Bill Gates. Credit to: The Huffington Post
On a recent Reddit AMA, Bill Gates says countries aren’t rich enough to support a Universal Basic Income (UBI). In the meantime, Gates suggests investing in government programs and increasing the demand of labor.
Bill Gates posted his fifth Reddit AMA on Monday, February 27th, 2017. He responded to questions on a number of topics, ranging from his favorite vacation spot to his viewpoints on whether social media has contributed to divisions in the United States. One Reddit user asked Gates about his thoughts on Universal Basic Income (UBI).
In his response, Gates points to constraints in making this alternative economic system scalable today. He described how countries may not currently have the financial capacity to support a UBI, stating: “Even the US isn’t rich enough to allow people not to work.” Currently, there is a lack of evidence that UBI is linked to decreasing employment or willingness to work. On the contrary, Rutgers Professor James Livingston has shown there is empirical evidence that a subsidy to one’s income has little to no impact on one’s work ethic. Countries around the world are initiating UBI pilots to test feasibility, structure and impacts. In fact, the Finnish UBI pilot is intended to increase employment and reduce poverty.
In the meantime, Gates proposes supporting specific historically marginalized populations, such as seniors and youth with disabilities. He also suggests increasing the amount of “adults helping in education.” One pathway of support he mentions is investment in government programs, like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), that will “help increase the demand for labor.” The Earned Income Tax Credit is a policy initiative that focuses on alleviating poverty for US citizens and has been shown to increase labor-market participation. There are numerous variations of UBI models; some which envision a guaranteed income working in tandem with existing government programs. In contrast to many currently existing government subsidies and programs, UBI assumes a guaranteed income to each individual member regardless of household income.
Gates raises a noteworthy point about the need for an increased demand for labor during a time where there is growing concern about how automation may lead to the loss of jobs. In a recent video interview, he has proposed taxing robots that take humans’ jobs and using that money to finance sectors like education, provide job training, and support government programs. Basic Income News author Tyler Prochazka expands upon Bill Gates’ former comments on taxing robots in his article and how this connects to UBI.
More information at:
Tyler Prochazska, “Bill Gates is Wrong: Don’t Tax Robots”, Basic Income News, February 22th 2017
Mary Hynes, “Jobs are disappearing and to me that’s a good thing: Why We Should Abandon Work”, CBC Radio, March 2nd 2017
John Henley, “Finland Trials Basic Income for Unemployed”, The Guardian, January 3rd 2017
Giacomo Tognini, “Universal Basic Income, 5 Experiments Around The World”, WorldCrunch, February 23rd 2017
On Youtube: “Bill Gates: The Robot That Takes Your Job Should Pay Taxes”, February 16th 2017
On Reddit: “I’m Bill Gates co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Ask Me Anything”, February 27th 2017
Bill Gates made headlines when he suggested robots that take human jobs should be taxed at a similar rate as humans. The money, he said, could slow the rate of automation, and be used to fund government jobs.
Gates could not be more wrongheaded on this proposal.
The problem with Gates’ idea is that it assumes robots taking human jobs is something to be discouraged. The opposite is true. We should welcome robots doing more tasks for humans, thus freeing up humans to engage in other fulfilling endeavors.
Imagine the government took Gates’ approach with Microsoft computers to prevent their machines from taking jobs. Humanity would be worse off because of the unrealized productivity, connectivity, and convenience that would be impossible without computers.
The crucial component in response to automation that Gates does not mention is the Universal Basic Income (UBI). UBI will ensure that those who lose their jobs to robots will have a flexible cash grant that could be used for training, education, or to pursue whatever the individual’s passion may be.
There is a legitimate worry that the companies that own the robots will accumulate most of the wealth, and the rest will be left behind. A basic income addresses this automation cliff more effectively than attempting to delay inevitable automation with taxation.
It is possible in the future, humans will be able to scale back their work hours, while still receiving a comparable overall income through UBI because robots would be doing the bulk of humanity’s work. An individual could spend more time on volunteering, entrepreneurship, their family, civic engagement, and creative endeavors.
The greater the dividend humanity receives from robots because of their higher productivity, the larger the basic income can be without disrupting the economy.
Gates and others are stuck in the mindset that humans are meant to spend eight hours a day, five days a week in a traditional work environment. Robots are threatening to upend the system, which should be welcomed as it opens new possibilities for what people can do with their time.
Just because someone receives a wage from a company does not mean they are maximizing their potential for themselves and what they can provide to society. For example, is a single mother doing more for society by working twelve hour shifts, or spending more time raising her child?
As automation intensifies and countries inevitably start to implement basic income, many will continue to work full-time in the traditional system. Others will work part-time. And still more will find different ways to contribute to society. There is a basic human drive to develop one’s self and bring positive change to the world.
Traditional work will not necessarily cultivate each person’s true comparative advantage. The irony is that robots taking more jobs will give us more freedom to choose our best path, if coupled with an unconditional basic income.
Instead of taxing robots, we should tax activities that we want to discourage. For example, activities that harm the environment, such as fossil fuel use, animal agriculture, and resource extraction. Land ownership could also be taxed at a higher level. This could raise the same amount of revenue from wealthy individuals as Gates’ suggested robot tax in order to fund UBI and other government services, without discouraging the positive good of robotic development.
The dramatic expansion of automated jobs is going to remake the economic order and will require governments around the world to respond. The biggest mistake will be fighting this change and attempting to preserve the same system we have now, instead of using the opportunity to drastically improve it.
Image: Red Maxwell, Flickr, Ted Talk: 2009.