538 on Basic Income

The economic uncertainty surrounding basic income is huge, and the politics of bringing such a program about on a large scale are daunting. But something makes this radical proposal so exciting that people and governments are increasingly willing to try it. Basic income challenges our notions of the social safety net, the relationship between work and income, and how to adapt to technological change. That makes it one of the most audacious social policy experiments in modern history. It could fail disastrously, or it could change everything for the better.

From FiveThirtyEight, What Would Happen If We Just Gave People Money?

10 replies on “538 on Basic Income”

My family and I are involved in the charity work that humanitarian and spiritual leader Amma does throughout the world. I was told a story recently by one of the volunteers for a housing project of Amma’s in India.
Amma’s charity Embracing The World was building almost 1000 homes in a village that had been totally wiped out by flooding. Some of the workers were incensed as they observed a few villagers sitting idly by and smoking cigarettes, while volunteers labored to rebuild their homes.
Amma’s reaction was simply “Our job is to build them homes. Their job is to do whatever they do.”
I found her statement quite profound, and if it is the right thing to guarantee all people some basic level of subsistence, we should find a way to do it. At the very least, the willingness to test this concept seems the human thing to do.

It occurs to me that this is the economic equivalent of open source code: everyone is provided the resources to build their life/career/skills. It’s then up to the individual to use these assets wisely.

My late mother worked as a welfare caseworker for twenty years and knew first-hand how dysfunction a supposedly “needs based” income supplementation system was — including breaking up families by various policies back then where women with children could only get assistance if they were not in a relationship with a man. Needs-based welfare still has many problems that would be fixed by a basic income for all. Getting welfare or other forms of public assistance in the USA remains a degrading experience for most people (and sometimes a dangerous experience when it involves public housing).

More and more people feel a basic income is increasingly needed to prop up capitalism in an age of increasing automation. is a perfect example because it hosts a good fraction of the world’s websites with only a few hundred employees. Ultimately, creating private welfare states for a part of the global workforce like unions forced the US auto companies to do for a time or like Google is doing now out of self-interest including with special buses in San Francisco, will not solve the global issues of the economic challenge of rising productivity in the face of limited demand (including from concentration of wealth). Search on “The Great Decoupling” for a Harvard Business Review and NY Times Article by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (for the latest in many articles by many people on this topic).

Search on “Basic Income Earth Network” and “The US Basic Income Guarantee Network” for more information in general on a basic income. Of course, people have been talking about a basic income and similar for decades, from Martin Luther King to C.H. Douglas. Something similar but not identical (a guaranteed minimum income) was championed by Daniel Patrick Moynihan under Richard Nixon and passed the US House but it was defeated narrowly in the Senate.

The Liveable4All project, who promotes a basic income, republished an essay I wrote in 2009 (after talking to a millionaire about it) called: “Basic income from a millionaire’s perspective?”

In 2010 I also made a (satirical) YouTube video related to the topic called “The Richest Man in the World: A parable about robotics, abundance, technological change, unemployment, happiness, and a basic income”.

A basic income helps recognize a human right to some share of the “rent” on the planet’s resources. Most physical resources like land or fishing rights have been privatized by government fiat. Many intellectual resource have been copyrighted or patented into artificially scarce inaccessibility again through government policy. Jazz could probably not have been created today — the labels that own the performers would be suing each other into oblivion (or more likely forming a cartel to keep other musicians they don’t own off the privatized airwaves).

Any healthy economy has a mix of types of transactions including subsistence, gift, exchange, and planned transactions. A basic income to soften the exchange economy is only part of a solution. Every country needs to find a mix of those four types of economic transactions that works for it given its unique history and culture.

A basic income also acknowledges all the unpaid “gift” labor (from child care to informed voting to FLOSS work) it takes to make our society function — including to support an exchange economy that needs workers, laws, and software to run.

For most people, well-raised children are the biggest gift to the world they will make. I’m not saying to reward people for that — just to help more parents reach their potential. In New York State, about US$20K is spent per year per child to school them. Imagine what family life for most families with a few kids would be like if they got that cash directly. Most of the issues we face today have little to do with lack of money or other resources — they have to do with ideology and lack of imagination. We could divide 50% of the US GDP evenly among all US residents. That we choose not to is a social choice based on the myths we tell ourselves. Search on “The Mythology of Wealth” for an essay by “Conceptual Guerrilla” on that..

P.S. Sorry to read about the loss of your father. Some people ask what others would do if they had more free time from a basic income, saying most people would have no direction without being forced to work for pay. But anyone who has spent time raising a child knows that raising a child well can take about as much time as you have to put into it (and then some) no matter how much money you have. So can helping your community in all sorts of ways. Thanks, Chuck, for putting in all that unpaid labor making the world a better place because it was the right thing to do.

“We won’t know until we try” is the anthem of those who lack the intelligence, humility, and maturity to distinguish genuine concern for others from the pretentious manifestation as means to support the desperate pursuit of meaning for self.

Millennials can unchain themselves from their anxieties, their fear of being wrong, and their destructive impulsiveness by recognizing that no perspective can be real and permit elements to exist on both sides of the lens; if the observer can see himself among the observed, what he sees is an illusion and best dismissed.