Tag Archives: ubi podcast

The Great Risk Shift, feat. Jacob Hacker

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
The Great Risk Shift, feat. Jacob Hacker
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Since LBJ’s Great Society programs revamped America’s social safety net, the average American has steadily taken on more and more risk, both through increasing costs of healthcare and education, and the growing precarity of employment, due to globalization, automation and contract work, among other factors. Jacob Hacker, professor of Political Science at Yale, has detailed this growing burden in his book The Great Risk Shift, the second volume of which was just released. Hacker joined the podcast to discuss this major trend in the economy and how a basic income could change the equation.

The second edition of the Great Risk Shift may be purchased here: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-great-risk-shift-9780190844141?cc=us&lang=en&

Unpacking the Data Dividend Concept, feat. Chris Benner

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Unpacking the Data Dividend Concept, feat. Chris Benner
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Recently the idea of a “data dividend” has received renewed attention, due to interest from California Governor Gavin Newsom. The idea that people are entitled to a cut of the profits from the data they are producing from their online activity, and even location data that companies are collecting holds some intuitive appeal. But how would this work, and is it a feasible policy? Chris Benner, author and professor in the UC Santa Cruz Sociology Department, joins the podcast to help elucidate the data dividend idea.

Is Italy’s Citizen’s Income a Step in the Right Direction?

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Is Italy's Citizen's Income a Step in the Right Direction?
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Italy’s Five-Star Movement rose to power campaigning on a host of proposals, chief among them a “citizen’s income,” a cash assistance program. While there are obvious thing to like about the program, there are problematic elements as well, including the inclusion criteria, and what recipients have to do to stay on the program. Owen and Jim break down the program and discuss whether or not the program should be seen as a step in the right direction.

How Would History Have Been Different If We’d Had a Basic Income?

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
How Would History Have Been Different If We'd Had a Basic Income?
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In this discussion episode, Owen and Jim take on some of the major events of the last few decades, asking the question, how would things have been different if we’d had a basic income? The episode examines climate-related disasters, such as the recent fires in California, mass incarceration, and the election of Donald Trump. Examining concrete events in the past helps us consider how basic income might play out in the future.

Germany’s Sanktionsfrei Project, feat. Helena Steinhaus

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Germany's Sanktionsfrei Project, feat. Helena Steinhaus
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In Germany, a group called Sanktionsfrei (“sanctions free”) is experimenting with a unique intervention into a public program. Germany’s unemployment benefit system, often referred to as Hartz IV, contains many punitive sanctions for missed filings, appointments and the like. Sanktionsfrei is randomly selecting 250 individuals receiving Hartz IV benefits and automatically reimbursing any fees they incur. While this is a financial help to some, the greater benefit may be the reduced mental strain of having to worry about meeting all of the requirements to get their full benefits. We spoke with Helena Steinhaus, one of the leaders of the Sanktionsfrei movement about this program and what they hope to accomplish.

Basic Income, Jobs, and Joe Biden (rebroadcast)

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Basic Income, Jobs, and Joe Biden (rebroadcast)
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Owen and Jim discuss Vice President Joe Biden’s recent objections to basic income, and the practical and philosophical points that come up around basic income and employment. They delve into why a basic income could be good for workers and how automation has both driven and skewed the basic income conversation. They also touch on the increasing precarity of today’s jobs and the highly valuable work that goes uncompensated. This episode originally aired in September 2017.

Basic Income and the Disabled Community, feat. Annie Harper (rebroadcast)

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Basic Income and the Disabled Community, feat. Annie Harper (rebroadcast)
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How would a basic income impact the disabled community? We delved into this question with social anthropologist Annie Harper of the Program for Recovery and Community Health, Yale School of Medicine. Harper, who works with mentally disabled people, describes the hopes and concerns a basic income offers. This episode was originally broadcast in November 2017.

How Much Basic Income Would Really Cost, featuring Karl Widerquist (rebroadcast)

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
How Much Basic Income Would Really Cost, featuring Karl Widerquist (rebroadcast)
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How much would a basic income in the United States actually cost? What are the most common mistakes people make when calculating a basic income? To answer these questions, we spoke with Karl Widerquist, who has been studying and writing about basic income for three decades. Widerquist recently published a “back of the envelope” calculation on basic income which produced some surprising results. This episode was originally broadcast in September 2017.

Basic Income and Peace of Mind (Rebroadcast)

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Basic Income and Peace of Mind (Rebroadcast)
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We often talk about what effect a universal basic income would have on financial stability, but what about our mental state? Jim and Owen delve into the research around poverty and cognition, and explore the differences between an abundance mindset and a scarcity mindset. This episode was originally broadcast in June, 2017.

Universal Basic Assets, featuring Marina Gorbis (Rebroadcast)

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Universal Basic Assets, featuring Marina Gorbis (Rebroadcast)
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When considering the impact of basic income, we usually think of it as a standalone policy — but there’s nothing stopping us from imagining UBI as one piece of a larger policy framework. In this episode, Marina Gorbis, Executive Director of Institute for the Future, shares her perspective on a comprehensive framework for the future: Universal Basic Assets. This episode was originally broadcast in July, 2017.

Rep. Chris Lee on Basic Income Legislation in Hawaii (Rebroadcast)

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Rep. Chris Lee on Basic Income Legislation in Hawaii (Rebroadcast)
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In 2017, Hawaii became the first state to pass legislation on universal basic income, declaring that everyone in the state deserves basic financial security. The bill’s author, Representative Chris Lee, joined the Basic Income Podcast to discuss the legislation and his views on basic income. This is a rebroadcast of an episode that aired in June 2017.

Examining Iran’s Cash Transfer Program, feat. Dr. Djavad Salehi-Isfahani

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Examining Iran's Cash Transfer Program, feat. Dr. Djavad Salehi-Isfahani
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In 2010, Iran replaced their energy subsidies with a cash transfer program, which was originally intended only for poor Iranians, but was expanded to go to everyone. We now have ample data to examine the effects on labor supply and a handful of other social metrics. Much of our knowledge of Iran’s program comes from a study co-authored by our guest this week, Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a professor of Economics at Virginia Tech, and a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Dr. Salehi Isfahani explains both the economic impact of the program and the public reaction to it.

The Native American Experience with Cash Dividends, feat. Thomas Klemm

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
The Native American Experience with Cash Dividends, feat. Thomas Klemm
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We often talk about the desire for more trials and programs that give people unconditional cash, but one has been going on for decades: per capita payments in Sovereign Native American Nations. Under these programs, the nation is provided a revenue source–typically but not always from a casino–and this may be used in a number of ways, including “per-capita” payments to everyone in the nation. Payments vary in size, number of recipients, and duration. Thomas Klemm of the Pokagon band of the Potawatomi Indians, who is conducting qualitative research on per-capita payments, joined the podcast to discuss these programs and the impact they’ve had.

The Movement to Bring UBI to Chicago, feat. Ameya Pawar

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
The Movement to Bring UBI to Chicago, feat. Ameya Pawar
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News broke recently that the city of Chicago has formed a task force to examine the future of work and a potential basic income pilot program. Alderman Ameya Pawar joined the podcast to discuss the motivation behind this initiative, who will be on the task force, and its current status.

The Benefits, Promise, and Drawbacks of Basic Income Pilots

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
The Benefits, Promise, and Drawbacks of Basic Income Pilots
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Basic income pilots are ongoing or starting soon in Finland, Ontario, Stockton, Jacksonville, East Africa, and two other U.S. states to be announced. These represent some of the most exciting developments in the basic income space, but it’s worth taking a step back to think about why we invest the considerable time, energy, and money it takes to run a pilot. In this discussion episode, Owen and Jim delve into what pilots have meant so far to the basic income discussion, and where they might take us in the future.

Updates on the Stockton Basic Income Trial, feat. Mayor Michael Tubbs and Lori Ospina

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
Updates on the Stockton Basic Income Trial, feat. Mayor Michael Tubbs and Lori Ospina
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As listeners of the podcast will almost certainly know, Stockton, California is planning a basic income trial for 2019. Jim spoke with Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs and project leader Lori Ospina about new details regarding how the program will be structured, how recipients will be selected, and the challenges and responses so far to the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration. For more information, you can go to StocktonDemonstration.org.

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Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh.

Owen: As listeners of this show will undoubtedly know one of the most exciting developments in the basic income space is the coming basic income trial in Stockton, California next year.

Jim: There has been some recent announcements that tell us a little bit more about how that trial is going to work. Giving us more of a sense of how things are actually going to be developing in the months ahead.

Owen: To hear about some of the most recent announcements and the motivation behind the trial and everything else we know to date, Jim got to sit down with Michael Tubbs, the mayor of Stockton, California and Lori Ospina, the director of the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration.

Jim: Thank you both for joining on the Basic Income Podcast.

Lori: Thank you for having us.

Mayor Tubbs: Glad to be here.

Jim: Let’s start with the motivation for SEED. Mayor Tubbs, what first gave you the idea to pursue a basic income pilot in Stockton?

Mayor Tubbs: Well, I think a lot of it comes from two things. Number one, about a quarter of our population lives in poverty. I’ll argue another 25% to 30% is one paycheck away. I believe that poverty and economic insecurity is at the core. A lot of the other issues we face in the city from housing affordability to homelessness to crime, et cetera, educational attainment, et cetera, et cetera.

Also, just from lived experience, coming from a single parent household with a mom who worked incredibly hard and still struggled has always given me a passion for using the tools in government to create the conditions where the bottom doesn’t have to fall underneath people while being part of our community. With those motivations in mind, I had a group of policy researchers research some of the most radical intervention they could think from poverty. Last year, they came back with basic income.

I had been familiar with the term from reading Dr. King, what he called for in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?. The next week, we were able to meet the Economic Security Project who said they were looking for a city to pilot basic income, and that’s where SEED was born.

