Widespread automation has the potential to amplify existing income disparities and produce an unparalleled level of economic inequality. As artificial intelligence (AI) improves and algorithms get more advanced, automated systems can replace more of the workforce, meaning fewer people are needed to generate the same (or greater) amounts of wealth for those at the top. If technology advances far enough, traditional labor may be rendered obsolete.
The advancement of technology has never posed quite such a threat in the past as automation has traditionally created new jobs as it replaced old ones. The Guardian cites the example of bank tellers. ATMs appeared in the 1970s, but there are more human tellers now than back then. Today’s tellers do more than dispense cash, though; they sell financial services and provide advice.
However, the ATM example may not apply as AI improves. If ATMs can dispense cash and advise customers about their mortgage options, too, banks may not need human tellers.
This situation only matters if the ownership of wealth is limited, and at this point in the U.S., it is. Right now, unless you own capital, what you have is your wage. Unfortunately, although productivity has improved since the 1970s, wealth has moved toward ownership and more capital, not wages. Wages and labor are the only source of wealth for most people, and they are also one of the only ways workers can assert themselves in the workplace and advocate for change. If automation renders labor redundant, labor as a source of wealth and power in the workplace will evaporate.
The real issue here isn’t the tech itself — it’s the widening gap between economic classes and the incredible poverty it will cause, not to mention the erasure of the working class. Thankfully, there are several proposed solutions to this potential crisis of equity that don’t require slowing down technological advancement. They include universal basic income (UBI), a tax on robots that replace workers, and job guarantee programs.
UBI has been subjected to heated debate, but many, including Bill Gates and Elon Musk, believe it will be feasible in the near future. Former President Obama has also acknowledged that UBI will need to be seriously discussed within the next 10 to 20 years.
Bill Gates and others have argued that robots that replace human workers should pay taxes — or, more accurately, that their owners should. This would place the existing wage burden back on the wealthy and provide money into the “pool,” which could then be used for UBI or education for workers to take on the new jobs that automation creates. These taxes could also fund job guarantee programs.
Job guarantee programs through the government would guarantee a living wage for anyone doing public sector or non-profit work (depending on the program). This is similar in theory to 1933’s Works Progress Administration program. It also shifts the power away from private owners of wealth, who can demand that workers do whatever menial tasks they want at wages they set, and allows people to do anything from teaching to environmental cleanup for a decent wage.
With the National Bureau of Economic Research reporting that the wealthiest 1 percent of U.S. households held roughly 42 percent of the country’s wealth in 2014, we can’t afford to let automation further widen the gap between the haves and the have nots.
Right now in the United States there is a duel raging on between who or what to scapegoat for the disappearance of certain jobs. One side blames Mexico and China, international trade, and outsiders generally. The other blames artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, the specter of robots stealing jobs. There is evidence that automation is making some jobs obsolete (almost none that points to trade or immigration). However, both positions are overlooking the real issue: the economy is changing in fundamental ways, and there is no way to stop that change.
By 2020, AIs could be powering 85 percent of customer service transactions, rendering them human-free. That could wipe out a career that, in 2015, employed about six percent of the total American workforce (8 million people) with retail sales and cashier jobs. There are 8.7 million people working in trucking in the U.S., and they are staring down the barrel of self-driving vehicles right now. Automation is also likely to replace humans in the food industry by the mid-2020s. Even back in 2013 it was estimated that about 47 percent of the American workforce were at high risk of losing their jobs to automation.
Either we are living in a time which is historically unique for job loss and change, or this is just the next stage in an economic cycle. If the later is the case, then, just as workers moved from agricultural jobs into factories, we are shifting once more. This may sound ominous, but actually, it is good news. It means that there are at least three reasons that automation won’t leave you unemployed.
Trading In D-List Jobs
First, new technologies always usher in new jobs as they eliminate existing positions. Colin Parris, VP of Software Research at GE, explained in an interview with TechCrunch that fighting job losses doesn’t mean resisting automation:
The only way…is to train the talent that we have. Because in the future, we have to embrace robotics. It allows us to reduce cost. If I reduce cost, I have more money that I can use for innovation. The more money I have, the more new products I can create. The more products I create, the more workforce I can hire.
Second, when automation results in job loss, the lost jobs are typically positions that are tough to keep staffed.
“It might take employees out of what we call the ‘three Ds,’ a dull, dirty, or dangerous job,” says Bob Doyle, of the Association for Advancing Automation, to TechCrunch. But “[it] puts them hopefully in a different position that creates more value to the company,” he added. Parris agreed with the “three Ds” position.
There is no question that automation will eliminate some jobs — “D-list” jobs. Automation frees humans from the jobs no one wants do, jobs that are costing us our health and our lives. And while we’re not always adept with cooperation, we’ll need to do better to thrive in our new economy. Instead of petty squabbling over how much unpleasant work we should each have to do, we might instead just agree to pay ourselves for entrepreneurship and volunteer work — fostering more innovation and more new jobs — through universal basic income schemes as necessary.
