Erik Olin Wright, a long-term advocate of Universal Basic Income and one of the most influential sociologists today, recently announced that his doctors have advised him that he has only a few weeks left to live. (Update: he passed away on January 23.) He is best known for his work on social stratification, egalitarian alternative futures to capitalism, deep democracy, and interstitial revolution.
But he has also had an important influence over the Basic Income movement. He was the first to describe basic income as “a permanent strike fund for all.” He wrote about it and provided platforms, such as the Real Utopias project that allowed other people to write about it when few people thought it had any chance.
Wright announced his diagnosis in a very brave and optimistic statement:
strange state of existence
Journal entry by Erik Olin Wright — Jan 5, 2019
I have roughly three weeks left of existence. Three weeks. Let’s call that January, 2019. January 2019: my month, my last month. There can be surprises — both ways of course. My liver is the main source of leukemia’s havoc. It is greatly enlarged now, filled with AML. This is why I need transfusions of platelets and red blood cells every day. The graft did not survive the return of AML so it produces no products, and the AML-clogged liver seems to be filtering out some of the transfusions so I am not getting full benefit from those. The result is that my platelets remain extremely low even after a platelet transfusion and my hemoglobin remains very low even after a hemoglobin transfusion. So, eventually these become too low to sustain life, or an opportunistic infection does me in. The doctors say “a few weeks” — a nice surprise would be to slide into February; my birthday is February 9. We’ll see what happens.
This is all hard to take in fully. I am not in great turmoil over dying. I am sad about many things, desperately sad about those connected to my family. But I’m not afraid. I wrote about this early on; my feelings haven’t changed: I am stardust that randomly ended up in this marvelous corner of the milky way where some stardust ended up in conditions where it became complexly organized in a way we term “alive.” And then even more complexly— conscious stardust that is fully aware that it is conscious: amazing — stardust, inanimate products of exploding supernova, organized in such a complex way that it is conscious of its own aliveness and consciousness — the greatest privilege in the whole, immense universe. It may be for a limited time — this complex organization ends and the stardust that is me will dissipate back to the more ordinary state of matter. Nothing to do about that. As creative fanciful minds, we humans are good at inventing ways for our existence as conscious beings to continue after the stardust dissipates. It would be nice. I don’t believe in that sort of thing, but I’ll find out by some time in February.
I am one of the many people who have been influenced by his work, and his talents affected me personally. He was the editor of my first published academic article, “A Reciprocity Argument for the Guaranteed Income,” in 1999 (before the name Basic Income became standard). His ability to see my intuitive leaps and to explain how to fill them in was amazing. That kind of ability takes not only strong intellect, but strong empathy. A combination that even many great academics lack. It’s the mark of an exceptional person.
–Karl Widerquist, Doha, Qatar, January 9, 2019; revised Cambridge, UK, January 12, 2009
Farmers in India are under considerable stress. Uncertainty regarding weather, yield, prices and revenue, create the perfect conditions for distress and fragility over the exposure to shark lenders. That also means that massive hunger is a risk just around the corner, and in a year of elections in India, its rural population (about 70% of total population) is repeatedly targeted for campaign purposes. Loan waivers, for instance, have been a pet political tool for election purposes, even though waivers haven’t traditionally helped small or marginal farmers (around 80% of all farmers).
To counteract this state of affairs, some states in India start to take matters in their own hands. The province of Telangana has been the first Indian state to provide and unconditional cash transfer to farmers. This, the decision of the Sikkim state to go forward with basic income implementation, experimentations popping up in several parts of the world (e.g.: Germany, Ukraine, United States, Spain), and some political support for basic income over central government in New Dehli, particularly after the 2016-2017 economic survey and its famous chapter on basic income, leads to renewed conversations in India.
In programs like this one, provocatively titled as “Government mulls universal basic income, is India ready for income for all?”, obstacles to basic income seem more in number and in size, than opportunities and benefits it can potentially provide. TV pundits take turns at criticizing the idea: it disincentivizes work, it is unaffordable, it is vague and populist, it cannot possibly be a replacement for long-time and traditional forms of help to those in need. However, simultaneously, some high placed economists and politicians see at least some advantages and viability in a basic income for all Indians, or directed to certain population cohorts (such as farmers). The dice are rolling.
Sarath Davala. Picture credit to: BIEN
Sarath Davala, coordinator at India Network for Basic Income (INBI), has written on Facebook: “Increasingly I am beginning to think that India could be the first country to take the plunge into a kind of Targeted Basic Income. It won’t be universal, but it will certainly be unconditional. The initiative is more likely to come from the provinces”. Guy Standing, also a long-time activist and researcher on basic income and someone who has been deeply involved in the Indian (basic income) experiments, has also pronounced himself at the onset of India’s first steps towards this revolutionary policy: “The beauty of moving towards a modest basic income would be that all groups would gain. That would not preclude special additional support for those with special needs, nor be any threat to a progressive welfare state in the long-term. It would merely be an anchor of a 21st century income distribution system. Will the politicians show the will to implement it? We need to see”.
