Government & the future of welfare in a world of AI

Earlier this year, PK Agarwal, a well-respected technocrat from California was a keynote speaker at the American Society for Public Administration’s conference. Among other issues, he talked about how the future of government will change. Using e-services as an example, he illustrated how customer centric work will be the norm in government agencies. He also hinted at the role of government as one becoming a facilitator of services.

While all of this is positive, what remains unclear is how work and the nature of governance related to it will be impacted. With technologies such as automation, machine learning and the like are likely to make millions unemployed, by replacing people with machines, this trend is likely to also create new jobs, perhaps by the millions too. What does this mean in terms of jobs, full-time, ‘good jobs,’ that pay beyond the minimum wage? What does it mean for the future of taxation – one of the major sources of government revenue?

Differing visions of the role of work

As Richard Hall says in his book ‘Sociology of Work,’ there is a paradigm shift in how technology is impacting work. “The dimensions of time and space are altered, least where information is concerned,” he reminds us. To this, we may add that there is also the element of shift of productivity, which increases enormously; thus freeing humans from working very hard or long. While this may be a positive, the obvious negative is the loss of work for humans, who may be replaced by machines for routine work.

Hall argues that robots will not entirely replace humans, there is also the question of affordability. “Robots can take over repetitive assembly work only if the assembly organization can afford to purchase them” (p.351). He suggests that if people can’t afford to buy them, then humans will still be at the core of the work, with robots working at the periphery.

The lesson from the Anatomy of Revolution, a classic book of history by Craig Brinton is that all the four major revolutions: American, French, English and Russian originated when people felt unfairly taxed. They revolted against what they felt was an unjust order. We must make sure that our societies donot end up that way!

UBI: Experiments in social equality?

There is a lot of debate about Universal Basic Income (UBI) and other forms of ‘welfare’ provision, around the world. The assumption is that with increased productivity, we can produce more with less resources and we may reach a point when there may be no need to work – with machines producing most of all we need. With minimal work, we may be able to enjoy life and what it has to offer – with a model of UBI that guarantees us all a basic income to live, comfortably.

One such model that is being experimented is that of ‘Direct Cash transfers,’ or giving of money directly to the poor, so they can use it for consumption or invest it in bettering their lives. Giving Directly, a nonprofit based in New York seems to be one of the major advocates of this approach, in addition to many academics, who have amassed data that points to the utility of such a system, for improving the quality of life of the poor.

However, not everyone is excited about UBI and direct cash transfers: visionaries such as Mohammed Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank has opposed this, saying such measures sap initiatives and can turn people dependent on the handouts. He seems unhappy with the current financial system, where the poor are underserved by banks, which were designed to serve the middle class and the rich.

With welfare being one of the tenets of the social contract, are we witnessing a configuration in terms of what welfare means, in 21st century America? While welfare has always had a slightly ‘market’ orientation in the US, unlike in Western Europe, which has been ‘state led’, this shift in the social contract is to be expected, with the government expecting people to defend themselves and figure out their lives (Spiker, 2017). While Spiker makes 26 arguments for welfare, listing them alphabetically from A-Z, other scholars and practitioners are not as enthusiastic.

However, with wage stagnation, increased income inequality and growing use of technology in our society, will such mechanisms as Direct Cash Transfers and UBI become a necessity? Only time will tell. But for sure, we know that if unaddressed, this situation could spiral out of control and perhaps lead to social unrest.

 

References

Agarwal, P.K. 2016. Rethinking government in the age of AI and bots. Accessible at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UgY_zVyDljs

Brinton, C. 1938. Anatomy of Revolution. Vintage Press.

Hall, R. Sociology of Work. 1994. Pine Forge Press.

Nelson. H. 2018. Nobel Prize winner wants two economic systems. Accessible at https://qz.com/1430076/nobel-winner-muhammad-yunus-wants-two-financial-systems-one-for-the-rich-and-one-for-the-poor/

Spiker, P. 2017. Arguments for Welfare. Rowman & Littlefield.

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