Silicon Valley’s Basic Income Bromance
A cult of bros, brahmins and braintrusters is pushing the idea of a government-distributed living wage
Basic income bro, noun, \ˈbā-sik in-kəm brō\ :
You obsess about the robots taking the jobs. You like the robot part, but worry about the jobs. Your LinkedIn page says “using technology to benefit society with focus on the underserved” and “pour-over coffee makes me happy.” You are idealistic, fair-minded, generally not opposed to Star Trek.
You may also be a Berniebro. You cite that time Bernie nodded to universal basic income — the idea that the government would pay every citizen a monthly stipend, you explain — in a Reddit AMA, or on Vox.
If you are a basic income bro, pride yourself on being a foot soldier in a rarefied, but growing, army of laptop idealists devoted to a single shining idée fixe: basic income, with the government distributing lumps of cash, many say $1,000 a month, to everyone in the United States. Just for existing. However rich or poor, with no strings attached. That’s enough to get people above the federal poverty level, but a bit under a full-time job paid at the federal minimum wage ($15,080 a year).
If you embrace this idea, welcome, bro! (You don’t actually have to be male to be a basic income bro, women, but you’ll have to be OK with being surrounded by them, a gender ratio mirroring Silicon Valley itself.) You are joining an ideologically diverse group: You can namecheck Milton Friedman and Richard Nixon and Edward Snowden and MLK, Jr., as other, higher-profile basic income bros, lending historical gravitas and across-the-aisle solidarity to your club. You mention how basic income worked wonders in rural India and Namibia. You re-tweet that Zuckerberg should have donated his Facebook shares to fund basic income. You talk about the beauty of being on food stamps that one time. (Wait, what? Yes.) You are handy with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
You shout over the dive bar music, parroting someone else’s Medium post to a friend who works at Medium, thinking you’ll get away with it: driverless trucks will put the biggest workforce in many states out of work — and what will happen to those drivers then?
You’re an early adopter of Silicon Valley’s radical chic, bearer of a little-known solution. But as a striving bro, you have cousins in the Basic Income struggle, higher up the the financial food chain. Like….
Basic income brahmins, noun, \ˈbā-sik in-kəm bra-mən\:
You might be a brahmin if you struck it rich in an IPO. You want others to taste freedom, while conceding your freedom is a bit freer, and hope that other emerging investors follow you into the cause.
You’re a startup founder who, at a tech conference VIP dinner, openly doubts the point of said startup, since software will eat software, and even coders will be out of a job.
You’re a venture capitalist who wants people to embrace automation instead of fear it. It’s not a problem that hardly any American politician will touch the topic, since incumbents usually revile the best startup ideas.
You’re on an Ivy League fellowship, penning a book about basic income, sitting onstage at a tech conference, reminiscing about your early days as a welfare eligibility worker, saying you got so sick of being a young privileged kid telling poor people how to live their lives.
The crowd goes wild, loving this upper-middle class self-flogging. But there’s also an upper class, not in cash but in thought leadership…
Basic income braintrust, noun, \ˈbā-sik in-kəm brān trəst\ :
Your capital is not in cash, but ideas. You are the ones cranking out the studies, giving the TEDs, writing the books, making this whole movement go. (You can overlap with the former two groups, and often do.) You knew basic income was going to roll out in Finland waaaaay before it hit the press last week. You lecture the brahmins at a Singularity University summit in a shirt that reads “Robots stole my job and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.” (You printed it yourself, obvs.) You wear goggles and a kaffiyeh scarf at Burning Man, where you go around asking people: “What would you do if you didn’t have to work?” You are economists, tenured professors, journalists, a prolific Tesla engineer.
You remember the basic income bro parroting the driverless truck story? You wrote that post. In this particular case, your name is Scott Santens, you’re striding down San Francisco’s skid row rolling a suitcase behind you, and it’s time for your next interview.
Among the grassroots braintrust, Santens is elite.
His fascination with basic income started in his late 30s, with a Reddit thread about how quickly tech-induced unemployment was coming. He read about basic income as a possible solution, and was hooked. “When I came across this idea and read more and more into it, I’m like wow, this is something that can totally change the world for the better.” In the fall of 2013 he abandoned his career as a freelance web developer to become the movement’s most omnipresent advocate. “People passionate about basic income don’t have a very loud voice,” he says.
