Silicon Valley: Problem or Solution?

problem solution

 ‘There is no more neutrality in the world.
You either have to be part of the solution,
 or you’re going to be part of the problem.’

Eldridge Cleaver

The high tech high rollers build the robots, code the algorithms, and wire up the machine intelligence that threaten jobs. If they’re the problem, what’s their the solution?

Elon Musk:  Universal basic income is “going to be necessary” because “there will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better,”

Richard Branson:  “A lot of exciting new innovations are going to be created, which will generate a lot of opportunities and a lot of wealth, but there is a real danger it could also reduce the amount of jobs. Basic income is going to be all the more important. If a lot more wealth is created by AI, the least that the country should be able to do is that a lot of that wealth that is created by AI goes back into making sure that everybody has a safety net.”

Mark Zuckerberg:  “The greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail. Now it’s our time to define a new social contract for our generation. We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things.”

Sam Altman:  “Eliminating poverty is such a moral imperative and something that I believe in so strongly. There’s so much research about how bad poverty is. There’s so much research about the emotional and physical toll that it takes on people.” (Altman’s company Y Combinator is conducting its own UBI experiment in Oakland.)

Ideas like this get labelled “progressive,” meaning “ahead of their time, which in turn means “over my dead body.” We saw a few posts back that Pres. Johnson’s visionary Triple Revolution Report and National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress ended up in the dustbin of history. Another technology/jobs initiative had already landed there two decades earlier:

“In 1949, at the request of the New York Times, Norbert Wiener, an internationally renowned mathematician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote an article describing his vision for future computers and automation. Wiener had been a child prodigy who entered college at age eleven and completed his PhD when he was seventeen; he went on to establish the field of cybernetics and made substantial contributions in applied mathematics and to the foundations of computer science, robotics, and computer-controlled automation.

“In his article — written just three years after the first true general purpose electronic computer was built at the University of Pennsylvania — Wiener argued that ‘if we can do anything in a clear and intelligible way, we can do it by machine’ and warned that this could ultimately lead to ‘an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty” powered by machines capable of ‘reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price.’”

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Martin Ford.

Wiener’s article was never published, and was only recently (in 2012) discovered in MIT’s archives. Outspoken technology commentator Douglas Rushkoff hopes UBI meets a similar end. In a recent Medium piece, he called UBI “Silicon Valley’s Latest Scam.”[1] His main critique? UBI doesn’t go far enough:

“They will basically tell you that a Universal Basic Income is a great idea and more effective than any other method of combating technological unemployment, the death of the Middle Class and the automation of the future of work.

“They don’t propose a solution to wealth inequality, they only show a way to prevent all out mass social unrest and chaos, something that would inconvenience the state and elite.

“The bottom 60% of the economy, well what do you suppose is in store for us with the rise of robots, machine learning and automation …?

“California might get a lot of sunshine and easy access to VC, but they aren’t blessed with a lot of common sense. They don’t know the pain of rural America, much less the underclass or warped narrative primed by Facebook algorithms or the new media that’s dehumanized by advertising agents and propaganda hackers.

“What if receiving a basic income is actually humiliating and is our money for opioids and alcohol, and not for hope that we can again join a labor force that’s decreasing while robots and AI do the jobs we once did?

“The problem lies in the fact that there won’t be a whole lot of “new jobs” for the blue and white collar workers to adapt to once they sink and become part of the permanent unemployed via technological unemployment.

“With housing rising in major urban centers, more folk living paycheck-to-paycheck, rising debt to income ratios and less discretionary spending, combined with many other factors, the idea of a UBI (about the same as a meagre pension) saving us, sounds pretty insulting and absurd to a lot of people.

“Since when did capitalism care about the down trodden and the poor? If we are to believe that automation and robots really will steal our jobs in unprecedented numbers, we should call Basic Income for what it is, a way to curtail social unrest and a post-work ‘peasant uprising.’

“Getting [UBI] just for being alive isn’t a privilege, it’s a death sentence. We are already seeing the toll of the death of the middle class on the opioid epidemic, on the rise of suicide, alcoholism and early death all due to in part of the stress of a declining quality of life since the great recession of 2008.”

If UBI doesn’t go far enough, then what does? Mark Zuckerberg used the phrase “new social contract” in his quote above. More on that coming up.

[1] UBI advocacy group BIEN (Basic Income Earth Network) reported Rushkoff’s opinions in a recent newsletter, and described his alternative:  Universal Basic Assets.

