Forecasting the future #1: Universal Basic Income

Sunday, July 29, 2018

As an SF writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about the future and how it may work. And, I have to admit, the more I think about it, the harder it is to see what’s coming.

But, lately, the left have come up with a wonderful new idea: Universal Basic Income.

Aka ‘free money for doing nothing’. So not really that new or that wonderful.

The theory goes like this. AI and automation are about to make most jobs obsolete, which means that most people won’t have an income, which means they won’t be able to buy anything, which means that business owners won’t be able to make any money, which means we must tax the businesses to give money to the unemployed so they can buy stuff from those businesses and keep them in business.

It doesn’t take very long to see why this is nonsense. Sure, many big business owners are all in favour of UBI. But that’s because they see it as a free money handout, and don’t expect to be the ones paying for it.

Let’s look at what happens when they do have to pay for it:

I have $1,000 as a business owner. I give it to the government in tax. They take their cut and hand $900 on to the unemployed. I sell them $900 of products, and make $450 of profit.

So, I had $1,000. Thanks to the wonders of UBI, I now have $450.

So why wouldn’t I have just closed down the business instead, and kept the $1,000 I had?

Economically, it makes no sense. So the left have to resort to their usual standby: violence. Pay them money, they say, or they’ll riot and murder the rich.

Of course, that doesn’t work either, because the rich will be living in their bunkers in New Zealand, and will be unaffected by the violence. The rioters will burn down their cities and then… well, die, presumably.

A hundred years ago, that prospect would have terrified the rich, because they needed those people to work in their factories to produce products to sell. But if all the factories are automated, the rich have no reason to care. In fact, they’d probably prefer to see the now economically worthless poor kill each other, so there’ll be more resources available to the rich.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Automation may progress slower than expected, and the welfare state may become UBI at some point. Or the rich may decide it’s better to keep the masses occupied with bread and circuses until they’re ready to release a killer virus or robot army to wipe them out.

But I can’t see any way it’s going to be more than a short-term situation. In a world where the rich can have robots and automated factories to dig up resources and turn them into useful stuff, they’re not likely to want to waste those resources on people who give them nothing in return.

And, if it does happen, it will rapidly become a means of social control. Complain about the government? No UBI for you.

I have incorporated it to a limited extent in the new rewrite of Rebellion, but that’s precisely what it is: a way to control the chavs of England, so long as they still exist.

Leave a Reply