Technology, Universal Basic Income, and the Dignity of Work

Have you heard of Andrew Yang yet? He’s an author, tech entrepreneur, and Democratic hopeful running for President in 2020 with a unique message – robots are coming for our jobs, and the solution is a “universal basic income” subsidy for every adult. It’s easy to dismiss Yang and his proposals as unrealistic, and it is unlikely he will rally enough support to actually win the nomination, let alone the general election. However, much like unconventional presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul, Yang appears to be amassing a passionate, if relatively small following. It turns out promising people free money can make you popular. For what it’s worth, Yang is advancing a unique narrative that will need to be addressed within a few generations. What will the future of employment look like in America in ten, twenty, or thirty years? How should we deal with entire sectors of our economy disappearing as artificial intelligence surpasses human ability? Is a “universal basic income” inevitable, and is it beneficial?

True, these questions aren’t quite as pressing to us as fixing the immigration crisis, navigating possible trade wars with a number of countries, and holding onto both chambers of Congress in November, but they are questions that will require action within the next few decades. Unless conservatives are willing to yield to Yang’s bleak deterministic view of technology and the American economy, we’re going to have to offer alternatives.

The reality is technology is on track to render some industries obsolete and eliminate an alarming number of jobs. A McKinsey consultancy report recently predicted that up to 70 million American jobs would disappear by 2030 as robots and automation advance. However, this is nothing new. Societies that embrace rapid technological innovation grapple with dying industries, but historically new sectors arise. Yes, industries like robotics and virtual reality may dominate the headlines, but there will still be a need for doctors, nurses, dentists, teachers, construction managers and many more roles, not to mention the array of entrepreneurial opportunities new technology will provide. The 2016-2026 employment projections published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts more than 10.5 million new jobs will be added in the services sector over this timeframe, and healthcare support occupations are predicted to be among the fastest growing occupational groups. What’s more, out of the 30 fastest growing occupational fields, 18 fields will require some form of postsecondary education and 12 will not. Technological innovation is only an issue if people are incapable of or unwilling to embrace new economies. This makes the rational alternative to arguments like Yang’s two-part:

  1. Education. We’re seriously going to need to revamp the educational system so young people are encouraged to learn skills that will actually allow them to succeed in the new economy. This means more emphasis on services, trades, healthcare, and yes, science, technology, and engineering, and perhaps a reduction in the number of unemployable majors. The good news is, preliminary data on Generation Z indicates they’re well aware of the correlation between education and future employment and are choosing their majors more carefully than millennials.
  2. A continual focus on the value and dignity of work itself. Earlier this year, MRF conducted research into the value of work in Tennessee and asked voters to explain their thoughts on work in general. We surveyed 800 registered voters on the issues most important to them – economy and jobs were number one – and whether they believed the dignity of work benefits their communities.

Ninety-four percent of respondents strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement: “All work should be respected no matter the position or wage paid.” We also found the response to the term “dignity of work” to be overwhelmingly positive among both Democrats and Republicans, and individuals of all income and education levels.

Eighty-two percent of respondents in our survey strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement: “There is a certain dignity that comes only from being a productive member of society.” Tennesseans also recognized the immense value of work to benefit their local communities and combat crime.

It is clear that individuals across the political and educational spectrum see the value in work. Unsurprisingly, when you tax a behavior, you usually get less of it, and when you subsidize a behavior, you usually get more of it. In the case of a universal basic income, producers and creators are taxed (in Yang’s proposal this takes the form of a Value Added Tax) while unemployment is literally subsidized. We don’t need to speculate about the kinds of economic conditions that structure creates. These unfortunate realities were readily borne out in the universal basic income experiments of the 1960s and ‘70s in Seattle and Denver. A guaranteed subsidy of $3,800 to $5,600 a year (roughly $23,000 to $34,000 in present-day dollars) to 4,800 families from 1971 through 1982 resulted in a 15% decline in labor force participation. What is more, underemployment and unemployment are tied to higher rates of illegal drug use, higher rates of crime, and significant psychological distress.

Dooming millions of Americans to a subsistence-level existence without the dignity and opportunity that work provides would be extremely misguided. It is not compassionate, or financially sustainable, to go down this road. Conservatives need to meet these well-intentioned but highly destructive arguments head on – and continue to underscore the value of work both for individuals and their communities.