A friend recently sent me a link to a video (included at the bottom somewhere) exploring the idea of a Citizens Income, similar to what the Green party explored before the last general election, and asked me my thoughts on it. In true click bait fashion you won’t believe where my argument went!
I approached the idea from three perspectives Politics, Economics and Philosophy mainly as I’ve been studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics so it kind of made sense.
Politically – A citizen’s income, such as what is outlined in the video, is something that the Greens proposed at the last election. That is until they were shouted down by right wing media for being too radical and idealistic blah blah blah. However, to be fair it has and does exist in many countries in the world in the form of welfare through the redistribution of taxes. You’ll actually find systems very close to what is in the video in most Scandinavian countries where inequality is low and happiness other social goods are high. Arguably the UK system of working tax credits, currently being dismantled under the current Tory cunt government, actually was a system for doing much of what is outlined in the video in that working tax and child tax credit were there to maintain a minimum standard of living for all citizens of the UK. Tax credits worked as it did not raise the tax threshold (amount when people start paying different rates of tax) for higher earners and only provided a necessary extra income for low earners. Arguably the problem was not that benefits were too high, even with tax credits as they were before the current Tory cuts they still only provided enough to live like the citizens income proposes, but that wages were are too low. This maximises profits for those with capital. This led to a system where those with capital make mega profits and accrue more capital and those with work don’t earn enough to separate themselves from those on subsistence benefits. All done whilst those with capital tell those in work that it’s unfair that those without work aren’t much poorer than them! Work should provide more to those in work than those without, but making those without work poorer does not make the working poor richer, especially if the working poor are also being made poorer.
Economically – The problem with raising the tax thresholds overall, as the Tories are arguably now doing, means that the State does not take in enough revenue via taxes to pay for the citizens income for those at the bottom end with most need for the Citizens Income/Tax Credits. Without getting further bogged down in methods of redistribution and arguments for and against any method it’s important to recognise the changing landscape of our national and world economy. The advance of technology means that a system of providing a citizens income which will reduce the number of hours people work is long overdue. Tech has created a supply and demand problem where supply of labour outstrips demand for labour, this forces down the cost of labour especially if a profit motive is essential to success on ‘the markets’. In economics the problem caused by humanity’s progress in technology is referred to as the problem of “the lovely and the lousy”. Basically our ever increasing advances in technology is putting large swathes of people out of work, leaving jobs only at either end of the spectrum which are currently unable to be usurped by advances in tech. For example, in the lovely section jobs which require human creativity and decision making are pretty secure such as those in Medicine, Law, Design or the Arts and so on, as are those in the lousy section where tech is not yet able to compete at a cost efficient price such as the jobs of Cleaners, Fast food workers or other service sector jobs where tech can’t yet perform with sufficient dexterity such as in the Hair and beauty industry. This is arguably why successive UK governments (Conservative and Labour) have focussed on the UK becoming a “weightless economy”, one which manufactures little but provides services in finance, law and design etc. Arguably not a bad path to take as the advance in technology is unstoppable, but are there enough jobs in the remaining sectors for everybody to work full-time? Probably not and definitely not if education becomes unaffordable to most and only available society’s wealthiest. Either way, and through whatever method, a form of citizens income combined with lower hours is an unavoidable future. That is if we want both tech advances and a healthy, stable society for all. Essentially we are at a point where capitalism has begun to eat itself, through tech we can provide an abundant plethora of products, but without jobs and a sufficient income few will be able to buy those products. At the moment we finance the purchase of these products largely through personal debt, which is unsustainable and brings problems such as the 2008 banking crisis. Add to that the interest from the debt, then we have arrived at a place where humanity is a whisker away from not earning enough to service the interest on the debt let alone repay the debt it took out to buy the products manufactured through the advances in tech. There is a very fucking strong argument here that the whole nature of banking and money needs to be questioned and revised. Check out positvemoney.org for alternate proposals.
