Mark Zuckerberg is right: We need Universal Basic Income

But how do we do it?

Back in May, Mark Zuckerberg made headlines by mentioning Universal Basic Income during his commencement speech at Harvard University:

We should have a society that measures progress not just by economic metrics like GDP, but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful. We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things.

He’s absolutely right. As I wrote about in depth a few months ago, Universal Basic Income is our best way forward. We already know that being poor is more than an economic problem: it affects health, both mental and physical. But having money changes that. Whether in Mexico, Canada, or Kenya, when the governments gave financial support to families, hospital visits decreased and health outcomes improved.

Furthermore, being poor (or feeling poor) can lead people to make bad decisions. If your mind is overburdened with financial concerns, your cognitive processes diminish.

Say it with me now: It isn’t that making bad decisions causes you to be poor. It’s that being poor causes you to make bad decisions, and this can keep you poor.

In 2015, there were 43.1 million Americans living in poverty, including 14.5 million children. We have a multi-faceted welfare system, but many Americans still find themselves trapped. The safety net we have in place is not strong enough for most families to lift themselves out of poverty. We need something better.

Universal Basic Income has made its own headlines recently, with countries like Canada and Finland starting trials. The domestic experiment in Oakland has been running since January, with San Francisco soon to follow suit. Will they work? Will they fail?

One of the main arguments against UBI is the cost. How can we afford such an expansive, expensive program? It’s true: A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that having the government provide everyone with a living wage requires far too much money than can be found through raising taxes. A 100-person experiment in Oakland is one thing, but a program that covers 2.5 million people? How could any government afford that?

The details for a large UBI program may not be fully formed yet, but that doesn’t mean the whole idea is worthless. Indeed, there are a variety of implementations being discussed, such as childhood wealth investment or a national dividend. While these may have different structures, they rest on the same goal: What our society needs in order to move forward is a program that is both universal and unconditional.

Why? We need something universal because covering all people is better than not covering enough people. Our means-tested safety net already has too many holes; adding one more imperfect program will just be another burden of bureaucracy without the rewards. We need something unconditional because requiring conditions works against the goal of encouraging long-lasting, positive behaviors. Giving people money with no strings attached will give them the freedom to choose what’s best for themselves.

Naysayers believe that poor people are too irresponsible to make good decisions, but real responsibility is born from trust. Whatever program we implement needs to trust that recipients have their own best interests at heart.

It’s clear that Mr. Zuckerberg has thought about the mechanisms that could fuel Basic Income. Last week he wrote on Facebook about his trip to Alaska and how much he admired the state’s unique social safety net:

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.

I think he’s onto something. Sharing in the revenue of natural resources sounds like a great way to invest in the general public. But could we take it further? As tech entrepreneurs are the first to point out, automation is coming for our jobs, especially those of low-skill workers. If companies no longer need to pay us wages, how will we find the funds to buy what companies have to offer? If private companies were to set aside money for a public fund, they would be investing in our future. After all, the future of these companies is dependent on us.

I’m getting ahead of myself here. I could talk in hypotheticals all day, but it doesn’t change our situation. If we’re going to do something, if we’re going to introduce a program that provides everyone with a living wage, we need to move forward.

Mr. Zuckerberg: You’ve already made a great contribution — just by mentioning Universal Basic Income on Facebook, you’ve introduced thousands of people to the concept. But maybe you can take it even further. You have more resources than most of us, and it seems like you’re serious about changing the status quo. Show us what the program should look like.