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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  • J

    All I can figure is that people must have a very abstract idealization of government when they talk about things like basic income. If we’re idealizing government as “that which makes society behave in the way we instruct it to”, then I’m all for things like Socialism: what better world than one in which we each produce according to our ability and consume according to our genuine need?

    But if we’re talking about actual governments as they’re currently implemented, then we have to admit that a large number of them are horribly corrupt dictatorships. Or even if we’re just talking about the US, how do we seriously talk about government protecting us from unemployment when the government’s own figures claim unemployment is super low?

    The thing I love about Robin’s work is that he’s so good at seeing past self-deception in our institutions. So it’s weird to see “automation will lead to job loss therefore we need basic income” taken at face value when it seems to me to be so transparently a tribal slogan: government nonjudgmentally taking care of the helpless poor against the evil capitalists.

    I get that the em narrative is all highly speculative. I guess it’s that I see people turning every topic about the future into “oh, that means we’ll need UBI for sure”, and I’ve grown suspicious that it’s astroturfed, or just the latest fashion that normally-rational folks aren’t holding to the customary degree of scrutiny.

    • But if we’re talking about actual governments as they’re currently implemented…

      I had the same reaction to Robin’s previous post about do-gooder community-health interventions.

      [I attribute the idealism burst to Robin’s recent collaboration with Katja Grace, the idealist to end all idealists.]

  • Is there a meaningful distinction between government based insurance against a self-sustaining robot economy and the known (and expected) inclination of a democratically elected government to pursue a policy of partial redistribution in such a scenario?

    I mean does it really matter if the government passes UBI before a disruptive HLAI transition since we know that after such a transition the public will quickly demand higher tax rates to support something like UBI?

    • As I tried to explain in the post, redistribution within small political units may be insufficient.

      • Yes, fair enough. I read the post as making two distinct points. Both that we aren’t even insuring in small political units AND that insuring in such political units may not be sufficient.

        I should have said that this isn’t a solution to the second point which, I agree, does present a substantial danger.

      • Isn’t there also a potential problem that if a government needs to create a new program to deal with this new problem it may delay too long, causing harm in the meanwhile?

  • Also, I’m unconvinced that HLAI would yield almost zero human employment. As long as some human owns the HLAI capital status (and mating) concerns will cause them to employ other humans. They will want to be seen funding high status researchers, buying high status human art, having high status teachers instruct their children, having pretty people serve them dinner etc.. etc.. who in turn will want to do the same.

    Even though these functions could be accomplished just as easily by software in the event of such a breakthrough if we take seriously your claims about how much of what we do is about signalling it seems plausible that almost everyone could remain employed through such expenditures.

    • But if research, art, teaching done by ems is both far better and far cheaper, why wouldn’t that be higher status?

      • Because for both historical and biological reasons we are primarily interested in impressing other humans and showing our dominance over them.

        I admit it could go the other way but I’m just not convinced it necessarily would.

      • One might similarly argue that it is higher status to dominate locals relative to foreigners. Yet rich folks have been quite willing to hire foreigners as artists, thinkers, & servants when they are higher quality.

  • Lord

    A country can always tax consumption, investment, or land and if income is generated elsewhere, exchange rates will shift to limit imports to domestic investment and asset sales though attempts to limit this to currency and debt would be deflationary. Prices would fall while price discrimination would rise as fewer customers would be able afford to buy while those that could would be able to pay much more. It is hard to tax consumption to provide consumption, but the tax would tend to fall on producers to the extent they didn’t lower prices to costs, while to the extent they do it would fall on the spendthrift or wealthy. One can’t generate high profits or high growth without customers so prices would have to fall rapidly to keep sufficient customers able to buy though one might see a rebirth of patronage as the wealthy will become very very wealthy.

  • Robert Koslover

    Or perhaps more and more people could simply (continue to) transition to “work” that contributes nothing *tangible,* such as sports and entertainment, to society. The ems or intelligent AIs might just be smart enough to understand this. If so, they’ll simply pay us to “sing for our supper,” in effect. Sort of like you might reward a pet dog (by feeding and housing it) in exchange for chasing after sticks you throw, or for simply allowing you to run your fingers through its fur. Seems to me that highly-productive ems could afford it, especially if the alternative might be fanatics leading mobs to burn down computer-server farms. Just a thought. Of course, they might decide to limit the number of humans around, to keep matters from getting out of hand. In other words, they might practice “wildlife management.” Admittedly, this normally refers to animals within a world run by people. But it seems to me that it could just as easily refer to people in a world run by ems.

    • I’d classify this as “charity”, and expect the risk that it won’t be offered to be high enough to justify efforts toward other solutions.

      • Robert Koslover

        So you do not wish to be personally wildlife-managed? Don’t worry so much. The animals living on my property seem happy enough; I almost never eat them.

