A cheap way to read the startup incubator Y Combinator’s announcement of funding for a researcher to conduct a “a study on basic income — i.e., giving people enough money to live on with no strings attached” is to note that it is coming from a firm in the business of accelerating the creation and growth of the kinds of companies that will potentially put large numbers of people out of work, permanently, through automation, like anyone who drives any vehicle for a living.
A study out of Oxford that everyone likes to cite in order to pose a possible scenario of mass unemployment in the not-too-distant future estimated that “about 47 percent of total US employment is at risk” for being lost to “computerisation.” What to do with all of those people if we reach the “end of work” — and if we will reach it — is a thing that economists have loved to debate for a very long time. Some of them are very certain that the end of work is coming, they just don’t know what’s going to happen after it arrives; others, like venture capitalists in the business of profiting from the companies that stand to possibly precipitate labor disruptions like wide-scale unemployment think that everything will be fine because the Luddites were a bunch of short-sighted morons when they freaked out about being replaced by machines during the Industrial Revolution and everything is much better now than it was then, so they are not worried about it at all. (And maybe they’re right! That’s the cool thing about the future: No one knows.)
But there’s more. Paul Graham, the founder and philosopher king of Y Combinator, is already rather afraid of the poors who merely want to eliminate economic inequality. Or, as he put it in an earlier version of his essay, “Economic Inequality,” “when I hear people saying that economic inequality is bad and should be eliminated, I feel rather like a wild animal overhearing a conversation between hunters.” One can imagine how terrified a self-styled “manufacturer of economic inequality” must feel, then, at even the remote possibility of millions upon millions people left without work, all those losers fueled by the power of envy left with all the time in the world to plot how they would hunt and eat Paul Graham, especially if they were like, starving, because the companies funded by people like Paul Graham helped put them out of work.
But… what if we just paid people? To do nothing but drink Soylent and look at ads inside of their Oculus Rifts? And especially not eat Paul Graham? Definitely worth studying.