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Pro / con on universal basic incomes: Out of work shouldn't mean out of money

The time for instituting a universal basic income has drawn closer than most people think. The rapid pace of workplace automation — encompassing everything from robots flipping burgers at fast-food joints to performing routine hygiene at dental clinics — means skilled and unskilled laborers soon will be out of work.

However, out of work should not mean out of money.

Replacing the standard minimum wage and even a comfortable living wage is the universal basic income, a guaranteed fixed weekly or monthly payment to workers who have no future of employment as the result of being replaced by robotics.

The idea has turned into reality via pilot programs in Oakland, Finland, Scotland, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Brazil, and elsewhere. It has been advanced for decades by economists and political leaders ranging from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to Dr. Martin Luther King.

"The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income," King wrote in his 1967 book, "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?"

Fans of the 1960s sci-fi television series "Star Trek" were introduced to a future where the Federation of Planets ended poverty through the use of "credits." It is known that King was not only an early "Trekkie" but someone who grasped the future of increased workplace automation and a workforce that would be idled as the result of being supplanted by such technology. The future dreamed of by King and "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry is already upon us.

Increasingly, there are more human laborers than jobs.

To not enact a universal basic income in the face of advanced robotics is to ensure a restive population that will make the late 18th and early 19th century rebellion by anti-industrialization textile workers in England — the "Luddites" — seem like a minor labor disturbance by comparison.

Policymakers can invest now in establishing a nascent universal basic income, or they surely will pay later for their lack of action.

The consulting company McKinsey estimates that a third of the American workforce will be replaced by robots by 2030. That equals some 70 million workers idled by automation. No politician wants to face a hostile voting population of 70 million people striving to survive in a world of rapid technology-induced unemployment. Legislators have a simple choice: Begin instituting this today or face an angry population in 12 years or less.

Universal basic income shouldn't even be a political issue. Workplace automation cuts across political demographic lines. Conservative rural areas in the U.S. are going to experience a 97 percent automation of farm jobs. The situation is no better in other manual jobs, with construction workers looking at 88 percent and truck drivers facing 79 percent automation of their jobs.

Critics argue workers will become unproductive and receive a free handout. The argument is specious. Universal basic income will ensure that basic human needs will be met, which will allow people to engage in other pursuits, including scientific research, art, and writing, in a modern renaissance era amid rapid global automation.

 Wayne Madsen

Wayne Madsen is a progressive commentator based in Valrico, Fla.