Spitfire List Web site and blog of anti-fascist researcher and radio personality Dave Emory.

For The Record  

FTR #908 Easy “E’s”: Eugenics, Euthanasia and Extermination (A Message from the Past to the Future)

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This pro­gram was record­ed in one, 60-minute seg­ment.

Intro­duc­tion: With tech­no­log­i­cal advances lead­ing some ana­lysts to con­clude that the future will fea­ture a large­ly  “employ­ment-free” world, the con­cept of a “uni­ver­sal basic income” has tak­en hold in some cir­cles. Con­clud­ing that all peo­ple will be giv­en a “work­able” sum with which to live, adher­ents of the con­cept envi­sion a qua­si-utopi­an world.

We fear the devel­op­ment of some­thing far more dystopic. With the con­tin­ued pop­u­lar­i­ty of the aus­ter­i­ty agen­da, despite strong evi­dence that it is counter-pro­duc­tive, we fear that a large­ly “employ­ment-free” envi­ron­ment will lead to the elim­i­na­tion of human beings seen as “super­flu­ous.”

The Third Reich’s exter­mi­na­tion pro­grams have been pop­u­lar­ly viewed as aber­ra­tion, an occur­rence that was sep­a­rate from “nor­mal” polit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal events. This is not the case. Mur­der­ous Nazi racial and social pol­i­cy were the out­growth of main­stream intel­lec­tu­al trends that are very much with us today.

At the epi­cen­ter of the intel­lec­tu­al nexus under­pin­ning the Nazi exter­mi­na­tion pro­grams are the over­lap­ping inter­na­tion­al eugen­ics and inter­na­tion­al men­tal hygiene move­ments. Seek­ing to pro­mote the “right kind” of men­tal devel­op­ment, the inter­na­tion­al men­tal hygiene move­ment pro­mot­ed the ele­va­tion of the right kind of genet­ic make­up as a means of real­iz­ing its goals. In turn, ter­mi­nat­ing peo­ple born with dis­abil­i­ties, peo­ple who were old and poor, ster­il­iz­ing those with psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­or­ders and those with chron­ic ill­ness­es, advo­cates of euthana­sia paved the way for the Third Reich’s T‑4 exter­mi­na­tion pro­gram.

In time, the T‑4 pro­gram yield­ed the broad­er-based Nazi exter­mi­na­tion pro­grams, as those trained in the euthana­sia insti­tu­tions “grad­u­at­ed” to posi­tions in the exter­mi­na­tion camps, hav­ing acquired the nec­es­sary skills and demeanor.

Josef Men­gele’s Auschwitz work with twins in many ways high­light­ed the evo­lu­tion of main­stream eugen­ics research. Long pre­oc­cu­pied with the study of twins, eugeni­cists cel­e­brat­ed the Nazi dic­ta­tor­ship for its abil­i­ty to use coer­cion to achieve their objec­tive of detailed, inten­sive research of the sub­ject.

Lav­ish­ly fund­ed by the Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion well into the tenure of the Third Reich, the Kaiser Wil­helm Insti­tutes were the pri­ma­ry focal point of eugen­ics research on twins. Men­gele con­duct­ed his bru­tal, lethal research at Auschwitz in con­junc­tion with the Kaiser Wil­helm Insti­tutes and his intel­lec­tu­al men­tor at that insti­tu­tion, Dr. Frei­herr Otmar von Ver­schuer, fill­ing out paper­work for the Kaiser Wil­helm Insti­tute for each of the sets of twins on which he exper­i­ment­ed before pro­ceed­ing with his work.

With physi­cian-assist­ed sui­cide leg­is­la­tion gain­ing in many places, at the same time as the aus­ter­i­ty agen­da con­tin­ues to be pop­u­lar in elite eco­nom­ic and social plan­ning cir­cles, we should be on the alert for lethal, and alto­geth­er “final” solu­tions to the prob­lem of large num­bers of eco­nom­i­cal­ly dis­placed peo­ple.

Most of the pro­gram is excerpt­ed from Mis­cel­la­neous Archive Show M12, record­ed in Feb­ru­ary of 1988. Oth­er pro­grams deal­ing with the eugen­ics move­ment include: FTR #‘s 32, Part I, 32, Part II117, 124, 140, 141534, 664, as well as Mis­cel­la­neous Archive Show M60

Pro­gram High­lights Include: 

  • The role of Ernst Rudin in shep­herd­ing Nazi phi­los­o­phy from eugen­ics to euthana­sia to exter­mi­na­tion.
  • The role Wil­helm Ploetz in shap­ing the Nazi eugen­ics pro­gram.
  • Review of the Knauer case, a key legal and philo­soph­i­cal step in the real­iza­tion of the Nazi exter­mi­na­tion pro­grams.
  • Enthu­si­as­tic reviews of the ear­ly Nazi eugen­ics pro­grams by intel­lec­tu­al coun­ter­parts in the Unit­ed States and oth­er West­ern coun­tries.
  • The exten­sive use of exten­sive offi­cial secre­cy to fur­ther the effi­cien­cy of the euthana­sia cen­ters.

1. Open­ing the pro­gram, a dia­logue between two New York Times eco­nom­ics colum­nists lifts the cur­tain on the con­cept of the Uni­ver­sal Basic Income. We feel that, giv­en the pro­cliv­i­ties of the world’s pow­er elites, the prob­a­bil­i­ty of a lethal solu­tion to the prob­lem of wide­spread job­less­ness is far more prob­a­ble.

“A Future With­out Jobs? Two Views of a Chang­ing Work­force” by Farhad Man­joo and Eduar­do Porter; The New York Times; 3/9/2016 [West Coast Edi­tion].

In the utopi­an (dystopi­an?) future pro­ject­ed by tech­no­log­i­cal vision­ar­ies, few peo­ple would have to work. Wealth would be gen­er­at­ed by mil­lions upon mil­lions of sophis­ti­cat­ed machines. But how would peo­ple earn a liv­ing?

Sil­i­con Val­ley has an answer: a uni­ver­sal basic income. But what does that have to do with today’s job mar­ket, with many Amer­i­cans squeezed by glob­al­iza­tion and tech­no­log­i­cal change?

Two colum­nists for Busi­ness Day, Farhad Man­joo, who writes State of the Art on Thurs­days, and Eduar­do Porter, author of Eco­nom­ic Scene on Wednes­days, have just tak­en on these issues in dif­fer­ent ways. So we brought them togeth­er for a con­ver­sa­tion to help sharp­en the debate about America’s eco­nom­ic future.

Eduar­do Porter: I read your very inter­est­ing col­umn about the uni­ver­sal basic income, the qua­si-mag­i­cal tool to ensure some basic stan­dard of liv­ing for every­body when there are no more jobs for peo­ple to do. What strikes me about this notion is that it relies on a view of the future that seems to have jelled into a cer­tain­ty, at least among the tech­no­rati on the West Coast.

But the eco­nom­ic num­bers that we see today don’t sup­port this view. If robots were eat­ing our lunch, it would show up as fast pro­duc­tiv­i­ty growth. But as Robert Gor­don points out in his new book, “The Rise and Fall of Amer­i­can Growth,” pro­duc­tiv­i­ty has slowed sharply. He argues pret­ty con­vinc­ing­ly that future pro­duc­tiv­i­ty growth will remain fair­ly mod­est, much slow­er than dur­ing the burst of Amer­i­can pros­per­i­ty in mid-20th cen­tu­ry.

