Automation and universal basic income

Mario norberto bitz

The unfinished business of European industry with digitalization has become a recurring theme in Brussels. Gradually, a related debate that has so far been avoided is also making headway: the need to adapt our welfare states to labor and economic relations that will be profoundly altered in the context of the collaborative economy, advanced robotization, artificial intelligence or the so-called internet of things.

These real-world tests will come after the heated theoretical debate held last spring in Switzerland between supporters and opponents of the proposal. The central European country held a referendum on whether to grant every citizen of the country an “unconditional monthly income” of 2,500 Swiss francs. However, a majority of the political class did not support the idea and this basic income was rejected.

One of the key questions for the authorities and experts is how to offer a universal basic income that is robust enough to allow people to make a decent living, but at the same time does not totally disincentivize anyone who wants to work.

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“Otro caso flagrante de retroceso como parte del progreso capitalista es el enorme aumento del trabajo precario. El trabajo precario priva a los trabajadores de toda una serie de derechos que, hasta hace poco, se tomaban como evidentes en cualquier país que se considerara un estado de bienestar: los trabajadores precarios tienen que ocuparse ellos mismos de su seguro médico y de sus opciones de jubilación; no hay vacaciones pagadas; el futuro se vuelve mucho más incierto. El trabajo precario también genera un antagonismo dentro de la clase trabajadora, entre los trabajadores permanentes y los precarios (los sindicatos tienden a privilegiar a los trabajadores permanentes; es muy difícil para los trabajadores precarios incluso organizarse en un sindicato o establecer otras formas de autoorganización colectiva). Cabría esperar que esta creciente explotación también reforzara la resistencia de los trabajadores, pero hace que la resistencia sea aún más difícil, y la principal razón de ello es ideológica: el trabajo precario se presenta (y hasta cierto punto incluso se experimenta efectivamente) como una nueva forma de libertad: ya no soy un simple engranaje de una empresa compleja, sino un empresario de mí mismo, soy un jefe de mí mismo que gestiona libremente mi empleo, libre para elegir nuevas opciones, para explorar diferentes aspectos de mi potencial creativo, para elegir mis prioridades”.

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The government is showing enormous arrogance in disregarding the new wave of poverty that the coronavirus crisis is generating. The best demonstration of this is that in order to qualify for the minimum living income, the income received in 2019 will be taken into account.

This implies democratizing political practice. Thinking about how we want to live also takes time, which the productivist paradigm with its constant imperative to have tangible and immediate effects rejects. But it is there, in social, cultural and political organizations, and not in the places of salaried work (which by the way, now more than ever will be “from home”), where we want to “socialize” ourselves, because, as some feminists used to say, “the house encloses”. Some may want to call it “political work” but we prefer the term “political action” following the republican tradition, since we believe that it is more appropriate to think of it as an exercise of our freedom and as part of a process of collective construction of communal freedom. In our opinion, it is precisely this approach to the political as “work” that makes many feel exhausted before the real idea of a transforming revolution in our society.

Automation and universal basic income 2021

This would essentially involve, as Gates points out, taxing robots that destroy jobs, which requires a broad acceptance of the term “robot” because it is often computer programs that do so. There is, for example, no agreed definition of artificial intelligence, let alone a tax base that could be applied to it. Gates thinks that the cost that would be incurred, that of slowing the rate of penetration of automation, innovation, would be bearable, and better than banning outright some of the technologies that could have such effects.

I tend to agree with Martin Sandu on the idea of “technological justice”: it is necessary to tax not the machines – or the programs – but everything that produces rents, defined as “profits beyond what is necessary to maintain an economic activity”. And if these machines can produce rents, it will be necessary to tax not the robots themselves, but the companies, or even the users, who own or use them.