Old Dog, Old Trick, New Showtime

old dog new trick

Blockchain consultant and futurist Michael Spencer called it a conspiracy by the 0.01 percenters to enslave the rest of us for good.[1] A growing number of those 0.01 percenters have already supported it, but they’re not alone:  this poll conducted shortly after the 2016 election showed that half of Americans supported it as well. A parade of think tanks (here’s one) and other professional skeptics (more than I can cite with hyperlinks in a single sentence) have given it a thorough vetting and mostly concluded something along the lines of “yeah well okay maybe it’s worth a try.”

What is “it”? This idea:  give the poor what they lack — money. Ensure everyone a livable income while getting rid of the expensive and draconian welfare system. And just to be fair, go ahead and give everyone else money, too, even the billionaires.

The idea mostly goes by the name “universal basic income” (UBI). It’s rooted in the futuristic fear that technology will eventually put humans out of work. That’s not an old fear:  UBI is “far from a new idea,” says Martin Ford, another Silicon Valley entrepreneur and a popular TED talker, in his New York Times Bestselling Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.

“In the context of the contemporary American political landscape… a guaranteed income is likely to be disparaged as ‘socialism’ and a massive expansion of the welfare state. The idea’s historical origins, however, suggest something quite different. While a basic income has been embraced by economists and intellectuals on both sides of the political spectrum, the idea has been advocated especially forcefully by conservatives and libertarians.

“Friedrich Hayek, who has become an iconic figure among today’s conservatives, was a strong proponent of the idea. In his three-volume work. Law, Legislation and  Liberty, published between 1973 and 1979, Hayek suggested that a guaranteed income would be a legitimate government policy designed to provide against adversity, and that the need for this type of safety net is the direct result of the transition to a more open and mobile society where many individuals can no longer rely on traditional support systems:

‘There is, however, yet another class of common risks with regard to which the need for government action has until recently not been generally admitted…. The problem here is chiefly the fate of those who for various reasons cannot make their living in the market… that is, all people suffering from adverse conditions which may affect anyone and against which most individuals cannot alone make adequate protection but in which a society that has reached a certain level of wealth can afford to provide for all.’”

LBJ foresaw the possibility of massive technological unemployment back in the 60’s, and appointed an “Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution” to study the topic. The Committee included co-Nobel Prize winners Friedrich Hayek and Swedish economist and sociologist Gunnar Myrdal.[2] Rise of the Robots describes the Committee’s findings:

‘Cybernation’ (or automation) would soon result in an economy where ‘potentially unlimited output can be achieved by systems of machines which will require little cooperation from human beings.’ The result would be massive unemployment, soaring inequality, and, ultimately, falling demand for goods and services as consumers increasingly lacked the purchasing power necessary to continue driving economic growth.

“The Ad Hoc Committee went on to propose a radical solution:  the eventual implementation of a guaranteed minimum income made possible by the ‘economy of abundance’ such widespread automation would create, and which would ‘take the place of the patchwork of welfare measures’ that were then in place to address poverty.

“The Triple Revolution report was released to the media and sent to President Johnson, the secretary of labor, and congressional leaders in March 1964. An accompanying cover letter warned ominously that if something akin to the report’s proposed solutions was not implemented, ‘the nation will be thrown into unprecedented economic and social disorder.’ A front-page story with extensive quotations from the report appeared in the next day’s New York Times, and numerous other newspapers and magazines ran stories and editorials (most of which were critical), in some cases even printing the entire text of the report.

“The Triple Revolution marked what was perhaps the crest of a wave of worry about the impact of automation that had arisen following World War II. The specter of mass joblessness as machines displaced workers had incited fear many times in the past — going all the way back to Britain’s Luddite uprising in 1812 — but in the 1950s the ‘60s, the concern was especially acute and was articulated by some of the United States’ most prominent and intellectually capable individuals.

“Four months after the Johnson administration received the Triple Revolution report, the president signed a bill creating the National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress. In his remarks at the bills signing ceremony, Johnson said that ‘automation can be the ally of our prosperity if we will just look ahead, if we will understand what is to come, and if we will set our course wisely after  proper planning for the future.’ The newly formed Commission then … quickly faded into obscurity.”

A few years later, Richard Nixon introduced UBI legislation that he called “The most significant piece of social legislation in our nation’s history.” That legislation also faded into obscurity– more on that another time.

UBI is an old idea responding to an old fear:  how do we make a living if we can’t work for it? A half century after LBJ and Nixon, that fear is all too real, and lots of people think it might be time for the historical UBI solution to make its appearance.

But not everyone is jumping on the UBI bandwagon. The very thought that jobs might not be the source of our sustenance is the rallying cry of UBI’s most strident opponents.

More on UBI next time.

[1] Spencer followed with a similarly scathing assessment in this article.

[2] Myrdal’s study of race relations was influential in Brown v. Board of Education. He was also an architect of the Swedish social democratic welfare state. Hayek and Myrdal were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974.