Third, our economy will almost certainly shift in ways no one can foresee. Economists today warn of the dangers of “job polarization,” the division of human workers into either highly skilled and unskilled classes, with middle-of-the-road jobs lost. However, part of the reason we may not be able to envision a new middle class yet is that we are not yet reeducating ourselves well enough to perceive what the new jobs of the automation era look like.
“We can’t predict what jobs will be created in the future, but it’s always been like that,” says Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University, said in an interview with the Economist. “[The video-game designers and cybersecurity specialists] are jobs that nobody in the past would have predicted.”
The important question isn’t who is “stealing” jobs, because they are gone — or soon will be — never to return. Why should we want dangerous, dirty, and dull jobs back; we can innovate and create new jobs as we have in the past. Now, we must either retrain our workforce to master these economic changes or face the growing gap between educated and non-educated workers. Let’s hope we choose the former.
At the end of 2015, after a year-long journey, I achieved the realization of an idea with the help of about 140 people that has already forever changed the way I look at the very foundations — or lack thereof — upon which all of society is based. I now firmly believe we have the potential through its universal adoption to systemically transform society for the better, even more so than many of those most familiar with the idea have long postulated because, for me, the idea is no longer just an idea. It’s not theory. It is part of my life. It’s real. And the effects are undeniable for someone actually living with it.
The idea of which I speak goes by the name of “basic income” but is best understood not by name, but by function, and that function is simply to provide a monthly universal starting point located above the poverty line as a new secure foundation for existence. It’s an irrevocable stipend for life. In the U.S. it would be something like $1,000 for every citizen every month. All other income would then be earned as additional income on top of it so that employment would always pay more than unemployment.
This may sound overly expensive, but it would save far more than it costs. It would also really only require an additional net transfer of around $900 billion, and that’s without subtracting the existing welfare programs it could replace, and also without simplifying the tax code through the replacement of all the many credits, deductions, and subsidies it could also replace. Basically, we’re already handing out money to everyone, rich and poor alike, but in hundreds of different ways through thousands of government middlemen who only serve to disincentivize employment by removing government supports as a reward for working.
Odds are this idea is new to you, but it’s not a new idea. It’s been considered for hundreds of years from as long ago in the U.S. by founding father Thomas Paine in the 18th century, to Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King, Jr., and free market-loving Milton Friedman in the 20th century, to a quickly growing list of new names here in the 21st century. Its advocates know no ideological lines. Supporters include Nobel prize-winning economists, libertarians, progressives, conservatives, climate change activists, tax reformers, feminists, anarchists, doctors, human rights defenders, racial justice leaders, and the list goes on.
For such an old idea that’s been endorsed by so many for so long and yet has obviously never yet come to be, you may be thinking, “Why now?” The answer to such a question has economic reasoning rooted in the globalization of labor and the exponential advancement of technologies capable of entirely replacing labor, but as important as this particular discussion is to have, it’s centered more around the idea of a future problem and less a present one.
However, our problems are very much in the present and to see why, we need to go deeper, much deeper, beyond technology and economics, and into human biology itself. To do that, we’ll first need to look at what we as humans have learned from some animals in the lab and in the wild, because I think doing so pulls back the curtain on our entire social system.
Animals in Cages
As is true with many scientific discoveries, they tend to be accidental, and the story of Martin Seligman and some dogs back in 1965 is no different. Seligman wanted to know if dogs could be classically conditioned to react to bells in the same way as if they’d just been shocked, so he put them in a crate with a floor that could be electrified, and shocked them each time he rang a bell. The dogs soon began to react to the bell as if they’d just been shocked. Next however, he put them in a special crate where they could leap to safety to avoid the shock, and this is where the surprise happened.
The dogs wouldn’t leap to safety. It turns out they’d learned from the prior part of the experiment that it didn’t matter what they did. The shock would come anyway. They had learned helplessness. Seligman then tried the experiment with dogs who had not been shocked and they leaped to safety just as expected. But the dogs who had learned helplessness, they just sadly laid down and whimpered.
Fast forward to 1971 where a scientist named Jay Weiss explored this further with rats in cages. He put three rats into three different cages with electrodes attached to their tails and a wheel for each to turn. One rat was the lucky rat. No shocks were involved. Another would get shocks that could be stopped by turning its wheel. The third was the unlucky one. It would get shocked at the same time as the second rat, but it could do nothing about it. The third rat would only stop getting shocked when the second rat turned its wheel. Can you guess what happened?
Even though the two rats that were shocked got shocked at the same time and for the same duration of time, their outcomes were very different. The rat who had the power to stop the pain was just a bit worse off than the rat who experienced no pain at all. However, the rat who had no control whatsoever, stuck with a lever that did nothing, became heavily ulcerated. Like the dog, it too had learned helplessness. The cost of this lesson was its health.
The Power of Perception
Of course, humans are not dogs or rats. There’s a bit more complexity when it comes to us and our physiological responses. For us, perception is a key factor. This is where something called attribution comes into play, of which there are three important kinds that lead to humans learning helplessness: internal, stable, and global.
