Universal basic income—the proposal that everyone be paid a flat wage by the government, regardless of their economic status—is getting lots of attention these days thanks to the looming threat of mass job losses to automation. This week, start-up incubator Y Combinator announced plans for a pilot program, in which it’ll give basic income to a test set of people in Oakland to see how it goes. Also this week a small collective in San Francisco raffled a one-year basic income package of $1,250 per month to a single winner, a man in Florida.
With Silicon Valley at the forefront of developing the automated technologies poised to take a chunk out of the workforce, it’s not surprising that it’s the first place in the U.S. doing basic income trials. Though the ultimate plan would be to have governments doling out basic incomes, these trial programs are being run by private groups who hope to prove the feasibility of free money for no work.
Y Combinator’s Matt Krisiloff is managing the basic income project with a team of researchers and consultants from academia and finance. He explained in a phone interview that the idea came about as a result of OPEN AI, the billion-dollar research lab trying to create machine intelligence on par with that of human beings. In other words, the
“We’ve started to see that it might be possible that in the future there could really be less of a place for people to have traditional jobs,” Krisiloff said. “And if that’s the case, we need to create opportunities for people to have a safety net to be able to figure out other opportunities for themselves.”
Krisiloff said the existing version of basic income in the U.S.—the welfare system—”doesn’t work very well” and is “stigmatized.” “So it made sense for us to figure out new ways to expand the social safety net,” he said.
Krisiloff said the program will run for between six months and a year with a group of between 50 and 100 people, all living in Oakland and all receiving between $1,800-2,000 per month. Y Combinator is paying for it with money from its cash reserves.
“We wanted to come up with a number that we thought would be at a base level, affordable for people to live on in Oakland,” he explained. “It’s certainly not going to be luxurious living by any means, but comparable to people who might be working ends-meeting jobs right now.”
Krisiloff says the aim of the small study is to make the case for a larger, longer one that would run for five years. The people in the pilot will be able to do “anything they want” with the money. “It will be totally unconditional,” said Krisiloff. “People will be able to work or not work.”
Basic income crosses disparate political divides. It’s long been a dream of the Left to free people from both poverty and an alienating life of bullshit jobs by covering their basic needs and allowing them to pursue a quality of life they are otherwise denied. For the Right, the hope of dismantling welfare and minimizing government might likewise be realized by introducing a basic income to replace all other forms of government assistance (which for several reasons, might not be the best idea.) It is an argument at once economic, political and philosophical in nature, getting to the very heart of contemporary capitalism and the purpose of work as it has been debated for centuries.