Discussion on policy and memoir

Hughes’s book is divided between policy and memoir. When he was growing up, in suburban North Carolina, he writes, his mom clipped coupons and he went to an after-school program with mostly nonwhite kids. He dreamed of a bigger life, and applied to top high schools. Andover offered financial aid, but not enough. He called up its admissions office and pleaded for more. Once there, Hughes felt poor, and sought validation in schoolwork. This led him to Harvard, where he ended up rooming with three guys he didn’t know too well, including Mark Zuckerberg.

Hughes had no technical knowledge. But he was there when Facebook was being set up, and he could talk and write, so he was put in charge of its early P.R. On graduating, he found himself leading Facebook’s communications and marketing and watching venture capitalists invest “jaw-dropping” sums. It bemused him. “I didn’t feel like some kind of genius, and while Mark was smart and talented, so were many of the other people I went to college with,” he writes.

Hughes searches for points of exception that explain why he, not someone else from another middle-middle-class family, ended up with half a billion dollars and a speaking circuit out of the gate. His scramble to get into Andover, for one thing, seems central. But should the randomness of this early ambition—which, even if it doesn’t have to do with resources, does reflect community information transfer—really determine who’s in with a chance? Hughes thinks these individual zaps of opportunity have a large-scale correlate: the very economic setup that made him and his roommates super- rich. “In a winner-take-all world, a small group of people get outsized returns as a result of early actions they take,” he writes. Massive tech companies such as Facebook have been possible because of deregulation, financialization, tax cuts, and lowered tariffs rolled out, he thinks, at a cost to ordinary people since the nineteen-seventies.

The solution, Hughes has decided, is a modest basic income: five hundred dollars a month for every adult in a household making less than about fifty thousand dollars. He sees it as a boost to the current system, and argues that the money can be found by closing tax exemptions for the ultra-wealthy —“people like me.”

Six thousand dollars a year is not a lot of money. But Hughes believes that a light padding is enough. He describes receiving his first big payout from Facebook—a

hundred thousand dollars—and realizing that if he set aside a five-per-cent return each year he could count on a lifelong annual income of at least five thousand dollars, no matter what. It was a little, but it meant a lot. “The further you get from subsistence, the easier it is to ask fundamental questions like: What do I want, and how do I get it?” he writes. The covetable entity that the Andover kids of his youth possessed wasn’t actually wealth. Their crucial asset was the assurance of choice.

raming basic income in terms of choice, not money, helps to clarify both its opportunities and its limits. On the immediate level, one might

wonder whether Hughes’s proposal of five hundred dollars a month is really enough to boost one’s existential swagger. That number, he says, would lift twenty million people over the poverty line, but any three-hundred-billion- dollar program should. More to the point are Hughes’s qualms about a universal basic income—or even a lower-middle basic income, like his— replacing means-tested aid. (“Trading in benefits earmarked for the poor for a benefit like guaranteed income, which is designed to provide financial stability to the middle class and the poor alike, would be regressive,” he says.) Why spray so much money over people doing fine, he wonders, when you could direct cash as needed?

One answer is that it makes the program palatable to those who cannot stomach anything resembling government handouts. A wide range of people stand to benefit from a cushion: any worker with an abusive boss is free to take the basic wage and leave. By certain measures, in fact, giving everyone a flat check naturally rebalances opportunities for choice. A thousand bucks handed to a multimillionaire means almost nothing, but it’s significant for a middle-income person, and for a poor person it could open up the world.

Skeptics might point out that what was meant to be a floor can easily become a ceiling. This was Marx’s complaint about Speenhamland: a society with a basic income has no pressure to pay employees a good wage, because the bottom constraint, subsistence, has fallen away. We see such an effect already in the gig economy, where companies pay paltry wages by claiming that their endeavors are flexible and part-time and that workers surely have subsistence income from elsewhere.

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