Matt Krisiloff is in a small, glass-walled conference room off the lobby of Y Combinator’s office in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, shouting distance from some of the country’s wealthiest startups, many of which Y Combinator has nurtured and helped fund. Krisiloff, who manages the operations of the tech incubator’s program for very early-stage companies, is explaining why it is committed to investing an amount said to be in the tens of millions of dollars in a venture that is guaranteed never to make a penny.
It’s the simplest business model conceivable: hand thousands of dollars over to individuals in return for nothing, no strings attached. Krisiloff insists he and his Y Combinator colleagues can’t wait to get started giving away the money. “This could be really transformative,” he says. “It may help change how humans, society, and technology all operate together in the future.”
The project is an experiment in what’s known as a “basic income”—or, when the money is given to entire populations, as a “universal basic income.” At its core, it’s a means for a government to alleviate poverty, replacing the myriad bureaucracy-bound safety-net policies in industrialized countries that struggle, with mixed results, to get money into the hands of those who most need it.
In the view of proponents, that money could also benefit people who aren’t poor but aren’t affluent either. They’d gain access to higher education, an escape route from oppressive jobs and relationships, greater opportunity to invest in their children’s well-being and education, and time to spend on artistic or other mostly nonpaying endeavors. “If people had that money, they’d be able to choose not to do the most notoriously low-paying jobs,” says Natalie Foster, a fellow at the Institute for the Future and New America California. “No one would have to be a workaholic only out of fear that they’d have nothing to fall back on if they stopped.” Wages, economic equality, and happiness would all climb, in this view.
Is Silicon Valley just attempting to appease those left behind?
Finland is studying a plan to give some 100,000 citizens nearly $1,000 a month as an experiment, and four cities in the Netherlands are about to start trial programs. The Canadian province of Ontario is preparing to run a trial, too, and a national test is under consideration. France’s parliament is discussing the topic, with some encouragement from the country’s finance minister. Meanwhile, Switzerland has come closest to instituting a national basic income. In June it held a referendum on giving its residents about $2,500 a month. It failed; only 23 percent of voters were in favor.