Scott Santens has been thinking a lot about fish lately. Specifically, he’s been reflecting on the aphorism, “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for life.” What Santens wants to know is this: “If you build a robot to fish, do all men starve, or do all men eat?”
Santens is 37 years old, and he’s a leader in the basic income movement—a worldwide network of thousands of advocates (26,000 on Reddit alone) who believe that governments should provide every citizen with a monthly stipend big enough to cover life’s basic necessities. The idea of a basic income has been around for decades, and it once drew support from leaders as different as Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon. But rather than waiting for governments to act, Santens has started crowdfunding his own basic income of $1,000 per month. He’s nearly halfway to his his goal.
Santens, for his part, believes that job growth is no longer keeping pace with automation, and he sees a government-provided income as a viable remedy. “It’s not just a matter of needing basic income in the future; we need it now,” says Santens, who lives in New Orleans. “People don’t see it, but we are already seeing the effects all around us, in the jobs and pay we take, the hours we accept, the extremes inequality is reaching, and in the loss of consumer spending power.”
Many experts believe that, unlike in the 20th century, people in this century will not be able to stay one step ahead of automation through education and the occasional skills upgrade. A recent study from Oxford University warns that 47 percent of all existing jobs are susceptible to automation within the next two decades. Worries about robots replacing human labor are showing up more frequently in the mainstream media, including the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Recent books, such as The Second Machine Age and Who Owns the Future, predict that when it comes to robots and labor, this time is different.