Semi trucks are a staple of the American highway system. Driving from Portland, Maine, to Cape Cod, I pass an 18-wheeler with “Truckers Keep America Moving” plastered on the back, bubble letters filled in with the stars and stripes.
In a few years the motto might be relegated to history and antique shops, as tech takes over the trucking industry. While the wide use of self-driving cars is still years away, the technology behind the autonomous commuters continues to be perfected with companies like Google, Tesla and Uber leading the charge.
On an introduction from a New Hampshire Free Stater, I found myself crashing at the home of Travis Eden, a software programmer for a hush-hush startup in Portland. It could not have been a better recommendation… While the house was less than renovated, with plastic taped to the windows and sparse furniture, Travis was a fascinating ex-libertarian with a philosophical mind that dove right into my complex questions without hesitation.
“It’ll come a point where artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning or machine intelligence, whatever you want to call it, will replace most jobs,” Travis says. The road transportation industry, from truckers to taxis will be hit hard.
“A huge part of the economy is drivers,” Travis goes on.
In the U.S., more than 3 million people drive trucks for a living, carrying nearly 70% of all freight in the country annually, according to the American Trucking Associations. Whether it’s Google’s self-driving semis or Amazon’s drones, transportation and delivery tech will replace those jobs in the future. And in turn the roads will be safer and less congested.
I doubt that’s what career drivers are thinking…
Technology has been automating jobs out of existence for centuries. But as technology destroyed jobs, it also created them on an equal par. But that trend seems to have shifted.
“We’re getting to the point where there will be machine intelligence that will outperform humans in everything,” Eden says.
Maybe there is a ceiling.
Professor Erik Brynjolfsson at the MIT Sloan School of Management and his collaborator Andrew McAfee believe that advancements in computer technology are behind the sluggish employment growth over the past decade. The two researchers have found that while productivity continues to grow robustly, employment is not keeping pace anymore, as it used to. They’ve coined the split the “great decoupling.”
This is especially important as more young adults attend college, hoping their diplomas and a white button-up will save them from technologies demolition of blue collar jobs. Already, educated young adults can’t find jobs, a trend that I assume will continue.
As productivity and unemployment go their separate ways, it might be time to start putting real thought into universal basic income. Universal basic income is the idea that everyone would receive an income to survive on, whether they decide to work or not. Eden believes this might be the only way to decrease inequality and save the system from collapse in the age of the machine.
The concept has gained steam as of late from both liberals and conservatives.
Currently in Switzerland, there’s a campaign to hold a referendum on a universal basic income of 30,000 Swiss francs, about $35,000 per year.
Brazil adopted a basic income program, the Bolsa Familia in 2004. By 2011, around 26% of the population was supported by the program. And studies found it didn’t disincentivize work, but rather allowed citizens to take more risks in business because of the safety net. Never underestimate the power of a small buffer.
Unemployment benefits provide this buffer now, but those only go so far and are not equipped to handle massive unemployment for the long term.
Villages and municipalities in Brazil have started their own basic income programs as well, which could prove a more effective model for the States.
But knowing the U.S. as I do, its nationalism may make it shy to take advice from anyone outside it’s borders. That’s fine, too; in 1976, Alaska implemented a basic income program of sorts, a permanent fund that puts 25% of the state’s oil money into a dividend that is then paid out to all residents. In 2014, the fund paid out each Alaskan $1,884.
Basic income projects would be funded by eliminating other social security programs, raising taxes and/or redirecting budgets. In theory this seems doable, but harder in practice.
Running some numbers:
In the U.S., redirecting a little over 1% of the $610 billion military budget (according to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation) would free up $6.1 billion dollars. This would allow $200 annually to be given to all of the 45 million people living below the poverty line in the U.S. That’s not much, but it’s a start.
But wait, that meager 1% cut would mean the U.S. was still spending more on military than the next seven countries COMBINED. We could probably spare some more?
If the U.S. cut its military budget to be a smidge over what China, the second biggest military spender in the world, for instance, it would free up $400 billion, which would spread close to $9,000 per year equally across all those under the poverty line. Still pretty tight.
Funding a universal basic income, especially in the U.S., will be a complex issue.
Raising taxes just doesn’t sit well with the majority of Americans, and if it’s to fund people who may not be working, it’ll be even more contentious.
Even Eden is uncomfortable with the idea, but he has a hard time articulating exactly why. He hesitates to say it’s because some people will misuse the funds, because he ascribes to the idea that people are motivated by things other than money.
Study after study affirms this. Especially for cognitive tasks, humans are more motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose, than the allure of higher compensation. Think Linux, Skype and the greater internet.
I’d argue his concern is psychological, that Americans especially with their rugged individualism tend to equate self-worth with work for pay.
While some research on universal basic income have found the programs slightly decrease work effort, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. Would it be a negative for parents to spend more time with their kids and family, take up pottery or slow pitch softball as a hobby, or even relax reading the Twilight series?
These creative pursuits might even be the last bastion for humans, against the robots “Technology is pushing us into a world of artists,” Eden says.
While those living comfortably might scoff at the idea of universal basic income, they should likely rethink their stance before the lower socioeconomic segments of society go completely fallow.
People without their basic needs met will go to drastic measures to meet those needs. The world I see is analogous to “The Purge”, except the motivation is starvation and it happens every day instead of once a year.
In the same way people pay taxes so that potholes can be mended in public roads and public schools can keep their doors open, universal basic income can fund public anti-apocalypse. Sometimes you must provide for the whole to benefit the individual.
And we’re evolving to understand this, that cooperation is necessary, that there are unforeseeable consequences to leaving a group of people behind.
*For a lively debate on the topic, check out: Will Automation Lead to Economic Collapse? on TED.com.
In the thread, Leslie Bray says, “Human needs are infinite.”
I disagree and so does Eden to an extent. Just this week, Markus Perrson, the founder of Minecraft, which was sold to Microsoft for $2.5 billion about a year ago, revealed via Twitter that he’s isolated and bored. Studies show that increased wealth, after a certain amount, does not typically lead to improved mental health. We might come to the conclusion that boredom, sadness and envy are passing fads in our lives, and what we think would aid that isn’t as helpful as sleeping on it and waking up with a new outlook.