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Mark Zuckerberg’s got some cheek, advocating a universal basic income
The Guardian, by Sonia Sodha
Some people might be happy to stop at being founder and chief of one of the world’s biggest tech companies while still in their early 30s. Not Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook’s CEO has spent the last couple of years casting himself in various guises. First, global philanthropist: he and his wife last year pledged to invest $3bn over 10 years in order to eradicate global disease (a well-meaning if hopelessly naive sentiment; it’s a tiny fraction of what’s spent on medical research worldwide). Most lately, social commentator: Zuckerberg is currently undertaking a 50-state meet-and-greet tour across the United States. Little wonder rumours are flying that he fancies himself for an imminent White House run.
Put aside for a moment the chilling thought that if the chief of the world’s most ubiquitous media platform chose to run to be leader of the free world, his command of Facebook’s unrivalled ability to profile, segment and target voters might make him all but unbeatable. What might he do as president? The missives from his grand tour – published, of course, on Facebook – provide some clues. Last week’s was from Alaska. Zuckerberg used it as an opportunity to heap praise on the idea of a universal basic income – an unconditional income paid by government to all citizens, regardless of whether or not they’re in work.
Zuckerberg’s got some cheek. The idea of a universal basic income is all very well and good in sparsely populated Alaska, where revenues from natural oil fund a modest annual dividend to the state’s permanent residents that in the last decade has varied between $800 and $2,000.
But the proponents of a basic income often talk it up as replacement for welfare benefits altogether. Funding a decent safety net that gets paid to everyone – where there isn’t a multibillion-dollar state-backed fund conveniently created in the 1970s from oil reserves – would be very expensive. The cash would either have to come from hiking up taxes or significantly cutting back state spending on other services, such as education and health.
Here’s the rub. Zuckerberg has no right to pronounce on what the welfare state should look like while Facebook takes aggressive measures to minimise its tax burden. Here in the UK, Facebook paid just £4,327 in corporation tax in 2014, despite paying its UK staff bonuses of £35m. In 2015, it offset its tax bill of £4.2m against a tax credit of £11.3m – despite making global profits of almost £5bn.
It’s not just Facebook: global tech giants such as Amazon and Google are notorious for exploiting every loophole to get out of paying their fair share of tax. It’s deeply hypocritical for Zuckerberg to back the idea of a state-based income while his company does everything it can to avoid paying tax. And there’s a clue Zuckerberg sees a basic income as a replacement for, not in addition to, public services, “It comes from conservative principles of smaller government, rather than progressive principles of a larger safety net,” he writes.
Zuckerberg is not the first Silicon Valley CEO to talk up universal basic income: it’s an idea fast gaining traction in that corner of California. This is no coincidence. One of the beliefs that powers Silicon Valley’s fervent tech worship is the idea that artificial intelligence and automation will one day spell the end of work. This is implicit in the business plans: Uber’s growth strategy, for instance, is based on the idea that driverless technology will one day replace its drivers altogether.
But that leaves tech CEOs with a problem. If they see a world with far fewer jobs, where will their customers of the future come from? Suddenly Facebook doesn’t look such a great marketing proposition if the majority of its users don’t have any income to spend. Cue basic income, aka let’s make this the state’s problem. This is the turbo-charged version of gig-economy platforms shifting employment risk from companies to individuals and state welfare systems, all in the name of profit. It’s part of the bigger trend of global companies stepping back from their responsibilities, expecting the state to pick up the tab even though they’re not prepared to pay the taxes to fund it.
The “end of work” premise for a universal basic income is also deeply flawed. Predictions about technological progress foreshadowing the end of work have been around for centuries. But while technology has always replaced some jobs, it has also created more than enough new ones. There’s no reason to think the forecasts of today’s utopian dreamers are more accurate than those of their predecessors. The lesson from the deindustrialisation of recent decades is not that we should get ready to pay cash handouts to those for whom there won’t be any jobs, but that we should be ready to invest in the significant reskilling needed to train people for new jobs when their old ones disappear.
Obsessing about a universal basic income as the panacea for the shortcomings of the labour market of the future is a distraction from tackling the problems in the labour market of today. In parts of our low-pay labour market – like Leicester’s resurgent textiles industry – we’re not seeing technology being used to modernise workplaces and increase productivity, but a return to Victorian-style sweatshops that flout employment law. In other industries, such as logistics, technology is being used to further degrade low-skill work, with warehouse workers subject to wrist-based technology that tracks their every move for efficiency and records how long they take for toilet breaks.
We should be fighting for a society in which everyone has the right to a decently paid job that provides them with autonomy and fulfilment; not a future in which a big chunk of the population is consigned to exist on meagre state handouts. At best, a universal basic income is a dangerous diversion from how to improve the quality of work. At worst, it could be an enabler for the dark motives of the Silicon Valley tech scene. We’d be naive to buy into the idea that the owners of the robots would happily carry on paying the rest of us a basic income if it no longer suited them. Karl Marx would be turning in his grave at this fundamental misunderstanding of how economic power works. A Zuckerberg candidacy shouldn’t get your vote.

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