Fixing the Future

That might be an audacious title for a first post, but hear me out.

Over the next century, society is going to encounter some of its greatest challenges while achieving its greatest advances - and those aren't entirely separate. Growing automation and the looming specter of true artificial intelligence threaten to simultaneously improve and destroy everything we think we know about how life works. On the distant horizon, the warming of our planet will force harsh change upon us. Can we deal with it?

Here in the United States, we're experiencing record levels of income inequality, and it shows no signs of stopping. As automation improves and expands to more fields and jobs it will necessarily replace the lowest skilled jobs first, reducing employment and opportunities first for those of us with the worst opportunities. When a growing number of workers are left unemployable, and business see ever decreasing demand from the growing poor, what options will we have?

There is a possibility that has been growing in popularity over the last few years, among liberals and conservatives alike - a Universal Basic Income. The general idea is to pay every citizen a living wage, unconditionally, for life. Proposed amounts are all over the board, but typically hover around the poverty level (about $10,000/yr right now). This wage brings the poor out of the poverty cycle, frees people to leave terrible jobs and go to school, to move to more affordable cities and towns, and to take risks to create startups. It creates the demand that powers the middle class and eliminates the stress of not knowing if the paychecks might stop. All these great features and more can be ours for the low, low price of $3.3 trillion per year.

Ouch, is that even affordable? Let's assume this would be implemented incrementally, so we can avoid any dangerous economic shocks that might otherwise occur - where do we get all this money? Some of it will come from the elimination of most existing forms of welfare. Based on this source, social security payment could be partially phased out, saving perhaps $500 Billion. Unemployment would be redundant, saving about $100 Billion. Other forms of welfare (e.g. food stamps, government housing) could be reduced saving $250 Billion. After saving roughly $850 Billion, we're still looking at $2.45 Trillion. Let's look at where that would come from.

The easiest source of income to pay for this would be increased income tax. Total US personal income was at $13.5 Trillion in 2012, and I'll use a rough estimate of $15 Trillion for 2015. That means average effective taxation would need to rise 16.3% to pay for this income. This may seem extreme, but consider where this money is going - to everyone. Let's consider if this tax was added as a flat tax to everyone. The median income in the US is about $50,000/yr. From this income, an extra $8,150 would have to be paid in tax, but an extra $10,000 would be received from the program, leading to a net income of $1,850. Even at an income of $120,000, the effective tax increase is only 8%.

Besides raw income and reduced government services, this income would be paid for by its own effects. Improved health, education, and consumption coupled with reduced crime will provide year over year gains in our quality of life and the country's GDP, although these effects are very difficult for me to quantify.

Universal Basic Income fixes the future, by repairing many of the problems we experience today, and allowing us to more smoothly transition into an automated future. We will be left in a better, stronger position to deal with even larger, long-term problems. It's even a decent thing to provide.