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Ask YC: Any Updates on the Basic Income Project?
266 points by JohnnySpaghetti on Dec 17, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 108 comments
Last time we had an update was on May 31:

https://blog.ycombinator.com/moving-forward-on-basic-income/

I was wondering if there are any updates that could be shared with the community.




We've started giving money to a small pilot group. We're still working out the kinks but expanding it slowly.

The plan is still to run the pilot until we're confident everything is working well (especially with issues like making sure no one loses eligibility for income-based benefits) and then start the full-scale study.


Yes. Losing eligibility for programs is a big issue. Reminds me of when I had an elderly family member's situation optimized for maximum benefits between medicare, medicaid, subsidized housing (section 8) and other benefits. One of her (well-meaning) neighbors found out she wasn't getting a certain benefit and took her (without advising me) to an agency to sign her up. Unfortunately, that event had cascading effects that caused her to lose other benefits. The situation took me a year to undo.


What is the status of the MOOC? When can we expect additional details?

YC should consider writing the occasional blog post about the projects it's working, it would be interesting to follow and the feedback from HN might be useful.


Would YC really be upfront about the success or failure of this experiment? Most people are shy enough about failures in professional contexts where impacts are isolated to the company itself. The outcome of this pilot has real potential political ramifications, further disincentivizing those who're committed to basic income (as YC obviously is) from revealing any serious flaws or difficulties experienced, beyond the typical already-pretty-strong impulse to keep failed experiments under wraps (and when they are discussed, to generalize and gloss over the more painful/sticky parts).

I know we all admire YC here, but let's be practical about it. They're not going to drum up any more bad press for themselves than necessary.


It's all about the feedback loop. Failure analysis (where necessary) is more than a bumpersticker obituary. And we also need to catch lessons learned along the way, both the microfailures we learn from and the assumptions we tested and proved correct/incorrect. Last, it's vital to turn periodic recaps into more organized and systematic bodies-of-knowledge so it's fast/easy to learn from the history we're writing together.


I'd expect them to report accurately. You have to remember, the expected result of a startup is failure, so they're used to dealing with that. I don't see why this would be any different.


We'll announce details on structure and timing in January.

Good idea; I may try something like a "State of YC" update once every 3-6 months.


Thanks, would love that if you can find the time.


Perhaps something like status.ycombinator.com for the briefly summarized current states of various things?


Egalitarianism always collapses on itself. The incentive structure that is created when you take resources from producers to award to non-producers (who are often indolent actors) is horrible. Many many experiments have been conducted and all failed miserably leading to the suffering and death of millions. I mean, Soviet farmers usually opted to kill their livestock as opposed to having government take it and redistribute it equitably. We don't need to go through that again. These notions should be nipped at the bud.


> The incentive structure that is created when you take resources from producers to award to non-producers.

I'm sorry, but this is idealogical nonsense. The classic 'non-producer' is the rentier. Quite the opposite of what you seem to be implying (i.e. that the needy are the 'non-producers').


It really isn't a question of the rentier class vs proletariat. Capitalism solved that problem a long time ago. Surely, capitalism has lifted billions from poverty.

Anyone can make it if they apply effort. Anyone. There is no discrimination against hard work, smart work.

A non-producer simply means, someone who is not providing a good or service of value to a willing buyer.


>It really isn't a question of the rentier class vs proletariat. Capitalism solved that problem a long time ago.

How exactly did Capitalism solve that problem? We still have stark class divisions between people who make the majority of their money from capital ownership and people who have to work to survive.


>We still have stark class divisions between people who make the majority of their money from capital ownership and people who have to work to survive.

It is true that there are divisions, but anyone can now participate in the acquisition of wealth and resources. You can save and reinvest until you attain your goals in life but most people are engaged in the consumption of capital goods such that even if they wanted to set up a small business, it gets to be increasingly difficult.