  • John Bowen

    Automation tax

    • J

      The arguments here would have seemed much more persuasive several hundred years ago at the beginning of the industrial age. You’re proposing to preferentially penalize the inventions that freed us from lifetimes of poverty and subsistence farming.

      • John Bowen

        If those inventions are employed to reduce margins/increase profits at the expense of jobs – causing greater unemployment (or worse, simply non-employment in third world nations), then I think it’s appropriate for the state to step in. Else whom are we freeing? – It’s simply idle slavery. And, I certainly would not characterize it as a penalty, as without that money in the economy, it is unlikely that there would be consumers to support these automated enterprises. Honestly the problem is quite a bit more complex than that (but who has time to argue it on the internet). It requires serious forethought. IMHO.

  • James Hughes

    Wow. I take it all back Robin. You just converged on my global social democratic policy prescription. Surprised and delighted.

    • Not sure if I should ask what all this stuff is that you are taking back. 😉

      • James Hughes

        Just that you seem to have little regard for the capacity of public policy to steer us away from dystopian outcomes in your econo-futurist methodology, and an assumption that the capitalist system will survive unscathed. So it is welcome to see this acknowledgement that a pretty radical revision of political economy and global governance will be necessary and possible.

      • “Possible” is weak. We should try to think about modest policy changes that could help, and push for them, but we shouldn’t overestimate our chances of actually getting them. Mostly there is no one driving the train of progress.

  • I’m skeptical on the premise that human level AI is actually needed to result in conditions of ‘radical abundance’ that make everyone incapable of earning money by simply working for it. The minimum requirements to trigger this seem to be less than that.

    I think it could be done by essentially bacteria-level robotic units which can self replicate (as a swarm) and diversify according to programmed specifications. This type of technology is also plenty sufficient to get us access to asteroid wealth, and from there progress directly to planetary and solar scales with minimal reprogramming (and inexpensive physical testing).

    Human programmers would be in demand initially, to coordinate the robots, but as they fill the various product niches with all conceivable standardized outputs, as well as filling all of the abundant environmental niches, the demand for software workers would shrink considerably. It becomes easier and easier to press a button for what you want than hire someone to design a yet another version of what you want.

    • I think I’d define human level as whatever it takes to replace humans in almost all jobs.

      • Thinking it over, my point is that min required level is a moving target. Humans have a level of creativity and adaptability that is (at least according to common perception) necessary to economic growth in the present environment, but it becomes less and less so as basic physical and algorithmic patterns are established and standardized upon.

        This can be analogized to early days of programming vs today, or early vs mature mechanical engineering. There was a time where marginal value of tinkering around, writing a new operating systems, inventing your own unit sets, etc. was higher, now most of the highly paid engineers minimize risk by sticking to established standards whereas tinkers are frequently just doing it for fun, having little impact except when they are very lucky. ‘Reinventing the wheel’ is frowned upon / usually unprofitable because it is costly to adopt new types of wheel. Most new programming languages and operating systems are unadopted, or do not add much value when they are adopted.

        An auto-self-replicating economy is a situation where the marginal value of creativity has basically fallen to near zero, at least by usual measures.


    Would this global insurance basically be a vast centralized stock/bonds buying program? If so this would almost be no different from governments using taxes to fund the assistance program, IF the world’s economies were just about equalized in terms of GDP/capita. In such a scenario we might as well have a basic income, especially since taxes on unearned income could be quite high, maybe even as high as taxes on income from labor (no risk of tax evasion in foreign tax havens). Spending about 20-25% of GDP on the basic income would make it liveable even in major cities IF relatively cheap healthcare and education are also provided and either very small public housing apartments become common or if the basic income is lower for adult dependents in a household. Naturally most other social programs would have to be scrapped but in the end it wouldn’t have to be more expensive than current European welfare state systems and would probably be less intrusive with regards to people’s private lives and wider economic regulation. It would also definitely be more robust against major societal changes such as HLAI.

    If we don’t achieve international economic equalization and/or global government before HLAI the poor of the world would be screwed and we might really have to resort to measures like having a globally uniform basic income that forces the poor to move to poor regions (but at least they wouldn’t starve) just like you describe Robin. Then again if the transition to HLAI happens slowly we might see a huge expansion of the services sector to provide jobs that could be done by AI but that we don’t want to be done by AI (think entertainment), or maybe we would even use the unemployed masses and our economic surplus to engage in ritualistic warfare (bloody or not) like some ancient civilizations did. And maybe if the poor of the world were really about to starve the rich powerful nations would use this as a pretext to conquer the world and impose their basic income systems on everyone (and maybe this wouldn’t be such a bad thing for most people involved).

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  • World Basic Income

    A new organisation has been set up in the UK to campaign for a world basic income. See the website, with extensive discussion of the idea, at

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