News; News & Events

US: President Obama calls UBI “a debate we’ll be having” in coming decades

United States President Barack Obama addressed universal basic income in a question in an October 12 interview with Wired Editor-in-Chief Scott Dadich and MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito.

The interview covers a plethora of issues surrounding the political, economic, and ethical implications of artificial intelligence. After discussing regulation, funding, and cyber security, among other topics, it is Obama who turns attention to the economic implications of AI and, in particular, the specter of technological unemployment:

One thing that we haven’t talked about too much, and I just want to go back to, is we really have to think through the economic implications. Because most people aren’t spending a lot of time right now worrying about singularity—they are worrying about “Well, is my job going to be replaced by a machine?”

He then expresses optimism regarding the possibility for continued job creation in the face of technological progress (“historically we’ve absorbed new technologies, and people find that new jobs are created, they migrate, and our standards of living generally go up”); however, he proceeds to warn that the government must do what it can to ensure that the gain do not simply go to a “small group at the top”:

Low-wage, low-skill individuals become more and more redundant, and their jobs may not be replaced, but wages are suppressed. And if we are going to successfully manage this transition, we are going to have to have a societal conversation about how we manage this. How are we training and ensuring the economy is inclusive if, in fact, we are producing more than ever, but more and more of it is going to a small group at the top? How do we make sure that folks have a living income? And what does this mean in terms of us supporting things like the arts or culture or making sure our veterans are getting cared for? The social compact has to accommodate these new technologies, and our economic models have to accommodate them.

Following up on Obama’s remarks, Ito broaches the topic of UBI:

… I don’t know what you think about universal basic income, but as we start to see people getting displaced there’s also this idea that we can look at other models—like academia or the arts, where people have a purpose that isn’t tied directly to money. I think one of the problems is that there’s this general notion of, how can you be smart if you don’t have any money? In academia, I see a lot of smart people without money.

In reply, Obama acknowledges that the debate over UBI would continue over the coming decades and, moreover, highlights another influential argument often given in its favor–recognition of the value of unpaid (and underpaid) labor:  

[W]hether a universal income is the right model—is it gonna be accepted by a broad base of people?—that’s a debate that we’ll be having over the next 10 or 20 years. You’re also right that the jobs that are going be displaced by AI are not just low-skill service jobs; they might be high-skill jobs but ones that are repeatable and that computers can do. What is indisputable, though, is that as AI gets further incorporated, and the society potentially gets wealthier, the link between production and distribution, how much you work and how much you make, gets further and further attenuated—the computers are doing a lot of the work. As a consequence, we have to make some tougher decisions. We underpay teachers, despite the fact that it’s a really hard job and a really hard thing for a computer to do well. So for us to reexamine what we value, what we are collectively willing to pay for—whether it’s teachers, nurses, caregivers, moms or dads who stay at home, artists, all the things that are incredibly valuable to us right now but don’t rank high on the pay totem pole—that’s a conversation we need to begin to have.

Last June, President Obama was asked about universal basic income in a Bloomberg Businessweek interview. Specifically, the interviewers asked about Obama’s view on UBI as a possible solution to economic disruption caused by globalization, and Obama replied by explaining that automation would likely produce even greater disruption (perhaps deliberately courting UBI supporters), while not taking a firm stance on–or even explicitly mentioning–UBI.

Obama’s recent remarks, then, may represent his most direct–and most sympathetic–comments on UBI to date.

On November 8, Americans will vote on the next President, to be inaugurated on January 20. Frontrunner Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken about basic income rarely, and has not expressed support. In an interview with LinkedIn’s Daniel Roth (“From bots to Brexit: Hillary Clinton explains how she’ll manage this uneasy economy”), published on June 28, she directly rejected the policy –saying that she’s “not ready to go there” and instead focusing on job creation and expansion of the earned income tax credit.


Davey Alba (October 12, 2016) “We must remake society in the coming age of AI: Obama,” Wired.

