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Proposals for a universal basic income (UBI) seem to come up again and again. Many observers uncritically accept the notion that robots and automation will eliminate labor as a factor of production in the not-too-distant future. As a result, they cannot imagine how traditional wage earners, and even many salary earners, will get along in life without the helping hand of government. Those who own capital assets — machines, buildings and land — will have to be taxed to support UBI payments, according to this logic.

Even with artificial intelligence added to the mix, I view robot anxiety as overblown, but it makes for great headlines. The threat is likely no greater than the substitution of capital for labor that’s been ongoing since the start of the industrial revolution, and which ultimately led to the creation of more jobs in occupations that were never before imagined. See below for more on my skepticism for robot dystopia. For now, I’ll stipulate that human obsolescence will happen someday, or that a great many workers will be displaced by automation over an extended period. How will society manage with minimal rewards for labor? The question of distributing goods and services will depend more exclusively on the ownership of capital, or else it will be charity and/or government redistribution.

The UBI, as typically framed, is an example of the latter. However, a UBI needn’t require government to tax and redistribute income on an ongoing basis. Nobel Prize winner Vernon Smith suggests that the government owns salable assets sufficient to fund a permanent UBI. He suggests privatizing the interstate highway system and selling off federal lands in the West. The proceeds could then be invested in a variety of assets to generate growth and income. Every American would receive a dividend check each year, under this plan.

Why a UBI?

Given the stipulation that human labor will become obsolete, the UBI is predicated on the presumption that the ownership of earning capital cannot diffuse through society to the working class in time to provide for them adequately. Working people who save are quite capable of accumulating assets, though government does them no favors via tax policy and manipulation of interest rates. But accumulating assets takes time, and it is fair to say that today’s distribution of capital would not support the current distribution of living standards without opportunities to earn labor income.

Still, a UBI might not be a good reason to auction public assets. That question depends more critically on the implicit return earned by those assets via government ownership relative to the gains from privatization, including the returns to alternative uses of the proceeds from a sale.

Objections to the UBI often center on the generally poor performance of government in managing programs, the danger of entrusting resources to the political process, and the corrosive effect of individual dependency. However, if government can do anything well at all, one might think it could at least cut checks. But even if we lay aside the simple issue of mismanagement, politics is a different matter. Over time, there is every chance that a UBI program will be modified as the political winds shift, that exceptions will be carved out, and that complex rules will be established. And that brings us back to the possibility of mismanagement. Even worse, it creates opportunities for rent seekers to skim funds or benefit indirectly from the program. In the end, these considerations might mean that the UBI will yield a poor return for society on the funds placed into the program, much as returns on major entitlements like Social Security are lousy.

Another area of concern is that policy should not discourage work effort while jobs still exist for humans. After all, working and saving is traditionally the most effective route to accumulating capital. Recipients of a UBI would not face the negative marginal work incentives associated with means-tested transfer payments because the UBI would not (should not) be dependent on income. It would go to the rich and poor alike. A UBI could still have a negative impact on labor supply via an income effect, however, depending on how individuals value incremental leisure versus consumption at a higher level of money income. On the whole, the UBI does not impart terrible incentive effects, but that is hardly a rationale for a UBI, let alone a reason to sell public assets.

Funding the UBI

We usually think of funding a UBI via taxes, and it’s well known that taxes harm productive incentives. If the trend toward automation is a natural response to a high return on capital, taxes on capital will retard the transition and might well inhibit the diffusion of capital ownership into lower economic strata. If your rationale for a UBI is truly related to automation and the obsolescence of labor, then funding a UBI should somehow take advantage of the returns to private capital short of taxing those returns away. This makes Smith’s idea more appealing as a funding mechanism.

