What are we going to do? At tech and futurism conferences, in books about labor automation and in academia, an old solution is seeing a renaissance and a new generation of advocates. It's called basic income.
Basic income is a gargantuan idea with a simple premise: Everyone in the country should get a salary just for being alive, without conditions or qualifications. Instead of a welfare system, the government just cuts everyone a check — usually something around a poverty-level salary, in many proposals — no matter if they have a job or not. Basic income gives every human equal standing.
We're at the beginning of a new zeitgeist around basic income as a solution to an uncertain economic future, where job automation and the robot takeover of the workforce are creating anxiety about the future. Are we approaching another recession? Will the American workforce start to hemorrhage jobs?
Now that automation is threatening the jobs of more than blue-collar workers, it's getting the attention of people with serious power.
Surprisingly, some of the loudest voices talking about basic income are coming out of Silicon Valley, the place where many digital innovations that are replacing human workers were created. Many published authors who have written about the issue in the past year are techies.
"When you talk about getting rid of poverty, unless you're in poverty, you're thinking of its effect on other people," Scott Santens, a leading basic income advocate and writer, told Mic. "But technological unemployment might affect you personally, so there's more people interested."
Basic income isn't a new idea. According to professor Karl Widerquist of Georgetown University, we're in the beginning of the third wave of basic income in American society. The first wave was a heady, intellectual phase at the end of World War I, where thinkers like Bertrand Russell were sorting out how the 20th century would look.
The second wave was in the '60s. It was inspired by the same two existential threats we face today.
"When you talk to people who are new to the idea of basic income, there are two groups," Widerquist told Mic over the phone from Qatar, where he's currently teaching. "There are those who are concerned with inequality, and those who are worried about the automation."
In the one corner, you had the civil rights movement, where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about guaranteed income as a total solution for American poverty.
"The curse of poverty has no justification in our age," King wrote in his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? "It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them."
At the same time, you had futurist thinkers, policy wonks and economists dreaming up creative ways to solve problems like the existing welfare system. President Lyndon Johnson was receiving open letters like the "Triple Revolution" memorandum, demanding solutions to job automation and the civil rights revolution. Basic income was a popular idea floating around the ivory tower of policy and legislation.
One of these theorists, Robert Theobald, saw that even before the dawn of the information age, job automation would create an age of abundance. In a future society where machines were making everything for us, the spilling over of extra resources would allow people to totally "opt out" of consumerism and be able to focus on work they really enjoyed or found fulfilling.
We have some leftovers from that second wave of thinking, like the earned income tax credit, food stamps and the Alaska Dividend.
"It faced a lot of opposition to people who are making these work-ethic arguments, that everyone must work," Widerquist told Mic. "Nobody was able to form a grand compromise that would bring all of the elements together or make it large enough."
But Reaganism put a halt to all of that talk real quick. Ronald Reagan convinced America that consumerism was the road to the new American century, and that people who weren't working were a drag on the system, even as pop-culture humanists and psychologists like Erich Fromm were saying that the idea of people suddenly growing lazy wasn't provably true.
"Reagan convinced Republicans that they don't need to compromise," Widerquist said. "They could get elected by demonizing the poor, clawing back the welfare state and replacing it with nothing. And they cut and reduced it for decades."
But now that those decades have passed, and we're left with skyrocketing income inequality. And now, there's a new force which threatens to drive the wedge of income inequality deeper, and create an even greater crisis in employment, one that might change human history from this point forward: the digital revolution, and the automation of not just the human body but the human mind.
So are robots actually coming for all of our jobs? Nobody can agree on how bad the problem is. Pew Research polled almost 2,000 technologists last year on whether or not there would be a robot takeover of the workforce last year, and experts were split right down the middle, with 52% saying it wouldn't happen in the next 10 years.
"All of the predictions that technology would eliminate jobs have always been wrong," Widerquist told Mic. "But it doesn't mean they always will be wrong. More technology always meant more jobs for horses, then suddenly in 1930, they were almost totally unemployed. Something like that could happen with human labor."
But just because we don't see a sudden jobs cataclysm doesn't mean the automation revolution isn't happening slowly, like tectonic plates slowly shifting under our feet. A recent study in the Guardian showed that technology has created more jobs in the past 140 years than its destroyed. But a closer look shows that those news jobs are qualitatively worse — offering lower wages and hollowing out the middle class.
"An automation revolution doesn't look like what you think it will look like," Widerquist said. "I think it will look like stagnating wages. If people are willing to work lowering wages, they'll find something to do. Maybe this automation revolution began 100 years ago."
So what is Silicon Valley going to do? We haven't seen much progress yet.
One venture capitalist, Albert Wenger, has expressed support for an economic solution. "I believe in automation. We don't want to somehow clamp down on it," Albert Wenger, a managing partner for Union Square Ventures, says in the basic income documentary Money for Free. "But we have to then address what the consequences for individuals are from that degree of automation. And that, I believe, is best solved by just putting everyone on a safe floor."
Otherwise, basic income is viewed as more of a pipe dream than a serious economic policy. Silicon Valley may pay lip service to the idea that we need solutions, but those solutions aren't likely to come from the people contributing to the problem. It's people like Andreessen and tech's cadre of one-percenters who directly benefit from the automation revolution.
Silicon Valley's most brilliant innovations often represent the privatization of publicly available services: Consider the laundromat-displacing laundry service Washio, or Uber's battle with New York's taxi system. They disrupt giant industries, replacing them with nimble, convenient services. All of this represents the siphoning of capital into fewer and fewer hands.
As artificial intelligence specialist and entrepreneur Jerry Kaplan writes in his latest book, Humans Need Not Apply:
For instance, Jeff Bezos started Blue Origin, a company working to reduce the cost of spaceflight so private individuals (as opposed to governments) can explore the solar system. This is laudable, and it's certainly his right to do it, but might the resources devoted to this high-minded effort be better applied elsewhere, or perhaps be directed by more than a single individual's passions?
Steven A. Edwards, a policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, remarked, "For better or worse, the practice of science in the 21st century is becoming shaped less by national priorities or by peer-review group and more by the particular preference of individuals with huge amounts of money."
What's holding back basic income: Kaplan is doubtful that today's America could ever pass a law giving us basic income, given our current Republican party. We could barely get the Affordable Care Act passed; how could we hope for a radical and rapid restructuring of the welfare state to give every poor person in the country free money? Still, Kaplan believes in an economic solution — even one based on taxation — if we start looking at new wealth instead of old wealth.
"In 40 years, we'll have twice as much wealth in America as we do today," he said. "So we can talk about distributing things we have today, but we need proper incentives and polities so that newly created wealth is more equitably distributed.
We can't expect Silicon Valley to deliver us both the products we're clamoring for as well as the solutions to the havoc they cause. Kaplan told Mic that even if technologists are building the tools that'll bring about this economic crisis, it's not on them to fix the problem. A car maker can install seat belts, but it can't make people become safe drivers and create laws that keep people from driving drunk or recklessly.
"You're putting the problem on the wrong people," Kaplan told Mic. "The problems are the policies. You can't point the fingers and say that technologists aren't doing the right thing. The question is, how do the policy makers understand these arguments and what are they willing to do."
The big takeaway: We need new ideas, whether or not those ideas involve a guaranteed income, instead of hoping that the invisible hand of the market will leave room for us humans.
In other words, it's on us to get our politicians to address income inequality. Those at the top won't push for it — until robots come for their jobs too.