James Felton Keith is the kind of guy who’s so clean-cut, it’s intimidating, from the sharply-pressed suit right down to the meticulously trimmed nails. He has delicate features, studied economics at Harvard, and is often known by his patrician initials: J.F.K.
But his origins, and frequently his demeanor, are a lot more hardscrabble than all that suggests. Keith, who is black, grew up in Detroit—we met there when he spoke at the RadicalxChange conference—before transitioning to New York. He considers the Big Apple home, and now he’s mounting a 2020 campaign to depose incumbent Adriano Espaillat in New York’s 13th Congressional District, which encompasses both Harlem and Washington Heights—a cultural spectrum Keith says he’s well-positioned to span.
Keith says that he started his career confident he could accomplish positive social change as a businessman, by founding companies that acted ethically. But he decided to shift focus to politics partly thanks to participation in the Occupy movement, which fueled his preoccupation with the problem of wealth inequality.
“I’ve met a lot of CEOs and executives in my day,” he says, “but I also know down-and-out, destitute people. I come from those people.” (Keith has faced another set of social roadblocks, too: He’s bisexual, and married to a man.) But perhaps unlike the Democratic Socialist wing of his party exemplified by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Keith doesn’t see inequality as the result of “evil” motives by the rich. Instead, he repeats frequently, he thinks about economics “like an engineer,” subject to tinkering depending on our goals as a society.
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That resonates, of course, with the approach of another 2020 candidate: Presidential contender Andrew Yang, who flared into public consciousness in March behind a techy background and a commitment to practical solutions. The most headline-grabbing of those was Yang’s proposed “Freedom Dividend,” a monthly payment of $1,000 that would go out to all Americans.
Keith considers Yang an ally, and has thought long and hard about this sort of payment—what’s commonly known as “Universal Basic Income.” Keith’s platform includes his own version, but, where Yang frames UBI as protection against automation, Keith connects his version directly to widespread concerns about personal data. Keith argues that every American deserves a payout because data about them is a direct input to the profits of today’s big corporations. The proper response is, as he puts it with typical candor: “You owe me.”
We talked about tech, politics, and privacy. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s talk about the platform.
My platform is the entire progressive pie, which is, at least in this area, housing, healthcare, education, climate, in that order. Then you get other things like gender, race, etc., but they all really filter into those four, because there’s a lot of built-in discrimination.
The umbrella overall, though, is a dividend on productivity, or what we can call Universal Basic Income. I wasn’t previously a fan of those three words together, because they were previously branded as welfare. Welfare is not a bad thing. I’m a product of welfare. It should always exist as a baseline. But it doesn’t scale.
"If I can give everyone a constitutional ownership of their input to productivity, then I can create a funnel right out of the distribution framework, to get everyone their money."
And so the engineering solution that I think I stumbled on, around the time Occupy started, was, if I can give everyone a constitutional ownership of their input to productivity, then I can create a funnel right out of the distribution framework, to get everyone their money.
The reason I started obsessing over data is because I thought that I could build a market-based basic income on it. That’s how I met our friend Glen [Weyl]—we got together talking about that. Some people want to call it an asset class; I don’t care what anyone’s calling it, I just need everyone to own theirs. We could create a lot of productivity off of it, and we can prop up people’s lives with that. We can truly honor black lives. We can truly honor women’s lives and queer lives.
That’s an interesting thought—that the best way to keep control of your data is to explicitly own it.
Yes, because you can litigate around property you own. If I rip the sleeve on your shirt, you can take me to court for civil or criminal damage. It was aggression toward your body, you own that. And the shirt costs something, and you can say, I want damages.
But currently, there’s no default right over data that your behavior generates, or even photos of your face?
Exactly. All of it, across everything. Everyone’s surveilling everyone now. So [I’ve argued] that we have to go down this ownership rabbit hole, because it’s the only way we’re actually able to protect people. Because then it’s a human rights conversation.
Elizabeth Warren has gone full forward with a plan to break up big data companies.
