Are Universal Basic Income Proponents Making the Wrong Arguments?

An assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University criticizes the argument that technology “is quickly displacing a large number of workers, and the pace will only increase as automation and other forms of artificial intelligence become more advanced,” specifically calling out Universal Basic Income proponents Elon Musk, Andrew Yang, and YCombinator Chairman Sam Altman:

The problem is, there’s no indication that automation is going to make human workers redundant anytime soon. Technologists probably tend to believe in automation-induced job loss because they’re familiar with the inventions that are constantly forcing people to change what they do for a living. But even as these new technologies have been rolled out, the fraction of Americans with jobs has remained about the same over time. Meanwhile, evidence that automation causes job losses throughout the economy is slim… [Some studies] fail to say how many new jobs will be created in the process, so they don’t give any picture of technology’s overall impact on the labor market.

Thus, when UBI proponents make the dubious claim that basic income is necessary to save people from the rise of the robots, they undermine their case. They also send the message that they think a huge percent of American workers are simply too useless to be gainfully employed in the future — hardly an appealing message.

The second dubious reason to support UBI is the idea that it can replace traditional forms of welfare spending, like food stamps and housing vouchers. Libertarian economist Milton Friedman supported a negative income tax for this reason, and modern-day libertarians often espouse this view as well. But there are reasons UBI will never be a one-size-fits-all solution. First, it’s expensive. Giving all Americans $12,000 a year costs a lot more than giving money to poor people only.

He ultimately calls UBI programs “an interesting idea worthy of more attention and more experiments,” but argues that the current “flawed” justifications for UBI “serve to distract the public from the simplest, most reasonable case for UBI… [T[hey should simply emphasize the idea’s simplicity and fairness.”

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