Jim: For most basic income pilot programs around the world, the sole purpose of the pilot is quantitative research: running a controlled experiment with randomized groups where some people receive a basic income, others don’t, and then looking for differences between those groups after some amount of time. But you’re aiming to do more than just the quantitative research in Stockton. You not only have researchers involved in the pilot but also artists and cultural creatives. What’s the motivation behind taking that approach?

Mayor Tubbs: Lori, feel free to jump in. Briefly, I’ll say that we understand that data alone doesn’t move people. For an idea and a concept like this, to really have it take hold, folks need stories, folks need images, and folks need art to really help raise consciousness, and also show that this is not a policy for “them” but for “all of us”. I think art has a way of doing that more so than a research study.

Lori: I would just add to that. I think that was a lot of what the vision that our funder, the Economic Security Project, had for it. There’s been a lot of research studies that have been done, and I think we collectively realized that there’s no absence of white papers on the topic. There’s no absence of results and data points. Yet, still somehow when we go out into the country and you try to talk about this idea, you still get what I call the knee-jerk reaction, the doubt, the skepticism that this can’t work or that it wouldn’t be used in an effective way.

I just really feel that by humanizing the experience of individuals, it allows people to see it with new eyes. Folks that maybe haven’t engaged in the conversation or hadn’t looked at some of the evidence today, we can pull them into another channel.

Jim: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. It aligns with what we’ve heard from a lot of other basic income advocates around the idea of what actually they’re seeing move people out there. It’s so exciting to hear that we’ll have more on that space through this spotlight.

Now, you hosted an event recently where you announced some key details of the plan for the Stockton pilot. Can you share what was in that announcement?

Lori: Sure. What we announced about, I guess it was about a month ago now, was the plans for how we would select recipients. Since very first day that the mayor announced the project, we have received a flood of emails, phone calls, visits from residents who want to find out how they can sign up, how they can be considered, how they can receive what has become known throughout the city as the “500 dollars.”

We were really excited to update people on what the plans were now that we have them in place. We had intentionally held it off really designing the selection process until we had our research evaluation partners on because we wanted to make sure that whatever way we chose, we could measure it in a meaningful way once we selected the recipient. Having our research team on board, we landed on a process which essentially is that, in order to select recipients, we will do a two steps process. The first step is, we’ll filter out all of the neighborhoods in the City of Stockton, where the area median income is at or below $46,000, which is the area median income for the City of Stockton.

Then, basically taking those neighborhoods that meet that income requirement, we will randomly choose addresses, and we’ll randomly send mailers out to potential recipients across those neighborhoods. We’ll start with about 1,000 knowing that some people may not respond, some people may toss away the letter, and some people might just not be compelled to participate.

Then from the people who we actually get a response from, we’ll randomly select about 100 recipients. Anyone who is not selected to be a recipient will then be invited to participate in the research components. While I know it’s not as good as a deal as getting $500 a month, we’ll still invite them to fill out surveys, participate in qualitative interviews, and when they do that, they’ll be compensated for their time.

That was pretty much the gist. The goal was really to help clarify and get the word out that people didn’t need to sign up or didn’t need to do a process at this point. We had mixed reviews on how well the message was received, though. A lot of people are really in need of help. Even though we made the announcement, we did hear from a lot of people still asking the question, “How do I sign up?” It’s been an interesting learning process and a good opportunity to talk with residents about the process and teach them and educate them on why we settled with the approach we did.

Jim: I’m curious to hear more about how the community has responded to this. This is something different than is happening anywhere else in the US. I imagine people in Stockton have thoughts on that. What generally seems to be people’s take that this is happening there?

Mayor Tubbs: I think a lot of people are excited for Stockton to be so cutting edge in the amount of attention it has received. I think the questions we get are, to Lori’s point earlier, “How do we qualify?” I think the people who are most critical are folks who think they won’t be able to get the money, which is interesting.

Lori: Yes. I would agree with the Mayor. Generally, someone asked me point blank the other day because I was talking about all the messages I received. They asked me point blank like, “Are most of them good? Are most of them bad? What do you see?” I really took stock. When I did so, I really feel and looked through the messages and whatnot. I really feel that the overwhelming response is positive. A lot of people who want to be considered. A lot of people who hope they will have a chance.

Even those who we ultimately say, “It’s going to be random. I can’t tell you if your address is going to be selected or not”. We do hear, “That makes a lot of sense. That seems really fair. I still hope I’m randomly selected, but I get it and that feels like a good approach and even if I’m not randomly selected I hope it reaches someone who will really benefit or really needs it”. A lot of really good will around it I would say.

Jim: That’s great to hear. Now, one thing that people often talk about with basic income is its simplicity and that being a positive thing. Often with the premise that if you’re just giving people cash, it will be very easy to manage the program. We’ve heard from other folks who are working on a cash transfer pilots that it often ends up being considerably more complicated than you might expect to get all the execution right on that. Lori, can you share some of your experiences on getting everything planned and up and running with SEED?

Lori: I know the Mayor is eager to see the project rolled out. I’m always trying to do it as quickly as possible. What I always say is that it’s really easy to hand out money. I could have done that on my very first day on the job. I think the thing that makes it complicated is doing it in a thoughtful, meaningful way that can ultimately be measured and tell us something insightful.

A lot of our delays or not even delays, but just a lot of what’s taking time is making sure that we can measure it. Making sure that our research and evaluation team is on board and in place and that they have the time necessary to develop the tools for analysis and for surveys and interviews and whatnot. The actual disbursement itself, there’s some complexities to it, but I think once we get started it does actually become fairly simple.

The one major stumbling block that I think is probably what some of the other folks have referred to or mentioned is around benefits interaction. Public benefits. The guaranteed income is intended to be a charitable gift for the purposes of learning and charitable purposes. But when it bumps up against the public benefits system, the interaction becomes a little bit more complicated.

The way it’s currently structured, even if we want to give the guaranteed income as a charitable gift, the public benefits administrators won’t view it that way, because it is recurring and because it’s predictable. They believe that the responsibility is on the recipients to report it as anticipated income. In which case it might lead to reductions in the public benefits that they’re currently receiving. That’s been really challenging.

I don’t know how much I want to get into the weeds here, Jim. In our purposes, given the fact that we are a smaller sample size, I think we have a little bit more liberty to work around that. What we’ve ultimately landed on is that we realize that that limitation exists, and we are not really going to be able to control for it at this time. Rather than trying to do so, we will make sure that potential recipients, before they commit to receiving the benefit, will be given all of the information they need in the advance to make a fully informed decision.

If at the end of the day, $500 a month is not in their family’s or in their household’s best interests, they will be given the chance to pass it up. If it is, then they’ll be given the chance to accept it.

Jim: It sounds like there’s some potentially challenging decisions and processes to be figured out in advance, but once you have those in place, you expect things to be much simpler.

Lori: Yes. I think there’s just so many ways, I say this all the time, every decision, there’s so many ways you can go with it. Cash touches every aspect of every person’s life. Trying to streamline it is almost impossible. Every decision we had to make, whether it was around the disbursement mechanism or the evaluation questions or the interaction with public benefits, they took time, and it was important to be thoughtful about them for sure because each one opens up a different net of possibilities. We’re closing in on a lot of them and eager to put it on autopilot.

Jim: Now, since the program was announced almost a year ago, it’s been very apparent that there’s a huge amount of interest in SEED out there. Mayor Tubbs, I know you’ve done a bunch of media appearances and I’m assuming have had conversations with many different individuals and organizations who are interested in the pilot. Has the reactions from people surprised you in any ways? Are there things that have stood out about those conversations?

Mayor Tubbs: I’ve been surprised with just how many people are really struggling in this economy. People who you think have fairly good jobs or fairly stable income will still talk about not be able to afford health insurance or rent or the kid’s college et cetera. That’s been incredibly eye opening. Then number two, how receptive, at least in the conversation, policymakers, elected officials, and folks are.

In June, I spoke at the lunch plenary on the US Conference of Mayors to 400 mayors across the nation just about basic income. Many came up after really excited trying to figure out how could their city be a part. Folks who are running for offices or planning to run for offices themselves or their staff, they’ll contact us, myself and Lori, to get more information. I didn’t realize so many people would be so interested in what we’re doing in Stockton.

Jim: Taking a step back, and imagining where things will be in, I guess, a bit over a year, when the pilot wraps up. What would success look like for you with this pilot?

Mayor Tubbs: I think for me, success is just having the pilot. The idea is to demonstrate, to show, to do, while being agnostic as to what exactly is shown. Since we’ve been knee-deep in the research and the community engagement, I think success overall looks like being able to answer the question with a study around what happens when people get $500 a month, no strings attached. Number one, what do people do with the money? Number two, does it make their lives better? It’s having some answer to those questions will be success to me.

Jim: Alright. Well, those were all the questions that we had. Anything else that either of you would like to add?

Mayor Tubbs: For folks who want more information, they can go to stocktondemonstration.org or @StocktonDemo on Twitter and Instagram.

Owen: That was Jim Pugh, Michael Tubbs, and Lori Ospina on the Basic Income Podcast. I think the main thing I took from that is just how much excitement and momentum there is around this trial and how it’s not just people in and around Stockton but politicians and leaders who are looking to this to be something where they can point to, to talk about basic income and bring it into the conversation.

Jim: Yes. The fact that Mayor Tubbs mentioned how much interest there was from other mayors but also people who are considering or are already running for office, I’m wondering if in the months ahead we’re going to start to see a lot more things popping up with basic income, either pilots or this being a major part of people’s policy platforms in the year ahead.

Owen: Yes, and it provides a reference point where now you don’t have to say basic income, this idea that outside of Alaska, we don’t have a lot of current data on in the US. Now we can say that thing going on in Stockton, let’s do that in the rest of the country.

