Journalist and author Annie Lowrey wants you to understand that universal basic income isn’t crazy | Innovation
On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, journalist Annie Lowrey talks with about her new book, “Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World.” Lowrey says there’s ample evidence from countries like India, Brazil and Mexico that giving a small amount of cash directly to poor people can make their lives better without discouraging them from getting a job.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Kara Swisher: Today in the red chair is Annie Lowrey, who writes about economic policy for The Atlantic. Her new book is called “Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World.” Well, that’s a lot of stuff, Annie.
Annie Lowrey: I know.
It’s a very, very grandiose title.
I know. Wow! It’s going to solve all our problems?
Yeah. Something like that.
All right. Let’s talk about how you got to do this book.
You are … Let me, just by way of disclosure, Annie is married to Ezra Klein, and I don’t really care if she is, but Ezra does another podcast at Vox Media, but it has no impact with what we’re going to talk about here. That’s nice, to have full disclosure. It doesn’t really matter …
… to your work, but we like to do that, to give it disclosure. How did you get to doing this? You’ve been doing a lot of different jobs, right? You write about economic policy.
So this falls into your area and it’s also an area that Silicon Valley has been talking about a lot.
Obsessively, right? I, yes. I’ve had a bunch of jobs, but I’ve been …
Well, go through them, because people like to know people get to places.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, my first job out of college, the economy was falling apart. This was 2007, and I was an assistant at The New Yorker for awhile, in Washington, D.C. Basically, getting coffee, and transcribing interviews, and stuff.
Then, I made this jump, and became a writer, and ended up as the Moneybox columnist for Slate. So, did that for a while, which was an amazing, and a great job. That’s in D.C. Then I covered Treasury for The New York Times, and wrote about economic policy for The New York Times for some time. Then kind of went and decided to do magazine writing, so I wrote for The New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, and now, I write for The Atlantic. That was the general …
I mean, it’s always been that I like writing about how the government impacts individual humans’ lives, basically. Or how individual human lives impact the government, backwards.
It has a lot of salience out here, in Silicon Valley.
Right, so how did you get onto Universal Basic … Because here you are writing about economic policy, right? Which could be anything, like …
Yeah. Yeah, it’s like a huge universe.
Welfare, or whatever.
Oh, gosh, yeah. Government subsidies for oil and gas businesses, and DARPA, and research, and that kind of stuff. It’s a really huge universe, and so …
And it’s the impact of the government on our society.
Exactly. How the government is shaping the economy and shaping individual financial decisions. I’d written about UBI a couple times, because there had been a referendum in Switzerland that got a surprising amount of support, but didn’t come [to] pass, and then, I wrote about a charity that is based in New York, but is funded with a lot of money from Facebook and Instagram founders, and a lot of tech money, called Give Directly. What they do is they take money, and they give it directly to poor people in Kenya, Uganda, and now, one other country. Trying to remember.
Anyway, but they give it in the Great Lakes region of Africa, and so, they sort of go, and they target villages that are very low-income. They give people cell phones, and then people get mobile money transfers. This has been shown to work really well, to alleviate poverty.
Where, it’s actually, it’s pretty hard. We know a lot about what makes a change in people’s lives, but there are a lot of things that don’t work very well, right? Like, giving $100 million to Newark’s school system didn’t seem to work very well.
No, right, right.
But this does. And then it had just been that there were a ton of experiments, and it became sort of a part of party platforms on the left, in Europe. And so, then, decided to write a book about it. Not so much, sort of stumping for the idea, which Chris Hughes, and Andy Stern, and a lot of other really brilliant people do.
Right. We did a podcast with Chris.
Yeah, yeah, friend of the pod, Chris Hughes. But because it lets you talk about a lot of other interesting things, right? Like, why do we allow so much poverty in this country? Should we require something, from people, in exchange for welfare?
Which is a big debate right now.
A huge debate right now, right? Should we give people money, should we give them job training?
What trade-offs are we making here?
Right. Well, let’s set the table for this.
Because, we’re talking, this is a global phenomena. Universal Basic has been tried in Sweden, from lots of different countries are trying this.
So, give an overall view of where it started. Do a little history lesson for people, of where it started. Because some people, when I mention it to them, they’re like, “Well, that’s Communism, right?” You know what I mean? And I was like, “Well, yeah.”
Kind of, yes.
Except, the government is constantly giving value to people, in this similar way, that is like, job training versus money, versus just handing them money.
Talk about how this came to be. What was the … because, again, the government does this do already, in different ways.
Absolutely. I think the clearest and most immediate way to say it, for people to understand it, is Social Security, right? Everybody who’s working, you’re going to pay taxes with the understanding that you’re going to, “get that money back.” It’s not quite as simple as you getting the money back, but the idea is, you’re going to pay a payroll tax, and then, that money’s going to come back to you, when you retire. The truth is that the government does this in all sorts of different ways, either through the direct public provision of services, right? Things like the medical system for the military, or by financing things, right? Like the home mortgage interest deduction. The history of the idea is really long and interesting, so, it’s like, 500 years ago…
Oh! Martin Luther!
Yeah. Like, actually, yes.
