Jobs May be for Machines but the UBI Isn’t for Me

A happy ending to be sure, but how we get there matters too.

Before we begin let me be clear that I am only responding to an article by Scott Santens entitled Deep Learning is Going to Teach us the Lesson of Our Lives:  Jobs are for Machines. I want to do a full length study at some point on the UBI and my problems with it but I have a bunch of articles on the backlog left to go, so I’ll hold off till a better time.

Instead, I want to address Santens section on Decoupling Income from Work which has the most to do with UBI. Additionally I focus on this section not only because of its specific focus on UBI but because I agree with just about everything prior and still come out being very critical and skeptical of the UBI.

Let’s start with the basics:

The idea is to put machines to work for us, but empower ourselves to seek out the forms of remaining work we as humans find most valuable, by simply providing everyone a monthly paycheck independent of work. This paycheck would be granted to all citizens unconditionally, and its name is universal basic income.

I did a basic skimming of Santens link where he argues that we need to create various types of taxes to distribute income levels in just the right way. The “we” of course means the federal government, who doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to the word “fair” or “justice”. But we’ll leave that to the side for now and come back to it later.

Now, I agree with the intent here. Making us empowered to seek out the forms of work we find valuable that aren’t dominated by machines seems like a great idea to me. Hell, industries like music practically revolve around technology doing much of the work for us at this point, but this has hardly stopped musicians from producing more music than ever.

In any case, I don’t find the answer simple and I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as Santens and other UBI proponents would like it to be. A “monthly paycheck” is first and foremost a lot of money per citizen in the US and according to the Debt Clock, the US is over 19 trillion dollars in debt. Worse still this amount doesn’t include the debt that local or state governments may or may be in and when we think of cities like Detroit, we have to imagine it’ll add quite a bit.

The Debt Clock also estimates that each individual person in the US owes a federal debt of almost 60,000 dollars.

So I have a very basic question for Santens: What is the UBI solution to this?

I’m familiar with the Jubilee Debt movement so I am curious whether Santens thinks this is a way to avoid the issue of debt that the federal government is already in. Personally, I agree with Kevin Carson and Erick Vasconcelos of the Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS) that government debt is foundationally immoral and a way to prop up state-capitalism. And so even if there was some way to deal with the national debt, I am not convinced the UBI would be adequate.

More to the point, I think where Santens and other UBI folks praise both markets and ways to help the least off amongst society would have much in common with those at C4SS. I speak from an in-group bias here being a member myself but I think there is much to learn on both sides from what the future holds for society.

For example, I learned much about robotic automation from Santens:

Amelia is just one AI out there currently being beta-tested in companies right now. Created by IPsoft over the past 16 years, she’s learned how to perform the work of call center employees. She can learn in seconds what takes us months, and she can do it in 20 languages. Because she’s able to learn, she’s able to do more over time. In one company putting her through the paces, she successfully handled one of every ten calls in the first week, and by the end of the second month, she could resolve six of ten calls. Because of this, it’s been estimated that she can put 250 million people out of a job, worldwide.

Viv is an AI coming soon from the creators of Siri who’ll be our own personal assistant. She’ll perform tasks online for us, and even function as a Facebook News Feed on steroids by suggesting we consume the media she’ll know we’ll like best. In doing all of this for us, we’ll see far fewer ads, and that means the entire advertising industry — that industry the entire Internet is built upon — stands to be hugely disrupted.

And of course then there’s Atlas for manual labor.

And I definitely agree that all of this makes it more likely that we can all work with what we want to do. But unfortunately what we want and don’t want is something that’s controlled by outside forces. Namely it’s controlled by a collusion between capitalists and governments who have very big interests in harnessing technology themselves.

Think of all of the Marvel movies that we’ve all watched (Iron Man, Hulk, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, etc.) which centered around great technological breakthroughs that were immediately seized upon by the military industrial complex. I don’t think this plot-line occurring over all of these different movies is just artistic laziness but rather the sad reality that those with the most material wealth may get first access to technologies we want to harness for liberation.

My argument isn’t therefore we should abandon technology, I am very much in favor of technology and using it for liberatory purposes. But I don’t thnik technological unemployment will do this unless we have the proper incentive structures and relations to technology itself. That means making radical changes to the economic and social systems that we live in, namely state-capitalism.

