If there is one economic absolute, it might be the following: With greater production capabilities comes a higher standard of living. At least it has been so for the last few millennia. Now, this could be changing. As the improvement in production comes not from standardisation, production techniques or specialized training of the workers, but by exchanging the worker with something that requires no breaks, no food and can learn a new profession in a matter of seconds, I am talking of course, about robots.
In heavy industry, we have seen robots easing the workload for the employees and improving their productivity for many years already. But never before has the threat of workers straight up getting replaced by automated machines been so pressing. We are already seeing burger restaurants replacing employees by automated arms capable of performing the routine tasks of production. In time, we could see major parts of the workforce cut as automatization and mass production makes machines cheaper and more efficient than human workers. This again would lead to increased class differences as the few with the capital to “hire” robots and the skills needed to utilize and maintain them slowly drive out the ones without.
Of course, this is not a given result. I would remind the reader of the introduction of the electronic spreadsheet into basic accounting. Suddenly long days of manual calculation and painstaking double-checking was done in mere hours by computer. The natural result was a huge reduction in the need for accountants, and a following reduction of the workforce in large businesses. This did not last however, as the monetary benefits of quick and accurate analysis made it possible for businesses to finance a vastly increased number of assignments for the accounting firms, leading again to an increased demand, and a workforce that stabilized itself on an even higher level than it had been before the spreadsheet disrupted the accounting business.
Automation of labour will create new jobs. Others will disappear. The exact form the labour market will have in the future is not really the issue. The changes will come, and they will lead to greater productivity. The problem is not one of productivity, but of distribution. All over the western world, we see that the gap between rich and poor is increasing. In the United States, the middle class is no longer the majority. In Europe, even countries which have prided themselves on being leading lights in the fight against inequality, seem to gradually be losing the battle.
Basic income, a fixed sum of money for all members of society, to guarantee a minimum living standard, and stimulate consumption is presented as the solution this world needs. Is it a natural next step, a desperate solution to a pressed world economy, or even financially viable? And what will people do, when productive work is no longer a necessity of life? I don’t presume to know. But along with the team arranging the SRH Basic Income Workshop, I will explore this subject over the next month So, when the 7th of July has come and passed, maybe I will be able to answer the question we put to ourselves when starting this project: “With a 1000€ extra, what would I do?”.
For the SRH Basic Income Workshop 2016