What Will We Do When Bots Take Our Job Spots?

It looks as if the push by President Barack Obama and the business community to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement passed before year’s-end may have had some new life infused into it. According to John Engler, the President of Business Roundtable, “Public support for TPP has come up” and he is positive that “all the arguments are lining up for TPP.” Those pro-TPP arguments that the American people have heard–and will continue to hear as part of this “full court press”–have largely been the same but there was one made by President Obama that stands out from the bunch. During his recent trip to East Asia while attending a joint press conference with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Obama acknowledged the wariness working class people have about growing globalization (because they see that they are only getting a raw deal from it) but he addressed their mistrust and “legitimate” anxieties by defending the TPP as the answer to the question “how do we make sure that globalization, technology, automation, those things work for us, not against us?” That’s the first I have heard anyone link the TPP with automation—the takeover of jobs on a grand scale by artificial intelligence and consequently a phenomenon which will be much more far reaching in its economic effects than any free trade agreement.

This epochal development, hailed by the World Economic Forum as nothing short of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, has also been denominated as the “Job Apocalypse” by Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson and indeed the rise of the machines will prove to be Doomsday for millions of workers. Reuters reports that the WEF is forecasting that “more than 5 million jobs could be lost in 15 major economies by 2020” and that’s just the beginning. Meyerson cites a paper by Oxford University’s Carl Benedikt and Michael Osborn in which they predict 47 percent of U.S. workers have a high probability of seeing their jobs swept away in a wave of automation over the next two decades.  So what will become of the huge multitudes of unemployed who have been booted out of their occupations by a robot? How would capitalism survive if people have no means of earning money to buy the products that the robots are now manufacturing?

Meyerson’s way for dealing with the social dislocations caused by automation is a wealth transfer policy, for “as computers pick up more and more skills, we will have to embrace the necessity of redistributing wealth and income from the shrinking number of Americans who have sizable incomes from their investments or their work to the growing number of Americans who want work but can’t find it.” That idea is already in line with that of Silicon Valley techies who recommend that everyone be provided with a Universal Basic Income. “Rather than a job-killing catastrophe,” writes Farhad Manjoo, “tech supporters of U.B.I. consider machine intelligence to be something like a natural bounty for society: The country has struck oil, and now it can hand out checks to each of its citizens. These supporters argue machine intelligence will produce so much economic surplus that we could collectively afford to liberate much of humanity from both labor and suffering.” UBI sounds encouraging but whether it would work is very much in doubt, as Matt Black explains:

“The reason why the idea of a Universal Basic Income is being floated is because of the inequality that exists under capitalism. While the basic income is designed to remedy some of those inequalities, it is exactly because it will be implemented within a capitalist system that should it ever be implemented it would be strangled at birth. Firstly, society and work functions in a way as to ensure that the boss class has the whip hand. An in-built unemployment line is a central component of the capitalist system. This coupled with the divide and conquer tactics from the government of the day, pits worker against worker. In theory, a Universal Basic Income would go some way to reversing this. For that reason, we will never see a Universal Basic Income, and if we did, it would be very different from that which is being proposed. The ruling class cannot and will not tolerate a system that puts working people in the driving seat. Secondly, as soon as every adult is guaranteed a Universal Basic Income; company bosses will be rubbing their hands with glee. Pressure to increase wages annually or provide decent terms and conditions with go out of the window. Business exists to create and maximise profit, therefore, the state providing workers with £400 a month will undoubtedly lead to a severe driving down of wages in the medium to long term; rendering the Universal Basic Income, completely worthless. The same idea applies to inflation. If you provide everyone with an extra £400 a month to spend, this will have a knock-on effect on the cost of things like rent, shopping, and energy prices. The more money you have in your pocket, the more that big business knows it can charge you. This really is elementary stuff. Again, within no time at all your extra £400 becomes worthless. Advocates of the Universal Basic Income would say that–“We could legislate to prevent bosses from cutting wages and against retailers increasing prices.” Oh really? That begs the question why we wouldn’t or can’t do that now. If it was so easy to reform the corrupt and rigged system we live in then we wouldn’t require a Universal Basic Income in the first place.

Danny Vinik also noticed along with Black that a UBI cushion would empower the working class, writing that “Americans would have greater leverage to demand higher wages and better working conditions from their employer thanks to the increased income security.” The capitalist class has always fiercely resisted and prevented any shift in the boss-worker power dynamic that genuinely benefits the working class so the odds are that UBI won’t be getting off the ground or, as Black said, it would get watered-down. It would probably take a revolution to give everyone a guaranteed income and if that’s the case we might as well have an anarchist-communist revolution that rids us of money entirely. We’d be heading on that route anyway since by that point the robots would be producing so much that we will be living in a post-scarcity economy where superabundance makes currency superfluous.