A prob­lem I have with the idea of a uni­ver­sal basic income — as opposed to, say, wage sub­si­dies or wage insur­ance to top up the earn­ings of peo­ple who lose their job and must set­tle for a new job at a low­er wage — is that it relies on an unlike­ly future. It’s not a future with a lot of crum­my work for low pay, but essen­tial­ly a future with lit­tle or no paid work at all.

The for­mer seems to me a not unrea­son­able fore­cast — we’ve been los­ing good jobs for decades, while low-wage employ­ment in the ser­vice sec­tor has grown. But no paid work? That’s more a dream (or a night­mare) than a fore­cast. Even George Jet­son takes his brief­case to work every day.

Farhad Man­joo: Because I’m scared that they’ll unleash their bots on me, I should start by defend­ing the techies a bit before I end up agree­ing with you.

So, first, I don’t think it’s quite right to say that the pro­po­nents of U.B.I. are envi­sion­ing a future of no paid work at all. I think they see less paid work than we have today — after soft­ware eats the world, they say it’s pos­si­ble we’ll end up with a soci­ety in which there’s not enough work for every­one, and espe­cial­ly not a lot of good work.

They see a future in which a small group of high­ly skilled tech work­ers reign supreme, while the rest of the job world resem­bles the piece­meal, tran­si­tion­al work we see com­ing out of tech today (Uber dri­vers, Etsy shop­keep­ers, peo­ple who scrape by on oth­er people’s plat­forms).

Why does that future call for insti­tut­ing a basic income instead of the small­er and more fea­si­ble labor-pol­i­cy ideas that you out­line? I think they see two rea­sons. First, techies have a philo­soph­i­cal bent toward big ideas, and U.B.I. is very big.

They see soft­ware not just alter­ing the labor mar­ket at the mar­gins but fun­da­men­tal­ly chang­ing every­thing about human soci­ety. While there will be some work, for most non­pro­gram­mers work will be inse­cure and unre­li­able. Peo­ple could have long stretch­es of not work­ing at all — and U.B.I. is alone among pro­pos­als that would allow you to get a sub­sidy even if you’re not work­ing at all.

Eduar­do Porter: I know what you mean by think­ing big. Many of these new tech­nol­o­gy entre­pre­neurs think more like engi­neers than social sci­en­tists. In the same breath they will extol the ben­e­fits of indi­vid­ual lib­er­ty and the mar­ket econ­o­my and pro­pose some vast reor­ga­ni­za­tion of soci­ety fol­low­ing an ambi­tious blue­print cooked up by an intel­lec­tu­al elite. A few months ago I inter­viewed Albert Wenger, the ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist you cite in your col­umn. He also told me about his vision of a future world in which work would be super­flu­ous. It made me think of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” or George Orwell’s “Ani­mal Farm.”

If there are, in fact, jobs to be had, a uni­ver­sal basic income may not be the best choice of pol­i­cy. The lack of good work is prob­a­bly best addressed by mak­ing the work bet­ter — bet­ter paid and more skilled — and equip­ping work­ers to per­form it, rather than offer­ing a uni­ver­sal pay­ment unre­lat­ed to work.

The chal­lenge of less work could just lead to few­er work­ing hours. Oth­ers are already mov­ing in this direc­tion. Peo­ple work much less in many oth­er rich coun­tries: Nor­we­gians work 20 per­cent few­er hours per year than Amer­i­cans; Ger­mans 25 per­cent few­er. They have tak­en much more of their wealth in the form of leisure rather than mon­ey. But they still work for a liv­ing.

And, by the way, I’ve read about robots that can pro­gram. So maybe the pro­gram­mers aren’t safe either.

Farhad Man­joo: One key fac­tor in the push for U.B.I., I think, is the idea that it could help reorder social expec­ta­tions. At the moment we are all defined by work; West­ern soci­ety gen­er­al­ly, but espe­cial­ly Amer­i­can soci­ety, keeps social score accord­ing to what peo­ple do and how much they make for it. The dreami­est pro­po­nents of U.B.I. see that chang­ing as work goes away. It will be O.K., under this pol­i­cy, to choose a life of learn­ing instead of a low-pay­ing bad job.

Eduar­do Porter: To my mind, a uni­ver­sal basic income func­tions prop­er­ly only in a world with lit­tle or no paid work because the odds of any­body tak­ing a job when his or her needs are already being met are going to be fair­ly low. The dis­cus­sion, I guess, real­ly depends on how high this uni­ver­sal basic income would be. How many of our needs would it sat­is­fy? We already sort of have a uni­ver­sal basic income guar­an­tee. It’s called food stamps, or SNAP. But it’s impos­si­ble for peo­ple to live on food stamps alone.

This brings to mind some­thing else. You give the techies cred­it for seri­ous­ly propos­ing this as an opti­mal solu­tion to wrench­ing tech­no­log­i­cal and eco­nom­ic change. But in a way, isn’t it a cop-out? They’re just pass­ing the bag to the polit­i­cal sys­tem. Telling Con­gress, “You fix it.”

If the idea of robots tak­ing over sounds like sci­ence fic­tion, the idea of the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment agree­ing to tax cap­i­tal­ists enough to hand out checks to sup­port the entire work­ing class is in an entire­ly new cat­e­go­ry of fan­ta­sy.

Farhad Man­joo: Yes, this is per­haps the biggest crit­i­cism of U.B.I.: It all sounds too fan­tas­ti­cal! It’s straight from sci-fi. And you’re right; many of these pro­po­nents aren’t shy about being inspired by fan­tasies of the future.

But para­dox­i­cal­ly, they also see U.B.I. as more polit­i­cal­ly fea­si­ble than some of the oth­er pol­i­cy pro­pos­als you call for. One of the rea­sons some lib­er­tar­i­ans and con­ser­v­a­tives like U.B.I. is that it is a very sim­ple, effi­cient and uni­ver­sal form of wel­fare — every­one gets a month­ly check, even the rich, and the gov­ern­ment isn’t going to tell you what to spend it on. Its very uni­ver­sal­i­ty breaks through polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion. And I should note that it’s not only techies who are for it — Andy Stern, the for­mer head of the S.E.I.U., will soon pub­lish a book call­ing for a basic income.

Still, like you, I’m skep­ti­cal that we’ll see any­thing close to this sort of pro­pos­al any­time soon. Even Bernie Sanders isn’t propos­ing it. The techies, as usu­al, are either way ahead of every­one, or they’re liv­ing in some oth­er uni­verse. Often it’s hard to tell which is which.

But let’s get back to the ques­tion of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. You’re right that soft­ware hasn’t pro­duced the sort of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty gains many had said it would. But why do you dis­agree with the techies that automa­tion is just off beyond the hori­zon?

Eduar­do Porter: I guess some enor­mous dis­con­ti­nu­ity right around the cor­ner might vast­ly expand our pros­per­i­ty. Joel Mokyr, an eco­nom­ic his­to­ri­an that knows much more than I do about the evo­lu­tion of tech­nol­o­gy, argues that the tools and tech­niques we have devel­oped in recent times — from gene sequenc­ing to elec­tron micro­scopes to com­put­ers that can ana­lyze data at enor­mous speeds — are about to open up vast new fron­tiers of pos­si­bil­i­ty. We will be able to invent mate­ri­als to pre­cise­ly fit the spec­i­fi­ca­tions of our homes and cars and tools, rather than make our homes, cars and tools with what­ev­er mate­ri­als are avail­able.

