A Marxist Social Policy Is Gaining Ground In Silicon Valley

Venture capitalist Sam Altman explains how basic income could turn America into an incubator.

This week, the startup incubator Y Combinator put up a job listing for a researcher to study basic income, a policy where the government would, as described by Y Combinator boss Sam Altman, give all citizens "enough money to live on with no strings attached."

There are other ways to describe the UBI ("universal basic income"), the cutest being "mincome" (short for minimum income), but the general parameters include just that: all citizens get a base amount of money, unconditional on employment status or other factors.

"If you give people freedom — and you free them from the worry and stress of paying for food — some people will do nothing," Altman told BuzzFeed News in an interview. "And some people will create incredible new wealth."

It's an idea that has united Marxists and libertarians, making unlikely comrades of anarchist anthropologist David Graeber and billionaire investor Peter Thiel. Some proponents argue the policy would raise the standard of living, return a degree of labor market power to working people, and compensate unwaged work by women. Others believe direct cash payments are a more efficient way for the government to distribute money than the current welfare system.

To these pluses, Altman adds the promise of a "truer" meritocracy.

"Fifty years from now, I think it will seem ridiculous that we used fear of not being able to eat as a way to motivate people," Altman wrote. "I also think that it’s impossible to truly have equality of opportunity without some version of guaranteed income."

The notion of paying people for nothing, which has been gaining popularity in recent months, last had traction at the level of government in the 1960s and 70s, when both conservatives and liberals voiced support for versions of the policy. Free-market champion Milton Friedman and former Republican president Richard Nixon each favored variations of basic income, as well as Democratic politicians such as George McGovern.

The idea, in its new tech context, is a kind of Soylent for economics, a synthetic miracle cure-all for poverty, manufactured by the same method and minds that tackled hunger by making a hipper, nerdier version of nutritional shakes.

After all, basic income is not such a far cry from unemployment benefits, the Earned Income Tax Credit, social security, or a souped-up take on Obama's recently proposed "wage insurance." But when techno-utopian VC firms get involved, a semi-radical social safety net study becomes a futuristic moonshot — that of sketching a blueprint for a society in which robots will have eliminated many kinds of work.

"I’m fairly confident that at some point in the future, as technology continues to eliminate traditional jobs and massive new wealth gets created, we’re going to see some version of this at a national scale," Altman wrote.

BuzzFeed News spoke with Altman to learn more about the proposal. Here's what he had to say.

Given that a number of studies have looked at basic income in the past, what's behind the decision to fund more research now?

I think those past studies are not super relevant to the world in 2016. It’s such a different time in the world. Technology in 2016 enables people to accomplish much more, with much less, than at any time in history.

Which technology in particular do you have in mind?

I don't think it's any one technology. I think it's where we are on the general exponential curve of technology. We are not so far away from a society where we have enough for everyone.

Also, in the world today, many people can create new innovations. However, with the fear of poverty that so many people face, it's very difficult to take the risks to do that. I don't think we can have equality of opportunity without something like a basic income.

Do you think favor for basic income has reached a high level of saturation in Silicon Valley?

I think there are still a lot of people who think it’s a really horrible idea. And there are a lot of people who look at how quickly everything’s changing and see this as something on the scale of the industrial revolution or cultural revolution, in terms of changing the potential of what people can accomplish when you take away the fear of not being able to pay rent or for food.

If you give people freedom — and you free them from the worry and stress of paying for food — some people will do nothing. And some people will create incredible new wealth. We see this all the time at Y Combinator with people who wouldn’t be able to start up without support from us.

You mentioned you've been interested in basic income for a long time. Did you come to it via conservative thinkers like Milton Friedman, liberal theorists, or some combination?

I honestly can't point to the time I became interested in this. [It's been] sort of a gradual process over the past 10 years. As you point out, it comes from a lot of places — it's one of the few ideas that I've heard staunch support for from liberals, conservatives, libertarians, authoritarians, etc.

What do you think it is about basic income that appeals so much to some in the tech community, rather than proposals such as welfare, unemployment benefits, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit, or wage insurance?

I'm not entirely sure. Speaking for myself — it seems fair, it seems simple, and it seems like it could be good for society.

There seem to be good indicators that on-demand workers can't all count on making minimum wage. Might a basic income help underwrite gig-economy startups, by raising the floor for contingent workers? Or could you see basic income undercutting the model?

I'm not sure. It would certainly give the workers much more power [and] flexibility.

One of the questions you mention trying to answer is, "Do people sit around and play video games, or do they create new things [when given a UBI]?” To push against that — would it be so bad if people do both — if a basic income enables more play?

Of course it'd be okay. I personally love playing video games. On a more serious note, I don't think hard work for its own sake is valuable (only if it actually creates new value). I think we are heading towards a world where we don't need everyone to work. If some people are happy and fulfilled playing video games, more power to them.

(Edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

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