“In the 24th century there will be no hunger, there will be no greed, and all the children will know how to read.” – Gene Roddenberry
I didn’t expect checking my work email to trigger an existential crisis last week, but what are Mondays if not full of surprises? This particular surprise was an article from the Harvard Business Review explaining that my high tech consulting job might soon be done by AI.
I was aware that automation was a growing issue, and had debated the value of things like self-driving cars versus the jobs of, say, Uber drivers and truckers, but the issue had mostly been a cerebral one. Surely it would be years before my industry was affected, right?
Apparently not. In fact, in 2013, Oxford University researchers estimated that machines might be able to take over half of all U.S. jobs in the next 20 years. Even worse, recent developments show that some of the jobs they thought would take the longest to automate do much better when run by computers instead of people, such as psychotherapy. If a $60 billion consulting industry based heavily on expert humans is at risk, then potentially all jobs are.
But is that necessarily a bad thing? SpaceX founder Elon Musk recently spoke on the topic, arguing that the cure for humans displaced by robots and software in the workforce is a Universal Basic Income. Essentially, every citizen, no matter their income or position in society, would receive an identical and unconditional sum of money from the government every month that would be enough to secure their basic needs, which in the U.S. would amount to approximately $1,000 per adult and $300 per child every month.
A world where everyone has access to basic living requirements? Where food isn’t scarce and everyone is free to pursue their interests no matter their situation? That sounds a lot like Star Trek to me.
We’re often told that money is a thing of the past in Star Trek, but their world isn’t a communist one. All we have to do is look at the Crusher family’s haunted cottage, Carter Winston’s space trading, or Joseph Sisko’s restaurant in New Orleans to see that private ownership still exists. And in fact there are various references to money and buying or selling throughout the series, although it typically only comes up when dealing with non-humans. But overall, the Star Trek world is one in which money has taken a backseat to personal fulfillment.
“I’m Human, I don’t have any money.”
“It’s not my fault that your species decided to abandon currency-based economics in favor of some philosophy of self-enhancement.”
“Hey, watch it. There’s nothing wrong with our philosophy. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity.”
“What does that mean exactly?”
“It means… it means we don’t need money!”
– Jake Sisko and Nog, “In the Cards”
In Star Trek, replicators and the advancement of technology have allowed everyone to survive at a level well beyond basic subsistence. Society produces more than enough to satisfy everyone’s basic needs, and everyone benefits as a result.
It’s easy to dismiss such an idea as far-fetched, or simply unnecessary in our current world. But as we move towards a future in which there isn’t enough meaningful work for everyone it bears thinking about.
Youngstown, OH shows what can happen if we don’t prepare for the potential future. On September 19, 1977 the Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill and within five years the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in wages. What followed was more than a recession, as the area suffered a resulting cultural breakdown that led to a massive increase in depression, spousal abuse, suicide, and crime. The area has slowly built itself back up, but the resulting cultural shock of unemployment shows what might happen to the rest of America- especially if we ignore the domino effect of unemployment. After all, about 70% of all economic activity in the country is made up of American spenders, if people aren’t consuming then the economy grinds to a halt.
In addition, the fact remains that even now, in one of the richest countries in the world, people still die every year from poverty and poverty-related causes. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 17.4 million American families are now “food insecure,” meaning that, during any given month, they will be out of money, out of food, and forced to miss meals or seek assistance to feed themselves. 17 million children live in food-insecure homes, and a 2007 study by Meals on Wheels indicated that as many as 6 million seniors are going hungry. How much worse would the situation be if even a quarter of the current jobs were lost to automation?
Already there are people who want to work who can’t, or who are working less than they would like. According to a piece put out by the McKinsey Global Institute, there are 285 million adults who are not in the labor force in the United States and the 15 core European Union countries, and at least 100 million of them would like to work more.
Even if we ignore the humanitarian benefits of a basic income, it’s easy to see that our current system isn’t working as well as it could. In fact, that’s probably the best argument for a UBI in the first place: it represents an increase in our potential as a human species. The fact remains that children who grow up in poverty offer suffer from situations that hurt their ability to live life as fully as they could. How stressed a mother is during pregnancy causes thinning in the area of the brain that is linked to emotional regulation, childhood nutrition has longstanding effects on IQ, and lack of opportunity can cause a decrease in cognitive ability into adulthood.
Simply evening the playing field for children in poverty would give society as a whole an intellectual and problem-solving boost. This isn’t just a theoretical boost either, in testimony before the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, Harry Holzer reported that the costs to the U.S. associated with childhood poverty total about $500 billion per year, or the equivalent of nearly 4 percent of GDP, with about 1.3% of GDP reduced by lost productivity and economic output.
Meanwhile, when it comes to adults, having a financial floor means that that people don’t need to stay in a job that they hate. According to Gallup, worldwide, only 13% of those with jobs feel engaged with them, the cost of which is a productivity loss of around $500 billion per year. At the same time, there are jobs that people really want, but can’t have because they are taken by people who don’t want to be there but who can’t afford to not work. People can look for the work that would suit them best, or become an entrepreneur.
They can take a risk on a new business or venture, or take time off to care for their aging parents or new children, or go back to school. In a very real sense a UBI is emancipatory, freeing people from the fear of poverty and allowing them to live life as best that they can.
Again, though, this isn’t entirely a thought exercise. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has calculated that the increase in inequality in the United States has actually caused us to have a lower GDP than we otherwise would have had. Evening the playing field makes us all wealthier, as every $1 going to a low-wage worker adds $1.21 to GDP, whereas every $1 going to a high-income earner adds 39 cents.
But surely the world of Star Trek is an impossible utopia, right? If we paid people just for existing surely no one would work at all. Well, the data doesn’t necessarily hold up that argument. Not only do the places that currently have something close to a UBI not have that problem (Alaska, Namibia, India and Brazil), but a basic income would actually remove the existing disincentive to work that conditional welfare creates. See, in our current system we only pay for welfare up to a certain amount of income, after that point any additional income can cause a loss of those benefits, leaving them worse off than they were before. If accepting any amount of paid work will leave someone on welfare barely better off, or even worse off, why do it?
That said, is it even possible to enact a UBI? The real world doesn’t have replicators yet, are we at a point where we as a society are creating enough that we can afford to pay everyone a UBI? Well, according to Tim Worstall over at Forbes, a UBI may even be cheaper than the current system. With the consolidation of welfare programs (social security, food nutrition assistance, wage subsidies) and tax credits that are made redundant by a UBI the cost is decreased even further.
In the end, I think it’s worth the chance. With the possibility of a nightmarish world of unemployment and poverty overtaking much of our population, I instead choose to be optimistic- to believe that there is no such thing as a no-win scenario. It’s an optimism that Star Trek taught me well and something Roddenberry embodied into the very spirit of his series. Instead of panicking about the on-going march of technology, how about we choose a bold way forward, into a world where there is no hunger, there is no greed, and all the children know how to read.