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What to Do About Jobs That Are Never Coming Back

2 minute read

Most people who proclaim unions dead are business types. Andy Stern, former head of the Service Employees International Union, is the rare labor organizer who says the same thing. His new book, Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream, is in many ways a downer. After losing faith in the ability of unions, which represent only 11% of American workers today, to effect economic change, Stern set out to study the impact of globalization and technology. His conclusion: we can’t fight the machines.

Stern tells a persuasive story about a rapidly emerging economic order in which automation and ever smarter artificial intelligence will make even cheap foreign labor obsolete and give rise to a society that will be highly productive–except at creating new jobs. Today’s persistently stagnant wages and rageful political populism are early signs of the trouble this could generate.

Stern’s solution is to give Americans a universal basic income (UBI), a form of social security in which all citizens regularly receive an unconditional sum of money from the government. He says it is the only way to provide “a dignified way to transition people” to the future economy, and that it could help jobless millennials cope with lackluster prospects and spend more time on creative leisure activities. The idea of UBI stretches back to the 18th century. While the Swiss recently voted down a proposal to implement it, Canada and Finland are experimenting and the idea is gaining traction in U.S. policy circles.

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