Full transcript: Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes on Recode Decode
His new book advocates for providing “guaranteed income.”
On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Chris Hughes, the co-founder of Facebook and former owner of The New Republic, talks about his new book, “Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn.” In it, Hughes argues that working people should receive a guaranteed income, paid for by the top 1 percent of earners in the U.S.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Kara Swisher: Recode Radio presents Recode Decode, coming to you from the Vox Media podcast network. Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as someone who plans to get rich by selling bulletproof armor for Teslas, but in my spare time, I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode, a podcast about tech and media’s key players, big ideas and how they’re changing the world we live in. You can find more episodes of Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music or wherever you listen to podcasts, or just visit recode.net/podcasts for more.
Now in week three of my horrible cold, which is giving me this very scratchy voice today, still, we have in the red chair Chris Hughes, one of the co-founders of Facebook. He’s also the author of a new book called “Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn.” It argues that working people should receive a guaranteed income, sometimes called Universal Basic Income, paid for by the 1 percent like Chris himself. Chris, welcome to Recode Decode.
Chris Hughes: Thanks for having me.
So, tell me about … and let me go into your background first, because this is a big topic, and the joke I made at the top about bulletproofing your Teslas was from a quote that Robert Reich just gave at an event, where he said, “You’re either gonna have to do something like Universal Basic Income or” — to the rich — “or you’re gonna have to pay to bulletproof your Teslas.” You know, so we’ll get into a really bad situation of haves and have-nots and like Brazil or some countries where the rich have to insulate themselves using security, or South Africa or somewhere else.
So, I wanted to explain that it’s not a joke but it’s a very serious issue. But first, let’s talk about your background. Can you give everybody a quick synopsis of your history?
Happily. I’ll try to give the Cliff’s Notes version. I grew up in a little town, Hickory, North Carolina. It’s at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, used to be a …
You’ve barely lost the accent, but you have.
I did a little bit.
I can hear it.
Well, that’s part of the story, actually. I grew up there, my mom was a public school teacher, Dad was a traveling paper salesman, but then I got a scholarship to go to a fancy boarding school, Phillips Andover, up in Massachusetts. And it was there where …
Nice. That is a fancy boarding school.
It is indeed. It was there where I lost the accent and then later got a scholarship to go to Harvard and met Mark Zuckerberg, freshman year. We ended up roommates sophomore year, started Facebook in February of 2004, the rocket ship took off and my life changed pretty dramatically.
I ended up wanting to write the book in order to partially tell my story and be clear that the financial reward that I got from three years’ worth of work at Facebook was entirely disproportionate to the time and effort put in, but to also make the case that my story, which is nothing but … You know, the only thing we can call it is a lucky break, is unfortunately not that uncommon in the economy today.
No, now, you are unusual …
That a small group of people … I might be extreme but I don’t think my case is actually that unusual, a small group of people are getting very, very wealthy while everybody else is struggling to make ends meets.
Yeah, extremely wealthy in some cases. What did you … after Facebook, you left relatively early?
I did. I left in 2007 and went and worked for President Obama.
Right, like digital stuff.
Back in the early days of the campaign, I had the title of Director of Online Organizing, which pretty much meant trying to not just build a community online but create a movement that was willing to take the campaign into their own hands, not just sort of the hub-and-spoke traditional model of those campaigns, but instead people standing up to organize events and raise money, knock on doors, make phone calls and using the internet to power …
Which was early on. I mean, this had been tried by … Actually, the right wing was very good at it. The conservatives were very good at it way, way, way back, but this was one of the biggest efforts to do this, an important part of his winning.
Yeah, it was a transitional moment in politics in so many ways, but I think the biggest shift was not so much in technology. We had a social network called barackobama.com The technology was good but it was in the expectations that the candidate at the time and that the campaign around him was interesting, specifically saying, “You know, we’re not going to try to lock down the message and just us, three or four at the campaign headquarters in Chicago, are going to figure it all out. Instead, we’re going to open it up and quite literally enable anybody to write anything on our website barackobama.com.”
It was a symbolic moment but it mattered because it invited people into the campaign, to participate in a way that previously they hadn’t really been asked to, and it was symbolic of a lot of other changes. So we ended up raising tens of millions, hundreds of million by the end, of dollars through the internet, had tens of thousands of grassroots events. It was an important moment.
What got you there? How did you get there, you just liked Obama?
Well, it was back in 2007 and …
Way back then, that’s so long ago.
I know. It’s not that long ago, but politics has changed so dramatically, this really feels that way.
I was working on some of the political products at Facebook and so, one of the people that I got to know was this guy Reggie Love, who was President Obama’s body man, as they’re called, and …
That’s an unfortunate term, isn’t it?
Anyway, sorry to say that word, but he was his assistant and he just went with him anywhere. We started having conversations, just like we were doing with other candidates and officeholders, on how to use Facebook. It became clear that Obama was going to throw his hat in the ring and then I talked to a few of the other people. I did really believe in Obama’s story himself and the promise that he offered. Initially I just took a leave, but the leave turned into a permanent move.
Did you miss doing that, leaving Facebook?
You know, I had mixed feelings about it, but my experience was really different than Mark’s and Dustin’s. I mean, Facebook was a mission in and of itself for Mark, and for me it was a company that I enjoyed being a part of, growing. I learned a lot, it was exciting, there were all kinds of challenges, but it was clear to me early on that Facebook was not my life’s work. It was going to be a chapter, and it turned out to be a very important chapter, but I felt, particularly in 2007 when George Bush was president, we had all kinds of what I view as unfair economic policies, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a time when I was really hopeful that the country could change the corner.
Well, you had money and means and you had skills.