Think back to when you first started school and try to remember your first math test. What if after taking that first test you did poorly on it, and instead of all the other possible reasons for why that could happen, you decided it was because you sucked at math? That’s an internal attribution. Now imagine you applied that attribution to all math tests. That’s a stable attribution. It’s not a one-time thing. Now imagine you applied it beyond math to all classes. That’s a global attribution. Consider the results of such perceptions.
Maybe that first math test was simply too hard for everyone in the class. Maybe it wasn’t just you. Maybe your poor grade was due to not studying hard enough, or because you were too hungry or too tired. But instead, because you decided it was your fault and it meant you were stupid, your entire life went down a different path. Even though at any point along the way, you could have escaped that path, just like Seligman’s dogs could have escaped the shocks, what if you had learned helplessness from that first math test?
“We can learn to be helpless in an environment that actually offers us control, and the feeling itself of control can be the difference between a life full of unending stress, and a relatively stress-free life.”
It’s even been shown that we only need to be told there’s nothing we can do in order for us to feel there’s no point in trying. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tell everyone there’s no point in voting, and fewer people will vote.
What all of this shows is two-fold and extremely important to remember. We can learn to be helpless in an environment that actually offers us control, and the feeling itself of control can be the difference between a life full of unending stress, and a relatively stress-free life.
Fight or Flight
Stress is more than a feeling. Stress is a physiological response, and it has important evolutionary reasons for being. Back in the day, many thousands of years ago, our ancestors who could shift into a kind of emergency gear where long-term higher-order creative thinking shut down, and the body was enabled to think faster, react quicker, be stronger, move faster, run longer, and think only about survival… those were the humans who survived.
We call this now the fight-or-flight response, and where this once incredibly important response was evolutionarily adaptive, it is now maladaptive. We don’t live in that same world anymore where it made so much sense. We aren’t being chased down by lions or being eaten by wolves while sitting in front of our computers in our air-conditioned offices, and yet our fight-or-flight responses are still being activated. In fact, for far too many, daily existence is nothing but fight-or-flight. Long-term stress is a real problem, and I would argue, it’s not just a health problem. It’s a problem for human civilization.
Sapolsky and Stress
One of the most knowledgeable scientists in the world in this area is Robert Sapolsky, a pioneering neuroendocrinologist and professor at Stanford University who has spent more than thirty years studying the effects of stress on health, of which there are many. Over the years, Sapolsky has found that long-term stress increases one’s risk of diabetes, cardiac problems, and gastrointestinal disorders. Stress suppresses the immune system. It causes reproductive dysfunction in men and women. It suppresses growth in kids. In affects developing fetuses. Newer evidence even shows it causes faster aging of DNA. But potentially worst of all is what it does to the human mind.
Prolonging fight-or-flight into a chronic condition means that neurons in the brain related to things like learning, memory, and judgment all suffer the consequences thanks to the wide-ranging effects of our double-edged sword stress hormones called glucocorticoids. Recent research has even shown this response made chronic is a self-perpetuating cycle. A constantly stressed out brain appears to lead to a kind of hardening of neural pathways. Essentially, feeling chronic stress makes it harder to not perceive stress, creating a vicious cycle of unending stress.
On top of this, and related back to Weiss’s rats and human attribution theory, is the coping responses of those who are stressed out. Think of the “off-lever” in the second rat’s cage. There are many such levers around us and although they can be effective in reducing our stress levels, many of them are arguably pretty bad off-switches. These responses include acting out against others, otherwise known as displacement aggression or bullying.
Yes, bullying is an effective coping mechanism. As the saying goes, shit rolls downhill, and there’s actually a scientific reason for that other than gravity. In a hierarchy, it is healthier after a loss to start another fight with someone you can beat, than to mope about the loss. The former is the abdication of control, a form of learned helplessness, and the latter is the creation of control, a kind of learned aggressiveness.
“A society full of unhealthy people getting sick more than they otherwise would be, saddled with difficulties learning and remembering, suffering from weakened judgment and short-term survival thinking, and violently turning on each other as a means of coping is not a recipe for success. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
On the displacement aggression side, we see bullying of traditionally marginalized groups and a global and marked increase of anti-immigrant sentiment which has already led directly to the election of Donald Trump and as a result, cries for border walls and travel bans. We are seeing a rise in authoritarianism, which is fundamentally a cry for more control and predictability.
A society full of unhealthy people getting sick more than they otherwise would be, saddled with difficulties learning and remembering, suffering from weakened judgment and short-term survival thinking, and violently turning on each other as a means of coping is not a recipe for success. It’s a recipe for disaster, especially faced with species-endangering challenges like climate change that demand long-term thinking. But there is hope, and that hope springs from the same well as our problems.
Stressed Out Primates
There is an animal out there, one of our cousins actually in the primate family, who lead somewhat similar lives to us. They are high enough in the food chain to generally not be bothered and smart enough to be the primary cause of each other’s problems. Or as Sapolsky has described it: “They’re just like us: They’re not getting done in by predators and famines, they’re getting done in by each other.” That animal is the baboon and it’s the animal Sapolsky has been studying for decades. In doing so, he’s found three primary factors in predicting stress levels.
