The reason hard real world problems are hard to solve is because the causes of real world problems are not simple to understand. What causes poverty, for example? If someone tells you there is one simple solution to the problem, you can be certain that person has gotten it wrong.
That said, with a bit of thought, we will likely be able to identify a few likely causes. But, identifying a lack of education as a cause for poverty only takes us so far. Bringing quality education to low income regions requires better infrastructure, better teachers and a general improvement in out-of-school lifestyle. Hard problems are hard for good reason.
Brussels was bombed thrice today – there is likely a strong link between these bombings and the attacks in Paris as the people behind the Paris attacks were known to have grown up in Brussels. Like poverty, a problem such as terrorism has multiple causes. We can be certain, however, that low household income is a cause. Poverty and crime tend to go together.
Over the past few years, we’ve been hearing increased agitation around the subject of income inequality. The various “occupy” protests from a few years back were a result of that agitation. These aren’t going away. Donald Trump owes much of his success so far to the pent up anger in American society around the unequal distribution of wealth. Thomas Pikkety’s famous book on economics effectively demonstrated that, left to a natural flow of events, inequality only gets worse in society. The reason previous centuries have escaped this problem is because of regular war (a costly escape but an escape nonetheless) – one of the best redistributors of wealth. However, in a society that is as peaceful, on average, as ours today, this problem is likely not going away soon.
Compounding these issues is the sheer speed at which technology is progressing. AlphaGo was supposed to have the capability of beating a top human Go player in ten years. This means jobs that we expected computers to replace 10 years from now will likely be replaced in five. A recent White House report to the US Congress estimated that there was an 83% chance that a worker earning less than $20 per hour will eventually lose their job to a machine. I think the probability is at a 100%.
All of this brings me to the central thesis of the post – there is a need for conversations to be had about the possibility of a “Basic Income Guarantee.” This scenario involves decoupling income from work and working toward redistributing wealth across society. Of course, the solution isn’t to approach this as the only solution. But, it is important to acknowledge that this is a possible solution and important that we at least begin to have discussions on conducting experiments in select geographies to see how it might work.
The combination of poverty, unequal distribution of wealth and technological progress will not make for pretty viewing in ten years. This is not a hard problem as much as it is a combination of many hard problems. As the article by Scott Santens that inspired this post nicely said, ignoring these problems will be tantamount to the laughable “duck and cover” strategies to avoiding nuclear blasts during the cold war.