Universal basic income is the operating system of a post-industrial state

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There are very few policy ideas that attract support from all sides of the political spectrum these days. Universal basic income is one of them.

The idea of replacing existing welfare systems by giving everyone unconditional cash payments—regardless of income, work status, or anything else—is appealing to conservatives who want to shrink government bureaucracy, liberals who want to support low-wage workers, and technologists who think that robots will soon take all our jobs. In short, for a wide range of problems, basic income is presented as the solution.

Progress implementing it at scale, however, has been halting. The Swiss rejected a nationwide basic income in a referendum earlier this year. That hasn’t stopped proponents from pushing ahead, confident that basic income’s time will come.

The furthest along, perhaps, is Finland. The government there is about to launch a trial in which 2,000 jobless Finns will receive €560 ($585) per month for two years, on top of their existing benefits. (The original recommendation was for 10,000 randomized recipients, both in and out of work, but was watered down for political reasons.)

A fireside chat. Literally.
A fireside chat. Literally.
Image: Slush Media/Sami Välikangas

Another noteworthy experiment is taking place in Oakland, California. Tech incubator Y Combinator recently began a trial that will give $1,500 per month to 100 people, the first step in a larger study that will eventually include 1,000 people on Silicon Valley’s doorstep.

Representatives of the Finnish and Y Combinator experiments joined me this month for a panel discussion I moderated at Slush, a conference for tech startups in Helsinki. The panelists:

  • Matt Krisiloff, director of Y Combinator Research, who is helping manage the company’s basic income trial
  • Roope Mokka, a co-founder of think tank Demos Helsinki, which helped Finland design its basic income framework
  • Albert Wenger, a partner at Union Square Ventures, who wrote the book World after Capital

Given the audience, the panelists spoke about basic income in terms startups could appreciate. It is “seed money for the people,” Wenger said.” Mokka, meanwhile, described basic income as the “operating system of a post-industrial state.”

I asked the panelists when, or if, we will ever see a bona fide, nationwide basic income rolled out somewhere. The answers ranged from five years to 15 years to “within my lifetime.” Said Mokka: “Basic income is a must, it has to happen.”

I had other questions: How much money is needed for a true “basic” income? Will recipients still work, or spend their time doing something else? How will society change as a result? Should it be truly unconditional, or universal? Has the tech industry overhyped its potential? We addressed these topics, and more, in the 30-minute discussion below.