BIEN Stories: Steven Shafarman

BIEN Stories: Steven Shafarman

“Toward Basic Income and a Peaceful Democratic Revolution” 

By Steven Shafarman

My drive to enact a basic income – and most of my ideas about how to attract, educate, organize, and mobilize allies – arose from exploring the way young children learn to walk and talk.

I first wrote about these ideas, though without the term basic income, in the mid 1980s, inspired by the analogy of “the body politic” and Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” Young children, as they learn to walk, outgrow crawling and leave it behind. Their basic needs are provided by parents or other adults. Thus, when everyone’s basic economic security is guaranteed, I believe our society can “outgrow” pollution, racism, war, and other problems.

In 1998, while enrolled in a doctoral program in system science and human development, I self-published a book about how to heal our political system. With that book, I was hooked. I moved to Washington D.C. in the fall of 1999, seeking support for these ideas. I heard about USBIG in 2000, went up to New York for one of the earliest meetings, and presented at the first conference in March of 2002. That’s when I learned about BIEN, and decided to attend the Congress in Geneva. My paper, on how to build a mass movement, was selected and published.

Over the following years, I presented at most USBIG meetings; wrote three more books, self-published or with micro publishers; gave talks at BIEN meetings in Dublin in 2008 and Montreal in 2014; worked with the Green Party of the U.S., adding basic income to their platform; and made several attempts to launch nonprofit organizations to support our efforts. Yet I was always thinking about young children, and how they learn naturally, spontaneously. My primary profession is teaching people, all ages and any health condition, to breathe freely and move easily, to outgrow back pain, breathing troubles, stress-related disorders, and other difficulties.

While promoting basic income, I’ve been actively thinking of myself as a healthy curious young child, pursuing my dreams, goals, and interests. At the same time, though, I’ve been anxiously wishing I had a basic income; regardless of the amount, that would have been immensely valuable.

The “Tax Cut for the Rest of Us Act of 2006,” H.R. 5257, would have created a small basic income through a fully refundable tax credit. It was introduced in the U.S. Congress, though never debated. Al Sheahen and Karl Widerquist wrote the initial paper, with a title I suggested, and Al and I arranged a series of meetings to lobby for it. After lunch in the basement cafeteria of a House office building, on our way to a meeting on the third floor, we were in an elevator with a dozen congressional staffers. I used that moment to say, loudly, “The reason I’m lobbying for basic income, Al, is that I want to live in a true democracy, without leaving the country.” Several staffers laughed. One said, “Good luck.”

Living in Washington D.C., I’ve had many conversations with people who work at political think tanks, lobbying shops, and similar organizations. Everyone has a specific issue, project, or other focus, and limited interest in new ideas. Liberal Democrats typically respond with a variation of “I love that idea, but … ,” and then explain why it’s politically impossible. Conservative Republicans tend to instantly state a moral or emotional objection; when we have time to discuss it in detail, however, they often agree that it makes sense.

Before autumn 2013, most people had never heard of basic income, although a few recalled ideas from the 1960s and ’70s about guaranteed income, negative income tax, or Richard Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan. That October, our friends in Switzerland filed for their referendum and held their event with the coins, and their campaign was widely reported in the U.S. media. I saw a huge breakthrough. My conversations became far more congenial and productive.

Over the past few years, I’ve been writing a book that, I expect, will attract, excite, and unite people from across the political spectrum and outside it. My title is “Basic Income Imperative: for peace, justice, liberty, and personal dignity.” It’s nearly finished. I have queries out to a number of literary agents, and hope to have a publisher soon.

I now believe – more than believe, actually, I’m confident – that within the next few years we can have a peaceful democratic revolution for basic income. Let’s make history and make it happen.

Steven Shafarman is a co-founder of Basic Income Action, and the author of four books about basic income, with another forthcoming. He also teaches FlexAware and the Feldenkrais Method. He lives in Washington, D.C.


At the end of 2016, the year in which BIEN celebrated the 30th anniversary of its birth, all Life Members were invited to reflect on their own personal journeys with the organization. See other contributions to the feature edition here.

BIEN Stories: Christopher Balfour

BIEN Stories: Christopher Balfour

Christopher Balfour (BIEN Life Member)

In the early 1960s I worked as a Youth Employment Officer in the English Midlands. We were then an education-based service concerned with guidance and placement but also responsible for trying to assist those without work and paying out benefits, a valuable way of keeping in touch each week.

Having been adopted as a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate in the mid-1960s (and taken part in the 1966 Election) I began to talk with already-elected Members of Parliament who shared my concerns. In this way I met Brandon Rhys Williams and then his mother, Dame Juliet. They introduced me to this concept of a small payment as of right, no strings attached, to all citizens. A few years later Sir Keith Joseph wrote to me that “there is no chance of these ideas being ignored. Far too many of us are keen.”

The Conservatives then lost the 1974 Elections. Mrs Thatcher appeared on the scene and all this thinking was sidelined. I left the Party and was elected as Independent Councillor, leading to much involvement with schemes to provide employment and assistance to young people. At once there was the problem that, if a participant received more than £4 per week, this was subtracted from any agreed supplementary benefit. A small ’no strings’ payment seemed even more worthy of consideration. This advocacy continued through the 1980s. It seemed, still seems, a portal to other ways of life opening up opportunities, enabling possible creative enjoyable activity for all including those condemned to drudgery. I know because, as a result of my mother’s death when I was a child in 1945, her Will (not anticipating early death) gave me this accidental access to my own unearned basic income.