The first predictor is the social hierarchy itself. Those at the top tend to live the most stress-free lives thanks to having more control, and those at the bottom tend to live the most stressful lives, thanks to having less control. There is however an important caveat to this. The stability of the social hierarchy matters. If the top baboon faces what is effectively a baboon revolution, that can be pretty stressful. In other words, more unequal societies lead to more stress, for everyone.
The second primary factor is personality. Just as primates are smart enough to be stressed where other animals wouldn’t, they’re also able to not be stressed where others would. A baboon who worries for his life every time another baboon walks by is going to be far more full of stress hormones than a laid-back baboon. Personality is therefore a factor that can override one’s position in the hierarchy for better or worse. It can even strongly predict one’s rank.
The third primary factor actually trumps all. It turns out that stress-related diseases are powerfully grounded in social connectedness. At the bottom of the social hierarchy and prone to stressing out based on your personality? That can still be okay for your health and well-being as long as you have strong social supports — friends, family, and community — to override it all. Sometimes all we really need is to know we are not alone.
All of this goes a long way toward explaining a great deal of human behavior. The construction of a social hierarchy is a naturally emergent phenomenon of our biology. Being “above” someone else in rank offers a level of control and predictability. Our personalities help determine our ranks and also how we cope with a lack of control and predictability. Our social relationships help put our lives and the world around us into perspective. However, this is no meritocracy and much depends on the circumstances of birth.
Because our personalities are greatly determined by our environments, especially as kids, a positive feedback loop can emerge where those born and raised in high stress environments full of impoverishment and inequality are unable to escape those environments. This can then become self-perpetuating through each successive generation that follows. We see this happening right now. For all those born into the bottom fifth of American society, about half remain there as adults. The same is true for the top fifth. Meanwhile, the middle 60% are twice as mobile as either one. If we care about the American Dream, we should consider the implications.
Addictions are another result. Drug use is a lever of control that is also an escape. We may not be able to control anything around us, but we can control an entirely personal decision that is as simple as drinking that vodka or smoking that cigarette. It can function as the middle finger to everything and everyone around us as a way of saying, “I may be stuck in this cage, but you can’t stop me from using this to feel like I’ve escaped, if only temporarily, and if even only an illusion. This is me controlling the one thing I can control — myself.” Consider again the mysteriously growing mortality rates of middle-aged white people due to overdoses and liver disease.
As economic inequality increases, other scientifically correlated effects include: reduced trust and civic engagement, eroded social cohesion, higher infant mortality rates, lower overall life expectancy, more mental illness, reduced educational outcomes, higher rates of imprisonment, increased teen pregnancy rates, greater rates of obesity, and the list continues to grow as inequality-related research grows.
Additionally, if you look closely at such a list of effects, it shows the erosion of social supports. If you are less likely to trust your neighbor, if you aren’t as involved in your community, if you or those you interact with are more aggressive, if you are depressed and just want to be alone, that means the all important trump card for handling stress — social connectedness — vanishes. This too is its own feedback loop. Less social connection means more stress which means less social connection. It’s an unending cycle for human misery.
It’s also exactly what we’ve been observing in the United States for decades. Robert Putnam wrote an entire book about it back in 2000 titled “Bowling Alone.” The title originated from the statistic that although more people are bowling, less people are doing it in leagues. As observed by Putnam:
“Community and equality are mutually reinforcing… Social capital and economic inequality moved in tandem through most of the twentieth century. In terms of the distribution of wealth and income, America in the 1950s and 1960s was more egalitarian than it had been in more than a century… Those same decades were also the high point of social connectedness and civic engagement. Record highs in equality and social capital coincided. Conversely, the last third of the twentieth century was a time of growing inequality and eroding social capital… The timing of the two trends is striking: somewhere around 1965–70 America reversed course and started becoming both less just economically and less well connected socially and politically.”
Viewed through Sapolsky’s decades of scientific investigation into the physiology of stress, and backed by everything we’ve observed since theGreat Decoupling in 1973 where national productivity has continued to grow but wage growth has been non-existent, it becomes disappointingly clear that all of this is actually of our own making. Through the policy decisions we’ve made to increase inequality in the blind pursuit of unlimited growth through the cutting of taxes and subsidizing of multi-national corporate interests, and through the pursuit of globalization without regard for its effects on the middle classes of developed nations such that 70% of households in 25 advanced economies saw their earnings drop in the past decade, we’ve created a societal feedback loop for chronic stress. And we’re paying the price.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just as we know more about why things are the way they are because of some rats in cages and some baboons in East Africa, those same animals point the way forward.
Creating Better Environments
In what was a sad day for Sapolsky but a remarkable day for science, he discovered back in the mid-1980’s that the very first baboon troop he’d ever studied had experienced a die-off. Half of the troop’s males had died of tuberculosis from eating tainted garbage. Because those at the top did not allow weaker males and any of the females to eat their prize trash, all of them died. The result was a truly transformed society of baboons.