Yeah, at that point I moved to the campaign and was paid I think $65,000. Facebook stock was all …
No one feels badly for you.
No, no, no, I know, I’m just being clear. I talk in the book about when I actually sold some stock and didn’t make money and what a massive change it was, but in that period the move from Facebook to Obama was about the mission.
Yeah, you were at a startup, it was a startup, people forget. Yeah, absolutely. So, you did that, and then afterwards had done a range of things. I’m sorry to go back in history but people find your background interesting.
So, you then went on to buy a publication, you did a lot of things, your husband ran for office.
He did, yeah. After Facebook went public in 2012, my husband and I made a commitment to give away the vast majority of the money that we made and to invest that money in causes that we believed in. I started investing in, really, multiple things, and on the one hand I started the journey to cash. That is how I sort of ended up writing the book today and talking about guaranteed income and universal basic income.
I also bought a magazine called The New Republic and decided to invest there because I believed two things. That the journalism that The New Republic had done for decades, nearly 100 years at the time, was incredibly valuable, important to the world, important to democracy and also deserved, in 2012, a bigger audience than it had historically had. I talk a lot in the book about my experience there because on the whole there are more things that I regret than …
Yeah, a little rocky.
More than a little rocky.
Those are real grumpy — I’m being polite — those are super grumpy journalists. I lived in Washington, I know those things.
Yeah, but I also came in guns blazing.
Yeah, you did. I know better.
I came in with the kind of expectation that if you invest a lot of money and you bring together smart people and you set really ambitious goals, you know, you can reach them. That’s what the first two experiences of my career had taught me. Between Facebook and the Obama Campaign they taught me that the impossible was actually a little bit more possible than one might think.
What was the big problem? You write about it, but what do you think the big issue … what’s your big mistake and that big mistake? I think it’s a group of people that doesn’t like the internet in general. Most traditional media, in my experience over the years, has been resistant.
Well, I think …
Or grudging would be [a better word].
If I were to do it all over again, I would take a different approach. I would not come in and say the kind of journalism that The New Republic has historically done is necessarily made for an audience of tens of millions of people. I came in really thinking that we could and should open it up to a much broader kind of audience.
Big ideas should have big …
Exactly, and I think at the end of the day I was maybe the last to learn what everybody else already knew. The New Republic had been a small kind of magazine.
Artisanal, we would call it artisanal.
Yeah, we had 35,000 subscribers and that wasn’t because … You know, it was because there’s a community of people who are politically minded, culturally curious, literary, etc., but that community is relatively small.
Maybe. We’ll see what Laurene Jobs does at the Atlantic, they’re doing a kind of conversation.
Yeah, well, the Atlantic has a different tradition, the New Yorker has its own. You know, each of these institutions are artisanal, they make up a category. But so rather than swinging for the fences, I think the institution would have been better served, the people I worked with would have been better served and the values behind it would have been better served if we had made more modest investments. If we’d said, “Yes, we’re going to have a good website that is in line with the values of the day, but we don’t need the best award-winning iPad app guys.” Like the slickest kind of technology content management systems, we probably don’t need to create a custom one from scratch, as we ended up doing. These kinds of things …
You’re the internet guy. Someone there called you a terrier to me.
What does that mean?
I don’t know, don’t ask me. I get those … I’m sorry, everyone in … There’s a reason I left Washington, and a part of it was the extreme distaste for the internet no matter what, even if it was a relatively good idea.
Look, you came in with … you did come in with guns blazing, and those people, no. When I was like, “No, no, no, Chris, stop, these are not the …” It’s like when Pierre Omidyar went into Intercept, at first there was like, “Oh, they’re real grumpy over there,” but it’s like, Laurene Jobs is making investments. There’s all kind of internet people making … Jeff Bezos — the Washington Post — seems to have done a very good job of that.
Absolutely, but just one last point on that. I do think it’s important, though, to recognize that the kind of journalism that all of these institutions do is really a public goal.
And this idea that the market … We have to find robust, for-profit kind of sustainable models for this journalism, maybe we will. There’s a scenario where we don’t and that doesn’t mean that it’s not important to support it.
Well, you have ProPublica.
Exactly, you do have ProPublica and Texas Tribune, you have some …
Yeah, you have rich people backing these things.
Exactly, and when I started … I see you sort of rolling your eyes a little bit. My initial response was a kind of skepticism, “Is that really sustainable?” But on the other side of my experience, I think that is in many ways the story of a lot of the high-quality media in the country.
The New Republic had not really ever turned a profit. It was technically a company but it was really … I mean, I have a line in the book, it was a cause dressed up as a company — and I think we culturally need to get a little bit more used to the fact that even if Jeff was losing an immense amount of money at the Washington Post, I still think that the journalism is important to …
Yeah, well, it’s interesting because … We’ll get to that, because you’re talking about rich people paying for something like universal income too. There is a duty of public service and maybe that’s the way it’s going to be paid for and everyone should stop bellyaching over it, you’re right. You know what I mean, on some level. So, what’s your relationship there now? None? Or you sold?
No, I sold the magazine to Win McCormack in 2016.
Well, that’s a name of a person who should own The New Republic. Sorry. Win McCormack?
It’s a perfect name. You have a good name but it’s not as good as Win McCormack.
Not quite as austere, right?
Yes, yeah. So you have had nothing to do, or do you imagine going into other journalism-type things? You had an interest.
Yeah, and my interest is still real. I’m focused on specifically income inequality. I have come to believe that where the most opportunity lies is in making the case for cash and specifically for guaranteed income for Americans who are struggling to make ends meet, so that’s what I’m most …
Well, we’re going to talk about in the next section. I just want to finish up with you, and then your husband ran for office. You go from one thing to … he didn’t win.
