Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s commencement speech at Harvard’s graduation ceremony on Thursday (May 25) was stacked full of memories from his time at the university–from which he dropped out a decade previous.
But while the 33-year-old waxed saccharine about his education and first encounter with wife Priscilla, Zuckerberg’s speech–viewed by three million-plus on Facebook and thousands in Tercentenary Theater–held a more profound message. And it is causing uproar in the States.
The Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a concept that ensures every citizen of a nation receive a regular, unconditional sum of money. It first appeared in 16th century Europe, and experiments are being carried out as far afield as the Netherlands, Kenya and Finland.
The UBI has even undergone some tentative experiments in the United States. But Zuckerberg, whose net worth is $63.3 billion, wants it to become countrywide economic policy. He told the graduates that tech would require it.
“Our generation will have to deal with tens of millions of jobs replaced by automation like self-driving cars and trucks,” said Zuckerberg. “But we have the potential to do so much more together.”
Automation and machine learning–such as that used in driverless cars–will soon have an enormous impact on the global economy. In the US alone, around four million people are employed as drivers: around 2% of total employment. A Goldman Sachs report last week predicted that driving jobs could be lost at a rate of around 300,000 per year, and that driverless cars will represent around a fifth of the auto sales market around 2025 to 2030.
Many question whether the impact will really be that big. Google’s Ray Kurzweil, for example, has likened the current automation craze to the industrial revolution of the 19th century. Red Herring was present at Kurzweil’s address to a crowd at CeBIT 2017 in Hanover, when he said we “didn’t know which jobs would be created then,” and we don’t now.
Zuckerberg doesn’t agree. He wants a UBI to ensure young people–who he claims do not feel as tied to national identity as their forebears–can free up their imagination and skills to create huge public works that benefit the greater good. “We should have a society that measures progress not just by economic metrics like GDP, but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful,” he said.
“We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things,” added Zuckerberg, citing the Hoover Dam and vaccinations. “We’re going to change jobs many times, so we need affordable childcare to get to work and healthcare that aren’t tied to one company.”
Assuming American politicians would ever allow a UBI (and given the current administration wants to take away millions of Americans’ access to healthcare, that is a huge “if”), there is a heated debate as to whether the concept would alleviate poverty at all–much less free up millions to pursue utopian projects.
The Paris-based OECD recently modeled UBI, and concluded that it “would require tax rises as well as reductions in existing benefits.” Countries’ tax regimes also vary greatly: UBI would create budget surpluses in some states, while others’ coffers would be crippled. The report concluded that UBI is unlikely to help ease poverty.
UBI would also reduce millions of Americans to the periphery of society, picking up a state wage with little in the way of incentives or value. Many have made this point, failing to note that universal healthcare and education would even up the working landscape for people to compete for jobs more equally. Nonetheless, UBI is fraught.
“Previous generations fought for the vote and civil rights,” said Zuckerberg. “They had the New Deal and Great Society. Now it’s our time to define a new social contract for our generation.”
The benefactors of that social contract? Billionaires like Zuckerberg, he says. “Let’s face it,” he said. “There is something wrong with our system when I can leave here and make billions of dollars in 10 years while millions of students can’t afford to pay off their loans, let alone start a business.
“Giving everyone the freedom to pursue purpose isn’t free,” he added. “People like me should pay for it. Many of you will do well and you should too.”
Zuckerberg is unlikely to win many fans in America’s government hierarchy. UBI is feared to reduce the incentive to work, and thus slow productivity. And in a country that still believes in the ability to lift oneself economically from nothing, the idea of being paid to do nothing will face heavy criticism.
Pair that with a current President who has made it his task to increase rather than reduce the number of jobs, and Zuckerberg’s basic income may be wishful thinking. But, as with most things he says, the idea is very much food for thought. And seeing as he and his tech heads will be the ones to take millions of jobs out of the economy, UBI is worth deeper inspection.