Sometimes an idea is so innovative that a government even thinking about it gets a lot of attention.

Such is the case with Hawaii’s plan to study a system in which all citizens might receive an unconditional sum of money from the government.

A resolution adopted by the Legislature last session calls for a “basic economic security working group” to study universal basic income. Although only the germ of an idea, news of the resolution spread nationally this week via online publications like Vox and BusinessInsider.

“I think it’s been a bit unexpected,” said Rep Chris Lee, who sponsored the measure. “But I’m definitely glad to see a lot of people out there looking at this and asking the same questions.”

Self checkout at Keaaumoku street Walmart.
A resolution calling for a working group to study universal basic income in Hawaii cites self-checkout aisles as one example of technology eliminating service sector jobs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The broad resolution paints a portrait of the disruption that technology has brought to the jobs market: Airbnb has become the world’s largest lodging company without owning any hotels; self-driving Ubers are starting to replace taxis in some places; IBM’s Watson computer can provide basic legal advice faster and more accurately than a human lawyer; and self-checkout lines are replacing human cashiers at stores.

Lee said he tried to put such real-world examples of changes in the resolution to highlight how innovations are starting to take jobs in service industries that have long been insulated from the robots that have done the same thing in the manufacturing sector.

The question, Lee said, is what these changes mean in Hawaii, where the cost of living is high and people often make ends meet by working more than one service job.

“The whole purpose of this is to get a conversation started,” Lee said. “This is really to identify what our options are, what are the mechanisms that can be looked at to improve our situation going forward.”

Rep. Beth Fukumoto, a former Republican who was House minority leader when she signed onto the bill, said the need for families to be able to make ends meet is not a partisan issue.

“The idea that the economy is changing is more of a fact than a partisan talking point,” said Fukumoto, who left the Republican Party after being denounced at the party’s state convention for raising concerns about the racist and sexist behavior of Donald Trump, then a presidential candidate.

The resolution notes that governments of Finland, Uganda, and the Canadian province of Ontario have started pilot projects looking at universal basic income. Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg lauded the idea in his commencement address at Harvard University in May.

“We should have a society that measures progress not just by economic metrics like (gross domestic product), but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful,” Zuckerberg said. “We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things. We’re going to change jobs many times, so we need affordable child care to get to work and health care that aren’t tied to one company.

Hawaii seems to be the first state taking a serious look at the idea.

“Without a doubt, this could be the first in the country,” said Wade Rathke, a long-time organizer for the now-dissolved Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a collection of community groups that advocated for affordable housing and health care for low- and moderate income families. “It’d be amazing to see Hawaii look at this closely.”

“The idea that the economy is changing is more of a fact than a partisan talking point.” — Rep. Beth Fukumoto

When Rathke founded ACORN in 1970, the idea of a guaranteed income wasn’t only a liberal or progressive idea, Rathke said. Republican President Richard Nixon had proposed something akin to a guaranteed minimum income, eligible even to working persons. The idea of a minimum guaranteed income fell by the wayside in the Reagan era, Rathke said.

Lately, however, the idea has gained currency among corporate executives, labor leaders and policymakers, Lee said. Pierre Omidyar, the publisher of Honolulu Civil Beat, is financing a universal basic income pilot program in Kenya.

The Hawaii working group is to consist of officials from the departments of Labor and Industrial Relations; Business, Economic Development and Tourism; state House and Senate labor committee chairs; the director of the Department of Human Services; the executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization; and representatives of labor and business organizations.

The proposal has received support from both the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce and Unite HERE, Local 5, which represents hotel workers in Hawaii.

Paola Rodelas, a spokeswoman for Unite HERE, said the organization has been concerned for a while about issues like automation taking jobs. Also, she said, the proliferation of online rental agencies like Airbnb have hurt hotel workers by reducing demand for their services and by converting potential homes into illegal short-term rentals.

“Our mission is really rooted in how do we make Hawaii sustainable,” Rodelas said. “And that’s why we supported the resolution: because we really need to take a look at the long-term economic security of Hawaii.”

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