As automation threatens more American jobs, the idea of providing a universal basic income – a stipend that gives every adult enough money to cover the daily costs of living – is gaining traction.
[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]
Some prominent American business leaders are calling for it. Foreign governments are testing it out. Advocates at both ends of the American political spectrum have argued for it.
But one group that might be able to address the complexities and consequences of a universal basic income is largely stuck on the sidelines. University scientists aren’t sure how best to tackle such a beast of an issue, and they’re not clear on how to get the funding to try.
Federal research agencies could be making basic income a priority, said one academic advocate of a universal basic income, Michael C Munger, a professor of political science at Duke University. Yet the implications are so vast and interrelated that when Munger tried to imagine a comprehensive research strategy for examining universal basic income, "I just ended up confusing myself," he admitted.
For any researcher studying basic income, he said, "the set of things you’d have to know in order to make any sensible statements is just huge."
Complex or not, automation-related job loss is a major and growing national reality. During the past decade, technological advances resulted in the elimination of some nine million positions, according to a 2015 Ball State University study of employment shifts from 2000 to 2010 – far more than any other cause of job loss, including foreign competition.
The scientists who advance that automation are flush: The federal government spends some US$4 billion a year on research into computer-related technologies.
But for their colleagues who explore ways to help people cope with automation’s social and economic downsides, it’s a much different story.
"For much of the time I’ve been active in basic income discussions, about 20 years," said Michael A Lewis, an associate professor of social work at Hunter College, "the federal government has been pretty silent on the issue."
"I don’t know anybody who’s received money" from the federal government to study the subject, said Matt Zwolinski, a professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego who also backs basic income.
Yet if any policy question needs a thorough examination, those experts say, it’s universal basic income. The idea has been around for centuries. But it could be either the ruin of national economies and societies or their only salvation.
With a universal basic income, said Munger, who is also director of Duke’s programme in philosophy, politics, and economics, we might breed a generation of young Americans who feel "you can live in your mom’s basement and be the best swordsman ever in RuneScape". Without it, Munger said, we could have cities burning at the hands of desperate, jobless young people who "don’t see any way out".
‘Overwhelmed’ by uncertainties
Despite the risks, it’s increasingly evident that some major answer to automation-related job loss and economic despair is needed. Elon Musk has endorsed a universal basic income, Bill Gates has suggested a tax on robots, and the Silicon Valley tech incubator Y Combinator is planning to finance a 100-family basic income experiment in Oakland, California.
Other new experiments backed by foreign governments and private donors include studies involving 250 people in the Netherlands, 2,000 in Finland, and 6,000 in Kenya.
Yet it’s not clear what such limited efforts might reveal that decades of past tests could not.
Experiments in other countries, as well as in several US states in the 1960s and 1970s, have remained largely inconclusive, mostly because limits of time and geography complicate predictions about an entire country’s behaviour over the long term.
The economic implications of universal basic income could be vast on their own, but so could the implications for fundamental institutions like housing patterns and marriage. Optimistic scenarios envision a utopia in which people choose the most fulfilling and societally beneficial careers. Darker visions suggest economic collapse and broken communities of all types.
"In principle," Lewis said, "I support basic income and have for more than 20 years. But when I consider it actually being implemented, I become almost overwhelmed regarding the uncertainties involved."
The research community, said Zwolinski, founder and director of San Diego’s Center for Ethics, Economics, and Public Policy, might not be able to add much value to decisions about a universal basic income until some jurisdiction takes a full leap to try it out and see what happens.
Nevertheless, American researchers with robust federal support might provide useful insights, Munger said.
At a minimum, he said, the National Science Foundation or NSF – the federal funding agency that appears closest to the topic – could finance the development of cutting-edge simulations, perhaps even sponsor a contest format that would allow for comparisons among several proposals.
A politically sensitive topic
A panel of experts formed by the National Academies of Sciences is due shortly to issue a report, after two years of study, on the effects of automation and information technology on the American work force.
One of the panel's co-chairmen, Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that while he didn’t expect a specific recommendation on the subject of basic income, he too feels the need for more research on the question.
The NSF, for its part, said it hadn’t seen a surge in proposals for research on basic income. Universal basic income is "a relatively new concept, and we have received a limited amount of proposals concerning it", said an NSF spokeswoman, Aya Collins.
Munger said the NSF could make clear when it wants scientists to pursue a particular idea. But, he and other experts said, the agency has been under pressure from Congress in recent years to avoid the social sciences in general and politically sensitive topics in particular.
Some conservative and libertarian thinkers have spoken warmly of the idea of a universal basic income, portraying it as a replacement for various federal welfare programmes, not a supplement to them. But that point of view has yet to win much acceptance in Congress.
Representative Rob Woodall, a Republican of Georgia, has for years pursued a bill known as the FairTax Act, which would virtually eliminate the current system of federal individual and corporate taxes, and replace it with a national consumption tax on new goods and services. Like the government’s current Earned Income Tax Credit, the FairTax plan would allow some federal payment to people with very low incomes.
But Woodall does not support a universal basic income or any significant expansion of a reverse tax on people with little or no income, said Martin J Wattenbarger, his spokesman. Wattenbarger acknowledged that lawmakers may not have devoted enough attention to the problem of automation-related job loss, and he promised to try to change that.
"We may be guilty of doing the things in front of us at the moment," he said, and to "not have put as much thought into that as some would like."
Paul Basken covers university research and its intersection with government policy. He can be found on Twitter @pbasken, or reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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