Facebook co-founder visits UAA, discusses universal basic income

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes visited UAA recently to discuss the Permanent Fund Dividend and universal basic income.

Hughes worked on President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and had tumultuous stint as owner, publisher and editor in chief of The New Republic magazine.

On Sept. 15, the UAA Political Science Department hosted a guided discussion with Hughes led by professor Forrest Nabors in Rasmuson Hall.

Hughes is co-chair of the Economic Security Project, a two-year initiative researching implementation of unconditional cash stipends as a means to provide economic stability.

“Unemployment’s low — 4.3 percent — yet wages in this country are not rising.” Hughes told the audience. “And when you look at the number of jobs that are out there, a job that used to be 40 hours a week, solid pay, heath benefits, vacation time, pension plans. Those are increasingly not available to people.”

His experience with Facebook taught him that hard work matters, but these days luck plays into economic success differently than it has in the past, he said. Factors including automation, globalization and monopolies cause a situation where wealth is consolidated in a “winner-take all-economy.”

“[A] very small, select few people — quite frankly people like myself — have access to enormous winnings from the economy while everybody else struggles to make ends meet,” Hughes said.

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Research shows, according to Hughes, that cash provides the most economic opportunity.

“It turns out when you give people money, more often than not, they know better how to invest it in order to provide financial security to their families,” Hughes said.

He told the audience that Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend is a template for providing a base income across the U.S., which has piqued the interest of tech entrepreneurs.

Hughes addressed questions from Nabors including whether a base income has negative effects such as killing motivation.

He defended his position citing research in support of cash stipends, but conceded that there is still work to be done.

After the discussion Hughes took questions from the audience.

Forrest Habors and Chris Hughes address a question from a student during Hughes’ visit to UAA on Sept. 15 to discuss the effects of the Permanent Fund Dividend and universal income. Hughes is a co-founder of Facebook and a member of the Economic Security Project. Photo credit: Jay Guzman

One audience member raised the issue of individuals abusing stipends for things like drugs and alcohol. While he agreed with those concerns, Hughes brought up research showing that despite the potential abuse of stipends, most people use the money for practical purposes.

Another audience member asked Hughes why the government wouldn’t take care of education or public health issues before handing out cash. Hughes acknowledged that there are major problems that can’t be solved by giving out money, but said theres no “pecking order” to these issues and they need to be addressed in tandem with economic stability.

Maggie Lamborn, an English major at UAA, said she supports a universal basic income and found the discussion informative.

“It was really interesting for me, considering I’ve only lived in Alaska for 13 months,” Lamborn said. “I won’t receive the PFD, but I’ve watched how it affects the Alaskan economy and seeing somebody like Chris Hughes, who’s really well-versed in this kind of thing come up and talk about it and talk about how it changes the whole dynamic of things.”

After the event, Nabors said that when you see people like Hughes spending their time and money championing ideas for the benefit of others, it’s difficult to disagree with their cause.

“The idea of a basic minimum income has its friends on both sides of the aisle, it has its enemies on both sides of the aisle. Which I think means all of us ought to consider what it is, how it would work without partisan taint,” Nabors said. “We ought to think about it. It is a powerful idea. It’s a revolutionary policy idea in fact, I would say, and it’s worth our time. Even if we don’t agree with it, the question itself will stimulate further thought that could improve our policy discourse.”

KTUU reported Hughes spent his trip touring Anchorage and speaking with locals about their opinions of the PFD.