Basic income: Could cash handouts revitalize the economy?

Americans just want to pay their bills. Is universal basic income the path to financial stability and economic opportunity?

CHRIS HUGHES: Universal basic income and guaranteed income are really inspired by the same values, that idea that everybody should have the dignity and freedom to pursue their dreams, to figure out what they want to do with their time. Oftentimes the UBI is talked about these days at least in the context of the rise of the robots and pending technical unemployment as a lot of people call it. And my view is that very well may happen, there's also a good argument by a lot of economists and other folks that this time is not different. What we know is that the future is already here and work and jobs in America have already come apart. Of nearly all the jobs that we've created in the past decade have been part time, contingent, or temporary. These kinds of very unstable, lumpy jobs with lumpy income cycles and a guaranteed income of $500 a month would be a powerful force to stabilize the lives of people who need it the most. In some ways it's a down payment. If the robots do indeed rise and self-driving cars were on the roads in five years as some technologists predict, it'd be much easier to build on a foundation of a guaranteed income of something like $500 a month than to begin afresh. So my view is that the idea of a guaranteed income is to solve the problems of today and in a way that it could be implemented immediately.

I've worked on cash and specifically using cash as a tool for economic mobility for several years now, first internationally and then domestically, and the thing about it is it asks fundamental questions about trust. If you give people money can you trust them to make the decisions that are best for them? Will they use it responsibly or irresponsibly? And I think there's a sense, particularly in American culture, that is pervasive of concern that if you give this money to young men they're just going to put up their feet and play video games, or there's this pervasive myth of the welfare queen that people just want to stay home and live on government benefits. And I think the challenge for those of us who believe that those are very much myths is to amplify the stories, the kind of stories that I hear nearly everyday and they are stories of people who want to work. I think the vast majority of Americans want to be of purpose. There are many ways of thinking about work and I think we should expand the definition of it, but Americans for the most part want to work and they also want to be able to pay their bills. Nobody is looking for get rich quick schemes, they're looking to be able to make ends meet. So the challenge is to build on all the empirical evidence that we have that really I think makes a very solid case that cash is the most effective way to provide economic mobility and really build a narrative, build a movement around the idea that people are working hard and yet aren't enjoying the same opportunities that they have historically, and they should be able to and cash is the most powerful way to guarantee that.

I think that there is an emerging consensus amongst voters that the economy is not working for most Americans. And at the same time there is a historical precedent for bipartisan support for the earned income tax credit. Now when the rubber meets the road there are really big questions about who pays for this, and there's, I'm sure, lots of skepticism that tax rates should go up. I think ultimately though the case can be made that this is not just a moral issue that everybody should have basic financial stability, but also a practical one. And if we really want the economy to continue to grow and not face the kind of depression, which happened right after 1929, the year that inequality was last at bad as it is now, then we're going to have to think about creative ideas that break through like this. So my hope is that particularly the earned income tax credit, which has been expanded by every president since Gerald Ford, Republican and Democrat alike, can be a framework for at least bipartisan dialogue if not consensus on a way to reboot the American dream and make sure that people have the economic opportunity that they want and deserve.

  • Chris Hughes, cofounder of Facebook, sees universal basic income as a way to stabilize the lives of those who need it most. A foundation of $500 per month could solve many of today's economic problems.
  • Much of the criticism surrounding UBI comes from a place of myth and mistrust. If you give someone cash, how can you be sure they'll spend it responsibly? The fact is, cash is the most effective way of providing economic mobility.
  • To reboot the American dream, we must address the moral and practical issue that many Americans lack basic financial stability. To bolster the economy and avoid another depression, UBI could be the answer.

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