By Jason Burke Murphy
US Basic Income Guarantee Network
Coming up on September 24th, Germany will be holding national parliamentary elections. A new “single-issue-party” will be on the ballot in every state, the “Alliance for Basic Income” (Bundnis Grundeinkommen). If this party gets five percent of the vote or more, they will have five percent or more of votes in the Bundestag.
The party is building on a movement in Germany that has seen steady growth for years. This campaign is inspired by the initiative in Switzerland and the way that movement promoted discussion all over the world.
Germans vote for their district representative and they cast a “second vote”, which determines the percentage a party has in the Bundestag. You will see the word “Zweitstimme” on almost all Basic Income Alliance campaign material.
North American Basic Income activists and scholars got to meet with Felix Coeln, who is a candidate in Germany, at our Congress in New York in 2015. Coeln was then working with the German Pirate Party. He is busy campaigning but took time to answer a few questions.
Campaign banner. “Basic Income Alliance” “Freedom Meets Justice”
Jason Burke Murphy: Why did you decide to join this new political party?
Felix Coeln: I did not join the party. I am an independent candidate on the list for the national parliament. Since I have been a member of the Pirate Party for three years (until August 2015), but needed to withdraw my membership after some terrible internal party decisions. I did not feel like joining another party.
I also felt I could not yet join because the Basic Income Alliance (Bündnis Grundeinkommen) has in its manifesto a paragraph that I cannot agree with under any circumstances. The party will dissolve after introducing a Basic Income in Germany. To me this is absolutely wrong as I believe it is very important to have parliamentarians to pay attention and make sure the laws regarding Basic Income are not corrupted after some while. I also think it would be important to introduce the Basic Income to the whole European Union. Therefore I think it would be crucial to keep the party together even if Basic Income is introduced at least for some more years, maybe ten or twenty.
But the Basic Income Alliance is willing to accept independent candidates on their election lists. They want to make sure that Basic Income activists can contribute and bring in their experience to the process of introducing the UBI and/or expand the debate around it.
Murphy: What are your chances of getting elected?
Coeln: German election law asks parties to give lists of candidates for each state, then they send people to the Bundestag based on that percentage. I am #6 on the list in North-Rhine Westfalia. This means that if we pass the 5% threshold, I would join the national Parliament, too.
Murphy: What would you consider to be successful in this upcoming election?
Coeln: I already consider the campaign a full success: by now we have more than 40 parties running for parliament. A lot of them propose UBI. But most of those parties do not have a chance to overcome the 5% threshold.
On the other hand, the public debate has already increased. Some of the long-time established parties have also offered to “check out” UBI models as possible political solutions for future trends of digitalization and advanced productivity. To me this is a direct reaction to the founding of the Basic Income Alliance.
Apart from that, if we exceed half of one percent, the party will be refunded for each valid vote. We would get 0.83 € euro each year until the next election.
If we exceed 3% we will gain some significant media attention and the other political parties will make some effort to develop their concepts of UBI. UBI plans are already ready to be presented to the public. I know this, because I have broad contact to members of all parties.
If we exceed 5% we will enter parliament – and I am pretty sure we would gain a lot of (international) attention.
Campaign Banner. “Basic Income is Electable”
Murphy: Felix Coeln, thank you for speaking with us!
If you want more information, we have included some links here:
“GERMANY: Basic Income Party Set to Participate in National Elections” by Kate McFarland for Basic Income News.
GERMANY: Basic Income Party Set to Participate in National Elections
(In German) Founding of the party in September 2016
(In German) Interview with the party chairwoman, Susanne Wiest. (Wiest started a petition in December 2008 that instantly crashed the Bundestags-Server.)
A 1-minute news article on German national television.
A commercial broadcast by Bundnis Grundeinkommen.
Netzwerk Grundeinkommen: A Basic Income Earth Network Affiliate in Germany.
I hardly ever respond to anything in writing if I am not remembering it at least a year or so later. The piece I am remembering is an episode of the podcast Freakonomics called “Is The World Ready for A Guaranteed Basic Income?” I recommend it as an introduction.
I am going to give you a quote and then I want you to keep reading.
Sam Altman runs Y Combinator, a technology venture capitalist firm that has had some great successes and is now interested in funding social science research that will include basic income. Here is the quote, which came up during his interview in this podcast episode:
Maybe 90 percent of people will go smoke pot and play video games. But if 10 percent of the people go create new products and services and new wealth, that’s still a huge net win.
We are back to the couch potato. This character appears in a lot of objections to basic income. Altman concedes that there will be couch potatoes. He just thinks that is a good price to pay to get more entrepreneurs, even only a few of them. I appealed earlier for the reader to keep going because most people in my orbit would not like this quote. (If it sounds good to you, then I guess I should still urge you to keep reading.) I will explain why some will push back and why I ultimately do not.
We are starting to see increased support for basic income as well as new sorts of negative reactions to the idea. Not very long ago, basic income advocates were often introducing the idea to specific audiences. This meant one could get away with starting where you thought the listener would react best. If you were talking to someone on the left, you might call it a “strike fund for all”. If someone is more liberal, you would emphasize that a basic income reaches people that welfare is supposed to help. With libertarian types, you start with the efficiency and non-bureaucratic character of a basic income. I have been very impressed by recent writing that emphasizes basic income’s ability to remedy asset inequality for people of color and women.
