By Rick Rivera, MBA/MPP Candidate 2018
Philosophy Professor David Heller was, by all accounts, a brilliant man. Respected by colleagues and students for his dedication and intellectual rigor, his life reflected the core question of his course Ethics, Persons and Values: “Can we be happy without leading a good life?” And, while those close to him say he was undoubtedly happy, his story is nonetheless a tragic one. When Heller died in 2014 from an untreated thyroid condition, he’d been living in poverty for over a decade.
What does it say about the value that we place on labor when someone as single-mindedly dedicated as David Heller is allowed to die in penury? Sadly, hard work does not guarantee prosperity.The value of our work is established by the free market, by the results, in dollars and cents, of the work one does. Heller dedicated his life to a pursuit that was deemed unworthy of a minimum standard of living. But the way the market values work is on the verge of a massive disruption.
Within the next half-century, we will see the greatest increase in overall wealth and productivity since the Industrial Revolution. Innovators in Silicon Valley are, through venture-backed research into artificial intelligence, preparing the next great leap forward. A.I. will do for “brain-work” what the steam engine did for manual labor: exponentially increase efficiency and productivity, while massively reducing costs. And, as before, a large part of that reduction in costs will be through employing fewer people.
This sounds like science fiction, but machine-learning-IBM Watson on Jeopardy | Wikimediabased artificial intelligences are already making inroads into creative and mental labor fields. For example, in the world of journalism, Automated Insights’ Wordsmith platform has been writing about three thousand earnings articles every quarter for the Associated Press and doing fantasy football writeups for Yahoo since 2014. This summer, Wordsmith’s natural-language capabilities expanded to the point where it could seamlessly cover Minor League Baseball. Meanwhile, Presidio-based startup Persado’s marketing software has trained itself to write engaging advertising copy by cataloguing and cross-referencing consumer’s emotional responses to over a million words and phrases. Computer scientists in the Netherlands trained an AI to paint in the style of a Dutch master (so it shouldn’t be too hard to get it to design your product packaging). IBM’s Watson—having won at Jeopardy, worked in a call center, and written a cookbook—is now working on becoming an oncologist.
In 2013, Oxford economists found that 47% of American jobs are at high risk of automation within two decades. However, workers could potentially compensate by entering fields requiring creativity and social intelligence. That is, they could do the kind of work David Heller did. The kind of work the market does not currently value.
Given this impending shift in the nature of work, isn’t it time we re-evaluate what work means, and what it’s worth? Are workers who generate a high return on investment the only ones worthy of comfortable lives? A.I. entrepreneur and venture capitalist Sam Altman, doesn’t think so: “50 years from now, I think it will seem ridiculous that we used fear of not being able to eat as a way to motivate people.”
There is a way to mitigate this fear: Basic Income. That is, a certain amount of money, distributed to all citizens, without any sort of means testing or eligibility requirements. Basic Income should be large enough to cover the cost of a minimum standard of living and allow for some participation in the consumer economy. However, it should also be set somewhere just above the poverty level—low enough to encourage additional work-for-pay, entrepreneurship, or investment in order to afford anything beyond the basics.
Basic income is not a new idea, having been discussed at least as far back as 1797 by Thomas Paine. Nor has it always been a fringe idea: in the late sixties, basic income was endorsed by such prominent figures as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Milton Friedman, debated in the US Congress, and fought for by the Nixon Administration. In fact, a more structured version of basic income, known as negative income tax, formed the basis for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, the most successful anti-poverty program in the US.
Basic income has been having something of a moment these past few years, thanks in no small part to the threat of artificial intelligence exacerbating our already-serious income inequality. Economists across the world are talking about it. A number of countries in Europe (especially the more socially minded Nordic States) have either attempted to implement or are experimenting with some form of basic income. Altman’s venture capital firm, Y-Combinator, is in the process of designing a study where fifty or so Oakland families will receive around two thousand dollars per month for a year, with no strings attached.
Could it actually work this time? Could basic income be the solution to income inequality and mass unemployment? That depends, in no small part, on whether we continue to allow the market to dictate the value of our work, our needs, and our lives. There’s no denying that our current attitude—wherein a person is worth only as much as their work, and their work is worth what it contributes to the GDP—has made the US the wealthiest country in the world, during the wealthiest era of all of human history. But it is not sustainable, and it cannot last. To survive the next leap, we must set aside the idea of “making a living”, and recognize economic security as a fundamental right.