Back in 2019, when we first wrote about the Economic Security Project and its guaranteed income advocacy, the big question was whether such a “radical” policy would ever enter the political mainstream. Now, in a very real sense, it has. One component of President Biden’s American Families Plan is a bold ramp-up of the child tax credit that will furnish most parents with checks of up to $300 per month, per child. It’s a form of guaranteed income, and it’ll cut child poverty in a dramatic way, especially if it’s implemented on a permanent basis.
Biden’s vast social and infrastructural spending proposals follow a year of multiple direct cash payments to Americans, including one round under a Republican administration, as well as beefed-up federal unemployment provisions that helped keep millions afloat during COVID. In philanthropy, the mainstreaming of direct aid has likewise been substantial. From collaborative funds involving the nation’s top givers to hyper-local relief campaigns and mutual aid, sector norms are shifting in notable ways.
In this climate, more expansive visions of federal guaranteed income—even universal basic income, or UBI—seem like one logical direction for this mainstreaming of direct aid to take. If just giving people money is suddenly an option, why not go all the way and establish an income floor for everyone?
A curious dynamic both before and during the pandemic has been interest in guaranteed income from various super-rich techies, some of whom have backed the idea with cash. Jack Dorsey has been one of the top spenders, but a whole range of Silicon Valley winners have either voiced support for the notion of a guaranteed income or actually funded its advocates. Big tech, or so it appears, has plenty of time for a guaranteed income.
But why is that? Are these billionaire basic income advocates simply good-hearted philanthropists at heart, or does some more cynical impulse lurk around the corner? Or is it a bit of both?
Silicon Valley’s favorite poverty fix
For much of the voting public, notions of a link between guaranteed income and Silicon Valley will call to mind a man currently hot in the running to become New York City’s next mayor. Andrew Yang’s bid for the presidency may have been quixotic, but his proposed “freedom dividend” of $12,000 a year for every American adult established a definite political beachhead for the guaranteed income idea.
Though not exactly a tech entrepreneur himself, Yang associated himself with that crowd during his presidential campaign. He also heralded a coming tech-driven apocalypse of automation and put forward guaranteed income as the libertarian-friendly solution. The robot revolution is inevitable, he argued, and we’re unlikely to see employment evolve quickly enough to head off the mass sidelining of human workers. A freedom dividend would establish a floor for the down and out without putting a wrench in the economy as it stands.
Figures central to the robot revolution appear to agree. One prominent Yang supporter was none other than Elon Musk, who tweeted forth an endorsement during Yang’s presidential campaign. Musk’s interest in basic income goes back further—in 2016, he told CNBC that “there is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation. Yeah, I am not sure what else one would do. I think that is what would happen.”
Other tech luminaries like Mark Zuckerberg and Y-Combinator’s Sam Altman have also voiced support, but no one has put philanthropic money on the table quite like Jack Dorsey. When the Twitter co-founder and CEO first committed $1 billion for COVID relief just over a year ago, Dorsey made direct cash a pillar of his philanthropic plan. The list of grants he’s made via his giving vehicle, Start Small, includes numerous gifts to places like Give Directly, the One Family Foundation and Expecting Justice to back their unconditional cash relief programs. Andrew Yang’s Humanity Forward has also made the list.
And late last year, Dorsey came in even stronger for the idea—he uses the term UBI—with what has now amounted to $30 million to kickstart Mayors for a Guaranteed Income (MGI) and the Open Research Lab’s Basic Income Project. Since we covered those commitments in December, MGI’s ranks have swelled to about 50 mayors. They’re using Dorsey’s cash to fund a wide variety of guaranteed income pilots, following in the footsteps of Michael Tubbs, the former mayor of Stockton, California, whose Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED) laid the groundwork for what is now becoming a flurry of similar pilot projects. But unlike Stockton, which is a fairly small locale, participating cities now include some of the largest metros in the country.
Even after writing the checks to set that all underway, Dorsey kept the tap on in 2021. So far, grants include an additional $2 million to Humanity Forward to support advocacy for more federal cash relief and $3.5 million for NYU’s Cash Transfer Lab, which is currently studying Alaska’s longstanding permanent fund dividend in an effort to “build an evidence base regarding cash transfer policies.”
While Dorsey has been the biggest backer of basic income advocacy on a dollar-for-dollar basis, other tech donors have also played key roles. One is Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who used part of a fortune won via his early role at the social media giant to found the Economic Security Project, alongside other donors. The Economic Security Project has been in the guaranteed income space since before it was cool, backing Stockton’s SEED demonstration in its early days as well as other influential guaranteed income pilots like the Magnolia Mother’s Trust in Mississippi.
