This page contains the current draft of the full text of Chapter 3 of RAFT 2035. All content is subject to change.
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3. Automation and work
Goal 3 of RAFT 2035 is that automation will remove the need for anyone to earn money by working.
Sooner or later, increasingly powerful automation systems, including robotics and AI, will be able to take over an ever-growing number of work tasks from humans. This should be seen, not as a threat to the livelihood of employees, but as an opportunity for all of us to spend more time on matters of most interest to us. None of us should find ourselves spending time in labour that is back-breaking or soul-destroying, or in what we perceive as “bullshit jobs”.
The threat to employment from automation has long been foretold. Up till now, these predictions seem to have been premature. People who have lost jobs in one occupation, due to automation, have been able to retrain to acquire jobs in new occupations. However, the closer that AI comes to AGI – the closer that artificial intelligence comes to possessing general capabilities in reasoning – the greater the credibility of the predictions of widespread unemployment and widespread underemployment. The closer that AI comes to AGI, the bigger the likely ensuing social disruption. Anticipating and managing this disruption will require significant changes to our social contract – the system by which people in society look after each other.
Even though we cannot be sure of the timescales, we can make the following prediction. As AI improves, it’s going to become increasingly hard for people who are displaced from one job by automation, to quickly acquire new skills that will allow them to carry out a different job that has no short-term threat of also being automated. Therefore, sooner or later, more and more people are going to find themselves unexpectedly out of work – or if not unemployed, underemployed. Without an adequate social safety net, their standard of living is set to fall. If we’re not careful, more and more people will experience a large blow to their self-esteem and self-confidence. There will be more and more alienation, emotional distress, and anger.
An outdated mindset
The prevailing mindset can be called “the primacy of paid employment”: unless someone undertakes paid employment, they are a substandard person, who should be reproached or scorned.
Of course, societies already make many exceptions to this concept. Basic pension payments are provided to all citizens, so long as they are old enough, without them needing to continue working. Basic educational funding is provided to all citizens, within certain age boundaries, even if they have not started paid work yet. Basic healthcare treatment is, this time with no age limits, provided free of charge to all citizens, whether or not they have paid employment. And when someone has lost their job, public funding is available, for a while at least, to help them as they look for a new job.
As another exception to the primacy of paid employment, family members frequently look after one another. Larger groups of mutual assistance “friendly societies” developed in many cultures around the world, in which resources were pooled, in order to assist members of the group who had special needs.
This spirit of mutual support should be applauded. Without a social safety net, a powerful spirit of apprehension can arise. The fear of becoming detached from the basic means of human flourishing can cause people to become narrow-minded, grasping, and self-centred. The fear of losing out generates resentment and bitterness. It drives people into a scarcity mentality, in which any gain by some members of society is seen as requiring others in society to suffer exploitation. Adverse effects follow, not only in personal wealth, but in personal health; not only in self-esteem, but in the quality of social relationships.
Whilst increasing numbers of people are finding themselves in precarious circumstances, the media bombards them with images of other people seemingly enjoying life as never before. For a highly visible subset of society, life appears to be full of marvellous material goods and mesmerising experiences. In contrast, for those impacted by technological underemployment, there’s a growing sense of unfairness and alienation. They perceive that the best opportunities of life are passing them by. They perceive themselves to be victims of how society is changing.
These sentiments render the populace all the more prone to being swayed by misleading theories about the causes of their predicament – theories that attribute their misfortune to scapegoats such as immigrants, rootless internationalists, modernists, multiculturalists, far-off bureaucrats, and so on. It’s time to take back control, they are told.
The sentiment is valid, but the courses of action recommended are frequently naive and dangerous. Fast-talking Svengali figures evoke various fantastical visions of local sovereignty, of national destiny, of returning to a simpler past, of cultural homogeneity, of military glory, of religious revival, and of confounding the opinions of uppity experts. In their hearts, the populace often discern the drawbacks of these courses of action. But due to feelings of desperation, they think that it’s nevertheless worth shaking up the whole political system. Against their better judgement, they allow themselves to be swayed by emotive distortions and base generalisations, and they cast their votes for various demagogues and autocrats – people who claim they should be immune from the normal democratic processes of checks and balances. Alas, instead of gaining control, the populace will actually lose control.
However, we should deeply beware any social transformation programmes that ignore the accelerating disruption caused by pervasive automation and machine intelligence. Such programmes are likely to cause more harm than good. Unless they directly address the challenges of tech-driven underemployment, political initiatives will waste time, distract attention, squander resources, damage social systems that should be part of the real solution, and store up an even greater sense of unfairness and alienation.
