Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Universal Basic Income and the Heroin Epidemic

Two stories caught my eye recently. One appeared last week in the business page, Farhad Manjoo's "A Plan in Case Robots Take the Jobs: Give Everyone a Paycheck"; the other, Katherine Seelye's "Heroin Epidemic Increasingly Seeps Into Public View," on yesterday's front page.

There is a prescription painkiller and heroin epidemic in the United States and people are regularly overdosing in public. At the same time, according to Manjoo, we are in the midst of a robot revolution in this country:
[W]ithin in two to three decades we’ll have morphed into the Robotic States of America. 
In Robot America, most manual laborers will have been replaced by herculean bots. Truck drivers, cabbies, delivery workers and airline pilots will have been superseded by vehicles that do it all. Doctors, lawyers, business executives and even technology columnists for The New York Times will have seen their ranks thinned by charming, attractive, all-knowing algorithms.
How will society function after humanity has been made redundant? Technologists and economists have been grappling with this fear for decades, but in the last few years, one idea has gained widespread interest — including from some of the very technologists who are now building the bot-ruled future.
Their plan is known as “universal basic income,” or U.B.I., and it goes like this: As the jobs dry up because of the spread of artificial intelligence, why not just give everyone a paycheck? 
Imagine the government sending each adult about $1,000 a month, about enough to cover housing, food, health care and other basic needs for many Americans. U.B.I. would be aimed at easing the dislocation caused by technological progress, but it would also be bigger than that. 
While U.B.I. has been associated with left-leaning academics, feminists and other progressive activists, it has lately been adopted by a wider range of thinkers, including some libertarians and conservatives. It has also gained support among a cadre of venture capitalists in New York and Silicon Valley, the people most familiar with the potential for technology to alter modern work.
Rather than a job-killing catastrophe, tech supporters of U.B.I. consider machine intelligence to be something like a natural bounty for society: The country has struck oil, and now it can hand out checks to each of its citizens.
These supporters argue machine intelligence will produce so much economic surplus that we could collectively afford to liberate much of humanity from both labor and suffering.
In theory this is true. But in actuality technology has concentrated wealth in the 1%. The current vogue of the UBI is a version of the "workerless factory" of the first half of the 20th century. The idea was that the working class would have to toil less as technology was integrated into the job site. The reality has been the exact opposite. People have to struggle harder, work longer at less stable employment, to earn less than what they made before. Look at a chart of the productivity gains since the early 1970s, a fraction of which has gone to the working class.

Hillary beat reporter Amy Chozick had a line in a story, "Clinton Offers Economic Plan Focused on Jobs," the other day that summed it up: "This is the latest revision to the corporate tax code Mrs. Clinton has proposed in an effort to create jobs and lift wages, which have been virtually stagnant for 15 years even as the costs of college, child care, housing and health care have soared."

We live a precarious, stressful. "no future" life these days. The rich would sooner see the vast majority slaughtered than guarantee a basic income. This hopelessness, a rudderless moral destitution, is part of what is fueling the heroin binge.

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