I also don't look at it in the sense that people HAVE to work to earn a living, I see it as people GET to work to earn a living. Your entire outlook on work is flawed and needs to be reevaluated. Work is good. Work allows us to eat, get shelter, clothing and move civilisation forward while at it.


>Work is good. Work allows us to eat, get shelter, clothing and move civilisation forward while at it.

Work may currently be necessary, but it is not "good". For most people it is boring and unpleasant, and a world where they could do something else would be a better world. Telling people who spend the majority of their lives working two jobs and still live in poverty that they "don't HAVE to work, they GET to work" is a hollow joke.


Oh please, there are many a people even on the Forbes list who worked multiple jobs in the beginning. That did not stop them from achieving their goals and being in possession of abundant resources in the long run. Now please don't take that to mean that all people will be on a Forbes list. The point here is that you can start out doing multiple menial jobs but with discipline, hard work and a culture for savings, YOU WILL SUCCEED.


Wow, such naïevité. And such arrogance.

Some people just have bad luck. They can do all the right things, but never get the break they need to succeed. Others are born women in cultures that will simply not allow them to succeed. People can work harder than you their entire lives, and make better choices than you, and still not be economically successful.

This kind of self-righteousness from the lucky is so annoying.


>This kind of self-righteousness from the lucky is so annoying.

You are the one making a naive assumption here my friend. I've seen and been through worse things than you can imagine. I know scarcity. I've stared it in the face. But I also know that the best way out of a bad fiscal situation is to simply get off your ass and get some work done. Whatever kind of work. Just do it and apply principles of wealth creation such as compounding currently available resources however little and repeat as frequently as possible.

I would much rather provide indigents with tools and methods to do their own fishing as opposed to what you're doing; proposing to them that life is a lottery and your life is not in your hands. Can't you see you're being evil?! Why do you want someone to live off your peanuts as opposed to them applying themselves and living a dignified life based on their own sweat? I'm tired of this mindset and that's why I've decided to voice my concerns regarding this and similar initiatives.

I don't know your background but if I was a betting man I'd say, you're spoilt and you think that money grows on trees so it can be printed out and handed out to people who don't want to work or think. If you truly understood scarcity, you would ask deep questions about money and arrive at a simple conclusion; it is simply a representation of created value within a society and the moment you dilute it, you dilute the need to work, create future value and subsequently move civilization forward.


> Surely, capitalism has lifted billions from poverty.

True. And while I think capitalism is generally a good thing, lifting people out of poverty doesn't make it a good thing necessarily. By that measure communism in China would be a good thing - after all, Mao also lifted millions out of poverty. Many dictators have done the same.

> Anyone can make it if they apply effort.

Not at all. You can be disabled, held back by family obligations or even by a harmful family, be remarkably unintelligent, mentally ill, or otherwise be unlucky in any number of ways.

> A non-producer simply means, someone who is not providing a good or service of value to a willing buyer.

According to you. To me a non-producer is someone whose income is unearned[1].

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unearned_income Unearned income refers to income received by virtue of owning property (known as property income), inheritance, pensions and payments received from public welfare. The three major forms of unearned income based on property ownership are rent, received from the ownership of natural resources; interest, received by virtue of owning financial assets; and profit, received from the ownership of capital equipment.[1] As such, unearned income is often categorized as "passive income".


Your opinions are so ideological that it leaves no room for things not being binary.

Human interactions and behaviours are anything but binary. there are so many reasons why humans behave the way they do that it cannot be wrapped up so neatly as by one theory of economics.


It is an important issue at hand. Important issues often have binary outcomes IMO. You can either make an a priori argument for or against UBI or you can make an empirical argument. We don't need to discuss previous experiences with such initiatives. They've had calamitous outcomes majority, if not all, of the times.

It does seem as though people want to try out variants of the same thing (socialism) while branding it with new terms such as UBI or social democracy. I'm simply calling out the BS and saying, it is socialism. It has been tried over and over again and I promise you that just because you've not lived through it, historical context should make you very wary of it.