At that time, you had a transition from this feudal economy, in Europe, to a mercantilist …
Where the lord gives everything.
Yeah, exactly, to this mercantilist capitalist economy, and this transition, as these big transitions often are, is kind of ugly. You end up with all of these serfs, who, instead of being able to till land that is owned by a lord, and live off of it, instead are working for the lord for wages. This is like a gross oversimplification, but this causes all sorts of poverty, and there’s a lot of wars going on at the time. It causes a lot of poverty, and specifically, urban poverty, so people kind of get booted off of their feudal land. And they come to these cities, and they become beggars. The British Crown decides that they’re going to have to do something about this. So they create this system of, this is in the late Tudor period, “Poor Laws.” Those create workhouses for poor people to work in. They also create a dole. Cash payments.
Then, for the next 500 years, you have this really, kind of, complicated, interesting history of how governments decide to give money to poor people, and support poor people. We could sit here talking about this for 10 years. It’s a very detailed history. But, since 500 years ago, there’s been this thread of thought, that instead of giving people work, you should just give them cash. The kind of fundamental insight there is that the problem with poor folks is that they don’t have enough money.
Right, yeah, right.
It’s nothing else, right?
Or not, not …
Or they have no ability to make money.
Yeah, exactly, have no ability to make money, and that the simplest way, and perhaps, the best way, to get them out of poverty, is just to give them cash.
Here in the US, you have this very bootstraps culture from the very beginning, and so welfare cash payments are provided generally only to widows, single mothers — this is true for a long time. Then, because of the country’s racial history, welfare, 20 years ago, and 50 years ago, maybe, becomes seen as being politically unpalatable, because it’s a way to support black single moms. It gets really demonized. We don’t do cash payments in this country in the way that European and other social democracies, or the European social democracies do. This is all a very long way of saying, that there’s always been this tension.
It takes on, it takes on, like you said, a demonization, versus in Europe, where the people are used to that.
That’s part of the social contract.
Is that “we’re going to pay poor people to not be as poor as they are.” Right? And not require them to work, and not require them to do anything else. In this country, it is. It’s demonized. It’s that you’re taking money, like, “welfare queens,” that whole concept.
Exactly. What’s funny is that it’s actually, giving money to poor people is way less controversial in poor countries. A lot of the big middle income countries, India, Brazil, Mexico, it’s really not controversial, to take poor folks and just be like, “Here’s some cash. Let’s get some more calories into your kids. Let’s make sure that you have a roof over your heads.”
The goal being?
Yeah, the goal being, let’s alleviate the worst forms of destitution in low-income countries. One thing that’s kind of been quietly happening is that even really low-income countries have built safety nets, kind of in the model of Europe, or the U.S. Ethiopia now has a pretty big system of cash payments to poor people. That didn’t use to be true 100 years ago, because these countries just didn’t have any capacity to do it. Here in the U.S., it’s probably the most divisive place for this because of our really complicated racial history.
And a national feeling, the bootstraps idea.
Yeah, it’s also a cultural thing, right? We really, really think, pretty deeply in this country, that able-bodied adults should work, and should take care of themselves, and that that’s the best path out of poverty.
Right, and we’re not going to help you do it. You’re going to pull up yourself by your own bootstraps.
Yeah. “Even if we were to help you do it, that would be bad for you,” right? Like, “you should be working, you shouldn’t be on the dole.”
Right, so talk about how you Universal Basic then came to be, because there’s a version of it happening all the time. Whether it’s welfare, or something, because that’s what it sounds like to people.
Right, absolutely. I think that you point out a good and an interesting thing, which is that the government is constantly giving and taking money, even from people who would never say that they are on …
Yeah, so the best example of this, in my mind, is there’s a really interesting study that was done by a woman named Suzanne Mettler. She asked people, “Do you receive any … Does the government help you?” I forget the exact phrasing of the question, but, “Do you receive government assistance, or like are you on a government program?” Poor people, they know. They’re like, “Yeah, I get SNAP, I get food stamps.”
Right, SNAP is … explain that.
Yeah, SNAP is food stamps — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — which is, about 40 million Americans use it in any given month, I think. Higher income Americans, they’re like, “No, government doesn’t do anything to help me,” even if they are … If they have a mortgage, they’re absolutely receiving home mortgage interest deduction, and probably a lot of other things. The government interacts with high income families, but it tends to do so through the tax code, so you don’t really see it, and it doesn’t feel like assistance.
Right, so they’re getting a kickback.
Because you’re not getting a check.
They get a kickback.
That’s a really good way of putting it. That’s one of these ways that, culturally, you know, we see the direct provision of cash, or something else, to a low-income family as being sort of …
Yeah, morally different than a high income family getting some money back.
Because they’re working.
Deserve that thing, own this kind of thing. It is an interesting thing when, you start … I got a, years ago, when … oh, those people who hate the government. I forget that group.
Whatever, no there’s a whole bunch of them. They got on the phone with me …
They got on the phone with me and were starting to argue, like, “We don’t need government. We don’t need government.”
I just said … I stay on the phone with these people and I said, “Well, you know, how was your commute to work today?”
