A Grain Of Saul: When Robots Take Our Jobs, A Brilliant Idea Could Safeguard Our Future

Millions are going to be replaced by robots. What's our plan?

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope. 

Imagine it's the year 2030 and you're leaving your house to go run some errands.

You call an Uber and it arrives without a driver, as self-driving cars are now common amongst ride-sharing services. You go to the grocery store and check out without talking to a cashier, as is already possible in most shopping marts across America. You stop at a restaurant and a machine takes your order and prepares your meal, like they already do at Eatsa in New York City.  You're tired so you grab a latte, and it's made by a latte machine that takes your order and allows you to pay without speaking to a human. You realize you're low on money, but instead of hitting the bank and talking to a teller, you deposit your most recent check on your mobile device. 

Throughout the day, almost all the products you've bought or used have one thing in common: they were built, packaged, farmed, designed or operated by machines.


In the next 20 years, the University of Oxford estimates that 47 percent of all U.S. jobs will be automated. McKinsey reports that almost all the jobs in food services — which accounts for more than 11 million jobs — could already be replaced by existing technology used in task-performing robots. More than 12 million people work in the manufacturing industry, an industry that could just as easily be converted from human workers to machine workers. (In fact, that conversion is already underway.)

So, what will we do when a huge portion of the American workforce is inevitably replaced by robots? The answer could be found in a controversial idea known as basic income.

Basic income is a program where the government provides every citizen with an unconditional monthly check meant to support the most basic needs, such as food and shelter. In today's America, that could translate to thousands of dollars (or tens of thousands of dollars) worth of your needs covered, no strings attached. Proponents of basic income say it could help eliminate poverty, provide a decent quality of life for every citizen and give people the economic freedom to pursue their dreams.

Here in the United States, there are already plenty of reasons to consider it: 42 million Americans are food insecure, meaning they don't know where their next meal is coming from. That's 13 percent of the population — more than one in 10 Americans — who are fighting just to eat. Millions more also struggle to afford health insurance; a basic income stipend could help uninsured families pay for medicines or doctor's visits. 

Volunteers assemble meals for needy New Yorkers at a 2010 "party for good" held by Target. lev radin / Shutterstock.com.

The fact that this is happening in America itself seems ludicrous, but it gets more disheartening when you consider that the money is already there to support all of our country's citizens.

In 2011, Americans earned just under $13 trillion a year. Split between all 323 million Americans today, that's about enough for everyone to have a $40,000 a year salary. Of course, basic income isn't proposing we do that — but the income inequality in America, the richest nation on earth, keeps getting worse. The top one percent of Americans now make an average of $1.3 million a year. The bottom 50 percent of Americans make an average of $16,000 of pre-tax income per year.

There are some reasonable objections to basic income. Most popular is the idea that basic income would encourage people to quit their jobs and, in doing so, would shrink the work force. Another popular concern is that America couldn't afford to give everyone enough money to address their basic needs. Both — intuitively — seem reasonable on the surface. 

Despite that, almost all the evidence we have from basic income programs or similar economic programs suggests the opposite: not only are work force losses marginal, sometimes they don't happen at all. In many cases, basic income helps people find the jobs they like and pursue their passions with more economic freedom while simultaneously driving up wages, because employers need to offer more to hire someone. As for the cost, several studies and papers have shown that by swapping out social security programs and replacing them with basic income, the federal budget could easily meet the cost needs as they essentially eliminate poverty.

And while the potential worst case scenarios resulting from a basic income system must be considered, seldom do Americans ever talk about the potential best case scenarios. 

A basic income program could relieve the 42 million Americans struggling to get food onto the dinner table. It would give families and individuals a life that didn't revolve around finding their next meal. The 500,000 homeless Americans would be able to afford shelter for themselves. All stripes of Americans would benefit: U.S. military veterans, rural farmers and those living inside city shelters would have huge costs and struggles that could be resolved with an income that met their most basic needs.

A homeless, barefoot woman sleeps on the street. Shutterstock / Srdjan Randjelovic

Other Americans, those already working or bogged down with multiple part-time jobs, could enjoy a supplemental income that allowed them the economic freedom to pursue their passions or start their own businesses. Some people would use the money to invest. A safety net inspires more risk, and more risk could inspire more innovation. The coming wave of millions of Americans who are going to lose their jobs to automation could have a chance to rebound.

There's even the potential a basic income system could reduce crime across the country. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has studied the relationship between poverty and violence, and the results are striking. Where there is poverty, there is usually crime. So if a basic income system were to reduce the poverty levels across the country, there's a good chance crime — particularly violent crimes like armed robbery or violence related to dealing drugs — would also fall. 

But there are still things about the idea of basic income that even make me cringe. I am, like many Americans, someone who believes in the American identity of hard work. Strap up your boots and bust your butt and you'll get the job you want. Work the unpaid internship to get the full-time position. Start as a janitor and mop the floors until you're the manager. So how does giving a monthly check to Americans simply for existing fit into these ideals? 

In many ways, it doesn't.

More important to consider, though, is how these ideals are serving us, and what other traditionally American values a basic income system would elevate: If every American had their basic needs met, there'd be more peace. If every parent had a consistent flow of income, they'd be able to spend more time raising their kids and less time working late. If every American were able to afford decent meals, we'd be quite a bit healthier. If every American could spend less time stressing about making ends meet, we'd be quite a bite happier. Peace, family, good health, happiness — aren't these American ideals, too? Aren't they worth striving towards?

The truth is that the culture of hard work and innovation is ingrained in Americans. A basic income structure would never take that away. Instead, it'd open new doors for innovation and make life a bit more bearable for the people among us that are struggling the most, and the ones whose struggles are right around the corner.

For more political commentary, you can follow @Ike_Saul on Twitter.  

Cover photo: Shutterstock / Ociacia


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