A basic income for all: an idea whose time has come?

Peter Kammerer applauds the vision of societies from India to Canada that are considering or testing the once-radical proposal, as the threat of job loss looms in this age of disruptive technology

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 February, 2017, 1:28pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 February, 2017, 7:30pm

A lot of McDonald’s restaurants have banks of screens to place orders and only one or two counters for those who still like service of the human kind. The latest extension to the MTR system, from Admiralty to South Horizons, has a driverless train. I encountered voice recognition software while sorting out business with eBay the other day that was so good it never occurred to me that I got what I needed done without once speaking to a real person. That’s a whole lot of jobs done away with by automation and I haven’t heard a single complaint.

And why should anyone object? Automation, through use of software or robots, provides convenience, efficiency and cost-effectiveness. All those reasons were on full display in the 24-hour supermarket where I bought toilet rolls at 2am when I was last in Australia. While paying at the automated checkout, it occurred to me that I had encountered just two staff members.

Watch: Hong Kong restaurant ‘employs’ robot waiters

The robots are coming, but they won’t be job killers

The benefits aside, I’m certain I’ll have second thoughts the day my job is taken away by a piece of software. It’s happening in some media organisations already with sports results and business information. If studies like those on the future of employment by scholars Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne are to be believed, a third to almost half of all jobs could be taken in a decade or so. The most vulnerable are those in manufacturing, retail, administrative support, transport and telemarketing. Least endangered are health care workers, those in management and people entrusted with our safety.

Hong Kong doesn’t give much thought to the employment impact of technology. The government’s job-creation focus seems to be on retail, food and beverage, and services – which happen to also be the most likely to disappear in the automation revolution. But officials elsewhere don’t have such a blinkered view. The most talked about weapon is a basic income, once only the domain of philosophers and those on the extremes of politics.

In its ideal form, it is a regular amount paid to everyone, irrespective of wealth or job status. The goal is to cut social welfare red tape and reduce poverty.

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Guaranteed income for everyone a big idea deserving of careful debate

Left-leaning politicians like the redistributive aspects of such a policy, while those on the right see it as a way of making government leaner. French socialist presidential hopeful Benoit Hamon sees it as a vote-winner, having made it a central plank of his campaign. Indian leaders also believe it can keep them in power; the government’s chief economics adviser, Arvind Subramanian, has proposed all people of working age in the nation of 1.2 billion people be paid about US$113 a year. It is a small amount to outsiders, but so significant in India that it could potentially reduce absolute poverty from 22 per cent to 0.5 per cent.

Finland’s launch on January 1 of a two-year pilot scheme, covering 2,000 unemployed, centres on cutting the nation’s 8.1 per cent jobless rate. The Italian city of Livorno has this year expanded a scheme introduced last June, trials will begin in a number of cities in the Netherlands, the Canadian province of Ontario will launch a project in the spring and councils in Fife and Glasgow in Scotland are also working on proposals.

From Hong Kong to India, two ideas of social welfare that will never get off the ground

Not everyone likes the idea; voters in Switzerland rejected a scheme in a referendum last year. Handing out money for nothing is rarely popular among taxpayers. But the projects under way or planned may well show the benefits. Given the speed at which jobs are being lost to technology, a basic income may well be the path to a solution. Governments have to at least debate its merits, and be brave enough to try it out.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post