A Lively Debate

Barack Obama predicted it: Universal basic income (UBI) is under debate. In a UBI system, all citizens are given a flat income regardless of their employment situation — essentially, they will receive money just for being born. The concept is being explored as a potential solution to the problems that will soon arise from artificial intelligence (AI) and job automation.

Though simple in concept, the idea has sparked lively debate.

Proponents of UBI see it benefitting society on a number of levels. In February, Nobel laureate Sir Christopher Pissarides made his argument at the World Economic Forum:

[We] need to develop a new system of redistributions, new policies that will redistribute inevitably from those that the market would have rewarded in favor of those that the market would have left behind. Now, having a universal minimum income is one of those ways, in fact, it is one I am very much in favor of, as long as we know how to apply it without taking away incentive to work at the lower end of the market.

Y Combinator president Sam Altman is also in favor of UBI, and his company plans to launch a pilot run in Oakland. Altman explains:

[We] think of basic income as providing a floor, and we believe people should be able to work and earn as much as they want. We hope a minimum level of economic security will give people the freedom to pursue further education or training, find or create a better job, and plan for the future.

The sentiment is echoed by fellow tech executive Elon Musk, who thinks that there's a good chance we'll end up with UBI, and Arvind Subramanian, India's top economist, who has said, "[The] safety net provided by the government should be quite wide, and that is why this [basic income] has some merit."

The jobless folk can be supported using UBI, and the world won't be shaken so much by AI and automation. Perfect, right? Not according to those opposed to UBI.

“If you pay people to do nothing, they will do nothing,” Charles Wyplosz, economics professor at the Geneva Graduate Institute, told The Guardian after Switzerland voters rejected a UBI project earlier this year. Luzi Stamm, a member of the Swiss parliament, warned that a UBI system would have wreaked havoc on the country's immigration: "If you would offer every individual a Swiss amount of money, you would have billions of people who would try to move into Switzerland."

Meanwhile, Robert Greenstein, founder and president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, warned that implementing a UBI would mean taking money away from the people who really need it, those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. His logic is hard to dispute. If you give any money to those at the top, those at the bottom are bound to get less.

Credits: Stefan Bohrer, Wikimedia

Data Weighs More

Regardless of which side of the debate you land on, at the end of the day, data weighs more than opinions. Some data is available on UBI — one study even shows how it can improve your health and not just your finances — but implementing and analyzing a modern pilot UBI program would be the best way to determine if it is the appropriate solution to modern problems.

2017 is poised to be the year we do just that as various governments and institutions across the globe are ready to give UBI a shot. Plans to implement programs by early next year are in place in Canada, Finland, and Uganda. Those trial runs are very likely to tip the scales in this debate one way or the other. After that, it'll be a matter of either refining UBI to best meet the demands of modern life or looking for an entirely new solution to the problems caused by automation and AI.

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