Chris Hughes was raised by Lutheran parents in Hickory, N. C., and they taught him, by example, to tithe. Every year, they gave 10 percent of their income to the church and other local charities, and Mr. Hughes carried that tradition into adulthood. But in 2008, when he sold $1 million of his Facebook shares on private markets, and the amount of money he needed to give away increased exponentially, he started thinking more seriously about where his contributions might make the most impact.
“I grew up looking at the price almost down to the penny on everything from a bottle of juice to a can of soda,” he told me in early February, explaining why he wanted to get “the most value” out of philanthropy. We were sitting in the East Village office of the Economic Security Project, an organization Mr. Hughes co-founded with two other activists, Dorian Warren and Natalie Foster, to fund the work of technologists, academics, policymakers and others exploring the idea of a guaranteed basic income for low and middle income Americans.
Mr. Hughes is one of the co-founders of Facebook, for which he did “three years worth of work for nearly half a billion dollars,” as he puts it, emphasizing the extreme nature of his success. He and Mark Zuckerberg were roommates at Harvard, and early on, Mr. Hughes ran the company’s communications and marketing department. The social network’s colossal success fast-tracked Mr. Hughes’s career. In 2008, he joined Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign to launch and manage My.BarackObama.com, a robust system that organized Obama supporters and was viewed as instrumental to his victory. In 2012, when Facebook went public and The New Republic came up for sale, he bought it, hoping to herald the publication into a digital future and expand its reach. His tumultuous ownership ended in 2016, when he sold the magazine. Later that year, he partnered with Mr. Warren and Ms. Foster to form the Economic Security Project.
In his new book, “Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn,” out this week, Mr. Hughes, 34, traces his ascent to show how the forces that influenced his and Facebook’s success — technological advancements, globalization and the rise of private equity firms — have created a “winner takes all” economy in which only a small group of people succeed.
“I think that when people enjoy success of many sorts it is oftentimes easy to forget all of the factors that contribute to making that possible,” he said, citing his own upbringing. He grew up in a stable, middle-class family, the only child of a paper salesman and a schoolteacher. As a child, he took advantage of government-run after-school programs and was placed in “gifted” classes. At 14, he searched online for the “best high school in America,” turning up Phillips Academy, a prestigious private school in Andover, Mass.; Mr. Hughes applied and talked his way into a scholarship. All these factors, he argues, factored into his success even before he landed in a dorm room with Mr. Zuckerberg.
In “Fair Shot,” he offers a solution to balance the scale: a guaranteed income of $500 for adults earning less than $50,000, including nontraditional workers like parents and students. His proposal is that such a program be paid for through a tax on the country’s highest earners, those whose annual income is $250,000 or more. His plan would reach 60 million adults and lift 20 million out of poverty overnight, he writes, while providing those in the middle class with more financial stability.
“The guaranteed income as an idea is so simple that oftentimes people just sort of skip over the power of cash itself,” Mr. Hughes said. “We think, Oh my God, income inequality — it’s so incredible, all the stats are so insane, but what can we do about it? It’s got to be education or it’s got to be more job training. It’s got to be a higher minimum wage. I say, ‘Yes, yes and yes.’” But, we need to do more, he insists.
The Economic Security Project’s office is part university library, part tech start-up, with dark leather and wood furniture alongside a white meeting pod near the entrance. It seems to reflect Mr. Hughes sensibilities — his admiration for old, established institutions and his embrace of digital technology. When I arrive for our interview, Mr. Hughes greets me warmly, and we sit in what appears to be the office’s only conference room, enclosed by a glass wall. His Southern accent is barely detectable, and in conversation, he is measured and cautious, laying out his argument with his hands, becoming riled only when I bring up the tax bill (“the most perplexing and infuriating move”) and the fact that some might view their success as completely self-generated (“that’s just flat wrong”).
Before he started the Economic Security Project, Mr. Hughes had been working on the issue of the guaranteed income internationally through GiveDirectly, a nonprofit that, as the name suggests, operates a cash transfer program that puts money into the hands of those who need it. Mr. Hughes was inspired by the organization’s ideals, and he started to wonder whether a similar model could work domestically.
“There was no real organization in the United States focused on exploring how a guaranteed income might work,” he said.
But, rather than go in “guns blazing,” he explained, “We said, ‘This is a promising idea. Let’s bring together a network of people to think about this collaboratively and see where it goes.’” The Economic Security Project was originally conceived as a temporary, two-year initiative, but has since been extended to 2020.
Mr. Hughes’s cautiousness is a direct result of his experience at The New Republic. Despite his intention to “make it a publication that millions of people would adore and really value,” the result was not so idyllic. He invested $25 million dollars, moved the magazine to a slick new office and hired top talent from other publications. By late 2014, his investment was not paying off, and he hired Guy Vidra, a former Yahoo! executive, to be the C.E.O., hoping he might be able to make The New Republic a digital media company. Mr. Vidra and Mr. Hughes decided to replace Franklin Foer, the editor at the time, but the news reached Mr. Foer first, and he resigned, prompting mass resignations across the publication. What followed was a media maelstrom, and a little over a year later, unable to turn the publication’s profits around, Mr. Hughes sold the magazine.
“Chris was pretty anxious about where things were headed,” said Mr. Foer on a recent call, adding: “There were lots of larger forces remaking journalism, and because of Chris’s biography and because of some of the hamfisted ways in which he handled things, he kind of fell into a morality play. It was pretty easy to cast the story as a parable about journalism, and I think that helps explain the heat of the coverage that fell on him.”
In retrospect, Mr. Hughes said he regrets his approach at The New Republic. “I went in with very big picture kinds of goals and went too far too fast,” he said, before I could ask. “Now, I work on this big picture, similarly idealistic kind of idea of a world where everyone has some basic financial security through cash, but I don’t think we necessarily need to start off by giving $1,000 to everybody.”
The plausibility of his idea is a matter of debate. Branko Milanovic, a leading scholar on income inequality, and Dean Baker, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, both believe the plan is unrealistic given the partisan divisions of the current political climate. Mr. Baker also noted that policy changes to restructure the economy, such as weaker patent and copyright laws and public funding for generic medication, are a more urgent need. Stanford professor and conservative economist Nicholas Bloom brought up the potential for fraud, adding that government enforcement would be difficult.
Mr. Hughes is aware that his proposal is far-reaching. “This is a big idea and it’s an expensive idea, but I do think that it is in line with the scale of the problem, which is also immense,” he said.
Mr. Hughes said his own windfall gave him the mental space to think about and pursue his goals, and now, he feels a responsibility to pay it forward. When I ask him where this impulse comes from, his face softens. “From my parents.” His father wanted him to be successful, he explained, but “there was also a sense that you don’t do better at the expense of others.”
Giving people cash, in Mr. Hughes’s view, is not only the most effective way to tackle inequality today, it is also the most humane: “It’s truly a belief that people can be trusted and deserve the opportunity to design their lives, to chase their own dreams.”