Obama Supports Universal Basic Income. So Do Some Of World’s Wealthiest Tech Founders

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Written by Dana Sanchez

Former U.S. President Barack Obama and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos have both expressed an interest in universal basic income, a model for providing all citizens with money to increase equality and reduce poverty, regardless of  income, resources or employment status.

While speaking Tuesday at the 16th annual Nelson Mandela Lecture in Johannesburg, Obama supported universal basic income as an economic policy “that is far to the left of anything being proposed by most sitting U.S. politicians,” Mic reported.

“It’s not just money that a job provides,” Obama said in a portion of his speech devoted to economic policy. “It provides dignity and structure and a sense of place and a sense of purpose. So we’re gonna have to consider new ways of thinking about these problems, like a universal income.”

Bezos is a basic income advocate, according to Bloomberg. So are other tech moguls including Mark Zuckerberg, who pushed the idea in a commencement speech at Harvard in May 2017, in what CNBC’s Catherine Clifford described as “perhaps the crown jewel of UBI’s moment in the cultural zeitgeist”.

Pros and cons of universal basic income

Supporters say universal basic income reduces income inequality. For example, in 1981, Alaska ranked No. 30 out of 50 states on income inequality. By 2015, the state was No. 2. The improvement is largely attributed to the implementation of its UBI program starting in 1976.

Opponents say universal basic income takes money from the poor and gives it to everyone, increasing poverty and depriving the poor of needed targeted support.

Other pros: UBI leads to positive job growth and lower school dropout rates. It also guarantees income for non-working parents and caregivers, empowering women who often work in unpaid roles.

Cons: UBI is too expensive. Y Combinator, a startup incubator, planned to run a UBI trial in Oakland, California, providing individual participants with $1,000-to-$2,000 a month, motherboard.vice.com reported in May, 2016.

“A $2,000 a month per head of household UBI would cost an estimated $2.275 trillion annually,” said Marc Joffe, director of policy research at the California Policy Center, according to thefiscaltimes.com, in an April 2017 report.

Increase in robotics and automation tech have led to fears of job losses

Billionaire tech founder Elon Musk said the job losses would be so bad, the government would be forced to pay people to live.

“There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation,” Musk told CNBC in an interview last year. “I am not sure what else one would do. I think that is what would happen.”

Eight out of the 10 richest Americans made their fortunes in tech, according to Forbes. Perhaps some of them could put some of their assets into a fund that would finance large-scale UBI experiments in specific counties or states, wrote opinion columnist Leonid Bershidsky.

“Perhaps someone with Obama’s moral authority could organize them to form a specialized fund to experiment with it,” Bershidsky said. “Without some heavy-hitters behind the venture, there’s no way to get any closure on an idea that intrigues the modern left but also seems impractical to many.”

In a 2016 Wired interview, Obama questioned whether a UBI could get enough support from the American public.

“Whether a universal income is the right model — is it gonna be accepted by a broad base of people?” Obama said. “That’s a debate that we’ll be having over the next 10 or 20 years.”

UBI experiments already underway in the U.S.

The city of Stockton, Calif. is seeking investments to create guaranteed income for its residents, under the guidance of Mayor Michael Tubbs, 27. Nearly a quarter of residents live below the poverty line.

In 2013, Stockton became the most populous U.S. city to file for bankruptcy after becoming overly dependent on developer fees and increasing property tax revenue that failed to materialize, CNBC reported.

“In college, I was fascinated by Martin Luther King,” Tubbs said in an interview in The Root. “I remember in my sophomore year, reading ‘Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community,’ where King talked about either a federal work guarantee or a universal basic income. This was right before he was murdered. It always stayed in the back of my mind, like, Wow, whatever happened to that? Is that what the Poor People’s March was going to be about?”

In Chicago, a majority of city lawmakers signed onto a similar pilot plan they hope will be supported by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, The Intercept reported.

Now, with the possible backing of a former Democratic president, the idea of a government-provided basic income may begin to be pick up steam, A.P. Joyce wrote in Mic.

Tech companies are the ones working to eliminate routine jobs, Bershidsky wrote for Bloomberg. “So it could be argued that it’s up to them to pay for the social cost of innovation. Amazon, for example, is testing convenience stores without cashiers and leading an onslaught on bricks-and-mortar retailers (while at the same time boosting the number of warehouse workers whose tasks cannot be automated yet).”

Universal Basic Income
Former US President Barack Obama speaks during his town hall for the Obama Foundation at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa, Wednesday, July 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, Pool)