What Problem Is Universal Basic Income Really Trying to Solve?

A UBI advocate responds to Lee Konstantinou’s short story “Burned-Over Territory.”

Drones with cameras spy on a person.
Doris Liou

A universal basic income advocate responds to “Burned-Over Territory.”

As many as 1.8 million long-haul truck drivers. Tens of thousands of radiologists and accountants. The entire field of journalism. Some experts believe these careers and more—nearly half of all the jobs existing today, by one estimation—could become a thing of the past in the next two decades. Almost three-quarters of the country is terrified about the future of automation and the upheaval it will bring.

Of course, fears about our coming obsolescence are as old as the apocryphal Ned Ludd. But the scope and scale of the projected disruption—as many as 73 million jobs lost by 2030 in the United States alone, according to one estimate—have brought the automation threat to wider attention. Will the not-too-distant future look like The Jetsons, a gleaming utopia of luxury skyscrapers and flying smart cars? Or will it look like The Jetsons, a hellish world dominated by a wealthy elite who live high above a ruined planet?

Many policy advocates and technologists have promoted universal basic income, or UBI, as one way to cope with the specter of joblessness wrought by advances in artificial intelligence. UBI would provide each individual with a no-strings-attached payment each month to cover basic needs and prevent individuals from falling below the poverty line. The benefits of UBI, according to proponents, would include the elimination of poverty, the fairer distribution of technologically generated wealth, and human flourishing. Critics are less sanguine, variously seeing in UBI a Trojan horse for dismantling the welfare state, an ill-considered policy that will sap humans of the self-actualization and pride derived from work, and a wholly inadequate response to the structural problems with late capitalism.

In his short story “Burned-Over Territory,” Lee Konstantinou delves the tensions between the promise and peril of automation as well as some of these open questions around the effects of UBI. Konstantinou builds a fun-house mirror version of our current economic reality, set in the later part of the 21st century, and offers a decidedly pessimistic take on UBI. Despite the existence of a national basic income program, 100 million people live in desperate poverty, and the rest struggle to string together a decent living doing gig work as robot trainers. The world of the story is experiencing something called the Stagnation, marked by high unemployment, deindustrialization, urban blight, and epidemic levels of drug use. Suffice it to say, this is not the fully automated luxury communism we were promised.

But the more compelling element of the story is Konstantinou’s exploration of how UBI might influence our social and economic connections to one another. His protagonist is a member of the Federation, a collective of self-organized group homes where residents pool their basic incomes. Federation basic houses use their common funds to purchase necessities from the outside economy. ”Think of it as sort of a Communist Costco,” one character quips. Residents apply for membership to basic houses like one would apply to a scholarship program, drafting a personal five-year plan that commits them to a meaningful project. All profits from personal projects go back to the common fund. But members are split over the house-admissions process, how to treat profits, and whether members should participate in the labor market.

Through clever world building, Konstantinou gets at the crux of our debates over automation and UBI: how technology is reshuffling the ways we derive purpose from our work, and how we divide the spoils. Too often, UBI is sold as both insurance against robots stealing all of our jobs and a form of Sunday night never-work-again wish fulfillment. But the question in both cases is the same: “What if there were no work?” That’s the wrong thing to ask, though. Instead, UBI should be seen as addressing a different question: What if each of us could choose the work that fit us best and be justly compensated for it?

Consider, for example, all of the rewarding and undercompensated work required to care for children and the infirm that happens in communities every day, done largely by women to the detriment of their participation in paid labor. What if men and women had the kind of insurance provided by UBI and could share responsibilities to family and community more equally?

UBI isn’t a way to accommodate humans to an algorithmic world. It’s a way to preserve what’s human in our world by expanding human choice within our economic system. Right now, our economic system is rigged to reward the owners of technology and capital while transferring risks to workers and end users. Wealthy corporations have then pumped their gains into our political system, entrenching their advantages and thwarting our interests. The payoff for us has been constant data breaches and the erosion of privacy, contingent schedules and gig work, and dead-end bullshit jobs that make it impossible for people to save toward future goals.

UBI could improve the bargaining position of the average worker not in the far-off future, but now. It offers an alternative to low-wage work for long hours to make ends meet. It would give workers the breathing room they need to acquire new skills and to tend to their families—benefits that would redound to the economy as a whole.

With access to UBI, workers could also experiment with economic arrangements outside the traditional capital-labor dynamic. Communes like the Federation are one possible iteration, but so are worker cooperatives and other organizational models designed to democratize work and distribute its proceeds more fairly. Finally, UBI could begin to correct the unjustified and enormously unequal distribution of the economic gains from internet technology—built, keep in mind, on the valuable and regenerating resource that is our personal data.

There is nothing inevitable about an economy where the best one can say is, “My boss is an app, and I owe it money.” UBI can provide the space for us to commonly imagine a different kind of economy, rewarding innovation while sustaining all of our communities equitably. It’s an opportunity to center perspectives often left out of our economic debates entirely, like those of the black and brown women whose labor underpins much of the wealth generated by our economy. The Magnolia Mother’s Trust, a UBI pilot for low-income families of color in Jackson, Mississippi, is one promising effort. This new initiative will provide 15 families headed by black women with $1,000 each month for a year, more than doubling their annual income. Aisha Nyandoro, whose organization is spearheading the project, explained that it was born of the conviction that “all people have the strength and capacity to be the authors of their own lives.”

Konstantinou’s story ends on an uncertain note, which is a perfect reflection of the uncertainty and turbulence of our political and economic moment. We don’t know whether our future will bring us automated pain and, if so, whether UBI will bring us relief. But we know enough today to demand an economy that works for all of us—and UBI might have a role to play in that.