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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on June 9)

All News 07:21 June 09, 2016

Swiss test

Swiss voters rejected the introduction of universal basic income in a national referendum, but that may give new life to this old but novel idea that is set to gain more relevancy as we accept the flaws of our national system and overcome the norms we take for granted.

The vote was three to one, turning down the proposal put on the ballot by a petition signed by more than 100,000 citizens for the monthly payment of 2,500 Swiss francs, or about 3 million won, for every adult and a fourth of that for each child. The funds would be raised by reorganizing the welfare system.

This resounding no-vote was apparently affected partially by a government campaign to the effect that if this system is adopted, it would invite unwanted "economic refugees" from outside and bring the country down.

The bigger barrier is, however, our belief that work as we know it is sacred. It is as if people are born to work. This concept, entrenched as if it is DNA in the human brain, can be challenged on at least two points.

First, automation. Most jobs we know of and do are forecast soon to disappear, taken up by robots and super artificial intelligence. Remember AlphaGo, the artificial "go" player that beat the world's best player with ease. Imagine that an army of people and a room of supercomputers that enlivened AI are compressed into a device the size of your palm, as 70 years ago ENIAC was on a turbocharged evolutionary path to be shrunk down to the size of your smartphone. Or think that thousands of android robots work 24/7 all year at a car factory. We cannot compete with them and we will become redundant as the jobs we know and now have disappear.

As Thomas Paine understood, in suggesting a similar idea in 1795, something like universal basic income would help people free themselves from being cogs in the wheel and allow them to do things that can put their creative energies to best use. For those who believe in the tendency of a person to become lazy and naughty when left to his or her own devices, think again. The traditional concept of work -- living to work -- is being rung out and the new one -- playing is working -- is becoming accepted. It would mean a better quality of life for all.

Also noteworthy are the limitations shown by the dynamics of our economy today -- lack of growth, deflationary warnings, growing inequality and, yes, a dearth of jobs -- that have frustrated all efforts at finding a remedy, making one justifiably wonder whether our economy as it is has come to the end of its useful life. Looking at all of this from the perspective of history, we realize that changes can take place rapidly -- the first industrial revolution began some 250 years ago with the advent of the steam engine. Now, we are in the fourth generation of that revolution with robots.

Of course, detractors are right about their concerns that universal basic income will shake our way of life to its foundations. But this should not be taken as a reason to pigeonhole this idea and forget about it. Rather, it is worth paying attention to the pilot programs in the Netherlands and elsewhere and learn from them for later use.
(END)

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