In person, Santens doesn’t have one either; he’s polite and thoughtful, a reed-like 6-foot-2. His microphone is Medium and The Huffington Post, the Basic Income subreddit he moderates, and his Twitter account, from which he tweets anything in the day’s news that can be summoned into a case for basic income. Santens also created a Twibbon to superimpose #basicincome on one’s Twitter or Facebook profile pic. Such is the newness of this movement in the United States that the guy who does all this wins a profile in The Atlantic, and gets invited to talk on a Brookings Institution panel.
The technologist crowd says a basic income will become a moral imperative as robots replace workers and unemployment skyrockets. Conservatives say it would replace the kraken of welfare bureaucracy, with its arbitrary income cutoffs and overlapping programs. Optimists say humanity will no longer have to work for survival, freeing us to instead work for self-actualization. (You know, start businesses. Go to school. Do unpaid care, volunteer, and parenting work that doesn’t add a cent to the GDP.) Progressives say it would level the playing field: the working classes could have a taste of the stability that’s become an upper-middle class luxury, and would have bargaining power with low-paid work.
It’s a compelling idea having an international moment: Finland’s government announced first steps toward a basic income pilot project in 2017. Details aren’t finalized, but early plans call for giving 800 to 1,000 euros a month to a large test group for two years instead of any other social benefits. (Tally it up to another socialist program from a Northern European country if you will, but Finland is trying to solve eerily familiar U.S. problems: a growing class of freelancers who were neither eligible for employment benefits nor unemployment, and Finns in the poverty trap: taking a temporary job decreases your welfare benefits.) Several Dutch cities aim to introduce similar programs next year, and the idea of a universal basic income has gotten some consideration and endorsements in Canada, where it was tried for five years in the 1970s in Manitoba.
In the United States, it only makes sense that Silicon Valley would be the natural habitat for basic income bros, brahmins, and braintrusts. The Bay Area is home to a fertile mix of early adopters, earnest change-the-worlders, the Singularity crowd, cryptocurrency hackers, progressives and libertarians — all of whom have their reasons for supporting a universal basic income. “Some of my friends [in favor] are hardcore libertarian types, and others will be left-wing even by San Francisco standards,” says Steven Grimm, an early Facebook engineer who now writes code for a cash transfer platform used by charities, the most direct way he could think of to apply his skills to advance basic income. If we’re name-dropping: Zipcar CEO Robin Chase, Singularity University’s Peter Diamandis, Jeremy Howard, Kathryn Myronuk, and Neil Jacobstein, and Y Combinator’s Sam Altman, Clinton administration labor secretary Robert Reich, Tesla principal engineer Gerald Huff, author Martin Ford, Samasource CEO Leila Janah, and Silicon Valley optimist-in-chief Marc Andreessen all support it.
So of course, while Scott Santens isn’t from here, he needs to come kiss the ring.
Santens is wearing a black pinstripe suit coat and pointy-toed black dress shoes, like a dapper undertaker, when I meet him at the San Francisco HQ of Patreon, a crowdfunding site for creators. Staffers had invited Santens over for lunch, where he was the dressiest person by far. As he ate the catered lunch and suckled a Costco beer nestled in a Yelp cozy, he learned he was, at that moment, the startup’s 911th top-earning creator.
Santens cobbles together a basic income of sorts through donors on Patreon, which he uses to….. write about about basic income. He’d hit his goal of $1,000 a month just that previous Saturday, donated on a monthly, continuous basis from 144 patrons. (He plans to donate anything raised beyond that to other creators.) This frees him to writes eight hours a day from the New Orleans house he shares with his girlfriend (his portion of the mortgage: $650).
Santens is not only the movement’s advocate, but its case in point. Well, with some perks.
His trip out to San Francisco, for example, was almost completely paid for by his patrons, the brahmins. An older, Marin basic income brahmin bought his plane ticket. Then Santens took the subway to a chic loft above one of the city’s seediest stretches belonging to former Facebook engineer Arjun Banker. Banker is an affable 31-year-old Minnesota-raised coder who, after the Facebook IPO, says he “achieved financial security.” (As Santens puts it, “a large basic income.”) Banker did some short stints at startups that interested him, established First Caturday for felines to frolic at Dolores Park, dabbled in volunteering for homeless charities, then decided to donate cash more directly via HandUp.org. While Banker recognizes the importance of a crowdfunding site to provide people with food, clothing and housing, he was disquieted that there wasn’t a more long-term, comprehensive fix. “Why are we raising money individually for each person so they don’t die, for basic needs? We shouldn’t be having to do this.”
