Job Retraining Won’t Work. We’ll Need Government Jobs, Then a Universal Basic Income

There is a growing consensus among futurists and visionaries of various backgrounds that the challenges of an automated economy will require implementing a universal basic income. These thinkers range from former SEIU president Andy Stern to Robert Reich to a wide range of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Martin Luther King, Jr., advocated for it, as did conservative Milton Friedman.

For all the hoopla over china, trade and immigration, 85% of the manufacturing losses in the United States were due to automation, not trade. And it’s not just manufacturing. Automation imperils huge swaths of employment, from the medical profession to the finance industry. Drivers of all kinds, from truckers to cabbies to worksite drivers, are all on the chopping block. Big data threatens to slash middle level managers and analysts of all kinds. Something will have to be done.

But most people aren’t ready for a universal basic income. Wherever the public has had a chance to vote on it, it has failed–and usually dramatically. People aren’t comfortable with the idea yet–they worry about creating a class of layabouts, and about removing the dignity that comes with a job, and about losing the leverage workers have had against capital since the dawn of the labor movement. Most of these are cultural fears that will dissipate over time, but they are very real.

Because of that, reducing structural underemployment and unemployment due to automation is going to require a large push for government sector employment first. There is a great deal of work to be done in repairing and creating new infrastructure, in retrofitting existing equipment to implement renewable energy, water saving and carbon-controlling measures, and in forward-thinking work like space travel. A great deal of this work will be manual and skilled trade labor of the sort that can be done by Americans hardest hit by the global economy.

But to get even that far will require an acknowledgment that retraining for the “jobs of the future” is not a satisfactory answer. Former factory workers in places like Muncie, IN, either cannot or will not learn to code and develop apps. Job retraining programs have not been very successful in part because of cultural challenges, and in part because there isn’t actually a skills gap between American workers and unfilled jobs. The “jobs of the future” are rapidly changing as well. Ten to fifteen years ago the “cool” job was web design, and everyone was supposed to learn HTML. Now those skills are nearly useless, as automated tools make it easy to create a website without any coding knowledge whatsoever. Today’s hot job is making apps, but that labor market is already saturated and globalized, with ever more democratized tools. Tomorrow’s hot job will be in 3-D printers with their own language and requirements, but then that too will be rapidly simplified on the front end. The back ends of all these technologies will require fewer and fewer back end creators, even as machine learning for back end applications improves.

The free market won’t solve this problem on its own–not even with retraining and intervention. It wouldn’t be able to do it even if human beings were movable automatons themselves, willing to sit behind a desk in a city when they would rather be working in the sun in the towns they grew up in. Culture gets in the way, as do basic human needs. As well they should. People don’t exist to do jobs; jobs exist to serve people.

Politicians will need to acknowledge that the modern late-stage capitalist economy is fundamentally broken. America isn’t great now. It cannot be made great again. It will need an economic revolution.

That revolution must start with government guarantees of employment and well-being. It must begin with a pledge to make it affordable to attain the education to get what few good-paying jobs will remain. It must continue with a commitment by the government to employ those who have been left behind in doing the much-needed work that the free market will not pay for. And it must ultimately include a commitment to use the dividends of increased productivity via automation and globalization that have been going to line the pockets of shareholders in the top .1% of income, to make the citizens who produced that wealth whole again with a guaranteed income productivity dividend.

With those steps taken, cultural resistance to a universal basic income will decline, and people of all classes and identities will be able to step forward into a world freer from inequality, exploitation and wage slavery.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.