Will there be a private investment appetite for highways and western land? Selling these assets would take time, of course, and it is difficult to know what bids they could attract. There is no question that toll roads can be profitable. Robert P. Murphy provides an informative discussion of private roads and takes issue with arguments against privatization, such as the presumptions of monopoly pricing and increased risk to drivers. Actually, privatization holds promise as a way of improving the efficiency of infrastructure use and upkeep. In fact, government mispricing of roads is a primary cause of congestion, and private operators have incentives to maintain and improve road safety and quality. Public land sales in the West are complex to the extent that existing mineral and grazing rights could be subject to dispute, and those sales might be unpopular with other landowners.

Once the assets are sold to investors, who will manage the UBI fund? Whether managed publicly or privately, the best arrangement would be no active trading management. Nevertheless, the appropriate mix of investments would be the subject of endless political debate. Every market downturn would bring new calls for conservatism. The level of distributions would also be a politically contentious issue. Dividend yields and price appreciation are not constant, and so it is necessary to determine a sustainable payout rate as well as if and when adjustments are needed. Furthermore, there must be some allowance to assure fund growth over time so that population growth, whatever the source, will not diminish the per capita payout.

Jesse Walker has a good retrospective on the history of “basic income” proposals and programs over time. He demonstrate that economic windfalls have frequently been the impetus for establishment of “rainy day” programs. Alaska, enabled by oil revenue, is unique in establishing a fund paying dividends to residents:

“From time to time a state will find itself awash in riches from natural resources. Some voices will suggest that the government not spend the new money at once but put some away for a rainy day. Some fraction of those voices will suggest it create a sovereign wealth fund to invest the windfall. And some fraction of that fraction will want the fund to pay dividends.

Now, there are all sorts of potential problems with government-run investment portfolios, as anyone who has followed California’s pension troubles can tell you. If you’re wary about mismanagement, you’ll be wary about states playing the market; they won’t all invest as conservatively as Alaska has.

Still, several states have such funds already—the most recent additions to the list are North Dakota and West Virginia—and the number may well grow. None has followed Juneau’s example and started paying dividends, but it is hardly unimaginable that someone else will eventually adopt an Alaska-style system.”

Human-Machine Collaboration

A world without human labor is unlikely to evolve. Automation, for the foreseeable future, can improve existing processes such as line tasks in manufacturing, order taking in fast food outlets, and even burger flipping. Declines in retail employment can also be viewed in this context, as internet sales have grown as a share of consumer spending. However, innovation itself cannot be automated. In today’s applications, the deployment and ongoing use of robots often requires human collaboration. Like earlier increases in capital intensity, automation today spurs the creation of new kinds of jobs. Operational technology now exists alongside information technology as an employment category.

I have addressed concerns about human obsolescence several times in the past (most recently here, and also here). Government must avoid policies that hasten automation, like drastic hikes in the minimum wage (see here and here). U.S. employment is at historic highs even though the process of automation has been underway in industry for a very long time. Today there are almost 6.4 million job vacancies in the U.S., so plenty of work is available. Again, new technologies certainly destroy some jobs, but they tend to create new jobs that were never before imagined and that often pay more than the jobs lost. Human augmentation will also provide an important means through which workers can add to their value in the future. And beyond the new technical opportunities, there will always be roles available in personal service. The human touch is often desired by consumers, and it might even be desirable on a social-psychological level.

Opportunity Costs

Finally, is a UBI the best use of the proceeds of public asset sales? That’s doubtful unless you truly believe that human labor will be obsolete. It might be far more beneficial to pay down the public debt. Doing so would reduce interest costs and allow taxpayer funds to flow to other programs (or allow tax reductions), and it would give the government greater borrowing capacity going forward. Another attractive alternative is to spend the the proceeds of asset sales on educational opportunities, especially vocational instruction that would enhance worker value in the new world of operational technology. Then again, the public assets in question have been funded by taxpayers over many years. Some would therefore argue that the proceeds of any asset sale should be returned to taxpayers immediately and, to the extent possible, in proportion to past taxes paid. The UBI just might rank last.