Allan “Al” Sheahen was an author, an athlete, a disc jockey, a promoter, a publisher, and a long-time campaigner for the basic income guarantee (BIG). He died at his home in Sherman Oaks, California on October 29, 2013 after battling myelofibrosis (a slow-moving bone-marrow disease) for over ten years.
Sheahen is known in the movement for BIG as a tireless, long-term campaigner for BIG. He helped to found the USBIG Network. He helped keep the idea alive during the era in which it fell out of mainstream politics in the United States. And he wrote some of the best introductory books on BIG.
He was born in June 28, 1932 in Cleveland, Ohio and moved to California in 1957. His first book on BIG, Guaranteed Income: The Right to Economic Security (Gain Publications), was published in January of 1983—perhaps the nadir of the BIG movement in the United states.
BIG, under various names including the guaranteed income, had been a major topic in mainstream American politics from the mid-1960s to the mid-70s when it was seen by many people across the political spectrum as the obvious next step to improve the welfare system. However, BIG dropped out of favor in the late-70s when new right politicians such as Ronald Reagan found success vilifying the poor as a lazy rabble. Supporters of the welfare system went on the defensive and stopped looking for new ideas, except perhaps for those that placated the new right’s desire for stringent work requirements.
Into that void, Sheahen’s 1983 book argued that it made so much more sense just to put a floor under everyone’s income. He raised all the objections of the other side. He asked the toughest questions. He answered them with knowledgeable but disarmingly simple, compelling prose that anyone could understand. Many “BIGists” believe this book is still the best available introduction to BIG, with the possible exception of his 2012 book.
In the political climate of 1983, Sheahen’s book was widely ignored.
Sheahen did not stop. He was a journalist, and he wrote a long string of editorials on BIG and other topics in publications across the country. Over the years he wrote for Time, the Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Daily News, the Huffington Post, and many other publications.
In 1999, the BIG movement began to revive in the United States. A group made up mostly of east coast academics established the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network (USBIG). Sheahen quickly joined. He not only became a leader of the organization, but also, along with Robert Harris, Francis Fox Piven, and others, he gave the new movement for BIG a connection with the movement of the 1960s and 70s.
As a leader of USBIG, Sheahen stepped up his work. He attended and presented new ideas at the annual USBIG Congresses—now know as North American BIG (NABIG) Congresses—and at the biannual BIEN Congresses. In 2004 he coauthored the paper, “A Proposal to Transform the Standard Deduction into a Refundable Tax Credit,” which was the basis for a bill introduced into the U.S. Congress as “H.R. 5257 (109th): Tax Cut for the Rest of Us Act of 2006.” The idea of the bill was simple: replace the standard tax deduction with an equivalent-sized refundable tax credit, and in the process introducing a small BIG. The preamble to the bill states simply, “To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide a basic income guarantee in the form of a refundable tax credit for taxpayers who do not itemize deductions.”
Sheahen not only coauthored the paper on which the bill was based; he also lobbied for the bill. He made several trips to Washington and met with any Member of Congress or staffer who was willing to talk about the idea. He found a Member of Congress to introduce the bill and at least one other to sign on as cosponsor. But the bill did not get out of committee and expired at the end of 109th Congress. It has not as yet been introduced.
Sheahen’s next major project was a new book, The Basic Income Guarantee: Your Right to Economic Security (published June 19, 2012, by Palgrave Macmillan). It was largely an update of Sheahen’s 1983 book, but this time it was put out by a major publisher with greater distribution. According to former U.S. Senator and former Democratic nominee for president, George McGovern, “This book is a great idea – brilliantly stated. Some may think it’s ultra-liberal, as they did when I proposed a similar idea in 1972. I see it as true conservatism – the right of income for all Americans sufficient for food, shelter, and basic necessities. Or, what Jefferson referred to as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The book came out at a time with growing interest in BIG. It continues to sell well, and it is the most popular item in Palgrave’s book series, “Exploring the Basic Income Guarantee.” Sheahen followed up the book with a speaking tour and a large number of editorials in major newspapers. As late as August of 2013, less than 90 days before his death, Sheahen was on television, radio, and the print media campaigning for BIG. Right up to the end, after more than 30 years in the fight, Sheahen was one of the hardest working people in the BIG movement.
When he wasn’t working on BIG, Sheahen was an author, a disc jockey, a publisher, an announcer, and a competitor in and leading organizer of Masters Athletics—athletics for men and women over 35 years old. He was active in Masters Track and Field for decades, and he was so important to the movement that when he died, Mastertrack entitled their bibliography, “A giant has died: Al Sheahen was our chronicler and conscience.” According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, he served ten years as the Treasurer of the World Association of Veteran Athletes. He founded the magazine National Masters News and served as its editor for nearly four decades. According to The Los Angeles Daily News, in 1998, he was inducted into the Masters Track and Field Hall of Fame. His favored events were the 400-meter hurdles and the 3000-meter steeplechase—longest obstacle-jumping event in running. A long-distance obstacle race is a fitting metaphor for Sheahen’s three-decades of work for the BIG movement. The goal was far; the obstacles were many; and Sheahen ran on and on.
-Karl Widerquist, Mojo’s Coffee House, Freret Street, New Orleans, LA, April 2014
Personal note: I’ve worked with Al for nearly 15 years in USBIG, in BIEN, on the BIG Bill, and in Palgrave-Macmillan book series. At times he’s been a colleague, a mentor, and an inspiration—both from his hard work and from ability to communicate difficult ideas in an easily understandable way. It is a sad duty to write about his death.
For more on Al Sheahen and his work on Basic Income, see the following links:
The USBIG Network will organize a tribute to Al Sheahen at the Thirteenth Annual North American Basic Income Guarantee Congress, which will be held on June 26 in Montreal—a preconference workshop of the 15th International Congress of the Basic Income Earth Network, Friday June 27th to Sunday June 29th, 2014, McGill Faculty of Law, Montreal, Quebec.
Ken Stone, “A giant has died: Al Sheahen was our chronicler and conscience.” MasterTrack, October 31, 2013.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Obituary: Allan John ‘Al’ Sheahen.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Nov. 3, 2013.
The Los Angeles Daily News. “Ode to Al Sheahen, a long time Daily News letters contributor.” The Los Angeles Daily News. October/31/13.
USBIG, “Allan Sheahen tours to promote his book, the Basic Income Guarantee: Your right to economic security.” BI News, July 11, 2013.”
USBIG, “Allan Sheahen’s BIG tour continues.” BI News, July 21, 2013
VIDEO: Bloomberg national television discusses BIG, July 23, 2013
VIDEO: Huffington Post, 17-minute video discusses BIG: “America The Poor,” August 24, 2013
Allan Sheahen, “Fulfilling One Of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dreams: A Basic Income Guarantee.” International Business Times, August 20, 2013. (This is probably Sheahen’s last published article.
Al Sheahen and Karl Widerquist, “A Proposal to Transform the Standard Deduction into a Refundable Tax Credit.” USBIG Discussion Paper No. 93, August 2004 (Revised, October 2004).
This article was later revised and combined with a historical discussion of BIG in the United States, and published as:
Karl Widerquist and Allan Sheahen, September 3, 2012. “The Basic Income Guarantee in the United States: Past Experience, Current Proposals” in Basic Income Worldwide: Horizons of Reform, Matthew Murray and Carole Pateman (eds.) New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 11-32
Articles by and about Al Sheahen on BI News.