Jim: Definitely, having more– it’ll be more normalized effectively. It’ll just be something that is happening out there and seeing how that will affect people’s perception, how that might potentially break down some of these barriers to adoption that we’ve encountered to date. I also thought it was– this is something that we’ve talked about before, but just the challenges of getting set up with a pilot here. It’s something where you have to make sure you get your ducks in a row.

It’s so important because you’re talking about something that could transform people’s lives for the better, but if you do it wrong, that could backfire in many, many ways. I’ve heard at times people express skepticism, maybe, at the fact that some of these things were taking so long. But I really think this is an area where you need to make sure you’re getting things right.

Owen: Yes, especially because it is so new. I think maybe we even gloss over that factor that basic income is a new policy and just people aren’t quite sure how to react to it at first, so to normalize it a bit but also to make it so that it actually works I think is crucial.

Jim: Yes. I’m very eager to also see and hear the stories that come out of Stockton since, we’ve talked about this before, but the culture change aspect of this is so fundamental and getting to really get these personal experiences of what difference basic income is making in someone’s life. I think that could be a game changer.

Owen: Yes. There’s going to be a turn of media on this one way or another. Just to have actual interview subjects who can talk about their life before and after. Yes, that’s really going to stick with people.

That’ll do it for this episode of the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davidson. Please subscribe and rate us and review us on the podcast service of your choice. And tell your friends — we are always looking to bring more people into the movement. Talk to you next week.

Designing an American Social Wealth Fund, feat. Matt Bruenig

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The Basic Income Podcast
Designing an American Social Wealth Fund, feat. Matt Bruenig
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One of the leading ideas on how to implement a basic income is a social wealth fund, similar to Alaska’s Permanent Fund, in which a government maintains a fund of various assets and provides dividends to everyone who lives within its borders. Matt Bruenig, President of the People’s Policy Project, recently designed a detailed proposal for implementing a social wealth fund in the US that would be financially and politically stable. He spoke with Jim about how he crafted this design and how he plans to advance it.

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Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh.

Owen: One of the leading ideas in the basic income space right now is a social wealth fund similar to what’s going on in Alaska, where they take state revenue mostly from their oil funds and provide a universal dividend to every person there.

Jim: This idea has been taken and built upon and looking at whether potentially it could be replicated both in other states and also potentially ultimately at the national level where we could actually have this big fund that’s paying out these universal dividends to everyone in the country that might, at some point, actually start to approach a full universal basic income.

Owen: One of the big thinkers on this topic is Matt Bruenig. He is the founder of the People’s Policy Project. He recently published a very detailed expansive proposal for a social wealth fund for the entire United States. Jim got to sit down with Matt Bruenig and discuss his proposal.

Jim: Matt, thank you so much for joining us on the program.

Matt: Thanks for having me.

Jim: Now, in late 2017, you wrote a piece in The New York Times about a specific model for financing a universal dividend program, which you dubbed a social wealth fund. We’ve actually talked a few times about social wealth funds on the podcast in the past, but just to make sure that everyone is up to speed, can you generally explain what a social wealth fund is and how it works?

Matt: Yes. In its broadest definition, a social wealth fund is a collective pool of generally financial assets that is owned by the government, and the return on those assets is used for social welfare purposes. In my specific version of a social wealth fund, the government creates a new fund, gives every person in the country one share of ownership in the fund, then it fills the fund up with assets. As those assets generate a return, that return is then paid out to the owners of the fund, which again, is everyone in America who would own one share of the fund. That’s the basic model for my particular implementation of the general idea.

Jim: On that note, you released a quite extensive and specific proposal last month for the creation of an American social wealth fund, which you dubbed the American Solidarity Fund. Can you tell us more about what specifically is in that proposal?

Matt: Yes. It is, like I said, in broad strokes, the government will create a new fund, I call it the American Solidarity Fund. It will also create a new management company, which will be a government corporation. That management company will be charged with running the fund, basically investing it just like any asset manager does in the private sector. Every American would be given one share of ownership in the fund. Every year, they would receive a dividend based on the returns on that fund.

The biggest, I guess, question mark that the paper tries to answer is, how do you get assets into the fund in the first place? We know how to basically run a fund. It’s just like a pension fund or a mutual fund, it’s not a complicated thing. We know how to pay out dividends to people. That happens again, in the financial industry all the time. It also happens that the government sends out checks to people quite regularly, whether Social Security or similar, but the big question is, how do you get money into the fund? How do we get assets building this fund?

The paper proposes a number of approaches to that. One is leveraged purchases, meaning that the government will basically borrow money and then use the money to buy assets and since the interest rate on government debt is lower than the rate of return that you generally get by investing in the stock market or similar, they could take advantage of that spread and make money.

Another approach is called monetary seniorage. The basic idea is right now, when the Federal Reserve wants to increase the money supply, what it does is it creates new money, and it goes out and buys treasury bonds. Instead of buying treasury bonds, it could go out and buy any sort of asset including stocks, bonds, real estate. In fact, the Bank of Japan has been doing this with their central bank for the last 10 years or so.

Finally, taxes, good old fashioned taxes. I have all sorts of taxes. Taxes on initial public offerings when a company goes public, taxes on mergers and acquisitions, taxes on fund management, financial transactions taxes, et cetera, et cetera. Basically, targeted taxes on the wealthy, the revenues which could go to fill up this fund then create assets that we all own an equal share of.

Jim: Now, you used the Alaska Permanent Fund as a general model for the American Solidarity Fund. Revenue there comes specifically from oil in the state, but as far as, once the fund’s in place, they invest that, people get the dividend, very similar model.

But one potential distinction between the two is how fund investments might be used to influence corporate behavior. The Alaska Permanent Fund is completely passive. The shareholder voting rights conferred by their investments are not used at all. But for the American Solidarity Fund, you suggest that those voting rights could potentially be used to exercise public influence, either by representative voting or more directly by some manner of popular proxy voting. What motivated you to include that design component in your proposal?

Matt: You’re right. I believe that Alaska doesn’t take a very activist stance with its holdings, I’m not sure if it ever votes on shares, or if it ever has negotiations with company directors, but the Norwegian Fund or funds that I covered in the paper, they take the opposite approach. The Government Pension Fund Global, which is their big $1 trillion wealth fund, they vote on almost all the shareholder votes. They have thousands of meetings a years with company directors, trying to influence company behavior so I adopted that model.

As to why, my goal in this is not just to reduce wealth inequality, is not just to reduce income inequality through the basic dividend, but also to socialize control of companies to some degree. If this fund doesn’t vote its shares, then you have to ask yourself, “Well, what shares are going to be voted,” and the shares that are going to be voted are whichever ones are still held by private owners. Realistically, the private owners of financial assets and especially shares, those private owners are very affluent people. I’m trying to counteract their influence over our economy and make it to where we have more social control over the economy, in addition to leveling out wealth inequality and leveling out income inequality.

Jim: Something you just touched on, which is I would say fairly unusual about your proposal, is that you are aiming to tackle wealth inequality, not just income inequality. In my experience, people’s understanding of wealth inequality, and how that differs from income inequality is often quite limited, even amongst those who work on these sorts of issues. I realize this could probably take an entire episode in itself, but can you briefly talk about that distinction, why it matters, and what implications it has for policy design?

Matt: Yes. I think you’re right that oftentimes, actually, you’ll find people use the word wealth and income interchangeably or they’ll use rich and wealthy interchangeably, even though these are somewhat different concepts. In broad strokes, wealth is what’s in your bank account, if you will, and income is what’s in your paycheck. Or another way to put it as wealth is the stock of things you own and income is the flow of money that you get on a periodic basis.

The importance of wealth inequality, there’s so many things that are important about it, but broadly speaking, wealth equates to power in the economy. Whenever people are appointing boards of directors on companies, the way that works is the shareholders get to do that. Well, who owns shares in US companies? If you look at Federal Reserve Surveys, they show that around 90% of company shares are owned by the top 10% of Americans.

This is a huge layer of basically societal management that’s occurring at the corporate board level. We have thousands of companies and tens of thousands of board members, and they’re managing production on a day to day basis. Who appoints those managers? The really relatively small slice of the public, the wealthiest people in the country.

If you have a more egalitarian mindset, you got to be focused not just on making sure people have enough money to buy basic necessities and food and housing, but also, you want to try to shift power in the economy so that the direction of the economy is not being governed by a small slice of people. For that, you also have to make sure wealth gets spread out, and so the social wealth fund is my approach at doing that.

Jim: Unlike most other proposals that aim towards some universal basic income, which is what you see this could potentially reach if enough wealth were moved into the fund, when the income is taking the form of dividends from a collectively owned asset pool, you have more potential to instill a sense of ownership amongst people than if it’s just a regular transfer. I know that’s something that was important in your proposal — can you say what role you see that playing if this policy is enacted?

Matt: Yes. One of the things that you have to think about when designing any kind of program in a democratic country is the recognition that at some future point, the government is going to be controlled by the other side. Whatever side you happen to be on, it’s going to be controlled by the other side. You have to design programs that are going to be sticky or resilient in the face of government that maybe does not like them.

Social Security is a good example of that. Republican thought leaders and the think tanks, they often write very negatively about Social Security, but you notice when they get in power, they don’t ever seem to do a whole lot about it. The dividend structure and the wealth fund structure is designed with that in mind because the idea is if you give people a share of this fund, if you say, “Look, you own one share of the American solidarity fund” and in the paper we even marked up an app where you can see your share, and you can watch it grow over time, just like you might check your 401(k) or whatever.

If you get it in their hands and impress upon them that this is your wealth, you own it, then I think it becomes a lot harder for someone to come around and take it from them because then at that point, it feels like you’re being stolen from. Like a cut in a basic income that’s more conventional basic income policy, it’s just like, “Well, that’s a cut in benefits.” Or a cut in taxes, say, “Well, that’s just a cut in taxes,” But taking my dividend, taking my share of ownership, you are stealing from me or legitimately taking an asset from me that I own. I think that’s going to be a lot harder to pull off for politicians that care about public approval.

