Basic income, it turns out, is in the peculiar class of political notions that can warm Leninist and libertarian hearts alike. Though it's an essentially low-tech proposal, it appeals to Silicon Valley's longing for simple, elegant algorithms to solve everything. Supporters list the possible results: It can end poverty and inequality with hardly any bureaucracy. With more money and less work to do, we might even spew less climate-disrupting carbon. ....
Chris Hawkins, a 30-year-old investor who made his money building software that automates office work, credits Manna as an influence. On his company's website he has taken to blogging about basic income, which he looks to as a bureaucracy killer. "Shut down government programs as you fund redistribution," he told me. Mothball public housing, food assistance, Medicaid, and the rest, and replace them with a single check. It turns out that the tech investors promoting basic income, by and large, aren't proposing to fund the payouts themselves; they'd prefer that the needy foot the bill for everyone else.
"The cost has to come from somewhere," Hawkins explained, "and I think the most logical place to take it from is government-provided services."
This kind of reasoning has started to find a constituency in Washington. The Cato Institute, Charles Koch's think tank for corporate-friendly libertarianism, published a series of essays last August debating the pros and cons of basic income. That same week, an article appeared in the Atlantic making a "conservative case for a guaranteed basic income." It suggested that basic income is actually a logical extension of Paul Ryan's scheme to replace federal welfare programs with cash grants to states—the Republican Party's latest bid to crown itself "the party of ideas." Basic income is still not quite yet speakable in the halls of power, but Republicans may be bringing it closer than they realize. ....
If we were to fund basic income only by gutting existing welfare, and not by taxing the rich, it would do the opposite of fixing inequality; money once reserved for the poor would end up going to those who need it less. Instead of being a formidable bulwark against poverty, a poorly funded basic-income program could produce a vast underclass more dependent on whoever cuts the checks. And as out-there as the idea can seem, Weeks's leftist critics complain that it's still a tweak, a reform. "It's not going to signal the end of capitalism," she recognizes.
Like pretty much all the shortcut solutions Silicon Valley offers, basic income would have its perks, but it isn't enough to solve our real problems on its own. There's still no substitute for organizing more power in more communities—the power to shape society, not just to fiddle with someone else's app. Social Security, for instance, came to be thanks to the popular struggles of the 1930s, and it carried huge swaths of old people out of poverty. Obamacare, a set of reforms mostly written by the industry it was meant to regulate, has turned out to be a far more mixed bag.
A basic income designed by venture capitalists in Silicon Valley is more likely to reinforce their power than to strengthen the poor. But a basic income arrived at through the vision and the struggle of those who need it most would help ensure that it meets their needs first. If we're looking for a way through the robot apocalypse, we can do better than turn to the people who are causing it.
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