Well, that was him. That wasn’t me.
Yes, but you were involved in it.
Yes, it turns out we are married.
We are married, and didn’t win. Is he going to run again or is that it?
I don’t think so. He’s focused on something called Stand Up America, which is an organization that tries to channel a resistance to Trump’s agenda. It’s quite the understatement that the energy that the resistance has cultivated over the past few years is in need of organization, so what they do is connect the dots, and on Facebook, on Twitter, email, text message, I mean, you name it. It’s trying to make sure people are aware of what’s happening, particularly when it comes to the Russia investigation but across the board, and then translate that enthusiasm and energy into boots on the ground, door knocks and eventually, hopefully, into electoral victory.
Votes will be the thing. I just had an interesting interview with Cory Booker and I’m going to be talking to Chuck Schumer later today, but I think votes would be the thing that everyone needs to focus on beyond … and how to get people to actually step out and vote. That’s pretty much it.
It’s just an understatement of how difficult that is, but it’s the only thing that’s going to change anything.
Then you move to this, this book and what got you interested in the income inequality. A lot of people out here, Sam Altman’s interested, there’s an experiment in Oakland, I think there’s one in Sweden. They’re all over.
We have one in Stockton.
Stockton, California, so talk about that. Your group has one, you are what?
My interest in guaranteed income actually started around 2012, and I came in through the international door to start. So my husband and I came into this immense amount of wealth, we made this commitment to give it all away, and so the first kind of …
And you could have done a lot of things. You could have done a lot of … like a family foundation.
The first kind of question is this like, what’s the most effective thing that you can do?
And so it seems like an easy question. It’s actually an incredibly complex one, and so we went on a journey — and I have a chapter in the book that narrates a piece of it — to think about where are we going to get the most bang for the buck? How can we help people in the way that is the most effective? And particularly from an international perspective.
I looked a lot at different things and ended up finding Michael Faye and Paul Niehaus, the two co-founders of an organization called GiveDirectly, and made a first gift of $100,000, which was literally texted to people living on less than a dollar a day in Kenya, and began a journey myself. And, so I came to the immense amount of evidence that cash is the most effective thing that you can do to improve health outcomes, education outcomes and lift people out of poverty.
So, giving the poor money is the way to make them not poor?
Indeed, and I learned that initially through the international lens, but then here, domestically, what I discovered is that we actually already have the world’s largest cash transfer program. It’s called the Earned Income Tax Credit. It’s called a tax credit, but what it actually is is a lived experience of … it’s a check that tens of millions of Americans get and it lifts more people out of poverty than food stamps, housing vouchers and unemployment insurance combined.
Now, it needs to be modernized, I would argue, for the economy that we live in today, not just the income inequality that we have but also the income instability that the gig economy has introduced. At the end of the day, though it’s once a belief that I had because of the empirical evidence that shows the effectiveness, and one that I feel like is a moral case, I believe that the best way to respect the dignity of people and embrace their freedom is through the most fundable thing.
Through cash and the ability to chase their own dreams or figure out their own futures.
Cash or some kind of money. So, you got interested in it through that, just by giving?
Initially, and then …
What did you try with that concept? Because again there’s lots of … I’m assuming you get like pecked to death all day of what you should give to and how you can help people.
Yeah, and I mean my husband and I give to an array of causes, it’s not just Cash International. LGBT rights is another thing that’s important to us, we were active in the fight for marriage equality, but particularly when it comes to income inequality and ending poverty. When you’re on the hunt for what’s the most effective thing to do, one of the things that I’ve learned is that sometimes the best solution is the simplest. Of course we need more and better education, of course we need more small businesses to create good jobs.
We’ve spent decades thinking about those things, investing in those things, and we should think more. However, sometimes we overlook the most powerful tool or the most powerful weapon in the arsenal and in many ways the simplest, and I think cash can be that. So my hope, though, is to take the conversation a little bit out of speculating about whether robots are going to take all the jobs in 2040 and driverless car and situate it in the here and now, because income inequality has not been as bad as it is today since 1929.
Wow, that’s amazing.
Since the year the Great Depression began. I mean, the top 0.1 percent — not 1 percent, the top 0.1 percent — owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent combined. And so anybody who says, “Well, that’s just the way the economy works.” No, we have chosen the rules that structure this economy and we have the power to choose different ones, and I think a guaranteed income should be at the center.
All right, we’re going to talk about that more because it’s loaded with so many different things, politics with everything else, when we get back. We’re here with Chris Hughes, he is one of the co-founders of Facebook but his new book is called “Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn It.” We’re going to talk more about that and other issues when we get back.
We’re here in the red chair with Chris Hughes, one of the co-founders of Facebook but he’s talking about income inequality because of his new book “Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn It.”
We just talked about his background and how he got to this topic. Let’s talk some more about that because there’s so many things hanging off of income inequality. There’s all kinds of efforts. Talk first about your efforts that you’re doing in Stockton. How do you approach it? Because again, there’s lots of different thoughts about this and some people think it’s … I met someone the other day calling it communism, like, you know what I mean like, okay, yeah, kind of.
I think of it as capitalism with much better guardrails.
Okay, something like that.
The group that I co-run is called the Economic Security Project and what we are trying to do is convene a bigger, broader conversation about how a guaranteed income can work in America. There are a lot of people who are interested in UBI, how might this actually evolve, and there are a lot of people who want to think about what we can do in the next three years, what can we do in the next five years, so a shorter time horizon than …
This is to solve inequality problems right now?
Whereas there’s possible job loss, we’ll get to that.
