We need a plan: Universal Basic Income will help us manage through an uncertain future

Stephen Brown

In navigating the world’s economy through the near-death experience of the 2008-2009 financial crisis the then U.S. Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner would occasionally point out to his economic team that, “plan beats no plan 100 per cent of the time.” This was to say that if you did not like what was being put forward, that is fine, but you had better come up with a better idea. Not having a plan was not an option. I believe this sentiment is necessary today with respect to Universal Basic Income or UBI.

As a society, we are on the cusp of the 4th Industrial Revolution. The primary feature of this revolution is the introduction of artificial intelligence(AI). AI has almost unfathomable potential and we had best tread carefully in terms of the ethics and governance of such a powerful capability. The  debate is not whether the introduction of AI will cause major shifts in the job market – it will – but  whether this disruption will propel us to a future of increasing numbers of new, satisfying jobs or a dystopian one in which large portions of the population have had their jobs replaced by robots and networks. In my view, this is one of those situations where the adage, “hope for the best but plan for the worst” is entirely appropriate. I am not arguing that we should destroy our economy or naively disincentivize people. The range of options are not limited to these simplistic positions.

In my role as a senior leader at a large professional services firm, I have the opportunity to observe and help shape how businesses are grappling with uncertainty. The standard practice is to consider a range of possible scenarios for how the future might unfold, look for the common themes, and make decisions based on the probabilities and consequences that emerge. Monitoring the outcomes of these decisions is required in order to determine how things are actually unfolding and whether or not the approach taken is leading to what was anticipated. It sounds relatively straightforward, but it is complicated by the need to make choices despite uncertainty.

It is seductive to assume that we are on the “happy path” to a future of abundant and secure jobs, because that has occurred as an outcome of the previous three industrial revolutions. This is misguided; We do not know with certainty what the future will bring. We have never experienced an industrial revolution that will displace physical labour and cognitive tasks. If we have not tested and learned about the financial, social, and individual impacts of UBI when we get to the future what happens then? There does not appear to be a consensus on a better alternative.

Cancelling the Ontario Basic Income pilot means we don’t have the chance to conduct the testing and learning required to help us determine the best path forward. The data and outcomes would have provided important proof points for many of the common misperceptions regarding Basic Income. I am familiar with many of the objections to UBI but few of these are presented from a position of deep knowledge and understanding.  

The spurious claim that providing a Basic Income to people in poverty would cause them to disappear from the human community begs the question, where do you think these people reside today? The notion of a Universal Basic Income is exactly the opposite of what is implied by the disappearing act. It is an opportunity for people to step more completely into the world of jobs, education, training, health and food security, entrepreneurship, civic and democratic participation.

Whether you are for UBI or you oppose it, I think we can all agree that we do not know how the future will unfold and that figuring our way out of potential disaster at the time is happening is not in our collective best interest. It is also worth considering that while we can debate UBI as an interesting concept what happens when AI comes for your job, or the jobs of those close to you? It will get very personal then. UBI is the best plan currently on the table for a future of major joblessness.

Plan beats no plan 100 per cent of the time. If you have a better plan, let’s hear it.  

-- Stephen Brown serves on the Board of Basic Income Canada Network and is the Consumer Industry Leader at Deloitte Canada.