Basic Income’s Tragedy

I am one of those people who “believe” (for lack of a better term) in the future. I am sure advancing technologies are mostly a good thing. Progress makes existence for humans better, and beyond that technological advances allow us to change undesirable aspects of the human state (and there are many) and engineer these in objectively better states of “transhumanism”.

Still, our current age is an age of unmitigated tragedy. Things are quite bad out there, and sometimes it is still shameful how good we in the developed world have it, and how much we take it for granted. It is sometimes seductive to look at our relative prosperity, affluence and empowerment in “the west” and take it all with a grain of salt. Who are we to feel anywhere entitled, in the face of how bad so many people still have it? How are we to complain and regard whatever we have accomplished as inalienable rights?

That’s what rich people or people in positions of power often remind us of – “we” are spoiled and we should not take anything for granted. We should accept that times may change and we in the developed world must still come to accept periods of less prosperity. There’s an often abused quote to reflect this reality out there…

When it gets down to it — talking trade balances here — once we’ve brain-drained all our technology into other countries, once things have evened out, they’re making cars in Bolivia and microwave ovens in Tadzhikistan and selling them here — once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel — once the Invisible Hand has taken away all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity — y’know what?

and it sticks in an annoying fashion. Every time western affluence-pampered people protest, “occupy wallstreet style” there is a certain annoyance with the uppity aspect of people, as if “they” are spoiled rotten bastards demanding “free stuff”. But that’s the reality of everyone in the developed world. There may be a class of people who assume they deserve things, i.e. they have this ineffable quality of accomplishment that make them “deserving” of whatever they have acquired. For the accompished it is quite easy to look down and dismiss the claims of the many. For someone working on wall street it is very seductive to thumb your nose at the rabble occupying a zuccoti park, but it really isn’t so weird. People at the top didn’t really generate their affluence in a particularly fair manner. They do subsist largely on the efforts by generations before them and their share in their affluence is often quite modest.

People who are unable to appreciate the poverty (and misery) of others are easily summarized as psychopaths, but in that regard we are all relatively coldhearted – most people I know living in western Europe don’t really care about the plights of Eastern Europeans, refugees, Chinese slave labor or tjhe really downtrodden in, say, Indian or African slums.

So now we come across technology and with the good technology gives us a sizeable portion of impractical. Technological unemployment is real and squared against the pervasive paradigm of free market capitalism, the phenomenon is deeply inconvenient. Probably as inconvenient as climate change or peak oil, and arguably more so in the short run. That’s right – whereas climate change or peak oil may have gruesome consequences in the median to long term (say, 50+ years) technological unemployment may ruin the party a lot sooner, and not just for us in the “developed” world, also for a lot of people in the developing world.

…China could well turn out to be ground zero for the economic and social disruption brought on by the rise of the robots. The country’s relatively brittle authoritarian political system, together with its dependence on a sustained level of economic growth that would be considered extraordinary in any developed nation, suggest that China may face a staggering challenge as it attempts to adapt to the realities of a new age….

Imagine a country such as Egypt – extremely high population growth, extremely low on natural resources, very young population, modest industrial base and very close to unstable regions. Countries such as Egypt face daunting challenges to provide work (let alone income or meaning) to its sizeable young population. We all know what that means, especially with resource depletion and climate change – mass unemployment combined with very fast population growth rather quickly leads to mass migration. And rapidly and unpredictably advancing technologies consistently lead to destabilized industries, long-deemed reliable infrastructures for income, let alone welfare state entitlements. And the same is true for most affluent regions world wide – Japan has bordering or near malaysia, north korea – Australia has an overpopulated Indonesia next door – the US has the whole of south america to be concerned about, etc. etc.

I have bad news for both the rich in affluent countries, rich people everywhere and pretty much everyone in developed countries.

1 – very soon (all) rich people in (all) rich countries will be forced to pay more taxes to keep the social contract from unraveling in to pervasive loss of gross national incomes, and…
2 – (all) rich people everywhere will be increasingly unable to freely use and spend what they regard as their money in ways they see fit, and…
3 – all people in all developed countries will be forced to loss standards of living in order for states to spend more money in ways to either keep the misery of the developing/underdeveloped world at bay (immigration) or to make sure the developing/underdeveloped world does not catastrophically implode.

This is bad news for everyone. Everyone will lose relative to what they feel entitled to. The national rich will lose to taxes, the international rich will lose to increasingly effective barriers to free flow of untaxed capital, and pretty much everyone else will be asked to pay more to the already bloated state apparatus of “anti-terrorism” (or whatever bullshit contrivance our Overlords come up with next).

