The Democratic field for the 2020 presidential race is likely to be quite crowded. But entrepreneur Andrew Yang offers a unique promise to voters: to save U.S. workers from the coming robot job-apocalypse, he proposes giving Americans a stipend of $1,000 a month — no strings attached.
The idea of universal basic income isn’t new. In fact, the utopian idea may have originated, appropriately enough, with Sir Thomas More’s 1516 novel, Utopia. Since then, it has gained periodic favor among economists on both the right and the left — and increasingly amounts of attention in recent years, thanks to fears about the impact of automation on jobs. (A 2013 paper from Oxford University predicted that robots could replace up to 47 percent of American workers during the next decade or two.)
But is universal basic income a realistic solution for the problems facing workers in today’s economy — and if so, how would it work?
Oxford researchers predict that robots could replace up to 47 percent of American workers during the next decade or two.
UBI in the 21st Century
Finland is the first country to embark on an experiment with universal basic income. The country began a two-year UBI pilot program with a test group of unemployed citizens last year, with the idea of removing disincentives to seeking employment. Although several participants have reported feeling less stressed, results won’t be available until 2019.
The idea is less popular stateside. In a profile on Yang, The New York Times notes that Bernie Sanders has appeared supportive of the idea in the past, while Hillary Clinton deemed it “exciting but not realistic.” The Obama administration, meanwhile, favored education over UBI for coping with the robot incursion.
Yang is the first U.S. presidential candidate to propose a plan to implement UBI. He even has a way to pay for it — a value-added tax that raises funds from companies that benefit from worker-replacing automation.
Per The Times:
To fend off the coming robots, Mr. Yang is pushing what he calls a “Freedom Dividend,” a monthly check for $1,000 that would be sent to every American from age 18 to 64, regardless of income or employment status. These payments, he says, would bring everyone in America up to approximately the poverty line, even if they were directly hit by automation. Medicare and Medicaid would be unaffected under Mr. Yang’s plan, but people receiving government benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could choose to continue receiving those benefits, or take the $1,000 monthly payments instead.
Can UBI (and Yang the candidate) gain traction with the American public? It’s too soon to tell. But if Yang’s predictions are correct, there may soon be a whole lot of people willing to listen to his ideas.
“All you need is self-driving cars to destabilize society,” he tells The Times. In a few years, he says, “we’re going to have a million truck drivers out of work who are 94 percent male, with an average level of education of high school or one year of college.”
His forecast doesn’t stop there. Other industries, like food service, retail, call centers, insurance and accounting, will also take a hit, he says.
In a world where jobs may become increasingly scarce, “free money” could sound like a very sensible idea.
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