Scott Dadich (October 12, 2016) “Barack Obama, Neural Nets, Self-Driving Cars, the Future of the World,” Wired.

Reviewed by Ali Özgür Abalı

Photo: “President Barack Obama observes the Cybernetic Human Robot” CC BY-ND 2.0 U.S. Embassy, Jakarta

About Kate McFarland

Kate McFarland has written 512 articles.

Former lead writer and editor of Basic Income News.

The views expressed in this Op-Ed piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of Basic Income News or BIEN. BIEN and Basic Income News do not endorse any particular policy, but Basic Income News welcomes discussion from all points of view in its Op-Ed section.


  • Zach

    in 10 to 20 years things will get even worse if we don’t implement UBI.

    The problem we have now is the same as in 1929 except the governments are slightly smarter about it, and they don’t let the economy free fall by applying stimulus. The essential problem is that there are too many people chasing jobs and money and there aren’t enough people buying houses, cars, vacations, diapers, etc.

    When we combine automation (high productivity) with outsourcing (manufacturing going to asia) with boomers retiring (start spending like you might run out of money) the economy really slows down. To avoid panic the central bank stimulates.

    So, instead of trying to coax boomers to spend more, or get companies to share more money with their workers, or trying to keep the wealthy people living in the country by keeping their taxes low….

    Implement Universal Basic Income.

    Right now the top 10% makes almost 50% of the national income, and the economy is barely moving because the top 10% are not spending enough of that 50% to allow the bottom 90% of earners to have a place in the economy. Every time the bank stimulates it goes to to the top 10% or 1% who don’t need the money to spend. If 50% of the income goes to the top 10%, then the fear of UBI is that if we raise taxes to pay for it, the high income earners will all leave the country to avoid taxes. That won’t happen because the US taxes are based on citizenship not residency. Also, where would they go? most other desirable places are more socialist and have higher taxes.

    We need to implement Basic Income now for all these reasons. If we don’t growth will continue to stall, poverty and inequality will continue to get worse, and the economy will get worse and worse.

    The US government is afraid of UBI because of the massive increase in spending. Taxing the rich more could pay for it, increasing the government debt could pay for it, (after all the debt is mostly owned by its citizens), plus all of the taxes that come from all of the increased spending of the BI will pay for it. Don’t worry about inflation, (deflation is the problem right now) Also, Inflation would make the debt easier to pay back later. Social security is indexed to inflation, so retirees wouldn’t lose out (hopefully) The dollar might get weaker relative to other currencies increasing the competitiveness of our exports. if all these things happen gradually, Basic income may not come as a shock.

    The best part, is that people can go back to work, whatever that work may be.

    • Will Morgan

      I completely fail to understand why one must “raise money” in order to afford a UBI. In the USA we support an immense and ever-growing military machine, and though it is incredibly expensive, no one ever suggests that that we must raise taxes to be able to afford it, or to afford our space program or our human services. The best way to move toward a UBI and a person based economy is to end private banking, As long as there is profiteering and speculation in banking, money will go to the banker and the rich investor first and will be restrained from reaching the average worker. This would be true even if our economy was not tilted toward the one percent. It would also help if the Federal Reverse were abolished because that too is a cabal of bankers seeking to become rich off the fact that they are “supposed” to be Grus of “the market”. And what market is that? The market that they create! I mean the market of Wall Street, which produces no product at all, periodically crashes, and must be again propped up to the tune of trillions of dollars, A market, which, even when its is supposedly “working” reinforces inequality all the more. In other words, if you design a system for the very few then that is what you get, and there will never be a reason serve the many if they lack economic or political power. The United States or any nation does not lack the money for a UBI, for it owns a printing press and does not need to tie the value of its currency to any other currency in the world. What the United States lacks the will and the power to permanently dethrone the bankers. For the system that would ensue if that happened, could be properly called “democracy”.

