UNITED STATES: Leading economists and business people discuss Basic Income at the World Summit on Technological Unemployment

Official Department of Labor portrait of Robert Reich

Official Department of Labor portrait of Robert Reich

Basic Income was a primary topic of discussion at the World Summit on Technological Unemployment at the Time Life Building in New York City on September 29th, 2015. Basic Income was endorsed at the event by leading economists and business people, including former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich; Nobel Laureate and Columbia economist, Joseph Stiglitz; principal software engineer for Tesla Motors, Gerald Huff; and several others.

The conference, a one-day event organized by the World Technology Network, was not directly about basic income. The main topic was the labor market effects of automation, but nearly all of the participants who discussed policy responses to automation endorsed basic income.

Joseph E. Stiglitz

Joseph E. Stiglitz

Most of the participants agreed that automation is a good thing with negative side effects. People lose their jobs; sometimes they can only find jobs and lower incomes; sometimes they do not find new jobs at all. At the rate at which jobs are being automated now many participants were concerned that the need for human labor in the production process is permanently declining. In a world where most people are dependent on their jobs for their livelihood, it can lead either to permanently lower wages or permanent unemployment.

Perhaps new technology will always create more demand for labor, but there is no law saying that it must. Harvard President, Lawrence Summers, mentioned the observation by the Nobel Prize winning economist, Wassily Leontief, “The role of humans as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses in agricultural production was first diminished and then eliminated by the introduction of tractors.”

Gerald Huff

Gerald Huff

For many of the participants, basic income was the obvious solution. If everyone received an unconditional cash income sufficient to meet their needs, everyone would share in the benefits of automation even if they were unable to find jobs in the new economy.

In addition to Reich, Stiglitz, and Huff, other speakers endorsing Basic Income at the conference included, James P. Clark, chair of the World Technology Network, who argued forcefully for basic income in his opening remarks; Scott Santens, a journalist for the Huffington post; Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots, James Hughes, a sociologist and bioethicist at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. Although Lawrence Summers did not directly mention Basic Income, he spoke favorably about an open letter that was sent to Lyndon Johnson by “the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution” in 1964, and that letter recommended the guaranteed income as the best response to automation.

Several hundred people attended the conference. When the participants broke into small-groups for discussion, most of the groups spoke positively of basic income. Not all speakers mentioned basic income, but none of them attacked it. This overwhelming support for basic income is extremely unusual at any event other than a meeting of basic income supporters. The reason probably is that if the need for human labor really is going to decline, most of the reasons to oppose basic income are going to disappear.

For more information about the conference, go to:


James P. Clark

James P. Clark

Karl Widerquist

About Karl Widerquist

Karl Widerquist has written 874 articles.

Karl Widerquist is an Associate Professor at SFS-Qatar, Georgetown University. He specializes in political philosophy. His research is mostly in the area of distributive justice—the ethics of who has what. He holds two doctorates—one in Political Theory form Oxford University (2006) and one in Economics from the City University of New York (1996). Before coming to Georgetown he was lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Reading (UK) and a Murphy Fellow at Tulane University in New Orleans (LA). He has written or edited six books. He is the author of "Independence, propertylessness, and Basic Income: A Theory of Freedom as the Power to Say No" (Palgrave Macmillan 2013). He is coauthor of "Economics for Social Workers" (Columbia University Press 2002). He is coeditor of "Basic Income: An Anthology of Contemporary Research" (Wiley-Blackwell 2013), "Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend: Examining its Suitability as a Model" (Palgrave Macmillan 2012), "Exporting the Alaska Model: Adapting the Permanent Fund Dividend for Reform around the World" (Palgrave Macmillan 2012), and "the Ethics and Economics of the Basic Income Guarantee" (Ashgate 2005). He is currently under contract to author or coauthor two more books: "Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philosophy" (Edinburgh University Press 2014) and Justice as the Pursuit of Accord (Palgrave Macmillan 2015). He was a founding editor of the journal Basic Income Studies. He edited the USBIG NewsFlash for 15 years and the BIEN NewsFlash for five years. He is one of the founding editors of Basic Income News on the basicincome.org website. He has published more than a twenty scholarly articles and book chapters. His articles have appeared in journals such as Political Studies; the Eastern Economic Journal; Politics and Society; and Politics, Philosophy, and Economics.

Share Button


  • Shirley0401

    Encouraging stuff.
    As tends to happen with most forms of social progress, from desegregation to marriage equality, the knee-jerk negative responses (e.g. “but it’s unlike the thing we do now” or “it might negatively impact my personal social/financial position relative to my neighbors”) will continue until enough high-profile people feel secure publicly supporting the idea. The folks at this conference speaking in favor (or at least not speaking against) BI will hopefully go a long way towards removing the stigma that BI is utopian or impractical.
    Now, if we can keep up the momentum, and hopefully start moving the conversation from what if or why not to how or how much, I think it will be a huge next step.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *