CNBC TV18 Column : Is it time for a Universal Basic Income

Between a terrible outlook on trade in the future, and the replacement of workers by robots domestically – there is going to be a massive shrinking of the workforce.A number of assembly lines, across industries, are completely operated by robots.

Since the end of the second world war one credo has been sacrosanct world over. Trade is good. Nations, blocs, and people have quibbled over it, debated it, but the overall benefits of international trade were accepted.Now, the international system based on trade is under attack, and the perpetrator of this onslaught is the United States of America, led by Donald Trump. There have been a volley of measures and counter measures, angry statements, and a hardening of stance across the board. With this, it is expected there will be job losses. It is believed that the United States, the agent provocateur in the current trade battles, could lose as much as 400,000 jobs. The impact on India is still being estimated. What is more worrying, is that it is assumed that the rate of jobs being created world wide will decrease.

Universal Basic Income

While trade wars loom, so does the move to produce things even cheaper, to be able to compete on a global scale. And, a part of this, is to replace human workers with machines.

A number of assembly lines, across industries, are completely operated by robots. Last year the World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, sounded a warning when he said the world was on a crash course, as people’s hopes collide with mass automation, where millions of jobs are automated. A report by McKinsey estimates that between 400 million and 800 million workers would be replaced  by automation, and need to find new jobs by 2030. Another study saw each robot replacing 5.6 workers.Whichever way you slice the data, it is clear that jobs are going to vanish. One theory was that the people replaced by machines will reskill themselves to deliver more human oriented services – such as nursing, or training.

But, even that seems a bit suspect. How many teachers, and how many nurses can the economy support? While countries like India may have a long way to go to plug the teaching or medical services gap, it is fairly evident that even if those jobs were filled, they will be barely a drop in the ocean of jobs needed.Also, now robots are being deployed in the care giving area. Recent reports talk about robots working with patients with Alzheimer’s disease. While it may be great news for those with Alzheimer’s, it is terrible news for jobs.

Overall, between a terrible outlook on trade in the future, and the replacement of workers by robots domestically – there is going to be a massive shrinking of the workforce. While there is the “there will be new jobs in the future, don’t worry” brigade – there is a great deal of confusion on what those jobs will be, and how do we skill the workforce for these new jobs.

Given that we live in a market economy, the lack of jobs portends a very dark future. People will not have income.  And, if they have no income, they can’t spend. Demand will be crushed. Industries will shut down. Economies will go into stasis.

And, governments across the world have to be cognisant of the impact of their actions (and inactions) on jobs and the economy. The way the world is moving right now, it seems like leaders are patching gaping wounds with tiny band aid, hoping that the problem passes. But, the problem is here to stay

One way out is the introduction of a Uniform Basic Income (UBI)- a grant from the Government to every citizen – old or young, rich or power, working or not, child or adult, that is rolled out automatically. The Economic survey of India (2016-17) says the UBI   “could be to the twenty first century what civil and political rights were to the twentieth.

It is premised on the idea that a just society needs to guarantee to each individual a minimum income which they can count on, and which provides the necessary material foundation for a life with access to basic goods and a life of dignity. A universal basic income is, like many rights, unconditional and universal.”

That we live in an economically uncertain world is a given. A world in which jobs for life are no longer guaranteed. But, what can be guaranteed is a basic sustenance income. And, that is what needs to be translated from policy to action.Harini Calamur writes on politics, gender and her areas of interest are the intersection of technology, media, and audiences.

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