They were like, “What do you mean?” I said, “You need to get off the streets, because the government built those. You need to get off the highways.”
”You need to stop using the highways. Also, fire department, you can’t use it anymore.” I was like … I started listing all the things. I said, “How did World War II work out for you? Because that was a really good government addition to you. You’d be goose-stepping down Market Street if we didn’t kind of do that one.”
They were like, “Well!” I go, “You use the government all the time when it suits you and not when it doesn’t.”
”You need to stop saying this, or you need to just go live in a hut in the middle of the woods, which by the way, is probably being maintained by the government.” You know what I mean?
We do get payments, but — so talk about this UBI itself.
Why has it come back in this way? Is it just a rebranding of something or is it … and who started it?
The current movement comes from … There’s a bunch of lower-income countries that are … India being the biggest one, but a lot of smaller ones that are like, “We want to end poverty as simply and cheaply as possible. We are going to do cash payments to as many poor people as we can.”
Rather than create jobs for them, rather than doing job training.
Exactly. “We think that they are going to be better off if they are just no longer destitute, if their kids are eating enough, it’s going to give them that little bit of buffer. They might even work more, right? Because they’ll be able to just … they won’t be in that kind of poverty.”
Spend more of their time trying to get pennies.
Right. Whereas in the high-income countries, here in the US, and some places like in Europe, it’s driven by two impulses. One is, “Let’s have the government be smaller, less paternalistic, by just giving people cash, and not kind of meddling in their lives.” This is sort of the libertarian, Charles Murray-type argument. Then the second looks at this country and says, “We have a huge number of kids who grow up in poverty despite all of the money that we spend. We have a huge number of non-disabled adults who are in poverty. Maybe a way to do this is actually just to give them cash.” Let’s like stop and just directly transfer money, because again, we really don’t do unconditional cash transfer payments in this country outside of social security.
“We know that social security is hugely effective at ending poverty among seniors, let’s just do it for everybody, especially the most vulnerable, and start from kids.”
Where did it first start? Right, where did it first start?
Yeah, I mean, so no government has exactly a UBI right now, but many have some form of it.
Right, but these are experiments, where did it start here? Was it by tech people, was it by … Where did it begin to be experimented here?
Yeah, so a lot of the energy for it comes from tech, right? Right now, probably, what? 50 miles from here, Stockton, is sending out payments. Y Combinator is sending out payments as part of a pilot. Then, Canada, recently started doing it in the province of Ontario.
Via a tech company?
Yeah, no, actually that’s a governmental one. Yeah, so a lot of this interest comes from tech. I think where it comes from tech, a lot of that concern is about, “Well what if robots take all of our jobs and none of us are working?” That’s the kind of the third bucket of interest in it, comes from this great fear that someday we’re all going to be out of a job. You know, that technology is advancing so rapidly that we won’t need people to work in factories anymore, we won’t need truck drivers.
We won’t need blank, blank, blank.
Talk about the efforts right now that are happening. It’s being tested all over the world, obviously, in other countries. Let’s talk about how it’s being done here, because it is a tech-focused effort.
Yeah, absolutely. The concern right now is that if … Say that there’s another recession in a couple years, and all of a sudden, all-
There will be.
Eventually, there’s absolutely going to be one, and businesses see that the price of sort of AI-influenced technology’s falling really fast, and so we have another recession and kind of a jobless recovery again, and you have a huge number of people who are out of work. Right? The government doesn’t have very many measures to help in a situation like that, because unemployment insurance is time-delimited. It’s not really meant to buoy people for long periods of time. Here in the U.S., there’s now a bunch of groups — political groups, think tanks, and tech companies themselves — that are saying like, “Well, in that world, the government giving money to folks might be really, really, really important.” Two of the most interesting experiments… this one that I mentioned, it’s happening in Stockton, where they’re just sending some money to folks. They’re running an experiment. They’re going to see what happens.
What kind of folks are they … Is it poor folks or just everybody?
Yeah, it’s not everybody. It’s just poor folks, and so it’s actually pretty important to note that, yeah, it’s not universal. Right? Part of this idea is that everybody should be getting it, and that if you’re higher-income, we’ll just tax it back. Then the second really interesting experiment is coming from Y Combinator, where they started in Oakland just giving out money, and now I think that they’re in five states. Again, sending money to folks, seeing how it changes their lives.
Kind of same thing?
Yeah. They did more targeting of people, and so they were looking in lower-income places, but then they randomized, right? They said, “We’re going to give it to people sort of regardless, without checking to make sure that they’re unemployed or something like that.”
How much do they give people?
I think that they are giving like $500 a month, if I remember correctly.
And are all of them like that in that … What’s it supposed to represent, the number?
There’s this idea that it should be low, like a small enough amount that it’s not really going to change people’s decision to work or not. Right? 500 bucks a month is maybe going to help a lot of families, but it’s not going to keep your head above water, exactly. The same thing with like $1,000 a month. $12,000 a year is not going to, it’s not much of a hammock. Right? You can barely live on that.
I think that that would just, I think, for most families, you’d be still far below the poverty line, but it’s enough to really, materially help. 500 bucks is going to help a family quite considerably, especially if they’re lower-income, again, without changing the impulse to work too much. That’s sort of the idea here.