The ques­tion is whether this could pro­duce anoth­er burst of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty like the one we expe­ri­enced between 1920 and 1970, which — by the way — was much greater than the mini-pro­duc­tiv­i­ty boom pro­duced by infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy in the 1990s.

While I don’t have a crys­tal ball, I do know that investors don’t seem to think so. Long-term inter­est rates have been grad­u­al­ly declin­ing for a fair­ly long time. This would sug­gest that investors do not expect a very high rate of return on their future invest­ments. R.&D. inten­si­ty is slow­ing down, and the rate at which new busi­ness­es are formed is also slow­ing.

Lit­tle in these dynam­ics sug­gests a high-tech utopia — or dystopia, for that mat­ter — in the off­ing.

2. Most of the pro­gram con­sists of an excerpt­ing of  Mis­cel­la­neous Archive Show M12, record­ed in Feb­ru­ary of 1988. The pro­gram traces the evo­lu­tion of Ger­man eugen­ics think­ing, its evo­lu­tion into a eugen­ics pro­gram and the grad­ual inten­si­fi­ca­tion and esca­la­tion of that pro­gram into the full-blown Nazi exter­mi­na­tion pro­grams.

 

Discussion

One comment for “FTR #908 Easy “E’s”: Eugenics, Euthanasia and Extermination (A Message from the Past to the Future)”

  1. Charles Mur­ray, the aca­d­e­m­ic of choice for con­tem­po­rary eugeni­cists, recent­ly had anoth­er piece advo­cat­ing a Uni­ver­sal Basic Income. Or, rather, advo­cat­ing his spe­cif­ic vision for how a Uni­ver­sal Basic Income (UBI) should work. It’s an impor­tant piece because it serves as a warn­ing for the phase in the far-right’s attack on pub­lic ser­vices in the con­text of the employ­ment envi­ron­ment of the future where hyper-automa­tion and AI make a grow­ing per­cent­age of pop­u­lace as basi­cal­ly redun­dant. Because as Mur­ray makes clear in the arti­cle below, he agrees that automa­tion and AI are poten­tial­ly going to trans­form the nature of and employ­ment in com­ing years and sta­ble, non-pover­ty wage jobs are going to be increas­ing­ly out of reach for a grow­ing seg­ment of the pop­u­lace.

    And while a UBI would seem like exact­ly the kind of thing soci­ety would want in that kind of future, there are a few strings attached to the the UBI Mur­ray has in mind: it must replace all pub­lic assis­tance pro­grams and the safe­ty-net: Social Secu­ri­ty, Medicare, Med­ic­aid, food stamps, Sup­ple­men­tal Secu­ri­ty Income, hous­ing sub­si­dies, wel­fare for sin­gle women and every oth­er kind of wel­fare and social-ser­vices pro­gram must be replaced with the UBI or Mur­ray sees it as an inevitable fail­ure that would just result in peo­ple liv­ing on the dole and soci­etal implo­sion. And no extra income for chil­dren.

    What’s the lev­el of income Mur­ray envi­sions for the UBI? $13,000 per year, with $3,000 allo­cat­ed towards med­ical care. So indi­vid­u­als will have $10k to live on and that’s going to replace Social Secu­ri­ty, Medicare, Med­ic­aid, food stamps, Sup­ple­men­tal Secu­ri­ty Income, hous­ing sub­si­dies, wel­fare for sin­gle women and every oth­er kind of wel­fare and social-ser­vices pro­gram. And no extra income for kids. Keep in mind that the pover­ty lev­el for a sin­gle indi­vid­ual in the US is around $11k for a sin­gle indi­vid­ual and $23k for a fam­i­ly of four and there’s pre­sum­ably pub­lic assis­tance pro­grams that are sup­ple­ment­ing that income. So Mur­ray’s plan is for the UBI to replace the cur­rent safe­ty-net with some­thing that will pre­sum­ably make many poor indi­vid­u­als much poor­er. Espe­cial­ly when you con­sid­er the poten­tial cost of med­ical expens­es that are cov­ered by pro­grams like Med­ic­aid. As Mur­ray sees it, the pri­vate char­i­ty and social groups will step in to cov­er the new­ly cre­at­ed gaps in things like med­ical costs and oth­er needs that can’t be ade­quate­ly paid for with an indi­vid­u­al’s the UBI. So in addi­tion to shift­ing many exist­ing social ser­vices into pri­vate sec­tor func­tions that are paid for with the UBI, Mur­ray’s plan also assumes that pri­vate char­i­ty will just step in to also fill in the gaps. In oth­er words, Mur­ray’s UBI is basi­cal­ly a cat­a­lyst to pri­va­tize the pub­lic saftey-net.

    But Mur­ray’s ver­sion of the UBI does envi­sion cre­at­ing one big new kind of saftey-net in Amer­i­can soci­ety: indi­vid­u­als will now feel safe and secure in just telling peo­ple who are still in need that they are on their own and if the UBI can’t cov­er their costs, oh well. And by giv­ing peo­ple the new found free­dom to just say, “we no longer feel any respon­si­bil­i­ty to those in need because they have a (pover­ty-lev­el) UBI,” indi­vid­u­als will feel more per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty and there­fore become bet­ter, more vir­tu­ous peo­ple.

    That’s seri­ous­ly how Mur­ray’s ver­sion of the UBI is sup­posed to work. It’s a reminder that the list of Charles Mur­ray’s life­time accom­plish­ments includes smear­ing the idea of a Uni­ver­sal Basic Income:

    The Wall Street Jour­nal

    A Guar­an­teed Income for Every Amer­i­can
    Replac­ing the wel­fare state with an annu­al grant is the best way to cope with a rad­i­cal­ly chang­ing U.S. jobs market—and to revi­tal­ize America’s civic cul­ture

    By Charles Mur­ray
    June 3, 2016 11:59 a.m. ET

    When peo­ple learn that I want to replace the wel­fare state with a uni­ver­sal basic income, or UBI, the response I almost always get goes some­thing like this: “But peo­ple will just use it to live off the rest of us!” “Peo­ple will waste their lives!” Or, as they would have put it in a bygone age, a guar­an­teed income will fos­ter idle­ness and vice. I see it dif­fer­ent­ly. I think that a UBI is our only hope to deal with a com­ing labor mar­ket unlike any in human his­to­ry and that it rep­re­sents our best hope to revi­tal­ize Amer­i­can civ­il soci­ety.

    The great free-mar­ket econ­o­mist Mil­ton Fried­man orig­i­nat­ed the idea of a guar­an­teed income just after World War II. An exper­i­ment using a bas­tardized ver­sion of his “neg­a­tive income tax” was tried in the 1970s, with dis­ap­point­ing results. But as trans­fer pay­ments con­tin­ued to soar while the pover­ty rate remained stuck at more than 10% of the pop­u­la­tion, the appeal of a guar­an­teed income per­sist­ed: If you want to end pover­ty, just give peo­ple mon­ey. As of 2016, the UBI has become a live pol­i­cy option. Fin­land is plan­ning a pilot project for a UBI next year, and Switzer­land is vot­ing this week­end on a ref­er­en­dum to install a UBI.

