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A Japanese billionaire is running a $9 million basic income experiment via Twitter

US presidential candidate Andrew Yang did something very similar.

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa
Jae C. Hong/AP
Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

“It’s a serious social experiment.” So says Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa about his plan to give away 1 billion Japanese yen — about $9 million — to 1,000 random Twitter followers this week.

Believe it or not, this is free money, no strings attached. Well, almost no strings: Each recipient will have to fill out follow-up surveys asking what impact the cash has had on their lives. It was not clear exactly how the amount — $9,000 per person — will be disbursed.

Maezawa’s stated goal is to test the premise of a basic income — the notion that every citizen should get a guaranteed, regular stipend. Normally, the idea is that the government should provide these unconditional stipends. But since most governments aren’t yet eager to institute a basic income, some wealthy individuals are taking matters into their own hands.

Maezawa, whom Forbes deems to be the 22nd-richest person in Japan, is the creator of a popular fashion retail site called Zozotown. He announced his giveaway in a January 1 tweet, stipulating that Twitter users would need to follow and retweet him before the contest closed on January 7 in order to be eligible.

The winners, chosen at random, are due to be notified via direct message on Twitter this week.

“Will people’s lives and labor productivity improve when given BI-like income or temporary benefits?” Maezawa asked on Twitter, before putting out feelers for a more global experiment. “Are there any groups or people, not just in Japan but anywhere in the world, who would like to try a similar experiment within their communities/region? Who would like to try and change their society too?”

In the US, someone has already tried something similar, using a tactic strikingly reminiscent of Maezawa’s. Last June, presidential candidate Andrew Yang announced that he’d give away a $12,000 basic income to a random Twitter follower.

Yang’s Twitter contest was a gimmicky yet effective method of promoting a universal basic income (UBI), or a “Freedom Dividend,” as he likes to call it. He’s made UBI the centerpiece of his platform, arguing that we need it because of impending automation-induced job loss, and he’s promoted it onstage at the Democratic debates.

It’s not unprecedented for the funding for basic income experiments to come from philanthropists rather than governments.

For years now, the charity GiveDirectly has been funding a basic income project in Kenya, where the cash transfers stimulated the economy and benefited not only the recipients themselves but also people in nearby villages.

And in the US, the city of Stockton in California is several months into an 18-month basic income experiment, sponsored by the nonprofit Economic Security Project. The first batch of data shows recipients are spending the money mostly on food, clothes, and utility bills. It offers a counter to critics of basic income, who often claim that people getting free money will blow it on frivolous things or addictive substances, and that they won’t bother to find work. The evidence does not support that belief.

Some countries have tried out basic income, with encouraging results

Governments may not be doing as much on UBI as individuals like Maezawa and Yang would like, but they’ve definitely run some noteworthy and instructive experiments.

The idea of universal basic income has been around at least since the 16th century. Its classic aims are to reduce poverty and inequality. Some countries, like Canada, have been experimenting with basic income for decades and others, like India, have lately been toying with the idea. Italy recently put a version of it into practice.

In recent years, it has enjoyed a surge of popularity in Silicon Valley, where the innovation boom that has generated so much fear about automation-induced joblessness has pushed powerful people to advocate for basic income, enabling it to gain steam remarkably quickly.

One US state, Alaska, already has what arguably amounts to an unconditional basic income, in the form of an oil dividend. Iran also has an oil revenue dividend that’s tantamount to a UBI.

In basic income trials conducted elsewhere, recipients have demonstrated improved health. Finland’s recipients reported feeling happier and less stressed after getting free money; they also reported increased trust in social institutions. In Dauphin, a town in Manitoba, Canada, a basic income scheme in the 1970s saw a decline in doctor visits and an 8.5 percent reduction in the rate of hospitalization.

Feeling less of the pernicious kind of stress that often results from economic insecurity is not just an inherent good — it’s also an instrumental good for any government looking to decrease the money it’ll later have to spend on citizens who develop the serious health problems that excessive stress can cause.

While basic income policies have yielded some expected benefits, they’ve also taken some unexpected turns. In Alaska’s case, for example, the promise of a sizable monthly stipend has warped the state’s politics, though it has reduced poverty in the state.

Meanwhile, the Canadian province of Ontario has shown that basic income projects are very vulnerable to the shifting winds of politics (which is, to be clear, not the fault of the idea itself). In 2017, the former Liberal government launched a basic income pilot project in three cities. It was supposed to help 4,000 low-income people and last for three years. But then a new Progressive Conservative government came to power, and in 2018 it canceled the project. Now, a handful of participants in the pilot are filing a class-action lawsuit against the government.

With some governments pulling the plug on basic income experiments or declining to try them out in the first place, it’s fair to ask what role wealthy individuals can play in exploring UBI.

Whether you like it or not, billionaire philanthropy exists. And if it’s going to keep existing, then we’d probably do well to figure out how rich people’s resources can most effectively tackle our world’s biggest problems. Poverty and inequality are obviously among those problems. So maybe it makes sense for folks like Maezawa and Yang to spearhead their own experiments in hopes of building out the case for UBI.

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