While most corporate directors in the United States are focusing on the social and business impact of recent tax reform, some of them have another economic matter on their minds: the concept of universal basic income (UBI). This is our future, says a recent article quoting Silicon Valley’s Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering. Kurzweil is not alone. Other tech luminaries such as Marc Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have expressed support for it. Meanwhile, public sector leaders from Canada to Kenya are already looking at implementing this economic model.
So, what is UBI? One way to define it is to see what it is not. It was reported recently that Finland has discontinued its year-old UBI pilot. The Finnish government’s discomfort with handing out money with no strings attached got the upper hand. (However, Finland retains its generous unemployment, free college, and universal healthcare benefits.) While Finland is abandoning unconditional income guarantees, it will be lumping all government benefits together in a single monthly sum, a universal social credit. The UK government is following a similar lump-sum approach, the so-called universal credit. But neither is a basic income.
A true UBI is both universal (i.e. paid to every citizen), and unconditional, ( i.e. recipients do not have to meet any obligations to maintain their eligibility). The tax treatment of a UBI is intended to avoid any distortions normally associated with the transition point between social benefits and wage income. This distortion can be a disincentive for benefit recipients to start working. On the other hand, UBI is tax free; only additional income from other sources like wages, called the market income, is taxed. Even as market income goes up, UBI is not taxed. Tax brackets are designed so that a gross income (UBI + market) above a certain level makes an individual a net contributor, meaning what someone pays in taxes will exceed his UBI receipts. For example, with a 33.33 percent flat income tax rate, the recipient of an annual UBI of $12,000 will reach the breakeven point when her taxable market income is $36,000, on which she will be paying $12,000 in taxes balancing out the UBI. Every dollar of market income after that makes her a net contributor of taxes. The system is startling in its simplicity.
The modern idea of a basic guaranteed income has been around since Bertrand Russell made the case for it 100 years ago, but Thomas Paine proposed a form of basic income as far back as 1797. A close variant of UBI is the negative income tax, which entails payments only to those who would be net recipients under the basic income system, like those earning less than $36,000 in the example above.
So, why are so many leaders of institutions (from government and non-governmental organizations to corporations) looking at UBI right now? It is because of the ongoing unemployment trends in recent decades. In countries such as the United States, these trends are better reflected in a 20-year low workforce participation rate and precarious employment than in unemployment claims, which are currently low. There is widespread fear that the elimination of low- and medium-skilled manufacturing and administrative jobs will accelerate as new automation technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) spread like brushfire through the economy.
The predictions on the worker dislocation by AI and other automation technologies are piling up: In 2013 Oxford University researchers estimated that 47 percent of U.S. jobs had a high probability of being automated by 2033. This started off a range of estimates and predictions by consultancies, think tanks, and governments. For example, late last year McKinsey estimated that by 2030 between 400 to 800 million jobs worldwide may be lost due to automation, including 73 million lost jobs in the United States. PwC in 2017 estimated that up to 38 percent U.S. jobs are vulnerable to automation by 2030. On the low end is the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2016 measure, which estimated that 9 percent of jobs are highly automatable and another 32 percent have a significant risk of automation. There are also optimistic estimates of millions of new jobs being created by this technology—but most such predictions only offset the job loss. They do not erase the net loss that will surely result.
Both job losses and job creation have indeed been part of previous industrial revolutions, but that does not mean serious disruption can be avoided in the transition. We could have one or more lost generations of workers before the system rights itself. Just this past month, Brookings researchers provided a grim warning that with job dislocation around 38 percent (a forecast mean), “Western democracies likely could resort to authoritarianism as happened in some countries during the Great Depression of the 1930s in order to keep their restive populations in check. If that happened, wealthy elites would require armed guards, security details, and gated communities to protect themselves, as is the case in poor countries today with high income inequality. The United States would look like Syria or Iraq, with armed bands of young men with few employment prospects other than war, violence, or theft.”
This is a bleak future we all want to avoid. What’s needed is a policy response equal in size to the disruption. UBI may be a big part of the answer, but the concept is too often met by skepticism or outright hostility from business leaders who have a distaste for anything that smells like socialism.
Concerns for personal responsibility immediately come up when UBI is discussed: Won’t it take away the incentive for people to work? Won’t some people abuse it? Perhaps no one better addressed these concerns than that paragon of free market capitalism, Milton Friedman, in a famous 1968 article titled “The Case for a Negative Income Tax: A View from the Right.” Friedman pointed out that onerous conditions for social assistance interfere with personal freedom and dignity when large numbers of government bureaucrats have to screen and police recipients to make sure they do not violate eligibility requirements. It is also highly inefficient. Friedman argued that replacing the multitude of existing welfare measures with one unconditional payment would be much more efficient, increase the incentive to work, and reduce the number of permanent poor living off government programs.