    The UBI has brought togeth­er odd bed­fel­lows. Its advo­cates on the left see it as a move toward social jus­tice; its lib­er­tar­i­an sup­port­ers (like Fried­man) see it as the least dam­ag­ing way for the gov­ern­ment to trans­fer wealth from some cit­i­zens to oth­ers. Either way, the UBI is an idea whose time has final­ly come, but it has to be done right.

    First, my big caveat: A UBI will do the good things I claim only if it replaces all oth­er trans­fer pay­ments and the bureau­cra­cies that over­see them. If the guar­an­teed income is an add-on to the exist­ing sys­tem, it will be as destruc­tive as its crit­ics fear.

    Sec­ond, the sys­tem has to be designed with cer­tain key fea­tures. In my ver­sion, every Amer­i­can cit­i­zen age 21 and old­er would get a $13,000 annu­al grant deposit­ed elec­tron­i­cal­ly into a bank account in month­ly install­ments. Three thou­sand dol­lars must be used for health insur­ance (a com­pli­cat­ed pro­vi­sion I won’t try to explain here), leav­ing every adult with $10,000 in dis­pos­able annu­al income for the rest of their lives.

    Peo­ple can make up to $30,000 in earned income with­out los­ing a pen­ny of the grant. After $30,000, a grad­u­at­ed sur­tax reim­burs­es part of the grant, which would drop to $6,500 (but no low­er) when an indi­vid­ual reach­es $60,000 of earned income. Why should peo­ple mak­ing good incomes retain any part of the UBI? Because they will be los­ing Social Secu­ri­ty and Medicare, and they need to be com­pen­sat­ed.

    The UBI is to be financed by get­ting rid of Social Secu­ri­ty, Medicare, Med­ic­aid, food stamps, Sup­ple­men­tal Secu­ri­ty Income, hous­ing sub­si­dies, wel­fare for sin­gle women and every oth­er kind of wel­fare and social-ser­vices pro­gram, as well as agri­cul­tur­al sub­si­dies and cor­po­rate wel­fare. As of 2014, the annu­al cost of a UBI would have been about $200 bil­lion cheap­er than the cur­rent sys­tem. By 2020, it would be near­ly a tril­lion dol­lars cheap­er.

    Final­ly, an acknowl­edg­ment: Yes, some peo­ple will idle away their lives under my UBI plan. But that is already a prob­lem. As of 2015, the Cur­rent Pop­u­la­tion Sur­vey tells us that 18% of unmar­ried males and 23% of unmar­ried women ages 25 through 54—people of prime work­ing age—weren’t even in the labor force. Just about all of them were already liv­ing off oth­er people’s mon­ey. The ques­tion isn’t whether a UBI will dis­cour­age work, but whether it will make the exist­ing prob­lem sig­nif­i­cant­ly worse.

    I don’t think it would. Under the cur­rent sys­tem, tak­ing a job makes you inel­i­gi­ble for many wel­fare ben­e­fits or makes them sub­ject to extreme­ly high mar­gin­al tax rates. Under my ver­sion of the UBI, tak­ing a job is pure prof­it with no down­side until you reach $30,000—at which point you’re bring­ing home way too much ($40,000 net) to be deterred from work by the impo­si­tion of a sur­tax.

    Some peo­ple who would oth­er­wise work will sure­ly drop out of the labor force under the UBI, but oth­ers who are now on wel­fare or dis­abil­i­ty will enter the labor force. It is pru­dent to assume that net vol­un­tary dropout from the labor force will increase, but there is no rea­son to think that it will be large enough to make the UBI unwork­able.

    Invol­un­tary dropout from the labor force is anoth­er mat­ter, which brings me to a key point: We are approach­ing a labor mar­ket in which entire trades and pro­fes­sions will be mere shad­ows of what they once were. I’m famil­iar with the retort: Peo­ple have been wor­ried about tech­nol­o­gy destroy­ing jobs since the Lud­dites, and they have always been wrong. But the case for “this time is dif­fer­ent” has a lot going for it.

    When cars and trucks start­ed to dis­place horse-drawn vehi­cles, it didn’t take much imag­i­na­tion to see that jobs for dri­vers would replace jobs lost for team­sters, and that car mechan­ics would be in demand even as jobs for sta­ble boys van­ished. It takes a bet­ter imag­i­na­tion than mine to come up with new blue-col­lar occu­pa­tions that will replace more than a frac­tion of the jobs (now num­ber­ing 4 mil­lion) that taxi dri­vers and truck dri­vers will lose when dri­ver­less vehi­cles take over. Advances in 3‑D print­ing and “con­tour craft” tech­nol­o­gy will put at risk the jobs of many of the 14 mil­lion peo­ple now employed in pro­duc­tion and con­struc­tion.

    The list goes on, and it also includes mil­lions of white-col­lar jobs for­mer­ly thought to be safe. For decades, progress in arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence lagged behind the hype. In the past few years, AI has come of age. Last spring, for exam­ple, a com­put­er pro­gram defeat­ed a grand­mas­ter in the clas­sic Asian board game of Go a decade soon­er than had been expect­ed. It wasn’t done by soft­ware writ­ten to play Go but by soft­ware that taught itself to play—a land­mark advance. Future gen­er­a­tions of col­lege grad­u­ates should take note.

    Exact­ly how bad is the job sit­u­a­tion going to be? An Orga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nom­ic Coop­er­a­tion and Devel­op­ment study con­clud­ed that 9% of Amer­i­can jobs are at risk. Two Oxford schol­ars esti­mate that as many as 47% of Amer­i­can jobs are at risk. Even the opti­mistic sce­nario por­tends a seri­ous prob­lem. What­ev­er the case, it will need to be pos­si­ble, with­in a few decades, for a life well lived in the U.S. not to involve a job as tra­di­tion­al­ly defined. A UBI will be an essen­tial part of the tran­si­tion to that unprece­dent­ed world.

    The good news is that a well-designed UBI can do much more than help us to cope with dis­as­ter. It also could pro­vide an invalu­able ben­e­fit: inject­ing new resources and new ener­gy into an Amer­i­can civic cul­ture that has his­tor­i­cal­ly been one of our great­est assets but that has dete­ri­o­rat­ed alarm­ing­ly in recent decades.

    A key fea­ture of Amer­i­can excep­tion­al­ism has been the propen­si­ty of Amer­i­cans to cre­ate vol­un­tary orga­ni­za­tions for deal­ing with local prob­lems. Toc­queville was just one of the ear­ly Euro­pean observers who mar­veled at this phe­nom­e­non in the 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies. By the time the New Deal began, Amer­i­can asso­ci­a­tions for pro­vid­ing mutu­al assis­tance and aid­ing the poor involved broad net­works, engag­ing peo­ple from the top to the bot­tom of soci­ety, spon­ta­neous­ly formed by ordi­nary cit­i­zens.

    These groups pro­vid­ed sophis­ti­cat­ed and effec­tive social ser­vices and social insur­ance of every sort, not just in rur­al towns or small cities but also in the largest and most imper­son­al of mega­lopolis­es. To get a sense of how exten­sive these net­works were, con­sid­er this: When one small Mid­west­ern state, Iowa, mount­ed a food-con­ser­va­tion pro­gram dur­ing World War I, it engaged the par­tic­i­pa­tion of 2,873 church con­gre­ga­tions and 9,630 chap­ters of 31 dif­fer­ent sec­u­lar fra­ter­nal asso­ci­a­tions.

