In the era of massive layoffs in the tech industry — TechCrunch reported last week that Microsoft was planning to lay off “thousands” of workers worldwide — Mark Zuckerberg is continuing his tour across all 50 U.S. states. The Facebook CEO is in Alaska this weekend, using the occasion to explain what is becoming not only a pet cause of his but an idea gaining support throughout Silicon Valley: universal basic income.
Under universal basic income, all citizens would receive a standard, regular payment to cover expenses for food, rent, and other necessities. While still far from broadly embraced, the concept has proponents across the political spectrum, including among libertarians — who see it as an alternative to welfare programs — and socialists — who view it as a check on the flaws of capitalism.
In an update on Facebook, Zuckerberg pitched basic income not only as an idea that both political parties could embrace, but as one that’s already in practice in Alaska.
Alaska has a form of basic income called the Permanent Fund Dividend. Every year, a portion of the oil revenue the state makes is put into a fund. Rather than having the government spend that money, it is returned to Alaskan residents through a yearly dividend that is normally $1000 or more per person.
That can be especially meaningful if your family has five or six people. This is a novel approach to basic income in a few ways. First, it’s funded by natural resources rather than raising taxes. Second, it comes from conservative principles of smaller government, rather than progressive principles of a larger safety net. This shows basic income is a bipartisan idea.
Zuckerberg also pointed to a second model of basic income in the state: corporations run by Native Alaskans that develop resources on Alaskan land and “pay out annual dividends to their shareholders, who are largely natives.”
The idea of a basic income has been gaining currency in Silicon Valley as well as Washington, amid concern that innovations in AI and other automated technologies will lead to job losses and add to economic insecurity. Tech voices like Marc Andreessen and Tesla’s Gerald Huff have expressed support for and interest in it. YCombinator launched a pilot study on basic income in 100 Oakland families. But others have questioned how effectively basic income can mitigate a jobless future.
The tech industry has a more direct reason to endorse basic income: Its companies are quickly rolling out innovations that will eliminate many existing jobs, whether it’s retail jobs threatened by Amazon or trucking jobs lost to Alphabet’s self-driving semis. Internet giants like Facebook are pinning their futures on the AI technologies that could lead to a political (and financial) backlash once enough jobs disappear.
Zuckerberg’s post on Alaska’s programs isn’t the first time he has advocated for universal basic income. During his commencement address at Harvard in May, he told members of the class of 2017, “We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things.”
Such comments have led to speculation that Zuckerberg may run for president or another public office, but he has denied any plans to do, saying his 50-state tour is to help Facebook figure out ways of “best serving our community” and aid the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in pursuing its goal of equal opportunity.
By Kevin KELLEHER