Exactly. So what we do is we convene a network of academics, policy makers, technologists, artists, all of who are talking about, “How do we attack this?” And as part of that we move money. One of the things that we’ve done is work to support Mayor Michael Tubbs, who is the mayor of Stockton, California. For those of you who are listeners who don’t know, he’s 27 years old, he’s the youngest mayor of a major American city. He’s African-American from a city that is incredibly diverse. He’s the first African-American mayor there in generations and he is committed to exploring how a guaranteed income can work for Stocktonians in the here and now.
This is beyond payments from the government?
Specifically, what we’re doing is supporting a demonstration of the idea that will provide an income to some members of the Stockton community. The community itself will decide who exactly, how much money, the duration, etc. Community meetings are beginning this summer and disbursements are likely to begin in fall.
What does it generalize, I know that the community is deciding this, but there are standards right now growing?
Yeah, one place to begin the number, a lot of people talked about is $1,000 a month, others talk about more … in the book I call for $500 a month, making the case that modest amounts of money can really have out-sized impacts and go even further. The idea, though, is to invite more people into the conversation and move us out of just the realm of theory, might this be a good idea, into the practical, the here and now.
We have lots of research already from up in Alaska, where they have a small guaranteed income from the Earned Income Tax Credit. The Cherokee in North Carolina have a guaranteed income and not to mention the international stuff and so, yes, we need more evidence. And we’re hopeful that that will emerge, but the real focus is on the storytelling. And Tubbs himself as a leader has already just, in announcing this in the work that he’s doing, brought so many more people into the conversation both in Stockton and nationwide.
Who gets the money in your … That’s going to be decided, but in general who gets it? The poorest, correct? Or not? Or working families?
In Stockton, it will be decided by Stocktonians.
It’s not me that’s going to get $1,000. It’s not wealthy people. Or is there a level or should everybody get it?
In the book, I make the case that the best way to start with a guaranteed income today is $500 to everyone who’s making $50,000 on down. So, it’s a little bit different than a UBI. It’s inspired by the exact same values of cash, no strings attached, to achieve financial stability, recognize the dignity and freedom of each individual, but it’s a more modest place to begin. I make the case that we can and should do this through a modernization of the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Which goes to what level of people?
Right now, this is part of the problem. It’s so complex, you know, the people who get it, it depends on how old you are, how many kids you have, whether or not you’re married, what state you live in, what your wages were like. And, so what ends up happening is that people get, in many cases, quite a lot of money, between $500 and $6,000 a year, but because it’s not predictable, you don’t know where it’s coming, when it’s coming, how much you’re going to get. It doesn’t provide the fundamental financial stability, which in my view is …
Which is covering rent or?
That’s the problem that I see this is really trying to solve in the here and now. I mean, we know that jobs in America have already come apart. That is what the effects of automation and globalization in particular have done. All the jobs in the past 10 years that we’ve created, 94 percent of them are part-time, contract, temporary, seasonal. They’re the kinds of things that … Yeah, unemployment is near a record low, but the jobs that are out there are not providing the kind of 40-hours-a-week benefits …
Yes, and it’s going to get worse.
Sick leave, retirement benefits. And it’s very likely to get worse.
And then the elimination of some jobs with some of these technologies you’re talking about, some very … especially around automation, especially on self-driving, we don’t know, nobody knows.
That’s the threat that looms, right? Lots of people have predictions, but in some sense … My argument is, we don’t know exactly where the future is going to go and should have a conversation about where it might lead, but we already know quite a lot about what’s already happening to jobs and we need a guaranteed income to stabilize the lives of Americans who are working hard.
What if you’re someone that’s arguing against it, what is your argument against it?
The arguments I hear most often …
What’s the best one that you’d make if you were against it?
The one that comes up the most often is education, particularly in personal context for me. People say, “Well, you came from a middle-class family, a small town in North Carolina, you got a great education and you did super well for yourself, isn’t that just what we need more of?”
“You drag yourself up,” you drag yourself up from a modest background, right?
That’s the argument that a lot of people make. You know, on the one hand, of course we need better education. There’s no question that education in America, we’ve invested a lot of money in it and have seen some benefits but not enough and there’s an important argument to be made for more education.
But what I think we’ve often overlooked is that … Put yourself in the shoes of somebody who’s got a … Let’s say you’ve got a high school [diploma], you’ve been working in a minimum wage job. You want to go back and get retrained for really any kind of job. Right now, we say, “Well, clearly we just need more educational opportunities.” That person, though …
I’ll use this specific example. I was in Ohio last summer talking to people who were specifically in this position. They were working in minimum wage jobs, they wanted to get all kinds of retraining. You begin the conversation like, “Okay, but why aren’t you doing that?” So, first off, where are you going to go? Community college. The closest community college is 45 minutes away. You got to pay for the gas to get there and the tuition, yeah it costs $8,000. Well, you can get financial aid, it’s going to cost you $1,000. Mind you, as the backdrop, none of these people have savings. You know, half of Americans can’t find $400 in the case of emergency. Just from the beginning, you got to find $1,000 to pay for their education.
Now from there, if you’ve got kids, you’ve got to figure out childcare. How are you going to pay for that when you’re at school? And then if you’re working in a job already, you’ve got to make up for the lost hours and lost wages that you’re not going to have when you’re already living on the brink, how are you going to do that?
And then, even assuming you can figure out all of those things, when you show up for your class at 8:00 pm there’s an immense amount of evidence that shows that if you’ve already been working a full-time day, you’re exhausted and the likelihood of you being successful in that is quite low.
So my view is, of course we need more education, but let’s not overlook the power that cash has to open up the opportunities to be able to take advantage of the educational opportunities we create.
What about the current push by the Trump administration of, “These are lazy people and they have to work for their money.”
I think that’s preposterous. Not only does that not …
It’s out there in …
It’s a cynical argument that people make.