    Did these net­works suc­cess­ful­ly deal with all the human needs of their day? No. But that isn’t the right ques­tion. In that era, the U.S. had just a frac­tion of today’s nation­al wealth. The cor­rect ques­tion is: What if the same lev­el of activ­i­ty went into civ­il society’s efforts to deal with today’s needs—and financed with today’s wealth?

    The advent of the New Deal and then of Pres­i­dent Lyn­don Johnson’s Great Soci­ety dis­placed many of the most ambi­tious vol­un­tary efforts to deal with the needs of the poor. It was a pre­dictable response. Why con­tin­ue to con­tribute to a pri­vate pro­gram to feed the hun­gry when the gov­ern­ment is spend­ing bil­lions of dol­lars on food stamps and nutri­tion pro­grams? Why con­tin­ue the mutu­al insur­ance pro­gram of your fra­ter­nal orga­ni­za­tion once Social Secu­ri­ty is installed? Vol­un­tary orga­ni­za­tions con­tin­ued to thrive, but most of them turned to needs less sub­ject to crowd­ing out by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.

    This was a bad trade, in my view. Gov­ern­ment agen­cies are the worst of all mech­a­nisms for deal­ing with human needs. They are nec­es­sar­i­ly bound by rules applied uni­form­ly to peo­ple who have the same prob­lems on paper but who will respond dif­fer­ent­ly to dif­fer­ent forms of help. Whether reli­gious or sec­u­lar, non­govern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion are inher­ent­ly bet­ter able to tai­lor their ser­vices to local con­di­tions and indi­vid­ual cas­es.

    Under my UBI plan, the entire bureau­crat­ic appa­ra­tus of gov­ern­ment social work­ers would dis­ap­pear, but Amer­i­cans would still pos­sess their his­toric sym­pa­thy and social con­cern. And the wealth in pri­vate hands would be greater than ever before. It is no pipe dream to imag­ine the restora­tion, on an unprece­dent­ed scale, of a great Amer­i­can tra­di­tion of vol­un­tary efforts to meet human needs. It is how Amer­i­cans, left to them­selves, have always respond­ed. Fig­u­ra­tive­ly, and per­haps lit­er­al­ly, it is in our DNA.

    Regard­less of what vol­un­tary agen­cies do (or fail to do), nobody will starve in the streets. Every­body will know that, even if they can’t find any job at all, they can live a decent exis­tence if they are coop­er­a­tive enough to pool their grants with one or two oth­er peo­ple. The social iso­lates who don’t coop­er­ate will also be get­ting their own month­ly deposit of $833.

    Some peo­ple will still behave irre­spon­si­bly and be in need before that deposit arrives, but the UBI will rad­i­cal­ly change the social frame­work with­in which they seek help: Every­body will know that every­body else has an income stream. It will be pos­si­ble to say to the irre­spon­si­ble what can’t be said now: “We won’t let you starve before you get your next deposit, but it’s time for you to get your act togeth­er. Don’t try to tell us you’re help­less, because we know you aren’t.”

    The known pres­ence of an income stream would trans­form a wide range of social and per­son­al inter­ac­tions. The unem­ployed guy liv­ing with his girl­friend will be told that he has to start pay­ing part of the rent or move out, chang­ing the dynam­ics of their rela­tion­ship for the bet­ter. The guy who does have a low-income job can think about mar­riage dif­fer­ent­ly if his new family’s income will be at least $35,000 a year instead of just his own earned $15,000.

    Or con­sid­er the unem­ployed young man who fathers a child. Today, soci­ety is unable to make him shoul­der respon­si­bil­i­ty. Under a UBI, a judge could order part of his month­ly grant to be extract­ed for child sup­port before he ever sees it. The les­son wouldn’t be lost on his male friends.

    Or con­sid­er teenage girls from poor neigh­bor­hoods who have friends turn­ing 21. They watch—and learn—as some of their old­er friends use their new month­ly income to rent their own apart­ments, buy nice clothes or pay for tuition, while oth­ers have to use the mon­ey to pay for dia­pers and baby food, still liv­ing with their moth­ers because they need help with day care.

    These are just a few pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios, but mul­ti­ply the effects of such inter­ac­tions by the mil­lions of times they would occur through­out the nation every day. The avail­abil­i­ty of a guar­an­teed income wouldn’t relieve indi­vid­u­als of respon­si­bil­i­ty for the con­se­quences of their actions. It would instead, para­dox­i­cal­ly, impose respon­si­bil­i­ties that didn’t exist before, which would be a good thing.

    ...

    My ver­sion of a UBI would do noth­ing to stage-man­age their lives. In place of lit­tle bun­dles of ben­e­fits to be used as a bureau­cra­cy spec­i­fies, they would get $10,000 a year to use as they wish. It wouldn’t be charity—every cit­i­zen who has turned 21 gets the same thing, deposit­ed month­ly into that most respectable of pos­ses­sions, a bank account.

    A UBI would present the most dis­ad­van­taged among us with an open road to the mid­dle class if they put their minds to it. It would say to peo­ple who have nev­er had rea­son to believe it before: “Your future is in your hands.” And that would be the truth.

    The UBI is to be financed by get­ting rid of Social Secu­ri­ty, Medicare, Med­ic­aid, food stamps, Sup­ple­men­tal Secu­ri­ty Income, hous­ing sub­si­dies, wel­fare for sin­gle women and every oth­er kind of wel­fare and social-ser­vices pro­gram, as well as agri­cul­tur­al sub­si­dies and cor­po­rate wel­fare. As of 2014, the annu­al cost of a UBI would have been about $200 bil­lion cheap­er than the cur­rent sys­tem. By 2020, it would be near­ly a tril­lion dol­lars cheap­er.”
    Yep, some­how social costs would be hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars cheap­er under Mur­ray’s UBI plan. How does accom­plish this while still pro­vid­ed the same lev­el of pub­lic ser­vices or bet­ter? By not pro­vid­ing then and just telling peo­ple “you bet­ter start pulling those boot­straps because you’re on your own!”

    ...
    Under my UBI plan, the entire bureau­crat­ic appa­ra­tus of gov­ern­ment social work­ers would dis­ap­pear, but Amer­i­cans would still pos­sess their his­toric sym­pa­thy and social con­cern. And the wealth in pri­vate hands would be greater than ever before. It is no pipe dream to imag­ine the restora­tion, on an unprece­dent­ed scale, of a great Amer­i­can tra­di­tion of vol­un­tary efforts to meet human needs. It is how Amer­i­cans, left to them­selves, have always respond­ed. Fig­u­ra­tive­ly, and per­haps lit­er­al­ly, it is in our DNA.

    Regard­less of what vol­un­tary agen­cies do (or fail to do), nobody will starve in the streets. Every­body will know that, even if they can’t find any job at all, they can live a decent exis­tence if they are coop­er­a­tive enough to pool their grants with one or two oth­er peo­ple. The social iso­lates who don’t coop­er­ate will also be get­ting their own month­ly deposit of $833.

    Some peo­ple will still behave irre­spon­si­bly and be in need before that deposit arrives, but the UBI will rad­i­cal­ly change the social frame­work with­in which they seek help: Every­body will know that every­body else has an income stream. It will be pos­si­ble to say to the irre­spon­si­ble what can’t be said now: “We won’t let you starve before you get your next deposit, but it’s time for you to get your act togeth­er. Don’t try to tell us you’re help­less, because we know you aren’t.”
    ...