Now, I am very pleased to see more people who have already heard about basic income from someone. Sometimes they caught the wrong person for them. As we explain basic income, we will need to separate the policy (giving everyone an unconditional cash grant) from the project (which can range from left to right).
A quote like Altman’s can swing a listener in different directions. I know this from my social media work. I imagine people running different movies in their head. Some hear “new products and services and new wealth” and visualize start-ups and think it all sounds great. Others try to imagine a world working well with 90 percent of people not doing anything anyone else wants them to do and they just can’t see that working out well. Others hear this and worry that basic income is part of a larger scheme to organize our lives around Silicon Valley capitalists. To them, Altman seems to overly glorify the tech entrepreneur. Other writers are more desperate in labeling basic income a “neo-liberal plot”, which would make you laugh if you went to one of our Congresses. We would not want to merely swap one set of capitalists for another.
I have not met Sam Altman. His other statements show that he also finds basic income interesting because it directly answers a moral mandate to make sure people are clothed, fed, and sheltered. I highly recommend the rest of the podcast. My objective here is to explain why I think we ought to look at this quote charitably. I will show in what way I think his quote is true. I also want to propose an alteration that makes it much more palatable for those I see reacting negatively.
No One is Saying Ninety Percent of Society Will Hit the Couch
Altman is not talking about a whole society in which only 10 percent work. He is saying that even if we lose some work-time to lame leisure (pot and video games), we will make it back even if only 10 percent start up new enterprises. Nor is he saying that he knows that we will get one successful start-up for every nine lives lost to the coach. He is only saying that losing nine to the couch would be an acceptable price to pay if we gain a start-up, which would offer something someone wants and would also be offering jobs. This is very plausible.
Most people with a basic income will live a lot like they do now. They will have a more stable income. They will worry less about many of their friends and family. They will have a plan if they need to train for a job or pay bills between jobs. This cuts into the number of people who would choose the couch. Work can be a place where we get recognized for our talents and for our cooperativeness. And jobs pay money. In fact, you can still count on a basic income if you take on a job. And you can count on it if you change your mind.
The problem now is that employees have very few options when workplaces go sour. Basic income creates one option (work for no one) and enables people to survive while they search for and train for other options. This will increase pressure on workplaces to improve.
I used to be suspicious of most rhetoric surrounding markets. I think that was because so much of it ended up with a conclusion like “Therefore, government should do less/nothing.” I have come to value markets more and more. Now, I want them for everyone. A basic income secures the capability to participate in markets for everyone. There are many sections of the United States that get very little government or market attention. That would be less likely with a basic income in effect. You will also see more start-ups under a UBI because failing doesn’t risk losing everything. Most entrepreneurs now come from the upper one percent of our society. Whole communities aren’t going to see much startup soon if we wait for the elite to try to make money there.
Add Caregivers and Organizers To The Mix
Someone organizing a non-profit, a political organization, or even an informal social scheme fits under Sam Altman’s phrase of “new products and services and new wealth.” He is not confining his hopes to technological startups.
Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, written in 2000, lays out the loss of social networks and the harm that has caused most Americans. These can be voluntary associations, political clubs, fraternal organizations, or sports leagues. Participation has declined as work-hours per household has increased.
There is a strong link between organizational affiliation and many different metrics for happiness or meaningfulness. We also see more affiliation in communities that have more political power and that generate more market activity. (There is likely a causal loop there. Lack of power and lack of market options may often precede losses in organizational depth. And a lack of organizational depth may well often precede losses in money and power.) Social-capital comes hand in hand with capital-capital.
Michael Lewis and Eri Noguchi apply Putnam’s work, and combine it with survey data, to give us strong reasons to think that we would see improvements in civic networks as well. Declines in civic participations can be shown to coincide with an increase in work hours. People who value civic participation will have an option to do so.
If you want to know how a basic income will benefit society, let’s make it clear that we are including “organizers” within our understanding of “entrepreneur”. Our culture is one that has to be reminded of this. Once we expand our understanding, we can look around and see how many people are trying to participate in institutions that organize in pursuit of truth, justice, and beauty.
Examples will help here: church committees, symphony boards, rotary clubs, sports leagues, poetry circles, craft guilds, environmental organizations, identity-based youth groups, identity-based cultural organizations, music bands, theater companies, unions, political organizations, lobbying organizations, etc. This list could go on a very long time.
At this point, I want to share a little bit of what I learned as a community organizer in Arkansas for ACORN. Organizing is difficult. There are many ways in which it is not like entrepreneurship at all. You aren’t selling anything. All organizations have trouble finding this skill set. It is also difficult to get the resources together for full-time organizing. We would often hire someone who loved the mission of the organization but had to leave for pretty small increases in money. A basic income could help support people while they get their organization together. It might also prevent loss of organizers to the for-profit sector.
Please note: I have noticed that a large section of the US internet is trying to malign the very term “community organizer” but my argument includes organization of groups I disagree with.