Not too much so that they don’t sit around.
Exactly, so lower than a Social Security payment, which really can let people retire, and a lot of folks in the U.S. live on Social Security alone. Just enough to kind of help.
Then what do they do then? They study it, what people do when they have it, or do they know what happened before and then after, or what’s the …
Yeah, exactly. Yes, the idea is to see what happens. We have some other examples of UBI-type payments, and we know a lot about what just giving people money does. One is that, very often, it doesn’t make them stop working. Right? There’s this great fear, “Well, if you’re some 25-year-old kid, and you’re pretty aimless, and you don’t know what to be doing, you’ll just take the money, and you’ll hang out in your mom’s basement, and you’ll never make anything of yourself.” Doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on that, and where it does stop people from working, it tends to be the parents of very young kids, so maybe your mom and you’re like, “All right. My partner will keep working, but I’m going to stay home with a kid,” or —
Which might have some good effects.
Yeah, might have some great effects, right?
Then it also seems to take younger kids and to keep them in school a little bit longer. Again, not a bad thing. Right? A pretty good thing, even if it means that they’re out of the workforce a little more. The third thing is that for people who are unemployed, it tends to elongate the period of job search, and so you’re like, “Wait. Are they just hanging out and not working?” It’s like, no, they’re actually waiting for a better job. They’re waiting to connect for a better job. Then on top of that, there’s a lot of kind of just straightforward stuff. Right? Like it bumps people up above the poverty line. It helps smooth their consumption, so like month to month, if you’re really low-income, you’re not going to be eating radically different amounts of food. That kind of thing, and it seems to improve people’s well-being. Right? It’s a bit of a safety net, and so maybe it reduces the cortisol in your blood. Maybe it makes your life a little bit easier. Maybe it reduces stress.
Right. Explain why you think that the, so the tech people feel guilty about what’s happening, or they just feel like-
I think so, yeah.
Is that where it’s from? What-
I think they’re terrified. I’ve talked to a ton of people in tech, because I’m like, I look out in the economy, and right now, unemployment’s, what, like 3.8 percent?
It’s very low.
It’s very low. I’m like, “Where, what are you seeing here in Silicon Valley that makes you so convinced that we’re not going to need to work anymore?” They just see things differently.
Yeah. They are like, “Look. What is going to happen with AI is, you’re going to get this kind of flywheel-type effect where technologies are going to be self-improving, and so anything automated is all of a sudden going to be done by a machine. It’s going to make sense for a business instead of hiring a human who might show up drunk or hungover at work, might get sick, might have a baby, might adopt a kid.”
All these human things.
Yeah, exactly. All these human things. “We’re going to replace you with a robot, and why not?” A lot of them point to trucks and taxis as being kind of like a-
That’s the beginning.
… first vanguard of this, but then they say like, “Why not anything else? Right? What if every shop you walk into has nobody in it because a robot is restocking? What if we need way fewer nurses and doctors, because a AI-assisted system is just so much better at diagnosing and curing you?”
Right. Yeah. I always say anything that can be digitized will be digitized-
… and they will do it. I mean, it’s interesting, because, like they were talking … It was in coal mining territory, and they’re like, “Well, we’re just going to bring coal mining jobs back.” I said, “Your bosses will use robots if it’s better.”
Why wouldn’t they?
They’re like, “No, they want to bring back jobs.” I go, “They will get rid of you in a New York frigging minute.”
In a second! Even think about things that really require big staffs of people. I was talking to somebody about home construction, and they were like, “We are going to prefab homes, so you’ll say, ‘I want a really big five-box home, and I want a two-box home,’ and then you’re not going to need a huge staff of people to construct these, because you’re just basically, we’re all going to be using, like, modular houses.” I have no idea if that’s going to happen —
Yes, it is.
but it doesn’t seem crazy to me.
Of course, it is. Why wouldn’t it?
And so, what happens? There are some jobs that we know probably are never going to be digitized, like yoga instruction.
Taking care of babies. That seems like something that you really need, but how many of those jobs are there? I’m hoping that journalism sticks around, but it’s going to be a robot Kara and robot Annie talking…
Yeah. It’s true, so they-
And so they’re terrified about this!
They’re terrified. When you talk to them, talk about that. They just want to fix it, they just want to, know they’re going to cause pain and want to …
I think that they see the upside and the downside. A world in which there’s way less human labor in some ways is great. Right?
Because then we can write poetry. Right?
Exactly. All of us, a lot of our material needs will be met better and more cheaply. At least hypothetically, that should free us up to do better and more interesting stuff. Economists have thought that this would be the case for a long time, and I think that folks in Silicon Valley and tech say that too. They’re like, “This world will be better, but not if everybody is miserable.”
Right, but then how do you earn money? Then everybody gets universal basic in …
Talk about the various ways it could go, like every single, and who gets what?
Right. There’s a couple ways to do this. One-
Everyone gets $1,000 or-
Yeah, so like the kind of-
But why should everybody get $1,000?
