Y Combinator’s president thinks crypto could facilitate universal basic income

Sam with a plan.
Sam with a plan.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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Sam Altman, president of startup accelerator Y Combinator, has long been fascinated by universal basic income, the idea of providing regular, unconditional cash payments to citizens to enable a baseline standard of living. In fact, he’s taken the idea seriously enough to pursue a large pilot study.

In a February episode of Conversations with Tyler—a podcast hosted by Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University—Altman discussed the importance of “providing fair financial infrastructure for poor people.” Although he immediately dismissed bitcoin as a viable banking solution, Altman suggested that cryptocurrency, in some form, could provide the foundation for a global, universal basic income:

I can imagine a crypto system where you see something that is more powerful than any government on Earth,” he said, “where you actually figure out a way to give every person on Earth a coin, and then you make this gigantic network that everyone believes in, and you can do redistribution outside the control of any government.

(For the segment on cryptocurrency,  skip to 38:10.)

Altman is literally talking about a new economic order. It’s a powerful idea, but one that requires suspension of disbelief. Due to network limitations and security challenges, decentralized digital currency is not viable on a global scale today. Data structures, like blockchain, just can’t support it yet. But while crypto-based UBI might seem implausible, as Altman points out, it could eventually happen.

“That would be the most powerful network effect the world has ever seen economically, and I think that would be cool.”