Universal Basic Income Is Silicon Valley’s Latest Scam
Par Douglas Rushkoff
To my surprise, the audience seemed to share my concerns. They’re not idiots, and the negative effects of their operations were visible everywhere they looked. Then an employee piped up with a surprising question: “What about UBI?”
Wait a minute, I thought. That’s my line.
Up until that moment, I had been an ardent supporter of universal basic income (UBI), that is, government cash payments to people whose employment would no longer be required in a digital economy. Contrary to expectations, UBI doesn’t make people lazy. Study after study shows that the added security actually enables people to take greater risks, become more entrepreneurial, or dedicate more time and energy to improving their communities.
So what’s not to like?
Shouldn’t we applaud the developers at Uber — as well as other prominent Silicon Valley titans like Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, bond investor Bill Gross, and Y Combinator’s Sam Altman — for coming to their senses and proposing we provide money for the masses to spend? Maybe not. Because to them, UBI is really just a way for them to keep doing business as usual.
Uber’s business plan, like that of so many other digital unicorns, is based on extracting all the value from the markets it enters. This ultimately means squeezing employees, customers, and suppliers alike in the name of continued growth. When people eventually become too poor to continue working as drivers or paying for rides, UBI supplies the required cash infusion for the business to keep operating.
Walmart perfected the softer version of this model in the 20th century. Move into a town, undercut the local merchants by selling items below cost, and put everyone else out of business. Then, as sole retailer and sole employer, set the prices and wages you want. So what if your workers have to go on welfare and food stamps.
Now, digital companies are accomplishing the same thing, only faster and more completely. Instead of merely rewriting the law like colonial corporations did or utilizing the power of capital like retail conglomerates do, digital companies are using code. Amazon’s control over the retail market and increasingly the production of the goods it sells, has created an automated wealth-extraction platform that the slave drivers who ran the Dutch East India Company couldn’t have even imagined.
Of course, it all comes at a price: Digital monopolists drain all their markets at once and more completely than their analog predecessors. Soon, consumers simply can’t consume enough to keep the revenues flowing in. Even the prospect of stockpiling everyone’s data, like Facebook or Google do, begins to lose its allure if none of the people behind the data have any money to spend.
To the rescue comes UBI. The policy was once thought of as a way of taking extreme poverty off the table. In this new incarnation, however, it merely serves as a way to keep the wealthiest people (and their loyal vassals, the software developers) entrenched at the very top of the economic operating system. Because of course, the cash doled out to citizens by the government will inevitably flow to them.
Think of it: The government prints more money or perhaps — god forbid — it taxes some corporate profits, then it showers the cash down on the people so they can continue to spend. As a result, more and more capital accumulates at the top. And with that capital comes more power to dictate the terms governing human existence.
To venture capitalists seeking to guarantee their fortunes for generations, such economic equality sounds like a nightmare and unending, unnerving disruption. Why create a monopoly just to give others the opportunity to break it or, worse, turn all these painstakingly privatized assets back into a public commons?
The answer, perhaps counterintuitively, is because all those assets are actually of diminishing value to the few ultra-wealthy capitalists who have accumulated them. Return on assets for American corporations has been steadily declining for the last 75 years. It’s like a form of corporate obesity. The rich have been great at taking all the assets off the table but really bad at deploying them. They’re so bad at investing or building or doing anything that puts money back into the system that they are asking governments to do this for them — even though the corporations are the ones holding all the real assets.
Like any programmer, the people running our digital companies embrace any hack or kluge capable of keeping the program running. They don’t see the economic operating system beneath their programs, and so they are not in a position to challenge its embedded biases much less rewrite that code.
Whether its proponents are cynical or simply naive, UBI is not the patch we need. A weekly handout doesn’t promote economic equality — much less empowerment. The only meaningful change we can make to the economic operating system is to distribute ownership, control, and governance of the real world to the people who live in it.