    These are just a few pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios, but mul­ti­ply the effects of such inter­ac­tions by the mil­lions of times they would occur through­out the nation every day. The avail­abil­i­ty of a guar­an­teed income wouldn’t relieve indi­vid­u­als of respon­si­bil­i­ty for the con­se­quences of their actions. It would instead, para­dox­i­cal­ly, impose respon­si­bil­i­ties that didn’t exist before, which would be a good thing.

    ...

    A UBI would present the most dis­ad­van­taged among us with an open road to the mid­dle class if they put their minds to it. It would say to peo­ple who have nev­er had rea­son to believe it before: “Your future is in your hands.” And that would be the truth.

    “Some peo­ple will still behave irre­spon­si­bly and be in need before that deposit arrives, but the UBI will rad­i­cal­ly change the social frame­work with­in which they seek help: Every­body will know that every­body else has an income stream. It will be pos­si­ble to say to the irre­spon­si­ble what can’t be said now: “We won’t let you starve before you get your next deposit, but it’s time for you to get your act togeth­er. Don’t try to tell us you’re help­less, because we know you aren’t.”
    Oh how nice. After gut­ting all social wel­fare pro­grams and effec­tive­ly mak­ing the poor poor­er, Amer­i­can soci­ety will just become like one giant fam­i­ly where no one is allowed to starve. What exact­ly we’ll do when it isn’t, “We won’t let you starve before you get your next deposit, but it’s time for you to get your act togeth­er. Don’t try to tell us you’re help­less, because we know you aren’t,” but instead, “We won’t let you die from [insert expen­sive med­ical cir­cum­stance] before you get your next deposit, but it’s time for you to get your act togeth­er. Don’t try to tell us you’re help­less, because we know you aren’t,” is unclear, but pre­sum­ably pri­vate char­i­ty will assume the grow­ing med­ical expens­es of an increas­ing­ly poor aging Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion or, you know, just tell them “Don’t try to tell us you’re help­less, because we know you aren’t.” Either response appears to be a viable option under Mur­ray’s plan. After all, the threat of let­ting peo­ple starve is is key ingre­di­ent of Mur­ray’s UBI secret sauce.

    And, again, since there’s a very high prob­a­bly that get­ting rid of the min­i­mum wage would also be part of any UBI plan note how Mur­ray sells his UBI plan as a response to a future job mar­ket where automa­tion and AI make qual­i­ty employ­ment

    ...
    Exact­ly how bad is the job sit­u­a­tion going to be? An Orga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nom­ic Coop­er­a­tion and Devel­op­ment study con­clud­ed that 9% of Amer­i­can jobs are at risk. Two Oxford schol­ars esti­mate that as many as 47% of Amer­i­can jobs are at risk. Even the opti­mistic sce­nario por­tends a seri­ous prob­lem. What­ev­er the case, it will need to be pos­si­ble, with­in a few decades, for a life well lived in the U.S. not to involve a job as tra­di­tion­al­ly defined. A UBI will be an essen­tial part of the tran­si­tion to that unprece­dent­ed world.

    The good news is that a well-designed UBI can do much more than help us to cope with dis­as­ter. It also could pro­vide an invalu­able ben­e­fit: inject­ing new resources and new ener­gy into an Amer­i­can civic cul­ture that has his­tor­i­cal­ly been one of our great­est assets but that has dete­ri­o­rat­ed alarm­ing­ly in recent decades.
    ...

    So we need a UBI to address the loom­ing job-poca­lypse. But the UBI is going to be a pover­ty-lev­el income, with no back­up for when med­ical or oth­er expens­es exceed that pover­ty lev­el, and the only way to achieve non-pover­ty-lev­el income is to get the extra income in the job-poca­lypse job mar­ket. That should go well:

    Backchan­nel

    Say Good­bye To Your High­ly Skilled Job. It’s Now a “Human Intel­li­gence Task.”
    Dig­i­tal crowd­work­ers don’t only do menial tasks like data entry. They’re smart, capa­ble, and hun­gri­er than any algo­rithm. And they work for cheap.

    Mark Har­ris
    6/6/2016

    Har­ry K. sits at his desk in Van­cou­ver, Cana­da, scan­ning sepia-tint­ed swirls, loops and blobs on his com­put­er screen. Every sec­ond or so, he jabs at his mouse and adds a flu­o­res­cent dot to the image. After a minute, a new image pops up in front of him.

    Har­ry is tag­ging images of cells removed from breast can­cers. It’s a painstak­ing job but not a dif­fi­cult one, he says: “It’s like play­ing Etch A Sketch or a video game where you col­or in cer­tain dots.”

    Har­ry found the gig on Crowd­flower, a crowd­work­ing plat­form. Usu­al­ly that cell-tag­ging task would be the job of pathol­o­gists, who typ­i­cal­ly start their careers with annu­al salaries of around $200,000—an hourly wage of about $80. Har­ry, on the oth­er hand, earns just four cents for anno­tat­ing a batch of five images, which takes him between two to eight min­utes. His hourly wage is about 60 cents.

    Grant­ed, Har­ry can’t per­form most of the tasks in a pathologist’s reper­toire. But in 2016—11 years after the launch of the ur-plat­form, Ama­zon Mechan­i­cal Turk—crowd­work­ing (some­times also called crowd­sourc­ing) is eat­ing into increas­ing­ly high-skilled jobs. The engi­neers who are devel­op­ing this mod­el of labor have a bold ambi­tion to atom­ize entire careers into micro-tasks that almost any­one, any­where in the world, can car­ry out online. They’re bank­ing on the idea that any tech­nol­o­gy that can make a com­plex process 100 times cheap­er, as in Harry’s case, will spread like wild­fire.

    Per­haps it’s inevitable that in a few years, soft­ware will swal­low up these jobs, too. But as the tech con­ver­sa­tion has fix­at­ed on how arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence will affect the job mar­ket, crowd­work has qui­et­ly grown in impact and scale.

    The next jobs to receive the crowd treat­ment? Doc­tors, man­agers and teach­ers.

    ———–

    When Ama­zon revealed Mechan­i­cal Turk in 2005, the ser­vice became an overnight hit. It was the first online plat­form to allow busi­ness­es to post small jobs (called ‘HITs,’ short for ‘human intel­li­gence tasks’), and it quick­ly attract­ed a glob­al pool of under-employed peo­ple eager to tack­le these jobs for equal­ly small rewards. Work­ers, or ‘turk­ers,’ choose which tasks to accept, and how long to work. They might, for exam­ple, check web­sites for open­ing hours, cat­e­go­rize images, or answer sur­vey ques­tions.

    Isaac Nichols, now Chief Prod­uct Offi­cer of the plat­form zCrowd, was part of the team that devel­oped Mechan­i­cal Turk. The orig­i­nal intent was to use crowd­work­ers to clean up the company’s data­bas­es, extract infor­ma­tion from pho­tos, and com­plete list­ings for CDs and MP3s. “We had a huge need for a work­force to do this work, but man­ag­ing that was com­pli­cat­ed in terms of hir­ing, staffing, and sea­son­al­i­ty of the work,” he says.

