Facebook and Economic Security Project (ESP) co-founder, Chris Hughes has a new book out. Called Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn, the book is part memoir, part policy proposal. The memoir chronicles Hughes’ childhood growing up in a North Carolina working class family, his school days, including four years at Harvard, his co-founding of Facebook, his failure as owner of the New Republic, and his efforts trying to figure out how best to give away his new-found fortune. The things Hughes learned during this thirty-year journey led to the policy proposal part of the book.
Hughes advocates what he calls a guaranteed income (GI) and is clear about how his proposal differs from a universal basic income (UBI). A UBI would periodically provide everyone with a certain amount of money without any means-test or work requirement. Hughes’ guaranteed income proposal has two provisions which distinguish it from a UBI: it is means-tested and it does have a work requirement. His idea is that we should provide every adult living in a household with an income of less than $50,000 a year a guaranteed income of $500 per month. So if Tara and Willow were a couple with a household income of $45,000 per year, each would each receive $500 per month. Thus, each would end up with $6,000 per year or $12,000 per year for the two of them. If Buffy and Angel had a household income of $60,000 per year, they would be ineligible for the program.
One reason Hughes is so interested in distinguishing his proposal from UBI is that he believes UBI has become too associated with automation. That is, the most frequently heard argument for UBI is that as robots and automation destroy jobs, we will need to reorganize society so people will be able to get their needs meet without having to sell their labor. Hughes rightly points out that there is a fair degree of debate about the extent to which jobs will be destroyed and, therefore, the extent to which concern about automation is a compelling enough reason to advocate UBI. Hughes also rightly reminds us that whether or not automation will destroy all, most, or whatever number of jobs; the job market is already unstable enough for there to be a need now for a policy which promotes economic security. And he believes his GI proposal is that policy.
As an “old timer” in the basic income “movement” I feel obligated to point out that UBI was discussed long before folks in Silicon Valley were paying attention. And many of those discussions had little to do with robots or automation. Thus a name change, from UBI to GI, is not necessary to suggest there may be reasons to support UBI other than worries about robots taking our jobs. But here we get to the crux of the matter: Hughes’ proposal does not appear to be just a name change but a different policy altogether. As I said above, GI would not be universal and would not be granted to those who are not working. The means–tested nature of GI is clear: those in households with incomes under $50,000 per year would get it, while those in households with higher incomes would not. I’m not a fan of this aspect of Hughes’ proposal, but, for the purposes of this essay, I’m going to set this aside. The work conditioned nature of Hughes’ proposal is less clear. This is what I want to focus on in the rest of the essay.
Even though Hughes’ GI would require people to work in order to receive it, however it does not have to be wage-work. That is, Hughes is willing to expand the definition of “work” to include care work, such as uncompensated child and elder care, as well as studying for a formal degree or training programs. So someone caring for their child or studying for a B.A. would be considered a worker and, therefore, eligible for the benefit, as long as their income was under $50,000 per year.
Hughes places such emphasis on work because he believes it is good for us; he tells us that it makes us, “happier, healthier, and more fulfilled” (p. 103). To support his claim, Hughes refers to studies which show that unemployed people suffer higher levels of depression, irritability, and insomnia. He also informs us that unemployed people are more prone to alcohol and substance abuse.
As I was reading this discussion of the problems faced by the unemployed, I found myself wondering how much stem from an inability to find something fulfilling to do and how much from stigma. I do not think it is unfair to say that our society denigrates people whom we think can work but choose not to. If you’re unemployed and wondering whether people think you’re legitimately out of a job or are simply a free loading slacker, it should not be surprising if you end up feeling irritable or depressed.
But let’s say Hughes is right and people do feel more fulfilled if they engage in wage work. Let’s say that engaging in wage work makes us less prone to depression, irritability, and insomnia. Going to college or caring for one’s kids is not wage work. So what do studies showing we are less prone to psychological and physical problems when we engage in wage work have to do with the kinds of non-wage work Hughes wants to compensate with his GI? I suspect it’s fulfilling, at least some of the time, to take care of one’s kids or to attend college. Is this why care takers and students, along with wage workers, should be compensated with a GI? But if something being fulfilling is sufficient to warrant compensation, why stop at wage work, care work, or going to school? People do all kinds of things, besides these three, they find fulfilling. Why not give them a GI too?
