This succinctly sums up the promises and perils of nations and peoples

The Swiss said no to Unconditional Basic Income and opened a tunnel© AlpTransit Gotthard Ltd.
news Monday, June 06, 2016 - 14:34

The Swiss are a rather shy people, unused to the glare of lights. Besides, rather unfairly, whenever the world thinks of Switzerland, they think cheese, chocolates and gnome-like bankers chasing their own shadows.

Last week was different, very different. In a matter of seven days this Alpine nation of just over eight million people succinctly summed up the promise and perils of nations and peoples in the first quarter of this century. It was a week of connections and conversations as well as diatribe where people were asked to vote on an Unconditional Minimum Income (UBI) of $2,500 for all. At the same time people were treated to an extravaganza of European connections via the opening of the magical Gothard tunnel.

The Swiss gave Europe and the world the longest train tunnel on earth deep in the bowels of the Alps. Connecting sea to sea from Rotterdam in the Netherlands to Genoa in Italy the Gothard tunnel has been a European dream for decades. The 17-year project (preceded by a decade of internal dialogue and back and forth from ballot boxes) completed with a bill of $10.6 billion will unite continental Europe in ways that seemed impossible a quarter century ago.

This success sat rather uncomfortably on a Europe that is seeing refugees and dead bodies washing up on its shores. Barricades and walls bring long shadows with them in Europe. The Gothard opening ceremony was marked with pomp and prestige. What were German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and their Swiss host President Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga thinking when they spoke of a united Europe? Tunnel for themselves to facilitate the travel of people, goods and services and walls and barbed wires for others coming to Europe?

No, that is cruel. The Swiss vote this week for UBI was precisely a move to address disparities within and outside in Europe. France, Greece, Finland, the Netherlands are all having a national debate along the same lines. Switzerland became the first country in the world to vote on whether or not people should paid $2,500 as UBI – a move that attracted substantial international attention and consternation. The first because such an issue had been put to a national vote and the second because the thought of being paid to do nothing is seen as a “Marxist dream.” Even those who were willing to give the vote a fighting chance asked where the state would find the $25 billion necessary to make that a reality. I will write about the grand clash of ideas and Europe in another post. Suffice for now to note that even though the UBI was turned down by 76.9 per cent of the Swiss, it has managed to achieve a prise de conscience or stocktaking in the Swiss population especially among the young. “We are very happy,” said Ralph Kundig, one of the initiators of the vote.

One in five people in Switzerland thinks it is a good idea. Here was promise and peril staring people in the face, disturbing enough for 100,000 Swiss people to send the matter for a national vote. That is the number of signatures necessary to vote nationally on an issue in Switzerland’s direct democracy.

With unemployment hovering around 3.4 per cent, what are Swiss afraid of? The one word that is firmly in focus is automation. The merger of man and technology will drive an unprecedented economic cycle but what does that mean for jobs and people? Euphemistically called the Fourth Industrial Revolution just one statistic tells the story. Over 65 per cent of children in school today will be working in jobs that do not exist today. Engineers or doctors, masons or plumbers is not the toss up what makes economic and political leaders sit up.

The changes that worry people are those that are occurring simultaneously, the result of massive investments in science and technology in the past two decades in western economies. They range from nanotechnology to gene sequencing, renewables to quantum computing. These are big domains – they straddle across physical, digital and biological domains. Switzerland, a world leader in innovation also needs to take care of its people who do not get on the train. So do other nations.

This has nothing to do with a Marxist dream or a capitalist nightmare. It has to do with the simple fact that not everyone is talented and clever to go for the top jobs. It also means not everybody has the opportunity to have a go at these jobs even after a university education. If the lower level jobs – automobile painting is already happening – are automated and future jobs do not yet exist, what are the in-between people going to do?

Finland is going through a similar process and experiments may follow in Canada and the Netherlands. In France the discussion is ever present. By becoming the first country in the world to put the issue to vote, Switzerland has profiled the promise and peril people will face in the coming decades.

Also read:

Switzerland gives itself and the world the longest tunnel on earth

What would you do if you were paid $2500 per month to do nothing?