by ANDREW V. KENNEDY , ARTIST AND WRITER ON 4/4/23 AT 12:04 PM EDT
For the better part of the last 15 years, I’ve worked in what some might call the “real economy.” In the digital print production industry, I’ve worked in warehouses and neighborhoods that reflected the ill effects of modern economic policy. I’ve seen manufacturing hubs stripped of economic vitality, workers struggling to meet basic needs, and the growing gap between those with college degrees and those without.
Most of the workers I’ve met over the years were hard working and doing the best they could with the skills they had. They deserved to be dealt a fair economic hand in exchange for their labor. Yet it seemed year after year, the system would dump its economic burden on their shoulders.
From the 2008 financial crisis to today’s inflation, economic policy has failed the average worker. And with the onset of artificial intelligence, it’s clear that it’s time for a new economic paradigm.
With the unveiling of ChatGTP, it’s apparent now that artificial intelligence will transform the world of work. This seems poised to happen sooner rather than later. But unlike economic transformations of the past, this next revolution will disrupt almost every mode of employment.
Goldman Sachs recently put out an economic report that found that AI could expose 300 million jobs to automation in the U.S. and Europe. Without some kind of new economic imagination, this kind of transformation would be catastrophic on almost every level imaginable. The technological update that AI provides will be useless if it is not accompanied by an economic policy update as well.
From what I have seen over my time spent in the real economy, the economic policy that the coming age of AI should be met with is universal basic income (UBI), or a guaranteed basic income for all American workers.
What would that look like in practice? Stockton, California began a UBI experiment in 2019. The program gave selected residents $500 a month for two years with no strings attached. Participants in the experiment reportedly had “improved job prospects, financial stability, and overall well being.” As one participant explained, before the program, they were paying bills and didn’t know how they were going to eat. But after receiving basic income, it was like “being able to breathe.”
Of course, no economic policy is perfect. Both liberals and conservatives would be able to find things they like and things they dislike about any UBI program. Liberals would be happy giving workers direct, substantial economic help, though they would probably balk at the fiscally necessary removal of other social programs. Conservatives would bemoan the policy as the ultimate “free lunch” or handout, though upon consideration, they might realize that a UBI program would strengthen families, communities, and notions of personal responsibility.
Some of the arguments against UBI say that it would disincentivize people from working, or that people would waste the money. Yet from what I’ve seen in the real economy, most people don’t mind working; they just want a fair shake.
But worries about disincentivizing work in an age of AI seem odd anyway. The whole problem with an AI based economy is that there will be less work to go around. To be sure, there will be some people who waste their UBI money. Social media would probably be filled with images of foolish youthful indulgence with UBI funds. Yet I honestly believe that the vast majority of working people would use the money to pay bills, and take care of their families.
Even before the coming AI takeover, the average worker needs more money to meet their basic needs and actually feel like they are getting ahead financially. It’s a deflating feeling to work full time, yet to be one car problem or medical bill away from financial instability.
How much more so will that be true when we’re 300 million jobs shorter.
Most importantly, UBI would allow people to live happier, and hopefully fuller lives. Ironically, this would seem to be the point or goal of any AI imagined utopia: a world where individuals have the freedom to pursue meaningful activities, free from the burden of meaningless work.
Political or economic philosophies conjured up during the age of the typewriter aren’t up to bringing this world into reality. New thinking is needed, thinking that casts aside emotion and blind ideology in favor of a rational look at what needs to be done.
If we allow AI to simply run its course through the economy, the results will be disastrous. All the bad economic trends for the middle class downward will only get worse. But if we use UBI to help people simply live, we might get a world where AI actually helps us more than it hurts us.
Andrew V. Kennedy is an artist and writer whose work looks to capture our current times. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram, and his work can be found at www.andrewvkennedy.com.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.