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MIT researchers: Universal basic income premature and arguably counterproductive

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Universal basic income, a monthly stipend given out by a government to help cover its citizens’ basic needs, is getting a lot of attention as advances in automation exceed what even the experts predicted and median wages continue to stagnate. But two researchers at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium said the need for universal basic income (UBI) is premature.

Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, authors of the forthcoming Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future, said UBI is not a viable solution for the sort of job loss happening in our current economy. “The data are incredibly clear: Month-by-month, as long as we’re not in a recession, we need more hours of work to make the economy go,” said McAfee, principal research scientist and co-director at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy.

Indeed, despite the fact that machine learning systems are advancing at a faster pace than expected, machines still can’t do everything, according to the researchers. And when McAfee and Brynjolfsson researched UBI for their previous book, experts explained to them that “the core problems were not so much something that you could write a check for. It was the fact that people wanted to be engaged in their community, wanted to work,” said Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and an economist.

Regardless, UBI is not an all-or-nothing solution for people suffering from wage stagnation, Brynjolfsson said. Adjustments to public policies on minimum retirement age, family leave, health care and disability support could raise the standard of living while keeping people engaged. And, he continued, these kinds of policy decisions to benefit the citizenry are not unprecedented in our history. The introduction of public education, anti-trust policy changes in the income tax code and social security are examples of policies made for common good, Brynjolfsson said.

“All of which were incredibly controversial at the time, and yet we got past it,” McAfee said.

“And the net effect was having a dynamic capitalistic vibrant economy with lots of competition, lots of innovation but also living standards that were raised for a broad set of people,” Brynjolfsson said.