An updated social contract
From the RAFT viewpoint, the requirement for people to seek paid employment belongs only to a temporary phase in the evolution of human culture. From now on, the basis for societies to be judged as effective or defective, shouldn’t be the proportion of people who have positions of well-paid employment. Instead, it should be the proportion of people who can flourish, every single day of their lives.
Accordingly, RAFT foresees a stage-by-stage transformation of the social safety net – so that all members of society have access to the goods and services that are fundamental to an agreed base level of human flourishing.
RAFT therefore proposes the following high-level strategic direction for the economy: prioritise the reduction of prices for all goods and services that are fundamental to human flourishing.
This kind of reduction is already taking place for a range of different products, but there are too many other examples where prices are rising (or dropping too slowly).
In other words, the goal of the economy should no longer be to increase the GDP – the gross domestic product, made up of higher prices and greater commercial activity. Instead, the goal should be to reduce the costs of everything that is required for a good life, including housing, food, education, security, and much more. This will be part of taking full advantage of the emerging tech-driven abundance.
Accordingly, the pages ahead describe several sweeping transformations regarding the GDP measurement which is at the heart of how economies are managed today.
The end target of the above RAFT strategy is that all goods and services fundamental to human flourishing should have zero price. Three policies carried out in parallel will advance towards this target:
- The policy of reducing underlying prices, step by step, via rapid adoption of improved automation.
- The policy of providing public subsidies to alleviate whatever prices remain in place for these goods and services.
- The policy of starting with an agreed basic set of goods and services, described by a “cost of living well” index, and step-by-step extending this set over time.
For those goods and services which carry prices above zero, combinations of three sorts of public subsidies can be made available:
- An unconditional payment, sometimes called a UBI – an unconditional basic income – can be made available to all citizens of the country.
- The UBI can be augmented by conditional payments, dependent on recipients fulfilling requirements agreed by society, such as, perhaps, education or community service.
- There can be individual payments for people with special needs, such as particular healthcare requirements.
These subsidies can be paid out of a public dividend harvested from the abundant shared commons of society’s accomplishments – accomplishments which are increasingly enabled by remarkable twenty first century technologies. This abundance also arises from wise use of public assets such as land, the legal system, the educational system, the wireless spectrum, and so on.
The organisations who benefit the most from these shared resources should contribute equitably to the public “abundance dividend”.
Harvesting the abundance dividend
In practical terms, payments in support of the abundance dividend come from the following sources:
- Stronger measures to counter tax evasion, addressing issues exposed by the Panama Papers as well as unnecessary inconsistencies of different national tax systems
- Increased license fees and other “rents” paid by organisations who specially benefit from public assets such as land, the legal system, the educational system, the wireless spectrum, and so on
- Increased taxes on activities with negative externalities, such as a carbon tax for activities leading to greenhouse gas emissions, and a Tobin tax on excess short-term financial transactions
- A higher marginal tax on extreme income and/or wealth
- Reductions in budgets such as healthcare, prisons, and defence, where the needs should reduce once people’s mental wellbeing has increased
- Reductions in the budget for the administration of currently over-complex means-tested benefits.
To accelerate progress with Goal 3, two interim targets for 2025 are proposed:
- Agreement on an initial series of “cost of living well” indices. The intent is that the measured value of each index should decrease over time, approaching zero. The intent is also that, over time, more focus will be given to later indices in the series – indices that include a greater range of goods and services formerly regarded as “luxury”. The intent is that the values of these indices should approach zero in due course too.
- Agreement on the basic elements of a revised social contract in which paid employment loses the prime position it has in present-day society. Today, paid employment is viewed as being uniquely desirable: unless someone undertakes paid employment, society tends to regard them as a substandard person. That attitude was useful to society in the past. But in the future, we need new attitudes.
The next chapter looks at how the idea of “spreading abundance” applies in the particular cases of housing and food.
For more information
- Chapter 4, “Work and purpose”, of the 2017 book by David Wood, Transcending Politics
- The 2014 book by Peter Barnes, With Liberty and Dividends for All: How to Save Our Middle Class When Jobs Don’t Pay Enough
- The 2015 book by Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future
- The 2016 book by Calum Chace, The Economic Singularity: Artificial intelligence and the Death of Capitalism
- The 2016 book by David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory
- The 2018 book by Nicolas Colin, Hedge: A Greater Safety Net for the Entrepreneurial Age
- The 2018 book by Andrew Yang, The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future
- The 2019 book by John Danaher, Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work
- The report by the Millennium Project, Work/Technology 2050: Scenarios and Actions