A greater sense of egalitarianism became the new rule of the jungle, so to speak. Bullying of females and lower males became a rarity, replaced with aggression limited to those of close social rank. Aggressive behaviors like biting were reduced while affectionate behaviors like mutual grooming were increased. The baboons got closer, literally. They sat closer to each other. Stress plummeted, even among those at the very bottom of the new hierarchy. Even more amazingly, this happier more peaceful society of baboons has lasted over the decades, despite members leaving and joining.
In what appears to be a transmission of societal values, new baboons are taught that in this particular society, bullying is not tolerated and tolerance is more the general rule, not the exception. Essentially, a new feedback loop was created, where the sudden reduction in inequality led to less stress and greater community, which led to a new normal of less stress and greater community. As Dr. Frans B. M. de Waal, the director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University put it in a 2004 interview with theNew York Times about the baboon findings, “The good news for humans is that it looks like peaceful conditions, once established, can be maintained.”
As much as the story of these baboons have to reveal about the importance and the hope of a less stressed-out, more peaceful society, there is another animal story that in my opinion shows the most potential for mankind of all.
In what has become a very well-known and discussed kind of study, rats were put into cages and given the opportunity to press a lever to self-administer drugs like cocaine. They medicated themselves to death and thus went down in history as the kind of experiment to point to that reveals the helplessly addictive dangers of drugs and how we must be protected from their usage for our own good. This is the ammunition for the War on Drugs in a nutshell.
Meanwhile, in what has become a far too little known variation of this study, but I consider to be one of the most important ever devised, a new kind of experiment was run in an entirely different environment called “Rat Park.”
Hypothesizing that perhaps having nothing to do but just exist alone in a cage may have something to do with drug usage, a psychologist namedBruce Alexander decided to create a kind of rat heaven before offering rats drugs. Instead of a cage, rats were given a huge space to roam between tree-painted walls and a forest-like floor, full of toys and other rats to play and mate with, food to eat, obstacles to climb, tunnels to traverse, etc.
Within this paradise for rats, morphine-laced water was introduced. The rats could drink as much of it as they wanted. Incredibly, the rats didn’t care for it, opting for plain water instead. The morphine-water was then made sweeter and sweeter until eventually the rats finally drank it, but only because it apparently tasted so good, not for the narcotic effects. This was even confirmed by adding a drug to the water, Naltrexone, that nullified the effects of the morphine, which resulted in the rats drinking more of the water. All of this was in strong contrast to solitary rats in cages given the same choices, who took to the morphine-water immediately and strongly.
In fact, it’s even been found that solitary existence within a cage actively prevents neurogenesis — the growth of new neurons within the brain. It turns out neuroscientists for decades thought it impossible for adults to grow new neurons because they were studying solitary animals in cages the whole time. It’s therefore only recently that we’ve learned that impoverished environments actively limit brain development.
“Building a paradise for humans is up to us, where because everyone has enough, and inequality is low enough, we won’t reach for those levers of control that end up being against our better interests.”
What this all reveals is more than the great lie of the Drug War. It reveals the vast importance and great differences of living alone in a cage, and living in a world of abundance and social bonds. Viewed in the context of everything else discussed, it shows the importance of constructing an environment for the purpose of bringing out the best in us, instead of the worst in us. Building a paradise for humans is up to us, where because everyone has enough, and inequality is low enough, we won’t reach for those levers of control that end up being against our better interests. So how do we build “Human Park?”
Creating Human Park
It is only in my studies of the idea of basic income that I’ve seen glimpses into this idea of a Human Park. Like a bunch of puzzle pieces that can be collected to form into a picture, the evidence behind simply giving people money without strings forms a profound image of a better world that can exist right now, if we so choose. Remember the three primary factors that determine our levels of stress?
Creating a less unequal society is step one. There exists in the world today, and has since 1982, something as close to a fully universal basic income as anything yet devised. It’s the annual Alaska dividend where thanks to every resident receiving a check for on average around $1,000 per year for nothing but residing in Alaska, inequality is consistently among the lowest of all states. Not only that, but we see what we’d expect to see in lower stress populations, where Alaska is also consistently among the happiest states.
In Gallup’s 2015 ranking of states by “well-being,” Alaska was second only to Hawaii. This annual ranking is a combined measure of five separate rankings: purpose (liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals), social (having supportive relationships and love in your life), financial (managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security), community (liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community), and physical (having good health and enough energy to get things done daily). Alaska scored 5th, 5th, 1st, 7th, and 6th respectively in each of these measures.
In other words, in the only state in the U.S. to provide a minimum amount of income to all residents every year, such that no one ever need worry about having nothing, they feel the greatest amount of basic economic security and the least amount of stress than any other state. As a result they’re also among the most motivated, the healthiest, and have strong family, friend, and community social supports. Alaska is essentially a glimpse at Human Park, but only a glimpse because even the $2,100 they all received in 2015 is not enough to cover a year’s worth of basic human needs.