The ratio of organizers to members goes beyond the one to nine ratio that Altman imagines. About six of us at Arkansas ACORN served around 5,000 households if you are only counting dues payers. The community that responded to our work was larger than that. There were meetings every month. People debated goals and tactics. Political leaders were interviewed or protested. Organizations that despised us did the same things, though often with more funding from fewer people.
Every time I hear the term “couch potato” brought up as some sort of nightmare case for basic income, I remember that I sat on thousands of couches, urging people to get active, to get involved with their community’s decisions. I know that with a basic income, we would have had more organizers and more active members. Rival organizations would have had the same benefit. We will live in a more democratic place.
I am still involved in political work, even though I am not employed to do it. I also have been published as a poet and as a photographer, though not paid. You will find a lot of people working on magazines, readings, and websites in which the true, the good, and the beautiful are debated. A lot of people can see how to raise some money doing cultural, social, or political work but they can’t get to a decent level. A basic income would generate audiences for artists, philosophers, preachers—good and bad. A thriving art world is full of disputed art. A thriving philosophical culture will have disputed philosophical projects. We will live in a more interesting place.
Norman Rockwell “Freedom of Speech”
Finally, we should look at the decision to care for a family like we would a “start-up”. The “caregiver” has started a “career” that works for many people like a vocation. For each caregiver, there is at least one other person, usually more, benefiting in a meaningful way. Economists often do not count care for children and elders unless someone is formally paid to do it. A basic income would enable people to say no to employment if someone they love needs them. We will live in a more caring place.
In fact, Robert Putnam shows us in his research, as do Michael Lewis and Eri Noguchi in theirs, that the “stay-at-home” mom was often a civic association organizer as well.
More markets, more culture, more democracy, more care. This looks to be well worth investing 3% of our GDP and letting a few people stay home.
When I read the comments and notes that come with all basic income articles, I can see that some people would worry about people not working because of basic income. Basic Income enables people not to work. Kate McFarland points out that a basic income enables people to say no to all social useful activity. But we are far away from that. Some people will live incorrectly. Many people live incorrectly now. Basic income is a good bet for increasing socially useful work.
- More entrepreneurs means more people are offered employment.
- More organizers mean more people are being invited to venues where what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful are debated and plans are made.
- More caregivers mean more people are taken care of.
Therefore, most likely, for every couch potato, we will have better reasons than ever to get off the couch.
About the author:
Jason Burke Murphy teaches philosophy and ethics at Elms College in Western Massachusetts. He serves on the board of US Basic Income Guarantee Network and recently presented at their North American Congress. He helps with social media for US Basic Income Guarantee Network. He has written before for Basic Income News. His most read piece so far is “Basic Income as Proposal, as Project, and as Idea.”
An economic study of Iran’s Basic Income, which was implemented to make it easier to phase out expensive (and ecologically destructive) fuel subsidies, shows that there have been no negative effects on employment. In the first section, I will summarize the study. In the middle, there is a list of past contributions made by Basic Income News authors. In the final section, I will make a few observations.
Iran’s Fuel Subsidy Reform and Employment
The unconditional grant program was launched in 2011. The monthly grant amounted to 29% of median household income, or about $1.50 extra per head of household, per day. Around 90% of Iranians are funded through this program. (Wikipedia has a good summary of the program at the time of this writing. It does not include the end of the universal cash grant program.)
Most people in Iran and in the government came to believe that the grant discourages employment. One often hears anecdotes and assertions in national and local Iranian press. The Iranian Parliament called for cuts in the program. (See Tehran Times, April 19, 2016.) After some wrangling, cash subsidies were finally ended in 2016, with funding reserved now for low-income citizens, they could possibly begin performing a criminal background check on applications for this funding in the future. Costs were cited. It is important to note half of the cuts in fuel subsidies went to business grants and other government expenses. (See Kate McFarland in Basic Income News, “Iran: Parliament Slashes Cash Subsidies to Citizens”). What is frustrating here is the fact that the program did not undermine work participation at all.
This study shows that some people in their twenties reduced work hours, often to go to school or improve their schoolwork. But this only averaged out to a matter of months (and is likely to yield medium- and long-term benefits.) Many people increased work time a little, especially in the service sector. The authors think that these businesses used the income to find more work opportunities. Empirical evidence contradicts a lot of presuppositions about the impact of an unconditional cash grant.
The study, “Cash Transfers and Labor Supply: Evidence From a Large-Scale Program in Iran“, is put out by the Economic Research Forum and was authored by the economists Djavad Salehi-Isfahani and Mohammad H. Mostafavi-Dehzooei.
The World Economic Forum posted a summary of the Economic Research Forum study here.
Past Articles on Iran’s Basic Income
Basic Income News has repeatedly covered Iran’s Fuel Subsidy Program to make sure it is regarded as a basic income policy. Here is a list of additional articles on the subject:
Djavad Salehi-Isfahani wrote an earlier piece for the ERF. Josh Martin writes about it at Basic Income News here.
Mathieu Ferry writes about Jacques Berthiller’s piece in Basic Income News here.
The Citizens’s Income Trust, based in Britain, wrote this opinion piece for Basic Income News here.