One last point on the first passage:

This paycheck would be granted to all citizens unconditionally, and its name is universal basic income (emphasis added)

I have a few concerns about this:

  1. Why would borders matter so much in a world where most of the jobs are automated? Are we going to program robots to care about things like nationalities and what plot of land they’re built on? If so, why?
  2. The effect of this would seem to reinforce the notion of “citizens” but I’m not exactly sure what counts as a citizen. And for what type of government? The federal government? How would this affect the immigration issues we face now exactly? These are all big lingering questions that I’m quite aware Santens didn’t have time to answer but more generally I’ve not seen many thoughts on immigration and the UBI.
  3. Given these first two things I have a fairly large concern about the UBI extenuating out-group bias against people who aren’t citizens. Governments tend to do a very good job (historically speaking) of making us fear “outsiders” and reinforcing the privileges that white folks get at the expense of people of color and “foreigners”. Whose to say that the government couldn’t use the UBI as just another way to reinforce anti-foreign bias as well?
  4. Isn’t the universal in universal basic income rather non-universal if it only applies to “citizens”? I’m not trying to be condescending or coy here with Santens or UBI proponents. I’m genuinely confused how a proponent could be entitled universal and then rely on a distinction that has been one of the most violent and alienating throughout history. A distinction that has led to the displacement of billions of people over the course of centuries and the deaths of many many more. A distinction that continues to leave many bodies strung out along the Mexican border and many other places where this notion of being a “citizen” really matters.
  5. Being slightly less rhetoric heavy though, if borders are not going to be as much of a fact in a technologically advanced society (and I don’t see why they would be) then what does a “citizen” mean?

I realize these are all big questions and I’m not asking them to claim I have all of the answers. I think Santens and other UBI proponents have laudable aims and goals, but I think their methodology is flawed and I’m skeptical of their premises when it comes to the nature of power. Specifically, I’m skeptical of how they understand systems of power like governments and capitalism. It doesn’t seem to me like they’re quite grabbing at the roots of systematic inequality.

To be sure, there are different kinds of UBI proponents and some of them I am more sympathetic to than others. For example, some UBI proponents merely see it as a transitional way to get to an anarchist society. And I’m certainly more on board with that then having the UBI being some sort of end-state for us to strive towards.

In the end though my end-state is the end of the state and I don’t see the UBI getting us there.

Continuing with the rest of the original passage:

By adopting UBI, aside from immunizing against the negative effects of automation, we’d also be decreasing the risks inherent in entrepreneurship, and the sizes of bureaucracies necessary to boost incomes. It’s for these reasons, it has cross-partisan support, and is even now in the beginning stages of possible implementation in countries like Switzerland, Finland, the Netherlands, and Canada.

I agree that all of these aims are laudable and I share them myself, but I think that anarchism is a much better model to understand these aims than reformist ones. The phenomenon of regulatory capture acts as a deterrent for the state to undergo meaningful change for one thing. This makes the process of trying to “reclaim” the state from both business and legislative interests a rather time-consuming process.

Instead of seeing the state as a system to be saved we should see it as a system to leave behind. We should be working on people-powered mutual aid networks to better immunize from the negative effects of automation. We can decrease the risks inherent in entrepreneurship by  treating the states regulatory practices as damage and routing around them. And hell, there’s no better way to decrease the sizes of bureaucracies than abolishing the government!

In order and briefly:

  1. Mutual aid networks made up of varying currencies, time-banks, worker cooperatives and more can all strengthen communities resolve under both internal and external pressures from authorities. This helps them be more open to experiment freely with different economic models based on voluntary exchange and mutual benefit.
  2. The state is constantly in the business of making entrepreneurship harder and this is especially relevant when we talk about lower-class folks who are trying to scratch by. As far as many lower class people are concerned (or should be concerned) the government isn’t their friend when it comes to creating economic opportunities. With this in mind they should do as much as possible to treat the existing order and its dictates as damage to route around.
  3. If we want to be serious about decreasing the amount of bureaucracy in the world then I can’t think of a better way to do that then through the lens of anarchism. Such a lens would not only treat government forms of bureaucracy with a critical eye but also corporate bureaucracy as well. This analysis results in a society where we have a much more diverse, flatter, horizontal and resilient economy.

Now you could counter by saying that all of that is a bit vague but that’s not really the point given that Santens isn’t much more specific on how the UBI would actually work in practice. But if you want some historical ideas of anarchist praxis I’d recommend reading Voltairine de Cleyre’s Direct Action as a primer.

In any case, the existence of “cross-partisan” support and the beginning of implementation in other countries with (mostly) very different population sizes, cultures and histories isn’t very assuring to me. The obvious exception however is Canada and so in that case I’ll wait with interest of what happens there. But comparing these European countries to America has never seemed like a very analogous situation to me for the aforementioned reasons.

. . .

The UBI is an issue I struggle with because as an anti-work proponent I see that the intentions behind the UBI proponents are similar to my own. And not only that but we often share similar premises and end-goals, e.g. we want a lot less people to work and focus on whatever they want to actually do in their lives. And as I said, folks who see the UBI simply as a transitional state (pun intended?) to anarchism are more deserving of some interest.

But in the end, I think the means are inextricably tied to the ends.

