World Basic Income

Joseph said .. Let Pharaoh .. appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years. .. And that food shall be for store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine. And the thing was good in the eyes of Pharaoh. (Genesis 38)

[Medieval Europe] public authorities were doubly interested in the problem of food supplies; first, for humanitarian reasons and for good administration; second, for reasons of political stability because hunger was the most frequent cause of popular revolts and insurrections. In 1549 the Venetian officer Bernardo Navagero wrote to the Venetian senate: “I do not esteem that there is anything more important to the government of cities than this, namely the stocking of grains, because fortresses cannot be held if there are not victuals and because most revolts and seditions originate from hunger. (p42, Cipolla, Before the Industrial Revolution)

63% of Americans don’t have enough saved to cover even a $500 financial setback. (more)

Even in traditional societies with small governments, protecting citizens from starvation was considered a proper of role of the state. Both to improve welfare, and to prevent revolt. Today it could be more efficient if people used modern insurance institutions to protect themselves. But I can see many failing to do that, and so can see governments trying to insure their citizens against big disasters.

Of course rich nations today face little risk of famine. But as I discuss in my book, eventually when human level artificial intelligence (HLAI) can do almost all tasks cheaper, biological humans will lose pretty much all their jobs, and be forced to retire. While collectively humans will start out owning almost all the robot economy, and thus get rich fast, many individuals may own so little as to be at risk of starving, if not for individual or collective charity.

Yes, this sort of transition is a long way off; “this time isn’t different” yet. There may be centuries still to go. And if we first achieve HLAI via the relatively steady accumulation of better software, as we have been doing for seventy years, we may get plenty of warning about such a transition. However, if we instead first achieve HLAI via ems, as elaborated in my book, we may get much less warning; only five years might elapse between seeing visible effects and all jobs lost. Given how slowly our political systems typically changes state redistribution and insurance arrangements, it might be wiser to just set up a system far in advance that could deal with such problems if and when they appear. (A system also flexible enough to last over this long time scale.)

The ideal solution is global insurance. Buy insurance for citizens that pays off only when most biological humans lose their jobs, and have this insurance pay enough so these people don’t starve. Pay premiums well in advance, and use a stable insurance supplier with sufficient reinsurance. Don’t trust local assets to be sufficient to support local self-insurance; the economic gains from an HLAI economy may be very concentrated in a few dense cities of unknown locations.

Alas, political systems are even worse at preparing for problems that seem unlikely anytime soon. Which raises the question: should those who want to push for state HLAI insurance ally with folks focused on other issues? And that brings us to “universal basic income” (UBI), a topic in the news lately, and about which many have asked me in relation to my book.

Yes, there are many difficult issues with UBI, such as how strongly the public would favor it relative to traditional poverty programs, whether it would replace or add onto those other programs, and if replacing how much that could cut administrative costs and reduce poverty targeting. But in this post, I want to focus on how UBI might help to insure against job loss from relatively sudden unexpected HLAI.

Imagine a small “demonstration level” UBI, just big enough to one side to say “okay we started a UBI, now it is your turn to lower other poverty programs, before we raise UBI more.” Even such a small UBI might be enough to deal with HLAI, if its basic income level were tied to the average income level. After all, an HLAI economy could grow very fast, allowing very fast growth in the incomes that biological human gain from owning most of the capital in this new economy. Soon only a small fraction of that income could cover a low but starvation-averting UBI.

For example, a UBI set to x% of average income can be funded via a less than x% tax on all income over this UBI level. Since average US income per person is now $50K, a 10% version gives a UBI of $5K. While this might not let one live in an expensive city, a year ago I visited a 90-adult rural Virginia commune where this was actually their average income. Once freed from regulations, we might see more innovations like this in how to spend UBI.

However, I do see one big problem. Most UBI proposals are funded out of local general tax revenue, while the income of a HLAI economy might be quite unevenly distributed around the globe. The smaller the political unit considering a UBI, the worse this problem gets. Better insurance would come from a UBI that is funded out of a diversified global investment portfolio. But that isn’t usually how governments fund things. What to do?

A solution that occurs to me is to push for a World Basic Income (WBI). That is, try to create and grow a coalition of nations that implement a common basic income level, supported by a shared set of assets and contributions. I’m not sure how to set up the details, but citizens in any of these nations should get the same untaxed basic income, even if they face differing taxes on incomes above this level. And this alliance of nations would commit somehow to sharing some pool of assets and revenue to pay for this common basic income, so that everyone could expect to continue to receive their WBI even after an uneven disruptive HLAI revolution.

Yes, richer member nations of this alliance could achieve less local poverty reduction, as the shared WBI level couldn’t be above what the poor member nations could afford. But a common basic income should make it easier to let citizens move within this set of nations. You’d less have to worry about poor folks moving to your nation to take advantage of your poverty programs. And the more that poverty reduction were implemented via WBI, the bigger would be this advantage.

Yes, this seems a tall order, probably too tall. Probably nations won’t prepare, and will then respond to a HLAI transition slowly, and only with what ever resources they have at their disposal, which in some places will be too little. Which is why I recommend that individuals and smaller groups try to arrange their own assets, insurance, and sharing. Yes, it won’t be needed for a while, but if you wait until the signs of something big soon are clear, it might then be too late.

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