Some more of the best evidence we have in the world for what happens in the long-term when people are provided something that looks even more like a basic income than is found in Alaska, can again be found in the U.S., in North Carolina.
In 1992, the Great Smoky Mountains Study of Youth began with the goal of studying the youth in North Carolina to determine the possible risk factors of developing emotional and behavioral disorders. Because Native Americans tend to be underrepresented in mental health research, researchers made the point of including 349 child members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. About halfway into the ten-year study, something that is the dream of practically any researcher happened as a matter of pure serendipity. All tribal members began receiving a share of casino profits. By 2001 those dividends had grown to $6,000 per year. By 2006, they were $9,000 per year. The results were nothing short of incredible.
The number of Cherokee living in poverty declined by 50%. Behavioral problems declined by 40%. Crime rates decreased. High school graduation rates increased. Grades improved. Home environments were transformed. Drug and alcohol use declined. Additionally, the lower the age the children were freed of poverty, the greater the effects as they grew up, to the point the youngest ended up being a third less likely to develop substance abuse or psychiatric problems as teens.Randall Akee, an economist, later even calculated that the savings generated through all the societal improvements actually exceeded the amounts of the dividends themselves.
However, the most powerful finding of all was in personality effects. These changes were observed as a result of better home environments that involved less stress and better parental relationships. Incredibly, the children of families who began receiving what we can call something very close to a basic income, saw long-term enhancements in two key personality traits: conscientiousness and agreeableness. That is, they grew up to be more honest, more observant, more comfortable around other people, and more willing to work together with others. And because personalities tend to permanently set as adults, these are most likely lifelong changes.
If we remember how important personality is to the perception of stress and one’s location within social hierarchies, these children will end up far better off, and as a result, their own children likely will as well. This is another glimpse into a basic income-enabled Human Park.
Increasing Social Cohesion
Although what’s been happening for years in both Alaska and North Carolina are close to universal basic income in practice, they are not actually UBI. UBI requires regularly giving everyone in anentire community an amount of money sufficient to cover their basic needs. This has been done in three places so far: the city of Dauphin in Canada, the Otjivero-Omitara area of Namibia, and the Madhya Pradesh area of India.
It’s in these areas that humanity has achieved what’s closest to creating Human Parks. As a direct result of guaranteeing everyone a basic income in Dauphin, hospitalization rates decreased 8.5% and high school graduation rates surpassed 100% as dropouts actually returned to school to finish. In Namibia, overall crime rates were cut almost in half and self-employment rates tripled. In India, housing and nutrition improved, markets and businesses blossomed, and overall health and well-being reached new heights. But if it’s one thing I find most interesting across all experiments, it’s the improved social cohesion — a proliferation of new and strengthened social supports.
In Namibia, a stronger community spirit developed. Apparently, the need to ask each other for money was a barrier to normal human interaction. Once basic income made it so that no one needed to beg anymore, everyone felt more able to make friendly visits to each other, and speak more freely without being seen as wanting something in return. In India, where castes can still create artificial social divisions, those in villages given basic income actually began to gather across caste lines for mutual decision-making. And in Canada, the basic income guarantee had a notable impact on caring, with parents choosing to spend more time with their kids, and kids spending more time with each other in schools instead of jobs.
Remember, social supports are the trump card of societies with less stress, and it appears that providing people with UBI strengthens existing social supports and creates new ones. Freed from a focus on mere survival, humans reach out to each other. This is also something that makes us different from every other animal on Earth — our ability to reach each other in ways unimaginable even to ourselves until only recently. We as humans are entirely unique in our ability to belong to multiple hierarchies, and through the internet create connections across vast distances and even time itself through recorded knowledge.
Our place in a hierarchy matters, but we can decide which hierarchies matter more. Is it our position in the socioeconomic ladder? Is it our position in our place of employment? Or is it our position in our churches, our schools, our sports leagues, our online communities, or even our virtual communities within games like World of Warcraft and Second Life?
“No other policy has the transformative potential of reducing anywhere near as much stress in society than the lifelong guaranteeing of basic economic security with a fully unconditional basic income.”
Reaching Our Potential
We as humans have incredible potential to create and form communities, and realize world-changing feats of imagination, and this mostly untapped potential mostly just requires less stress and more time. If all we’re doing is just trying to get by, and our lives are becoming increasingly stressful, it becomes increasingly difficult to think and to connect with each other. It’s the taxation of the human mind and social bonds. Studies even show the burden of poverty on the mind depletes the amount of mental bandwidth available for everything else to the tune of about 14 IQ points, or the loss of an entire night’s sleep. Basically, scarcity begets scarcity.
