The biggest near term threat to the stability of nations might not be climate change, terrorism, or nuclear war. It just might be robots—putting millions of people out of jobs. Where will they all go? There are only a few possibilities.
The widespread automation of jobs—millions and millions of jobs—is not a sci-fi theory, or just another marginal step in the normal evolution of human employment. It is a result of the advancement of computers and technology that could fundamentally throw our labor economy out of whack. Billionaires in Silicon Valley and Mike Bloomberg and labor unions across the world all agree that we need a plan. The problem is that we may see so many jobs being automated out of existence that there is no clear place for all the people whose jobs have been eliminated to go. The fast food workers and bank tellers and truck drivers 60,000 Foxconn workers being replaced with robots and touchscreens and driverless cars will not see equally obtainable employment in sufficient quantity pop up elsewhere. This is not just a cyclical change, which calls for newly unemployed workers to simply retrain and go into another field; it’s possible that automation will just eliminate a huge swath of jobs for good. And that is where the trouble starts.
The thing not to do is: nothing. If we do nothing, we could, in five or ten or fifteen years, be faced with tens of millions of lower and middle class workers who have recently become unemployed and who have no job prospects and for whom traditional job retraining is a farce, because jobs just don’t exist. If you think Americans are angry now, give that shit a try. There are three basic options:
- A Universal Basic Income: This idea is catching on around the world, and many of its backers support it precisely as a way to mitigate the coming automation of so many jobs. Send everyone a check each month. Not a luxurious or lavish check, but enough to cover the bare basics of living. This would be expensive, but it might be politically possible and it would certainly be good at heading off social unrest, if we could afford it. It is one of the only plausible social welfare ideas that unites free marketeers (because it is a check rather than a government bureaucracy, and because it can be used to justify cutting other government programs) and socialists (because it is essentially socialism). Such cross-ideological appeal may be needed sooner rather than later.
- Government Jobs: This is an idea that should already be happening. Political idiocy is the only reason it is not. Everyone everywhere of all political persuasions agrees that our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling. It needs trillions of dollars of work. Fortunately, such spending is really an investment in America—it will add to our prosperity in the long run to have functioning and well-maintained transportation systems and other infrastructure. Also, in a stroke of luck, it is incredibly cheap to borrow money right now. This is an unusually good time for the government to spend a great deal of money rebuilding our national infrastructure. This could create millions of jobs for people automated out of work, at least for a while. And the money would be well spent. We should do this no matter what. The downside is that at least many of the jobs would be temporary. But at least at their conclusion we would have functional infrastructure.
- A Much Stronger Social Safety Net: If we don’t put a universal basic income in place, then we need to drastically strengthen our social safety net. Strong enough, that is, to hold the weight of millions of people who have been automated out of the work force. That means universal health care, stronger unemployment insurance, child care, affordable housing, and other programs that make long term unemployment livable. These can be targeted only at the unemployed, rather than at everyone, to make it more affordable, if necessary. This is also something we should already be working on. Those who say that the victims of technology will just use other technology to work in “the gig economy” need to support a social safety net in order to be intellectually honest. America is not currently equipped for an economy of people with no single stable employer.
Automation is such a powerful economic force because it can save corporations a lot of money, and corporations are essentially just sociopathic machines for making profits. Automation should raise corporate profits around the world. Corporations should prepare to give some of that money back in taxes to help support all the workers they just automated out of jobs.
Maybe our evolving economy will adjust and make space for all of these workers in technology or “the gig economy” or some other field that we haven’t even thought of yet. Or maybe we will just undergo a restructuring of the job market, leaving us with a higher unemployment rate for the long term. At the very least, we need to offer automated-out people a bridge to a better future. At most, we need to start planning for a new society.
All that money corporations are making will need to be shared. It’s the only way. If you think taking care of unemployed people is expensive, think about how much war costs.