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The transformative potential of a universal basic income

  • 04 May 2021
I first started reading about universal basic income (UBI) more than ten years ago, and my interest was based in concerns of equality, fairness and wealth redistribution. UBI wasn’t well-known at the time, but there was a literature about it, and a group of keen advocates out in the world making the case.

Around 2013, UBI went from the margins into the mainstream of debate, and the key impetus was increasing concern about the displacement of human workers by various forms of automation, a concern largely prompted by a report from the Oxford Martin School.

Unfortunately, the debate about the future of work, and therefore UBI, was hijacked by a reductive media narrative around ‘the robot question’ — will a robot take my job? — and this has made it hard to recognise the complex nature of the changes underway. So let’s try to clarify.

Left to itself, automation will destroy jobs, entire industries in fact, but it will also generate new forms of work, as has happened in the past. The concern was that this new work would be poorly paid, insecure and deeply unsatisfying, and that it would concentrate wealth in the hands of a few as the labour share of national income (wages) dropped or stagnated.

Experts like John Falzon have noted this is more or less what has happened, and the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated matters further.

The issue is not automation and technology per se, but how we respond to it. Instead of just letting business maximise their bottom line, we, as a democratic nation, should use all the tools at our disposal to manage the deployment of technology and the social changes that arise. UBI can be one of those tools.

'So the key point for me is that UBI isn’t simply reactive, a response to technological unemployment. It is transformative, opening up possibilities.'

The detailed arguments about work and automation are beyond the scope of this article, but the crux of it is that the nature of work itself is fundamentally changing and we need to recognise that. Automation, artificial intelligence, and various platform technologies are radically transforming what work is, and this means we have to think differently about how it is defined and compensated.

I think it is fair to say earlier advocates of UBI presented an overly simplistic version of the scheme that took little account of the politics of implementation. This left them vulnerable to cooptation by