Jim: I’m curious, particularly in your choice of naming for the fund, calling it the Solidarity Fund. Is that a component you also see with the ownership aspect, that this is something that would make people feel like they’re more tied together with one another?

Matt: Yes. I chose the name for a number of reasons. There’s a French fund and tax that uses the word solidarity or the French equivalent of it. That was motivating, but also generally, the idea of solidarity is we’re all in this together, we’re all going to share. An injury to one is an injury to all. It’s trying to conjure up that notion, which is different if you want to go back to the French Revolution slogans of equality, fraternity, liberty. It conjures up that fraternal notion of like a collective enterprise that we’re all part of. As opposed to a more atomized understanding of an individual entitlement that is separate from a collective enterprise.

Jim: With the release of this proposal, not everyone has immediately loved it. You’ve had a few people who have raised concerns and critiques. What have been some of the most common pushbacks that you’ve gotten on the proposal? Are there some of them that you think have merit? If not, what are the ones you’re getting that don’t make sense, for whatever reason?

Matt: It’s a little hard to categorize all of them. I would say, a good critique that is in most of the criticisms or implied in most of the criticisms is that this is not the most important issue. The US, we still have 30 million people who don’t have health insurance, for instance. That’s a more pressing issue, if you will, than this. I would tend to agree with that. We have a lot of issues that are perhaps more important than getting a fund built, but I never said it’s the most important policy, I guess, would be my response to that.

It partially depends on how you understand the proposal. If you understand it as a more socialistic proposal because it does have its roots in market socialist thought, then if you’re anti-socialist, if you’re libertarian, if you don’t like the idea of having a big social owner who has power to some degree over the economy, then you don’t like it for that reason, of course, and you say, “Hey, why do we need to socialize the ownership of a bunch of wealth? Can’t we just use taxes and transfers and leave ownership in private hands as it already is?”

That’s just an ideological critique. We can agree to disagree on whether a private ownership is the best model for how wealth should be controlled in the economy. If you understand it as a kind of a market capitalist Frankenstein creature, if you will, and you’re very left wing, you might say, “This is a sellout. We need real socialism, and this is not real socialism.” I’ve certainly got my fair share of that online.

It is an interesting proposal in some ways because it does straddle the line. If you want to look at it a certain way, you can say, “Hey, this is advocating that wealth be socialized into a central fund that everyone owns. Isn’t that collective ownership of the means of production? Isn’t that what Marx is going on about?” You can also look and say, “Hey, this is just a mutual fund. This is just shares, this is just finance and financial assets. Isn’t that what capitalists and libertarians, isn’t that what they’re all about?” You can view it how you want to view it. I found people who have viewed it both ways and therefore it’s gotten attacks from the left and attacks from the right, based on this different way of looking at it, depending on how you twist your head.

Jim: I will just say, following the conversation online, I’ve seen both of those attacks as well. So now that this proposal is out there, what do you see as the next steps for how this policy can move forward?

Matt: Realistically, the way a think tank proposal makes waves is you get a politician to adopt it. We’re going to have a pretty new Congress coming up soon. It seems a lot of seats are going to change hands and a lot of new people are going to come in, especially Democrats. I don’t expect any Republicans are going to be interested in this proposal. Depending on the ambitiousness of some of them, and who’s looking for fresh ideas, fresh things to associate themselves with, maybe I can get one of them to pick it up and maybe I can get one of the existing politicians to pick it up.

That’s the basic move from this point. It’s been covered in a lot of media outlets, it’s out there in the policy wonk sphere such as it exists in DC, and the only step forward really is getting a politician behind it. I suppose the other alternative is some vast movement, but I don’t think I’m capable of leading something like that. That’s where I’m focused at this point is finding a friendly politician who wants to do something bold and seeing if they’ll adopt the ideas their own.

Jim: Well, Matt, those are all the questions that I had. Anything else you’d like to add?

Matt: Yes, I guess it’s worth mentioning if we didn’t cover it already that there’s a distinction between people who want to use basic income to replace the welfare state and people who see it as a supplement to the welfare state. I view a basic dividends in the second pot. The goal of the basic dividend is not to replace Social Security or public health care or things like that, it’s to compliment it.

That’s in part why I’m trying to get the money from capital income as opposed to trying to redirect existing tax income. I know that’s a big tension in this world and so this is more on that side. The UBI as supplement as opposed to UBI as replacement.

Owen: That was Jim Pugh and Matt Bruenig on the Basic Income Podcast. One thing I found fascinating about that was just in how much policy making you can do within revenue generation and the details of the fund itself. It’s not just come up with money from somewhere. You can really in some ways remake the country or a significant portion of it through how you collect that money and distribute it.

Jim: I think that’s absolutely true, and I think it’s an area that people have not actually spent nearly as much time as they should because, as you say, where money comes from — that can be as important as what you’re doing with it. When we talk about these ambitious new proposals that Bernie Sanders and other folks are throwing out there, the conversation is almost never on that.

There’s these few main buckets of, “We’ll take the money from rich people or from corporations.” Maybe that’s higher income taxes, maybe that’s higher corporate taxes, but there isn’t much thinking generally, at least that has made it up into the bigger conversation, about some of these more creative approaches for how we might fund the big things and also how we might tap into the massive wealth that’s out there.

Owen: I really like his concept of everyone having a share because it provides that sense of ownership. Just with the recent examples of Finland and Ontario both of– with Finland trial supposedly not going to continue past its current plan and Ontario may be canceled at some point soon. Both of those are just because a government that was not sympathetic to basic income came in. When he was started talking about how you have to plan for when a government that doesn’t like this plan takes power because that will inevitably happen, the fund itself or whatever it is has to be politically resilient enough. I liked how much thought he put into that.

Jim: I think that points to something, which often gets overlooked in policy conversations. Which is that when you’re designing a policy, you can’t just be thinking about the immediate economics. If you really want something that’s going to stand up in the modern political context, you need to be thinking about what are the politics of the day? How is this going to proceed? What is the psychology people are going to have as a result of this policy? Those are all really important factors if you’re going to actually be able to create something, A, that passes, and B, as you say, that doesn’t get torn away when something shifts with the political winds.

Owen: I just thought it was a good reminder because my general attitude has been like, “Well, once people are getting money that’s going to be incredibly popular,” but we saw in our episode with Bill Wielechowski in Alaska that he’s saying, “Yes, getting money is popular, but that fund is always under threat,” the Alaska Permanent Fund. Yes, the popularity of the program is what sustained it up until now, but it is something that you can’t just take for granted.

Jim: I also thought it was really important that Matt shared his views around how this is tackling wealth inequality beyond just income inequality and income insecurity. That is something that I think needs– I think there’s a lot of value in having that be part of the basic income conversation, to a large degree because a lot of the push-back that we’ve had around basic income from– at least from folks on the left, is that this isn’t actually tackling underlying dynamics with the way our economy works today.

If this is just papering over a lot of these underlying issues of who is making the decisions in our country, then the basic income alone may be treating symptoms and not actually the roots of it. Tackling something like wealth inequality may move us in that direction and may allow us to then build alliances with a lot more folks who are concerned about that.

Owen: I thought he made an excellent point that income and wealth are often used interchangeably when it’s really not true and that so much of the value, the money out there would be considered wealth instead of income. To address inequality itself, the actual inequality between people you do need to not just go after income but also go after wealth. I appreciated his proposal for that as well.

Jim: One last thing: I thought it was good towards the end of the conversation that this came up that Matt himself admits this isn’t supposed to solve all the problems. This is a policy that potentially could be pretty transformative, but on its own, it’s not going to make everything work and in fact, may not be the most high priority policy in this moment. Something like universal healthcare, you could very well argue that that is a more urgent thing to be pushing for in this moment, but that this could do a lot of good and that it could set us up in the future to be able to better figure out where we go from there.

I think that’s something so often in policy debates, we pigeonhole ourselves or our opposition with saying, “Does your policy do everything? No, all right, well, we shouldn’t talk about that let’s move on the next thing.” I think instead we should say, “Does this help people and does this position us to do more?” I think from that respects, I feel like the social wealth does have a ton of potential here.

Owen: Alright, that’ll do it for this episode of the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davidson. Please rate us, review us, and subscribe on the podcast service of your choice, and tell your friends. We’re always looking for more people to join in this conversation. See you next week.

An Update on the Basic Income Trials in Kenya, feat. Joe Huston

The Basic Income Podcast
The Basic Income Podcast
An Update on the Basic Income Trials in Kenya, feat. Joe Huston
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GiveDirectly has been doing some of the biggest, most groundbreaking work in basic income and cash transfers. One of the first episodes of this podcast featured GiveDirectly CFO Joe Huston, and we invited him back on to discuss their village-wide basic income trials in Kenya, their work with Ugandan refugees, a new project in Liberia and with hurricane relief efforts in Texas and Puerto Rico. Joe discusses the promises and challenges of working in these different contexts.

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Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh. Almost two years ago, in one of our early episodes, we talked to Joe Huston. He’s the CFO over at GiveDirectly. He was telling us about GiveDirectly’s basic income experiment that they were getting ready to launch in Kenya at that point. Given it’s been so long, we thought it would be good to catch up with Joe and see how things were progressing so far with the pilot.

Owen: I spoke to Joe Huston about how things are going and some of the new work that GiveDirectly is doing. Here’s my conversation with Joe Huston at GiveDirectly.

Alright, Joe Huston, thank you for joining us on the podcast.

Joe: Thank you, guys, for having me back.

Owen: This will be a review for some of our listeners, but could you just start by giving a quick overview of GiveDirectly’s Village Pilot Program and what stage it’s in right now?