He became an investor in the company, and met CEO Rose Broome, who told him about basic income. It made sense. “Everything [in my life] just kind of worked out, and when I came out the other side, I realized it’s kind of weird to be free when you see everyone else around you doesn’t seem free. Freedom isn’t a certain amount of money; it’s pursuing what you want to pursue, and I realized that amount of freedom doesn’t cost millions of dollars.”
Banker started a Basic Income Meetup group in April, as well as the Basic Income Facebook page (naturally). He joined up with two other activists to interview people on the street on camera about what they’d do with $1,000 a month, and started hosting the Meetups at the co-working office used by Jim Pugh. Pugh is a former roboticist who did A/B testing on Obama campaign emails, and then moved to the Bay Area and started ShareProgress, which does messaging analytics for progressive causes. “I talked to a member of the California state government about this awhile back. He found it interesting, but there’s no way I could support this, it’s way too far out there,” Pugh told me, matter-of-factly, at a recent Meetup. “It absolutely is a very radical idea. If we were to have national basic income, it would be probably the biggest change since the founding of the country… I don’t think it’s inevitable. I think it’s possible in 20 to 30 years if we play our cards right.”
The goal then is to break basic income out of its echo chamber.
Pugh, Banker, and others organized the first ever weekend-long Basic Income Create-A-Thon in November, and invited Santens. Sixty people showed up and split into groups focused on the best way to spread the movement. One team led by a gregarious basic income bro who drives for Lyft and freelances in marketing started an Indiegogo campaign to raise and then raffle off a basic income. A politically inclined group listed all the potential counterarguments to the cause. The cryptocurrency clan focused on how to do this with a voluntary group on the blockchain. The focus of Santens’ group? Creating more Create-A-Thons. “Very meta.”
As far as Santens could tell, absent from the event were the basic income blokes — no McDonalds or Walmart workers whose employers pay them so little that they need public assistance. Says Santens: “I suppose they were working.”
For lunch, the day after the Create-A-Thon, Santens went to Eatsa, a newly opened quinoa fast food joint in San Francisco’s financial district. Eatsa is an automated restaurant — it has no cashiers or busboys, what Santens and other basic income advocates call “bullshit jobs,” ones that suck your creativity and could easily be automated. (Santens calls investment bankers the same, since a cat out-performed them in one study.) Santens pushed “burrito bowl” on a touch screen menu. Within one minute, “Scott S.” appeared on a cubby door, which Santens opened to pull out his lunch. While Eatsa uses humans in the kitchen, the mechanical arrangement of the ingredients on the plate led Santens to wonder whether a robot could do that, too. He posted a video of the experience on Instagram, captioning it: “My first automated meal. Pretty damn cool.”
Santens then headed over the Golden Gate bridge to Marin for a writer’s retreat overlooking Tomales Bay. The retreat is owned by Peter Barnes, a journalist who wrote a book about the Alaskan oil dividend (a kind of basic income), and co-founded the progressive activism company Credo. Barnes sponsored a free week for three writers to pen pieces on the topic. (He also covered Santens’ plane ticket, and is one of his patrons on Patreon — a brahmin and braintrust-er.) For seven days, Santens sat and pondered financial freedom in a silent cabin with great bird-watching and bay views as “Nine Inch Nails” blasted through his headphones.
Such is the life of the basic income braintrust, but Santens’s Bay Area tour was a fleeting moment of comfort. Only now that his own basic income finally hit $1,000 a month has Santens started to break even. The transition from full-time freelance developer to writer was rough. His mom had to loan him money for rent. “I over-drafted on my credit cards a lot.”
Within the tribe of basic income advocacy, being nearly broke almost gives you as much (or even more) cred as having deep pockets. Santens is just one call away from almost any other prominent basic income bro, whom he’ll contact to shoot the breeze about their favorite cause.
