AI threatens American jobs. Can guaranteed income provide a safety net?

AI threatens American jobs. Can guaranteed income provide a safety net?
Michael Tubbs was born and raised in Stockton, California, about an hour’s drive from Silicon Valley, the birthplace of the AI revolution that is now predicted to change the way Americans live and work forever.

But despite growing up in Big Tech’s backyard, the America where Tubbs grew up was marked by “lack and poverty,” he told CNN. Tubbs, 33, was born to a teenage mother, who he says he never met when he was younger because “she was always working — and it was never enough.”

Michael Tubbs, former mayor of Stockton, poses in his office in Stockton, California on February 7, 2020.
Michael Tubbs, former mayor of Stockton, poses in his office in Stockton, California on February 7, 2020. Nick Otto/AFP/Getty Images
His own experience prompted him to think about different ways that the world’s richest countries could help reduce poverty. When Tubbs went on to become his hometown’s first black mayor in 2016, he spearheaded a guaranteed income pilot program in 2019 that did something simple but radical: Give away free money with no strings attached.

The idea of a guaranteed income is receiving renewed interest as AI becomes a growing threat to Americans’ livelihoods.

A participant stands near the IMF logo at the International Monetary Fund – World Bank Annual Meeting 2018 in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Johannes P. Christo
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Global policymakers and business leaders are now increasingly warning that the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to have a profound impact on the labor market and could put millions of people out of work in the coming years (while creating new and different jobs in the process). The International Monetary Fund warned earlier this year that around 40% of jobs worldwide could be affected by the rise of AI, and this trend is likely to deepen the existing gap between the rich and the have-nots.

As more Americans’ jobs are put at risk by the threat of AI, Tubbs and other guaranteed income advocates say this could be one solution to help provide a safety net and cushion the blow AI is expected to wreak on the labor market.

“We’re not really doing a good job of designing policy or doing anything during a crisis,” Tubbs told CNN, saying it’s important to start planning for a guaranteed income program before we see 40% of global jobs taken by AI.

For a two-year period beginning in 2019, Stockton handed 125 randomly selected residents of low-income neighborhoods $500 a month with no conditions on how they used the funds or if they had a job. Early results from the pilot program found that recipients drastically improved their job prospects and financial stability and saw better physical and mental health outcomes.

“Let’s put up the fence now,” he said. “Then, when we have to deal with that job displacement, we’re in a better position to do that.”

Silicon Valley’s obsession with guaranteed income
The idea of guaranteed income is not new. Tubbs said he was inspired to pursue it after reading the work of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who advocated for a guaranteed income in his 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”

“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove the most effective – the solution to poverty is to eliminate it outright with the now widely discussed measure: a guaranteed income,” King wrote at the time.

US civil rights leader Martin Luther King (C) waves to supporters on August 28, 1963 on the Mall in Washington DC during the “March on Washington,” where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
US civil rights leader Martin Luther King (C) waves to supporters on August 28, 1963 on the Mall in Washington DC during the “March on Washington,” where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. AFP/Getty Images
Decades after King’s death, the idea of a guaranteed income continued to see a resurgence of support emanating from Silicon Valley. The concept is emerging as a buzzword among many of Silicon Valley’s elite — including Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Sam Altman — even before ChatGPT’s public launch in late 2022 reignites the global debate about automation disrupting jobs.

“Universal income will be needed over time if AI takes over most human jobs,” Tesla CEO Musk tweeted back in 2018. Late last year, in an interview with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Musk said he thought AI would eventually bring ” universal” high income,” without sharing any details of what this would look like.

In this photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, Susie Garza displays the city-provided debit card she receives each month through a pilot program in Stockton, Calif. Garza participated in the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration. The program, which began in February, gives $500 a month to 125 people who earn at or below the median household income of $46,033. They can spend the money without restrictions. Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, who started the privately funded program, said it could be a solution to the city’s poverty problem. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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Meanwhile, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg called for the exploration of “ideas like universal basic income to make sure everyone has a cushion to try new ideas,” during a Harvard commencement speech in May 2017. In a Facebook post later that year, Zuckerberg celebrated the Fund’s Dividend Fixed Alaska — or the annual grant given to Alaska residents from a portion of the state’s oil revenue — is a “new approach to basic income” that “comes from the conservative principles of smaller government, rather than the progressive principles of a larger safety net.”

