TEN YEARS OF THE U.S. BASIC INCOME GUARANTEE NETWORK (from 2010)
This essay was originally published in the USBIG NewsFlash in February 2010.
This issue, Volume 11, Number 55, marks the tenth anniversary of the USBIG Newsletter. The USBIG Network began over breakfast at the Kiev dinner in New York City in December 1999. Five people attended the first meeting: Fred Block (a sociologist at University of California-Davis), Charles M.A. Clark (an economist at St. John’s University), Michael A. Lewis (sociologist, then at State University of New York-Stony Brook, now at Hunter College), Pam Donavan (sociologist then at City University of New York-Graduate Center, now at Bloomsburg University) and me, Karl Widerquist (then an economist at the Levy Institute of Bard College, now a philosopher at Georgetown University-Qatar).
Pam Donovan, Michael A. Lewis, and I had been graduate students together at the City University of New York. We used to meet weekly to discuss our work. Usually, we ended up arguing about politics. One day we discovered that the one policy we could all agree on was the basic income, and so Michael Lewis and I decided to write a paper about it. We gradually got involved with the Basic Income European Network (BIEN), which had been providing a forum for dialogue on basic income in Europe. There were several natural networks in Europe at the time, but there was no equivalent in the United States. Through BIEN we got in touch with Fred Block and Charles M.A. Clark, who had both been doing research on basic income in the United States.
When Fred Block was in town for a conference, we all decided to meet for breakfast. There was no agenda or anything, but the next thing I knew we had decided to create a network, and I had volunteered to write its newsletter. Ten years later, I’m still writing that newsletter. It began with a circulation of about 30 people, including the five of us from the meeting. Since then it has grown to nearly a thousand people.
We called the new organization “the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network,” (The USBIG Network or just USBIG for short). We chose that name partly because “basic income guarantee” (BIG) as a generic term that includes various specific versions, such as “basic income,” “negative income tax,” and “guaranteed income.” Also, it makes a nice acronym and the domain name www.usbig.net was available. We took on only one goal: to increase discussion of the basic income guarantee in the United States.
We started the network with a small seminar series in New York City in 2000, and in 2002 we began holding yearly conferences. We are now preparing for our ninth conference, which will be our first joint conference with the new Canadian basic income network, known as BIEN Canada.
Over the last ten years, interest in the basic income guarantee has grown steadily around the world. The Basic Income European Network expanded to become the Basic Income Earth Network, and USBIG became one of its first non-European affiliates. More books and articles on BIG are published each year. Basic Income Studies has become the first academic journal focusing entirely on basic income. Palgrave-MacMillan is now preparing an entire book series on BIG. The first books in the series are expected to be released in 2011 or 2012.
The USBIG Network has chosen to remain a nonpartisan discussion group, but there are political action groups in the United States that are pushing for basic income as part of their agenda.
BIG occasionally springs up as a live political issue in surprising places. The only existing BIG in the world, the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend, continues to be an enormously popular policy. Two members of the U.S. House of representatives signed on to the idea in 2006; several other members of Congress have endorsed it in roundabout ways—by endorsing a cap-and-dividend or an oil dividend for Iraq. There are senators pushing for it in Canada and Brazil. More than two-dozen members of the German Bundestag are committed to the idea. A Namibian organization has just completed a two-year pilot project on BIG. And so on. And so on.
Writing the USBIG Newsletter has been an interesting experiment. At first I didn’t think there could possibly be enough news about BIG to report in regular issues, but instead I quickly became overwhelmed by how much activity is going on in the world. Somehow, I’ve managed to condense a significant portion of it into the Newsletter. Thanks to the miracle of the internet I’ve been able to work on the USBIG newsletter in New York; New Orleans; England; the far north of Sweden; Hong Kong; Brazil; Qatar; and I can’t even remember where else.
On the whole I think I’ve kept my reporting accurate, but I can recall a few embarrassing errors—such as the time I identified a British MP as being from Australia. I’ve enjoyed reporting on the progress of BIG movements around the world. I’ve enjoyed meeting all the interesting who work on this issue. I’ve suffered through writing obituaries for friends I’ve gotten to know in the movement.
I hope when I look back ten years from now, I’ll remember reporting on the introduction of the world’s second basic income guarantee, somewhere in the world.
-Karl Widerquist, in flight over the Atlantic, February 24, 2010 (revised, March 15, 2010, Doha, Qatar)