Karl Widerquist wrote four articles early in the program’s history. “Iran: Basic Income Might Become Means Tested” and “Iran: Basic Income Gets International Attention.” “Iran: On the Verge of Introducing the World’s First National Basic Income” and “Iran Might Be Moving Toward a BIG”
Hamid Tabatabai wrote an article that, very early on, points out that a country that had not been debating a basic income implemented substantial basic income grant.
These are conclusions reached by the author, Jason Burke Murphy, after reading the ERF study and the other articles on Iran’s program. I wanted to separate them because the first section of this article is meant to review an important study and past contributions by BI News authors.
(1) There was no point at which this program was embraced as a way to promote real freedom or to roll back poverty. Fuel subsidies were just unleashing such strong side effects that something needed to be done. It is amazing to know that a program that raises average income by 29% could be launched in order to solve a problem other than “lots of people would be better off with more money”. Had this been debated as a basic income guarantee, maybe things would turned out better.
(2) The idea that some people who can work might not work seems to bother people so much that the government ended a program that raises income for a majority of its people and for its least-well-off.
The idea is so powerful that the fact that people are NOT refusing to work can’t seem to overcome the fact that many people MIGHT or COULD refuse to work. There is a lot of work to be done here.
(3) Everyone should ask the question: What sort of percentage of people not formally working is even a problem? Most of them will do work for their families, after all. Many will gain expertise with the idea of applying it to future. Some will do work for their communities or as entrepreneurs.
(4) The impact of this grant was likely affected by the fact that it was never been presented as permanent. It also is not large enough to sustain most people at a standard of living that Iranians find decent. This may not serve as the rock-solid proof that a sizable grant won’t affect employment.
(5) In the US, an equivalent percentage of support would be around $16,000 a year. Can we assert that the Iranian experience shows that this amount would not trigger a mass refusal to work? Hard to say. Would a small-to-medium dip in job seekers even be a problem? Probably not. Lots of places in the US have average income below $16,000. Can we really say that they would be worse off with this grant just because some of them quit their jobs?
(6) All countries should take a good look at their subsidies, especially ones that benefit the already wealthy. They should cut them and fund an unconditional dividend. We get rid of something bad and replace it with something good. We see how high the dividend would be and think about the next step.
(7) As Basic Income advocates, we need to list Iran alongside Alaska and Macau as regions with a Basic Income. This is difficult because only Alaska has described its dividend as “permanent” and only there have recipients come to believe it is dependable. In the US, it is a little unusual to say “let’s do what Iran did” but that is our fate as a truth-telling movement.
Basic Income as All-inclusive Democratic Subsidy: Securing the Social Freedom and Economic Power for All People
Written by: Katja Kipping
[A long translator’s note: Katja Kipping is chair of the Left Party (Linkspartei) in Germany and a member of the national parliament. She has served as spokesperson for Germany’s Basic Income Network (Netzwerk Grundeinkommen). Within the Left Party, she organized the “Emancipatory Left” faction and writes for the libertarian socialist magazine “Prague Spring” (Prager Frühling).
Kipping presented this lecture “Grundeinkommen als Demokratiepauschale” at the Basic Income Earth Network Congress in Seoul, Korea, July 19th. She has frequently argued for basic income throughout Germany and has helped organize a “Basic Income faction” that includes most political parties in parliament.
I have translated this with the hope that left organizations worldwide will pay attention to her vision of basic income as a core component for the democratic left. Basic income would provide a clear sign that the left has learned from problems wrought in the past by bureaucracy, technocracy, and authoritarianism. Kipping draws from a constitutional republican tradition of investigating institutions that promote robust citizenship and deliberation. See Casassas and De Wispelaere 2012 and 2015. She also links her hopes with that of the degrowth movement. I see basic income, as Kipping presents it here, as an antidote to alienation and right-populism. Social analysis shows basic income to be part of the design of truly public institutions.
Any lapses in quality or argumentation should be attributed to me.
Please note that Kipping also presented in Dublin at the 12th Basic Income Earth Network Congress in 2008. “Moving to Basic Income (BI) – A left-wing political perspective” can be found at BIEN’s website.
You can a video of Kipping presenting the original German speech at https://bien2016.org/en/video-basic-income-and-politics-of-democracy/.
The text of her speech can be found at: https://www.katja-kipping.de/de/article/1112.grundeinkommen-als-demokratiepauschale.html. ]
Basic Income as All-inclusive Democratic Subsidy
Securing the Social Freedom and Economic Power for All People
- Social Freedom and Democracy – radical democratic approaches to basic income.
- Economic Might for All – basic Income and democratic institutions
- Closing Remarks on social transformation
1. Social Freedom and Democracy – radical democratic approaches to basic income.
Radical democratic approaches to basic income pay close attention to the connections between people and to their mutual dependencies within a community. The community is here understood as something public and political. It is oriented towards the well-being of all and should be shaped by all. From this it follows that freedom should not be understood as a mere absence of intervention or interference. On the contrary, freedom should be understand as independence over against any arbitrary authority [Fremdherrschaft]. Freedom, in this sense, implies no arbitrary interventions or interference on the part of state institutions and also no possibility of such interventions and interference. Intervention is arbitrary if an intervention comes whenever the intervener wills it.
