With a worried eye on automation, B.C. appoints experts to take a serious look at basic income

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      The B.C. government is taking an interest in an idea that might sound radical to some: a basic income.

      It's appointed a trio of academics to study the concept, which is often called a universal-basic income and also known as a guaranteed-minimum income, depending on program specifics, eligibility, and implementation.

      "The committee will oversee independent research to test the feasibility of a basic-income pilot in British Columbia," reads a July 4 media release. "It will also look at how basic-income principles might be used to improve the existing income and social-support system. The committee will also consider the impact that advances in technology and automation, and other shifts, are predicted to have on the labour market over the next several decades.

      "The research will also include simulations that will look at how various basic-income models work with B.C.'s population. These will identify the potential impacts and financial implications of different approaches and economic conditions on B.C. citizens."

      The panel will consist of David Green, director of UBC's Vancouver School of Economics, who will chair the committee, along with Jonathan Rhys Kesselman of SFU's school of public policy and Lindsay Tedds of the University of Calgary's school of public policy. The group is scheduled to begin work this summer.

      B.C. Green party leader and MLA Andrew Weaver is quoted in the release describing the research as a response to trends in tech.

      "Amidst trends like automation, part-time and contract work, the nature of our economy and the jobs within it are rapidly shifting," he said. "There is strong evidence that basic income can provide greater income security, while saving costs in other areas. We proposed exploring how basic income could work in B.C., because government should have a plan for the changes on the horizon. The panelists are highly qualified, knowledgeable and creative thinkers. I am excited to work with them on this innovative project."

      With a guaranteed-basic income, every citizen would receive an annual amount from the federal government, no strings attached. A guaranteed-minimum income is slightly different from a universal-basic income; the former usually involves an income ceiling for illegibility while the later does not.

      The gist of such schemes is for a government to provide everyone who qualifies with a regular amount of money with the aim of addressing poverty and inequality. While the idea might sound like some naive vision of a socialist utopia, several of North America's most successful hardcore capitalists have stated publicly that they believe some sort of a universal-basic income will be required in the not-so-distant future in order to address risks of widespread social unrest.

      Billionaires discussing the idea include Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Tesla and Space X founder Elon Musk, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, among others.

      In one way or another, all of them have said that as a result of technological innovation and advances in artificial intelligence, so many people will be pushed out of the jobs for which they were trained that a universal-basic income will be required to prevent massive increases in poverty and social unrest.

      "There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation," Musk told CNBC in 2016. "I am not sure what else one would do. I think that is what would happen."

      In April 2018, the government of Canada released an official estimate for how much it would cost to implement a guaranteed-minimum income across the country. The number is $76 billion a year, according to a report by the parliamentary budget officer.

      However, not all of that would be new spending. The federal government already puts about $32.9 billion a year toward financial-support programs that would likely come under the umbrella of a guaranteed-minimum income. And so the annual gap in funding that Canada would need to cover to pay for a guaranteed-minimum income is estimated to stand at about $43.1 billion.

      The parliamentary budget officer arrived at these figures by calculating that some 7.5 million people would receive the annual payout. Individuals would get $16,989 and couples who form a single household would receive $24,027.

      In the B.C. government's July 4 release, minister of social development and poverty reduction Shane Simpson said the province's expert committee will examine the idea of a basic income in the specific context of British Columbia.

      "The researchers will look at whether a basic income is a viable option to reduce poverty, build financial security, and increase inclusion and well-being," he said. "This is a complex area of study, and our government looks forward to learning more about how to enhance the income-support system, to achieve measurable and lasting improvements for people living in poverty."

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