Joe: Yes. GiveDirectly in general only ever does one thing. It delivers unconditional cash transfers. Then along the way, as we’re delivering those cash transfers, something we’re often doing is testing how they work. Do they work at all? Do particular structures for particular types of people work better or worse than other structures? We’re constantly experimenting with different types of cash transfers.

As we saw the debate and conversation about basic income grow a lot over the last two years, we saw it as an opportunity for us to test a universal basic income. When we talked two years ago, we were at the very beginning stages of fundraising for that project and sketching out how it could work from a study perspective and what sizes the cash transfers would be and things like that. Since then, about two years ago, so a few months after we talked, we kicked off the first one-village pilot. This was one village with about 100 adults, each receiving monthly cash payments of about US$ 20, with the promise that those will continue going out for 12 years.

We’ve now been able to follow these people over the course of about two years of those monthly payments. In tandem, we continue to fundraise and work on the research designed for the full study. Enrollment for that full study, which will be over 20,000 adult recipients in over 200 villages, kicked off at the end of last year and wrapped up at the beginning of this year. We should have the first round of follow-up results something like early to mid next year, following up with people after a year of cash payments.

Owen: Great, generally, are things going as planned? Have you had to modify things as they go along or you’re pretty much sticking to the original design?

Joe: From a design perspective, things have largely gone as planned. One design question we got to test with the pilot was whether or not individually targeted payments would be seen as threatening to households. That was probably my biggest, almost operational implementation worry, that it would be seen as trying to pay each individual adult versus paying households or families as a group would be seen as like GiveDirectly is trying to shake up family structures or empower one person over another in a couple.

That was interesting to see it play out in the pilot: when we asked people if that was okay, their answer was that it was better, that it was nice, that people got to receive and spend their own money on the priorities they thought were most important. That it was helpful for family relations and things like that. That was a positive thing out of the pilot.

The main operational hiccup we saw was for the full study, because it’s fairly large, 20,000 people, more than 200 villages, 100 extra included as control group villages, we didn’t want to overlap with the Kenya national elections, which were scheduled for August last year. Basically, we didn’t want to get caught up in the campaigning period and confuse people about what we were doing and what the money was for and some things like that. We stopped a few months short of that August round of elections. Then they ended up having to redo the elections a few months later, so we had to pause our work for about five or six months or so.

That was the biggest operational hiccup which delayed us a bit. Otherwise, things are mostly proceeding as planned.

Owen: Gotcha. You mentioned the finding around couples that they don’t find this threatening to their family. Are there other findings you can share, either anecdotally or from the data you’re collecting?

Joe: Yes. I should caveat that most of what we’re learning so far is anecdotal. The full study, because of how it’s structured in terms of its sample size and that it has a control group, will be able to provide the most rigorous answers on all the questions we care about about a UBI. But from the pilot, it has been interesting to see a handful of things. Another question I was curious about which relates to comparing a UBI versus a negative income tax or other more targeted approaches to welfare cash systems, was how people would perceive a universal basic income.

This is a village where in absolute terms, on average people are very, very poor. But there’s still a decent amount of income inequality. The richest person has a greenhouse, and the poorest person has a family in one room with a house that’s falling over, to give you a sense that there’s still pretty meaningful ranges of wealth and income. We asked people whether it seemed fair that everyone was receiving the same amount regardless of need, that GiveDirectly wasn’t doing any attempt to try to suss out need.

The reaction from people was pretty interesting, that they thought it was better that GiveDirectly not meddle and try to pick winners and losers, that that was fair or more likely to be correct in their eyes, and also better for community relations. That was funny, and interesting to see and relevant for the broader conversations with the UBI.

Related to that, another thing I’ve seen is conversations about the payments and how different people are using them and how people can pull them together are just immediately a little bit less awkward than in programs where GiveDirectly, for whatever reason, has targeted specific individuals within a community. There’s this dynamic that everyone knows that everyone is receiving, and so it’s a lot easier to talk about the issue.

We’ve seen people do things like form savings groups, as an example, where you can imagine writing down a ledger where every month people contribute some portion of their transfer that they’re getting from GiveDirectly. Then every month, one person gets a big payout equal to the sum of all those portions of transfers. It’s a way to turn stream payments into lump sums, so it’s a way of savings. We saw those crop up basically instantly after announcing the program. I wonder how fast that would have developed if we had gone with a more targeted or means tested approach.

Owen: That gets into something I wanted to ask you about, which is if you’re seeing these village-wide effects or synergistic effects of everyone getting it and whether that’s on the economy of the entire village or group projects like the one you’ve described. Are there any more you can share?

Joe: From what I’ve seen so far, it has been mostly those savings groups. Basically, every demographic within this village has created one. The more elderly women, the young people, and so there has been a lot of trust-based savings groups pop up. I haven’t seen as much pulling together in infrastructure or something like that, but that’s definitely something we’ll want to keep watching for both in the village and in the full study.

Owen: I know it’s a little early to say, but do you think this pilot program has affected the basic income conversation more broadly and/or the charitable giving world in a new way that your work hadn’t before?

Joe: I think for the basic income conversation, something we’ve been trying to do, and maybe you guys can tell us how we’re doing, is there aren’t that many people receiving a basic income. Both with the pilot recipients and with GiveDirectly’s other UBI recipients, we’ve been trying to amplify their voices, ask them, “Okay, there’s this academic debate about whether a basic income should be universal, what do you think?” Or, “Should we target individual adults or families? What do you think?” Or, “How are you spending that?”

So much of the debate is very philosophical or theoretical, and we’re in a unique position to give some of the only basic income recipients out there a microphone to ask them, what do you think about these different debates? When we’ve written about the pilot, that has been a big goal of ours, and you can also, on our website, on GDLive, filter for UBI recipients and just hear how they’re describing their priorities, spending, and things like that which I think is a pretty cool perspective to bring to a debate that otherwise feels like a broader political philosophy debate or something like that.

I think that has been good. The other push we’ve been doing which compliments that push is trying to frame the debate around the evidence, which has two prongs. The first one is so much of the questions and assertions about basic income apply to cash transfers broadly. People on the pessimists side are worried that people will stop working or start drinking or spend poorly. We actually have a remarkable amount of evidence on recipients of cash transfers. doing not those things and tons of randomized control trials from all over the world. That’s a largely tested question. It’s largely played out that people don’t end up doing those things people are worried about.

People also have a lot of hopes for a basic income, that the money could get spent on businesses or schooling or health expenditure or whatever it is. We have a lot of evidence on those things as well, testing different structures of cash with different types of outcomes. The first prong of what we’ve been trying to do is contextualize the debate about basic income in terms of what priors we should have, given everything we know about cash transfers broadly, which is there’s a pretty good bet here in terms of at least the household level affects of giving people cash. That leads to the second prong, which is what are we actually testing here? What is unknown about a basic income? Which is often a little bit different from the questions that dominate the conversation; spending on alcohol or whatever it is.

Owen: Yes, your website is a really fantastic resource, both for the evidence and also those anecdotes about how it’s affecting real lives. GiveDirectly is expanding their work in some interesting ways. I want to touch on a few of those. Can you tell us about the work you’re doing with Ugandan refugees?

Joe: Yes. What’s neat about cash transfers, which applies to basic income, but also broadly, is that it can help force a policy question which is, in general, we have a policy goal of helping a certain group of people and because we care about it, we’ve attached a budget to it. Maybe it’s $1 billion a year or something like that. Are our efforts better than what the people we’re trying to help could do if we just gave them the money instead?

We’ve done a few different versions of that in more development contexts. We worked in post-hurricane Texas and Puerto Rico, which tested in a different type of context. The context for how we help refugees is very, very similar, where a lot of our systems for helping refugees globally were set up post World War Two and were set up for refugee crises that were fairly different from the crises we deal with today.

Uganda, you may or may not know, has taken in a ton of refugees, more in total than all of Europe did last year, from places like South Sudan and the DRC. With these types of crises, people end up staying for a decade or more. These are very prolonged crises, and as a result, people are often starting their new lives in a refugee resettlement versus being somewhere temporarily before moving on.

Our model for helping those people is matched to a older, more acute crisis model. We’re very good at keeping people alive with shelter or food or things like that, but not as good at launching people, giving them the resources they need to make big investments in their new lives. Something we’ve been testing in Uganda is giving people large grants. $750 to $1,000, as usual letting them spending on whatever they want, and seeing how that plays out. We kicked off a pilot at the beginning of this year, with about a few thousand refugees in one settlement in Uganda. We’re gearing up for a larger experimental evaluation with more than 10,000 refugees testing the same basic model there.

Owen: Also, you mentioned Texas and Puerto Rico in their hurricane recovery efforts. This is a different context than you’re usually working in. Usually it’s with these very poor villages where $20 a month goes very far, whereas Texas, that’s not necessarily the case. Can you tell us a little bit about why you chose to work there and any results you can share?

Joe: Yes. We chose to work in Texas and then in Puerto Rico once Maria hit, because one, you could see everywhere on TV and the news the devastation that the Hurricanes caused. What was encouraging was that a lot of people wanted to help. There was this groundswell of support and a pretty strong eagerness to try to help out, especially for Americans to help out fellow Americans.

Then what was interesting is that there was also a lot of frustration with the ways that those people had to help. This was a time when people were expressing a lot of frustration about the Red Cross. It felt like an opportunity to at least provide a proof of concept, that one model for helping these people is you could just send them cash and they could buy what they wanted. I think especially for the disaster-relief industry or context that’s helpful. When I went to Texas there were warehouses filling up with goods that were being sent to help people. Whether it was canned goods, or I saw industrial-sized bottles of lotion. Somebody had shipped a couch from Wyoming.

Our traditional model of helping these people is very much sending stuff and that might make a lot of sense in the initial 72 hours after a disaster, but after that, often stores are opening up, ATM machines are opening up and people have pretty varied needs. It’s a good opportunity just to provide a proof of concept there.

