The Redemption of Chris Hughes

The Redemption of Chris Hughes

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, 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 joined 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.

Credit…Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

In “Fair Shot,” he offers a solution to balance the scale: a guaranteed income of $500 a month 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’s 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”).

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