Well, Elizabeth Warren used to be my favorite politician five or six years ago, but she’s not anymore. I think it may be necessary to break up some of those companies, but that’s not the remedy to the problem. If I’m an executive at Alphabet [Google], I would have done exactly what they did: They broke up their companies on their own, so that when we actually break them up, they’re prepared. It’s really about the underlying asset and how it flows through them. What every industry is doing—whether it’s Alphabet or Amazon or health care companies—is building a data supply chain, to not only streamline the market of inputs, meaning the store fronts that are pushing data, but they’re also becoming their own [data] market makers.
So Warren is talking about institutions and jobs, we should be talking about equity and productivity. She’s attacking the 20th century issue because she thinks it’s politically attractive. And I’m going to tell you, I think she’s going to run out of steam.
You’re pushing for something you call a Data Bill of Rights.
Yes. I’ve been back and forth to D.C., before I was a candidate, as a data advocate. And I met with party members to talk about making a Data Bill of Rights our core rhetorical tool. So that Americans understand whatever policy we build that’s GDPR-like. So the six pieces are erasure, portability, restrictive processing, education, redress, and ownership. I think if we write policy that establishes those well, then people’s outright agency and ownership over any evidence of their personhood inside productive spaces, becomes a legal issue about what they are owed.
As an example, I was just having a conversation about MLB players and the devices that they’re demanded to wear. What does the player’s union have to say, from a collective bargaining standpoint, about the benefits derived from that data? I want to be able to unionize any group of people in that situation, to advocate for more ownership rights around their input to productivity.
So my platform is built around a UBI that’s really based on data ownership.
Data ownership becomes the moral foundation for the UBI.
There has to be a moral foundation, with a technical background. The moral foundation is, we are owed more. And that’s because we have evidence now of our input to this economy’s productivity. The technical foundation behind it is establishing a constitutional right to [data] ownership in the United States. Then we trigger the 14th Amendment, which is equal protection under the law, and we give everyone the right to start saying: You owe me.
Then we look at acts of Congress around dividends of sorts, from productive corporations. Before you count your profits, you got revenue first, you count expenses and the dividend. And then what’s left from that is profit. What I’m aiming to do is give people basically a stock contract, without signing a warrant or stock certificate, in every company that they interact with, period. I don’t care if you’re a consumer at Amazon or the chief economist at Standard and Poor’s.
What is the situation of the seat that you’re running for?
The interesting thing about the incumbent, Adriano Espaillat, is he’s the first undocumented immigrant to make it into Congress… but aside from that he is generally a conservative. He’s done bigoted things from a racial standpoint, from an LGBT standpoint. He hasn’t produced significant policy—even from an immigration standpoint, he’s usually been the piggyback guy. He’s just a seat-holder. And we are the second most blue voting district in the country, so I just think he’s unfit to represent us if we’re talking about this blue wave. We shouldn’t have someone quiet over here.
"No one ever talks about the fact that you don’t have any money in your pocket right now. Let’s stabilize you with that. And then once you can catch your breath, come back and tell me what you’d be willing to fight for next."
I think we can consolidate all of Harlem, and I think we have a larger support base in Inwood and the northern Bronx. So I think we’ll just surround them … The people who’ve been voting here for 50 years are the black and white folks. And to be crass about it, they’re not gonna out black-and-white me up here. They’re not going to out-black me in central Harlem, and they’re not going to out-white me in Inwood.
But the real work is, instead of making politics about race, which it always has been in this area, we’re going to make ours about economics. We’re going to talk about the future, and how we get a bigger piece of the pie. No one ever talks about the fact that you don’t have any money in your pocket right now. Let’s stabilize you with that. And then once you can catch your breath, come back and tell me what you’d be willing to fight for next. Is that healthcare? Is it education?
Sure, we’ve got a lot of bright ideas, but just for the politics, my strategy is, I’m young and aggressive. If I could, I’d just challenge him to a boxing match in the middle of the street, and whoever wins gets the seat. I don’t know if he’d sign up for it, but I’d definitely dance with him for the seat.
And they like that up here. I think they deserve something like that.
Correction 4/24/19: This article has been updated to correct a typo. It previously referred to the 13th Amendment to the constitution instead of the 14th amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law.