Freedom, on the other hand, is fulfilled primarily through self-governance. Self-governance is formed by social and individual organization and also by monitoring these potential interventions and the institutions capable of them. Individual freedom, viewed in such an intersubjective political context, is also social freedom. The highest value is active participation of all in the res publica – a collective deliberative democratic self-determination. This naturally implies social equality and the securing of social freedom, which implies preventing any economically grounded dominance and dependency. Laws and institutions also need to reflect, promote, and enable the common good and self-governance. (See Socialist Party South Korea 2009, Patry 2010, Cassasas/De Wispelaere 2012, Cassasas/De Wispelaere 2015).
The following six theses on the establishment of a basic income as an all-inclusive democratic subsidy can be derived from these basic principles of radical democracy and social freedom.
- Basic Income must secure what a political community requires from each citizen in terms of money. This includes securing existence, social participation, and participation in political life. This unconditional guarantee of existence and participation has a monetary component. Non-monetary components also exist, such as free access to public goods, and to public infrastructure and services. These monetary and non-monetary components do not exclude each other but rather they complete one another. Both these monetary and non-monetary forms should, first, provide people socio-economic independence and, second, preserve their status as citizens with economic negotiating power whereby they can participate in the formation of society. Without the adequate safeguarding of free and equal conditions of social participation, no democratic participation is possible – formal possibilities for participation are not enough.
Whoever does not have enough material resources is first of all excluded from political participation and, secondly, doesn’t have enough negotiating power within political processes. This means that basic income, like all vital services, needs to be provided long-term. As I see it, this is not a problem in a time of high productivity and surplus. At most, it is a problem for those who do not want to give up economic privileges and political power. There is enough for all—worldwide!
- From a radical-democratic perspective, the basic income on a regular basis is preferable to single disbursements, like with a stakeholder grant or starting capital. Only regular payments can guarantee a lifelong income and its corresponding participation.
- The right to an unconditional basic income must be combined with a modern understanding of citizenship. A distinction between a majority of citizens and a minority of immigrants with regard to elementary socioeconomic rights and opportunities would lead to a problematic division of the community and a majority’s dominance over a minority.
- From a radical democratic viewpoint, people receive the unconditional basic income as equal members of the political community, not as part of a needy group that depends on the state. Any particular stigmatization of population groups splits the community and is a source for domination. That would still be true with a partial basic income (or transfers that do not secure survival or make social participation possible) that is supplemented by need-tested, income-tested, or asset-tested social benefits in order to reach a sufficient level.
It is clear that a person, who must make him or herself a stigmatized petitioner at the social office has a significantly harder time taking an upright path towards the political formation of the community. As Zygmunt Bauman formulated it: “The decisive argument in favor of the basic income is that it is the conditio sine qua non of a republic, as it can only exist in the union of people with self-confidence, of people without existential anxiety. A basic income which actually secures existence and allows social participation would establish a principle of citizens’ rights, rights that are not subject to a divisive and disqualifying ‘access test’ by need tests.” (Bauman 1999). [Note: this is a translation of the Bauman quote as found in Kipping’s speech. –JBM]
Therefore 5 holds: All citizens only have their rights fully recognized reciprocally through a sufficient basic income. This also means that more affluent citizens are comparatively more likely to contribute to the financing of the basic income than the less well-off citizens. This poses the question of the redistribution of economic resources and economic power.
- Basic income is not tied to any condition. An obligation towards any social or political participation would be sources of new domination. These would enable arbitrary interventions. The question of what makes something socially recognizable, and what does not, opens up a considerable amount of bureaucratic discretion. A citizen’s right to a basic income that included a direct citizen obligation would also transform voluntary engagement into regulated compulsory participation.
I would like to end this section with a quote from a German supporter of basic income who is also a politician. “It is farcical that MEPs [Members of the European Parliament] claim to maintain their substantial independence through relatively high salaries in order to make themselves non-extortionable but most of these deputies do not consider it necessary to ensure such independence and non-blackmail for the sovereign, the people” (Spehr 2003, 105). Basic income’s individual guarantee of a secure existence and participation is, alongside other forms of universal security for people (such as free access to public goods, social infrastructure, and social services), an indispensable prerequisite for social freedom, democratic and political engagement and the negotiating power for all people. It is an all-inclusive democratic subsidy!
2. Economic power for all – basic income and democratic institutions
Whoever says A must also say B. Who calls for basic income so that people can enter the public sphere with negotiating power must also call for the public shaping of our political foundations, economy, and everyday life (see Casassas and De Wispelaere 2012 and 2015). We need this to secure a basic income and other sorts of public services. Arbitrary interferences in human affairs through economic power, by endangering survival, health, and natural resources is not acceptable. An economy that is deprived of public organization, an economy that is privatized, is unacceptable. That also means that an economy and a financial sector that is immune to democratic control and influence is likewise unacceptable.
An imbalance in power through the deprivation of the public (privatization) in one form or another reaches deeply into real political and social power relations and removes the political and therefore citizens from the formation and control of public affairs. On the one hand, this includes power that arises from economic distribution—income, assets, and investment opportunities. This certainly also includes power in the realm of shaping and administering the economy and the financial sector. Who actually determines the use of natural resources, production resources, investment and the way in which economic activities are taxed? Who is exercising an alienated domination over the people today with real, unequally distributed, forms of design and control, and who subjects society and the economy to the will of a minority?