Of course it is, it’s awful and it’s cruel. Wow, cruelty from this administration. It’s cruel, it’s flat out cruel.
Yeah, absolutely. And I think it’s premised on perpetrating a myth. Specifically it’s this myth of the Welfare Queen, which was authored by none other than Ronald Reagan but is still permeating.
Lee Atwater did it.
Well, in the Reagan era.
Yeah and let’s give credit to Lee Atwater, who has died but frankly deserved a lot of credit for that.
It’s a myth that has been really problematic and really destructive. It’s racialized in the sense that it conjures up this kind of idea of people who just hang out and live on the … Now, of course, the evidence doesn’t show that. If you look at labor force participation rates for African-American women, for instance, and you compare those to white men, guess which group works more?
African-American women. So the data shows that that is not true, and when you actually get out there and talk to working people, you know, it doesn’t take much to actually see that that’s not true. But it’s a cynical kind of story that it’s in the interest of a lot of people in power to continue to [promote].
But that’s what they’re pushing right now around all kinds of things, is that you have to work to get welfare, you have to demonstrate that you can’t … It is never leaving our society, this concept of the lazy poor.
I am hopeful that we can turn a corner. It’s not going to evaporate tomorrow. I don’t want to overstate the case here but I do think that there is a generational shift that’s happening and specifically if we can broaden the definition of work that we use to really recognize what work is.
It’s sort of similar to what happened with marriage. In the marriage fight for LGBT people, for a very long time there was an argument about legalizing same-sex marriage as if it was like another kind of marriage, this thing that’s over here that’s different. And then when the movement shifted and started making the case that no marriage … What is marriage fundamentally about? It’s fundamentally about love and commitment, and love is love and marriage is marriage and we need to make sure that the definition of marriage matches love and matches the time that we live in. The definition of marriage quite literally has expanded over time to recognize the kind of marriage that my husband and I are in, for instance.
Similarly, with work, when we talk about work all the time, clearly a mom or a dad who’s staying home with young kids who are under … particularly if they’re under 5 or 6 and not in school, they’re working and we use the word “work” to describe what they’re doing. Similarly, people engaged in elder care, if you’ve got an aging parent at home, you’re working. And I make the case in the book that students, people involved in education, those people are working, too.
If we can expand the definition of work to recognize what people are doing, what you end up with is recognizing the role that virtually every American is playing in society.
Except the people that are doing most of that work are people of color, women are doing two jobs, raising the kids, and we’ve got an issue of around white men essentially that don’t recognize that this is work.
And, they’ve been historically excluded. Like right now, I was in Jackson, Mississippi, three weeks ago meeting with a lot of young African-American moms who lived in public housing and right now many of them were … in fact, all of them were sufficiently poor that they needed the safety net kinds of benefits. Right now, our safety net says what you’re doing at home taking care of your kids? No, no that doesn’t count. You got to go over to Burger King and get a $7-an-hour job — and mind you for every $7 that they make they’re docked about $4 or $5 of government benefits that get reduced, so their actual per-hour earnings become quite small. In order to qualify for a whole host of benefits because that’s real work, but the work that you’re doing at home doesn’t count.
Well, there are those who say you shouldn’t have kids. It goes on, it’s a deeply ingrained racism and everything is …
I think it has to change and I think we have to start somewhere. This is going to be a long-term kind of fight because it does tap into big cultural questions. Again, I don’t want to overstate the speed with which this may happen, but I do think it is similar to something like the fight for marriage equality, which over the course of decades we did see a generational and cultural shift.
For the most part, for many. Although still there’s so much retrograde stuff going on.
Not for everyone, yeah.
You know, Chris, only gay people want to get married and go into the military, I don’t know if you know that. No, I wanted to go in the military, I did, I wanted to do both.
So once you start this in place what do you hope to … What is the goal? Is it to show success, show what … Or just watch how it works?
Well, I think we can start in cities and states and build a sense of momentum.
Everything is happening in the cities and states that matters.
Most things are happening in the cities and states, although I do think that … I can talk a little bit about the opportunity, too, at the federal level. In my view, we should begin today like what Mayor Tubbs is doing in Stockton. You could also do this at a state level, it will be a more modest size, a few hundred dollars a month, but we can begin now and see how it works, see how it changes the lives of people who are getting it. Again, we have a lot of evidence already to know but specifically …
How is it changing, people feel a little more relaxed, they can do …
People certainly feel more relaxed. The recipients of cash assistance specifically through the Earned Income Tax Credit, the kids do better in school. They stay in school for longer periods of time, they do better on tests. Health outcomes improve, people are hospitalized less often, there are fewer complications in pregnancies, people who receive the guaranteed income from the Cherokee as they grow into adults have fewer mental health issues.
There’s a lot of evidence about the effective care. And all this, by the way, is domestic, we don’t even have to go to the couple of hundred studies that exist internationally that show all kinds of other benefits, you know, domestic violence rates go down in many cases and all of it.
It’s intuitive, at the end of the day, if you have a little bit more financial stability in your life you’re able to live one step or two steps back from the brink. We’re not talking about so much money that everybody wins the lottery and we’re like all just, you know, hanging out, putting up our feet, whatever the worst images are that the critics conjure up.
Lazy, eating Cheetos. Cheetos is always involved.
So there’s a lot of evidence. Developing more of a track record at the city level and at the state level and then I do think long-term at the federal level. You know, we just saw a tax bill that got passed at the end of last year, which gave massive cuts …
That was Rich People’s Universal Basic Income.
Giving massive cuts to the 1 percent and to corporations and doubled down on what I consider a debunked theory of trickle-down economics. We’ve been doing this for 40 years and median wages have not meaningfully budged, and yet …
The rich get richer.