More practically, if the UBI is set at a low-enough amount, and recipients keep their after-tax income from employment, ample incentives remain for people to find work to improve their status in life. For example, the Ontario pilot UBI for individuals is set at only $13,000 US per year per individual, and $19,000 US per couple. This is hardly enough to live a life of luxury on the dole.
For the same reason, companies need not worry that a modest UBI will drive up wages for low-wage workers, because the UBI might depress the labor supply. It may do the opposite, that is enable more people to take low-wage jobs similar to the current situation where many low-wage workers in the United States are supported by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, previously known as food stamps) program. It is estimated that U.S. taxpayers already provide working families with over $150 billion in annual public support through the current patchwork of state and federal programs like SNAP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. By design, UBI eliminates the so-called poverty trap in which people are discouraged to take work because they may earn less from wages than from the sum of these benefits. And since everyone from the CEO to janitor will get a monthly UBI directly from the government, there is no regulatory or administrative burden for companies. Furthermore, the UBI becomes a permanent safety net for laid-off employees who have exhausted their termination and unemployment insurance benefits.
Will UBI give struggling people the opportunity to lift themselves up or will it create a permanent underclass? Preliminary anecdotal feedback from the Ontario pilot is that participants are eating healthier, retiring debt, and feeling less stressed, enabling them to focus on economic advancement. This is consistent with the so-called Maslow argument for UBI. Longitudinal data is needed to properly assess the societal welfare effects of UBI and these are scarce, which is precisely why properly designed UBI pilots should be supported. One of the only UBI-like programs to have existed for years is the payment funded by casino royalties (currently about $12,000 annually) to every member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina. The program has been extensively studied by social scientists who found compelling benefits: a 40 percent decrease in behavioral problems among poor children to a level equal to non-poor children, and a 22 percent decrease in minor crimes which means fewer kids in jail, and higher high school graduation rates.
The last big concern is the cost burden of UBI for a country. A full-scale UBI implementation could be partially funded by absorbing many existing programs into the single universal payment. Significant savings will also come from collapsing the large government bureaucracies currently employed in administrating those programs. A tiny new bureaucracy can send every citizen a monthly check or bank transfer, and the existing tax bureaucracy (e.g., the Internal Revenue Service) will process any taxable income and payments as usual. But some incremental public spending will likely be needed, and new revenue sources found for it.
Earlier this month, Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Office estimated the cost of extending the Ontario pilot to every Canadian citizen at the current rates, net of expected savings in existing spending, to be in the order of $23 billion (Canadian). To scale this to other economies like the United States, this is roughly one per cent of gross domestic product, and could be paid for with about three additional points on the federal Canadian general sales tax (GST).
UBI is a bold new mechanism for social support. But so was unemployment insurance and Social Security in their time. There are details to be worked out, and hypotheses to be tested, before rolling out such massive programs nationwide. The best way to do that is to proceed with, and copy, controlled experiments like the current pilot in three cities in the Province of Ontario. Board members and other business leaders would do well to monitor these developments and to keep an open mind on UBI. It may just save our society from the social havoc that could be wreaked by artificial intelligence.
Peet van Biljon is founder and CEO of BMNP Strategies LLC. Headvises clients on strategy, innovation, and new business building. He focuses on Industry 4.0 and transformative technologies such as artificial intelligence, digitization, fintech, and the Internet of Things. He previously managed McKinsey’s global innovation practice from 2010 to 2015. Peet is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, where he teaches a graduate course on innovation.He co-chairs the General Principles Committee of the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems (A/IS). Peet authored a book on business ethics, Profit with a Higher Purpose, and has developed Ethics-driven Innovation, an innovation process to help clients meet the highest ethical standards. He is an electrical engineer, licensed as a professional engineer in Ontario, and also has degrees in accounting and economics. All thoughts expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of NACD.
Our mission at the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) includes continuous learning for directors. In pursuit of that mission our staff also seek out the most exciting events across the country to learn more about the disruptions that will impact members’ boards. I caught up with Erin Essenmacher, NACD’s chief programming officer, after her appearance at SXSW to discuss takeaways from the conference and how corporate directors can continue the conversation on technology disruption.
