February 12, 2016


Conservatism And Y Combinator's Proposed Basic Income Research (Scott Winship, 1/28/16, Forbes)

The Silicon Valley firm, Y Combinator, announced this week that it is getting into the business of funding social science research, starting with a call for proposals to examine the effects of a guaranteed basic income.  [....]

I fear that from its inception, there may be an unconscious thumb on the scale for finding the benefits of such a program and missing the costs. Altman, admirably in my view, shows his cards a bit in the post, saying, "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." Even more tellingly, he writes,

50 years from now, I think it will seem ridiculous that we used fear of not being able to eat as a way to motivate people. I also think that it's impossible to truly have equality of opportunity without some version of guaranteed income.  And I think that, combined with innovation driving down the cost of having a great life, by doing something like this we could eventually make real progress towards eliminating poverty.

I want to put aside quickly one argument I might raise with these contentions. While techno-pessimism has become ascendant over the past decade, many academic researchers and tech-types--Y Combinator founder Paul Graham, for instance--would contest the prediction that technology will hurt employment.

What I want to focus on here is the distinction between poverty reduction and opportunity promotion. Altman is correct that a guaranteed basic income could be designed to eliminate poverty. Giving people money will do that--in the narrow sense that when poverty is defined in terms of having too little income, more income will reduce poverty. As I've noted many times, the War on Poverty managed to substantially reduce poverty in the U.S., a fact obscured by the official poverty measure. Anytime a conservative says that poverty is no lower today than in the 1960s, that's just wrong.

The objection that a basic income does not prepare people for job opportunities is, of course, correct.  But the need for a basc income is a function of income not being tied to work anymore.

Posted by at February 12, 2016 9:07 AM