universal basic income

UBI is getting a ton of attention these days, and on the whole I’m glad. Smart people I know who care deeply about social welfare have been quietly nursing this dream for a long time, and I respect the depth of their thought and commitment. One friend is even writing a book about UBI! I would like to see a greater share of society’s wealth go to the poor, and this seems like a mechanism for achieving that goal that is worth investigating.

This is not to say that I’m a believer. Untested ideas for social improvement generally look pretty good compared to the ones we’ve actually implemented, which have somehow all turned out to be complicated and horrible. And I’ve known enough people with serious problems to call myself a paternalist without discomfort. The dignity of financial self-determination sounds great on paper, and saying that some people can’t handle it does not. Alas, personal experience has made the latter conclusion inescapable to me.

But I don’t want to talk about that today. Really, I want to talk about the deeply silly people from my own culture who are driving this policy moment. The nerds have discovered UBI.

There’s no better spot to observe this phenomenon than Hacker News, a site that shares Reddit’s basic worldview but is more brainy, shy, and — thank goodness — ashamed of its sexuality. HN is great because threads about, say, astrophotometry fill up with people whose PhD theses were about a _similar_ kind of laser, and they think the way these researchers cooled the dielectric here is really quite clever. It’s terrible because basically everything else is about Soylent or Bitcoin or buying Soylent with Bitcoin.

(Okay, that’s a cheap shot. These days it’s about how you could write Ethereum blockchain contracts to distribute Soylent.)

HN is populated with smart people who work at software startups, most of whom live in the Bay area. Many of them are very excited about UBI. There are nineteen pages of results for the first relevant phrase I tried. It has become a subject of sufficient fascination in the community that Y Combinator, the incubator that birthed and maintains Hacker News, is investing in a series of experiments to evaluate UBI’s viability. They just announced their first UBI director and pilot program, in fact.

This is all to the good. Wealthy people are going to give some money to poorer people to see if it helps them. I bet it will! Good for them.

But at the risk of ruining a good thing, I can’t help wondering why my fellow software developers find this idea so interesting. From that post:

One reason we think it may work is that technological improvements should generate an abundance of resources. Although basic income seems fiscally challenging today, in a world where technology replaces existing jobs and basic income becomes necessary, technological improvements should generate an abundance of resources and the cost of living should fall dramatically.

When Sam says “technological improvements”, I don’t think he means better cookstoves in rural China. I suspect he means the kind of stuff that Y Combinator is funding. Software stuff, mostly — probably a bunch of machine learning projects that promise to finally invent a machine that does more than rotate, plus maybe one or two discount-rate materials science startups (I hear you can make quantum dots in room temperature water these days).

He might be right! But even if he’s not, what glorious hubris.


Imagine meeting a child running a lemonade stand. She’s proud of her lemonade, and why not?

“In fact,” she says, “I think there’s a pretty good chance that this lemonade is going to be the only thing that people drink from now on. I mean try it.”

You do. You have to admit it’s pretty good.

“On the whole I’m excited and humbled to have finally solved the beverage problem. But it won’t be an easy transition for everyone! I mean, for me it will be, I’ll be fabulously wealthy, ha ha.”

It seems polite to join in the laughter so you do.

“So I’ve been thinking,” she continues, “That the responsible thing to do is to invest a portion of my profits into researching how to remediate those negative effects. If I don’t, I think it’s pretty likely that the children of soda manufacturers, for example, will wind up dying in the streets. And before they die, they could riot. It would be hugely disruptive.”

You remark that that sounds like it would be bad for business. She locks eyes with you with a sudden intensity, in way that inescapably says: I knew you would understand.


Imagine thinking you and your buddies are so smart that your efforts are going to make most other human endeavor pointless. It must be sort of overwhelming. I’d probably feel compelled to hire a postdoc to do something about it, too.

Obviously this is not the only reason people support UBI. It’s not even the only reason people in the software industry support UBI! But, knowing human nature and my industry’s hilarious track record at introspection, I do think it’s possible — juuuust possible — that some programmers have been driven by self-regard into a historical materialist analysis under which their superior intelligence transforms society and creates a permanent, pitiable underclass. UBI is both a compassionate response to this sad calculus and, coincidentally enough, a mechanism by which the vast majority of our fortunes and lifestyles can escape disruption.

Well, I wish us all luck. At the moment there is no reason to believe that any of this is happening whatsoever. But it does seem like the robot car thing might work out.

Still, if you’re worried about the technology industry further immiserating the poor, I would pay less attention to Uber ordering LIDAR units and more to them inviting their drivers to finance their vehicles instead of spending capital on a fleet. I agree that autonomous applications driven by deep learning models written in TensorFlow are much more exciting, but if you really want to avoid screwing over the little guy, Excel spreadsheets are probably the first place to look.

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