All I Want For Christmas Is A Minimum Basic Income

Published in Online Spin, December 23, 2016.

Merry Christmas. Or Chanukah. Or Kwanzaa. Whatever you celebrate, I hope you got a year-end bonus -- because the robots are coming for your job.

They’re coming whether you’re a taxi driver or a truck driver. They’re coming whether you’re a doctor or a lawyer. If your job involves repetition, or information processing, or data analysis, you’re at risk.

You’re at risk because they’re better than you. They never sleep. They never get sick, or take vacations, or go on parental leave. They never break up with a significant other or get caught up in petty workplace dramas. They just do the job, day in, day out, 365 days a year. Yes, even on Christmas.

So what should you do? First of all, don’t wait for the politicians. You can’t afford to wait. Retrain. Upskill. Diversify. Make yourself complicated and interesting enough that the robots won’t bother trying to do what you do for a few years yet.

There’s no reason not to -- you can do it all online, for free. At MITUdacityKhan Academy — heck, even YouTube. There are no limits to what you can learn if you have a Web connection and a bit of time.

But even that might not be enough. We don’t really know what the jobs of the future look like. We don’t know how many of them there will be. We don’t even know where they’ll be -- although there’s a good chance they won’t be in the same place they used to.

Maybe more importantly, we have no idea what they’ll pay, and there’s reason to be concerned. Income inequality has been rising steadily for the past 30 years, while wages have stagnated. So the paycheck from that new job you were lucky enough to get might cover your rent, or your food, or your power bill, but not all three.

“Have no fear,” says Silicon Valley. “Technology is creating a world of abundance unlike any we’ve ever known.” The irony, of course, is that the reason abundance is possible is that digitized products and services eventually drive towards free, and the reason they drive towards free is that human capital is no longer a necessary input, and when human capital is no longer a necessary input it means that no one is getting paid. Oh, except the shareholders.

“Have no fear,” says Silicon Valley. “All we need is a Minimum Basic Income.” Or a Universal Basic Income. Or a Guaranteed Minimum Income. Call it what you will, the premise is the same: Every citizen, no matter their circumstance, deserves the unrestricted ability to access the necessities of survival: food, water, shelter. The market should not dictate whether you are worthy of these. Your humanity already dictates that you are.

As my friend Raf Manji recently pointed out, people all along the political spectrum have been talking about this idea for 500 years -- you don’t need to be a hippie to support it. All you need is the understanding that your riches won’t save you if the teeming masses around you become so desperate that they rise up in despair. That the circumstances and systems into which we are born have a disproportionate impact on the scope and scale of our opportunities. That your value in the marketplace is not the same as your value as a human being. And that we should always -- not just at this time of year, but always -- remember our common humanity.

Happy holidays, everyone.