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article imageOp-Ed: UBI and the zenith of Capitalism

By John McAuliffe     Mar 1, 2016 in Technology
The zenith of Capitalism is on the horizon now that Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robots are set to take up countless jobs and Universal Basic Income (UBI) is proposed to unconditionally distribute the wealth.
Capitalism has long been the source of serious problems, whether it be class conflict between rich and poor, the rise of a decadent and narcissistic culture, or devastation of the world's habitats, but the zenith of capitalism may be attainable sooner than anyone anticipated. One thing is for certain; society will become unrecognizable if we reach it. The two pivotal steps for society to take now are the adoption and implementation of UBI and the enthusiastic embrace of AI and robotics in commerce and industry — but both must be embraced simultaneously or else more harm may be done than good.
The main concern for vast numbers of the employed today is the question whether or not their job will be usurped by robots or AI, which can do the task more efficiently, with better results and at marginal cost. In his report on the future of robotics in the workplace, Les Horvitz examines this concern in more detail. Citing a variety of reports, Horvitz estimates that in the U.S., up to 47 percent of the workforce could be replaced by a form of technology, and 35 percent in Britain, while in the most developed countries, up to seven million jobs are queued for automation in the next five to seven years. As technology improves at an ever-increasing pace, an automated workforce is increasingly been seen as a prime investment for business owners. Even some highly skilled workers from all social classes are at risk, including financial services and journalism. For all you know, this article could have been written by a computer program.
From the perspective of a wealthy business owner, an automated workforce is ideal. They differ from human workers in a variety of ways. Humans are a long-term cost, needing wages and, with higher skilled workers, health insurance and pension plans. Robots are a once-off investment, needing only minor costs for long-term maintenance. Furthermore, human workers need a set number of work hours per day while robots can remain active indefinitely, thus boosting productivity. Ultimately, human workers have far less advantages over their robotic counterparts.
The benefits to a largely automated economy would be astronomical. Unceasing and ultra-efficient productivity will boost GDP and raise the living standards, so long as the newly unemployed masses can afford the products and services. The benefits would disproportionately increase for those still employed, whose wages could increase exponentially. However, the unemployed must be catered for. To simply not look for a solution to the dire social conditions created by mass unemployment would rival the malice of Thatcher and Reagan's ideology of supreme market wisdom and infallibility. Not only will countless be unemployed, but also unemployable, the number of who would increase as technology improves and more jobs become automated. The detriment to society would become apparent. In the book The Spiritual Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, authors Wilkinson and Picket identify a correlation between increasing inequality and worsening conditions in physical and mental health, education and crime, but to name a few.
The solution to preventing such an immense social decline in the shadows of a booming economy has become known as UBI, an unconditional wage paid to all citizens. Until recently, it was a theory which had its potential flaws and benefits discussed in various media outlets, but the Labour Party in Britain has taken it to the next level by seriously considering its implementation as an official economic policy, even tabling it for debate in parliament.
In light of the above predictions for a highly automated economy, UBI would necessarily have to counteract the levels of inequality caused by mass unemployment, meaning it should at least be set at a sum with which a person can live. A think tank has proposed a good start would be £308 ($442) a month, from which it can increase to meet the living needs and then surpass it. The authors of the report, Anthony Painter and Chris Thoung, said: "The major concern is ultimately people: the lives we are able to lead, our ability to have a sense of security so we can pursue our ambition, and our ability to contribute to supporting one another, innovating, and developing the creative potential of society." An additional benefit would be the eradication of extremely costly bureaucracy in current welfare systems, some of which cost up to half the designated budget. Instead of having a rainbow of welfare structures, like child benefit, income allowance, job seekers benefit etc. each with their own respective departments, there would simply be UBI. As economic performance and automation increase, UBI can increase too.
The question in ongoing debates deals with precisely how people would react to receiving money for nothing. One of the highly touted benefits highlights the potential life of the former employee. Instead of living a life condemned to a long work-day repeating meaningless, fulfilling tasks which are designed only to improve the bottom line of a company, the person will have the freedom to pursue life ambitions and education and push the boundaries of their potential in innovation and creativity. Dismal, gloomy factory towns of the past could be replaced with advanced, cultural marvels of the future. Critics, however, anticipate much of that potential going unfulfilled as people with new-found freedom realize they have nothing to do. The argument predicts that crime and anti-social behavior will go up and people will become lazy.
The reality will very likely be a mixture of all the above-mentioned points. Mass automation of labor will elevate the world economy to the pinnacle of productivity and prosperity, however it would be pointless to concentrate the new-found wealth into the hands of the very few who own this new means of production. In lieu of mass poverty and destitution, they would quickly be confronted with widespread violence where they are the primary target. Furthermore, ultra-efficient productivity is pointless if there are countless fewer customers. UBI is a vital prerequisite for reaching the zenith of Capitalism. At a global population of seven billion people and rising, a UBI system, even in one country, will not see everybody reaching their potential in innovation and creativity. There is bound to be some lazy people, but also some criminals and some ingenious innovators and creators. But UBI and mass automation will create the freedom for those innovators and creators to reach their potential, whereas otherwise they may have been suppressed by the need to pay an array of bills at a low paying job, with little time to focus on anything else. Even for those who partake in a lazy lifestyle, there is little motivation or incentive to remain that way indefinitely. They could participate in the innovation culture of their new society later on. There will always be a hierarchy of innovates and creators just like there is a hierarchy of paid employees, but the former will more certainly be based on the gifts of the individual than the latter.
If society takes the steps to implement mass automation alongside a healthy UBI system, the zenith of Capitalism would have been reached and mankind will enter an entirely new era.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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