Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a frequently discussed subject among futurists, and has entered the mainstream debate. As machines get more advanced, there are growing worries that they will replace human workers, leading to social instability and possibly collapse as people starve for lack of money and suffer from idleness. A UBI would hopefully placate the masses, just like a modern day "bread and circuses." Optimists hope that, with their basic needs covered, ordinary people would be able to lead happy lives pursuing their passions and doing more creative work.
I am not so sanguine about how things would be in such a scenario. I think large numbers of people would choose hedonism over doing anything productive or creative, and would contribute nothing to the world. I also think the creativity, probably every type of talent, and self-discipline are unevenly distributed across the human population (think of a bell curve), so most of the people who chose to pursue their passions would fail to make anything noteworthy, or at best, enjoy middling success. We'd discover the Pareto distribution was an inescapable force of nature, and the different fields of creative human endeavor in the "UBI Era" would still be dominated by small numbers of hyper-talented people, much as it is today. Widespread envy of those privileged people--which would also prove itself a trait integral to human nature--would lead to the same kinds of politicking and class-based aggrievement we observe today. In short, even a generous UBI won't make everyone happy, though paying people to do nothing, or finding ways to keep them occupied with careers that could be done better by machines will probably keep things stable.
It just occurred to me that this "futuristic" economic setup might not be so exotic. The American economy has long been built on consumerism, excess, and tricking large numbers of people to misallocate national resources. As a result, many people have jobs that pay enough to support their essential and mid-level needs, are unsatisfying or "just O.K.," keep them occupied and fixed to designated places where they can be monitored, but which add nothing of real value to the world.
I could think of a disturbingly large number of examples of these kinds of jobs, but for the sake of time, I'll focus on one.
Consider the practice of "planned obsolescence," in which companies engineer their products to fail after a needlessly short period, forcing consumers to buy replacements. Hand-in-hand with that is the practice of frequently discontinuing old product lines and fielding new ones which look a little bit different but in fact are not better. Design differences will ensure that none of the parts are interchangeable between the older and newer versions of the product, meaning there are no spare parts available to help consumers who want to fix their old products when they break. An entire vacuum machine or something will be thrown in the dumpster because one, custom-sized component in it breaks. The irritated consumer has to buy a new vacuum cleaner from the company. Money changes hands. As a result, the low-morale workers at the vacuum cleaner factory keep their jobs, as do the company's engineers, who are under orders from management to deliberately design vacuum cleaners that are much flimsier than they could be. The engineers also comply with the odious orders to redesign the machines every few years to ensure there is no backwards compatibility of parts. It's a cynical environment that involves little stimulating work.
This documentary delves into the issue more: https://youtu.be/zdh7_PA8GZU?t=1250
Now, you'd think that it would be better if these profit-maximizing practices were ended, and the company focused on making the best vacuum cleaners possible. They might design five different vacuum machines for the key uses cases and price points that would collectively satisfy the needs of 95% of their consumers, and only sell those five models until the end of time. Design changes would be made only when they were proved to be absolutely necessary, and backwards compatibility of parts would be upheld to the maximum extent. Consumers would get high quality, highly-optimized vacuum cleaners that would rarely break and be cheap and easy to fix, and even if the up-front costs of a machine were higher than today, the consumer would save money and trouble in the longer run. The vacuum cleaner factory would downsize, freeing up most of its engineers and factory staff to do more productive work elsewhere. The nation's resource use efficiency would nudge upwards.
The problem is, what if there aren't other jobs for the workers who leave the vacuum cleaner company? What if every other industry in America, from manufacturers of cars, stoves, and light bulbs, adopted the same philosophy? With all inefficiencies cut out of the industrial sector, tens of millions of people would be out of work. There would also be large, secondary job losses at malls and other retail establishments because consumers wouldn't need to buy replacement goods as often. We're plunged into the disaster scenario of high unemployment, idleness, and instability. And no, we can't necessarily "make up new jobs that no one foresaw before" for all of them or even most of them, partly because they lack the innate talents (unevenly distributed) for the purposeful job fields that remain. The guy laid off from the vacuum cleaner factory isn't smart enough to get the job on the team researching the secrets of fusion power. The engineers who were laid off might not be, either.
If you're the master social engineer with a Gods-eye view of all this, pulling all the puppet strings from your secret underground base, you reach the disturbing conclusion that the wasteful, consumption-based economy is the best that could be hoped for. Without it, the U.S. would be plunged into suffering and chaos, and the gross level of "national utility" would be much lower than it was in under the old system of bullsh*t jobs, pointless consumption, and making bad products.
We as futurists worry about the day when machines will take away the vacuum cleaner factory worker's job, and we speculate that we'll have to implement a UBI and other forms of social engineering to keep him alive and placated. I argue that the vacuum cleaner factory ALREADY IS a sort of UBI and social engineering. It provides the worker with enough money to pay his bills and survive, keeps him occupied and unable to cause mischief for half his waking hours, and provides him with a tolerable level of life satisfaction and daily challenge. At the same time, his labors are mostly wasted. It's, at least to me, a very disturbing observation to make, but I think there's a lot of truth to it, and it's troubling to ponder how much of the American economy is like this. We have to impel the people doing truly productive work to spend their money or else the vacuum cleaner factory worker will go broke, riot, and maybe starve. It's like being on a merry-go-round that no one can jump off of.
Here's further reading about how this manifests itself in the white collar world: https://www.strike.coop/bullshit-jobs/
While few American workers can wrap their minds around the full scope of the phenomenon and see all its interconnections, they're aware that their jobs are pointless or at least inefficient.
As a final side note, all of this makes me realize how badly AGIs will outcompete humans in the future. If they're clearheaded, in control of their own thinking and impulses, and insusceptible to consumerism. They'll be dramatically better at identifying and doing real, productive work and accumulating resources.