Right. The prototypical example is, everybody gets $1,000 a month. That’s going to help. There’s kind of two concerns with that. Right? One is that, say that you have a $65,000 a year trucking job, or an $80,000 a year Bay Area construction gig. Are you going to be happy with $1,000 a month? There’s going to need to be some kind of cultural change, or the UBI’s going to need to be bigger, or something. I don’t know what else. The second thing with that is, right, if you are somebody who works in tech, you’re an engineer, you’re making like $300,000 a year, you don’t need an extra $1,000 from the government. The thing to do there is just to tax it back. Right? Basically, you make it so that if you’re above some income threshold, you don’t get it.
The other way to do this — there’s lots of other ways, I shouldn’t say “the” other way — but one other way to do this is to do it as something called a negative income tax, where basically if you’re below a certain income level, the government is going to boost you up to that level, and then above there, you’ll just have the same sort of standard thing where the government instead takes money away. That’s a way to do it.
Who is going to pay for all this?
Yeah, so there’s a lot of money out there to be taxed, and there’s a lot of spending out there to be cut. People really worry about this. It’s not an impossible … You look at, we would not need taxes higher than they are in, say, France. Now, we might not like taxes to be as high as they are in France, but the U.S. actually has, among OECD countries, pretty low tax base.
No, I know, but they still can’t get enough of cutting taxes. I mean-
… look at what Trump just did.
Right, and that’s the thing is, like culturally we might just totally reject this, and it might be that it has to be 100 years from now when it’s robot Kara and robot Annie, and you and I are like in the singularity, talking to each other, these figments or whatever.
Where people will accept it. I do want to talk about that, the mentality in this country around it, because every time this has met people, they just, it’s an anathema to the idea, and right now, what’s going on is the idea that welfare should be work with welfare. You have to work. How are you going to do something like this if now people are trying to link welfare, which is a version of this, right, to work?
There’s been this —
You don’t get SNAP unless you work. You don’t get this unless you …
No, it’s a really amazing phenomenon, and it started in a bunch of red states, that they basically turned a bunch of government programs slowly into welfare. It used to be that welfare was the big one. You need to work in order to get welfare. It’s TANF, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Then there were some work requirements in SNAP or food stamps, but some, especially red, states said, “We want to attach work requirements to other programs,” or, “We want to make the work requirements more onerous, and we want to make sure that people are not getting, are getting very temporary periods of assistance.” What’s happened now-
Because then they get used to them. Right?
That’s the concept.
This is a temporary boost to help you until you figure your life out.
Well anything that’s temporary then doesn’t stay temporary, right?
That’s the whole problem.
They do. They have these like six-month time limits, or nine-month time limits. After that, you can’t, or for a lot of programs, they’ll say, “You can have this for six months in a five-year period, and that’s it.” What’s happened now with the Trump administration is, they have signaled, they have let states attach work requirements to Medicaid, so this is happening, as we speak, right now. States like Kentucky are attaching a work requirement to Medicaid where there never was one. Additionally, they’ve said that they’re going to attach work requirements to programs in Section 8, so housing assistance.
So if you get public housing, you have to work.
Exactly, and then they’re adding more work requirements to programs that already have them, like SNAP. During this time period, TANF is, the amount of money that the government spends on TANF is the same dollar figure, not inflation-adjusted, dollar figure as it did in 1996, so fewer and fewer families are getting it. I think it’s $16.5 billion. It’s just nothing.
What do you make of this effort to link work with it? Because when you’re pushing about universal basic income, it’s that you’d have to have work attachments to it, correct, or not?
You could! There’s no reason that you couldn’t, but the issue is that most poor families, they do work. The issue is that they aren’t making enough money, and they don’t have enough to spend. And then the other issue is that for the people who are remaining out of the labor force, they tend to have real challenges connecting to it, so maybe they’re illiterate. Maybe they have a problem with drug or alcohol abuse. Maybe they’re in a really rural area where there’s just no jobs. Maybe they have an undiagnosed disability, and so forcing them to get work isn’t really going to do anything. The other thing is, maybe they’re so low-income that they can’t work. Right? If you don’t have money for bus fare to get to a job, how are you going to get a job?
With those people, work requirements don’t do much, and there’s not very much in terms of supportive services to help people. We’re in San Francisco right now, and San Francisco actually has an awesome model for this and a completely unique model in the country where, with their TANF money, their welfare money, they instead run this job program where they set people up with kind of like apprenticeships, and they connect with local employers, and they provide subsidies. They say, “Hey, if you’ll take this person in the TANF program, we’re going to pay part of her salary for some period of time.” This works really well, so there’s models out there, but again, the country just doesn’t tend to use them, because work requirements and the sort of restrictions on welfare have tended to be a way to cut the program, not actually to help the people.
To help the people.
Yeah, that are using them.
All right. The title “Give People Money,” again, makes people nervous, like why would you give people without something in exchange for it?
Right, and where does that money come from?
And where does it come from?