We ended up delivering debit cards to people in Texas and Puerto Rico of about $1,500. I think the results were interesting. You’re right that a dollar goes a lot less far in Texas or Puerto Rico. The role of that $1,500 I think was different than the role either of basic income or a lump sum grant plays in East Africa. What I saw it being was much more of a gap filler. That people had access to different types of support, whether it’s immediate support from the Red Cross or FEMA down the road or support from family members.

After all that support, there is often little things falling through the gaps. Whether it was somebody needed new clothes or they wanted to buy a washer-dryer or needed to get a head start on their home and so needed construction materials. That unconditional cash played a pretty good role because people could put it wherever they needed it. The main takeaway we saw from asking people about what they were spending on and things like that was, even with everyone experiencing the same crisis, how varied the spending patterns were across people, which I think demonstrates a lot of the value of cash, that it’s enabling that type of flexibility.

Owen: What was the public reaction to working in a more developed country?

Joe: One thing that was interesting was we have a lot of practice, and we talked about this last time, introducing ourselves to the communities where we’re working in East Africa. I think we weren’t exactly sure how we’d be received in East Texas or in Puerto Rico. It was funny to see how many of the same issues cropped up, that handing out cash is weird, and people think it is going to be a scam. You have to take the same type of tactics, whether it’s introducing yourself through the Mayor’s office or through the local church or whatever it is. With my operations hat on that was the most interesting thing to see was how much of the same communication introduction strategies and respect for the communities that we have practiced a lot in East Africa were required to get people to accept us in Texas and Puerto Rico as well.

Owen: Yes, so basically building community support and then working from there?

Joe: Right, and how universal the weirdness of cash is.

Owen: Lastly, I want to give you a chance to touch on the work you just started doing in Liberia, getting back to Africa. You just started working there. Anything you can share about the unique challenges there or what made you decide, what made GiveDirectly decide to start working in Liberia?

Joe: Yes, I’ll be intentionally a little bit vague here but in Liberia and in a couple other countries we’re entering this year, DRC and Malawi, we’ve been working with one of the larger government aid funders. For them what we’ve been implementing is a very literal application of that question I said cash can help pose earlier: that we have this budget, are we outperforming just letting the people who are trying to help spend it? As a result with this funder we designed, I think something like six or seven randomized control trials across Rwanda, Liberia, Malawi, and DRC.

Testing different structures of cash with different populations and basically seeing in what areas are the programs we’ve chosen to invest in outperforming what the people can do themselves and in what areas are they not? Which is a pretty, I think, exciting use case for cash as a benchmark or tool for large aid funders. That’s what brought us to Liberia in the first place. Liberia I think is one of the more challenging payments environments we worked in. Weirdly maybe after the US because we benefit a lot from mobile money in the other places where we’ve worked. I think the initial challenges in Liberia have been us working through how it will make sense to pay people.

These are environments where many of the roads are impassable for large periods of the year because of the rainy season. While we’ve dealt with different types of remoteness in the past, this has been a more extreme challenge of that. I’m curious and excited to see how we experiment and test with different payment modes as part of delivering cash there.

Owen: Those are the questions I had for you. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Joe: I would give a plug for searching UBI on our website at GDLive and just seeing what basic income recipients are saying about their experience. That’s a pretty cool opportunity and it’s, frankly, also just fun.

Jim: That was Owen Poindexter talking to Joe Houston from GiveDirectly.

Owen: I always find it interesting, the logistics of cash transfers, and also the basic question of what are they good for? If anything, what are they not good for as a default in terms of aid and charitable giving? Does it beat other forms of helping people? I think by and large it does.

Jim: I feel like there has been solid evidence for a while now that cash in at least certain situations adds more value, no pun intended, than a lot of the traditional in-kind approaches to supporting a people.

One thing that I continue to be surprised by is that on one hand, it seems like, we’ve actually done a lot of experiments, now we’ve done these pilots, we have a good sense of what will happen. Yet every time someone does a new one, it seems like there’s still new insights that we gain. There’s still more about the space that we’re being able to understand as we continue with these pilots and with these experiments.

Owen: Yes. Along those lines, I always find that cash works even better than I think it’s going to. One example of that was the one that Joe gave about, will this affect social structures in the village? That was an issue in the US when they were doing trials in the ’70s. You think it could really threaten the social fabric if you give people a new level of independence. From what he said, everyone prefers it this way, that individual adults each get their cash transfer.

Jim: Yes. I thought the takeaways so far or at least the observations so far around universality were particularly interesting, because that is the thing here that is new. That if you look at the existing pilots to date, there has been almost no saturation studies. The fact that they are doing this universally at the village level, from the get-go, the idea was that’s going to help us to better understand and learn more about those effects.

Yes, like you said, I thought it was really, really interesting to see what the reactions on that were so far and that they’re– at least in the context of these Kenyan villages, people really seem to appreciate the universality. What can we extrapolate from that, as far as understanding how folks elsewhere might or might not perceive it the same way?

Owen: I’m hoping that all these questions that GiveDirectly is asking make their way more and more into the charitable aid world generally. The question he kept bringing up of, “Is cash an improvement on what else we might be doing for these people?” I think it takes a lot of keeping your ego in check. If you’re an organization that gives cows or mosquito nets or clothing or whatever it is, to ask yourself, would we be just better off giving people money?

Yes, in some cases, I’m sure there are cases where a mosquito net is more valuable than the cash it costs, but I think in a lot of cases people will have to ask themselves the question that’s threatening to the organization.

Jim: Right. It seems like that is a process that has been happening for a decade now. You’re starting to see some of these more traditional organizations gradually get more on board with that. The fact that the Red Cross is now using cash as part of its way of supporting people and families in struggling situations. We’re on a gradual curve of adoption, and there will probably still be resistance from some fronts for quite a while, but, hopefully, less and less over time.

Owen: That’ll do it for this episode of the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davidson. Please subscribe on Apple Podcasts and leave us a rating and review if you can there or on the service of your choice. And please tell your friends so we can keep expanding this conversation. See you next week.

Racial Narratives and Basic Income, feat. Anne Price

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The Basic Income Podcast
Racial Narratives and Basic Income, feat. Anne Price
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The history of our social safety net, government benefits, and anti-poverty programs is inextricably tied to race. Racial narratives are embedded in the public discourse around these programs, and in many cases, into the laws themselves. The basic income discussion in the U.S. must inevitably include a conversation about race and racial narratives. Anne Price, who studies race and public policy as President of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, joins the podcast to discuss these issues and how they relate to basic income.

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Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello. Welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh.

Owen: One crucial issue around the social safety net and how we’re approaching lifting people up and taking care of the most vulnerable disenfranchised people in our society is race and racial inequalities and inequities. In this episode, we delve into some of those and how basic income relates.

Jim: A big part of race is understanding what are the underlying narratives that are at play in our society that actually drive a lot of people’s views on things. To really delve into that, we invited on Anne Price, who’s the president of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development to talk about her work and her view on these underlying narratives, race, and basic income itself. I had a chance to sit down with Anne and talk to her about all of this stuff.

Owen: Here’s Jim’s conversation with Anne Price.

Jim: To start with, could you just tell us about what work the Insight Center does?

Anne: Sure. The Insight Center has been around since 1969. We focus on uncovering the hidden truth around economic security through research, through advocacy. A lot of our work is really zooming in on racial and economic exclusion.

Jim: I know from many of our past conversations, a lot of your work focuses on narrative, cultural narrative. That’s something that often, when people talk about policy, just is not even part of the conversation. People think of that in a different bucket really. Can you say a bit more about what work you do on narrative and how that actually does tie in to policy and policy-making?

Anne: Yes. We’ve been focused on the issue of narratives for about six or seven years. We really got into this work because we began to understand that narrative undergirds policy decision making and enables us to think about how we build public will towards passing the policies that we think will make the most difference. A public narrative really helps bring people together. It reminds us a lot about what our shared values are. It helps us feel the emotion associated with the values and putting those values into action.

Jim: Now, let’s talk about race. When most people think about racism, they’re typically thinking about that happening at the individual level, actions that are showing explicit racial bias, but some of the most pernicious forms of racism today actually extend far beyond that and delve very much into the implicit side and motivations and actions that may not be on their face this traditional obvious sense people have of racism. That, I know connects very deeply to narratives. Can you talk about how those things tie together?

Anne: Sure. When we think about how we’re experiencing racism in this country today, of course, some of it seems to be very explicit. But a lot of what we’re actually seeing in terms of people’s truly lived experiences are embedded in our institutions, in the rules, practices, and cultural norms that define those policies and those institutions. While what we’re seeing on the public face is very explicit, what people experience is somewhat hidden in those rules. Those rules are shaped a great deal by narrative and how we come to think about people’s humanity, for example.

Most recently, in some remarks that were made about people on welfare as being animals, as being scoundrels, those types of narratives then lead to very punitive policies. It’s basically saying that people are not human, so, therefore, they’re not deserving. The narrative of deservedness really undergirds most of our economic policies.

Jim: How does that narrative you’re describing, how does that connect to people’s economic activity? How does it connect to work? How does it connect to participation in the economy?

Anne: I think it’s thread through everything that we do in our in our economy. It totally defines not only how people can move in the world and how, for example, people are seen when they go for a job interview, how they’re looked at in terms of the kinds of jobs they could hold, the kind of services that they received. Even how people start to see themselves once those narratives are repeated. When we think about what we’re experiencing today, it’s very deep seeded. These are narratives that aren’t new. They have been the narratives we’ve been dealing with since our very founding.

Jim: Something you just said, I thought stood out, which was it also affects the way people see themselves. I think often there’s this idea that racial biases is one group looking at the other. It sounds like what you’re saying is actually, no, people can be looking at their own community, and this can affect that perception as well.