Nonsense. There are social programs that have been incredibly successful. And pointing to the USSR is a shameful strawman.


Are you arguing against basic human nature? For the vast majority of people, if they don't have to work in order to earn, most people will choose not to work. So then who supports these folks? The people who put in actual graft. But the question is, for how long? Is this sustainable.

This is a mindset and it must be fought against vehemently. You want to help people? Advocate for the following:

- hard work as opposed to indolence

- savings culture as opposed to consumption of capital goods

- innovation/engagement as opposed to being dullards

- celebrating and rewarding achievement based on genuine merit as opposed to cuddling our young ones

- skill acquisition by reading books as opposed to watching TV and partying

You want a utopia but none of the sacrifice required to attain it. That's not going to work.


> For the vast majority of people, if they don't have to work in order to earn, most people will choose not to work. So then who supports these folks?

Those people are already being supported with fantastically expensive bureaucratic benefit systems. Sometimes those systems also act as a disincentive to return to work, trapping people on benefits, by making it impossible for them to get education or work experience or part time work.

Once you have these massive bureaucracies they sustain themselves by land-grabbing more work.

Here's one example from the UK. A man claiming benefits gets temporary work on a zero hour contract. He needs to sign off benefits, so he calls (because that how you do things now) the helpline.

"Is this position going to last longer than 5 weeks?"

He has no idea. But they will only take a yes or no answer.

He is unable to convey that he has no idea whether the job will last for more than 5 weeks or not.

For people who don't know the system it's tempting to just say "it doesn't matter, just take her suggestion and move on to the next question", but sadly the penalty for getting a question wrong (even if you've used their suggested answer) is that you have your benefits suspended or sanctioned.

> celebrating and rewarding achievement based on genuine merit as opposed to cuddling our young ones

You should reward effort, not necessarily achievement. Note that this is different to "cuddling our young ones". This is apparently especially important for smart children.


The cost of maintaining the "fantastically expensive" massive bureaucracies pales in comparison with the cost of paying a livable basic income to everyone.

The DWP's administration costs are 3.6% (FOI request: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/what_percentage_of_th...) and only about 1.5-3% of the population is claiming Job Seekers' Allowance at any one time. The proportion of people voluntarily economically inactive and neither claiming any benefit nor paying income tax is much larger[1]. Eliminating the "job seeker" requirement is obviously going to cost orders of magnitude more even if there's no resulting change in behaviour.

One can criticise the nature of the bureaucracies and weaknesses in the way they handle people getting back into work, but the idea sometimes floated by UBI supporters that they're more expensive than just handing out more cash is flatly and unequivocally wrong.

[1]this is true even after accounting for recipients of sickness benefits. You could save a bit in some areas by eliminating all sickness and housing benefits over the BI payment level, but that's probably hurting quite a few vulnerable people...


>You should reward effort, not necessarily achievement. Note that this is different to "cuddling our young ones".

It is to a degree a question of semantics seeing as though we're mostly on the same page on most issues. However, I'll still indulge you; sustained effort often leads to achievement. I find achievement to be the best metric to measure effort, otherwise how do you know there's real effort if a given problem is not ultimately solved?

>Here's one example from the UK. A man claiming benefits gets temporary work on a zero hour contract. He needs to sign off benefits, so he calls (because that how you do things now) the helpline.

I personally know of a man in the UK who has an arrangement with his employer to receive payments in cash only. This thereby allows him to still claim unemployment benefits from the government. The employer benefits by not paying PAYE taxes and the employee benefits by earning from two income streams putting him fiscally at par with people who have much higher qualifications than he does.

You can see the sort of rot and inefficiencies that occur when systems such as these are adopted.


> It is to a degree a question of semantics seeing as though we're mostly on the same page on most issues. However, I'll still indulge you; sustained effort often leads to achievement. I find achievement to be the best metric to measure effort, otherwise how do you know there's real effort if a given problem is not ultimately solved?