On page 92 of his book, Hughes says that, “everyone who contributes to their community” should receive a GI. It seems that engaging in something fulfilling is not what warrants receipt of a GI — making some social contribution does. This raises the question of whether being a wage worker, care taker, or student are the only ways to contribute to one’s community. Hughes’ answer seems to be “no.” On page 112, he argues for a more expansive definition of “work” which would include not just wage work, care work, and studying but also community service, religious service, and artistic work.
Here I found myself wondering how far Hughes is willing to go. That is, how expansive a definition of “work” does he want? The more expansive his definition becomes, the more fuzzy the distinction between GI and UBI (the unconditional part) becomes. To see what I’m getting at consider the following example.
In downtown Manhattan, there’s a famous, at least among many basketball lovers, outdoor basketball court on 4th Street and 6th Avenue. Basketball, in a sense, is a very communal game. A person may shoot jump shots all by themselves. But to play a full court pick-up game requires ten people. So if someone decides to play, even for the “selfish” reason that they get fulfillment from it, they benefit the other nine players as well, simply by making the game possible. Now the folks who play at this Manhattan court are quite good. Many of us who’ve seen games at this court think it’s some of the best pick-up basketball we have ever witnessed. In fact, the quality of games at this court is so high, that large crowds of people usually gather just to watch the action. Presumably, these spectators get a great deal of enjoyment from watching these folks try to get the “ball in the hole.” Now here’s the question: are the players at this court, simply by playing, making a social contribution? They are not doing wage work, care work, art work, or religious service. Are they doing community work? If Hughes’ GI were enacted and all these players were from households with incomes of less than $50,000 per year, should they receive it?
Another way to get at the question above is this: under an expanded definition of work what would not qualify as work? If it turned out that anything done during one’s waking hours was work, then the difference between GI and the unconditional part of UBI would simply be semantic. Hughes could respond that semantic distinctions are not “merely semantic.”
In a society where work is a fundamental value it may be necessary to call something work, as well as convince others that it is, in order to give the person engaged in that activity a guaranteed income. This is a response I would agree with. But I would add that the importance of semantics cuts both ways.
Requiring an activity to be considered work before the person engaged in it can receive income support is also sending the semantic, or symbolic, message that only working people deserve economic security. I can understand why we might want to do this in a hunter-gatherer society where all are living on the brink of starvation. But do we really need to in the richest society the world has even known? Consider something that may at first appear unrelated.
The U.S. currently imprisons about 1.5 million people. Anyone familiar with the U.S criminal justice system is aware that our prison population is, arguably, one of the most despised groups of people in the nation. Yet we grant all these prisoners a right to food. Prison life is no doubt hard. And we certainly do not feed incarcerated people the best food possible. But we do feed them, and I suspect anyone who proposed that we stop doing so would not get very far. Now here’s a question: is refusing to make a social contribution worse than the most serious violent crimes we have imprisoned some people for committing? If not, why propose a policy which sends the semantic message that non-working people do not deserve income support, income that could help them obtain food, as well as meet other basic needs? Why send a semantic message which implicitly amounts to the claim that non-working people are worse than some of our most violent prisoners?
To anticipate a possible misunderstanding, I am not claiming that non-working people are better than some of our most violent prisoners. My point is simply that if all prisoners have a right to subsistence, why not grant non-working people that same right? Prisoners, non-working people, and all the rest of us are human beings in need of food and other means of subsistence. A UBI, at the semantic level at which I am speaking, acknowledges this. Hughes’ GI proposal does not.
Thanks to Chris Hughes for his very helpful comments on this piece. Any mistakes or errors are, of course, my responsibility alone.
About the author:
Michael A. Lewis is a social worker and sociologist by training whose areas of interest are public policy and quantitative methods. He’s also a co-founder of USBIG and has written a number of articles, book chapters, and other pieces on the basic income, including the co-edited work The Ethics and Economics of the Basic Income Guarantee. Lewis is on the faculties of the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College and the Graduate and University Center of the City University of New York.
In a July 2017 televised Town Hall with KCET, Economic Security Project co-chairs Chris Hughes and Natalie Foster were asked about the principles of a Universal Basic Income. Public questions from Facebook were delivered by the moderator, the first common concern of which was: should we “give everybody a Basic Income,” even the lazy and wealthy?
