Those of us working in DevOps make a good living. According to Glassdoor, the national average salary for a DevOps engineer in the United States is $100,000. Are we worth it? Of course we are; DevOps is hard work. The value we add to an organization more than justifies the salaries we can command. Nobody is giving us the money. We have to earn it every day.
Considering that high school teachers earn on average $48,000, a restaurant manager averages $46,000—about the same as a paralegal—and a forklift driver makes $26,000, DevOps engineers are doing A-OK.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that our average salary, combined with our commercial isolation from others, puts us in a bubble. I am the first to admit that I live in that bubble. I don’t interact with a lot of paralegals, restaurant managers and forklift drivers in my day-to-day work. Most of my interactions are with people who do what I do and live the lifestyle I live. It’s nice to live in the bubble; I’ve done countless all-nighters to be here. But I am very aware that it’s a place that few people live. Keep in mind, the average income in the United States is $51,272.
It takes a lot to get into our bubble. You need to be really smart and you need to be well-educated. Most programmers have a college degree. Yes, there are few of us that are part of the 70 percent of the population that does not have a college degree, but those people are rare. And, for as long we keep delivering and learning the new stuff that comes down the pike, we’ll be living in the bubble for the foreseeable future.
However, for those outside our bubble, it’s going to be a different story. As the evolving landscape reveals, those who do predictable, repetitive work are going to be automated away. And, most of the jobs that do remain are going to be on the lower end of the income scale.
So, what’s to become of those outside the bubble? How will they survive?
One solution that has been bantered about is Universal Basic Income (UBI). UBI is income that you get by virtue of being a citizen of state. There are no strings attached. Every month a deposit appears in your checking account and you are free to do with it as you wish. If your refrigerator is empty, you buy food. Should you earn a good salary, you can give the money to a favored charity or buy your kid a new video game. As I said, it’s no strings attached. The intention is to provide financial security to the citizenry without means testing.
UBI has been in play in Alaska since 1976 as implemented under the Alaska Permanent Fund. Every permanent resident of Alaska gets money from the state just because they live there. In 2014 every resident of Alaska got $1,884 from the fund.
Other governments are trying or have tried out UBI. Finland has a limited experimental program that pays €560 ($630) a month to participants. Cyprus pays out €480 a month ($546) to qualifying citizens. Canada had an experimental program back in 1974 that ran for four years in Dauphin, Manitoba. The program was called Mincome. It dispersed $1,200 a year to people living below the poverty line.
UBI has it supporters. Former U.S. president Richard Nixon supported it for a while. Milton Friedman supported it via the negative income tax. And tech leaders including Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, men who have a keen understanding of the impact of automation on human employment, are proponents.
I am a supporter, too, if for no other reason that I believe in the promise of technology—that we will automate our way to a life in which we are free to do the work that brings meaning and purpose rather than going through the motions of existence, laboring away to put bread on the table.
But, for as much as I think UBI is valuable, there is a part of me that finds the notion to be a farce. It’s not so much because I think people will take the money and go down to a riverboat casino to gamble away their monthly allocations while the kids go hungry, but rather because the dollar amounts being considered for allocation are a joke.
Let’s do the math.
The table that follows illustrates how much income is required to support a family of two adults and one child on state-by-state basis. This data is provided using the MIT Living Wage Calculator by way of Mental Floss.
Table 1: A listing of minimum income by select states
|State||Minimum Income per Year||Per Month|
The states I choose—West Virginia, Iowa, Montana, Tennessee and Alaska—don’t contain any big cities on the order of New York, Los Angeles, Houston or Chicago. Let’s just say they’re states not subject to a large amount of urban impact. These are states that I can image might find UBI a useful program, particularly as industries—manufacturing, agriculture and energy—become more automated and the employed workforce experiences more displacement due to automation.
As you can see in Table 1, according the the MIT Living Wage Calculator, it will cost a family of two adults and one child residing in any of these states about $4,000 a month to live at a comfortable minimum.
Let’s apply some UBI numbers. As mentioned above, in 2014 the Alaska Permanent Fund distributed $1,884 a year to each permanent resident in the state. That comes out to a monthly allocation of $157. Compare that $157 a month to the $2,250 each working adult in the Alaska household has to earn to achieve a modest standard of living. That $157 is 7 percent of the amount needed. It’s a joke. The reality is that the allocation from the Alaska Permanent Fund will buy about a week’s worth of groceries, if that.
On the other hand, there is Cyprus. As mentioned above, that country is paying out $546 per person in guaranteed income, which is an OK allotment given that the rent on a three-room apartment is about $500 a month and a McDonald’s Combo Meal goes for around $7. Multiply the per-person allocation of $546 by two adults and you have a situation where life is sustainable. But then again, the population of Cyprus is 1.2 million people, a little more than the size of the population of Montana. Still, the Cyrus UBI amount is a viable number. But, what about here in the United States? If we were to implement UBI, what is the dollar amount each person is to be given?
Let’s go back to Table 1. For the residents in those states listed to enjoy a standard of financial security on the order of Cyprus—one in which no matter what, you will have your basic needs met—it seems that we will need to come up with a UBI allocation of about $20,000 a year per adult. Of course, this is assuming that the person does absolutely nothing in the way of earning money beyond the UBI allocation. However, as was reported in the study of the Mincome Project in Dauphin, Canada, once UBI kicked in, only two segments of the workforce worked less—new mothers and teenagers.
Granted, this is very limited study of a very small sample of people from over 40 years ago. But, still the inference may be valid. Also, as we’ve found from people in retirement or forced unemployment, after a period of welcome inactivity, at some point we need something to do. Thus, there is a good chance that those on UBI will want to earn money beyond the allotment. Given that we can project that most people on UBI will want to engage in income-producing work, if such work is available, then maybe that $20,000 a year number is excessive. Maybe a reasonable dollar amount for UBI is between $12,000-$15,000 per year, per person. That number could work in less-expensive areas of the country.
How would we pay for it all? Honestly, at this point, I don’t know. Maybe the same way we paid to put a man on the moon? To quote the old saying, “Where there is a will, there’s a way.”
Sadly though, no matter what the allocation number is and no matter what the consequences of not doing UBI may be, the will to do UBI currently is limited to a bill before the Hawaiian Legislature. The general will is not there for a variety of reasons: politics, moral distaste manifested as a fear of Netflix-induced sloth in the general population, or just plain greed. The notion of having enough money show up in a citizen’s checking account to ensure a modicum of financial security has limited appeal.
I can accept such reluctance. UBI is far afield from where we are culturally or where we have been historically. But, what I cannot accept is formulating a UBI program that is dumb; one in which we create stories that say financial security can be had for $157 a month. UBI allocation needs to be proposed in real, livable numbers. Otherwise, the risk we run is that when we can somehow sell the idea to a willing buyer, should UBI fail due the stupidity of not allocating enough money per recipient, we will be hard-pressed to get a second chance to do it right.
The notion that the impact of automation on human employment will be severe is a tough one for many to accept. While it is true that history shows that advances in technology have led to new forms of employment for those displaced, history does not accommodate thinking machines. Thinking machines are new to the landscape.
Just as automobiles replaced horses, maybe thinking machines will replace humans. Horses did not find new forms of employment when the automobile came along. Rather, their number diminished to levels required for their remaining purpose: providing entertainment. Such an analogy might sound harsh. After all, a human life is worth more than its commercial value. If this is the case, then unless humanity can implement ideas such as UBI as a way to sustain life independent of commerce, the alternative might very well be about the bubble—a place where those on the inside live well, in secure isolation from the less fortunate ones suffering on the outside.