Sam Altman, the president of Silicon Valley’s most prestigious startup accelerator, Y Combinator, is one of the leading voices in Silicon Valley calling for a radical economic idea called basic income.
The idea is meant to lift people from poverty by affording them a supplemental, no-strings-attached income on a regular basis. Many proponents have given their two cents for crafting basic income on a mass scale, such as redistributing wealth created by robots or structuring it as a dividend.
Altman, while an outspoken proponent of robotics and artificial intelligence, offered up a modified version of profit-sharing. “What I would propose is a model like a company where you get a share in US Inc.,” Altman told the magazine Spectacle. “And then, instead of getting a fixed fee, you get a percentage of the GDP every year.”
The idea would be that citizens would still have an incentive to add to the economy to boost their individual portion of basic income, even if there is no formal requirement to work for it. Altman said the structure could help unite people on both sides of the political aisle. “I think that is how you align everybody,” Altman said. “That message you can get a lot of people behind, even people who traditionally hate welfare, hate socialism.”
Basic income’s greatest criticism has been that it encourages laziness and, at least according to American critics, runs counter to the American ethos of earning a living through hard work. Advocates like Altman have addressed these concerns by arguing that basic income sets no limits on how wealthy people can get, like socialism does. Basic income merely establishes a floor — or safety net — so that people have a harder time slipping into poverty.
Altman isn’t speaking from the sidelines. Last October, Y Combinator launched a pilot study of basic income in Oakland, California that gave between $1,000 and $2,000 to a handful of recipients. A follow-up study, announced in September, will include roughly 100 recipients split between two states. Despite all the time and energy he’s invested in basic income, Altman reserves some doubt about the idea — people may indeed stop working. A pragmatist at heart, the 32-year-old investor has said he simply wants to explore ideas that could have a huge impact on improving people’s quality of life.
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