What would you do if you were given a ‘basic income’? Y Combinator wants to know

There’s a lot of buzz around Y Combinator‘s announcement this week that it is doing a pilot study in Oakland on giving people something called a “Basic Income.”

How this program might work, including how much money will be doled out and how people will be chosen is all to be decided.

But why is a tech startup accelerator like Y Combinator, which helped launch Dropbox, Reddit and Airbnb, taking a leaf from Finland and exploring what it might take to provide people an adequate social net?

In tweets and in a blog post, Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator, outlined a world where technology would make even more jobs obsolete yet would “generate an abundance of resources.”

In this scenario, the cost of living should drop, Altman hypothesizes. Yet people still need basic income to meet their needs. Vox calls the idea “an insurance policy for the robot takeover.”

What Y Combinator has in mind is a large, long-term study. Altman writes:

We want to run a large, long-term study to answer a few key questions: how people’s happiness, well-being, and financial health are affected by basic income, as well as how people might spend their time.

First, Y Combinator will run a short-term pilot in Oakland. There, researchers will work on their methods, Altman writes, such as “how to pay people, how to collect data, how to randomly choose a sample, etc.”

Altman describes some of the pilot’s parameters:

In our pilot, the income will be unconditional; we’re going to give it to participants for the duration of the study, no matter what. People will be able to volunteer, work, not work, move to another country—anything. We hope basic income promotes freedom, and we want to see how people experience that freedom.

Also, there will be no restrictions on people seeking more income. Altman writes:

We think of basic income as providing a floor, and we believe people should be able to work and earn as much as they want.  We hope a minimum level of economic security will give people the freedom to pursue further education or training, find or create a better job, and plan for the future

Vox outlines a boon in basic income studies around the world but posits that Y Combinator is seeking something more than whether a basic income can lift people out of poverty:

Does basic income make for a more creative society liberated from the constraints of cash? Does basic income increase happiness through greater leisure?

Interesting questions that are more than a touch utopic.

Photo: Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, in 2014. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)


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  • Thelip95032

    “In tweets and in a blog post, Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator, outlined a world where technology would make even more jobs obsolete yet would “generate an abundance of resources.”

    In this scenario, the cost of living should drop, Altman hypothesizes.”

    This is completely idiotic how would cost of living drop ?
    What ! because the cost of creating a product would be less because it’s done by robots therefore that cost saving will be passed on to the consumer.
    The auto industry has adopted robots , anyone see the price of a car going down ?

    And what exactly is “an abundance of resources.” ?

    This is why companies in Silicon Valley are imploding , millennials have no concept of business. They go to A colleges come out and go to work in SV and think they have experience in the real world.

  • tom

    Dumb idealists… There is nothing free in life, there will always be a cost. Or in this case strings. Doesn’t everyone realize that with a “free basic income” now comes the control of those that give you said income.

    Earning your own living in life is the very definition of liberty and freedom. Being given a “free basic income” is bondage. I don’t care if it’s welfare or not.

    So lets say I get a “free basic income” from the .gov… wouldn’t that gov now saw what I can and cannot use those funds for? What if I wanted to use them toward religious means or some special interest groups ideals?

    • EllaFino

      What do you think Social Security is?

      • Creighton Sneetly

        Exactly. They can start the study now!

    • Riam

      That’s the problem right now. We have things like food stamps and housing assistance which do have limitations. Here, it doesn’t matter if you spend it all lobbying, donating to a cult, or on booze and drugs. 99% of people won’t. Furthermore, these aren’t means tested, which means you can still earn money without losing it, reducing disincentives to work. This means no bureaucracy, saving money hiring people to figure out fraud. This isn’t inherently a replacement for work, it’s a supplement to it.
      Earning your own living will be nearly impossible for half the population in 30 years with robotics and artificial intelligence doing work better and cheaper than you. Which is why a basic income is inevitable. Production will increase but aggregate demand will decrease with technological unemployment.
      Even if it were strings attached, so what? Let’s say you could only use it on 9 volt batteries. You could either buy 9 volt batteries for no additional cost, or not use it and you haven’t lost a thing. This isn’t inherently a replacement for work, it’s a supplement to it.
      Also, “idealists”? A basic income has been supported by Richard nixon(he was tricked by a made-up report days before announcing it) and Milton Friedman, along with MLK, and Robert Reich. Studies show it’s the most effective way of reducing poverty. Furthermore, one experiment in Africa shows people who received it work longer (17 hours on average more a week), and make more money because they had the freedom to leave their jobs and invest in skills. Another showed the only people to leave their job did so to pursue education or raise their children, both public goods. It has a multiplier effect. It provides a social safety net critical to bolstering entrepreneurship we see in social democracies like Scandinavia.

  • Rob Lewis

    Interesting bit of editorializing: “Interesting questions that are more than a touch utopic.”

    People intrigued by the idea instead of just dismissing it out of hand might like to check out Rutger Bregman’s “Utopia for Realists”.