Anne: Definitely. Some of the work that we’ve done all over the country in talking to people and working with people who receive services, for example. You start to hear those repeated narratives that really people have a great deal of shame when they have to get help with food stamps, for example. I’ve worked with folks who get child support who say, “I’m not a deadbeat.” That narrative about a deadbeat dad is really embedded in people’s psyche. These aren’t just things that shape policy, they shape how people see themselves.

Jim: Now, moving on to talk a bit more specifically about universal basic income. How does that intersect here? What is the interplay between these narratives that exist out here, how they exist today, how they might exist in the future? And how a policy like basic income compares to other current programs we have today in ways that we’ve approached support programs in the past.

Anne: Well, I think for one thing, when we think about our social safety net, which is to me the most perfect example about embedded narratives. We have really never had narratives in this country that actually respect people’s humanity and dignity, when they are down on their luck and in between jobs or are living in poverty. The issue of deservedness and what a UBI could do to disconnect deservedness from people’s ability to move freely in this country. I think I don’t see another policy doing it, what that policy could do in that space.

I think it could do a lot to help us think about the fact that dignity should have to be earned and could free people to be– have a more of a sense of agency and control over the decisions they need to make for their families.

Jim: Given that there seems to be more and more discussion and interest in basic income, as support grows and as we get closer to enacting some policy program there, I’m curious your thoughts as to what are the things that we need to be looking out for as that moves ahead. Thinking about the issues that have occurred, the problems that have arisen in past programs that many of them ostensibly aiming to support everyone, are there aspects of how universal basic income might be designed or how it might be advocated for that could lead us down an unproductive path?

Anne: Yes, I think a lot about this actually because when we think about a policy like UBI, which is oftentimes spoken as a universal program and is facially neutral, meaning that it shouldn’t have any implications around gender or race. We haven’t had any economic policies in this country that weren’t exclusionary in some form or fashion. Often times when we think about a policy like UBI, we tend to gravitate towards the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats, but history tells us otherwise.

We can name policy after policy that with very good intentions the idea that, one, a facially neutral policy seems easier to pass. That we don’t have the political divides and debates, so it seems easier, and it also seems like it’s fair. But we know that the way in which our economy is structured and institutions are structured that that just isn’t the case, that everyone won’t benefit equally. We have to really come to grips with that and understand how do we then begin to build other types of support around other issues in addition to UBI.

Jim: I’m sure many folks are, but for those who aren’t as familiar with how some past programs have, while facially being neutral, have actually not been. Do you have some examples you can share?

Anne: Sure, I mean I think one of the examples that’s been used a lot is talking about the New Deal and even looking at the labor standards that came out of the New Deal, which of course for us seems like such a long time ago, seventy years ago. But we think about what Social Security has done, how important it was for our economy, for older adults. It’s an example of a policy that on its face was neutral, but there were aspects of it that were exclusionary, particularly around domestic workers and agricultural workers, and that excluded largely Blacks and Latinos.

What’s important about that is that that exclusion still exists today. It is not a relic of our past. Basically, those rights have never really been restored, and those same groups are still suffering from basic protections as a result. We’re grappling with historical policies that are still playing out in a way that’s causing unequal outcomes. When we think about another type of economic policy on top of the ones that we have in place now, we have to then begin to say how can we do this differently so that no one is left behind. It’s one of the real goals that we need to have in this work.

Jim: What do you feel like, looking from your perspective on it, is most needed right now in the basic income space?

Anne: I think that we need to really speak to values and a framework. I know that people come to UBI for various reasons. I do think that some of the framing that has been so focused on automation is really crowding out other types of frameworks. I think we have to be open to those other frameworks that are really looking at other types of issues. That we don’t have to think about automation alone in terms of what workers are facing today, in terms of scheduling and hours and contingent work around jobs that pay very low wages.

Those things are still very important to think about: how do we improve non-labor income in this country? What are the mechanisms that are going to help us get there? I think that we need a broader conversation than just the one that’s focused on automation.

Jim: Alright, well, those were all the questions I had. Anything else you’d like to add?

Anne: I think the only thing I’d like to add is the fact that we have an opportunity right now to really push for a bolder, bigger vision of what we want, the society we want to live in. I think speaking from those values is going to be really important for us to move along a policy like a UBI.

Owen: Alright, that was Jim Pugh and Anne Price on the Basic Income Podcast. I think the work that the Insight Center is doing is really important because so many people approach UBI from the automation angle. If we only think of it that way, we might end up only solving for the problems of automation. There are so many other things we need to be thinking about.

Jim: Right, we’ve talked about this before, but to do a redesign of the social contract in the US, we need to make sure that we understand all aspects of the social contract. Part of that is recognizing what is the right solution for changing the nature of work as we expect that may be happening. A lot of it is also looking back at the sometimes very painful lessons that have been learned by different communities and the discrimination that has been inate to the safety net, targeting communities of color is definitely a key area. So if we’re not starting with that when figuring out what we’re trying to build here, we’re probably going to repeat a lot of the issues that we’ve seen in the past.

Owen: Right. We have some pretty key examples from the past. I’d say namely the Earned Income Tax Credit and Social Security for two. They’re both programs we hold up as shining examples of what cash can do, in lifting people up, in holding off poverty. They also have values that come from a white, male-centric universe embedded in them and those are the people that who were most helped by them.

Jim: Right. That’s why it’s important understanding the value that universality brings here. We see so many of these past instances, where there was some degree of exclusion that occurred, that was affecting these minority communities. If we have something that really goes to everyone that’s providing that extra layer of protection against the potential abuse and exclusion that might occur.

Beyond that I think something that’s important to recognize here is, when we’re talking about narratives, oftentimes, when people think about what’s needed to move basic income forward, their mind immediately goes to evidence. Saying that we need to do more pilots, more analyses in order to collect more evidence about what basic income will do. When we’re talking about narrative, an evidence-based argument is probably not going to get us very far. These are these deeply emotional, underlying beliefs that people have. Presenting a rational argument is not likely to change it.

That’s what we need to be thinking about as far as what’s actually required to move basic income forward. What are the things that are actually going to affect the culture? What’s the story-telling? What are the other ways that we might actually be able to shift this really fundamental worldview people have? It’s going to need to go far beyond just data.

Owen: Right. That’s why you hear so many politicians when they’re making a point, they’ll give you one person. They’ll tell you one person’s story. That sticks with you. Whereas, if you say, “Blah, blah program keeps X number of millions of people out of poverty.” That just goes in one ear and out the other. You might think for a moment, “Okay, sounds like a good program,” but you might not remember the name or what it does, but you’ll remember one person’s story.

Jim: Exactly. That’s not to say– oftentimes, having some powerful statistics to incorporate into a story can make it stronger, but you need a story if you’re going to be shifting those beliefs.

Owen: Alright. That will do it for this episode of the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davidson. Please subscribe on Apple Podcasts or the service of your choice, and tell your friends. Bring more people into the movement. We’ll see you next week.

Automation and its Role in the Basic Income Movement

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The Basic Income Podcast
Automation and its Role in the Basic Income Movement
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For so many people, including both hosts of the podcast, the entry point to basic income was concerns about automation and how it could create an economy that requires many fewer employees. In this discussion episode, Owen and Jim delve into the pluses and minuses of automation’s primacy in the basic income discussion, and what a more rounded rationale for basic income looks like.

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Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh. Something that comes up very, very often in basic income conversations and media coverage is a strong connection between basic income and automation. The idea that basic income is a solution for or at least is very closely, innately tied together with this idea that automation will drastically change our workspace in the relatively near future.

Owen: Yes, and I think this is how we both initially came to the idea of basic income. We wanted to take this episode to discuss the pros and cons of tying these two things together and why it’s happened so much so far.

We imagine most of our listeners are pretty familiar with automation and a lot of the discussion around that. There are a lot of really good resources that you can dig up pretty easily if you are not. We’ll give a quick overview of what we are talking about when we talk about automation and basic income, but spend most of this episode talking about more of the discussion in how these two have been linked.

In terms of what we’re talking about when we say that many jobs could be a threat, there’s, for instance, a study that came out of Oxford that 47% of jobs are at risk of being automated. There are other similar studies that produce results in that catastrophic range.

Jim: Right, and the idea that not only could automation replace a lot of the types of jobs that you more traditionally think about being automated, these more mechanical rote jobs, but as artificial intelligence gets more sophisticated and smarter, there may actually be a lot of mental work that becomes at risk of being replaced as well. Work done by doctors, lawyers, professions that in the past it really didn’t seem like there was any reason to be concerned around.

All this together creates this pretty terrifying specter of what the future might look like. That if most of the work that gets done today through paid jobs can be automated and will be automated, suddenly we are looking at the scenario where most jobs are gone, most people don’t have a path to paid employment, and therefore we need to do something radically different than what we have today, perhaps basic income.

Owen: Right, and a lot of the most prominent, most public advocates for basic income are people who come at it from an automation angle; Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, and the presidential candidate Andrew Yang.

Jim: Yes, I think you see, if you are just looking at media coverage, so often it is about these very high profile people who have spoken out in favor of basic income. At least with the view that they think we need basic income with this assumption that we’re moving towards that future that looks like that.

Because of that, because there has been so much coverage of it, because you do have these high profile folks who are talking about it or running for president on it, I think very often that just becomes this internalized idea that those have that these two things go together and that they are tied to one another. If you look at the online conversation, this is very, very common. What people post about on Twitter or wherever else, it’s saying, “Automation is coming soon, therefore, basic income.”

Owen: Right, and I find this anecdotally, I get the reverse a lot of the time where I start talking about basic income and someone assumes it’s because of automation. These two things are very intertwined right now, and there are good things and bad things about that. One good thing is it’s bringing a lot of urgency to the conversation. It would be a little strange if there wasn’t anything driving basic income to suddenly try to introduce this very radical kind of out of nowhere policy, but automation makes people think of it kind of naturally.