In addition to basic income and other forms of life and of participation for all people, social freedom requires the self-government of the citizens: by means of joint and individual control and appropriate intervention possibilities, which are secured by appropriately democratic institutions. These institutions must give all people the opportunity to shape social and economic life individually and collectively (see Cassasas / De Wispelaere 2015).
Economic power for all means basic income, including other unconditional support for existence. It also means the safeguarding of the economy and society for all and the institutionally secured public and political shaping of the economy and the society by all. This makes a democratic social transformation all the more necessary and urgent. Tomorrow, I am speaking at another conference about the challenge that this entails for the European left.
3. Concluding Remarks on Socio-Ecological Transformation
Poverty and exclusion, power over the many by the few, and destruction of the natural foundations of human life – that is the situation.
The international degrowth movement, which is committed to a world with significantly less natural resource consumption and to a rollback of ecological destruction and damage to our planet, therefore argues for the cohesion of ecology, democracy and social security of all people, and thus for the convergence of the various social movements and political actors (see Blaschke 2016).
It seems to me that only with this complex point of view and a committed relationship between social movements can the challenges of the 21st century be countered. Basic income, which in fact assures material existence and enables social participation, is an important component of a social-ecological transformation, which seeks to also be a democratic transformation!
Bauman, Zygmunt (1999), In Search of Politics. Cambridge. Polity Press.
Blaschke, Ronald (2016), Grundeinkommen und Degrowth – Wie passt das zusammen? https://www.degrowth.de/de/2016/02/grundeinkommen-und-degrowth-wie-passt-das-zusammen/
Casassas, David / De Wispelaere, Jurgen (2012), The Alaska Model: A Republican Perspective. In: Karl Widerquist / Michael W. Howard (Ed.): Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend. Examining his Suitability as a Model, New York, 169-188.
Casassas, David / De Wispelaere, Jurgen (2015), Republicanism and the political economy of democracy. European Journal of Social Theory, September, 1-18.
Kipping, Katja (2009), Ausverkauf der Politik. Für einen demokratischen Aufbruch, Berlin.
Patry, Eric (2010), Das bedingungslose Grundeinkommen in der Schweiz. Eine republikanische Perspektive, Bern, Stuttgart, Wien.
Socialist Party South Korea, Unconditional Basic Income and General Social Care, Party Program, Supplement No. 1, 2009 (Translation of Socialist Party of South Korea, “Basic Income for All und Universal Welfare”, translation by Min Geum, https://www.grundeinkommen.de/ Content / uploads / 2010/08 / 10-05-22-bge-program-socialist-party-korea-endrb.pdf
Spehr, Christoph (2003), Gleicher als andere. Eine Grundlegung der freien Kooperation, in: Christoph Spehr (Hg.), Gleicher als andere. Eine Grundlegung der freien Kooperation, Berlin, S. 19-115.
Spehr, Christoph (2003), Gleicher als andere. Eine Grundlegung der freien Kooperation, in: Christoph Spehr (Hg.), Gleicher als andere. Eine Grundlegung der freien Kooperation, Berlin, S. 19-115.
Translated by Jason Burke Murphy, Elms College
I recently went to a fascinating conference organized by SCORAI, the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative. This organization is dedicated to interdisciplinary study of consumption and the ecological impact of that consumption. They take seriously the threat of climate change and posed strong questions about the ways that our consumption decisions are driven by corporate culture and social planning. I went to presentations on transportation, automation, and ideology. Topics included driverless cars, e-bikes, downshifting, ecological footprints, mindfulness, and consumer wisdom. The topic of sustainable consumption pushes the research into posing hard questions about how humans are living and how they can live well. The conference had a blend of policymakers and scholars that you do not often see. I was reminded of the Basic Income Earth Network and US Basic Income Guarantee Network Congresses where I see activists, policymakers, and scholars listen to each other. Readers here should also consult SCORAI and keep their future conferences in mind.
Getting the Word Out about a Carbon Tax and Dividend
There was a sense of urgency given what we know about the amount of resources we are using and using up. Carbon taxes came up often. After all, they could impose the real ecological costs of consumption and manufacturing. I am a strong believer that a carbon tax is one of the ways we should fund a dividend for all.
We have heard about the “Limits to Growth” since the Club of Rome put out a now famous report bearing that title in 1970. Dr. William Rees, the inventor of the term “ecological footprint” pointed out to the conference that their projections have proven accurate in the 46 years since publication. This report predicts a series of economic collapses as consumption outpaces resource availability. So far, so scary. Rees calls for carbon taxes but also for cities to plan around local sustainability.
However, I was daunted by how often I found myself explaining what basic income is to participants. Most participants had heard of it recently but a surprising number looked curious when I mentioned it. If you are reading this, you have likely seen quite a few articles on a universal basic income and you may think “everyone else” has heard of it as well. We are not there yet. These are very clever and concerned people. Most were sympathetic. Not everyone thought a basic income was part of the topic of sustainable consumption just like not everyone at a basic income gathering would think the environment was a central part of the struggle against poverty. But we have to keep talking.
