After multiple private and online conversations, I spotted some recurring questions about basic post scarcity, I thought it would be fun to publish them here in a Q&A format. As a reminder, basic post scarcity is an economic system in which all the basic necessities are provided for free, without requiring any kind of labour in exchange. Check this article if you want some more background information. Without further ado:
1 How would you define a set of basic needs in a consumerist society where a basic need constantly gets redefined with new gadgets such as smartphones and cars?
I’m defining them mainly based on biological needs. Anything that does not significantly impact your life negatively if removed is not basic. So basics are food, water, energy, healthcare, education, housing, transportation, a clean and safe environment to live in. Given the importance of the internet, I personally also consider basic access to telecommunications and the internet. These sets of needs are generally fixed, and only seldomly we get a new significant addition (e.g. electricity, access to the internet). Ideally a post-scarcity society should be able to generate some surplus to incorporate new basic needs as they slowly pop up. Notice how I specified transportation, not a car and certainly not car ownership. If it’s the only means of transportation in your rural area, a personal car may be a basic need, while in a big city public transportation and a shared car for long trips may be all that you need. Also the exact definition of “gadgets” such as smartphones and cars are a small concern with respect to more expensive needs such as housing and healthcare.
2 How do you envision UBI (Universal Basic Income) to be working effectively based on the very frequent boom and bust cycles of capitalist economy?
In general I believe that providing free and perpetual basic services (without bureaucracy or asterisks on the services) is better than bare UBI. Anyway, given advancements in automation there is no going back from some activities being permanently automated. Once these increased gains of automation are distributed we can afford to gradually provide services for free or UBI. It’s like slowly lifting the floor of what can be provided by society with minimal effort. Centuries ago having clean water distributed in the city was kind of a luxury, today it is the default. Similar things can happen with other basics such as healthcare. See here for an in depth analysis on this strategy.
3 What do you think about the knowledge gap that goes with quick technological progress and the risk of returning to a form of feudalism based on that?
There is no silver bullet, but making the tech as democratic and distributed as possible, for instance developing on open source, is a way to make sure that nobody can dominate. Interesting examples are the strong open source nature of the AI community and the many open 3d printing projects. Another possibility is less stringent IP laws.
4 In a society in transition towards automation how do you ensure working conditions and compensation do not get worse when unemployment is the tool to control that?
This is a key point. I believe that the transition to post scarcity is inevitable, but it can either be short and smooth or long and extremely painful for many. It’s important to spread the word and let society digest the idea that an automated society is possible, so that we can plan in advance to soften the transition. This can clearly not be solved by technology alone, it needs the political collaboration of many parties. The issue is that jobs=votes=power today, so politicians have low incentives to push on automation. On the flip side, when enough people are unemployed politicians advocating for an UBI coming with more automation could find strong support. The strategy to soften the switch is about trying to get into UBI and basic post scarcity policies before the massive layoffs or the massive creation of bullshit jobs.
5 Why is basic post scarcity inevitable?
Basic post scarcity is driven by technological advancement in computing, energy generation, artificial intelligence and robotics which show no sign of slowing down and no theoretical obstacle or extraordinary engineering challenge. No need for super intelligent AIs, material breakthroughs or science fiction tech. All these technologies are developed by multiple competing countries and there is no serious threat of a monopoly over long time frames. It is also backed by the fact that physically there is plenty on this planet to fulfil the basic needs of everyone now and in the foreseeable future. Given these factors, and the pressure that AI and robotics will put on the job market, a transition to post-scarcity will be highly likely in at least one state globally. Once a single state sets a positive example, others will follow.
6 Have you considered that UBI can be used as a reward for obedience in a neo-feudalism system which is so centralised and monopolised that the only use for money is to protect the system?
That looks like one the many dystopian endings to a world in which automation is used by few to rule over the many. Technology is neutral, what can it give you it can also take away from you. Reasoning in terms of equilibrium points of a dynamical system, I see dystopian systems as unstable equilibrium points, while post scarcity is a stable equilibrium point. Basically given enough time the dystopian systems collapse to a more democratic system, since many parties from the inside are pushing in that direction. That said, it would be good to avoid ending dystopian in the first place, so considerations expressed in question 3 apply.
Interestingly, there are also alternative models to nation states or companies owning the robots creating abundance, that is the robots owning themselves. This is recently starting to become technically much easier thanks to DAOs (Decentralised Autonomous Organizations) and DAOs-LLC. I’m actively working on some ideas in this space, and in the past I have built one of the missing technical pieces, that is a wallet to allow robots and IoT devices to interact with distributed ledgers. Feel free to reach out if you want to build something in this space.
7 How do you ensure automation is not used for the wrong purposes? Examples: mass control, genocide etc.
Even more dystopian! This is a big challenge with every technology, I believe we will find a balance. Also remember that in a basic post scarcity world nobody fears ruin anymore, it does make even less sense to do criminal acts, since that’s the only way to get all personal freedom removed when caught.
