Basic income has finally reached the White House.
In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, President Obama was asked directly about his feelings on basic income, a system of wealth distribution in which people receive a monthly check on top of their existing income to help cover expenses, thereby strengthening the social safety net.
Obama’s response: Job automation is getting too sophisticated not to at least consider it.
“The way I describe it is that, because of automation, because of globalization, we’re going to have to examine the social compact, the same way we did early in the 19th century and then again during and after the Great Depression,” he told Bloomberg. “The notion of a 40-hour workweek, a minimum wage, child labour laws, etc. — those will have to be updated for these new realities.”
Obama is no stranger to the threat of robots replacing entire swaths of the American workforce.
In his February economic report to Congress, the president offered data that showed a high probability of automation replacing the lowest-paid workers: those manning the deep fryers, call centres, and supermarket cash registers.
Other evidence is just as damning for the low-wage American worker. A 2013 Oxford report, for example, found automation could replace 50% of all jobs within the next 20 to 30 years. A McKinsey report released last year even suggested today’s technology could feasibly replace 45% of jobs right now.
Economists and entrepreneurs alike have started turning toward basic income as a way to avoid that looming unemployment crisis. Now Obama seems to be leaning in the same direction.
“If we’re smart right now, then we build ourselves a runway to make that transition less abrupt, because we’re still growing, and we’re beating the competition around the world,” he told Bloomberg.
He pointed to the advent of driverless cars as one sign that disruption is knocking on the auto industry’s door. People who work for companies like Lyft and Uber will soon have to face a reality where may no longer have jobs. Multiplied out across many industries, basic income advocates argue, the simpler solution might just be to give people money regardless if they work or not.
Separating the rise of automation from the obligation to keep people healthy and financially stable would be a huge misstep, Obama said. “It’s not an either/or situation. It’s a both/and situation.”
If the idea works as its advocates say it will, there’s a very real chance the candidates running in the 2044 or 2048 elections could be using basic income policy as their ticket to Washington.