Happy July 4th! We’re independent as a nation so in theory we get to decide what kind of nation we want to have. Today I want to understand an apparent logical contradiction.
A bunch of my Facebook friends fall into a category that I call “robot alarmists.” They believe that computers and robots are getting so sophisticated that at least half of the current American workforce will be unable to find any job at all. Thus they support a universal basic income (“UBI”). Here are some example posts:
Some variant of [universal basic income] is inevitable if civilization is to survive the invention of robots. However, there is a much deeper flaw here: the notion that consumerism itself can continue forever. It can’t, at least not with 10 billion humans trying to live like Americans.
Bring on the robotax 🙂 Since robots stand to boost profit at the expense of labor (what else is new?!), it stands to reason that buying a robot should be heavily taxed, with the proceeds going to the unemployed.
Labor shortages have been predicted since I was in college and here we are, short on jobs and money, but long on billionaires and robots. Even if they’re right, all it means is more demand pressure on creating robots to fill those jobs.
This is how they take over our world: it’s just too damn convenient, efficient and profitable to use them. And of course we will keep improving them because that makes them faster, better, cheaper yet! Until one day they break the tether and run… [over an article on a gas leak robot]
The only option left once you give all the jobs to robots… [over an article on UBI]
Because we just HAVE to go faster! And replace humans with robots. Right? Or is there some other logical reason why we NEED faster computers? I’m not coming up with any [over an article on microprocessor trying to stay on the Moore’s Law curve]
Central to the case for a UBI is the way it would help prepare us for a world in which the new technological revolution, driven by artificial intelligence and robotics, will, over time, transform the nature of work and the type and number of jobs. [UK Labour politician]
I would be more worried about about a collapse in the job market if I could find someone reliable to weed our yard for less than 3X the federal minimum wage or someone skilled in carpentry at less than 6X. But let’s assume that these folks are sincere. They believe that in the reasonably near-term, our society’s wealth will come from the robots that some citizens and corporations own plus from the labor of an elite group of workers who do things that robots cannot do.
Why do the same people then support current U.S. immigration policy and advocate for an increase in the number of immigrants on the same terms? The U.S. immigration system is not targeted at people with elite skills, high education levels, and high income in whatever country they’re living in now. Thus we are going to be bringing in people who cannot read and may not be able to speak or understand English. If the average American’s income will just be whatever robots produce divided by the total population as a universal basic income (minus any costs to administer the government handouts, of course), what would be the value to current U.S. citizens of increasing the denominator?
Suppose that the goal is humanitarian relief. Citizens of Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries do not have a good life in their home countries. We will bring them to the U.S., give them a universal basic income, and they can be happy going to Disneyland every day. If that is the goal, however, wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to give a larger number of designated unfortunates a smaller “universal basic income” (“universal sub-basic income”?) that would enable them to live comfortably in a lower-cost-of-living part of the world?
In short, in the old days the argument used by advocates of immigration is that they would grow our economy (and tax base) by working. Today, however, the people who argue that we will have a vast surplus of human labor continue to advocate for immigration and a larger population of the humans most of whom they believe will be economic parasites of either robots or exceptionally skilled humans. How does that make sense?