  • Nancy Campbell

    Those who knit and crochet may understand the dynamics of supply and demand better than mathematicians and economists. When supplies run low they never pull the yarns back out from the work in progress; they simply acquire more yarn and carry on.

    Money that’s in circulation keeps the GDP in motion. Taxes and bank fees remove cash money from circulation and slows the process. It’s self defeating to put tax monies back into the economy as a stimulus for the GDP. That’s much the same as expecting a snake to swallow its tail to avoid starvation.

    Obviously, there’s an optimum ratio of money in circulation that best supports the steady growth of the GDP. Economists have never publicized what that ratio would be.

    Anyone can see that non-taxable and never-to-be-repaid new money must be printed and introduced into the economy to maintain reliable stability. An economic stimulus “From The Grassroots Up” should prove to be more effective than any previous results from the well-known “Trickle Down Theory.”

    For starters, enlisting every adult person “on-the-grid” to accept and disburse $385 of new cash money every 2 weeks should be sufficient. Using fingerprinting technology to ID the participants quickly resolves possible duplications. During the 1st trial year, no other changes should be attached. All else in the works stays the way that it is.

    After close study, results are evaluated and small changes are made until things turn out to be “Just Right.”

    Call this the Goldilocks Economic Money Adjustment, (GEMA) or the Grassroots Economic Stimulus, (GEMS.) The prime, long-term intent is to stabilize the nation’s economy.

    Side effects to a stimulus From-The-Grassroots-Up look intriguing:

    * People in adverse relationships, (jobs, marriages. family, etc.) might feel more free to move on.

    * Students might be more willing and able to leave the parents’ home.

    * The homeless might be spared the need to “panhandle” in order to survive.

    * Inner city gangs would become more of a choice, rather than an unfortunate necessity.

    * Nothing about this stimulus encourages people in the least advantaged circumstances to bear more children for financial gain.

    *Those who are “living off the grid” might be encouraged to make contact and to assist with boosting the economy.

    *”The fingerprinting technology should eventually eliminate most duplications from anywhere “in the grid.”

    • NoDifference

      I think another side effect might be a reduction in population over time, or at least a sharp decrease in acceleration. The reason for this is not intuitive, but it does APPEAR to be true.

      It seems that as family income INCREASES, family size DECREASES. Likewise, as family income DECREASES, family size INCREASES. The precise sociological and economic reasons this is so may be discussed at length here and elsewhere. But this basic phenomenon holds true, and that is even prior to the welfare state.

      We know that it was typical for poor families to have as many as 10 children or so, whether in cities or in the country. Farmers obviously benefited by having more hands for harvesting, etc. Another reason is that diseases killed off a great number of children and by having larger families, there was a greater chance for the family line to continue; survival in numbers.

      If we can accept this phenomenon as a fact in the same way we might view gravity in physics (as an observation, not trying to explain it by introducing various theories), then we have a tool at our disposal. It means that if we could just find a way to make family income increase, we could probably make family size decrease. If this were attempted on a societal scale, we might be able to achieve overall reduction in population, or at least curb growth somewhat.

      I admit it could be that the very reasons for this phenomenon might reverse given a UBI. But I doubt it, because I believe that it is caused by very complex reasons deeply embedded in human behavior and culture. I’m only suggesting that a UBI could be the key to helping reduce population, and with it, many of the problems that a shrinking job market creates in the first place.

  • Jay Pillay

    You mention this as a side effect:
    Nothing about this stimulus encourages people in the least advantaged circumstances to bear more children for financial gain.
    I am trying to understand this ‘side effect’. If every person receives $385 every 2 weeks, what stops, say, a woman from having a baby, just to get that UBI? How is she NOT encouraged to bear more children for financial gain? Thank you.


      Women don’t have more children for the money usually. In fact, many governments in Europe and South East Asia have found despite their best efforts. Due to the fact that all of Europe and most of South East Asia have birth rates well below replacement.

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