The Basic Income Bros

Silicon Valley adopts a social-welfare idea from Europe.

He might be one of them.

Photographer: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Universal basic income is having a moment. Or maybe it’s a year, or a decade. 

The Finnish government said in November that it’s contemplating an 800-euro ($875) monthly payment to all citizens. Smaller pilot projects are in the works in several Dutch cities. The Swiss will vote next year on whether to institute a 2,500 Swiss franc ($2,536) monthly basic income there. 

Those are all countries in Continental Europe, already known for its generous welfare states. But the idea of universal basic income has a long history in the more dog-eat-dog English-speaking world, too. English-American pamphleteer Tom Paine promoted a similar arrangement, as did English philosopher John Stuart Mill. More recently, the Citizen’s Income Trust has been promoting a U.K. basic income plan since the 1980s. And this month, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, a centuries-old London think tank known as the RSA and currently headed by Princess Anne, issued a detailed proposal for a U.K. universal basic income that would add up to 3,692 pounds ($5,543) a year for most adults. 

In the U.S. in the 1960s, libertarian economist Milton Friedman proposed a negative income tax, which is similar to universal basic income, and several negative-income-tax field tests followed in the 1970s. That helped inspire the earned income tax credit, which has become the biggest cash welfare program in the U.S.  But the idea of giving everybody money had mostly faded until recently, 1 when it was given new life by tech-industry denizens worried that the rise of robots will soon render most paid human labor superfluous. 

I first heard such arguments at a tech conference in 2014 from Albert Wenger, a partner at the New York City venture capital firm Union Square Ventures. Wenger has continued making the case since, and has been working on a book about it and some related topics. Meanwhile, more and more Silicon Valley types have embraced the idea. This week Lauren Smiley of Backchannel 2 even professed to have identified a new species, the “basic income bro” -- a young, male techie, probably a Star Trek fan, who devotes his spare time to promoting universal basic income. 

Smiley also does such a nice job in her article of summing up the diverse ideological streams converging behind basic income that I’m just going to borrow rather than try to rephrase it: 

The technologist crowd says a basic income will become a moral imperative as robots replace workers and unemployment skyrockets. Conservatives say it would replace the kraken of welfare bureaucracy, with its arbitrary income cutoffs and overlapping programs. Optimists say humanity will no longer have to work for survival, freeing us to instead work for self-actualization. … Progressives say it would level the playing field: the working classes could have a taste of the stability that’s become an upper-middle class luxury, and would have bargaining power with low-paid work. 

Nathan Schneider, writing about the subject for Vice earlier this year, offered another explanation of basic income’s appeal: 

Though it's an essentially low-tech proposal, it appeals to Silicon Valley's longing for simple, elegant algorithms to solve everything.

Is it really that simple? A key selling point of universal basic income is that it could be less intrusive and less complicated than existing means-tested welfare systems. It’s also less likely to discourage recipients from working. Currently, earning more money often means losing benefits -- with basic income you keep getting the money even if you strike it rich. 

Where things get complicated is deciding how big the monthly check should be. If the idea is to replace existing welfare systems without significantly increasing the cost, you end up with something small like the RSA’s $5,543 a year, or even less than that. If you’re really worried that humans won’t have any jobs to do soon, or your aim is promoting self-actualization or leveling the labor-market playing field, you’ll probably think the amount should be a lot bigger than that. That would mean tougher political decisions, and bigger taxpayer burdens. My Bloomberg View colleague Leonid Bershidsky worried last month that economically struggling Finland might not be able to afford the tax-free 800-euros-a-month-per-citizen that it is contemplating. 

In the U.S., the idea is still a long way from serious political consideration. Bernie Sanders has said it’s “something that must be explored.” As far as I know that’s about it among major presidential candidates. But one of the “basic income bros” profiled by Smiley, former Organizing for America analytics chief Jim Pugh -- who happens to be my step-nephew 3 -- has just published a hopeful essay outlining “The Path to an American Basic Income.” In Pugh’s view the path will take just three steps: 

  1. Spread awareness. (Tell a friend, basically.)
  2. Test it out. (Try some prototypes and see how they work.)
  3. Wait for lightning to strike. (If job losses due to automation reach crisis proportions, for example.)

We’re already well into step 1, and getting going -- in Europe, at least -- on step 2. If we do actually get to step 3, interesting things could happen.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Except in Alaska, where all residents get dividends from the state’s oil-royalty-fueled Alaska Permanent Fund.

  2. That’s Medium’s newish tech site/channel/publication/whatever, edited by former Newsweek and Wired legend Steven Levy.

  3. His grandmother married my dad.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at

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