Erin moderated a panel, in partnership with KITE, titled “Innovation: the Board Director’s Cut,” featuring leadership representatives from Spredfast, OurOffice, and Capital Expert Services. The panel discussed the strategies directors should take in order to best manage technology disruptions at their companies. Highlights from our conversation follow. Katie Swafford: What led your panel to discuss technology disruption? What do you see at NACD—or among NACD’s members—that surfaced this particular topic for the panel?
Erin Essenmacher: Across the spectrum of industries, companies are being disrupted because they are not focused on how new technologies, paired with shifting trends, are completely changing business models. My first major takeaway from the panel was the need to focus on disruption. I don’t even like to say technology disruption, because I think that makes the issue sound too small and prescribed, which it is not. While technology is a big driver of disruption, so are issues like social and demographic shifts and other market-shaping forces as they intersect with technology. Disruption is a huge challenge to navigate for boards at companies of all sizes. We are reaching the point where the swift changes are blurring the lines between industries, and directors should be raising questions with managers about what is on the horizon for their companies, and if their companies are thinking sufficiently about the big picture and the nature and impact of those changes.
In terms of the discussion here at SXSW, the panel was really focused a lot more on flipping the script. A lot of the folks in the audience were on the boards of early-stage companies, and the panel really looked at how boards can add value to companies of all sizes. The panelists brought many perspectives—some are involved on the inside of early-stage companies, some are making investments in start-ups, and they all serve as directors at companies of various sizes, so it was a really interesting discussion.
Swafford:Are there specific skills gaps that NACD has seen when it comes to handling technology disruption or innovation?
Essenmacher: I would say the biggest skill gap is very low tech, but critically important: a sense of curiosity and a willingness to be a continuous learner. When you get to the top of your career and you’re on a board, you’re extremely seasoned and experienced. You’re an expert in many things that relate to the company business model or to the industry you serve, and it’s easy for that expertise to make you complacent. When you have a business environment like ours where things are changing so quickly, I think the most successful boards are the ones that acknowledge that disruption is happening. Most importantly, they acknowledge that because the environment is new, they will not have all of the answers. They are willing to get serious about what’s happening, they are willing to get curious about the gaps in their own knowledge, and they are willing to challenge the management team to evaluate the existing assumptions and expectations of the company culture and business model.
Swafford: Is there an ideal board composition that’s best able to navigate disruption? Is there a leading practice when it comes to board composition?
Essenmacher: I wouldn’t say that there’s an ideal board composition, because every company is different. Composition is going to vary widely depending on industry, company size, and many other factors. An overarching leading practice is to continually consider the board’s composition compared to your long-term strategy as a company. It’s not just about bringing in people that have the latest and greatest technology expertise. There is a critical role on any board for business judgment and experience. We need all of that in our boards. Once you start to dig into how you can think differently about your business model in the face of disruption, you can start to think differently about your board composition. It’s also not just about defaulting to a former CEO or CFO. Boards need to think critically about how diversity of experience, perspective, and expertise can help elevate their strategic discussions to map to where consumers and the market are headed.
Swafford: Where do you foresee some of the topics that came up in the panel flowing over into the Global Board Leaders’ Summit? I would think diversity, board composition, and growth, among other topics, will really flow into the conversations you will be having at Summit.
Essenmacher: We need to challenge ourselves to learn about new trends from the ground-level up. Our panel here at SXSW discussed topics that are important for board members to engage in, so how can we extend this conversation? At the NACD 2018 Global Board Leaders’ Summit we will be hosting the third annual “Dancing with the Start-ups” pitch competition. This event allows us, as board members, to hear what the leaders of start-ups are creating from the ground level—how they are using technology, how they are leveraging or setting trends, and how their ingenuity is disrupting the industry of the company on whose board you might serve. Yes, it’s a fun format and very exciting, but there is also a lot of great content. I think of it as a “meet the disruptors” session. It’s really an opportunity for directors to see the earliest stages of the next iteration of products, services, and trends that are disrupting their industry.
Our Summit theme this year is transformation. The theme provides a wonderful opportunity to keep engaging in this conversation on disruption, but to also look at disruption through a proactive lens. How can we take what we know about the shifting business landscape and leverage it for strategic advantage? On the risk side, we will learn from people who are experts on the important issues of technology and privacy, enabling us to delve into what those issues mean for public trust. We will discuss how new regulations are shifting what disruption means, including the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). I believe this shift in how companies market their products and how business models are changing is creating an opportunity for large and small companies to learn from each other.
There will be a lot of opportunity to discuss disruption at the 2018 Global Board Leaders’ Summit happening September 29 through October 2 in Washington, DC. Don’t miss out on our early bird pricing through March 31 to save on registration.
