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Silicon Valley's 'Basic Income' Experiment Has a Political Issue - Journalist

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A startup accelerator, Y Combinator, plans to begin a study on universal basic income, which will involve unconditional cash payments to thousands of participants. In the course of the study, a thousand people would get one thousand dollars per month for three years and the other two thousand would get fifty dollars per month for five years.

Y Combinator said it hopes that the study would provide answers to some theoretical questions about what happens when people are given a basic income. Sputnik discussed the issue with Alyssa Battistoni, a PhD candidate in Yale University's Department of Political Science and an editor at Jacobin Magazine.

Sputnik: What is your take on the planned experiment on universal basic income? I can imagine that many people who hear this are going to ask where they can sign up and other people are going to have big questions. A similar proposal was rejected by the Swiss in a vote.

Alyssa Battistoni: Switzerland had a referendum on basic income and it lost, although it might have been a bit of a publicity stunt to get some attention to basic income. Certainly, I think if it’s too good to be true is one of the big questions about basic income. This experiment is interesting because I think that it’s the first one that’s happened in the United States in 40 years or so.

There’s been a study recently in Finland and the Netherlands; there have been some smaller randomized control files, which is what this is, I think in Namibia and South Africa. But there have not been any major experiments of this kind in the US; they are doing it as a major social science research project.

They are going to be doing more qualitative research; they are really interested in how it affects people’s lives, they’re going to be asking people what their experience of getting more money without having to do anything for it is.

It seems interesting, the study itself seems fine, but what worries me is the fact that it’s being done by a major player in Silicon Valley and I think it represents a move of Silicon Valley tech companies and the tech industry into public policy.

Sputnik: What do you think the effects of this study will be? What if the study shows wonderful results that people have a wonderful move upwards on the social ladder and spend their money to create more income and, perhaps, jobs; what will follow a positive result of this study?

Alyssa Battistoni: That’s a good question. I would not be surprised if it did show good results. A lot of the experiments that happened did show that people had better health outcomes, spent more time and money on education and spending time with their families. There were generally social and health benefits across the board in these small trials that happened in the 1970’s in the US and Canada.

That seems totally plausible to me unless you look at the framing of the Y Combinator’s experiment. There’s a video where they went around and asked people “what would you do if you had an extra thousand dollars a month?” Clearly, when they were asking people this, a lot of people could use the extra money; they were all saying: ”I’d pay my rent I’d buy more groceries. I’d pay off my student debt.” One of them people was a teacher and said that he would pay for books for his students.

I think that people are struggling with basic needs and with affording basic needs, as the economy is growing again in the US and I think that’s because the economic gains must have gone to the very wealthy. People who participate in this I’m sure will have a positive effect from having more money and I think a lot of people could use some more money.

But I don’t think that it necessarily translates into the policy being adopted. And that’s what happened in the previous wave of interest in basic income: there were a lot of good results produced and that kind of got pushed aside as there wasn’t a political way to implement basic income, there was no real movement to push for it.

It was an interesting policy experiment and idea. I think that’s still true, I think people think “That sounds great, but why? That can’t possibly work,” it seems, like I said, too good to be true.

So, the question really is what happens when you get some results and how you actually make a policy come into being – and that’s a political question.

Sputnik: I think the US is in an age where entitlement is almost a swear word in today’s political climate. Not only that; there’s such gross income inequality. On the one hand, this is really something that could help a lot of people. On the other, a thousand dollars isn’t a lot of money in the US, that’s barely enough to pay for rent and a lot of people make that much working minimum wage jobs, which are extremely low.

Alyssa Battistoni: I think all of that is completely right. There are a lot of different versions of how people think about what basic income is, how much money you get and how it works.

I think that the version that you see coming out the Y Combinator and Silicon Valley is very much a result of this income inequality and it’s not trying to rectify it necessarily.

Silicon Valley is worried that technology is going to automate a lot of jobs and a lot of people are going to be left unemployed, underemployed or not making enough money to get by.

Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Alyssa Battistoni and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.