Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Railing against universal basic income (UBI)

The other day, a board member of German software giant SAP went on record by voicing support for universal basic income (UBI) in the mainstream conservative German Frankfurter Allgemeine (on January 21).

At this point, the blogster started the countdown: within a week, there should be an article making the argument against UBI. Lo and behold, the economics editor of the Sunday version of the paper comes out swinging with an opEd against UBI, today (five days later), under the headline Forget UBI (our translation).

It is a seriously awful piece, calling the idea "an old hat" (a relic), a "sedative for the army of workers rendered obsolete" if the disturbing scenarios predicting the loss of up to half of all jobs through automation and digitization came true.

The alleged arguments of those in favor of UBI are a caricature of a reasonably thoughtful approach like this article in the Huffington Post.

Claiming that proponents point out that "we have been so successful that we can liberate humans from the curse of work" and individuals can do whatever they please, "as Karl Marx predicted", plays on the fear of moochers. The valiant editor goes on to quote Marx and Engels: "Go hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, and raise some cattle in the evening".

Putting any modern argument pro UBI firmly into the corner of Marx and discrediting it as mostly supported by top managers of the computer world (implying that they really don't know what they are talking about) is a neat device that leads to the climax of economic theory as misunderstood by the gentle commentator.

"People need paid work. We all know, if something is free, it's worth nothing."

Tell this to the world's volunteers, who give billions of hours of work every year for no pay at all.

And "what if the robot co-worker really does all the work? We'll find some new needs we don't know about now, needs that require human work because they cannot be automated. That's how history has worked until now."

Can we simply dismiss these final thoughts?


But in the 1970s and 1980s, those who predicted higher long term unemployment in the 21st century were equally ridiculed. For Germany, there were predictions of some 4 million unemployed (at a time when a 1% unemployment rate was considered a disaster). While that figure was exceeded in 2005, the current lower level does seem to confirm a long term trend.

[Update 2/1/2016]
German daily Zeit Online reports on the world's first popular vote on UBI in Switzerland on June 5, 2016 and on a plans for a Dutch pilot project. Unlike the comment in FAZ above, the Zeit article is thoughtful and balanced.

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