The rich get richer and they made a decision to double down on that. Now I think that there is a movement already growing to repeal and replace that law and to rethink it. And I do think that there’s an opportunity to put a modernized Earned Income Tax Credit, which essentially provides a guaranteed income for working people, at the center of that kind of bill.
Now, whether that will happen in 2021 or, I don’t know, 2025, I mean, who knows? So many things can change, but the cynicism that’s permeating our culture about change in Washington and at other levels is the biggest hurdle. We have to begin to think creatively and begin to organize on these ideas.
You know about Sheryl Sandberg’s, I think with the College Track people, giving them cash because they need it for rent. She has a thing where she’s giving away the people who are on College Track. They get money so they can pay the rent, they can do summer internships they couldn’t afford. She’s just giving them money like she …
This is a similar concept, because what happens when they go to college through College Track, poor kids don’t know how to dress, they don’t know how to network, they can’t take summer jobs that are easy. Sometimes their parents rely on them and so the concept is give them cash to pay for those things and give them an extra comfort.
I don’t know that much about it but from what you describe it seems to make a lot of sense. I do think people often ask, again, why is it that cash is so … I was on financial aid in college. Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Muscovites, they dropped out and I was out here that first summer when they decided to stay here and I went back, and a lot of people say, “Well, do you regret that decision?” Because on paper it was the wrong decision from a financial perspective, and to be honest it wasn’t even ever really a decision for me because …
You had to go back.
Because the idea … I mean, if I were to be here, what am I going to do? Work at Starbucks all day and then come home to work at Facebook marketing? I guess I could have, but I was at Harvard and was the first of my family to have that kind of opportunity and so … Anyway, my point is this, a lot of people in college now have a guaranteed income and it comes from their parents — and my kid one day will have that too, so I’m in that category now — but a lot of other people don’t. We have a responsibility to even the playing field and to counteract how those generational cycles …
That was very important about your own experience there. They could afford to be startup people in a different way.
We’re here with Chris Hughes, he’s one of the founders of Facebook. He is very interested in income inequality with his new book “Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn.”
The changing workplace, are you worried about … You’ve benefited from technology financially and have been part of the technology sector for part of your life. Are you worried about job loss or things like that because that could stress this system even more?
I am. Alot of people are convinced that artificial intelligence is going to create mass technical unemployment.
Well, it’s combined automation, there’s a whole bunch.
It’s automation, it’s artificial intelligence, exactly.
Exactly, it’s a combination of multiple trends. There are a lot of economists who think that’s crazy and I talk to a lot of them, too. Jason Forman, who played a prominent role in the Obama administration, has particularly carved out a play saying, “You know, in the long-term this is unlikely to happen.” I’m concerned about it but I also don’t … I’m not in the class where I’m here saying, “It’s going to happen, it’s a fait accompli, it’s a done deal.” It may or may not.
But what I do think the trends are very clear about is the increasing fragmentation of jobs already, and it’s the gig economy that is indicative of that — the Lyft drivers and Uber drivers — but it’s also the worker at Starbucks who can only get 25 hours and who doesn’t know next week if she’ll get 10 or 40.
The idea that you need to be able to plan, planning is made very, very difficult.
That’s very important.
You’re constantly stressed if you don’t know you’re going to be able to make rent. Yeah, you have a job, you have some hours, but if you’re not going to get enough then you’re constantly living on …
You’re in a constant state of instability.
I worry about the wholesale job loss, absolutely, but I’m also personally really intent on making clear that wherever you fall on whether or not that’s the future or not the future, we already need a guaranteed income.
I think it’s interesting. Marc Andreessen is a big proponent of this, that in the end it will be like farming to manufacturing and we’ll have more jobs than ever.
The reason I’m so interested in it this past year — we’ve done a special on MSNBC about it, we’re going to do a lot more of them — is because he was saying, I said, “The blacksmiths, what happened to them?” and he goes, “I don’t care what happened to the blacksmiths,” and I was like, “Yeah, but they had families and something happened, something not good happened to those people.” Did they retrain?
There was social unrest during that whole period, there was enormous social unrest with the farming to manufacturing economy, and we forget because we’re a national of perpetually forgetting our history. It’s happened several times, these shifts in technologies, really.
And people make the argument, too, around not just retraining but mobility. Well, yeah, the blacksmiths of today, they should just move to where all the jobs are.
Who’s going to teach them? I just want to know who’s going to retrain …
The average move across job lines cost over $5,000 and half of Americans can’t find $400 in case their car breaks down, so this idea that you’re just supposed to pack up, turn off the lights and magically move to a place where housing alone is probably five times as expensive as where you were before, it’s crazy.
I think I want to get to the idea of this 1 percent, not just the fragmentation but the wealthiest concentration of wealth moving higher and higher up to a smaller and smaller amount of people. Because I firmly believe there’s a group of people at the top who have benefited from the future. At the very top, the obscenely wealthy love the future, they will be able to change, they will be able to afford it, they will be able to teach themselves, they’re interested in teaching themselves.
Then there’s a vast group of people in the middle who like the future, are scared of the future, and this group on the top is not pulling them up and presumably they would pull the ones below them up further, but there’s no pulling up by the wealthy here. Here’s you saying that the 1 percent should pay this. We’ve just had a tax cut where the 1 percent got paid. What do you imagine this … why the 1 percent doesn’t have this duty to take care?
In San Francisco, it’s the same thing. You can see the streets right now and it’s hard living here with people doing drugs on the streets, you are like, they’re lying on the streets doing drugs in front of my house. This is not good as a taxpayer and you feel badly for feeling that way too, but most people don’t feel badly about thinking about people in that way.
