What would happen if you gave everyone enough money to live, no strings attached?
That's the premise of "universal basic income" (abbreviated UBI or BI). By giving people unconditional payments to cover key living expenses, the model provides a financial floor—a minimum level of economic security for everyone in society. People remain free to work and earn any amount above it.
In Silicon Valley, famed startup incubator Y Combinator announced a long-term study into the questions: given a basic income, "do people sit around and play videogames, or do they create new things? Are people happy and fulfilled? Do recipients, on the whole, create more economic value than they receive?"
Like many high-profile institutions, YC comes with some controversy. YC partner Sam Altman recently heard someone say, “I'm on an email list of people who think the BI experiment is awesome but don't want to support YC in any way and don't know what to do."
The investment company is best known for funding elite groups of startups (with an approximate 2% acceptance rate.)
Given YC’s prominent place in the debate around basic income, I asked one of these YC founders, Zach Reitano, a few questions about his experience with YC, trends that might affect basic income, and a lot more.
One more thing. He happens to be my boyfriend. This is us:
And this is our interview:
Hi Z! Ready for this?
First—would you summarize your experience with YC, in a couple sentences?
I was part of the Summer 2014 Batch. It was an incredible three months. I don't think our company was ever more productive than during our time at YC. But as I'm now two years removed, I've realized that YC really never ends. Your summer there is only the beginning of being part of an amazing community.
How do you think the basic income experiment fits into a larger mission of YC?
YC's mission is to increase the rate of innovation in the world. Startups are one way to do that but they are not the only way. They have been incredibly successful at building startups but we have seen them start to expand in other ways—using what they've learned. They created YC research and Open AI. Basic Income is another experiment to try and increase the rate of innovation.
I love how experimental they are. They are trying to do great things so there will always be detractors.
Sam Altman, in announcing the YC research, described “a world where technology replaces existing jobs and basic income becomes necessary.” Do you see that as a likely future?
I think so, yes. With each technological revolution, many people were put out of work. However, historically, even more jobs were created as a result.
I believe the next revolution will, unfortunately, have the same initial effect—but I'm not so sure there will be more jobs that come out of it. The good part is that technology will inevitably dramatically decrease the cost of living. This is where basic income becomes affordable and incredibly valuable.
But there’s also where I think it gets a little less cut and dry. Remember when we said we never really expect to retire? Work is so much more than what we get paid to do. Eduardo Porter recently made basically the same in the New York Times. Isn’t there a loss of meaning and motivation associated with BI?
BI isn’t so that people stop working, it’s so they can afford to work on what they actually enjoy. When you’re consumed by your next meal, you might have to take a job that doesn’t have any growth opportunities. You can end up stuck in this infinite wheel of paying for your next meal. We don’t find meaning in getting your next meal, you find meaning in figuring out—and then doing—what you love.
Actually, Thor definitely finds getting in his next meal. So there’s someone!
(Pause. This is Thor. He’s a nine-pound eating machine.)
Sam also said, “50 years from now, I think it will seem ridiculous that we used fear of not being able to eat as a way to motivate people.” But critics say there are plenty of ways to alleviate poverty without removing the incentive to work in the first place—like subsidizing wages, for example. Where do you fall here?
Fear of not being able to eat is a clever way of saying survival, which has historically been the strongest motivator of all. But, it doesn't mean it's the best way.
We’re different from animals in nature in so many ways—so I don't see why we can't motivate people in other ways as well.
Survival is a strong motivator but it doesn't mean it leads to the most innovation. And that's what YC cares about.
Also… who wouldn't want to live in a world where everyone has a place to sleep and food in their belly?
Agreed. So as we figure all this out, what tech trends are worth paying attention to?
Artificial intelligence. As AI improves, it will be able to perform the functions humans perform every day… only better.
In other words, society will need BI when AI can do almost all the work humans can?
Not almost all. But more. All the monotonous tasks. And I think that’s more than most people acknowledge—or can adapt to.
That’s why, unfortunately, the expectation that this technological revolution will be like its predecessors is probably wrong. At some point technology won’t just bump humans up to jobs that involve subjectivity and decision-making. AI will be able to do that, too.
When that happens, do you think BI would create more innovation—or at least more people working to innovate?
Unequivocally YES. Sure, some people would abuse it. But even if 10 percent of people didn't, I think it would have a dramatic impact.
If you look at the people who have built the most innovative companies of the last 50 years, most of them did not grow up poor. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Travis Kalanick, Evan Spiegel… they all grew up in comfortable, if not well-off, households. I think Jan Koum, who founded WhatsApp, is a wonderful exception.
I think this enabled them to dream rather than be consumed by where their next meal was coming from. It let them pursue their passions and take risks, rather than be confined to more stable professions.
I see that. But personally, I think making responsible financial decisions has been important for my career. When choosing between jobs, I think it’s good to be impacted by the fact one pays less and need to make serious choices—
—I don’t agree with that last sentence. I don’t think you should need to choose. I think when you’ve chosen between jobs and gone with one that pays less, it shows—for lack of a less corny word—that you’re passionate. But you shouldn’t have to make it in the first place.
The choice shouldn’t be follow your passion or have a stable career. BI would alleviate that somewhat. Some careers would continue to make significantly more than others, but everyone would, in theory, have enough.
If I drank, I’d drink to that.
If I did, I’d cheers you :)
My dad (he says hey, by the way) recently made the point that basic income would take money targeted to the poor and share it equally, including with people who don’t need it. Verbatim, he said we should “use tax revenues efficiently by concentrating help where it's needed.” If someone already has way over any reasonable financial floor, why should they get basic income?
Well, we could always offer basic income to people who qualify. (Also, hi Jonathan!)
99% of America doesn’t make a ton of money. If we gave basic income to the 1% of the population who didn't deserve it… I don't think it would have a dramatic effect on the overall budget of BI. It actually might cost more to have the bureaucracy around it, ensuring only qualified people received BI.
<3 <3 <3