Facebook Co-Founder, Chris Hughes, and Labor Expert Natalie Foster on Basic Universal Income

Both Chris Hughes and Natalie Foster are well versed in how technology can affect societal shifts. Hughes was a Harvard student when he became part of the now legendary core of college kids who founded Facebook. He graduated in 2006 and, a year later, left the company to pursue a more politically-minded project. At 24, he was credited in the New York Times for helping launch then-Senator Barack Obama's successful social media campaign leading into the 2008 presidential campaign. It was a turning point in how technology impacts politics.

Natalie Foster is an expert on how technology is changing the way we work. A Fellow for the Future of Work Initiative at the Aspen Institute, Foster studies what's commonly known as the gig economy, where people take on odd jobs and freelance assignments, often through online platforms or apps. In her research, Foster looks for new ways to approach benefits, like sick days and unemployment, that often elude independent workers.

Hughes and Foster are founding signatories and co-chairs of the Economic Security Project, a large group of academics, tech titans and activists from across the political spectrum advocating research into and possible implementation of a U.S. basic income. The group argues that an annual cash payment may be the solution to stagnating wages and an economy that will continue to change as automation continues to replace jobs once tasked to humans.

Chris Hughes and Natalie Foster
Chris Hughes and Natalie Foster

Basic income is an old concept-- in fact, its origins are with the humanists of the 1500s-- and interest in it has ebbed and flowed over centuries. Right now, that interest is growing for multiple reasons. One is an understanding of how economic inequality is affecting Americans right now. Late in 2016, Hughes wrote on  Medium about how stagnant wages and rising costs of necessities like housing are fueling unease across the country.  "The old idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead has disappeared," he wrote. "As a handful of people at the top have thrived, the rest of America-- urban and rural, white people and people of color, old and young-- has nearly uniformly been left behind."

Moreover, there are indications that the situation may not change anytime soon. As robotics and AI technology quickly advance, there is concern that more jobs will be automated. Studies are indicating that these jobs could be from varying industries, including food service and transportation. Some think that a basic income could help alleviate the financial strain that Americans feel as we head into this uncertain future.

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But, basic income experiments are currently picking up steam on a global level. Finland has a pilot program where 2000 people are receiving 560 Euros ($644.95) a month for the next two years. The Independent reported that this is actually a centre-right program in a country that has ample social security programs and it's being done for a few reasons. According to the article, one of these is that Finland has seen a number of people not working for fear of losing the benefits. With this program, they continue getting payments with or without a job. They don't have to be looking for a job and there are no questions on how they spend their money. A PRI report noted that the program is also intended to slim down the bureaucracy involved with benefit programs in Finland.

In Canada, Ontario is preparing its own pilot program where 4000 people in three different cities will receive $16,989 Canadian ($13465.48 U.S.) annually. This a three-year program that will include low income people with and without jobs. More recently, in the Netherlands, the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment gave the go-ahead to start pilot programs in five cities.

Meanwhile, in Oakland, a basic income experiment is being conducted with help from seed accelerator company Y Combinator, whose founder, Sam Altman, is funding the project himself. The program started last January with 100 families who would receive $1500 a month. In April, Altman announced that they planned to add another 1000 families to the project.

But, the primary example for basic income can be found in Alaska. They have a program that was set up decades ago by Republican governor Jay Hammond to share the money earned via the state's oil supply. Every year, residents of Alaska receive a dividends check. The amount varies depending on economic factors, and there is an ongoing  lawsuit  as the result of a drop in funds, but it's seen as a way of giving back to citizens.

Universal basic income remains a cutting edge idea concept and certainly has its share of detractors, but the idea has also perked up the ears of some highly influential people. Barack Obama mentioned it in a 2016 interview with Wired. Mark Zuckerberg has come out in favor of a basic income. On this episode of "Town Hall," Hughes and Foster will discuss the possibilities for a basic income.

This story was originally published on July 25, 2017. 


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