Silicon Valley's Top Tech Incubator Is Taking on Basic Income


Everyone's talking about universal basic income — a progressive form of welfare that would give everyone in the country a salary for just being alive. Basic income supporters are often met with one response: It would never work. Quite simply, there's no proof yet it would.

That's all changing. Y Combinator, a sort of monastery for tech startups, is going to fund a study and pilot program to test out basic income and watch for the results.

"We'd be especially interested in a combination of selecting people at random, and selecting people who are driven and talented but come from poor backgrounds," Y Combinator president Sam Altman wrote on the company blog. "We're open to doing this in either one geographic area, or nationally distributed."

YC wants to hire someone to manage a five-year project that would provide a basic guaranteed income to a select group of people to see if those people end up happy and fulfilled, and most importantly, if those people end up creating "more economic value than they receive" when freed to pursue whatever kind of work they choose.

"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.

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Rise of the robots: Americans have been talking about basic income for a century, but lately, tech gurus like Altman have taken up the cause, largely because the tech industry has made the discussion suddenly relevant again. Robot automation and the gig economy threaten the stability of traditional job markets. In France, taxi drivers are starting bonfires on major highways to protest what Uber is doing to that economy.

It's no wonder that Silicon Valley wants to alleviate those tensions.

"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." — Sam Altman

But the idea of basic income is scary to some because of the possible unforeseen consequences of giving people money for nothing. Would people stop working? Would people use the money to expand the economy? Would it give too much to the wealthy?

The myth that welfare just makes people lazier has been around for decades, and it has been widely criticized. There are a handful of global trials and studies trying to determine basic income's potential positive effects and squelch the idea once and for all. While countries like Finland field the idea of a national income, private pilots in Germany are giving away thousands to random strangers to see what they do with an arbitrary safety net. 

"It's hard to find good, direct research on this topic," basic income scholar Karl Widerquist told Mic in September. "You're dealing with something that hasn't been observed yet."