Last winter, for example, Santens skyped with Federico Pistono, a 29-year-old Italian star of the basic income braintrust (a basic income ragazzo?). Pistono graduated from the futurist think tank Singularity University, and wrote the book, “Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That’s OK.” He’s preached basic income on the TEDx circuit, and last year he presented basic income at a Singularity University-sponsored summit on the future of work at NASA’s Ames Research Center for a few dozen VIP economists and labor authorities. He was the one standing onstage with that “Robots Stole My Job” T-shirt, sharing the results of an 18-month study on Indian villagers: With a basic income, they were more likely to send their kids to school, start businesses, and upgrade their homes — and they ended up working more hours, often for themselves. Girls got a healthier portion of food. There was no increase in alcoholism or drug use.
An economist from MIT, Erik Brynjolfsson, stands to ask a question, and the two try to out-economics each other.
“Back of the envelope I’m thinking it would be about a billion dollars to have 10,000 people [in a pilot], something like that, or 100,000.”
“Which is 0.001 percent of the profits made on Wall Street in one hour,” Pistono shoots back.
“Or I think we could do it from the people in this room, actually,” Brynjolfsson says. It was unclear whether he was talking about the surrounding brahmins or just the government reps in the room, who he then spoke to directly. “A 4 million dollar budget in the Department of Labor, R&D budget — so we start with that.”
The room laughs. Early ideas for coming up with the money include dismantling the welfare system; patent fees; using property, income, or even carbon taxes; or structuring the basic income as a dividend from natural resources, like Alaska does with its oil taxes and profits.
There’s one major difference between Pistono and Santens. While Santens wants to roll out basic income to several cities and tweak the plan as it goes (“I think we should be driving towards, Basic Income: 2024”), Pistono first wants the results of a feasibility study in a developed country first. He thinks the Finland plans sound like a good start. Prepping a basic income-compatible path, Pistono works at his own startup, which bundles content off YouTube for free education on any topic, the type of self-edification he think people will pursue if they had basic income. (When I looked up “investigative journalism,” the algorithm served up episodes of John Oliver.)
Santens isn’t hedging his bets. “I will not stop doing this until basic income in the U.S. exists.”
Back in San Francisco at the end of his trip, Santens was mostly killing time before a 2:00 am redeye (to avoid the hotel bill, of course). We leave Patreon and head out to Market Street, and Santens snaps a photo of the Twitter headquarters plopped in the middle of the city’s tech-gentrified skid row, where the city’s polarized classes come into sharp relief.
It’s a boulevard of all the ills Santens believes basic income will solve: the shuffling homeless people — they could get cash in one fell swoop instead of extracting it from a byzantine welfare system. Lining the sidewalk are drug dealers; they could do something else, and their customers — not having to self-medicate their desperation — might dry up, too. We pass the Crazy Horse strip club. No one would have to dance or do sex work out of poverty, leaving it to the true aficionados. The high-interest payday loan shop would lose its raison d’etre.
The thought experiment of basic income serves as a Rorschach test of one’s beliefs about human nature: some people instantly worry that human enterprise would be reduced to playing PlayStation; others point to the studies of cash transfers that show people increase their working hours and production. One cash transfer program in North Carolina revealed long-term beneficial effects on Cherokee children whose parents received some $6,000 a year from a distribution of casino profits. (The kids were more likely to graduate high school on time, less likely to have psychiatric or alcohol abuse problems in adulthood.) No one debates that $1,000 a month, the amount usually discussed as a basic income in the U.S., would only be enough to cover the basics — and in expensive cities like San Francisco, not even that. Anyone wanting to live with greater creature comforts would still have the carrot of paid work.
Santens is, unsurprisingly, of the optimist group. He tells me about his baby boomer dad who moved into The Villages, the luxury retirement community in Florida (“basically Walt Disney World for senior citizens”). He says it’s a great case study in that people stay busy even when they don’t have to work: the seniors join kayak and billiards clubs, paint watercolors, and go to Zumba. “People do all sorts of things.” His dad is partial to golf.
Before he goes, I ask what he would do if he truly got a basic income, one that was not dependent on advocating basic income. “I’d do more screen-writing,” he says. “I’m a sci-fi writer at heart.”
You might be a basic income bro if, if and when basic income comes, you finally can do something else.
Illustrations by Tyler Wintermute