Directors and executives could be forgiven for feeling like digital transformation has materialized out of thin air to attack their business models and markets. For most sectors, “digital” has historically been confined to tactical efforts across websites, mobility, social media, and e-commerce. Digital efforts were important to marketing execution but certainly did not inform overall business model strategy, much less determine which companies won, lost, or failed to survive. And while everyone is familiar with the global Internet giants that have emerged over the past two decades to dominate markets and stock indices, until recently digital disruption had not yet penetrated beyond the traditional realms of media, content, and e-commerce.
The massive competitive challenges witnessed in these early domains have now arrived in every other sector. Billboards lining airport corridors proclaim the urgency for companies to digitally transform. Corporations are funding incubators, venture funds, and innovation programs, and are facing the task of shaping the future of work. Many consulting firms and agencies make claims to broader digital transformation expertise, regardless of their historic core capabilities.
It is easy for leaders to get lost amidst the clamor. What follows is an account of the past, present, and the possible future of digital business risks and strategy that could help your board discuss digital business model risk and winning strategies.
Tracing the Origins
Along with my co-author, I presented the foundations of digital transformation and the strategic and financial performance considerations in a previous article. To begin to grasp how digital transformation impacts value creation, and to build on the concepts outlined below, I suggest starting there. The basic competitive dynamics across all past and emerging digitization phases reinforce the business model risk that directors and executives should understand as digital disruption changes their sectors.
The graphic below describes the primary phases of digitization over the past two decades and the emerging waves.
Click the graph to enlarge in a new window.
A pattern emerges across the phases. First, a primary enabling technology emerges, targeting specific product and service domains within a selection of target sectors. As these products and services are digitized, leading companies within these target sectors bring to market entirely new business models based on the primary enabling technology of the phase. These companies bring new value propositions to market and rewrite the rules of competition in the sector. For example, Google reinvented advertising, Amazon.com reinvented retail, Uber and other ride-sharing companies are reinventing transportation, and Social Finance (SoFi) is reinventing loans. Existing companies in these target sectors that fail to evolve their business models lose market share or cease to exist, while new, dominant-phase leaders emerge.
This dynamic has been consistent across the first three digitization phases, resulting in massive disruption across the target sectors as well as a recalibration of the world’s most valuable companies list—despite the relatively small number of target sectors initially involved. Currently, the dominant digitization phase is driven by Internet of Things (IoT) and smart products technologies, with implications for all machines, all physical products and the companies that design, manufacture, sell, and operate them.
Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies are also in broad, albeit early, deployment with implications for every sector of the economy, including forming the foundational elements of continued robotics and digitized biology and chemistry.
This is an admittedly simplified picture. Primary enabling technologies do not evolve in isolation from earlier phases, and the phases themselves do not end. For example, more and more content continues to be digitized (from newspapers to videos to augmented or virtual reality), while the scope of digital services continues to expand (from basic e-commerce to mobile payments to blockchains) and AI is reinventing all previous primary enabling technologies. Furthermore, leadership in one stage of digitization does not guarantee continued leadership as the cycle continues. Yahoo! was among the major winners of the original content digitization phase but failed to evolve, while Google, which emerged during the same phase, has consistently grown in line with emerging technologies. Meanwhile, General Electric Co. and General Motors Co. are bucking the trend of established companies falling to digital upstarts to assume leadership in the industrial IoT and automotive markets.
While it is helpful to understand the enabling digital technologies, it is primarily beneficial for directors at companies of all types to seek to understand the implications of these technologies on the products, industries, and business models of their companies, and ensure that their CEOs have a sound strategy to address these considerations.
Every sector is now in the crosshairs of digitization. Many business leaders not operating in the initial target industries, however, have never been trained on how to think about digital transformation strategically. So long as a company was not in a target sector of digitization, it was sufficient to deploy point solutions related to the primary enabling technology of each phase, such as websites, mobile applications, e-commerce offerings, and a social media presence—and, indeed, it has always been important for companies to keep up with these tactics. Directors and the C-suite should understand, however, that this approach is not sufficient when it is their own sectors that are the primary focus of digitization.
Ryan McManus is senior vice president of partnerships and corporate development for EVRYTHNG, the IoT Smart Products platform company and serves on the board of Nortech Systems, the advisory board of Carlabs AI, and two advisory boards with the Aspen Institute. He is the founder of Accenture’s Digital Business Strategy and Transformation practice, has served an advisor to Fortune 100 companies, and is the author of numerous articles on digital transformation and corporate strategy. Ryan earned his MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Want to hear more from Ryan? Attend his session at the 2017 Global Board Leaders’ Summit. Learn more and register here.