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Energy, Work, and the Coming Economy

Paul Kando

Energy, defined as “capacity to do work”, has been key to the economy ever since humans figured out how to hunt and work the land. Slaveholders began exploiting the muscle power of human beings untold centuries ago, in order to profit from their labor. People with skills learned to make useful things out of raw materials, creating a privileged artisan class – cottage-based workers who had great control over when and how they worked, with time to participate in their community.

Robots building cars
photo credit: Tesla

Then came industrialists. Within a short time they plunged into poverty thousands of artisans, forcing them into factories as unskilled, low-wage factory workers, deprived of their financial independence, sense of community, belief in fair play, and pride in quality workmanship.

As energy-dependent industrial machinery displaced manual production-labor, capitalism summarily discarded the cottage system’s core ethical principle of “fair profit”: a negotiated agreement between workers and marketers on the sharing of profits, both benefiting from the new machinery’s increased productivity, and thus profit. Instead, the capitalists claimed a new laissez-faire “property right”: that all gains from society’s technological advances would belong exclusively to those who own and control the machinery, without assuming responsibility for the suffering of those rendered disposable by the system. Human labor became a commodity, the only thing of value those lacking a means of production could “trade” – subject to market conditions — for their wages and means of survival.

Two centuries later, all of us who labor in the workplace are slated to be displaced and discarded by intelligent robots. Corporations that own these machines will no longer need to pay worker wages and benefits, thus reaping huge profits. However, there can be no consumer economy without wage earners. What will be the long term fate of displaced workers and robot-owners alike as the market for robot-produced goods and services evaporates?

Fortunately, the upcoming monstrous loss of jobs can be turned into a win for all, provided we reject a new, robotics-based plutocracy and re-think the relationship between money and work. What if, instead of paying people for work performed, a new (neither capitalist nor centrally planned) society provided everyone with a Universal Basic Income (UBI), paying for it by taxing the unearned windfall corporations get by zeroing out their payrolls? No strings attached. In return, everyone would contribute to the common good, voluntarily performing the myriad tasks that now remain undone, or done only marginally by uncompensated or low paid workers. Family-, elder-, and child-care, teaching assistants, mentors, interns, and other socially beneficial community workers come to mind. After all, as artificial intelligence technology eliminates jobs and incomes, it also frees up people’s time to creatively use at their own discretion.

Discarding complex, stingy welfare programs, poor people would simply receive an income – as would the rich. The poverty stigma would fade. Small government advocates would see a shrunken bureaucracy. Today, as the threat of mass joblessness and inequality looms ever larger, UBI, a truly democratic idea for the use of energy and money, is gaining adherents. Imaginative experiments are underway in Finland, Uganda, Canada, Holland, and even California.