Regular listeners of Sam Harris' podcast called Making Sense may have heard his recent episode titled "Inequality and Revolution" with sociologist Jack Goldstone. In the latter part of the episode, Harris and Goldstone discussed some substantive policy measures like Universal Basic Income (UBI) that could be taken to reduce income inequality, specifically in the U.S.. Goldstone's idea was a one time lump sum of something like $50,000 after 1 or 2 years of public service (more on this later).
Andrew Yang's UBI
UBI as a policy was popularized in part by Andrew Yang, a former candidate for the Democratic Presidential Nomination. Yang's version of UBI consisted of $1,000 monthly payment, or $12,000 per year, to all US citizens over the age of 18. On a seperate podcast with Sam Harris and Andrew Yang titled "Universal Basic Income," Yang argued that the money would help Americans weather the increasing automation in the age of AI and lead to "healthier people, less stressed out people, better educated people, stronger communities, more volunteerism, [and] more civic participation." He argued that the $12,000 a year wouldn't be enough to replace a job, but would increase financial stability and opportunity especially for low income families. More on his policy and how to pay for it can be found at this Wikipedia article.
Goldstone's Basic Income
In the podcast, Goldstone was not in favor of smaller monthly payments, rather a larger, one-time lump sum of money after completing some requirement of public service. He argued that the monthly payments were much easier to squander while a lump sum of something like $50,000 would incentivize people to spend the money smarter. For example, a lump sum could help start a business, buy a home, pay off college loans, etc where $1,000 a month simply doesn't provide enough money in a short enough time.
The additional benefit of this plan is of course the public service. Public service has a long and pretty successful history in the U.S:
- In the "New Deal," President Franklin Roosevelt established mass public service programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which provided jobs to three million young men during the Great Depression (More info here).
- The 1944 G.I. bill helped 2.2 million WWII veterans to attend colleges or universities and an additional 5.6 million veterans for some kind of training program in the 12 years after the bill's passage (More info here).
- The Peace Corps in a government agency and volunteer program created by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Since it began, around 235,000 Americans (most of them college educated) have served in volunteer programs in 141 countries (More info here). Upon completion of the 2-year program, participants receive an unconditional $10,000.
Public service, when directed effectively, seems like a really good thing. The volunteer labor could be applied to domestic infrastructure as in the CCC, volunteering abroad like in the Peace Corps, or a host of other problems. Additionally, when the public service doesn't involve fighting a war, most people speak highly of their experiences and find a shared connection in their work. Goldstone suggested that such a programs might help stem rising polarization and focus the country on our shared ideals.
Call for feedback
I believe that one of the most significant ways to produce positive outcomes is through smart and effective government policy. Goldstone's proposal seems like it could really re-energize American volunteerism and create good financial opportunities for young people. While it's undoubtedly a big and difficult proposal, it seems feasible given the growing support for UBI during the pandemic and past public service programs.
If anyone knows more about this proposal (I'm not even sure if it has a name?) or has critiques I would be excited to hear them.