That’s the two parts. “Whose money? My money? I don’t want to give people my money.” Let’s talk about San Francisco. You brought it up is, it’s got a very innovative program around welfare that people, they link people with work and things like that. But San Francisco now has become the national poster child for a disastrous situation around homelessness — which, if I remember, it was Care Not Cash, or was it? It was under Gavin Newsom, where they didn’t want to give cash. They tried to fix this in a variety of ways. When you see that kind of poverty, because “there shouldn’t be poverty in this country” is the concept behind this, that nobody should be living in destitution….
Right, or we don’t have to. Right? We choose it.
We choose to let them, let people live like this.
Talk about how, when you look at a city like this, which is so wealthy and has so many opportunities for people that you have this permanent underclass that seems not to be fixable.
Yeah. It’s a crisis out here, and it’s a really interesting-
All across California, by the way, where-
… most of the homeless people live, actually.
Yeah, and it’s funny, I was talking, I was writing a story, so I was talking to a bunch of people in Reno, and they’re like, “All of a sudden, we look like California too, like we have this new homeless population.” Right? I think that that, it’s really interesting here, because you do, you have this chasm between rich and poor. You have a city that is increasingly unlivable for anybody except for people who are so insensitive to the prices of things, because they’re, I mean, they are, they’re manufacturing just such extraordinary wealth out here. It’s really interesting, and it gets to kind of a few interesting issues. One is that the problem out here has to do with housing regulation. It has to do with a lack of housing, a lack of public transit and underinvestment in things. It’s a really complicated, knotty policy problem that would take a lot of things to fix. We could have a, like we could snap our fingers, institute a wealth tax and have a UBI here and San Francisco would still be unlivable for most people. Right? So despite the title of the book, right? Like these problems are hard but not impossible to solve. That said, you know, I think that it is true that when you think about universal cash payments, unconditional cash payments that you have to figure that they are going to be most important for the most destitute. But there, that also becomes one of these kinds of challenging things, right? You know, it’s, there’s all these studies about like why people give or don’t give money to people on the street. And they’re like, “Well, if they’re just going to spend it on drugs, am I really helping them?”
Right? And I think that San Francisco and a lot of other big and especially big liberal cities recognize that you can’t just give people money, exactly. Like they need healthcare, they need housing. They need supportive services, they might need literacy or job training readiness programs and so the US has some of these things but not others and it’s really interesting again, being in California, that takes a much more aggressive view of this, that has a really fixed set of social services in comparison to a state like Utah or Wyoming or Mississippi. You know, like the federalism means that we’re constantly running a bunch of experiments on these things and despite the fact that California has this really aggressive Medicaid program and a lot of housing programs, you know, you still have a crisis, right?
Absolutely. So this is not something UBI is to solve. So what is this solving for UBI? What is it trying to solve? Is get people above, give them a working chance to work better.
Yeah, absolutely. So basically give them a, not necessarily, you know, perhaps-
Not a handout, but a kind of a safety net. Right? This is a form of social insurance more than it is a form of social welfare. We’re saying that we’re not gonna let anybody in this society fall down too far. And that’s the thing that we do as Americans. There’s no real safety net at the bottom.
Not like there is in Europe or Japan or a bunch of other countries. There’s just holes and you fall all the way through. So this is one way of doing that, but there’s, you know, there’s others and Democrats, especially, are starting to talk about a lot of these big universal and you know, big universal programs.
So I think during the Obama years and the Clinton years, you saw this kind of like very careful tentative technocratic policy machinations, right? Like the ACA is a really complicated series of programs to help different people in different ways and the thing that UBI and things like a jobs guarantee or an expansion of the EITC or you know, free college, they’re just big universal ideas that have become really attractive on the left. And again, I think you’re seeing a lot of them come from the national level politicians coming from California.
We, it’s interesting because we had [Mark] Warner at Code and for a minute there I was like, he should really run for office because he was like, sensible. But he was talking about, he said one of the issues, obviously, is that the Democrats are so fixated on Trump that they’re not going to talk about what they’re going to do, but there’s all kinds of issues they have to deal with.
One is training, obviously retraining, which they’re not talking about. The ideas behind what happens when things get digitized. What do you, how do you have portable benefits? These are sensible things. Any, any … he was very much against the idea of all these free handouts, this idea of free college and free this and free that because you can’t pay for it. So you have Republicans on the one side pushing a certain agenda, a very populist agenda where, “fend for yourself, too bad” … and then ruining the budget by tax cuts for the rich and the other side saying “everybody gets everything. Everybody gets every piece of candy. We all get it.”
Yeah, but you’re right that there’s been this like populist polarization on both sides, right? Republicans are like, no taxes, total free rein for businesses to do whatever the heck that they want and Democrats are like free stuff for everybody and we’ll figure out how to pay for it maybe 100 years from now.
Right, exactly and we’ll be dead in the end. And so when you have something like UBI coming, what’s the success of it? From where you’re seeing it, when do you know that it’s working or is there never going to be a prove point?
So I actually, if I were, I’m a terrible-
In your travels, where did you see it?
So I mean, it is absolutely working to alleviate poverty in low income countries. There’s nothing to suggest that it wouldn’t do the same thing here. We’re seeing in Canada-
Give an example of a country, a country that’s like us, Canada.
