What jobs will tomorrow’s children have? I informally surveyed a number of teens and adults from around the world, and responses told the same fearful story. Technology, robots and artificial intelligence will take jobs. 

The talk today of a universal basic income is appealing specifically because people are giving up on figuring out how money will be made in the future. If robots do everything and the owners of the robots have all the wealth, the ostensible solution is taxation of the rich and redistribution to everyone else. That’s the plan for universal basic income. 

It won’t happen any time soon. Universal basic income can’t be offered universally since there is no universal government. The best we have is the painfully inadequate United Nations, which doesn’t tax wealth at all. Taxation solutions need a world taxation system, and the Security Council can’t even agree whether chemical weapons were used in Syria. There is no way the General Assembly will agree on a progressive UN income tax on global wealth. Try to imagine a Russian oligarch filing a tax return with the United Nations. Nation-state governments as they are currently configured are almost parochial compared to the power of global capital. 

I flew from Hong Kong to Shanghai the other day. Next to me sat a 30-something mechanical engineer working in Shanghai’s rolled steel industry. The flight was delayed for hours, and the gate’s air conditioning didn’t work. While we sat and sweat, we talked about jobs. Less than a week earlier, the US announced tariffs on China’s rolled steel that his company sold. He wasn’t all that concerned about the tariffs. His company has a sister company in the US. Instead of rolling the steel in China, his company planned to ship it unrolled to the US and have his US-based sister company in Nevada roll it. 

He was less concerned about his job than the future of the flight attendants on our plane. China Eastern was the airline, and the engineer started by asking me if I noticed that flight attendants in China are younger and more attractive than flight attendants on US carriers. I nodded and smiled in silence. He looked up at the flight attendants running around offering water to annoyed passengers. A slight change came over his face after he glanced up. It went from smiling to concerned. He said that even though it’s nice seeing younger servers, he did wonder what would happen to them when they are older. He assumed they would be tossed aside for newer, younger workers. 

I didn’t tell him about my street sweeper. I thought about him, though. The street sweeper on my block is not as young as the flight attendants, though many of the street sweepers I see are young. It’s nice to see a good-looking street sweeper, but I feel sure they aren’t being swept aside for younger workers. Neither do I mention to my traveling companion the other concern I have about Shanghai’s clean streets. I look at beautiful construction and generally think the same thing. I often wonder what’s more valuable to the country and the world, a clean street or me walking along it. 

John Heintz lives in Shanghai, China. He is a writer, teacher, researcher, editor, podcaster, blogger and thinker on the education, economic, legal, justice and social issues facing the global community. Most known for his work in education, John Heintz explores a range of issues in his writing for Second Rail Education, including most recently an analysis of misunderstood effects of technology on elementary education.