The rise of automation is destined to replace some worker employment, and it could increasingly cause friction with efforts to create new jobs, a hallmark of the Donald Trump administration.
Many studies have forecast a day when repetitive and labor-intensive jobs will be recast by automation, though the jury is still out about whether the humans now holding those jobs will be elevated to more meaningful positions that utilize automation or will be replaced outright.
Is the office obsolete — or mutating into something new and wonderful? Backchannel offers views from both sides of the future-of-the-office question in two recent pieces. The rise of “digital nomads,” writes Ben Snyder, accelerated in 2016. Companies in desperate need of talent, particularly in software, have abandoned the old-school idea of gathering everyone in one physical space and accepted that they’re only going to assemble a great team by going to a distributed model.
But wait a second, writes Greg Lindsay: At the same time, we’re seeing a boom in new-model coworking spaces like WeWork. In these offices, traditional behind-the-firewall watercooler culture gets replaced by a more open model that’s still able to take advantage of the dynamics of face-to-face interaction. “WeWork’s great innovation,” Lindsay argues, “was to convince companies of all sizes that sharing an office with hundreds or even thousands of strangers was an opportunity instead of a liability.” This new-style office is more of a “talent platform” that helps entrepreneurs find the skilled collaborators they need.
The idea of a Universal Basic Income — an unconditional cash stipend from the government that could, in principle, greatly simplify the existing system of means-tested programs — has come under fire for being antithetical to one of America’s strongest values: Work.
The argument, most recently articulated by Josh Barro at Business Insider, states that while a cash transfer may be able to provide subsistence, it cannot provide the sense of purpose and dignity that only a job can. The problem with these arguments is that they simply assume a UBI would significantly undermine the incentive to work, shifting the debate to the red-herring of work’s relationship with purpose. Noah Smith, for instance, responded to Barro by pondering the difficulties of empirically measuring an abstract sense of dignity, while Matt Bruenig responded by pointing out all the ways the rich receive vastly more “passive income” than the poor (like from interest and capital gains) without an apparent loss of purpose. Both these points are secondary to the most basic point: UBI is simply not a threat to work.
UBI and Work in Theory
The effect of a Universal Basic Income on work effort is theoretically ambiguous without specifying the means-tested programs that would be replaced. The economist Ed Dolan wrote what is perhaps the definitive piece on the subject here, walking through various scenarios in detail.
401(k) accounts were sold to American workers as a way to participate in a booming stock market and put their own names on their retirement accounts. But most Americans who started 401(k)s since the 1980s, when they were introduced, now see that they’re never going to be able to retire on that money.
So what happened? The Wall Street Journal asked the HR experts and finance wizards who sold the government and workers on the idea of privately held, personally managed, tax sheltered investment accounts for retirement. Their answer is simple: 401(k)s were originally intended as supplements to the rest of the retirement-income portfolio — a three-legged stool that also included defined-benefit pensions and Social Security. But businesses, terrified by mounting pension obligations, seized on them as a quick way to cut costs, and kicked the pension leg of the stool right out from under workers. Now a Republican-controlled Congress is eager to cut back on Social Security, too. Also, the 401(k) proponents seriously overestimated long-term market returns.
Most of us know that Apple, like many global corporations, has a ton of profits that it has parked overseas to avoid paying U.S. taxes. But we might not have been aware that Apple takes mountains of this cash and plows it back into U.S. Treasury bonds — collecting interest from the U.S. government on the money that it has stockpiled far away from the tax collectors, under a 1962 IRS loophole. That interest totals “at least $600 million and possibly much more” over the last five years, according to a Bloomberg investigation.
Bloomberg dug deep into Apple’s regulatory filings to trace this financial shell game. Apple, of course, is hardly the only player, and there is nothing illegal or even that unusual about the investment. The lesson, as Bloomberg puts it, is in the sheer opacity of global operations today: “The purchases reflect how the distinction between what’s foreign and what’s not for multinationals often exists only in the world of accounting.”
Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube are “partnering to help curb the spread of terrorist content online.” They’ve announced a joint plan to use hashes (“digital fingerprints”) as a way to share that they’ve taken down a particular article or video. Get something banned from one service and it will now be much easier for the other services to block it, too (Ars Technica).
Sounds great! We’ve all read stories about “self-radicalizing” loners who watch one too many ISIS/Daesh recruiting videos and become dangerous. It makes sense for the big platforms to cooperate in fighting this problem, right?
LATELY there’s been renewed discussion of universal income: regular cash payments to everyone, regardless of race, gender or need. Past proponents of the idea have included the essayist Thomas Paine, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., free-market economist Milton Friedman and President Richard Nixon. Today’s interest has been sparked by the income stagnation experienced by America’s middle class and working poor, and by the persistent slow growth experienced by our economy.
The idea finds support across America’s ideological spectrum in an era when hardly anything else does. Liberals, or at least some of them, like it as a way to preserve our middle class when jobs no longer pay enough. Conservatives, or at least some of them, like it as a way to reduce dependence on a byzantine maze of welfare programs.
With capitalism at a crossroads and tech driving unprecedented change, it’s time to harness the power of uncertainty
Those of us in the technology and startup worlds have thrived in uncertainty, we actively seek out its risks and opportunities. The ground has always shifted beneath us — but the tremors are now tectonic. Even before the results of this extraordinary election, we could feel it building. In the past decade, our creations have aggregated power beyond our control — they have swayed elections, they have concentrated wealth, data, and leverage in the hands of the very few, and they have triggered market panics and social revolutions. Soon our technologies will unleash a wave of AI-driven automation, and with it the loss (or is it the creation?) of millions of jobs. The world now demands we take responsibility for the power we’ve acquired, and that we engage with society at a broader scale. Will we answer that call?
As technology companies acquired power, the leadership of our largest legacy companies — companies that came to dominance during the post war economic boom — can no longer ignore the shifts in nearly every aspect of their business: customers are demanding new experiences, employees are demanding their work ladders to a greater purpose than profit, partners are asking for new ways to work together, and competitors are redefining markets once thought stable. How will our largest companies manage the transition to a world reshaped by technology?
Andy Stern spent his career leading the Service Employees International Union, but he left in 2010, convinced that the nature of work was changing faster than unions, or anyone else, could handle. Now Stern is one of the most prominent advocates of a universal basic income — a kind of Social Security payment for everyone that could “ease the transition and provide a floor for people” whose jobs are automated out of existence (Vox).
With changes in transportation alone likely to eliminate millions of driving jobs in the near future, we’re going to need to do something. Stern emphasizes that the basic-income concept is not a pipe dream: “All the resources and assets are available to make it real. It’s just that we have a huge distribution problem.”
My wife, Adrienne, and I are long-time supporters of unconditional cash giving. From handing $5 to a homeless person on the street in Manhattan to raising $450 to give to a working father of one in rural South Africa — we believe in the virtues of sharing abundance in an empowering fashion that enables people to decide how best to allocate their resources themselves. When we found GiveDirectly in November 2015, an org that gives $1,000, unconditionally, to people who are in extreme poverty, as a solution to get them out of extreme poverty, we fell in love. Unconditional — they can do anything they want with it — which is incredibly empowering to recipients, but many people in ‘the west’ think it’s risky…or even foolish.
We’ve told countless friends and family about GiveDirectly, and the concept of transferring cash is met with much skepticism; soliciting responses such as “eh, I only give people food,” and others such as;