Yeah. So Canada now has this UBI set of payments and we’re going to have results pretty soon that are, that are going to show, right? But we have, we have just tons of experimental data from the US, from other countries, from Iran, from all around the world that shows that if you give people money, it reduces poverty. Just really straightforward. And so what I think will actually happen here, I think it’s very unlikely that we’ll see anything like a UBI unless we see those kinds of technological changes that we were talking about and changes in work. But I do think that that one thing that is gaining momentum on both sides is to have kind of a UBI for kids and basically to say we don’t want kids to grow up in poverty anymore. We can all agree that kids are not responsible for their own fortunes. And I think that that-
We can’t all agree on that. Look at what’s going on with immigrants.
We think that those kids should be working, dammit.
Yeah, no but look what’s been happening on immigration, they don’t care-
I know, I know it’s-
So we don’t all agree on that.
My guess, you’re right, we certainly don’t. Yeah, it’s, everything has become divisive, I suppose. But I think that that is probably the low-hanging fruit here. To say-
So that, what would, how would that look? What would that look like?
If you have, it would probably be somewhat means-tested. So if your family income for a family of four is less than $30,000 a year, we’re going to give you a $200 cash payment per kid under the age of 15 or something like that.
Right and that’s a check that you get.
Yeah, it’d be like some sort of check that you get.
And you can’t ensure that it goes to the kids, though right? It just, you get it.
Nope. And that’s one of the hard things, right? Like TANF is supposed to be for kids, right? We focus on the parents a lot, but in order to get TANF, like you got to have a kid and just rhetorically, the conversation focuses on the decision of the parents, but we know through, you know, things like the child tax credit that this tends to be pretty effective and it does, it boosts the number of calories that kids are eating, it keeps them in school for more days and it tends to make the environment in the house better.
How is it differentiated from TANF or whatever, whatever program people are using, SNAP or whatever?
Yeah, so I mean the thing with TANF or SNAP is that you are kind of receiving a constant payment, where a lot of the other stuff, again, it happens through the tax code. So something like the EITC, it’s boosting the money that you’re making.
Explain what that is.
Yeah, sorry, Earned Income Tax Credit. And so if you’re relatively low income it’s quite likely that the government is basically going to make sure that you don’t pay taxes and you might get a nice rebate and so it’s kind of invisible but it’s really important to people. And same thing with the child, child tax credit, it comes through the tax code, you don’t really see it but we know that it’s really effective.
As opposed to this which is, how is it different than the others because, how do you differentiate it with parents or whoever is getting it?
You mean just like in terms of how they’re actually receiving it?
Yeah. So, you know, SNAP, you get a card and can spend it at a certain number of stores on a certain number of things. You know, Section 8 comes through a kind of complicated series where you’re getting it through the housing. Medicaid, obviously there you are signing up with a government program and then a lot of things come through the tax code.
Right, through the tax code as opposed to this is just-
Right but TANF is the only one where you might be receiving like a literal cash payment outside of social security or SSI, which is supplemental security income, which is a program for very, very low income people, mostly elderly and disabled.
So what is the, from your perspective, from writing this book, going around the country and the world, looking at these programs, what is the likelihood that it’s going to be widespread in this country? I don’t see it with this gang in the …
No, I mean we’re going through this unbelievable moment of polarization where there’s no middle, right? Like there’s no sensible middle ground for policy-making. And so I think that right now, if you see, you know, I think it’s likely that we’ll see a Democratic House and Senate again soon, but it’s going to take a long time for that to happen. And if that happens then they’ll certainly pass something. It’s a big question. And so you know what they’re going to focus on. They have a bunch of big ideas out there and I don’t think that the party has coalesced around one but something like this, you’re going to have absolute evidence of it and I would say within ten years there’s going to be European countries that have it and it’s not unlikely that someplace like Canada will, along with all of these lower income countries that are already doing this.
In the US, I think it’s going to take a lot. Culturally, we are not even close to something like this where we say, “You know what? We’re okay paying taxes for somebody to get money for free, for no, for nothing back.” So I think it would be a big cultural change and I think that that would have to come through, you know, something like a, you know, robots taking all our jobs.
Where everybody needs it. Where everybody might, more people might need it than the regular poor people, who people in this country despise.
It seems like we despise the poor.
Yeah, we certainly judge them pretty harshly.
Yeah. Yeah. And where does that end and will that come with work requirements, do think, UBI?
I wouldn’t be surprised. They’re pretty pop — you know, I mean, one thing is when we think about the policymaking process in this country, like things do have to get ironed out in the House and the Senate and so, I would not be totally surprised if there was a work requirement that came with this, sort of like in TANF.
You can’t just have the money.
You can’t just have it.
But maybe there’s fewer requirements, maybe those work requirements are looser and again, I think it’s, you know, I don’t think it’s unlikely that a state like California or maybe Hawaii are the ones that are thinking about this currently, like, “Let’s try this.” And so I think you might see a sort of laboratory of democracy thing where, where you’ll start to see it happen and then maybe it gets nationalized.
Then other states will have it.
Like with cars or whatever, like self-driving cars and things like that.
Lastly, when you think about the political elements, because I think about that right now all the time, are there surprises that people are for this that you don’t think would be?