HN is full of smart people who through their school life were rewarded for their achievement, not effort, and who got a rude awakening when they went to college and discovered that they were not the smartest in the room, and that the work was hard, and that they were ill-prepared for that hard work.

> I personally know of a man in the UK who has an arrangement with his employer to receive payments in cash only. This thereby allows him to still claim unemployment benefits from the government. The employer benefits by not paying PAYE taxes and the employee benefits by earning from two income streams putting him fiscally at par with people who have much higher qualifications than he does.

But that's the point. HMRC have a bunch of people employed to detect that abuse; DWP people have a bunch of people employed to detect that; local councils have a bunch of people employed to detect that.

We can eliminate fraud, and the expensive fraud detection systems, by telling people it's allowed and expected that they work in addition to their UBI.


FRUSTRATINGLY I forgot to include the link to the YouTube video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KwQTsO7Kok

He wants to stop claiming benefit; he wants to declare work. His answer doesn't fit into their checkbox, and so a simple question takes 7 minutes.


> Those people are already being supported with fantastically expensive bureaucratic benefit systems.

You are basically saying: We already have bad socialism so lets try good socialism. UBI is as bad if not worst. Distorted market will be least of our worries.

I am in favour of guranteed, no-string-attached food & shalter.


So distorting the market by giving people money and letting them decide what they want is bad, but distorting the market by buying/producing arbitrary food and shelter for people is good?


No its lot less worse than UBI. I should point out that the Govt part would be minimal. Food & Shelter should be provided by multiple private entities under contract from Govt.

If you want to eliminate Food & Shelter Welfare as well, you would not hear any objection from me.


No objections here too.


Why on earth would I or anyone advocate for either of the extremes you're proposing here?

Acquiring skills is valuable (not just by reading books - there are lots of ways to acquire skills; yes, including watching TV) but relaxing is also valuable. Partying is valuable.

And it's fun, too.

Likewise, rewarding achievement is a good idea, but so is comforting your son if he's upset that he performed badly at something he tried hard at.

And I'm assuming we're all reasonably familiar with the idea that neither 100% hard work (120+ hour weeks, 52 weeks of the year) nor 100% indolence are great ideas?


Can you define "graft", as you use it here? The common definition is "the obtaining of money or advantage through the dishonest use of power and influence" [0], but that doesn't seem like what you mean.

[0] http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/graft


Sorry, I'm a speaker of the Queen's English:

British Slang. work; labor.

http://www.dictionary.com/browse/graft


That's not the Queen's English, HRH speaks RP.


It was tongue in cheek my friend. Thanks for nugget of knowledge though; I didn't know about received pronunciation.

Edit:

Tangentially, I happen to speak 3 languages and English is not my native language.


Why is the USSR a strawman?


Because it was a dictatorship, and Communism, not Socialism. Socialism is as practiced in Scandinavia, UK, France, the rest of the EU really, NZ, Australia and so on and on. Socialism has become a dirty demonised word in the USA and that gets in the way of the equality of opportunity benefits a decent society provides.


Exactly! I see it as basically the same thing. Redistribution of resources from producers to non-producers. You have to look at it from a very fundamental vantage point.


s/fundamental/simplistic/

Fixed that for ya


s/Egalitarianism/Authoritarianism/


No communist societies have ever been able to feed themselves - from the Pilgrims, to the USSR, to Jamestown, to the kibbutzen, to North Korea. Voluntary or coercive, the results are the same.


If this is Walter Bright creator of D, I must say I'm in awe.

Nonetheless, I agree with you 100%. It doesn't matter what form it takes. Majority of my millennial peers refuse to even accept that socialism leads to the inevitable outcome that is communism and that it is an evil that would deprive all of us of our individual liberties to a point where all human decency will be lost.


