Disclaimer – For those that know me, I am not into partisan agendas, political or otherwise. The below is not meant to give any answers, simply ponder a few questions. For those of you into that kind of thing, read on…
Ask someone if they know who Mark Zuckerberg is, you will likely get a yes. One of the most famous and perhaps powerful men in the world needs little introduction. His signature platform now serves 2 billion active users worldwide, positioning him as one of the most unique and informed aggregators of human sentiment the world has ever known.
For all those accomplishments, perhaps Zuckerberg’s most unique role yet may be the one he has assumed over the last few months – a respected voice for Universal Basic Income. Joined by a small but growing list of the world’s most successful business people, a list that now includes Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and Sam Altman, the president of venture capital firm Y Combinator, the concept of Universal Basic Income seems to be gaining steam. If you’re not familiar with the idea, in the simplest terms it would mean everyone in the country (perhaps world) gets a paycheck, whether they have a job or not.
While the discussion around Universal Basic Income is legitimate, it might be time to have a more honest discussion about why it is needed at all. According to Zuckerberg, “we should explore ideas like universal basic income to make sure everyone has a cushion to try new ideas.” Universal Basic Wage is being labeled as a mechanism to “unlock potential in society by giving everyone a safety net.” While I respect the genius of the man, I would have to question his premise that a meager sum that barely qualifies as monthly rent is going to unlock any great societal awakening.
Which brings me to a Facebook name you may not have heard of, Antonio Garcia Martinez. A former Facebook Project Manager that left Silicon Valley with this dire prediction, “Within 30 years, half of humanity won’t have a job. You don’t realize it but we’re in a race between technology and politics, and technologists are winning. They’re way ahead. They will destroy jobs and disrupt economies before we even react to them and we really should be thinking about that.”
While Mr. Martinez may be on the five-alarm side of technology advancement, his warnings seem to coincide with the leading technology minds suddenly being concerned about everyone’s paycheck. For years we have been told that technology will bring a better and brighter tomorrow. That does not seem to reconcile very well with the need for supplemental basic income.
Perhaps another kind of tomorrow is on their mind – Venezuela. With the collapse of oil prices during the 1980s, the Venezuelan economy was crippled. As the government started to devalue the currency in February 1983 to face its financial obligations, Venezuelans’ real standards of living fell dramatically. Failed economic policies and increasing corruption in government led to rising poverty and crime, worsening social indicators, and increased political instability. The Country remains to this day a roiled cloud of economic, social and political unrest. In other words, it’s a case study on what happens when people go without.
The reasons for the current dire state of Venezuela are too numerous to count here, but one social lesson is without dispute, the rapid deceleration of jobs, money, and access to basic human needs will lead to one ugly eventuality – societal unrest on a massive scale. That may be the real reason for the sudden interests in Universal Basic Wage by the men best equipped to peer ahead of the technological horizon. The constant push to innovate may be about to make its biggest push yet, displacing the world’s middle-class right out of employment.
If the dire warnings are right, and jobs truly will be eliminated on a massive scale due to technological advances, it begs a very interesting question. Has Capitalism finally run head-long into a market condition it cannot overcome – innovation? For the economies sake, Zuckerberg’s reasons for Universal Basic Wage would be far more pleasant than those of Mr. Martinez.