Yeah, there’s a weird strange-bedfellows thing going on. So like, Libertarians really like this idea.
Yeah, they do.
Because you just get rid of the government, basically, like thousands of government bureaucrats. And one interesting thing is that there’s actually a lot of Republicans that like the idea of giving cash to kids. They hate child poverty and they’re like, all right, maybe, maybe that’s a good, a good use for that. So you saw Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, who are really arch-conservative senators get behind an expansion of the child tax credit because they want families to have more kids and they want to support those kids better.
But like most of the, most of the enthusiasm here is coming absolutely from the left and particularly, you know, states with thick left like California where you have all sorts of different coalitions.
We get a lot of left here.
Yeah, you have a ton of left here.
Yeah, we got a lot of left.
A really diverse left.
Yeah, they can get real mad too.
Yeah, they can and there are, you know, it’s funny we’re here talking, this is, this is June currently. We’re talking before the primaries tomorrow and seeing people battle this out is really interesting.
Yeah, it is. It’s interesting in San Francisco right now, the entire topic is around homelessness.
With none of them, with any good solutions that I know-
No and it’s, you know, I think it’s interesting because I was talking with some folks about this and they’re like, “Until you solve the housing cost crisis for anybody, you don’t solve homelessness, here,” you know? And nobody seems to know how to, how to make houses cheap here.
Yeah, I was in the park the other day and they were like, “Let’s have one park dedicated to the homeless!” and I’m like, I’m like, “Okay and that makes it permanent.” Like that to me, you know what I mean? It’s not a permanent and it was interesting and I was like, “Why don’t we just give them money?” And they’re like, “No, then they’ll use it …” It was, it was a fascinating how it popped up and they didn’t like the idea of universal basic income.
Yeah and it’s kind of, Utah is the state that’s done best with homelessness. They have this housing-first model, but Utah has like really cheap housing prices compared to California. So it’s all well and good-
Who wants to live in Utah? I’m sorry Utahns. But California’s a nicer place to live. Not anymore.
Yeah but it, you know, it’s not an impossible problem to solve if you’re living in a state where you can in a city rent an apartment for 700 bucks a month.
Where can you, can you rent any, can you buy a parking spot?
No, you can have a cardboard box at the corner of Market and Sanchez for that and no heating.
No heating, nothing else.
So last question. So you think tech is going to really push this? Because there’s so many things tech is like getting politicized on — immigration, whatever. This is a highly political thing. Do you see them being the ones that push this through?
I think it’s going to be fascinating to watch. Let’s say that there’s a company and maybe it’s one of the self-driving, Waymo or something.
And Waymo all of a sudden is responsible for putting like 30,000 people out of a job in one month.
Let’s say that this happens.
Let’s say it’s going to happen.
Uber or Lyft or any of them. I think at that point they are going to feel a lot of political pressure to say, here’s the stuff that we’re doing to actually not just help higher income people scoot around San Francisco a little bit easier, here’s what we’re doing. And I think that that’s the pressure that I would watch for. If a Waymo has to say like we see that we’re putting folks out of jobs, but here’s, here’s what we’re suggesting happens.
Have you met these people yet? Because-
They take no responsibility for say, you know, wrecking an election, for example. They have no responsibility over the data they collect.
Yeah, but thanks, thanks to folks like you, the reckoning is happening.
I’m not sure that-
I’m calling it The Purge now.
I like that!
I know, I get to go out and, like, knife everybody, like one night a year.
Yeah, exactly, but it’s so-
That would be funny, I think.
If The Purge happened in San Francisco, I don’t think that there’s a more fun city for that.
Oh my God, please, let’s not have that happen in San Francisco. I would win, but-
Oh gosh, I would want to be on your team on that. But yeah, no, there’s this reckoning happening, right? And like maybe there’s like some humility-
They’ve got to have answers, you know? Tech has to start to have answers.
Yeah, maybe there’s this sense like, we’re going to drag you in front of a Congressional panel.
Yeah, if the Congressmen were as smart as they aren’t.
I think that’s the issue. They don’t even know how Facebook works. “Can you tell me what’s your business … “ I was like, what?! Like you don’t even understand.
I know, it was an embarrassment. People get mad at me for saying that, but it was an embarrassment. In any case, we’ll see if they can take on big issues like this. Is there a Senator that’s really behind this besides like Marco Rubio? Is there some?
Yeah, there’s, so Cory Booker is behind a bunch of this-
Sounds like a Booker thing.
A bunch of them have kind of, like, flirted with it. So Bernie Sanders has kind of flirted with this and-
He likes that? He likes that very much?
That’s a pretty good Sanders.
You know, and there’s, there’s a bunch of these other ones, other Senators that are kind of lining up behind. They don’t want to be seen as being like the centrist anymore. And so like, Kirsten Gillibrand who’s like, “I’m interested in like a jobs guarantee. I’m interested in cash payments.”
Oh, fascinating. I saw her at a fancy restaurant in Los Angeles this weekend, but okay. I’m not saying Nobu, but it was like Nobu. In fact, it was.
Anyway! it’s interesting to see how they do it. Annie, it was a great talking to you. Thanks for coming on the show.