The project will “examine the economics of Basic Income, including the interaction between technology, output GDP, consumer income and expenditure.” The project has been set up with the collaboration of Geoff Crocker from Basic Income Forum.
The research will look at the fitness of BI as an element for the management of macroeconomic demand. Through the use of empirical economic data, the research will test the hypothesis that in highly technological economies the increase in productivity causes wages to fall (a phenomenon that together with falling employment rates is known as the great decoupling), requiring the introduction of a source of income disjoined from work: Basic Income.
The research project will also compare the effectiveness of BI in combating the unemployment and poverty traps with other forms of unearned income, and consider its effectiveness in avoiding economic crisis, that is, its stabilizing effect, in comparison with consumer credit and household debt.
The study will also investigate whether public sector deficit is an inescapable reality in high technology economies, and if there is potential for using debt free fiat money as a replacement for it and as a source of funding for BI, an idea already proposed by Crocker.
Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, was in the UK last November 2018, presenting his findings on this press conference. It seems that the UK, the 5th world economy in terms of GDP, drags on the 55th position as far as inequality is concerned, in a list of 160 countries (Gini coefficient measurements from the year 2000 onward, mostly). He refers that, although many think tanks, civic organizations and even parliamentary groups speak of poverty as a crucial challenge in the UK, government ministers consider that “things are going well”, in an obvious attitude of denial.
Alton’s visit to the UK has spurred the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee to conduct an inquiry on UK’s welfare system, along with rising evidence of debt, hunger and homelessness across the country. In fact, a recent (June 2018), deep study on British welfare had already demonstrated that the attribution of conditional benefits has more drawbacks than positive outcomes, which turns the present system counterproductive. So, it seems that poverty, social stigma and arbitrary sanctions are not only the product of some filmmaker’s imagination (e.g.: I, Daniel Blake), but real, verifiable facts.
Among the cited evidence can be found the contribution of the Citizen’s Income Trust (CIT). Given the grim scenario of UK’s poorest or most financially insecure social layers – wages below the poverty line, high unemployment, high insecurity within the job market, increasing conditional welfare – the CIT, headed by Malcolm Torry, recommends that UK’s welfare system should be covered with a new level of unconditional income security. Therefore, it has recommended to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee the adoption of basic income, in the following terms:
Research at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex has shown that such a new layer of unconditional incomes would be entirely feasible. By reducing to zero the Income Tax Personal Allowance and the National Insurance Contributions Primary Earnings Threshold, levelling out National Insurance Contributions across the earnings range, and raising Income Tax rates by just three percentage points, it would be possible to pay an unconditional income of £63 per week to every working age adult, with different amounts for different age groups. No additional public expenditure would be required; poverty and inequality would be substantially reduced; almost no losses would be imposed on low income households at the point of implementation, and only manageable losses on any household; a significant number of households would be taken off means-tested benefits; and a much larger number would be brought within striking distance of coming off them. For every household that came off means-tested benefits, employment incentives would rise substantially. Most importantly: every household in the country would experience a substantial increase in its financial security.
It is worth noting that the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee had already run a formal Oral Evidence Hearing about basic income, on January 12th 2017. At this session were presenting evidence and informed opinions for basic income Louise Haagh (University of York and Basic Income Earth Network), Annie Miller (Citizen’s Income Trust) and Becca Kirkpatrick (UNISON West Midlands Community Branch). On the official summary of that formal hearing, the Committee judged the possibility of introducing a basic income type of policy in the UK as risking “being a distraction from workable welfare reform”, urging “the incoming government not to spend any energy on it”.
Overall, social degradation is happening in the UK, no matter how much governmental officials try to deny it. And that is in the midst of great transformations in the British welfare system, which may raise concerns about what “workable welfare reforms” the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee had in mind in early 2017. Accepting evidence from the CIT, naturally supporting a thought-through basic income scheme for the UK, it remains unclear whether the appeal for the government to avoid basic income is to be given any credence.
Paul Ross is trying to found the Citizen’s Dividend Party (CDP) in Australia, and to take part in the election of May 2019.
The foundational pledge, as found on the website, is:
“To render virtually Every Citizen Directly Better-Off and Australian Society absolutely Better-Off.”
This would be accomplished through the introduction of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), the pillar of the of the would-be party. The specifics can be found on the CDP’s Declaration: the bulk of the Citizen Dividend would be founded through a 20% full-breadth Goods and Services Tax (GST), the Australian Value Added Tax (VAT), and the proposed dividend would amount to around $18,000 for adults and $5,000 for children annually.
In order for the party to start, it needs 500 members who are enlisted to the Australian electoral roll. With the next federal election due by May 2019, and the application to register a new party taking at least twelve weeks, the goal is to reach the required number of members by March 2, 2019.