (and fewer jobs for humans) is a national dividend.

The core idea behind a national dividend is to give every citizen an equal cut of society's overall productivity. In Varoufakis' conception, this could involve making every corporation devote some of its shares to a public trust, making every single member of society a shareholder.

Instead of disincentivizing robotics via taxation, the national dividend would allow everyone in society to prosper even if every factory replaced its human employees with robots tomorrow.

But Varoufakis' conception of a shareholder-based national dividend is just one of several. The basic idea is that corporations—those already owned by the government, as well as privately-owned entities that profit from natural resources—should help fund all of society's well-being.


"The state of Alaska, even under a relatively conservative Republican government in the 1980s, with all the oil and gas coming out of the state, decided to put a good portion of the profits into the Alaska Permanent Fund," said Jim Mulvale, Dean of the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Manitoba, in an interview. "Some of the money was used to pay an annual dividend to all residents of the state of Alaska."

"There'd certainly be nothing preventing national governments from doing that kind of thing," he continued. We could even look to private companies to pay into the fund.

"We need to rethink our whole idea of work"

While oil companies are an obvious starting point, Mulvale said, we could also require other industries to contribute to a national dividend. For example, robots and the internet only exist due to decades of publicly funded research and investment, in addition to private sector contributions, so the companies that profit off of them could be asked to give back.

"The basic idea is whether it's land, or natural resources, or hydro power, or the long social enterprise of developing robots and the internet—it's social capital," Mulvale said.

The largest difference between basic income and a national dividend is how they relate to work and jobs.

A basic income in a quickly automating society, despite ensuring a minimum standard of living, doesn't solve the problem of there being fewer jobs overall. So, a tax on robots is needed to slow the rollout of machine labour. But with a national dividend, even a fully automated economy would buoy everyone economically because the robots would be working for us all.

What about the other, less tangible benefits of a having a steady job? Some fear that sloth and gluttony will overtake society without the compulsion to work, but the possibilities offered by a highly technologically developed, and more communal, society have long captured imaginations for generations through media like Star Trek.

"This would potentially underwrite people getting involved in community work or artistic endeavours," Mulvale said. "We need to rethink our whole idea of work—valuable work isn't just what people get paid for in the labour market."

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