    Ama­zon real­ized that if it was fac­ing these kinds of issues, oth­er com­pa­nies in the dig­i­tal ecosys­tem were like­ly also suf­fer­ing. “Mechan­i­cal Turk was designed from the ground-up to be an exter­nal tool,” says Nichols. It wasn’t long before oth­er crowd­work­ing plat­forms soon popped up. “If you have a task that almost any­one in the world can do, then there’s a seem­ing­ly infi­nite sup­ply of peo­ple will­ing to do it,” says Lukas Biewald, founder of Crowd­Flower, the plat­form Har­ry uses. If you need­ed to pitch the con­cept to a ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist in an ele­va­tor, you could say crowd­work­ing is Uber for brains.

    More than a decade lat­er, dozens of crowd­work­ing plat­forms now serve up tiny units of labor to mil­lions of work­ers around the world. Last year, the JPMor­gan Chase Insti­tute looked at the anonymized accounts of 6.3m of its cus­tomers, and found that over 265,000 peo­ple had received income from online econ­o­my plat­forms. This includes so-called cap­i­tal plat­forms like Uber or AirBnB, which encour­age peo­ple to mon­e­tize their pos­ses­sions. These have made mon­ey for an esti­mat­ed 3 per­cent of Amer­i­cans, com­pared with only around 1 per­cent of Amer­i­cans (about 3 mil­lion peo­ple) for crowd­work­ing.

    But crowd­work­ing is grow­ing faster, hav­ing increased more than ten­fold in the last three years. The mon­ey crowd­work­ers earned grew even more dra­mat­i­cal­ly between 2012 and 2015—by a fac­tor of 54. Most crowd­work­ers ini­tial­ly turn to dig­i­tal labor to sup­ple­ment low earn­ings or fill gaps between tra­di­tion­al jobs, but once they start, they tend to do more of it.

    Unlike Uber dri­vers or many TaskRab­bit labor­ers, who usu­al­ly have to be phys­i­cal­ly present wher­ev­er they are need­ed, dig­i­tal work­ers can earn mon­ey from cof­fee shops or kitchen tables any­where in the world. And unlike the design, writ­ing and cod­ing pro­fes­sion­als you can find on plat­forms like Upwork or Elance, most crowd­work­ers need no par­tic­u­lar skills or train­ing. Robert Reich, Sec­re­tary of Labor in the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion, calls these work­ers “fun­gi­ble, sought only for their reli­a­bil­i­ty and low cost.” Tech work­ers some­times use a more vis­cer­al term: meat­ware.

    ———–

    The down­side of mak­ing some­thing 100 times cheap­er means that someone—and prob­a­bly lots of people—are los­ing mon­ey. A few pathol­o­gists need­ing to retrain might not upset you, but how exact­ly can peo­ple like Har­ry live on 60 cents an hour? In 2010, researchers at New York Uni­ver­si­ty cal­cu­lat­ed the medi­an wage of Mechan­i­cal Turk work­ers at $1.38 an hour. While a few expe­ri­enced crowd­work­ers say they earn between $5 and $12 an hour, many requesters con­tin­ue to pay far below the fed­er­al min­i­mum wage of $7.25 (which does not apply to inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors).

    For exam­ple, a recent job post by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Los Ange­les, required work­ers to com­plete a 45-minute sur­vey for $1.13, equiv­a­lent to $1.50 an hour, with the risk of for­feit­ing the entire pay­ment should they answer a sin­gle ques­tion incor­rect­ly. And some pay­ments are actu­al­ly falling.

    “When I start­ed work­ing orig­i­nal­ly on the legal HITs, it was 25 cents each,” says Ser­ana Win­ter, a 34-year old Ohioan spe­cial­iz­ing in pro­cess­ing legal doc­u­ments. “We now do them for 15 cents a HIT. Four used to get me to a dol­lar, now it takes sev­en.”

    She esti­mates that “I can do 8 hours of work and make $30, if I’m lucky.” Win­ter uses zCrowd, which adds an effi­cient work­flow man­age­ment sys­tem with­in Mechan­i­cal Turk, and she puts in a full eight-hour shift sev­er­al days a week. She is also work­ing towards a bachelor’s degree in health and well­ness, so the flex­i­ble hours make it worth it for her.

    Isaac Nichols, zCrowd’s founder, admits that pric­ing is tricky. “What’s dif­fi­cult is that you’re deal­ing with aver­ages, but every job is slight­ly dif­fer­ent. We often have work­ers who get 7, 8 or 9 bucks an hour,” he says. “I’d love to pay more but [there are] some upper bounds in terms of what our cus­tomers want to pay.”

    ...

    So I decid­ed to ask them. I want­ed to know why any­one would work for such small change, and whether they felt pres­sured, exploited?—?or per­haps even empow­ered as part of this rev­o­lu­tion in labor.

    ...

    One thing they have in com­mon is their con­cern over pay. Near­ly half say that crowd­work­ing is rarely or nev­er fair­ly paid, and twice as many think that pay is decreas­ing rather than increas­ing. “Even requesters who once paid a fair wage drop that wage when they real­ize that there is some­one out there who will keep work­ing on their HITs for pen­nies,” says one work­er.

    (I also ran a larg­er sur­vey, ask­ing 209 turk­ers how much they actu­al­ly earned, day in, day out. The aver­age hourly rate they report­ed was $3.25, with a third earn­ing less than $3. Few­er than one in ten crowd­work­ers said they earned $7 an hour or more).

    Sev­er­al crowd­work­ers feel like they are in a race to the bot­tom, not just with human rivals, but with machines, too. “Some of [my work] could pos­si­bly be as eas­i­ly done auto­mat­ed,” says a 27-year old work­er from Flori­da. “It is real­ly up to the requester if they want a com­put­er to com­plete it or have it done by a human being. If they find it cheap­er to do auto­mat­ed, they will more than like­ly go that route.”

    Per­haps such mechan­i­cal work is bet­ter han­dled by machines any­way. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs in devel­oped coun­tries have been replaced by assem­bly line robots. Many of the rou­tine image recog­ni­tion and trans­la­tion tasks car­ried out by human turk­ers are now being tar­get­ed by AI researchers. A start­up called Mirador, for exam­ple, asked turk­ers to clas­si­fy 50,000 images as ‘nude’ or ‘not nude’. Once its deep learn­ing soft­ware had been trained on that data, the human work­ers were no longer need­ed. (Arguably, this is a great use for automa­tion, as soft­ware can auto­mat­i­cal­ly sift porno­graph­ic, vio­lent or dis­turb­ing imagery from social media with­out a human hav­ing to suf­fer it.)

    “Algo­rithms are going to take a piece of the work,” admits Isaac Nichols. “It’s a slow, pow­er­ful steady process,” agrees Lukas Biewald. “What we see is that peo­ple will move lit­tle pieces to auto­mat­ed sys­tems over time.”

    Adam Devine, a vice pres­i­dent at Work­Fu­sion, anoth­er crowd­work­ing plat­form, goes fur­ther. “There is absolute­ly no future where a per­son is read­ing infor­ma­tion and sim­ply key­ing in data.” For exam­ple, one of WorkFusion’s clients process­es pay­ment records between banks in dif­fer­ent coun­tries. These doc­u­ments arrive from glob­al banks in emails, spread­sheet files, PDFs and even fax­es. Work­ers then have to tran­scribe each one per­fect­ly. Accord­ing to Devine, a sin­gle mis­take can cost half a bil­lion dol­lars.

