Thoughts on Capitalism, Universal Basic Income, and Automation

Thoughts on Capitalism, Universal Basic Income, and Automation
Assembly Line Robots, created by Marcel Gagné, using Stable Diffusion.

Welcome to the world of generative AI, folks! Have a seat, get comfortable, and for heaven's sake, buckle up. It might be a bumpy ride. The rise of generative AI technologies like ChatGPT, Stable Diffusion, and other advanced machine learning models has the potential to revolutionize the way we work, live, and interact with one another. Not to mention, just have fun. It's exciting. It's new. It's like magic!

On on hand, these innovations are creating new opportunities and efficiencies in various industries and businesses, but on the other hand, they also pose significant challenges to the job market. Many of us know someone who has been automated out of their job, even creative jobs that were once considered 'safe'. With the increasing capability of AI systems to perform tasks that once required human labor, including so-called 'white-collar jobs', the need for a UBI becomes more pressing than ever.

The idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI) isn't new, but I'm often surprised by the number of people I talk to who haven't heard of it or really grasped why it's so important. Especially now. UBI, in a nutshell, is a regular wad of cash handed to every single person, no strings attached. Some people see it as money for nothin', a lazy person's way of gettin' a free ride from society.

But those in favor, many of whom don't actually need UBI, see it as the grease that keeps the wheels of civilization turning as automation and AI make more and more of our jobs go the way of the dinosaur or the dodo (feel free to pick your favourite extinct species).

As these AI-driven machines get better at doing the things that used to need human hands and brains, we need to face the fact that a whole lot of people might be out of work, even if it's just for a while. That's where UBI comes in – not only is it the right and decent thing to do, but it's the only way to keep this crazy world of ours from going to Hell in the proverbial handbasket.

UBI is like putting a safety net under a high-wire act – people feel a whole lot better about taking the technological plunge if they know they won't crash and burn. With a little cash in their pockets, people can ride out the storm, learn some new skills, and maybe even strike out on a new path.

It's not about giving money to people who don't deserve it. It's about making sure people don't have to start at zero. It has been said that being poor is the hardest job in the world. It's also much harder to pull yourself out of poverty when you have nothing to start with. UBI can provide the basics of food, clothing, health, safety, and shelter, and from there, the freedom to explore something more than mere survival. I shudder to think about the wasted human talent, living in tents or cardboard boxes, unable to reach their potential and contribute to our world because every hour is about making it to the next hour.

Plus, and this is a big one, handing out UBI to everybody means we can keep the peace and keep people from getting into trouble. Nothing good ever comes from people feeling desperate and backed into a corner with nothing to do. With UBI in place, we can keep our communities strong, and our heads held high. And let's not forget the boost it'll give to the economy. UBI means more money for people to spend on the things they need and want, which is good news for businesses big and small. And if businesses are doing well, they may need more workers, which could help balance out the jobs lost to automation.

Automation replacing human workers by the millions is not a mere fantasy, and unlike previous ‘industrial’ revolutions, we are entering an age where machines can, and will, do everything we can do. In earlier times, we could always say, “Well, sure machines can do this or that really well, but only humans can do this other thing.” That is no longer the case as we enter a time where there is really nothing that a human can do (I’m talking about ‘jobs’ here), that a machine cannot do.

Pretending the problem isn’t real and suggesting that ‘people are just lazy’ or some other nonsense will bring about a future that will make the world wars seem like the good old days.  Yes, it’s that bad. It’s been said that the devil has work for idle hands. Imagine millions of idle hands, and now imagine that they don’t have enough to eat. More than one revolution or war has started for reasons as mundane as the need to put food on the table. We don’t need to go too far back to find examples. The Arab Spring began as demonstrations over high bread prices.

People have fairly basic needs and desires. Most of these have to do with living well and providing the same for your family. Most of us want to work, but not too hard. Life is, after all, for living. Give most humans a roof over their heads, a safe place to raise kids, enough food to fill their bellies, and the chance to explore what the world has to offer, and most people will need little else. Notice I didn’t write ‘want‘, but ‘need‘. ‘Want’ is something else.

The coming, and unstoppable, wave of automation, led by increasingly capable machines and artificial intelligence, will forever change our world. Millions upon millions will find themselves without jobs and without any realistic future job prospects. Telling those people that they just need to suck it up, or to move, or to get retrained, or to find other work so that we can keep the engine of capitalism humming along will only lead to disaster.

Idle hands, remember?

We could, however, just as likely enter something akin to the Star Trek universe (minus the war with Klingons and Romulans) if we understand that defining people by what they do and forcing them to ‘earn’ their right to live, is a thing of the past, a vestigial organ from an earlier time. Like an appendix.

A few years ago, I was listening to a fascinating discussion regarding the eventual death of capitalism on CBC’s “Ideas” program. I'll provide you with a link shortly, but the discussion is important and somewhat unsettling. Here’s a quote from that episode.

  “Democracy was always a problem in a capitalist society. There’s an enormous inherent tension between the two. Democracy is inherently egalitarian because every citizen has one vote. And the rich also have one vote but the rich are only five percent. Whereas in the market, every dollar has a vote. And the capitalist economy in particular functions according to — I think it’s [the Gospel of] Matthew — where it says he who has will be given [more]. And he who has [little] will have even what he has taken away…

He’s referring to Matthew 13:12 which, in the King James Version, reads, “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” You might know it as “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer”. For the record, you can find it in a handful of other places in the Bible.

Anyhow, this episode is a must listen, or read, and you’ll find both the audio and the transcript here.

Capitalism is a lot like fossil fuels. It helped create our modern world, but it is starting to cause more harm than good. We can’t just dump capitalism overnight, but we must start to transition away from it. That’s what Universal Basic Income is; the first step in the transition to whatever comes next.

It's time for us to come together and recognize the challenges and opportunities that AI-driven automation presents. We must be proactive in shaping a future that benefits everyone. Let's start by advocating for Universal Basic Income as a foundation for a fair and equitable society in the face of rapid technological change. I encourage you to learn more about UBI, share your thoughts and insights with others, and engage with policymakers and community leaders to champion this cause.  Talk to your elected representative about UBI or work to elect politicians who understand and support UBI. The time for action has been now for a long time, but there is such a thing as waiting too long – let's work together to make Universal Basic Income a reality for all.

UBI is like a life preserver in a stormy sea, keeping us all afloat as we navigate the choppy waters of progress. Together, we can navigate those waters and create a world where everyone has the chance to thrive, regardless of the ever-evolving job market.

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