On the other hand, if we free ourselves to focus on everything else other than survival, if we remove the limitations of highly unequal and impoverished environments, then we’re increasingly able to connect with each other, and we minimize learned helplessness. As a result, our health improves. Crime is reduced. Self-motivation goes up. Teamwork overtakes dog-eat-dog, and long-term planning overtakes short-term thinking. Presumably, many an IQ jumps the equivalent of 14 points. A greater sense of security has even been shown to reduce bias against “out” groups, from immigrants to the obese. And if we take into account the importance of security in people deciding to invest their time and resources in bold new ventures, innovation also has the chance of skyrocketing in a society where everyone always has enough to feel comfortable in taking risks without fear of failure. Basically, abundance begets abundance.
If what we seek is a better environment for the thriving of humans — a “Human Park” full of greater health and happiness — then what we seek should be the implementation of basic income, in nation after nation, all over the world. There is no real feeling of control without the ability to say no. Because UBI is unconditional, it provides that lever to everyone for the first time in history. No other policy has the transformative potential of reducing anywhere near as much stress in society than the lifelong guaranteeing of basic economic security with a fully unconditional basic income. Plus, with that guarantee achieved, the fear of technological unemployment becomes the goal of technological unemployment. Why stress about automation, when we could embrace it?
In a few years even a developed country like Britain might lose a significant portion of its work force — about 30 percent — to automation, leaving 10 million workers without a job. Breaking the numbers down in terms of the sexes, this means that 35 percent of jobs currently held by men are at risk. Women are expected to fare slightly better, with only 26 percent of jobs currently held by women expected to be replaced by robots. While sectors such as wholesale and administrative work are most likely to get the replacement, the health care and social work industries might keep the automation at bay for now.
PWC’s chief economist, John Hawksworth, asserted in a PWC press release that this is because “manual and routine tasks are more susceptible to automation, while social skills are relatively less automatable.” In light of this prediction, the PWC’s team does offer several solutions, including increasing education, spreading potential gains from automation, and considering a form of Universal Basic Income (UBI).
A UBI guarantees every citizen a monthly income regardless of any additional salaries they may accrue. While some urge for a complete replacement of all social programs with UBI, others suggest just a partial consolidation. In order to pay for the program as a whole in the U.S., experts suggest possibly eliminating tax cuts that represent upwards of $540 billion for the wealthy or reducing the $853 billion budget on defense.
Will UBI provide as sustainable solution to living in an automated world? We might just have to wait 15 years to find out.
The Olympics provides a great opportunity to take a closer look at the popular myth of meritocracy, where winners come out on top thanks to hard work and losers simply just weren’t good enough. That the discussion during this most recent Olympics has been centered so much around performance-enhancing drugs really drives this point home in a way I have not seen discussed, but I think should be, because we should really stop and question our seemingly unquestioned beliefs of a world that rewards the deserving and punishes the undeserving.
The truth behind contests of physical prowess like the Olympics is that they are largely a celebration of genetics. Of course hard work and access to resources are involved too, because genes can rarely be entirely independent of environment, but given two Olympians who worked exactly as hard as each other and with access to identical training and resources, then all else being equal, the gold medal will essentially be rewarding the winner’s parents. It’s one thing if our stated goal is to celebrate DNA instead of hard work, but it isn’t. We celebrate the hard work and skill that goes into winning. Or at least we say we do, but performance enhancing drugs lays bare that lie to ourselves.
Performance enhancing drugs are commonly discussed as providing an unfair advantage, and that we need to level the playing field by doing everything we can to prevent their use. However, the unpopular truth is there are cases where drugs can actually be responsible for a more level playing field, if we care more about hard work that is, instead of how genes work.
Let’s take an imaginary case of two Olympians and let’s call them Bill and Ted. Bill was born with a body whose muscle cells function at a slightly higher level than Ted’s. Bill and Ted both train incredibly hard for years, but Ted puts in just a bit more effort than Bill. In the end, Bill wins the gold medal though, not because he worked harder, but because his parents’ gametocytes together provided an advantage that Ted’s effort couldn’t overcome. No one really considers sperm or eggs as unfair advantages though, and so in this case, Bill is celebrated as a true champion.
Now let’s imagine an alternate timeline where Ted used performance enhancing drugs, but in a way that essentially granted his muscle cells the exact same abilities as Bill’s. In such a circumstance, Ted has not given himself an advantage at all. He has simply leveled the playing field. Again, both Bill and Ted train for years, but with Ted putting in just a bit more work. This time, because their genetics are effectively identical but Ted put in more effort, Ted wins the gold. This should be considered a meritocratic outcome, but it’s not. Ted is later tested positive for drugs and his medal is stripped away. He’s not seen as a champion, but a cheater.
How odd is it that we can celebrate uneven starting points as equal, and denigrate equalized starting points as cheating? But that’s what we do, day in and day out, not only in the Olympics, but in our everyday lives. There is no level playing field. There is no meritocracy. Every day “winners” are born thanks to sperm, eggs, money, and pure randomness. Every day “losers” start races way behind the starting line, on empty stomachs, without any shoes, with weights shackled around their ankles and their bodies covered in life’s daily bruises, and when they don’t win, we look down on them for not trying hard enough.
