Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, during his Harvard commencement address on Thursday, called for universal basic income for citizens who can have the “cushion” to take risks, like starting a business or learning a skill, without being pressured to keep a steady job that may not advance them outside their economic class.
“Now it’s time for our generation to define a new social contract,” Zuckerberg said. “We should explore ideas like universal basic income to make sure that everyone has a cushion to try new ideas.”
Universal basic income is a controversial idea that’s been derided as sort of a fancy name for public welfare by some. Others can’t see any way around it once artificial intelligence and automation become economically more attractive than people. Specifically, Zuckerberg mentioned self-driving cars as the most imminent example of technology that will create massive disruption to the economy.
Zuckerberg, 33, who dropped out of Harvard to start Facebook and moved from Boston to Silicon Valley, returned this week as a billionaire and semi-political figure — although he says he’s not running for office — who seemed to be doing his best impression of America’s current greatest orator, former President Barack Obama.
The similarity in tone was likely not an accident: Zuckerberg, who ditched the hoodie for a presidential suit, put forth ideas all shared by the president, and used phraseology and vocal rhythms similar to him, too.
In an interview with Wired in October, Obama didn’t actually mention basic income by name but did say policy-makers at all levels are going to have to “have a conversation” about it.
“We are going to have to have a societal conversation about how we manage this,” Obama said then. “How do we make sure that folks have a living income? … The social compact has to accommodate these new technologies, and our economic models have to accommodate them.”
“Our generation is going to have to deal with tens of millions of jobs replaced by automation, like self-driving cars and trucks, but we have the potential to do so much more than that,” Zuckerberg said.
Zuckerberg said the greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail, and with universal basic income, more people might have the freedom to take risks.
“If I had to support my family growing up instead of having the time to learn how to code, if I didn’t know that I was going to be fine if Facebook didn’t work out, I wouldn’t be standing up here today,” he said. “And if we’re honest, we know how much luck we’ve had to get to this point in our lives.”