I first heard the term “basic income” in the socialist magazine Dissent in 2005. I was a 15-year-old leftist with a taste for weird, radical plans to restructure society: say, having the government buy up majority stakes in every company and then distribute them equally to every American; converting all companies into worker cooperatives; trying a planned economy where the planning is done by decentralized worker and consumer councils rather than a government bureaucracy. Basic income, wherein the government gives everyone enough cash to live on with no strings attached, struck me as an idea in that mold: another never-going-to-happen but fun-to-think-about alternative to the unfettered financial capitalism of the second Bush term.
Boy was that wrong. As of 2017, basic income — often referred to as unconditional basic income or UBI — is a big enough deal that President Obama's chief economist felt obligated to release a case against it, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg praised it in a widely viewed Harvard commencement speech, the ruling party's nominee in the French presidential election made it his main campaign proposal, and the Indian government could enact it within the next year. There's also a bevy of experiments evaluating basic income and related ideas by groups like GiveDirectly in Kenya, the investment firm Y Combinator, and governments in Ontario, Finland, and elsewhere.