These are strange times indeed. Political polarisation is back with a bang as electorates across the Western world move to the extremes of the political debate searching for an answer to the stagnation of incomes amongst the lower middle classes in the US and other countries. When the President of the United States argues for protectionism while the President of communist China, Xi Jinping, champions globalisation, free trade and global co-operation. When truth is no longer truth and Donald Trump (of all people) describes anything critical as being fake news.
In France, in the Socialist Party primary, Benoit Hamon on the left has come from nowhere to lead the centrist Manuel Valls much like Bernie Saunders in the States and Jeremy Corbyn did in the UK. One of the planks of Hamon’s agenda sounds a bit typically French and a bit typically crazy: he advocates a 32-hour working week and taxes on robots to fund a universal basic income!
But on reflection maybe it isn’t such a daft idea. Here’s why.
We’ve mentioned in our blogs before the likely impact of technology (artificial intelligence, robotics etc) on the future of employment and society in general.
But while technology has made many aspects of our lives better, the financial rewards from it have gone to only a few. This is one of the reasons why income inequality has increased fuelling the current unrest. This is the curse of the modern technological age. We have also noted that it doesn’t need to be like this. The increased wealth arising from the efficiencies technology provides could and arguably should be shared more equally. People could increasingly shift their waking hours from work to leisure. (This has already happened to a certain extent through the increase in holiday allowances but at a gradual rate and at an annual rather than weekly level.) There are a number of ways this shift could occur of which the most obvious is a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for all whether you work or not as proposed by Henoit and many others. But, so far there has been little evidence of such a shift taking place or any inclination from the political elite to support such an idea.
But on reflection maybe Hamon’s idea isn’t so daft. Assuming that robots are more efficient than people (a critical assumption) and that their ROI is much lower, then the total cost to employers including the tax would decrease. So, company profits increase, workers get more leisure time and everyone has a decent income. Sounds too good to be true doesn’t it and there are indeed important issues like the value of work in our lives that need to be considered.
Work is not only about money, it’s also about identity, socialisation, meaning.
Also, one can imagine competitive positioning amongst countries over robot tax rates and guaranteed minimum wages.
Then, there are those who ask the legitimate question the funding of UBI as our friend and fellow futurist Jim Murphy asks in a thought-provoking blog.
But perhaps, just perhaps, the tax on robots is the answer. Perhaps we can achieve that goal that our friend Professor Jonathan Gershuny argued for in the blog mentioned earlier (but that he was sceptical about achieving due to the lack of political will). Perhaps we can have more leisure and more fulfilling leisure like learning new personal, satisfying skills in the arts, craft or sport. Perhaps that crazy idea of Benoit Hamon might be what’s needed for these crazy times. Let the robots roll and the leisure come on.