Jim: For me, the metaphor that I feel like fits really well here is the boiling frog one. You’ll often hear this in the context of climate change, but the premise is essentially that if you take a frog and you put it in a pool of water, it will sit there. If you gradually crank up the heat on that water, the frog just sits there. Because it’s a gradual increase, it’s always just like, “Okay, I’m just chilling here,” and you can keep doing that up until you cook the frog.

In contrast, if you suddenly increase the temperature a lot, that’s a shock and a jolt, and it causes the frog to hop out. With the challenges that we’re seeing in our economy, there’s so much that’s already not working for people that I think many of us in the basic income space feel that regardless of what happens with automation, we should have basic income today.

But because those things have gradually gotten worse and worse over time, there has never been that big push, certainly at least in DC, to pursue a policy of the magnitude of basic income. Automation suddenly creates this image of change so drastic, so incredibly different than what we see right now that it kind of knocks people into this headspace of, “Oh, wait, we do need to rethink so much stuff.” So it has that effect of creating that temperature spike that jolts people into a different headspace here.

Owen: Yes, and I think that is one of the hopes of the automation conversation is that people get the jolt and then you can maybe then take a step back and say, “Well, we can also look at how much economic insecurity there’s right now.” There’s that widely-cited stat of about half of American families can’t afford an unexpected $400 expense. Once you start talking about that and you see the research on cash transfers, then maybe we can bring some of these people along into the wider, “Let’s just do this regardless of what happens with automation discussion.”

One more thing I will add on the pro side of the specter of automation is that I don’t see it as having a partisan lens right now. I think people of all stripes can see this as an issue that’s coming. We’re talking about this as a rhetorical thing, but it is true that automation may– it already is, probably, and certainly could have drastic effects on our economy going forward and that affects Democrats as well as Republicans. I don’t think there’s one side saying, “This is going to happen,” and another side saying, “No, it isn’t.”

Jim: On a related note, I think that the advantage of these two being seen as tied together is if there’s suddenly a big incident of automation causing massive job loss all of a sudden, then if those are tied together, maybe there will be a natural response by elected officials to say, “Oh, okay, maybe we should pass the basic income now.” If that can be teeing up basic income as a response there, then maybe there’s a lot of value in that.

Owen: Yes, and I think the challenge for us right now is to get basic income into the zeitgeist enough that that is the response as opposed to something else I guess.

Jim: Besides the reasons that we should be tying this together, we wanted to talk a bit more about the reasons why tying this together could potentially have some downsides and could be dangerous when thinking about the long-term trajectory of basic income.

One is that if we are explicitly saying that when we have this massive job loss we need basic income, it’s setting basic income up as a response to a future threat rather than the response to challenges today. In that scenario, even though you could say, “Oh, we should do basic income now so we are ready for that point,” generally, that’s not the way a policy-making in this country works.

People pass things when they feel like they are necessary. So it could mean that we run up against some pretty challenging obstacles when thinking about how do we actually move policy to provide people with basic income forward if we’re saying, “We just need to be ready for this,” as opposed to, “We need this right now.”

Owen: Right, and I feel like that can be especially dangerous here because I think automation happens more slowly than people tend to think it does because it’s happening at different speeds in different ways across all different industries. It’s hard to have one moment where it’s like, before, automation wasn’t a threat and now it is, and it’s a headline in the news and everyone is talking about it. I feel like it’s much more at a local level.

I spoke to a candidate for governor in Michigan, who is no longer a candidate, but he was talking about how after the recession when a lot of car manufacturers lost their jobs, a lot of those jobs didn’t come back because of automation. So you have these kind of mini-moments, but I don’t think we have a broad national moment to point to. I think framing it as a future threat, you might not ever know the moment when that threat arrives.

Jim: I think another thing is, if your entire framing is that basic income is a response to automation, you risk occluding the other really, really important and good reasons why we should have basic income. A lot of the things we talked about in the past: the way that basic income would address racial inequities in our current system; the way that basic income could empower women in a way that’s not currently possible; the way that basically income could encourage more people to pursue the paths of lives they wouldn’t have otherwise had an opportunity to.

If the way that you talk about basic income is solely in that automation frame, it would be very dangerous that people just wouldn’t even appreciate those other things. Not only does it mean that you potentially lose those strong arguments, that may then affect the specifics of whatever policy ends up being proposed.

Assuming we do get to a point where people are ready to pass something here, if it’s being designed solely with the idea that, “Oh, automation is taking jobs from people who have them today, let’s figure out something to do about that,” as opposed to, “Let’s make sure that we design this program in a way that is achieving those other benefits that we think could be really transformative about basic income.”

Owen: Yes, along those lines, if you’re only solving for automation, then saying, “Okay, we have all these truck drivers who are making $70,000 a year plus benefits, and they just lost those jobs, but we’re just going to give them a $1,000 a month and not worry about them,” that doesn’t sound like much of a response. So you would probably have a good counter to say, “Well, we should do jobs training or something else instead.” I think only focusing on automation again leaves out all the good it can do, and it does seem like an insufficient response to widespread job loss.

Jim: If you are one of those truck drivers or anyone else that we talk about or think may be in a position where their job is at high risk of automation — admittedly, I think that doing more studies and getting more experience around what the specific response is — but it is very hard to accept some hypothetical idea that really puts your livelihood at risk.

That is something that– it just creates cognitive dissonance for most people when you say, “Oh, sure, you have a good job now, but five years from now, maybe a computer will be doing that, and you don’t have training, and you’re going to be in this terrible spot,” a lot of people won’t even listen to what you have to say after that. So you’re potentially setting up your rationale as one that immediately shuts down a lot of the potential reception that might exist out there for this idea.

Owen: Yes, and I guess another case where climate change is a good analogy and that it’s hard to have people understand a distant threat to themselves. Another way that this idea can make people kind of shut down or even get angry is that it feels like you’re surrendering to some inevitable future where the robots are coming and there’s nothing we can do about them. You hear people saying, “Well, couldn’t we just not build those robots? Couldn’t we design an economy that actually supports people?”

Those are worthy conversations as well, but I think again, it’s just leaving out all the reasons why a basic income would be completely transformative regardless or including the idea that automation could be coming for a lot of jobs. Where I’ve seen this most visibly for me is in the labor space, where people are saying, “You’re just going to let our jobs go away. You’ve already moved on from a world where we have these jobs.” And that gets people angry and makes people defensive.

Jim: I’ve heard a number of basic income advocates, when they’re presented with that argument that, “Oh, we can just choose not to automate,” they’ll say, “You’re saying you’re standing in the way of progress.” If you automate, it means you’re being more efficient. It means that overall you’re doing more with less, which should be a good thing.

They’ll say, “Look at history. Anytime you try to stand in the way of progress, it’s never actually worked out.” This is a bad approach to respond to automation, that they believe is very soon coming. I think that particularly now you’re actually starting to hear some proposals in how we might respond to that in a way that doesn’t actually respond against progress but does ensure that we are setting up workers and empowering people so that when there is potential for automation, it would only be done if it did leave people well off.

I think a great example of this is the recent proposal from Senator Elizabeth Warren where she says that corporations, publicly traded corporations should be required that 40 percent of their board seats are elected by workers of the company. It’s actually giving workers in this company a voice in how the company governance.

In that scenario, you can imagine it would be a lot harder for a company to suddenly say, “Oh, we’ve got this new tech that allows us to replace a million people. We’re going to go do it,” if those million people actually have chosen as some sort of leaders in company governance in a way where they have a strong say in the direction of the company. Maybe they figure out some sort of solution that moves towards that and also helps out the workers, but it’s a lot harder to then imagine this sudden shift where tons and tons of people are left with nothing.

Owen: Yes, and just continuing that example for a second: maybe the solution is, okay, we can’t stop technological progress as much as we’d like, but maybe those workers get an equity stake. I feel like that’s– a lot of what people just want is for the workers who are maybe getting screwed over in the future is to just give them a share of that pie because then it’s more okay if the money is not just getting siphoned up to just a handful of already very rich people who already own these companies.

Jim: The final reason why using automation as the rationale for basic income makes me nervous is that it sets up basic income as a policy that is against something. That this terrible thing that’s happening, therefore basic income, rather than basic income because this opens up this transformative world of possibilities for us.

The thing that comes to mind when I think about this is– let’s imagine a popular movement that could hopefully exist in the very near future, a big popular movement, millions of people involved advocating for basic income. What are the signs you’re going to see at those rallies? Is it going to be “Robots are coming, basic income now”? Or is it going to be “True freedom, racial justice, gender equality, therefore basic income”?

From my experience, I can’t think of a single movement that is really done in that oppositional way. I can think of a protest, but if we’re actually talking about this powerful grassroots movement that’s going to shepherd this policy into existence, it has to be about what basic income is for and not what it’s against.

Owen: I think automation works really well, it’s kind of the cherry on top of, “Here’s all the reasons why this would be wonderful and transformative and exciting for our society and also by the way it would help inoculate us against this potential future threat which is being discussed about a lot.” Just, “The robots are coming, and we need to rally against them,” I feel like that’s a difficult sell.

Jim: Right, maybe it’s a wake-up call, but I think as your raison d’être for basic income, I think there’s the challenges that we just laid out.

Owen: I feel like automation is such a part of this conversation, and we don’t need to shut that down or say that you’re wrong for talking about automation, especially because it is bringing a lot of people into the conversation. It’s just important to be conscious as an advocate for UBI or just someone who likes to talk about it or listen to podcasts about it that it is just one part of a real panoply of reasons to be talking about this.

Jim: Well, that’ll do it for this episode. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davison. If you liked what you hear, please do rate and review the Basic Income Podcast on Apple Podcast or the podcast service of your choice, and please do tell your friends about this. We are always looking for new listeners. We’ll talk to you next time.