Altman, CEO of one of the world’s most powerful AI companies, OpenAI, has also been outspoken about what he sees as the need for some form of guaranteed income as many jobs are lost to automation.

Back in 2016, when Altman was president of the tech startup accelerator YCombinator, he announced that he was looking for participants to help launch a study on basic income (or, as he described it at the time, “giving people enough money to live without any problems . attached.”)

“I’m pretty sure that at some point in the future, as technology continues to eliminate traditional jobs and vast new wealth will be created, we’ll see some version of this on a national scale,” Altman wrote in a 2016 blog post for YCombinator.

He has left his position at YCombinator to focus on OpenAI, but Altman still chairs the board of OpenResearch, the nonprofit lab that is in the process of conducting this ongoing study of basic income that he helped launch.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman speaks during the OpenAI DevDay event on November 06, 2023 in San Francisco, California.
OpenAI CEO Sam Altman speaks during the OpenAI DevDay event on November 06, 2023 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Elizabeth Rhodes, director of research at OpenResearch, told CNN earlier this year that it hopes to release findings early this summer from a three-year study of unconditional income involving about 3,000 individuals in two states.

“We really see this as kind of a basic exploratory study to understand what happens when you give individuals cash unconditionally,” he told CNN.

Although he emphasized that he could not know the specifics of his team’s research while the study was underway, he hoped that their findings could eventually provide some data that answers some of the most common questions about how cash payments will affect people’s willingness to work and their potential advantages or disadvantages. the wider community.

Other tech industry tycoons, including Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, have also thrown significant financial backing behind the guaranteed income program. (In 2020, Dorsey donated about $18 million to Mayors for Guaranteed Income, an organization Tubbs founded).

Dozens of cities across the United States have begun experimenting with guaranteed income programs in recent years, with many funded by nonprofits but organized by local officials.

Tubbs said he ultimately thinks funding for the program should come from the federal government but encouraged lawmakers to be creative about finding ways to raise revenue.

“For example, you could federally legalize marijuana and use that tax revenue, you could do a data dividend or some kind of robot tax or AI tax,” he suggested.

Opponents of guaranteed income programs, mostly Republican-leaning, have argued that such efforts stifle jobs or that taxing successful tech companies could stifle innovation.

And in Texas, opponents of guaranteed income are taking their fight to court. Earlier this week, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Harris County over its guaranteed income program that was funded using federal money from the pandemic-era America’s Rescue Plan. “This scheme is clearly unconstitutional,” Paxton said in a statement. “I am suing to prevent officials in Harris County from misusing public funds for political gain.”

In court documents, the attorney general went on to slam the program as an “illegal and illegitimate misappropriation of government.”

‘It doesn’t just give people money, it gives them opportunities’

Tomas Vargas Jr., a guaranteed income recipient in Stockton’s pilot program, told CNN that he heard critics say that receiving extra payments would make people “lazy.” But he said it eventually gave him a chance to find a better job.

“When I got the money, I was already thinking of rushing around and getting money. So, it just makes me want to get more money,” he said. “The thing I want people to understand about guaranteed income is that it’s not just giving people money, it’s giving them an opportunity.”

For years, Vargas said he woke up every day with the crippling anxiety that came with not knowing how he would be able to support his family. He held various jobs: working at UPS, fixing cars, mowing lawns, delivering groceries and taking any other job he could find. She said she hardly ever saw her children and said she received food stamp assistance briefly but “immediately started” when she would take extra work time.

“There’s one thing I’ve always wanted as a father, and that’s not to make my kids go through the same thing I went through: no power, no water, or no food on the plate,” he told CNN. “So I’m always trying to grind.”

Vargas said the extra cash he received helped him focus and apply for a full-time job, which he never had the time or energy to do before. He now says he thinks guaranteed income could be a way to provide a cushion for retraining or education programs for people whose jobs are exposed to AI, in the same way it helps them transition to better, more secure jobs.

Vargas, like Tubbs, was born and raised in Stockton. Vargas said his father never grew up and he ended up moving in with his grandmother when he was 12 years old. Before joining the program, Vargas said he was “a very negative person” and he didn’t see himself as one. even worth investing in.

But the added financial security allowed her to spend more time with her children, and finally break the cycle of poverty she had seen in her community her entire life.

“One of the biggest things that helped me realize my full potential was within me, and that I was worth investing in, was seeing the reaction from my children,” Vargas said, “and seeing generational trauma and healing in them.”

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