Work and Money

will work for food

He’s a gentleman with a family
A gentle man, living day to day
He’s a gentleman with pride, one may conclude
Sign reads, “Gentleman with a family will work for food.”

Manhattan Transfer, Gentleman With a Family

Norwegian Petter Amlie is an entrepreneur, technology consultant, and frequent contributor on Medium. Work runs our economy, he writes in a recent article, “but if future technology lets us keep our standard of living without it, why do we hold on to it?” It’s a good question — one of those obvious ones we don’t think to ask. Why would we insist on working for food — or the money we need to buy food — if we don’t have to?

As we’ve seen, at the center of the objections to robotics, artificial intelligence, big data, marketing algorithms, machine learning, and universal basic income is that they threaten the link between work and money. That’s upsetting because we believe jobs are the only way to “make a living.” But what if a day comes — sooner than we’d like to think — when that’s no longer true?

Work comes naturally to us, but the link between work and money is artificial — the function of an economic/social contract that relies on jobs to support both the production and consumption sides of the supply/demand curve:  we work to produce goods and services, we get paid for doing it, we use the money to buy goods and services from each other. If technology takes over the production jobs, we won’t get paid to produce things — then how are we supposed to buy them? Faced with that question, “the captains of industry and their fools on the hill” (Don Henley) generally talk jobs, jobs, jobs — or, in the absence of jobs, workfare.

John Maynard Keynes had a different idea back in 1930, just after the original Black Friday, when he predicted that technological progress would end the need for jobs, so that we would work for pay maybe fifteen hours per week, leaving us free to pursue nobler pursuits. He spoke in rapturous, Biblical terms:

“I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue–that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanor, and the love of money is detestable, that those who walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not neither do they spin.”

But then, after a second world war tore the planet apart, jobs rebuilt it. We’ve lived with that reality so long that we readily pooh-pooh Keynes’s euphoric prophecy. Amlie suggests we open our minds to it:

“Work and money are both systems we’ve invented that were right for their time, but there’s no reason to see them as universally unavoidable parts of society. They helped us build a strong global economy, but why would we battle to keep it that way, if societal and technological progress could help us change it?

“We have a built-in defense mechanism when the status quo is challenged by ideas such as Universal Basic Income, shorter work weeks and even just basic flexibility at the workplace, often without considering why we have an urge to defend it.

“You’re supposed to be here at eight, even if you’re tired. You’re supposedto sit here in an open landscape, even if the isolation of a home office can help you concentrate on challenging tasks. You have exactly X number of weeks to recharge your batteries every year, because that’s how it’s always been done.

“While many organizations have made significant policy adjustments in the last two decades, we’re still clinging to the idea that we should form companies, they should have employees that are paid a monthly sum to be there at the same time every morning five days a week, even if this system is not making us very happy.

“I do know that work is not something I necessarily want to hold on to, if I could sustain my standard of living without it, which may just be the case if robots of the future could supply us with all the productivity we could ever need. If every job we can conceive could be done better by a machine than a human, and the machines demand no pay, vacation or motivation to produce goods and services for mankind for all eternity, is it such a ridiculous thought to ask in such a society why we would need money?

“We should be exploring eagerly how to meet these challenges and how they can improve the human existence, rather than fighting tooth and nail to sustain it without knowing why we want it that way.

“The change is coming. Why not see it in a positive light, and work towards a future where waking up at 4 am to go to an office is not considered the peak of human achievement?”

One gentleman with a family who’s been seeing change in a positive new light is Juha Järvinen, one of 2,000 Finns selected for a two-year UBI test that just ended. He’s no longer working hard for the money, but he is working harder than ever.  We’ll meet him next time.

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.