The great thing about a free market country is people can form workers' collectives if they want to. The only thing is they can neither force anyone to join nor prevent anyone from leaving.

Many such have been formed over the years in the US, and they've all collapsed.


Indeed a free market allows for workers to voluntarily unionise but seldom is it the case that members are free to leave at will. Any form of collectivism yields the loss of personal liberty and loss of property rights(members cannot opt out of perpetual membership fees). It doesn't help that most union leaders are disingenuous actors who exhibit acidic levels of corruption only comparable to that of majority of government bureaucrats.


There have been a lot of communistic societies over the years so I would be cautious about declaring them all unable to feed themselves. Having said this the only exception I can think of are the Doukobors [1].

1. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doukhobor


This is a great question. And 6 months after the last update is a good time to be asking it.

It's much less efficient for both YC and individuals if every interested individual started emailing and asking for updates. Much better this way - after all that's why broadcast or pub-sub systems exist. HN is kind of a curated broadcast system.

It often happens that people who're working on the project might not find 'right now' to be the ideal time to share updates. This could be either because they're immersed thinking through a particularly challenging aspect of the problem/solution, or they feel a little lost (which is a normal feeling in the middle of ambitious projects). Sharing an update at that point makes you feel vulnerable, but that's exactly what you need to do.

Or it could be that they have a really promising angle and want to see more data before writing something up. The 'more data' approach is usually a mirage (promising approaches start showing potential even at early stages/small scale) and sharing progress helps the project even in that case. (For example, you might learn that a similar approach has been tried before, and here is what someone learnt).


There would need to be at least ~50-60 years before evaluation of the results

There needs to be at least 2 generations that have had UBI for their entire life. UBI affects the motivation to work on skills, so the subject would need UBI for their entire life.

The parents of the subject also needs to have UBI for their entire life because the parents could transmit the scarcity, pre-UBI mindset onto the subject. There is a still chance that the pre-UBI mindset of the grandparents could be transmitted to the subject. Ideally the subject would be at least 3-4 generations removed from the start of UBI


While not exactly the same, wouldn't the children/grandchildren of lottery winners/successful entrepreneurs/old money provide a reasonable proxy? People having been 'gifted' allowances/trust funds over a few generations is hardly unprecedented in modern history.


No, because they are a substantial abberation from the norm, which is essential to what the BGI attempts to achieve.


from that perspective wouldn't any trial of basic income then be invalid, because the trial participants are a significant abberation from the norm?


I came to the same conclusion when thinking about this too. It might even make sense to counsel people too about what they can do with the extra time/money. There are a lot of amazing things to do in the world, but most people will always try to emulate their immediate environment.

For some people, I would expect they would end up getting hooked on something unwholesome (drugs for example) with their newfound free time. You could probably make a huge difference in this just by suggesting the right things at the right times.


> hooked on something unwholesome (drugs for example) with their newfound free time

Based on what the "Rat Park" studies show about the natures of addiction, that seems very unlikely: People get addicted when their lives suck, not when they have free time.

Having money enough to eat is going to go a long way to making peoples' lives suck less.

Not to say that helping people direct their energies wouldn't be useful. It may take a few months of vacation or longer before people can recover enough drive to do anything with their time that they can make themselves do anything other than relax. When you've spent your life being told what to do and driving yourself with fear of losing your job, it may take months or even years of recovery before you can be self-motivated effectively. Telling them that too might be useful.

I think the government should offer "jobs" that don't add a huge amount of money over the basic income, but that provide some public good, to help people who are just terminally uncreative direct their time, but should also offer free education in how to start their own businesses for those who do want to create something, build something, or provide a service. Or alternately they could learn new professions in their now-free time and get higher paying jobs.

So yes, I agree with your conclusion (education and guidance is important). Just not the reasoning that got you there. :)


Not specifically directed at you but whenever poverty is being raised I keep seeing reactions that bring up drug abuse. It's almost like they are seen as highly related.