To be clear, I’m not making an argument here for the unbanning of all performance-enhancing drugs, because it is indeed possible to go beyond leveling the genetic playing field and into the realm of uncrossable physical performance gaps regardless of any amount of skill and effort. I’m simply pointing out that this argument is more complex than “drugs are bad.” The complexity arises in acknowledging that some bodies effectively manufacture their own drugs, and without acknowledging that, we perpetuate unequal starting points and the great myth of meritocracy.
As a further example, imagine for a moment that it was considered unfairly “performance-enhancing” for an Olympic swimmer to shave their body or a wear a cap. Those swimmers who were naturally hairless, would of course have a genetic advantage, but it wouldn’t be seen that way because it was a product of genes that prevented hair, and not technology like a razor or wax. In this case, would you argue that technology could level an unlevel field, or that technology would provide an unfair advantage? What if someone had so much money they could afford the technology to alter their genes to remove their hair? Would that be cheating, or would it be playing by the rules?
We say we want a world where everyone starts on the same starting line, where no one races toward the finish line without shoes or shackles or empty stomachs, but we celebrate the crowning of those with unfair advantages as matter of course. We put our billionaires on pedestals, even when their parents were billionaires, and lie the great lie that they earned it just as if they had started with nothing.
However, perhaps the greatest lie of all, is how we even confuse complete randomness with what is earned and deserved. Pure dumb luck can be the difference between a gold medal and never even crossing the finish line because a bee just happened to sting you and you just happened to be allergic to bees. Random variation can be such a powerful and yet largely unacknowledged predictor of outcomes. I think one of the strongest examples of the power of randomness is revealed in a study of judges and their stomachs.
Randomly appear before a judge right before their lunch, and you will end up worse off than had you randomly appeared before that same judge right after their lunch break, on a full and happy stomach. Recognize that and consider just how many lives have been altered based on that pure randomness. How many people got a second chance because their last name put them first? How many people were given harsh sentences because they drew the short straw?
Considering our Olympic analogy again, how many people have won medals and how many never even placed, based not on genetics, hard work, or performance enhancing drugs, but ultimately the luck of the draw?
If we truly do want a meritocracy, we need to stop lying to ourselves and recognize uneven starting lines whenever we see them. If we want the winners of races to be the ones who most “deserved it” based on effort and skill, then we should want to make sure the winners are winning because they should have won fair and square, and not because their competition had no shoes. So how can we do this?
One of the greatest steps we can take toward a more real meritocracy is to provide everyone an unconditional basic income. The only way we can make sure winners aren’t just winning because their competition had insufficient access to resources is to make sure everyone has the same minimal access. It’s starting line logic. Just provide everyone an amount of money sufficient to eliminate poverty as a new starting line to race from. All income earned above that amount is kept so there are still winners and losers, but the winners won’t win simply because those who could have beaten them were weighed down, and the losers won’t lose simply because the race had beaten them before it even began.
There are other steps we can take to level our playing fields by increasing opportunity, and how to best go about doing so is a great discussion to have, especially during the Olympics. What kind of world do we want? Do we want a world where people can be born with nothing and achieve everything? Or do we want a world where the circumstances of our births increasingly determine the courses of our lives more than any other factor?
Do we want our champions to win on level playing fields? Or do we want our champions to be the sons and daughters of those who own our playing fields?
I offer that the answer to these questions could very likely determine the very fate of our species, for the owners can only own so much before the Olympic Games become the Hunger Games.
Each year, robots and artificially intelligence systems cause unemployment rates to increase as more and more jobs become automated. And when you stop to take a look, the numbers are harrowing.
In Canada, a study conducted by the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship found that a staggering 40 percent of Canadian jobs will be taken over by machines in the next few decades. In the United Kingdom, a study conducted by Oxford University and Deloitte, a business advisory firm, found that 850,000 public sector jobs in the region will likely be lost by 2030. In Southeast Asia, an estimated 137 million workers are in danger of losing their jobs in the next 20 years. Meanwhile, a study by the Oxford Martin School has found that 47 percent of jobs in the US will be automated in the next 20 years.
Fortunately, there may be a solution: Universal Basic Income (UBI). In short, UBI is a system which gives every individual, regardless of their economic situation or employment status, a guaranteed income. This income is meant to be high enough that individuals are able to have all of life’s basic necessities—food, shelter, water, heat, and so on. It is believed that this allowance will reduce stress and allow individuals to focus on other pressing concerns that are of vital importance to society, such as raising children, pursuing an education etc.
Universal Basic Income: Debated
Most basic income proposals suggest the money be given out each week or month. However, there are some proposals which suggest that money should be given in a lump sum. Of course, some suggest that money shouldn’t be given out at all, as UBI isn’t a viable economic system.
Arguing in favor of UBI are Charles Murray, the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a New York Times bestselling author, and Andrew Stern, a senior fellow at the Economic Security Project who was appointed by President Obama to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in 2010.
Arguing against UBI are Jared Bernstein, a Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Former Chief Economist to Vice President Joe Biden, and Jason Furman, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute and the Former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers—where he served as President Obama’s chief economist.