On October 29th, Live! From Tomorrow host Matt Hooper, sat down with 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang to discuss the glaring and pervasive future of automation, the reasoning for a Universal Basic Income (UBI), and the candidate's own POV on how to best roll out a Universal Basic Income in today's America. The initial fireside chat was hosted at WeWork Soho West in downtown Manhattan.
Many of the concepts discussed in that interview then became a comprehensive explanation for the the November 2018 LFT live show. The full narrative included: How to best launch UBI as a solution for our changing job-scape, Why UBI is the best viable solution, as well as the Historical context for UBI including its bipartisan support during the Nixon administration up to its most modern examples in Europe and city-wide pilot programs here in the U.S.
Here is the narration from the November 13 taping of Live! From Tomorrow: Or Hardly Working? ::
We’re here to talk about the future of work. And of course, everybody’s thinking about that because an increasing number of jobs are becoming automated. Except mine of course.
Robot (from offstage): I’m already here, Matt. I’m waiting in the wings.
Moving on... in December 2016, the White House published a report that predicted 83% of jobs where people make less than $20/hour will be subject to automation. But that was the Obama administration, we have a new guy now, and numbers don’t have the same meaning.
The real question about automation is not if but when. What’s the timeline here?
Well, there is actually a Presidential candidate running in 2020 who has a very clear vision for a subset of these jobs, his name is Andrew Yang. Yang writes, “Between 2 and 3 million Americans who drive vehicles for a living will lose their jobs in the next 10 to 15 years.” This is an astonishing statistic, amplified by the fact that ‘truck driver’ is currently the most popular job in 29 states.
We’re being told unemployment is very low, and Yang counters that the U.S. labor force participation rate is now only at 62.9%, down from 67.3% in January of 2000, which means 4.4% of the American population ages 18-64 has exited the workforce in the last 18 years, meaning 8.9Million additional US adults are not working and they’re not trying to find work.
So, tonight, if we’re going to talk about the “future of work”, we’re actually going to talk about two things: the ‘present’ of work; and how we will spend our lives when our survival is no longer dependent on work(ing for pay).
I know--I misled ya with that ‘future of work’ thing. We’ll get back to that in a moment. I’m just an unreliable narrator...
Would you like a little historical Context?
Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures writes in his forthcoming book “World After Capital” that the history of humanity can be divided into four eras: the forager age; the agrarian age; the industrial age; and the knowledge age. And we definitely are at the precipice of an age of knowledge, despite the number of conspiracy theorists and Flat Earthers you’re forced to deal with on Facebook.
Wenger goes on to say that at the heart of our transition from Industrial Age to Knowledge Age is a shift in scarcity: from scarcity of capital to scarcity of attention.
And why is scarcity an important metric? Because if you don’t have shit, you can’t do shit. In the forager age, nobody had any food or shelter; everybody had to hunt and gather. In the agrarian age, scarcity shifted from food and shelter to land→ and then, people stayed put, but they had to do awful things to keep that land, which became their entire value, like building fiefdoms, or getting married.
If the birth of agriculture ended the Forager Age, then one-hundred fifty years ago, as we went from an Agrarian age to an Industrial Age: scarcity shifted yet again → from land to capital.
So that’s where we are: We’re at the tail end of the Industrial Age, the scarcity of capital age. Perversely, an age when capital has become abundant, but fewer people have access to it than ever before; the world’s wealthiest 1% of citizens own more than half of the world’s wealth; but now, with the rise of digital tools, the fight is no longer for capital, or land, or food, but for attention.
Do I have yours? Because if I don’t have shit, I still can’t do shit.
We see this all the time, particularly here in the United States: we watch jobs numbers that seem stable, but so many of our citizens, particularly our younger citizens, are working part-time: ‘gig-ing’, all the while trapped in the long shadow of student loans.
And we scramble for their attention; we are all scrambling for attention, we’re… (checks phone)... hang on, just… uhh... yeah, paying attention, it’s hard!
But if we don’t consider this new scarcity, this shift to, as Wenger says, a ‘world after capital’, we risk losing the fight against the biggest challenges we face in the future, from climate change, to re-building our space program, to trying to figure out why you park in a driveway but drive on a parkway… think about it...