Foster took the question and responded with a “yes,” commenting that a universal policy “had more political resiliency” (programs with universal access would attract more support), and that shifting economic situations for the American middle class suggested that support for everyone was logical. She clarified that a Basic Income, whatever the size, is intended to be delivered to everyone with “no strings attached.”
Hughes followed up during a second question on the affordability of Basic Income. He commented that a program could be made more affordable by starting small and scaling up, by, for example, beginning with small monthly payments of $200 to American adults (not quite universal, but not means tested), between the ages of 18 and 64, placing the brunt of the tax burden for this measure on wealthy Americans or in a carbon tax. Hughes also compared Basic Income’s feasibility to existing social security programs.
Hughes’ book is promoted by but independent of the Economic Security Project, “a network committed to advancing the debate on unconditional cash and basic income in the United States.” Their purview includes, but is not limited to, a Universal Basic Income (UBI), as defined by BIEN: “a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement.”
Chris Hughes. Credit to: SpeakerHub
The version of guaranteed income that Hughes promotes is very different from that espoused by others at ESP, such as senior fellow Andy Stern, whose 2016 bookRaising The Floormakes a case for UBI, because a test based on household income and employment is not the same as giving every individual an unconditional Basic Income. Ongoing coverage of guaranteed income experiments has shown that many governments and organizations follow the same trend as Hughes, pursuing studies that offer cash payments that are means-tested, based on employment status, or revoked when income or employment status exceed minimum limits. Several Dutch experiments encountered obstacles to implementing a UBI pilot not just in public opinion but also in federal compliance issues. UBI proponents may face pressure to give money only to the worthy, and to define that worthiness socioeconomically.
The idea that a guaranteed income is best directed at the poor (and more specifically the working poor) is reiterated in Hughes’ press release email for Fair Shot:
As I write in the book, I’m the first to recognize how lucky I got early in life, but I’ve come to believe this luck doesn’t come from nowhere. We’ve created an economy that creates a small set of fortunate one percenters while making it harder and harder for poor and middle-class people to make ends meet. But we also have a proven tool to beat back against economic injustice—recurring cash payments, directly to the people who need them most. A guaranteed income for working people would provide financial security to all Americans and lift 20 million people out of poverty overnight. It would cost less than half of what we spend on defense a year.
The question raised by the KCET Facebook commentators about ESP’s proposal to give money to “everyone” reflects the same ongoing public concerns that some have about welfare and social programs. It asks for beneficiaries to prove that they are worthy in order to receive public money, and it raises the suspicion that recipients will be lazy or will not attempt to re-enter the workforce. Hughes’ new message in Fair Shot attempts to counteract this by arguing that the beneficiaries are worthy: they are employed, hard working, and “need it most.” He thus reassures the reader that the recipients are deserving.
In contrast, the answer given by Foster in the July 2017 town hall promoted a “no strings attached” UBI. The Economic Security project and associated individuals encourage research and debate around Basic Income and guaranteed incomes; the parameters of upcoming affiliated projects like the Stockton Demonstration (yet to be fully released at this time) suggest an interest both in UBI and in guaranteed income systems.
In a recent live interview, televised online and hosted by KCET’s Town Hall, Chris Hughes and Natalie Foster answered questions from viewers about Universal Basic Income. Chris Hughes is the co-founder of Facebook, and Natalie Foster is an expert on technology and work at the Aspen Institute.
When asked who would be eligible for UBI, Natalie Foster explained that everyone qualifies, and that a UBI should be truly universal. She described a program designed to help everyone, with no one left out.
Chris Hughes fielded questions concerning the funding of UBI, and stressed that starting with low monthly incomes would make the program more affordable and easier to implement.
Chris Hughes and Natalie Foster are both co-directors of The Economic Security Project, a two-year program that raised $10 million dollars in funding, which supports exploration and experimentation related to basic income.
On November 29 and 30, the White House, the Stanford University Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative co-hosted the Summit on Poverty and Opportunity.
Held at Stanford, the event brought together “275 high-level players in technology, philanthropy, community service, government, and academia” to listen to and participate in a series of panel discussions on social and economic policy and the role of technology and big data.