This correlation is questionable at best.

[1] http://www.politifact.com/texas/statements/2012/nov/26/josep...


It might take 50-60 years to declare it an unvarnished success, but it could take a very short amount of time to declare it a failure.


Err... No.. There could be long-term effects.. If you take a very short time to declare it a failure, have you tested the long-term effects at all? (For ex: Like the OP mentioned, have accounted for scarcity mindset being communicated by the parent to child effect?).


Maybe sending emails to the researchers and posting their answers here could be more efficient.


I'm not sure what there is to update. I'm guessing they chose some "interesting" people (as in whose outcomes will most likely to advance their agenda), and doled out a monthly "income" for them -- as in, they literally handed them cash for 6 months (personally, I would've just kept on working full-time). Nothing magical to report back on there, right?

This doesn't really show the economic effects of "basic income" on a macro scale though (I claim that they are so drastic that they are actually worth understanding first, but can't personally think of a better "experimentation platform"). Also, I doubt the project will really do much to actually influence public policy in a way that would favor UBI.

It's also probably shocking to a lot of people that Uber's self-driving cars really weren't as good as they were supposed to be, so now it makes YC look like they _really_ just jumped the gun.

Call it "Basic Income," but really, it's "giving money to people" on a small scale.


I don't work on YCR Basic Income, but the early steps of any experiment are pretty time consuming and not particularly interesting (e.g. logistics, experiment structure, etc...) I'd guess we can expect an update early next year with some of those details and a reflection on existing progress.

In their blogpost, they provide an email for feedback: basicincome@ycr.org

They're likely very consumed by all the work they need to do, so I'd reach out if you have some specific suggestions/asks. Otherwise, you can join me in eagerly waiting for more updates when they're ready to share them :)


I expect there are quite a few people here who would find logistics, experiment structure, etc... fascinating. Which is not to say it's necessarily the best use of their time to update us on it.


Agreed tenfold. YC has absolutely no obligations to us regarding these issues but there is not a single detail in the whole enterprise that would not be fascinating to me.


anyone know how to sign up for participation in the pilot and/or the eventual wider rollout?


I think the limitation of UBI experiments is that they are inherently microeconomic, they might measure the individual effects of the program, but not measure the resulting macro issues of what 'Universal' would really imply across broad strata of society.


One must start somewhere.


"Please don't post on HN to ask or tell us something (e.g. to ask us questions about Y Combinator, or to ask or complain about moderation)"

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


I think in this scenario it seems fair to post a question. What's the alternative, write a blog article asking the same and post a link to that instead?

I'm also interested in a status update given some recent news posted on HN about Finland experimenting with the same ideas.


Alternative would be emailing them "Are you able to share any progress on the BI project? I'd bet more on HN would be keen to hear too." Project then writes a blog and someone submits to HN.

However, I can appreciate that the slight public pressure of an Ask YC making the front page might encourage quicker movement or at least a response that didn't otherwise warrant a blog post.


Agreed. This seems like the right way to ask for updates. Especially since other people would like to know too.


If YC is going to use HN to promote themselves, seems only fair to allow the community to query them via HN.


There needs to be an "Ask YC" weekly.

It'd also make for a great way to nudge the community in the desired direction by focusing attention (and away from becoming what's effectively a standalone subreddit).


Except for the fact that YC explicitly said don't do this...


Which is not necessarily a reason not too. That's the double-edge of company backed fora.


Not exactly this...


Does this count? It's just a query about updates on something YC posted on HN themselves. Seems allowed to me.


This doesn't seem in the spirit of this rule, which seems designed to prevent questions of the type 'How do I get into YC?'


Correct me if I am wrong, but user "sama" is Sam Altman, President of YC; so if he answers instead of killing the thread, I would guess he is OK with it.


Are you actually a mod though? Rule call-outs are almost always even more noisy than the original offense was.




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