A recent Twitter thread about Universal Basic Income recently caught my attention. One of the thread’s commenters made a good point:
Automation will increase inequality and productivity to the point when most humans (we serfs) won’t be needed.
So why would the owners want to keep paying us? What’s in it for the powerful?
— Hank (@equilibrium42) February 2, 2018
What, indeed? If the rich and powerful continue to get richer and more powerful, and the common people get less and less opportunity, won’t they eventually get fed up and revolt? Won’t they rise up, out of a sense of self-preservation or just plain anger, and start tearing up the works? Won’t the rich and powerful eventually expect this to happen? And expecting this, won’t they take steps to make sure their property and resources won’t be trashed?
In ancient Rome, the leaders offered “bread and circuses” to the masses… free entertainment and wheat to keep the people happy with their lot (and less opposed to the political activities of the leaders). This was necessary because the abundance of slave labor (their form of human “automation”) meant the Roman people had no work, so no way to make a living. Bread and circuses kept them from revolting, and the empire continued on (for a time, anyway).
Cut to today, when machine automation is eroding the jobs market, and more people are finding themselves unable to find work. Some social programs, like food stamps and unemployment insurance, provide support for individuals and families, but not much. And in the future, more and more people will be needing that kind of support. The government can provide a great deal of it, from the taxes it earns from production and profit… but maybe that won’t be enough.
Maybe that’s where the rich and powerful—let’s just call them Industry—come in. The government can set up the basis for a Universal Basic Income, but it can be further supported by industry, who are providing the lion’s share of the resources for UBI in the first place. Perhaps the government pays out a “ground floor” UBI to the public; then industry adds to that with “sponsored” income… income they take credit for in order to garner favor in the public’s eye for themselves (and, probably, their products for the public to buy). The public gets a healthy UBI, and then some, giving them less of a reason to dislike industry and their corporate activities. The public is not only satisfied, but they have a reason to support the industrial activities that finance their extra income. And they may even buy industry’s products with what extra income they save or make with supplemental jobs.
Of course, industry doesn’t have to provide actual cash to supplement UBI; they could provide other resources—such as government-approved branded apartments or tiny homes, food, clothing or other goods and services—while the government provides the UBI itself.
Sure, this approach sounds crass and commercial, but that would only a bad thing if the government and industry conspired to create low-quality homes or goods that didn’t suit the public, undermining the support that’s supposed to keep the public placated. It’s in industry’s best interest to keep the public happy, and incidentally, in the government’s best interest to monitor and maintain that relationship by making sure industry is providing quality goods and services to the public.
Admittedly, it also sounds like a bread-and-circuses scenario… and it must be admitted that it could devolve into just that. In fact, we’ve already been given our corporate-sponsored bread, via fast food and cheap snacks, and our corporate-sponsored circuses, via television, social media and sports fanaticism. And they are serving today just as they did in Roman times, providing enough distraction from the day-to-day issues of modern life to placate and mollify the public, allowing industry and the governments to do what they like without fear of reprisal.
What we need is for industry to provide something more substantial with their money than endless and meaningless sports and media spectacles… we need from them nourishment and homes, not bread and circuses. We need the government to provide the UBI, and to properly regulate the resources we get from industry. And we need We, the People to take part in their government’s workings and demand better, not to meekly accept what we are offered. If government, industry and the public participate in the system with equal dedication, that’s a win-win-win scenario for UBI. Without that dedication, it’s only a matter of time before that system, too, falls.