Dorsey did not play a big role in the Economic Security Project as it started out. But other Silicon Valley funders did, including the Omidyar Network, the Hewlett Foundation, Mike and Kaitlyn Krieger and even Google.org. ESP has also drawn support from institutional funders like the Rockefeller Foundation, the Joyce Foundation and the Goldhirsh Foundation.
Beware billionaires bearing gifts
As one would expect from a cohort of billionaires and multimillionaires, most of the funders behind efforts like ESP aren’t looking to start the revolution. They certainly embrace some progressive economic and social principles, but their stances tend to be less about bringing down capitalism and more about reimagining it, to borrow a phrase from the Omidyar Network. And in a world embracing a tamer, less extractive capitalism, might not UBI or some other form of guaranteed income have a place?
Not everyone agrees. In a piece from 2018, writer and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff railed against UBI, calling it “a way to keep the wealthiest people (and their loyal vassals, the software developers) entrenched at the very top of the economic operating system.” This modern-day incarnation of bread and circuses, Rushkoff argued, “obviates the need for people to consider true alternatives to living lives as passive consumers.”
Rushkoff isn’t alone in his distaste for the concept. Investor Nick Hanauer, a longtime progressive think tank backer whose Twitter bio disputes the notion that he’s a billionaire, has described himself as a UBI skeptic. He has long backed advocacy favoring an alternative approach to rampant inequality: simply raising wages. In one conversation with Yang, after insisting that capitalism remains the best economic system ever devised, Hanauer pushed against the idea that “the whole system will come tumbling down if companies are required to pay their workers enough to live in dignity without food stamps.”
The debate over guaranteed income is one place where progressive-leaning super-rich like Dorsey, Omidyar and even Hughes are walking a fine line between the desire to support economic justice advocacy and the sheer fact of their wealth, which by itself rubs economic justice advocates the wrong way. Is there a way to casually bankroll efforts like Mayors for a Guaranteed Income and avoid getting skewered by Anand Giridharadas for actually having enough money to casually bankroll efforts like Mayors for a Guaranteed Income? Maybe not. Is there an easier way for Mayors for a Guaranteed Income to scale than by taking the proffered cash of a man whose net worth now tops $11 billion? Also, maybe not.
This all goes back to what we’ve called the paradox of more billionaire giving in the vein of Dorsey, MacKenzie Scott and the still-too-short list of other ultra-rich who’ve stepped up during this era of crisis. Even as their giving elevates campaigns for meaningful reform, it also gathers more power to the givers—just as Rushkoff argues UBI might do in an otherwise unchanged system where riches still trickle up to the rich.
In the end, giving in a way that actually relinquishes power is easier said than done. So is implementing federal anti-poverty policy that doesn’t plug into some of the same systems that contributed to the problem.
Cash versus ownership
Though they might not be “anti-capitalist,” some of these super-rich tech figures haven’t stopped at calls for more federal payments. Some, like Pierre Omidyar and MacKenzie Scott, have taken the rare step of backing labor movement nonprofits organizing for worker power. Others, like Chris Hughes, have leaned into anti-monopoly advocacy. (Hughes supposedly strained his relationship with former roommate Mark Zuckerberg by calling for Facebook’s breakup.)
Still, the spectacle of skyrocketing billionaire wealth during a global pandemic hasn’t been a good look for these digital-age titans, and neither is the continuing stinginess of the majority of super-rich who haven’t really upped their giving at all. As individuals, Silicon Valley billionaires may not be the cynical villains Rushkoff’s piece portrays them as, but it’s difficult to expect their collective giving to get to the root of the problem.
There are other paths for donors to take, though. In his piece, Rushkoff favors the idea of “universal basic assets”—replacing fleeting cash with some form of permanent ownership. A similar mindset has motivated the Kataly Foundation—founded by a Pritzker heir—and other funders to back experiments in cooperative and community ownership that challenge funding norms as well as capitalist ones, and ground economic justice in the practice of racial justice.
These experiments, projects and pilots would be decidedly more difficult to scale than guaranteed income, at least without a more fundamental reworking of the economy as a whole. But it would’ve been hard to imagine guaranteed income going mainstream just a few years back, and philanthropy has played a part in that. So it isn’t completely bonkers to imagine at least a few funders taking similar risks on ideas that sound even more, dare I say, revolutionary.