The conference included a 40-minute panel on “The Future of Jobs and the Question of a Basic Income”:
PANELISTS (from viewer’s left to right)
– Sam Altman, president of the startup incubator Y Combinator, and the initiator of its plan for a basic income experiment. Y Combinator is currently running a pilot study of a basic income in Oakland, with plans for a larger scale experiment in the future.
Future of work expert Natalie Foster moderated the discussion.
All four participants are supporters of universal basic income.
Bidadanure, Hughes, and Altman, respectively, begin the panel by describing how they came to interested in basic income and outlining their reasons for supporting such a policy. Following these introductory remarks, discussion turns to past and present basic income experiments: Altman talks about Y Combinator’s newly launched pilot study, Hughes describes the work of the charity GiveDirectly, and Bidadanure lays out the results of past experiments in Manitoba, Namibia, and India. Altman additionally stresses the ability of a basic income to alleviate financial anxiety for people who currently live paycheck to paycheck. Finally, panelists present their thoughts on the question of how to finance a basic income. Due to concerns about feasibility, Hughes proposes beginning with a small basic income of $100 or $200 per month; Bidadanure and Altman, however, raise concerns with the implementation of a basic income that is it not sufficiently large to allow for freedom and security.
Additional press on the Summit on Poverty and Opportunity:
Launched on Thursday, December 8, the US-based Economic Security Project (ESP) — co-chaired by future of work expert Natalie Foster, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, and Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren — has committed to donate $10 million over the next two years to projects related to exploring “how a ‘basic income’ could rebalance the economy and ensure economic opportunity for all”.
The goal of ESP, in the words of its press release, is to help Americans interested in basic income achieve the transition from “conceptual discussion to meaningful action”.
Stressing both the potential of basic income and the need for further investigation, Warren states, “We believe we can end the downward spiral for working families in America by providing a guaranteed basic income for every man, woman, and child – but the precise approach for implementing a cash benefit system needs additional research.”
Mission and Belief Statement
ESP released its Belief Statement at its launch, accompanied by more than 100 signatures from entrepreneurs, academics, activists, artists, politicians, and others who share the vision of the initiative (including Basic Income News editor Kate McFarland, as well as many people more famous than she).
We believe people need financial security, and cash might be the most effective and efficient way to provide it.
The time has come to consider new, bold ways to make our economy work again for all Americans. In a time of immense wealth, no one should live in poverty, nor should the middle class be consigned to a future of permanent stagnation or anxiety. Automation, globalization, and financialization are changing the nature of work, and these shifts require us to rethink how to guarantee economic opportunity for all.
A basic income is a bold idea with a long history and the potential to free people to pursue the work and life they choose. Now is the time to think seriously about how recurring, unconditional cash stipends could work, how to pay for them, and what the political path might be to make them a reality, even while many of us are engaged in protecting the existing safety net.
The undersigned commit to work over the coming months and years to research, experiment, and inspire others to think through how best to design cash programs that empower Americans to live and work in the new economy.
The ESP Belief Statement continues to gather numerous signatures online.
ESP has selected six initial grant recipients, to which it has already dedicated over $500,000 in total:
The Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive advocacy group that is beginning to explore how to strengthen America’s safety net in ways that could lead to a universal basic income.
The Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank that has recently released a report on basic income, and which is now undertaking more extensive research on UBI and cash transfers, including macroeconomic modeling, behavioral research, and public opinion surveys and focus groups.
The Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank that has published frequently on basic income and other cash transfer policies, such as a universal child benefit. The center plans to carry out policy research on various means of implementing cash transfer programs in the US.
The Alaska Group American Center, which is fighting recent cuts to Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend, the unconditional cash payment to state residents that has been influential in much discussion of basic income.
The 2020 BIEN Congress was to be held in Brisbane in Australia from the 28th to the 30th September 2020. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the event has been cancelled. BIEN’s Executive Committee and the Scottish and Australian congress Local Organising Committees have agreed the following statement: ‘The Scottish and Australian Congress Local Organisation Committees have agreed that the current plan is to hold the 2021 BIEN congress in Scotland and the 2022 BIEN congress in Australia.’
A Basic Income is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement. Read more
A series of conversations from around the world that explore the relationship between the Covid-19 pandemic and Basic Income. Read more