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Opinion

Paul McNamee: The robots leading us on a bargain hunt

“The big question at heart remains how Universal Basic Income would be funded”

Blame the robots. The idea of a Universal Basic Income has been around for a while – a couple of centuries in one way or another. And every now and then it has taken wings, mostly in Europe. The Swiss had a referendum on in 2016. They voted against it. Finland is currently running a trial.

As the threat of automation taking jobs and many of us wondering how we’re going to make ends meet following the march of the machine has grown, Universal Basic Income has become a more focused talker. Certainly, some of the Silicon Valley billionaires, like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg – the very chaps helping accelerate an automation expansion – have been expressing interest.

The idea is simple. Everybody receives the same level of income from the government. In its idealised form, this is a flat amount, not means tested, not dependent on need. For those on the left it’s a much more equitable means of providing the poorest with a platform to lift themselves up. It breaks the welfare trap. For those on the right, it makes welfare provision simpler and allows those who pay in to benefit too. They see it as open to all, rather than operated by an interfering, expensively bureaucratic paternalistic State.

The Finnish trial is interesting, if not entirely revealing yet. There are 2,000 people on it. Each of them receives around £475 a month. They are unemployed, so the trial is as much about seeing how this income impacts their freedom to earn, perhaps be entrepreneurial and have a chance to grow, rather than be under pressure to apply for jobs that may be unsuitable or unattainable. It’s a two-year trial and they are only halfway through. As part of the scheme, those on it are not being contacted during it.

At present, the Scottish Government is looking into possible trials. Independent thinktank Reform Scotland has been agitating for this. They have suggested a flat income of £5,200 per year. This could get interesting.

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The big question at heart remains how Universal Basic Income would be funded. A multibillion pound annual outlay of this nature would then require a huge tax hike – not always the most welcome move. And if the jobs diminish, where will the tax come from? Bill Gates has suggested that the replacement robots are taxed.

The societal changes could be profound. If the basic income existed, would the need for many charities immediately disappear? Would it sweep away foodbanks all at once? Would The Big Issue cease? What would be do with our time? Would we all sit around in our pants every day eating Toblerone and watching Bargain Hunt? Would we even need Bargain Hunt? Does any of this matter as our machine overlords slowly wipe us out, keeping only a few necessary boffins to fix glitches from time to time? Will Brexit have actually happened by then?!

I don’t think the Finnish trial will answer ALL of these questions. But the, rather dry, subject of basic income is going to become a fundamental issue for us all. It’s inevitable. Blame the robots.

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