Concerns about Basic Income and ‘what the neighbors will think’
Those who were not on board (or at least not enthusiastic as me) came from many different angles. Many were speculating about how well basic income would “play” among the general public or in Congress. Some just wanted to know if the issue would hurt or help the Democrats in the upcoming election. These are the hardest people to convince. They are not actually asking themselves what they believe. We hear these sorts of things often elsewhere. These concerns will be met once a greater portion of the public has heard of basic income. Again, we have to keep talking. We have got a long way to go.
Direct Concerns about Basic Income
Some participants raised some very strong reservations about a basic income and I want to share them here and pose an initial response to them and a slightly longer one that includes an introduction to “degrowth.”
Most participants who were considering basic income were earlier proponents of a carbon tax to be used to fund ecological initiatives like public transportation, ecological energy production, and enforcement of environmental laws. Would a basic income squeeze out the budget for these things? That is a very real concern. Basic income is often sold as replacing other government functions. We have to acknowledge that this is a large budget item and all budget items can be seen as competing with other governmental functions. The best solution for this is environmental organizations writing bills with basic income in them. In the US, we have Citizen’s Climate Lobby and the Healthy Climate and Family Security Act, which has several congressional and organizational sponsors.
Another concern was raised as a research question. There is a strong link between income and ecological destructive impact. Worldwide, and in the US, the larger one’s income, the larger one’s “ecological impact.” Would a basic income turn every low-income American into a middle-income American? Would it turn middle-income Americans into Hummer-driving suburban developers? That would be an environmental disaster. I want to stress that this was posed as a research question. I heard no one straight out submit this as a rebuttal of basic income.
Income Now Drives Carbon Output
Jean Boucher’s research, presented at SCORAI, gave me another reason to think a carbon tax is important. He interviewed people who believe that climate change is a serious problem and those who do not. He compiled other research into climate beliefs and consumption patterns. He showed that people who believed climate change was a threat still used more carbon as their income increased. They used as much carbon as people with similar incomes who did not believe climate change was a threat. He noted that “liberals” tended to use up the carbon they save elsewhere with travel.
The fact that income makes people more dangerous as consumers is a strong argument for carbon taxes and other ecological regulations. Boucher, who supports a carbon tax dividend, shows that convincing people that climate change is real will not generate a sufficient amount of vegetarians with solar panels to actually make an impact. Carbon must be made more expensive.
Boucher has campaigned for a carbon tax through the Citizen’s Climate Lobby, which seeks a dividend. But could a basic income or any dividend reverse the benefits of the carbon tax? Would we just eat more cattle and travel more and ruin the planet?
We Cannot Build a Better World on the Backs of the Poor
If the ecological movement were to adopt this sort of reasoning, that would be a political disaster. They are already accused of forsaking jobs and prosperity for the sake of natural preservation. A basic income is a way to get around this. It also offers something to someone who has good reason to doubt they will be getting one of these new high-tech ‘green’ jobs preserving the environment. Can you really tell a coal miner to become an environmental engineer or an organic farmer? Do we not owe people something for pulling out the rug from under them, like that coal miner, even if we needed to?
We need to understand why depressed communities do not believe movement leaders who promise them jobs. They been promised this sort of thing before. They have been told jobs were created and they have been unimpressed. As I write, I just saw the Democratic National Convention run a video claiming Bill Clinton created millions of jobs. There is a whole belt of communities that just are not seeing it. A dividend would be a visible support for them and their communities. And a new sort of job creator. And it would reach the invisible and despised. Without a dividend, we give the opponents of environmental regulations a better opportunity to recruit votes from the less powerful.
We do not have the right to use deprivation, or the threat of deprivation, to promote even the best outcomes. It is very bad when the privileged argue that we should keep the threat of poverty in play so that people will work bad jobs for less money. It is still bad to leave people in precariousness even if our intention is to promote ecological sustainability. To talk that way is to combine a political disaster with our current moral one. After all, we are using the threat of deprivation to organize large sections of the population.
Basic Income and Degrowth
Giorgios Kallis’ keynote presentation steered me towards my provisional answer to these questions. He supports a basic income alongside the promotion of universal access to low-consumption versions of public transportation, education, and health. He sees this as a way of shrinking the destructive aspects of our economy, driven by capital, and increasing other parts of economic that we value, though ignored by capital.
Kallis’ main project is combining political ecology and ecological economics. These are two separate movements that he draws from in an attempt to take more seriously the material conditions that undergird our economic activity. We have a very long history of a link between growth in gross domestic product and a growth in carbon emissions. Kallis has called for “prosperity without growth” and is part of a “degrowth” movement. We have a finite planet and we cannot keep growing in the ways we have measured growth.
I have to admit that I have often presented a basic income as a vehicle for growth in those communities too invisible for current markets and current public planners to take action. Because I found this ecological argument for degrowth plausible, I wondered what this would mean for how I see basic income working.
The Gibson Graham Iceberg Model
In the course of presenting his argument, Kallis’ showed us was this drawing of an iceberg devised by feminist economists Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham. I have not been able to get it out of my head. Let us look at two examples, talk about them, and then get back to basic income and degrowth.
