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Transitioning to Utopia

August 29, 2016

For many scientists, some supposedly political issues are simply addressed by scientific principles. We can use climate change as an example. All scientists (with some notable exceptions) agree that humans are causing a devastating global warming of our planet. In their assessment of climate change, they look at the data and Climate models, and they arrive at the scientific consensus that global warming is a fact, and it's caused by humans.

Many of us would welcome a world run by scientists and technologists, and not lawyers. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service,[1] The US Senate has 55 members (55%) with a law degree, and the US House of Representatives has 156 (36%).

The film, Things to Come (1936, William Cameron Menzies, Director, written by H. G. Wells), concerns such a technological society. The first part of the film is about an early 20th century society that's been destroyed by endless warfare.

At that point, an organization of scientists and engineers, Wings Over the World, conquers the world through technology to bring a golden age of peace and prosperity. Human nature being the way it is, even that society is derided by Luddites who forget that they owe their freedom to pursue their art to the same society that they spurn.

Modern technology has advanced to such an extent that human labor is needed less and less to produce the food needed for our survival, and the myriad of objects, such as cellphones and automobiles, that make life worth living. As I wrote in a previous article (The Future of Work, March 3, 2016), we need to get accustomed to the idea that, whereas everyone can easily be supplied with the basic comforts of life, not everyone needs to work.

Drawing of the front panel of a Pascaline calculator.
Automation is not just a modern phenomenon. In 1642, French mathematician, Blaise Pascal, invented a mechanical calculator called a Pascaline. (Via Wikimedia Commons.)

More pointedly, not everyone will be qualified for future work. While some think that everyone can become a computer programmer, most programmers think that this is a silly idea. Just as I'm not capable of illustrating a children's book, an excellent illustrator having no mathematics background would have a hard time getting past his first "Hello World" program.

This type of unemployment was identified by economist, John Maynard Keynes, nearly a century ago. Keynes called this type of unemployment, "technological unemployment."[2] Keynes wrote that at this unemployment hurdle we would evolve into a post-scarcity economy in which we will "...live wisely and agreeably and well."[2] This is something that we should have seen by now, but something we will definitely see in just one future generation.

Unfortunately, social and political forces have been at work in the world to deny us our shorter work week and agreeable living. Instead of a fair distribution of wealth that would lead to our utopia, there has been a growth of income inequality. The Gini coefficient, a quantitative measure of income inequality, has grown in the United States 25% from 1967-2014.

John Maynard Keynes, shown sometime prior to 1913John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), shown sometime prior to 1913.

Keynes' economic insights dominated 20th century fiscal policy, but they were later challenged by American economist, Milton Friedman (1912-2006), who was a free market advocate.

(From Michael Holroyd and Lytton Strachey, "A Critical Biography," vol. 1, p. 344 (1967), via Wikimedia Commons.)

Moshe Y. Vardi, editor-in-chief of the flagship publication of the Association for Computing Machinery, thinks that computing machines will be capable of doing nearly every job that a human can within 30 years.[3-4] The consequence, as Vardi writes, is that "...our economic system would have to undergo a radical restructuring to enable billions of people to live lives of leisure."[4]

A recent United Nations report concluded that the world is working itself to death by using its natural resources too fast. According to the UN, we would consume three times more raw materials in 2050 than today.[5] One way to brake such out-of-control manufacturing is by working fewer hours. Keynes believed that people would work merely 15 hours a week by 2030, but Vardi thinks that less than 15 hours would be required.

This is just a decade and a half into our future, so the world economy will need to be swiftly restructured to accommodate our good fortune. So, how do we transition to our utopian future? One idea that's gotten a lot of recent press is the idea of a universal basic income; that is, a baseline income given to all people regardless of their employment status.[6-8]

Figure captionLevitating utopias are a common meme.

Star Trek, episode no. 76, "The Cloud Minders," had a levitating utopian city.

(Painting by Makis E. Warlamis at the Waldviertel Art Museum, via Wikimedia Commons.)

The idea of a universal basic income appeals to both liberals and conservatives. Such a program would eliminate poverty, especially eliminating what are commonly called the "working poor." Conservatives will delight in the fact that such a program requires little bureaucracy, it will eliminate the traditional welfare systems, and it would also give more people the money to buy those exciting products produced by our automated factories.[6]

There's been considerable movement towards a universal basic income in many European countries this year. A recent opinion poll shows that 68% of people in the 28 countries of the European Union support a universal basic income initiative.[6] The monthly target value for this income is between €1,000 and €1,500 (about $1,100-$1,650).[6] In 2017, Finland will give 180,000 of its citizens about $600 per month, and the Netherlands will transition some of its workfare participants to a basic income without restrictions.[6] A referendum for a basic monthly income was defeated in Switzerland in June by a wide margin.[6-7]

Silicon Valley, which originates many workforce-destroying appliances, but also those little gadgets that we enjoy having, has been supportive of a universal basic income.[8] An experiment in Oakland, California, by Y Combinator will give 100 families an unrestricted monthly income of about $1,000-$2,000.[8] While the Silicon Elite might be somewhat motivated by guilt, this appears to be an easy way for them to open a new market segment to buy their products.

Economists will need to think long and hard about the mechanics of a universal basic income. One thing that would be certain is that establishing such a program would require shutting down such programs as Medicaid, public housing, and food assistance.[8]

The first US food stamp (1939)The first US food stamp, issued April 20, 1939.

(US Library of Congress image, via Via Wikimedia Commons.)


  1. Jennifer E. Manning, "Membership of the 113th Congress: A Profile," Congressional Research Service Report 7-5700/R42964, November 24, 2014.
  2. John Maynard Keynes, "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930)," from Essays in Persuasion, W.W.Norton & Co. (New York, 1963), pp. 358-373 (PDF File).
  3. When machines can do any job, what will humans do? Rice computer scientist Moshe Vardi: Human labor may be obsolete by 2045, Rice University Press Release, February 13, 2016.
  4. Moshe Y. Vardi, "The Consequences of Machine Intelligence - If machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?," The Atlantic, October 25, 2012.
  5. Worldwide Extraction of Materials Triples in Four Decades, Intensifying Climate Change and Air Pollution, United Nations Environment Programme, July 20, 2016.
  6. Philip Oltermann, "State handouts for all? Europe set to pilot universal basic incomes," The Guardian (UK), June 2, 2016.
  7. Switzerland's voters rejects basic income plan, BBC News, June 5, 2016.
  8. Jathan Sadowski, "Why Silicon Valley is embracing universal basic income," The Guardian (UK), June 22, 2016.

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