Well, I think a lot of the people that I talk to are cognizant of a sense of responsibility they have to other people. It’s in San Francisco, it’s in New York. I’ll paint with a broad brush and then I’ll be a little more specific about what I mean. I think that there is a sense, particularly amongst people who have been successful in technology, that the rewards that have come are very much historically unique.
I mean, we’ve never lived in a time where 20-year-olds are able to go from zero dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars, billions of dollars, before. Royalty is like the closest thing, hundreds of years ago, and so that is … I do think that there’s a widening sense that something is happening in the economy that makes that possible, and it’s happening at the exact same time that everybody else is having a hard time making ends meet.
That middle group that you’re discussing, those folks have not gotten a raise in 40 years but the cost of living is 30 percent higher. I do think that there’s increasingly a sense of responsibility. Now that’s probably more on the left than on the right, but my hope is to appeal not only to a sense of moral responsibility but also a sense of pragmatism. And by that I mean what we know about what creates long-term economic growth is that consumer spending is the biggest driver of that, and if you put $100 in the pockets really of anybody in your description there, anybody in the middle or at the bottom, they’re going to spend most of that money on whatever is most urgent for them: Housing, health care, education.
You put $100 in the pockets of the 1 percent, we know it goes into a bank account. It goes to work in complex financial moves but it’s not part of the productive economy. There was a study that the Roosevelt Institute did last year that modeled out, if you give $500 for guaranteed income to every American, what would happen to the economy? And the model shows that over the next eight years GDP would grow by 7 percent.
Based on just that amount.
Based just on that amount. And so my argument is that I think in the long run a guaranteed income is good for everyone, certainly for the middle class and the poor who need the funds the most, but it should also be good for …
The producers, the wealthy.
For the wealthy as well because it creates a kind of broad-based economic growth.
Just specifically to talk about the pay for a moment. I think tax rates on income of $250,000 and higher should come into line with their historical average of 50 percent. That’s where they were for much of the 20th century, for the decades after the Second World War really up until 1980 ,that’s in line with where they were. And it just so happens that that’s the period when economic growth was not only the biggest but also the most broadly shared and we had plenty of innovation, plenty of smart people starting all kinds of new companies. The idea that if taxes were higher on that income that we wouldn’t have started Facebook, that’s just not true.
And the way that that would play out is because it’s income above, if you’re making $300,000, which in some parts of the country definitely makes you wealthy but not, let’s say, a part of the winner-take-all. What you’re talking about is a few more like $7,000 more in taxes to fund a guaranteed income. If you made $10 million, well, what we’re talking about is your tax bill would be $1.5 million higher than it is today, and it is my view that that is more in line with where our finances should be in. We can and should ask the members of that 1 percent to be footing the bill, to make sure that everybody else can enjoy the economic opportunity …
You’re with a group of people in tech who talk about that but I deal with a lot of people from Wall Street and stuff like that and I am always astounded by the continued greed of incredibly wealthy people.
I think it’s short-sighted. I think in the long-term it’s …
I would agree. I was talking to someone who is enormously wealthy, really, they were driving me crazy and I finally said, “You know, you’re so poor all you have is money.” Like, “I don’t know what to say.” He was so insulted. He was like, “Why could you say that to me?” I’m like, I just, “You’re so poor, I just don’t know how to explain it to you. You’re just …” It’s astonishing.
I’m constantly surprised by it when you get to a certain level of income and you can’t understand because you know you don’t want to give it to government, the government is somewhat incompetent. Like, “I don’t want to give it to those bozos to hand out.” I feel like when I pay … I pay a lot of taxes and I’m like, “I don’t want to give it to those crazy military people,” like everybody has a thing.
That’s why the Earned Income Tax Credit is the structure that I’m talking about using to build the guaranteed income. It has historically been really popular on the right as well as the left.
I would like to give it to regular people. Yeah, I’m good with people just getting cash.
Every president in the United States since 1975, Republican and Democrat alike, every single one has meaningfully expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit. And it’s for that reason, not only because of the evidence it shows that it works but because there’s a sense that on the right …
Also, it’s a good gimme, it’s a good gimme.
Well, I think there’s a sense on the right that we should put the money in the hands of the people.
The people’s pockets.
Of people who can figure out how to use it themselves.
That was the argument for the tax cuts.
Well, but in that case it’s for the 1 percent, not for …
Didn’t you hear Paul Ryan, didn’t you hear what he …
Well, talk about a cynical kind of … I mean, every non-partisan analysis of the tax bill shows that there are massive disproportionate returns to the 1 percent, not to …
I like that you’re saying, “Talk about cynical,” at this moment in history.
So, let’s finish up, we only have a few more minutes. Talking about politics right now, you’re in … how do you look at the political scene? Your husband is working on the resistance and Facebook has gotten smacked hard. You don’t have to just talk about Facebook but, please do Twitter, Facebook, Google, YouTube?
Well, I mean, so many things. I think the news coming out of Washington, it’s hard to imagine it being more depressing. However, I do think that Trump’s election has been a wake-up call on the left and the right that a lot of people feel that the system is rigged against them and they are willing to embrace a very, very different perspective. It’s scary when Trump is in the White House pushing the policies that he is pushing, but I think the opportunity is, people are open to kinds of crazier kinds of ideas. Guaranteed income a few years ago was on the fringe. I think it’s increasingly becoming part of the mainstream.
I think, though, that we’ve got to counteract the sense that things are just going to always be the way that they are. The economy is going to always be the way it is, so politics is always going to be the way that it is and there’s a lot of evidence in the enthusiasm on the left. You know, you look at the Women’s March, this march that’s planned in a couple of weeks around gun violence across the country. There are a lot of reasons to be hopeful. As you said at the top of the conversation, votes matter, and what happens this November and then in November of 2020.
