Category Archives: Research

Speenhamland: An early experiment in basic income

Sources: Karl Polanyi, 1944. The Great Transformation.; Fred Block and Margaret Somers, 2003. In the Shadow of Speenhamland: Social Policy and the Old Poor Law.

Late 18th century Southern England was having a hard time of it. Rural labourers were losing access to land to support themselves because of enclosures. Cottage craft industries were losing ground to manufactured goods from the North. And grain prices spiked due to the Napoleonic Wars.

In 1795, authorities introduced the Speenhamland Law to help workers cope with all this, implemented at the parish level. Some parishes provided a basic income, with a 100% clawback. Others provided workfare, unemployment insurance, and other variations. Support was geared to the price of wheat, going up and down with wheat or bread prices. It went on until 1834, then was replaced with the workhouse – an institution that separated families and gave them make-work projects for their survival.
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More research on automation

This paper: Arntz, M., T. Gregory and U. Zierahn (2016), “The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries: A Comparative Analysis”, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 189, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Frey and Osborne published a paper in 2013 estimating that 47% of American jobs could be lost to automation in the next ten to twenty years. This paper is in response to that. These authors argue that it’s better to analyze jobs by tasks, rather than entire jobs, and that with most jobs, only some of the job can be automated. Their calculations indicate that only 9% of jobs are at risk, rather than 47%.

According to FO [Frey and Osborne], people working in the occupation “Retail Salesperson” (SOC code 41-2031) face an automation potential of 92%. Despite this, only 4% of retail salespersons perform their jobs with neither both group work nor face-to-face interactions.

You may already see the problem. They assume that jobs will remain when some job tasks (group work and face-to-face interactions) can’t be automated: that those un-automatable tasks are essential to the job. For example, shopping in person involves the salesperson doing a lot of things that robots can’t do. However, anyone who has shopped online knows that at least some of the time, those things don’t matter that much – you can read the reviews online to get equivalent service. (It depends on what you’re buying, of course.) For many jobs, there are tasks that robots won’t be able to do, but those tasks aren’t necessarily going to matter, either to consumers, or to employers who automate the jobs regardless of what consumers want.

So I suspect that their estimate of 9% of jobs lost to automation is an underestimate.

Regardless, in my opinion, we need a basic income now. We already have far too much precarious employment. I’m not sure what is going to happen in the future really matters.

The Body Economic video

This talk by David Stuckler goes over some of the same information in the book I reviewed yesterday here, with some of the same figures. There is an additional figure in the talk (at the 20 minute mark) that is taken from a paper* they published the same year. It looks at the return on investment of various types of government spending. Government spending in general tends to lead to economic growth, but it depends on what it is spent on, with defense spending actually shrinking the economy but spending on health, social protection, and education leading to significant economic growth. (“Community” means things like housing, water, street lights. These numbers are averages for 25 countries.)

The sound in the video isn’t the greatest, but it’s relatively short (24 minutes) and covers the same territory as the book. There are other videos as well if you want more details and don’t want to read.

*Does investment in the health sector promote or inhibit economic growth? Aaron Reeves, Sanjay Basu, Martin McKee, Christopher Meissner and David Stuckler. Globalization and Health 2013(9):43. You can find it online fairly easily if you want the details of how they came up with the numbers.

Book Review: The Body Economic: Why austerity kills

The body economic: Why austerity kills. Recessions, budget battles, and the politics of life and death. David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, 2013. Basic Books.

The authors are public health experts who study how social and economic policies affect our health. I first read this book in 2013 when it came out, and was blown away, mostly because I was not aware of the effects of austerity vs government spending.

It’s unethical for researchers to conduct austerity experiments on populations to see what happens, but there are plenty of austerity experiments out there already, enacted by governments, that researchers can study to see what the effects are. This book is a plain language translation of their scientific research.

According to the authors, economic policy affects who lives and dies more than medical care does; in the US, zip code is a top predictor of life expectancy. Continue reading

The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?

John Maynard Keynes predicted widespread technological unemployment as long ago as 1933. Improvements in technology that displace workers happen faster than we can create new jobs for them, and it snowballs. In 2013, two Oxford researchers predicted that as many as 47% of the jobs in the US could disappear in the next decade or two.

Areas where jobs are likely to be computerized once the technology is good enough include Continue reading