In case you are wondering, I equate this “anti-terrorism” apparatus largely with measures intent on making sure people don’t pay the blowback for literal centuries of colonial exploitation of the developed world. in other words, the developed world will lose gross national income, either to securing borders and/or spending on development aid. And yes, pretty much both.


In all countries there are the populists who fish in the Krueger-Dunning electoral pool. These populists exist in my country, as well as in the US. Simply put – these are politicians who dredge for easy electoral gains by appealing to frightened or none-too-smart voters. But that old jedi mind trick won’t work endlessly. In the short run it’s still doable to close off borders, and make a systemic profit (or avoid systemic loss) by creating a vindictive and hostile climate towards cultural outsiders. It stops working before long, and you create a lot of angry people as a result. Essentially mobilizing a countries low middle classes towards nativist racially homogeneous xenophobia makes the targets of these policies poorer, and people catch on before long you are playing a game of divide and rule. Try and guess why they do it?

The outcome all throughout history has been radicalization inside and radicalization outside. We are seeing an increase to the old and tried short term white power sentiments in most of Europe, Japan, China, the US, Australia and gods know where else, and we are already seeing increasingly vicious radicalization abroad, largely the result of resource-hungry developed nations closing unpalatable deals with revolting right wing dictators. In other words, if you thought Daesh is bad, just wait for the next iteration of pissed off desperately poor nativists in developing countries. The next Daesh will make Al Qaida look like boyscouts.

In the long run spending money on sustaining at least the perfunctory illusion of social contract inside (welfare) and outside (development aid) will prove substantially cheaper than inside (police state, prisons) and outside (drone strikes, secure borders) theatrical (mostly symbolic, meaningless) gestures. This was already true in ancient Rome, it is proving exponentially more true in the modern era.

Which brings me to accelerating technologies and basic income.

One of the biggest tragedies of 21st century modernity is that with an ever faster pace of technological advances is that our intuitions on what makes sense and what is the smart thing to do ever faster abandons us. In other words – the amount of people that actually do have a clue will become progressively smaller and less “authoritative” – and at the same time the economic utility of denying facts, reality, science (etc) will go up sharply.

Pretty soon basic income will be become so necessary it will be pretty much indispensible. In other words, there will be a painful lag in first implementing basic income (period) and next there will be a painful lag in implementing a basic income that will keep society from unraveling. Yes, I truly believe some form of basic income will be necessary to keep people inside (rich countries) alive and keep people outside (a significantly lower stipend) from massively trying to migrating in. Massively – as in substantially more than is the case right now. Tens of of millions as opposed to the relatively few current few hundred thousand right now. Once technological unemployment truly delivers its poison, a lot of people worldwide will quickly turn populist and radical (inside the developed world) and will try to get the hell to safety (mass migration in the range of tens to hundreds of millions from underdeveloped towards developed nations) .

A lot of morally dubious people are currently employed in denying the effects of climate change. In a short few years we will see the same with technological unemployment and its subsidiary bastard child – dystopian singularity-derived consequences. In the next few decades we as a species may experience quite traumatizing change, and the eventual outcome may very well be even worse but the tragedy of our species is there is no reliable way to tell what people are right at any particular moment in time. A lot of our oracles prove to be boldfaced liars, and there’s increasingly a profit to be made to deny inconvenient truths.

That means we will eventually (i.e. too late) start sacrificing whatever prosperity we have accumulated to keep the world from coming apart at the seams.

There is an ongoing debate in some academic circles why intelligent species in the cosmos fail. This is a very relevant question for humanity at this particular juncture in history. There are quite a few arguments to conclude that a lot of intelligent species simply do not survive the particular stage of development humanity is inching awfully close to – and that process of extinction is the reason the cosmos is so awfully quiet. I hope humanity was dealt a good hand of cards in the cosmological game, but as the time of me writing this nobody knows and we will just have to see. And yes, I am that serious about how bad technological unemployment might prove to be. Because where today’s unemployment means societal irrelevance , poverty and considerable misery for the vast majority of human beings, eventually the same process might make whomever is as lucky to be left behind equally irrelevant in the bigger picture.

The quicker we accept that as a species to survive means to invest in those left behind is the quicker we realize that we may have to come to terms with everyone having a bit less in order to survive at all.

Happy new year, happy 2016.