And we know there’s no inherent scarcity of attention, it’s that there’s so much that takes up our attention. The devices in our hands; the day in, day out of working for money, fretting about money, needing money to survive. And if we’re so busy surviving, what sort of contribution can we make to this ‘Knowledge Age’?
The ‘automation’ I’m referring to is inevitable, which means that job loss is also inevitable. From the tractor putting an end to dozens of agricultural jobs, to the personal computer replacing countless administrative roles, to Tom Holland disrupting Tobey Maguire... a newer, more agile version will always win--especially in a society where capital is scarce.
But what about when knowledge is scarce? It seems like this is an age when we need humanity more than ever; but meaning, money, and opportunity may no longer be linked to work. In fact, I very much doubt they will be.
Enter Universal Basic Income.
What if you didn’t have to work for food or shelter? What would you do? What if Freedom wasn’t just another word for nothing left to lose but nothing left to do?
A “universal basic income” is an idea that’s picked up steam in the last few years, and real-life experiments have been carried out in places as varied as the city of Oakland, California and the nation of Finland.
It is a form of social security, an amount of money that guarantees every citizen has enough to live on without having to fulfill any requirements or pass any tests--and is, in fact, the best possible response to the rise of automation.
It has also been championed, at different times and in different forms for nearly 50 years by leaders as disparate as Martin Luther King Jr. and Warren Buffett, from Bill Gates to Stephen Hawking. In fact, Richard Nixon had this to say in August 1969, courtesy of our master impressionist, Matthew Walters-Bowens:
Bowens (another cast member) enters to read aloud. This is not an impression by any stretch of the imagination, and he reads...
“What I am proposing is that the Federal Government build a foundation under the income of every American family...that cannot care for itself--and wherever in America that family may live.”
Uncanny. Thank you to our master impressionist, Matthew Walters-Bowens.
Folks, UBI, beyond sounding like the name of a terrible infection, is also a way of answering the question: How do we push forward for all citizens in our Knowledge Age, as we battle a scarcity of attention? (checks phone again; for way too long a time) Sorry. Again, I’m just…
If say, $1,000 a month is allocated to every American ages 18-64 regardless of salary, regardless of their being employed or unemployed, there are two things being solved for: 1) we’re raising the poverty line, which is currently $11,770 per year; and 2) we’re supporting Americans in an era when work can no longer do that.
Let’s revisit that number from the Obama White House: 83% of jobs where people make less than $20/hour will be subject to automation. So why not start solving for this now?
Well, this plan of $1,000 per month is something that Andrew Yang has incorporated into his 2020 platform, calling it a “Freedom Dividend”. Because the word ‘freedom’ tests well with Americans--that’s true, he told us that…
But of course, the question we’re all asking is, How do we pay for it?
Enter the VAT tax, or ‘value-added’ tax, which is a tax on consumption. 160 out of 193 countries on the planet already have a VAT tax of some kind, and in Europe, the average VAT is 20 percent...Yang argues that if “we adopted a VAT at half the average European level, we could pay for a universal basic income for all American adults.” And this is pretty cool!
Because remember, past fears about VAT tax implementation, like higher prices for goods and services, yes they’re going to happen--but the surge in technological advancements-- a great many of which, again, will be responsible for mass job displacement-- will continue to drive costs down. Production still gets cheaper. And those businesses and high net worth individuals we’ll be taxing in order to finance a yearly UBI? Well, what business wouldn’t want to know that more customers can now buy more of their product with more money to spend each month? And for the finance and tech billionaires from whom $1 million might be taxed, they’re getting $12,000 right back every year.
Crazy? Maybe. But what I love about the prospect of a universal basic income, is it addresses some of the downside of mass innovation-- job loss-- and proposes an innovative solution. It is an example of the possibilities of government, and it may very well be the only way forward for a citizenry whose relationship to work will be entirely different.
With a guaranteed $1,000 each month for every citizen, the creative possibilities are wide open. And those essential human traits that have carried us forward from the forager age, through the agricultural age, to the industrial age, and now into an age of knowledge, can be realized in a very different way: if it’s no longer capital that’s scarce, how will you spend your time? Where will you place your attention? What businesses will you build, what art will you create, what will you do that shines a light on all of your potential--on all that is not automate-able?
A universal basic income posits that you have shit; now, let’s all go do some shit!