Drawing by James Langdon
Drawing by Ken Byrne
They published under a combined name of “J.K. Gibson-Graham” and their work can be found at a website called “Community Economies.” Almost all economics, they argue, only looks at the “tip of the iceberg” which consists of capitalist markets and wage labor. Above the “water-line”, we have the sort of things that our market economy sees. If a price can be put on it, then someone with money to invest (a capitalist) or to consume (a customer) can make an offer for it. These are the things that our economics and our politics (and increasingly our culture) value.
Below the water-line are things that we do value but capital markets do not value in the same way we do. I went with two examples because the whole idea of the iceberg model is to get you thinking about the things you value and see where they stand. Think about how important so many of these “underwater” items are. We value culture, charity, education, health, and family life. We should not give these up in exchange for money. They have a value that is hard to reduce to a cash amount.
The list is not complete. Also, every item below the line has capital and wage versions. People pay for schools and policymakers do assign a monetary value to them. There is an art and music market. Lots of economic activity that used to take place in households are now taken care of with wage payments.
The problem is that we live in a world in which all of our decisions are being pressured to work using the terms we see above the line. Libraries and schools, when they submit their budgets, are asked to justify their existence in terms of capitalist markets and wage labor. Maybe we just want to learn. Environmental organizations are told to think about the “economy” as if we do not assign value to what we breathe, eat, drink, and look at.
Many of the terms below the water-line point to ways of belonging, to spaces where we recognize each other’s talents. Families are a large space and a lot of us would like to be able to work more with open-source technology and cooperative enterprises because we place a value on their less dominated character.
Markets and workplaces can also be such value-laden spaces but the values we use when we assess a market or a workplace must come from somewhere below the water-line. If all you thought about was money in evaluating health care at any level, you will not get to the goal of health. But so many health organizations’ decisions are driven only by the tip of the iceberg.
Giorgio Kallis shows us the Gibson Graham Iceberg Model in order to point out that the “degrowth” movement seeks to contract what is at the top of the iceberg in order to grow what is low on the iceberg.
Basic Income and Values Growth
Perhaps I am too indoctrinated by growth-oriented language but I cannot help but push against the word “degrowth”. Their adherents seem to be talking about “real growth” or “values growth” (“Values Growth” is a phrase I just invented). I suppose they need to be very clear that they think the earth can only be sustained if capital markets are organizing less of the planet’s resources. That part of the economy needs to shrink.
Giorgios Kallis makes it clear though that he is not talking about a sparser existence. Degrowth for him would not mean tightening our belts. He supports a carbon-tax-funded basic income precisely because he hopes people will opt out of the hurly-burly lives of wage-work and consumption of consumer goods. He actually hopes people opt out of the economy as it is right now. But they would live better as they see it.
Those who decide to try to live on just their basic income are, by definition, deciding they can live better with more time and less income than they would with the jobs they see available. These lives will consume less of what the capitalist market steers us now to consume. The lives they build will promote options for others as well. When we look around, we will see more than just the lives that corporations want us to value. It does not all have to be shopping between shifts at work.
When we present basic income, we are often called upon to prove that people will not opt out of the workforce. I often point out that a basic income is still yours when you take on a job. Right now, people dependent on disability worry about losing that support if they try out a job. (I am often referred by policy analysts to very complex regulations. MBA’s and lawyers disagree over the meaning of these rules. I hold a couple of degrees but I couldn’t tell anyone what would happen to them. Disability recipients, whether educated or not, are expected to understand how these policies will be interpreted. Basic income gets around all that.) Many start-ups will be buoyed by basic income.
But Kallis calls for a rethink here. For Kallis, this nightmare scenario is no nightmare at all. People who opt out of the wage-labor market simply will use up less of the earth. Everyone who opts out of the labor market in order to live more sparsely is buying the planet time.
We Do Not Need to Consume to Live or Live to Consume
Consumption becomes more expensive while we are empowered to give care and creativity the time they deserve. This answers Jean Boucher’s concerns about increased income and consumption. There are not a lot of low-consumption options now when we look at what to do with our income. There will be more with basic income, which will create new kinds of social actors.
Let us look back at the iceberg again. A basic income means that you have a property-like claim on an income. You do not have to please someone with money to have an income. You do not need a job or a patron. This means you can spend more money and time on things you care about besides capital markets, wage labor, and the people who run those things.
Basic income moves resources from the top of the iceberg to the bottom. We can see that markets are pushing their values onto other things we care about. A basic income large enough to live on is one that enables us to say “no” more often to the world on top of the iceberg. As we look around in order to build a life that we want, we will survey the values that are below the line. We will be more confident than ever that we know what we want.
We will have more examples of people living lives they value. These will include investor and entrepreneurs and job-holders but they will also include lives focused on culture, experience, ethics, and values. A basic income will increase the number of people who organize to promote what they consider to be good, fair, and true. We need more organizations besides for-profit corporations competing for our attention and time. We depend on people negotiating between their needs and wants and the beliefs and power relations that they have inherited. This new world may be more contentious, more diverse, than our current one. It also may be more deliberative if persuasion becomes a more important means to organizing people now being organized by capital and wage offerings. Combined with making environmental destruction more expensive, a basic income funded by taxing pollution will make less-destructive lives more meaningful.
Edit (August 13, 10:40 pm EST):
A line was changed by the author. The new version makes it more clear that many people with disabilities are highly educated.