8 What do you think about bullshit jobs and their role in society? Hope they are of some interest to you
Quotation from Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber
“On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs
In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a fifteen-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it. Why did Keynes’s promised utopia—still being eagerly awaited in the sixties—never materialise? The standard line today is that he didn’t figure in the massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter.”
Absolutely, we are already full of bullshit jobs. And that’s the best indicator that we are not that far from basic post scarcity, since de facto we are paying a lot of people to “look like they are working on something relevant”. For me the creation of bullshit jobs is the saddest possible response to the increased power of automation. Heck, even a robot tax makes more sense (even if it does not make sense). Bullshit jobs are a consequence of the current political equation jobs=votes=power and in minor part from the legacy belief that our life derives meaning from the job we perform.
9 How do you see the role of money in a post-scarce world?
In a post-scarce world money loses value, in fact it is totally possible to live moneyless. That said, I expect money to be still relevant to trade non scarce goods and status goods, as it is a very convenient mechanism to do so. What will change is that you don’t need money to survive, you need it for the optionals.
10 In a global economy where monetary policy is decided politically do you believe we live in capitalism or feudalism at the moment?
Not sure I’m that qualified to answer this, but I would say capitalism, since the market is pretty fluid and nobody has firm control over it. Sure, an argument could be made about regulatory capture by corporations (“making their own rules”) and scale and scope of their actions (“companies acting as nation states”), but I just don’t see invincible and immutable corporations (yet?).
11 What do you think about the phenomenon of digital scarcity and its effects on the roadmap to post-scarcity society?
There is no strong connection in my view. All digital scarce entities that I can think of are not basic.
12 Is basic post scarcity the end of capitalism?
Capitalism and its positive drive to do better can in principle remain intact in a basic post scarcity society, for non basic goods. The paradigm shift is that people can now choose to opt out and live a simple life, since the basics are covered.
13 Is somebody today already experiencing basic post-scarcity? [question I added]
This may sound surprising, but no, not even the richest or more powerful people on the planet. The closest you can get today are perhaps with kids in rich economies, before realizing that they need to pick a career to sustain themselves. Experiencing post-scarcity is primarily about having a post-scarcity mindset: having the knowledge that you and everybody around you have enough now and in the foreseeable future. Today, nearly everything we do and think is shaped by the idea of satisfying our basic needs and making sure we don’t lose them in the future. What activity should I allocate the majority of my time? Can I afford to work on this project? Can I afford to express myself freely? Should I share or keep for myself? Our life decisions are fundamentally based on minimizing the chance of ending up bankrupt; we are forced to play it safe since the floor is too low. If only the floor was enough to cover all the basic needs…
14 Can we actually afford basic post scarcity today? [question I added]
Some rich countries such as Norway have enough runaway, Norway’s national fund, to fund basic post scarcity for years. That said we are early and advancements in AI and robotics are still needed, as today somebody is needed to flip burgers, clean toilets and pack goods. Who is going to do that if anybody has access to unlimited basic resources and is not required to work? Nobody. Today as a society we need to force people to work in some way, even if we have plenty of resources available. From a purely technological standpoint, in 20 or 30 years we should be able to automate all the activities related to our basic needs. If we have planned in advance that’s also when we will be able to implement basic post scarcity, otherwise we will need more years for the transition from the legacy systems.
15 What makes you more excited about post-scarcity? [question I added]
Personally I’m very excited at the idea of spending more time in “unproductive” activities, such as fundamental research and taking more risks.
16 Why would we prefer basic-post scarcity over UBI?
The implementation of a UBI is certainly the most popular “post-automation” proposal. It is relatively straightforward to implement, and therefore likely to be implemented first in some countries.
That said, a UBI-only strategy creates some dangers. In particular, UBI recipients may find too hard to engage in any meaningful economic activity, due to predominance of AIs on the former job market. Such recipients have therefore a very weak position, they fully depend on their UBI to survive. Unfortunately UBI does not guarantee by default protection against inflation, therefore prices for basic needs may become unsustainable. A more direct policy is therefore needed to guarantee the basic needs first, which are easier to predict since they are universal, and then to give a UBI on top, so that consumers can target their spend.
In summary, the above scenario does not rule out a UBI, but focus on making sure basic needs are satisfied first.
17 When computers and robotics were introduced, the task of humans shifted to maintaining the machines and operating them. The task in which humans had a comparative advantage changed, while more goods and services of value could be produced. As automation progresses, this will continue to happen and the role of humans in production will become more and more efficient per unit of labor worked. However, what will never happen is the complete elimination of human labor in the economy. Humans will always have a comparative advantage in some things. How is this compatible with basic post-scarcity?
The automation cycle for a basic post scarcity is radically more powerful, since it eliminates the need for human labour completely (for basic goods), an option not available in the past. Moreover looking at the larger picture, the benefits of a basic post scarcity society overshadow the loss in productivity due to not following the canonical utility-maximizing economic models. Perhaps less efficiency overall than the theoretical maximum, but if there is plenty for everyone this does not really matter.
I would like to thank in particular Marin, author of the post-money economy simulator, for many of the questions above and Giuseppe Baldini for great feedback on this article.