    Devine says that by tog­gling back and forth between a human work­er train­ing an algo­rithm, and an algo­rithm that makes a mis­take and is cor­rect­ed by a human, Work­Fu­sion can achieve near-per­fect accu­ra­cy at a fifth of the cost of using peo­ple alone. And as machines get smarter, the illeg­i­ble writ­ing and scrawled num­bers that cur­rent­ly need human input will get few­er and few­er. “The work­ers don’t even real­ize that they’re work­ing on an inter­face that’s ulti­mate­ly going to remove a lot of the work they’re doing,” says Devine.

    ...

    A few peo­ple in my sur­vey said that they had learned skills like typ­ing, research and cod­ing on the job, but only a quar­ter said that they actu­al­ly want­ed to be stretched by their work online. Even those that do aspire to more inter­est­ing tasks have low expec­ta­tions about forg­ing a career from them. “I would like more chal­leng­ing work,” says a 38-year old work­er liv­ing in Wis­con­sin, “But they’d prob­a­bly not pay enough any­way.”

    One 28-year old New York­er with a master’s degree thinks that crowd­work­ing has expand­ed her knowl­edge base slight­ly, “but I wouldn’t say I’ve gained any real world skills.” Per­haps this is the real dan­ger. Increas­ing­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed sys­tems are mak­ing it ever eas­i­er to atom­ize some dai­ly duties of doc­tors, lawyers, teach­ers and man­agers into dis­crete tasks, but the skills lost at the top do not seem to be trick­ling down to the crowd.

    We are at a turn­ing point for crowd­work­ing. In one sce­nario, the crowd con­tin­ues to grow and expand, but the work remains mun­dane, rep­e­ti­tious and poor­ly paid. Even­tu­al­ly, much of it gets auto­mat­ed com­plete­ly.

    In anoth­er, as crowd­work­ing expands, the incre­men­tal jobs require more respon­si­bil­i­ty, more social inter­ac­tion, and more gen­uine intel­li­gence than today’s mech­a­nized chores. Fair­ly paid work becomes avail­able to almost any­one, any­where with access to a com­put­er. This in turn entices some of the 40 per­cent of Amer­i­cans who are of work­ing age but not cur­rent­ly employed to rejoin the work­force.

    “It’s not about cre­at­ing some new kind of mag­i­cal com­pu­ta­tion­al data cen­ter of the work­place,” says Praveen Par­i­tosh. “It’s more about build­ing a plat­form in the dig­i­tal world that fol­lows the mod­el of being humane and being a good co-work­er and being pleas­ant to work with. I know that there will prob­lems as we go along. But the big­ger prob­lem would be if crowd­work­ing dies before it gets there.”

    Crowdworking’s cur­rent woes fore­shad­ow a prob­lem that will only become more acute as AI matures. Do we have the polit­i­cal and social will to trans­form the way we live and work, to embrace the effi­cien­cies of automa­tion with­out dis­card­ing the tremen­dous cre­ativ­i­ty and flex­i­bil­i­ty of human beings? If we can’t, the world of work will be a much poorer—and prob­a­bly even more poor­ly paid—place.

    “The down­side of mak­ing some­thing 100 times cheap­er means that someone—and prob­a­bly lots of people—are los­ing mon­ey. A few pathol­o­gists need­ing to retrain might not upset you, but how exact­ly can peo­ple like Har­ry live on 60 cents an hour? In 2010, researchers at New York Uni­ver­si­ty cal­cu­lat­ed the medi­an wage of Mechan­i­cal Turk work­ers at $1.38 an hour. While a few expe­ri­enced crowd­work­ers say they earn between $5 and $12 an hour, many requesters con­tin­ue to pay far below the fed­er­al min­i­mum wage of $7.25 (which does not apply to inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors).”
    Have fun work­ing you way out of UBI pover­ty in the job mar­ket where mak­ing some­thing 100 times cheap­er by reduc­ing labor costs is the new hot thing and a long-term employ­ment mega-trend. And remem­ber, you and you alone are respon­si­ble for your future under the new UBI ethos. What a great recipe for invig­o­rat­ing Amer­i­ca’s civic cul­ture!

    Part of what makes Mur­ray’s UBI-trolling so unfor­tu­nate is that it real­ly is one of those pol­i­cy tools that could be invalu­able, but not if folks like Mur­ray trash the con­cept in advance. Or do worse and actu­al­ly get the Mur­ray UBI imple­ment­ed as law. Because let’s imag­ine a UBI on top of basic ser­vices like health­care. One that allows peo­ple to live in dig­ni­ty with­out hav­ing go out and get a Mechan­i­cal Turk job for scraps.

    What kind of econ­o­my would that cre­ate? Well, the “non-pover­ty UBI + ser­vices” mod­el would basi­cal­ly act as a pub­lic union, which could have a pro­found­ly pos­i­tive impact on the ‘dis­pos­able’ labor mar­ket that’s emerged in recent years. And the stronger that “pub­lic union”, the high­er wages would be and more peo­ple would be tempt­ed to enter the labor mar­ket.

    But let’s also not for­get one of the biggest pos­i­tive impacts a “non-pover­ty UBI + ser­vices” mod­el could have on the US labor mar­ket: It would final­ly free of the labor force for the biggest “Mechan­i­cal Turk” job in the coun­try. A job that no one gets paid to do but requires vir­tu­al­ly every­one to do any­way. Democ­ra­cy.

    Think about it: while the main pos­i­tive fea­tures of democ­ra­cy that we’re taught to cel­e­brate is that, regard­less of the qual­i­ty of the gov­ern­ment, at least that gov­ern­ment has a sem­blance of legit­i­ma­cy, that’s real­ly just one of its main ben­e­fit. Because don’t for­get that democ­ra­cy is also a giant exer­cise in crowd-sourc­ing and uti­liz­ing the ‘wis­dom of crowds’ to shape and direct pub­lic poli­cies across a broad array of dif­fer­ent issues. Or at least that’s how it’s sup­posed to work...as a giant Mechan­i­cal Turk-like exer­cise in infor­ma­tion diges­tion and analy­sis. Except unlike the Turk jobs, where you’re net out­put is accu­mu­la­tion of a series of micro­tasks for pen­nies apiece all under the direc­tion of some cen­tral orga­ni­za­tion, with democ­ra­cy we (hope) vot­ers are freely and inde­pen­dent­ly tak­ing in all sorts of infor­ma­tion from a vari­ety of sources and the final out­put comes in the form of vot­ing for the kinds of pol­i­cy-mak­ers who seem the most like­ly to achieve bet­ter results for every­one. So it’s a very dif­fer­ent Mechan­i­cal Turk-like task than what Ama­zon is ped­dling. And it’s far more vital, espe­cial­ly in an increas­ing­ly eco­nom­i­cal­ly and envi­ron­men­tal­ly stressed out world where intel­li­gent col­lec­tive sac­ri­fice is going to be a crit­i­cal sur­vival skill. And in a Mechan­i­cal Turk future, where hours of human poten­tial are wast­ed on a micro­task race to the bot­tom, that crit­i­cal Mechan­i­cal Turk-like unpaid job called democ­ra­cy is going to con­tin­ue to face major labor short­ages.

    So let’s hope the debate over the poten­tial util­i­ty of a Uni­ver­sal Basic Income isn’t dom­i­nat­ed by the Charles Mur­rays of the world. Because the most impor­tant job in the world requires us all. And it does­n’t pay. At all.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | June 11, 2016, 3:37 pm

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