Philosophically – We are now at a point where we really need to adjust our way of thinking about society and its way forward and without a paradigm shift in thinking the outcome for us all is not good. The problem is that the current system does work very well for the very few who are very powerful and often control the parameters of thoughts of the many through the media. A further problem is that the gap between the lovely and the lousy is growing larger day by day, soon who will need lawyers if you have a powerful computer which can search millions of case precedents in seconds to evaluate the chances of a case being successful and who will hire a cleaner if a robot, which will do the job for 10 years, can be purchased at the cost of less than a year’s salary of a human cleaner. This in part explains the scramble for resources we are now seeing in houses, land, and other commodities. Individuals are often, if unwittingly, trying to insure against a future where the value and security of their labour has been eradicated.
Even worse news for humanity and of undoubted relevance to our kids is that within 30-90 years true sentient artificial intelligence is on its way. Leading to artificial intelligence growth at an exponential rate. This tipping point could lead to what is called ‘the busy child syndrome’ where the infant artificial intelligence is able to teach itself and utilise all of the acquired human knowledge from our combined history to manufacture technologies to make all human labour unnecessary. Does this lead to a utopia where we all sit around eating grapes and writing poetry? Perhaps for a week or two until the now mature super artificial intelligence values human intelligence with the same regard as we do the intelligence of ants. This scary dystopian outlook is paraphrased from and explored in the book ‘Our final invention’ by James Barrat who speaks with many of those now rushing to develop artificial intelligence with greater resources, further and gusto than it took to develop the atom bomb.
I realise I’ve now drifted a little from your initial point but with regard to it I think the philosopher John Rawls set out the best parameters for a utopian society. The argument goes something like this…. First we attempt to take ‘the original position” in that we don’t know who we will be when we arrive in a society. We know nothing of our future status such as our wealth, race, nationality, intelligence or physical ability and so on. Then from behind this “veil of ignorance” we would no doubt seek to ensure that society would be fair and just to mitigate against any negative outcomes from entering society in diminished position. Then “inequalities can be justified only if they benefit the worst off” in that society.
Ironically, considering my earlier arguments the best way to take the original position is to let a computer take it, as a computer is not inhibited by having its own human position. For computing intelligence to explore Rawl’s theory of designing human society from “behind a veil of ignorance” it would no doubt run a simulation with sentient artificial humans and observe the outcome. So at the end of this meandering look at the idea of a citizens income all I know that is if our “reality” is in fact artificial and part of some grand simulation (an idea that has recently been logically argued by philosopher Nick Bostrom and existentially explored by Rene Descartes some 400 years ago) then the inequality in this ‘reality’ is definitely and defiantly not testing Rawl’s theory of designing society from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’.
What’s Latin for “I think therefore I am, but logically this is probably some sort of simulated reality, although I can be sure this simulation isn’t testing Rawls ‘veil of ignorance’ as this ‘reality’ is really fucking unequal and the inequality definitely does not benefit the worst off in any society”?
I obviously haven’t bothered to reference throughout, but here some useful bits included in this essay which was prompted by a question on the notion of a Citizens Income and ended up with me questioning reality after getting pissed off a robots
1 – Here’s Bostrom’s argument for simulated reality from Wikipedia:-
- Human civilization is unlikely to reach a level of technological maturity capable of producing simulated realities, or such simulations are physically impossible to construct.
- A comparable civilization reaching aforementioned technological status will likely not produce a significant number of simulated realities (one that might push the probable existence of digital entities beyond the probable number of “real” entities in a Universe) for any of a number of reasons, such as, diversion of computational processing power for other tasks, ethical considerations of holding entities captive in simulated realities, etc.
- Any entities with our general set of experiences are almost certainly living in a simulation.
2 – Here the benefits of equality and problems caused by inequality are deomonstrated.
3 – Here’s where you can buy Barrat’s book ‘Our final invention’ *spoiler alert the rush to create super artificial intelligence potentially has worse consequences tha n the rush to develop the atomic bomb http://www.amazon.co.uk/Our-Final-Invention-Artificial-Intelligence/dp/0312622376
6 The video link on Citizens income from a friend which start this ramble- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQXxcjJ5ODw&sns=em