The only people that are voting are … thank goodness for African-American women. That’s it. The rest of them, millennials, I want to smack them upside the head.
And specifically Facebook. I think Facebook is increasingly recognizing the responsibility that it has.
Slowly but increasingly and overdue.
Yeah, sorry about that American democracy problem. But, I mean, it was slow.
It was slow, absolutely.
We were all screaming about it a year ago and they just, they slowed all this all the way to today.
It has been slow. But I think what’s happened …
Why is that? You worked with these people.
Oof. I would speculate about that just as much as you or anyone else. I think that there was a sense that Facebook as a platform was a kind of neutral algorithm. It’s just a thing that works in the basement. It’s like, you just surface things and there’s nobody …
I’m giving you my “Mm-hmm.”
When in reality, I mean, humans make the decision about how these algorithms work and right now we are seeing a different approach from Facebook.
You think they’re taking advantage of that?
With local news in particular, I find that the initiative around local news that I have … I mean, I haven’t talked to anyone at Facebook about this. I’ve read the journalism that you’ve done and many others have done to be some of the most interesting. They’re specifically working with a dozen local news outlets to do two things.
One, to help them understand how to surface their journalism to bigger and broader audiences on the platform but also to adjust the algorithms to make sure more people see it. Which is really remarkable, right? Because it is a normative statement that local news matters and is important and that specifically Facebook has a responsibility to ensure that people see it. Now is that going to be enough? Absolutely not, we’ve got to think about foreign powers meddling in the election.
Why didn’t they see it, weren’t geniuses what … I mean, I’m being reductive there but you know what I mean.
Your guess is as good as mine on that. I think that they’re turning a corner now and are focused on …
An understatement. I literally was just in an argument on Twitter with the head of ads who was like, “Well, it’s not our fault.” I’m like, “Stop, just stop talking.”
What was he saying?
He was saying that it wasn’t truly their fault.
“It” being the Russian stuff.
The Russians. I think I just said, “Hush. Stop talking. Just stop, please.”
Yeah, I think it’s very clear. I mean, you have a responsibility to make sure foreign powers don’t hack our elections. And the problem is, okay, well, how do you define “hack”? But propagating fake news on a platform to support one candidate over another is a problem.
Well, you know, the thing is, to their defense, it’s a company, not a government fighting a government. I know, but it’s a government, right? You made a face.
I mean, it’s a company, but this idea that companies don’t have responsibilities, that’s just not my worldview.
Oh, yes, of course, but I’m saying our government didn’t intervene. Well, you know these companies can’t do it by themselves, this has got to be an effort …
Well, yes, government has … I mean, if I’m talking about the …
Not the Trump government. The Obama administration certainly had a responsibility here to be more active.
Absolutely. And I am worried about the election this fall. We have evidence to show that the Russians in particular, it’s very clear, tried very hard to hack the voting systems in several states, and we have not made … I have seen no progress from a federal perspective in making sure that these elections are going to be safe and secure. There’s been some media coverage of it, but frankly, I think there’s been more media coverage of Facebook’s role than the imperative for a stronger security system. And clearly, we need more coverage of both. I think on all of this, we need to be talking about it all much more robustly, because this problem is not going to go away.
Well, this particular administration is so cynical, it’s a disturbingly cynical administration, which doesn’t mind creating havoc. In the end, it’s a group of people that love havoc and are also not very smart.
Well, but to say that sort of suggests … I mean, we have a responsibility, democracy, whatever your politics, democracy … In the democratic system it’s the responsibility of people in power to govern and defend it.
Of course, but you know, we have a president who just joked that it was good that the Chinese … I mean, you know, like, come on. It’s so funny because it’s sort of like …
Well, let’s just not excuse that, let’s not be …
I’m not excusing it.
No, I’m not saying you are, but we just can’t have this air of resignation like, “Oh, they’re just crazy and nothing is ever going to happen.”
They’re not crazy-crazy, you know. They’re not crazy, it’s just that it’s impossible to do anything when good people don’t stand up. And I’m talking about the Republicans most of the time because it’s the enablers to me who are the real problem now, which is interesting, but this will be done by voting. Chris, when do you imagine you have — we’re going to finish up — when do you imagine success for this?
The more this idea is talked about in the mainstream, not just in political conversations but around dining room tables, over coffee and over …
And how you put out there, of course.
I think that’s success in the short term. In the long run, clearly, we want public policy to change, but success in the next couple of years will be people talking seriously about how can get a guaranteed income done in one way or another? Maybe through the Earned Income Tax Credit, maybe through other kinds of ways, but the more we’re rolling up our sleeves and thinking about, “How do you guarantee financial stability through cash?” That’s the success in the near term.
You have actually convinced me. And now I’m thinking about definitely, you know, some scenario I’m interested in. You know, I agree you, I think giving people … Listen, I’d rather that than the latest tank or the latest whatever the hell our government is spending money on. I’d rather give it to average people who need a break, which would be nice so they can get to one among our many, many, many problems in this country.
Anyway, we have a lot of great things, too, and our generosity, although some people don’t agree with it, would be one of them. Chris, it was great talking to you. You’ve had a fascinating career since you stopped funding like fancy magazines. This is much better than the fancy magazines, and people who hate you no matter what you do just so, yeah.
I’ll say, “Swisher told me to do it.”
I could have told you that Chris, “Just give away money to people who actually appreciate it,” but buying a media company, still. I don’t know which one you should buy, but you should. I appreciate the effort.
I think I’m out of that.
You’re out of that business, no more Chris Hughes. Is there even one for sale? I don’t know, there’s always something for sale, Chris. It was great talking and thanks for coming on the show.