Basic Income Goes Mainstream


Rarely does a plan to do research gain much attention beyond those directly affected. But when Sam Altman of incubator Y Combinator announced last week his firm’s plan to fund a five-year study on basic income, it felt like every business thinker wanted a piece of it. This is happening for two reasons.

First, we’re at a moment when inequality has brought people as unlikely as Thomas Piketty and Bernie Sanders to the forefront, when people are reaching a consensus that things aren’t fair even if there’s no consensus as to why. We’re also at a moment when experiments trying to ameliorate the problem are getting attention and sometimes even funding. Switzerland is set to vote on a proposal to make it “the first country in the world to provide a basic unconditional monthly income.” Swiss pundits say the bill is unlikely to pass, but this is one of the most high-profile attempts so far to see whether there’s good in guaranteeing people income regardless of whether they are employed.

Second, it’s fascinating that this work is being funded by Y Combinator. Those whose memories go back to January will recall that Paul Graham, a Y Combinator founder, wrote an essay more or less defending inequality, saying that poverty itself is the primary problem, not inequality. The essay quickly turned into a pinata, although with few exceptions responders were more interested in attacking Graham’s argument than inequality itself. (Perhaps the most pungent and comprehensive response came from Tim O’Reilly.)

Regardless of how you respond to Graham’s essay (it’s easy to both nod your head and get furious in the same sentence) or whether you think his firm’s plan to fund basic income research is sensible, what’s more important right now is that people with platforms are talking about the issue and backing up their talk with action. If a key purpose of a NewCo is to create positive change, Y Combinator’s research can be a step toward discovering whether basic income might be a way to make some positive change. And, if this is research work that appeals to you, you have until February 15 to apply.

Want to follow the biggest story in business? Get our NewCo Daily newsletter.

Originally published at on February 2, 2016.

Leave a Reply