In Brief
Y Combinator, a seed accelerator and startup incubator, plans to inaugurate a short-term “universal basic income” experiment in Oakland, California; it’s a first step toward a larger, projected five-year study of the guaranteed cost-of-living salary.

The Oakland Experiment

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “basic income”—the notion of a guaranteed financial disbursement to every human being simply for being alive.

It’s an idea that has garnered a great deal of support in certain circles, for obvious reasons (free money); however, many see it as the natural progression of society…as the only viable way of dealing with issues like increased automation, poverty, etc. Indeed, many see in a universal basic income (UBI) an instrument of liberty, and an effective tool for combating the threats of social unrest, economic dislocation, and various other forms of civil strife that are often the corollaries of unemployment.

There’s even a major national referendum on basic income to be held June 5 in Switzerland. And now the startup accelerator, Y Combinator, whose guiding ethos is seeding and incubating avant-garde businesses and ideas, has stepped into the fray. It plans to launch a short-term pilot program in Oakland, California, a preparatory first step to a longer, five-year experiment.

“Our goal will be to prepare for the longer-term study by working on our methods—how to pay people, how to collect data, how to randomly choose a sample, etc.,” the company explained in a blog post.

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, believes that a UBI is a necessary—even an inevitable—evolution in our society, considering the widespread unemployment expected to result from the increased mechanization of jobs.

“In our pilot, the income will be unconditional; we’re going to give it to participants for the duration of the study, no matter what,” Altman explains.

“People will be able to volunteer, work, not work, move to another country—anything. We hope basic income promotes freedom, and we want to see how people experience that freedom.”

Of course, not all are onboard. Some in the Swiss government have urged citizens to reject the referendum, explaining that the exorbitant costs would become prohibitive and might bankrupt the country. Which is, of course, is very likely if not managed properly; however, Y Combinator thinks a government model might not be the best choice and that smaller scale operations may prove to be more viable.

There’s no firm date yet for the launch of the Oakland experiment; all we know is that the company is working with city officials and groups to work out the details, and that the program will be headed by Elizabeth Rhodes, a PhD graduate from the University of Michigan.

Without doubt, UBI advocates will be watching the results of the Oakland experiment with great interest.