Universal Basic Income, UBI, Zurich
Robot demonstration for a universal basic income (UBI) in Zurich, Switzerland, April 30, 2016. Photo credit: Generation Grundeinkommen / Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

The futures of tech and UBI are intertwined.

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I recently had issues with my hybrid randomly shutting down. The third time this happened, I ended up taking a ride with an Uber driver. It turned out he was extremely conservative, and it was a long ride, so I decided to stay away from politically supercharged topics.

I asked him what he thought about Uber’s plan for driverless cars (which go back as far as 2016, if not earlier) and he said that he was planning on retiring before that happened. Litigator that I am, I posed a hypothetical: If he were 10 years from retirement and knew for a fact that all Ubers would be driverless in three years, what would he think of Universal Basic Income? Often abbreviated as UBI, it provides money for an entire population to replace loss of income.

He said he would be against it because he felt he was good at adapting and could find something else. But I pressed on, asking, “What about the other drivers?” Should they — at least the ones not as good as he was at adapting — end up being homeless when they were willing to work but all the Uber jobs they used to have were now gone? 

I pushed this a bit, trying not to be insulting but suggesting that for most people now driving Ubers, this was not their first choice of careers, rather something they did because they couldn’t find other steady work. And my very conservative driver acknowledged that UBI would be important — in that set of circumstances at least. If the ride had been half an hour longer, I might have fully convinced him, but I felt I’d done a decent job preaching the gospel of UBI.

This leads me back to the title of this article: Uber or UBI. If there were no Uber to drive for — if Uber, Lyft, and all other such services were to become driverless — could UBI smoothly take their place in our economy? 

Not Exactly a Dream Job

I’ve been wondering how much of the workforce that otherwise couldn’t find work ends up on Uber or Lyft. Both seem like net-negative propositions since, unlike in the usual division of labor and capital, the worker here is providing both labor and the capital (on wheels) necessary to participate in the labor. 

This is distinguishable from Airbnb, for example, where the host is merely providing the capital (the home) and not also doing the labor-intensive eight hours of driving a day. The value of the capital is also not actively depleted by being an Airbnb home (in fact, at most times it’s likely increasing), while the value of the car is depleted with every mile. And of course it’s distinguishable from, say, driving a bus, where you’re paid to drive and not asked to bring your own bus.

Gig work is traditionally undercounted by the federal government, but a 2023 CNN article says that gig work reduces the strain on unemployment insurance by giving people options besides collecting unemployment in between finding jobs. That supports the idea that Uber is work people turn to when they can’t find more fruitful employment. 

This is exactly the function envisioned by proponents of UBI.

An Adaptation to the Inevitable?

UBI is in large part the offspring of a recognition that technological efficiency reduces the number of jobs as it replaces people with machines. As the population increases and employment opportunities decrease, there is quite clearly a problem, to which we hope the solution is not a famous passage from A Christmas Carol:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.” 

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

Critics of UBI raise the question about what happens when a population as a whole is provided money completely detached from work — specifically, will this lead to a sense of purposelessness and other social ills? This was, in fact, brought up by both my very conservative Uber driver and my very progressive editor.

I pointed out that many people (including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk) who have the money to buy multiple private islands and live the life of Riley continue to work and create, so it is not about financial security alone. 

Of course, the fact that Bezos and Musk continue to work when they don’t have to underlines the importance of work. And while some might find an outlet in creative work (artists, musicians, writers), others lacking such gifts may find themselves at a loss on how to fill their time — may indeed be afflicted by a chronic sense of purposelessness. 

Modern American culture is, I think it’s fair to say, obsessed with work. When there is not enough work available, our culture will have to shift. Mass shifts tend to be uncomfortable — you could say it’s been one shift and one adjustment after another in relatively quick, and accelerating, succession since the days of the Luddites. Some reflexively see it all as a bad thing, but I’m not so sure. Consider that we lived without YouTube and Google Maps only 20 years ago or so. We tend to be resilient and adaptive. 

And, whether we see them as good or bad, promising or threatening, such advances — and the changes brought in their wake — have generally proven to be inevitable. 

It’s somewhat reassuring that the data we have currently doesn’t support any correlation of UBI with mental health decline. Most of the places that have experimented with UBI (and there are many that have done so on a small scale, including Kenya, Japan, and Spain) have shown an improvement in mental health, mostly driven by reduction in financial anxiety.These samples may be more reflective of UBI as income supplement rather than complete work replacement, but this is the data we have.  

Any hypothetical effects of UBI on mental health notwithstanding, I remain more concerned about the dystopia of people with no money for food or shelter in mass numbers (even greater than the current unprecedented spike in homelessness), who must choose to either accept deprivation and starvation or turn to illegal actions. Our first concern, as I see it, is how to meet this challenge.

Tech Can Move Fast. Are We Prepared?

It is clear that Uber and Lyft are providing jobs to the otherwise jobless. However, as I mentioned to my driver, both these platforms (as well as Musk) envision driverless cars. In Phoenix, AZ, there is already a Waymo option for Uber customers to be provided a driverless car. If this technology is successful, what happens to a job that is already one of last resort? 

There are a variety of numbers listed for how many Uber and Lyft drivers are out there; one site says 3.5 million. For comparison the federal government, which is listed as the largest US employer, employs just over 2 million civilians (and approximately as many military personnel). What happens when a job pool larger than that employed by the largest US employer goes away in one fell swoop?

Fortunately, such a large-scale job replacement event does not appear to be imminent. Waymo autonomous vehicles have only recently added the Los Angeles area to their territories. And videos of their rides show the technology is fraught with hiccups. However the recent leaps in AI technology show how quickly a novelty can become a worldwide phenomenon. We may have some time, but it’s not at all clear how much.

I hope our leaders are thinking about this question, but there’s not much evidence for it. Will they be caught as flat-footed as the Trump administration was by a pandemic after glibly disbanding their pandemic response team? We need to be ready to go for this ride.

Doug Ecks is a lawyer and writer. He holds a JD from the University of California, Hastings and a BA in philosophy from California State University, Long Beach, Phi Beta Kappa. He also writes and performs comedy as Doug X.


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