Meaning our aims can’t come at the disadvantage of our ends to such a significant degree that they underminine the ends. And unfortunately, I think the UBI (at least at its worst) tends to do just that. At it’s best I’d argue that the UBI is simply a distraction or (mostly) harmless way for us to think about distribution under different lens. And those things can be good things to do but I don’t think UBI proponents consider issues of governance enough, generally.

This ties into a larger skepticism I have for reformist attempts more generally. I don’t think that an organization that claims a “legitimate” use over the monopolistic right to engage in violence has the proper incentive structure to reform in effective ways. I think it’ll be much more cost and time-effective to organize ourselves, those close to us and our broader communities around our ideals than trying to reform entire national governments.

It isn’t that I thnik reforms are everywhere and at all times useless, but rather I accept the anarchist slogan that direct action gets the goods and it will tend to do so much easier and more effectively than working within the system. That doesn’t mean if we have a reform that’s practical and moral that we shouldn’t go for it, should we not have any better alternatives. I just don’t thnik the UBI (or many reform attempts honestly) would fit into that rather niche category.

This isn’t even getting into the myriad of issues with Santens proposal of how a UBI would work through his various tax proposals. Or the studies he references about free money, but like I said, I don’t want to go much further than this article.

I’ll save that for another time.


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2 thoughts on “Jobs May be for Machines but the UBI Isn’t for Me

  1. the means are tied to the ends- yes.
    do i see it as transitional- yes.

    on the subject of government ‘debt’ – please dont fall for this! you DO NOT AND NEVER WILL ‘owe $60,000’ or any other such figure. thats not the way it works AT ALL. read bill mitchell, mike norman, randy wray- you could familiarise yourself with MMT concepts within 3-4 hours reading as you are a clever guy – deprogramming yourself from the drumbeat of neolib debt n deficit bull might take a few days/weeks but please stop spreading this meme for now at least.

    I disagree with you on UBI. I dont think in this blog or your last one on it you addressed the question of whether it is better than what we have now. Just to take one area, you are a feminist, – this is a feminising project. Carers, home-makers as I guess you might call them in the US, 18-25 year olds, people in education and who want more education, artists, writers, many pregnant people and people who want to have a family, masses of women, people experiencing physical and mental abuse, people who are stuck in the wrong body, people stuck in the wrong marriage – ALL of these areas will be greatly affected OVERNIGHT – see namibia, india, manitoba- the ‘UBI’ in these places wasnt even close to the ‘U’ or the ‘B’ in full, and wasnt long term- even then it had wonderful humanising and feminising effects on those involved.
    It would likely result in a standard 6 hour/5 day week within a few years (I cant prove that but I hope you accept it given the tech/demographic changes already ongoing and the obvious benefits of it to state-capitalism and wage-slaves) and this would result in more time and conscious expansion for people to realise they are wage-slaves.
    Allied to a psychadelic revolution in VR space 2025-2035 and the likely decrim. of psych plants (see yesterdays shroom study on depression/ US decrim of marijuana) the UBI can usher in real freedoms for billions. I hope you change your mind.

    • Hi, Hugh.

      As always I appreciate your comments and I’ll do my best to address them.

      “on the subject of government ‘debt’ – please dont fall for this! you DO NOT AND NEVER WILL ‘owe $60,000’…”

      So my claim *wasn’t* that I will “owe” such money. My point was purely a statistical and metaphorical one to show how much the government is already doing with its funds and why we may not expect it to do much better under a UBI.

      “I dont think in this blog or your last one on it you addressed the question of whether it is better than what we have now. ”

      As I said at the top of this post, I was only addressing what this article says. The author never mentioned whether it was better than the welfare state or not, so I didn’t address that point.

      In any case, I could still (and do) accept that it’s superior to the welfare state and *continue* believe that the UBI is impractical and direct action is a superior tactic.

      “Just to take one area, you are a feminist…”

      Right, I don’t doubt the UBI would be superior for caregivers and the like. But the beneficial consequences doesn’t impact it’s practicality for me. I still contend that we should focus on other strategies.

      “…see namibia, india, manitoba- the ‘UBI’ in these places wasnt even close to the ‘U’ or the ‘B’ in full, and wasnt long term- even then it had wonderful humanising and feminising effects on those involved.”

      Santens talked about Nambia and my problem with that (and the other examples) is two-fold:

      1) Obviously the UBI would be superior to whatever was causing *crushing* poverty beforehand. Introducing a UBI into countries that are desperately poor and then pointing to its success isn’t very impressive in terms of results.

      2) Comparing these countries with very different demographics, populations and dissimilar histories (not to mention cultures) doesn’t make a strong case for me either.

      I appreciate the time you always take in your comments, Hugh. Thanks again!

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