SULLIVAN: The need is now for universal basic income

The creeping growth of automation in our retail environment has led to heated debate on social media.

My boss, KTW editor Christopher Foulds, got the discussion started last Friday by writing about a sudden increase in the number of self-serve checkouts at the local Walmart.

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His column was followed by a couple of letters in this past Wednesday’s newspaper, as well as some robust discussion on the KTW Facebook page.

There are people on both sides of the issue — those who believe using self-checkouts is more efficient, allowing them to get on with their day faster, and those who shun the machines because they fear automation is costing people jobs.

It’s clearly an emotional issue, with people on both sides debating their points passionately — and it’s easy to see reasons to agree with either team.

But this rage against the (literal) machine is futile.

Automation is here to stay, whether we like it or not. The new additions at Walmart are just the start. There will be more retail locations introducing self-checkouts in the months and years ahead.

On top of that, Amazon is preparing to start using drones to deliver packages.

And, on top of that, we’re probably 10 to 20 years away from seeing long-haul truck drivers replaced with self-driving vehicles.

Those are just three quick examples of a trend that isn’t slowing down because automation is safer, easier and, most importantly, cheaper.

For a corporation, that’s a lot of pros without any cons.

So, what are we to do? Boycott stores like Walmart that move toward automating jobs that were previously handled by humans? People have been threatening to boycott Walmart and other retail giants for decades, yet share values keep climbing.

No, we need to consider how to live in a world with the kind of job losses that are coming as a result of automation.

There is only one logical answer and some of you might not like it.

It’s a universal basic income.

I know, I know — this is a kind of socialism, right? And socialism is a word with plenty of negative connotations lately. But let’s take a deep breath, calm down and really think about this.

Because there are two ways we can go in this post-automation world toward which we are barrelling:

1. The top one per cent will continue to suck in even more profits than ever before, while many at the bottom, who are no longer employable, will suffer, lose money and property and maybe even die.

2. The one per cent will still keep bunches of money, but the rest of us — even those who are unemployable — get some too, and we can all afford to live in homes, and eat, and feed our children, and be productive members of society.

I think it’s obvious as to which of those two possibilities is more appealing.

Arguments for a universal basic income have existed for decades, with proponents sitting on both sides of the political spectrum.

Former U.S. president Richard Nixon and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. both agreed with the ideas behind a universal basic income.

Technology giants Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are current proponents of the possibility.

We’re rapidly moving toward a world in which more and more people will be fighting for fewer and fewer jobs at companies that are continuing to amass wealth at a staggering rate.

It’s a system that simply can’t sustain itself.

We need to change the system, dramatically, to survive.

Todd Sullivan is a reporter at Kamloops This Week. He can be reached by email at todd@kamloopsthisweek.com

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