Money for Everybody? Exploring Universal Basic Income

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Photo by Getty Images/d1sk.

At the 2017 World Government Summit in Dubai, Elon Musk, the founder and former CEO of Tesla, discussed his concerns with the takeover of our economies by robotic systems.

There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better. What to do about mass unemployment?
This is going to be a massive social challenge. … The output of goods and services will be extremely high.
So, with automation there will come abundance. Almost everything will get very cheap.
Universal basic income, it’s going to be necessary. The harder challenge then, is how will people have meaning?

Musk is no saint. A high number of injuries have occurred in Tesla plants, twice the industry average. And like many other gig workers, Tesla subcontractors are paid as little as $5 per hour, which Musk ultimately apologized for after the summit.2 But Musk is also an icon of Silicon Valley; given his other entrepreneurial and creative endeavors in companies as diverse as PayPal, SpaceX, and Neuralink, he is someone who commands great attention within that world as well as across the globe. His belief that a global universal basic income (UBI) will become necessary in the near future, asa direct result of technological automation, continues to garner attention. Rather than predicting that new jobs—of equal or greater quantity than those available today—will be created thanks to technological advances, he assumes that, if anything, most jobs will be made obsolete.

UBI in Concept

UBI is a system through which the government would either send regular sums of money to everyone regardless of their income (ideally providing everyone with a living wage), or send money only to those in a specific low-or middle-income bracket. Although public conversation in recent years has put UBI in the spotlight, there are plenty of new ideas about how to organize a society if employment is no longer available for a large proportion of the population. Other possibilities include an automation tax that companies would pay based on profit increases from the widespread use of automated systems. Portable benefits packages are also up for consideration as a way to ensure access to healthcare, education, and other basic public services. Though these were once far-off ideas in the consciousness of Americans, a recent survey by Northeastern University showed that today 48 percent of Americans support the idea of a UBI.

UBI is likely to become a major political issue, given the shifts in labor and economic security that populations across the world have already begun to experience. Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur and a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, has made basic income a central plank of his platform. Yang believes that instead of serving as a substitute for work, UBI would inspire entrepreneurship and catalyze new businesses and artistic initiatives. Recipients would get the security they need to create new possibilities within an expanded digital economy. Yang’s “Freedom Dividend” proposal calls for the US government to send $1,000 per month to every household in the country. This, he believes, would transform its citizens’ “constant mindset of scarcity to a mindset of assured survival and possibility … by taking the boot off people’s throats.”

UBI is often framed as a new initiative and, in its current guise as a measure to address technological transformations, it is. But taking a more historical look, we see that the idea has been discussed for centuries. Thomas Paine, an American political activist, Founding Father, and philosopher, advocated in Rights of Justice (1791) for publicly funded welfare for all citizens of a nation. Like modern proponents of UBI, Paine felt that ensuring economic equality in a society was paramount. If one is poor, Paine remarked, in what sense is he or she free? Liberty, freedom, and equality—these are not values that exist within a vacuum; they shape and support one another. In other words, values often associated with the individual (such as liberty) are connected to values associated with society (such as equality). Free people must live in equal societies; otherwise they are not free.

The great civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. also embraced the idea of a basic income as a way to end poverty and fight rising racial and economic inequality.  In the last year of his life, King began his work on the Poor People’s Campaign, a large-scale movement comprising activists and groups in support of labor, community advocacy, and social justice. At the center of their lobbying work a $30 billion anti-poverty bill took shape. If it had passed, the federal government would have produced a basic guaranteed income for all Americans. For King, economic justice was deeply tied to racial justice. As King himself wrote, “New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.”

Elon Musk’s friend Sam Altman, the billionaire founder of Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s best-known tech accelerator, has voiced little doubt that “capitalism will find a way” to provide jobs to those whose current means  generating income are displaced. But he also voiced concerns that in the transition to automation many people could be impoverished. So he too has been funding UBI studies. Altman told me we need “significant updates [about] how work happens in light of the changing economy; a new definition of minimum wage, benefits, and collective bargaining. … This change needs to happen soon.”

UBI has gotten some heat—particularly from some US right-wingers, including former Alaskan governor and US vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin for being “the same as socialism.” But in reality, the idea behind UBI is more similar to a government investment than it is to a welfare program. UBI fits squarely within the capitalist market that we already have because it redistributes wealth to be used in the market. It is not about socializing the means of producing wealth, or even about providing basic social services that might be seen as a human right (like food stamps or, in some societies, healthcare). But UBI costs money—a lot of money—and this could mean that governments considering UBI might consider cutting crucial services, like Medicaid and Social Security.

Distinguishing between a market-friendly solution and a program that’s “the same as socialism” helps us to understand UBI as a viable, practical solution to the unemployment crisis caused by automation—rather than as a wild-eyed, utopic, liberal, or anti-capitalist project. As the US senator Bernie Sanders points out, the issue of universal basic income enjoys support from liberals and conservatives alike, including former US president Richard Nixon, a Republican, and the Adam Smith Institute rightwing think tank.

Excerpted fromBeyond the Valley: How Innovators around the World Are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow by Ramesh Srinivasan. Reprinted with permission from The MIT PRESS. Copyright 2019.


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