As social media and our migration to the online world threatens our privacy and promises a dystopian surveillance state, we’re also on an irreversible course to massive societal changes thanks to a broader application of technology. Most notably, the robots are coming.
That’s not just robots in the sci-fi version we picture, though there will be those with humanoid form, but a catchall term for automation. It’s a shift that promises to alter jobs, incomes and the very way we live. Whether that sees a descent into feudal squalor or finally provides for the leisure society long discussed (even as we’ve headed away from it) remains to be seen.
Much of the discussion about mitigating the downside revolves on some form of universal basic income that would at a minimum keep people afloat. That grows increasingly important as automation moves beyond replacing manual labour to pretty much every facet of employment, including professionals such as doctors, lawyers and accountants.
We’re already living in a time of flux. Increasingly, good-paying jobs have disappeared, replaced by crappy service jobs. Well, in part. Fact is, across Canada and the U.S., there are fewer real jobs even as the population increases. Where the labour hasn’t been sent offshore, high immigration levels – legal or otherwise – have been used to drive down wages and to provide fodder for our consumer society. The one financed by debt that has, again, reached record levels – Canadians now owe a collective $1.9 trillion.
Increasingly, those service jobs – crappy and even those that aren’t – that are hyped by those eager to hide the truth from us are also at risk through automation. Machines have already displaced many workers, but even jobs in the hospitality industry – waiters, hotel workers, retail clerks – seem destined to be replaced in the shift to automation and robotics. A 2013 Oxford University study, for instance, predicted that machines might be able to perform half of all U.S. jobs in the next two decades.
New stories about self-driving cars and trucks are increasingly commonplace, with the corollary that job losses are likely to follow for people currently making a living behind the wheel … and the millions of others in service jobs that cater to such people (restaurants and motels along well-travelled routes, for example).
Driverless technology already exists today, destined to displace jobs such as truckers, cabbies and couriers. Driverless buses and trains will eliminate the need for transit workers, many of them an increasing burden on governments and taxpayers.
Automated transportation, from cars to airplanes, is safer, more efficient and much less costly to operate – computers don’t fall asleep, take bathroom breaks, drink on the job or a host of other human foibles. For all those reasons, driverless is the future of transportation.
This isn’t science fiction anymore. It’s here, and the technology’s spread is inevitable. The same transformation will migrate to many fields. Not just McJobs, but into accounting, medicine, teaching and host of other jobs that now pay well, and are typically considered safe.
Once upon a time, automation was a panacea that was to lead to a mythical leisure society – the machines would do the work, while we reaped the benefit of reclaimed time to do what we wanted rather than the drudgery of work. As we’ve seen so far, technology has extended workweeks and displaced people from high-paying to lesser jobs. There’s no reason to believe that will change as technology continues to change the way work is done. Which brings us to the idea of a basic income: what becomes of our economy when there are fewer and fewer jobs? In the short term, those at the top of the income scale, including the much-discussed 1%ers, make out like bandits due to reduced costs. But if people don’t have money to spend, who is going to keep the consumer society running? Without some system to share the fruits of the economy, things start to fall apart. First the economy, then the social order.
Another question for governments now in the pockets of the corporate interests – those 1%ers again – who is going to pay the taxes when the tax liability makes it impossible to make a living wage while a person tries to string together a series of low-paying, temporary and casual opportunities to work? The fanciful gig economy leaves people impoverished and no cohesive tax system.
On the topic of taxes, a levy on financial transactions and wealth transfer is a common suggestion as a source of the money needed for a universal basic income plan. A truly universal plan would also allow for the discontinuation of many social programs such as welfare, saving billions, and the elimination of whole government departments, saving billions more.
In the U.S., a two per cent wealth tax would be enough to provide $12,000 a year to each of the 126 million households in the country, suggests Paul Buchheit, author of Disposable Americans: Extreme Capitalism and the Case for a Guaranteed Income.
He argues such a tax is easy to justify given that the infrastructure and most of the basic research that allows for wealth to be generated is paid for by the public.
With all the changes coming down the pike, we’ve got to do something.
“Society simply can’t keep up with technology. As for the skeptics who cite the Industrial Revolution and its job-enhancing aftermath (which actually took 60 years to develop), the McKinsey Global Institute says that society is being transformed at a pace ‘ten times faster and at 300 times the scale’ of the radical changes of 200 years ago,” Buchheit notes.
But while even some of the wealthiest corporatists – the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk – have talked about a basic income, we have to be wary of their motives, suggests writer Chris Hedges, equating their versions to a band-aid on a festering wound.
“The oligarchs do not propose structural change. They do not want businesses and the marketplace regulated. They do not support labor unions. They will not pay a living wage to their bonded labor in the developing world or the American workers in their warehouses and shipping centers or driving their delivery vehicles,” he writes in a column this week.
“They have no intention of establishing free college education, universal government health or adequate pensions. They seek, rather, a mechanism to continue to exploit desperate workers earning subsistence wages and whom they can hire and fire at will. The hellish factories and sweatshops in China and the developing world where workers earn less than a dollar an hour will continue to churn out the oligarchs’ products and swell their obscene wealth. America will continue to be transformed into a deindustrialized wasteland. The architects of our neofeudalism call on the government to pay a guaranteed basic income so they can continue to feed upon us like swarms of longnose lancetfish, which devour others in their own species.”
The point is that such people have ulterior motives for their version of a universal basic income, much of it to be funded on the backs of government. And governments don’t care about the average citizen, but they do care about their own entitlements, the vast majority of which come from raiding our wallets, not through the largesse of those who buy off the politicians.
We’re right to be skeptical about solutions fashioned in that quarter.