In the utopian (dystopian?) future projected by technological visionaries, few people would have to work. Wealth would be generated by millions upon millions of sophisticated machines. But how would people earn a living?Yes, that's right -- as Manjoo noted in the Times last week, many in the tech elite really believe they can replace most of us with robots, and think we'll need to get a government paycheck instead:
Silicon Valley has an answer: a universal basic income.
Let’s say computers come for most of our jobs....In today's discussion, Porter disagrees with Manjoo about this solution. He suggests alternatives -- "wage subsidies or wage insurance to top up the earnings of people who lose their job and must settle for a new job at a lower wage" -- or this:
In Robot America, most manual laborers will have been replaced by herculean bots. Truck drivers, cabbies, delivery workers and airline pilots will have been superseded by vehicles that do it all. Doctors, lawyers, business executives and even technology columnists for The New York Times will have seen their ranks thinned by charming, attractive, all-knowing algorithms.
How will society function after humanity has been made redundant? Technologists and economists have been grappling with this fear for decades, but in the last few years, one idea has gained widespread interest -- including from some of the very technologists who are now building the bot-ruled future.
Their plan is known as “universal basic income,” or U.B.I....
Imagine the government sending each adult about $1,000 a month, about enough to cover housing, food, health care and other basic needs for many Americans.
... U.B.I. has ... gained support among a cadre of venture capitalists in New York and Silicon Valley....
If there are, in fact, jobs to be had, a universal basic income may not be the best choice of policy. The lack of good work is probably best addressed by making the work better -- better paid and more skilled -- and equipping workers to perform it, rather than offering a universal payment unrelated to work.But do you know which of these remedies we're actually likely to get if the future looks the way the tech savants think it might?
The challenge of less work could just lead to fewer working hours. Others are already moving in this direction. People work much less in many other rich countries: Norwegians work 20 percent fewer hours per year than Americans; Germans 25 percent fewer.
None of them. We'll be told to sink or swim.
Why do I say that? Because tech is already upending people's lives, especially in the geographic center of the tech industry, and the tech giants are doing next to nothing to soften the shock, as we learn from a separate story in today's Times:
.... increasingly Silicon Valley is rooted in [San Francisco] itself....Why are we having discussions about which generous wealth-transfer scheme our tech overlords will help implement in order to assist us in a post-jobs future when it's clear that they don't do jack about the "disruption" they're responsible for now?
The consequences for people who do not make their living from technology are increasingly unpleasant. The city is bulging at the seams, adding about 10,000 people a year to a record 852,000 in 2014. A one-bedroom apartment goes for a median $3,500 a month, the highest in the nation....
Signs of distress are plentiful. The Fraternite Notre Dame’s soup kitchen was facing eviction after a rent increase of nearly 60 percent. (It was saved for a year after its plight received worldwide publicity.) Two eviction-defense groups were evicted in favor of a start-up that intended to lease the space to other start-ups. The real estate site Redfin published a widely read blog post that said the number of teachers in San Francisco who could afford a house was exactly zero.
“All the renters I know are living in fear,” said Derrick Tynan-Connolly, a teacher at a high school for pregnant teenagers and young mothers. “If your landlord dies, if your landlord sells the building, if you get evicted under the Ellis Act” -- a controversial law that allows landlords to reclaim a building by taking it off the rental market -- “and you have to move, you’re gone. There’s no way you can afford to stay in San Francisco.”
... “The city has the largest budget it ever had,” he said. “But the homeless are still suffering while working-class families, including my students, struggle to find affordable housing and child care. Where are the benefits from the boom that are accruing to the whole city?”
San Francisco has a budget of $8.6 billion and a deficit of $100 million, according to Mayor Lee, who ordered city departments to cut spending by 1.5 percent.
And when it's clear that they think they're ubermenschen and the have-nots are just lower-order beings?
Tech people regularly issue electronic broadsides that irk San Franciscans. The latest came in late February from a start-up founder, Justin Keller, who complained about the homeless and “riffraff.”Do we think the techies are going to lead the way on this because they seem cooler? That's nonsense. They're economic elitists. There's no reason to think they have any more empathy than the Koch brothers do.
“The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city,” he wrote in an open letter, adding: “I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day.“
If we really are facing a massive loss of jobs in the future, the only way we're going to get anything from the people taking those jobs away is if we're threatening to burn their mansions to the ground. We shouldn't assume they have any common decency. If that future comes, they'll be happy to let us die in the streets -- as long as they don't have to see us doing it.