Tal Tyagi explores how technology has the power not only to transform but to destroy our economy. The sheer speed in which businesses are replacing workers with machines is a huge contributor to unemployment. It is estimated that in the US alone, 80% of the jobs could be replaced by a machine. If we’re not working, we’re not earning and if we’re not earning, we’re not spending. If we’re not spending, the entire system will collapse.
“They’re coming to take your job!” is every other tabloid headline. It’s the repeated accusation levelled at immigrants but how often have you heard about it in reference to robots? Head into your local Tesco or McDonalds and you´ll see what I´m talking about. The days of having a natter with the checkout girl are numbered. Big business realises that machines are far more cost-effective and efficient. Once you’ve bought them you don’t need to pay them, they don’t get sick, and they don’t get pregnant.
Not all jobs are at risk. The skilled professionals e.g. doctors, lawyers, teachers cannot be disposed of as fast as fast food workers. However, if the “low-skilled” base of the economy were to be plundered, the entire pyramid would collapse. It is in all of our interests to find a solution.
Just as the Luddites during the Industrial Revolution arose out of fear that machines would steal away livelihoods and souls, a second wave of anti-technology fervour would be understandable. In response, we could simply pass legislation regulating the extent to which workplaces are allowed to mechanise. It would be business as usual… problem solved.
Mechanisation is naturally more menacing in the private sector because of the pressure to keep costs down and profits up. Thus, another possibility could be to expand the public sector – a Keynesian renaissance. FDR´s ´New Deal´ is credited for saving American capitalism from the Great Depression. All manner of public work schemes were established – roads, dams, libraries, housing projects. People were even paid to dig holes! The logic goes that if we put people back to work, they are at least spending. Purchasing of goods and services in the markets allows a healthy private sector to expand. In theory, this should put the boom back into business.
While both increased regulation and a return to the economics of our parents and grandparents do provide solutions, they are just… boring. They do not shine the light towards a bright future; at best they allow us to trundle along in the present. Why couldn’t and why shouldn’t mechanisation be seen as a blessing, not a curse?
In the US 70% of workers hate their jobs. Let that sink in. We spend more of our lives at work than we do with our loved ones. Many of us are getting up to an alarm clock´s scream and then stacking shelves into our seventies. Apart from the wage, if we lose our jobs, we´re not losing much.
Machines need to be made our servants, not masters. A third solution exists – the Basic Income. This is the idea that we should tax businesses and provide every citizen with enough to finance their basic needs.
Sweden have been leading innovators in this department. After already moving towards a six-hour work day, there is talk about giving each and every citizen the equivalent of 20,000 pounds from the government.
Of course questions of how and when this could be done need to be answered. The logistics are problematic but the potential is there. Providing each and every citizen with the money to pay for their necessities will put a big burden on those who pay the most tax. However, they will have to realise that it is in their interests if they actually want customers who have the capacity to buy their goods and services. Complex and expensive welfare systems would no longer be needed either.
Critics would no doubt argue that if everyone had all their basic needs met, humanity would stagnate. Images of nations sat around in their underpants watching TV no doubt come to mind. Why would anyone bother becoming a doctor in this type of set up? Well the basic income would likely only cover basic living expenses so of course there would still be the incentive to increase one’s standard of living. However, studies have shown that human beings are not driven by money alone. In Cuba, a bar tender and a doctor can earn about the same salary, yet medical schools are full! The small island nation actually has more doctors on average than the US! Yes, we are driven by financial incentives but we are also driven by vocation, creativity and compassion.
A basic income would well and truly lift the cap on human potential, ambition and freedom. Most of the world´s great scientific endeavours, artistic and philosophical pursuits have been the exclusive territory of the sons and daughters of the wealthy – those who don´t have to work for a living. A world where we don´t live to work or work to live will open the gates to the ultimate free society!
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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