In the last 25 years I have had other involvements. But I have taken the opportunity to bring up the subject, not in friendly meetings of the converted, but rather amongst those who are hostile and regard such a contribution as “something for nothing”. I also try to remind people that our education-based helping service may have been more productive than an employment based service which too often seems to lead to “sanctioning”. A few Conservatives still respond today. I just so much regret what may have been lost when Edward Heath was defeated in the 1970s. The Conservatives spoke then of “individual freedom”.  They had considered the costs and were beginning to think they might be manageable because of the potential benefit.

I am now old, and it is good to see increased discussion. Amongst my grandchildren there are now four (teenagers and older) who have endured my advocacy over years and now supportive.

Photo from Christopher Balfour’s website, christopherbalfour.co.uk


At the end of 2016, the year in which BIEN celebrated the 30th anniversary of its birth, all Life Members were invited to reflect on their own personal journeys with the organization. See other contributions to the feature edition here.

BIEN Stories: Malcolm Torry

BIEN Stories: Malcolm Torry

Malcolm Torry – “My Basic Income Story”

Almost exactly forty years ago, I left university, got married, and started work in Brixton, in South London, administering means-tested benefits. I spent two years on the public counter: and it didn’t take long to understand how inefficient, degrading, and disincentivising means-tested benefits were. After two years I left to train for the Church of England’s ministry, and from 1980 to 2014 I served in four different South London parishes, and saw yet more of the damage that our benefits system can inflict.

In 1984 a group of individuals from a variety of walks of life met at the offices of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in London to give birth to the Basic Income Research Group (subsequently the Citizen’s Income Trust). Since then we have held meetings, published a regular journal (The Citizen’s Income Newsletter), managed a website and a library, conducted our own research, and helped other organisations with theirs. The speed with which the debate has gone mainstream in the UK, as elsewhere, during the last few years, has taken those of us who have been working on the issue for more than thirty years a bit by surprise. Two years ago I retired early from a very demanding parish (we had the whole of the Greenwich Peninsula, as well as two other communities, in the parish) in order to concentrate on Basic Income and other research interests. Requests for presentations, articles, and assistance with research, continue to increase in number. The Citizen’s Income Trust runs on voluntary labour and a very small budget, and so is limited in what it can do; but we have an excellent group of trustees, and have benefited from occasional help from volunteers and students on placement.

In relation to my own research, it has been most generous of the London School of Economics to appoint me as a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics for a second three year term, and equally generous of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex to train me in using EUROMOD, the microsimulation programme. I am also enormously grateful to the many people who have assisted in various ways with my books and other publications. The now widespread interest in the Citizen’s Income Trust’s work goes a long way towards making up for the lack of human and financial resources.

Thirty years ago we helped to establish BIEN, we were pleased to be able to organise the BIEN Congress in London in 1994 (a rather smaller event than congresses today), and we have been pleased to see BIEN develop into a global umbrella organisation. The recent increase in both the extent and the depth of the Basic Income debate means that BIEN’s role as a forum for debate is now more important than ever. As the global debate and individual national debates continue to evolve, it will be essential to maintain the integrity of the debate’s vocabulary, to disseminate accurate information about research results and pilot projects, and to ensure that communication occurs between the many different aspects of the debate. Only BIEN can fulfil these roles. It has an important future.


At the end of 2016, the year in which BIEN celebrated the 30th anniversary of its birth, all Life Members were invited to reflect on their own personal journeys with the organization. See other contributions to the feature edition here.

BIEN Stories: Richard Caputo

BIEN Stories: Richard Caputo

Richard K. Caputo (Professor of Social Work) 

My colleague Professor Vicki Lens recommended that I check out the US Basic Income Guarantee (USBIG) Network which was planning its first annual Congress for March 8-9, 2002 in New York City. Professor Lens was familiar with much of my scholarship on low-income families and economic well-being and thought my interests overlapped with the likes of Stony Brook School of Social Welfare Professor Michael Lewis (who coauthored Economics for Social Workers with Professor Karl Widerquist, the Congress organizer and one of the USBIG Network’s founders), among others.

I submitted an abstract based on the research I had done about the Nixon administration’s Family Assistance Plan while writing Welfare and Freedom American Style II. My abstract, “FAP Flops: Lessons Learned from the Failure to Pass the Family Assistance Plan in 1970 and 1972,” was accepted. I presented the full paper on Friday, March 8th, though somewhat intimidated by such knowledgeable notables as Sociologist Professor Fred Block and independent scholar Allan Sheahen (author of Guaranteed Income: The Right to Economic Security), among others. Thus began what turned out to be my ongoing associations with the USBIG Network and BIEN.

Though intrigued by my participation in First Congress of USBIG, I was not taken in by the idea of an unconditional basic income (UBI) guarantee whole cloth. It did not square well with my sense of social justice, nor with my concerns about poverty reduction, though it did address what I saw as the diminished value of wage-based labor in an increasingly global economy and seemed compatible with the social work value of self-determination. As I learned more about the idea and its implications, I was quite taken by what seemed to be the sharp contrast about capitalism and about freedom. At the time, in late 2003 and early 2004, I had been working on an essay, “The ethics of poverty,” for Salem Press, while also thinking about a paper for presentation at the USBIG conference that was to take place February 22-22 in Washington, DC.

I had asked the USBIG primary coordinator at the time, Karl Widerquist, if he knew of any related secular literature dealing with the ethics of poverty. He directed me to the works of Philip Van Parijs (Real Freedom For All: What If Anything Can Justify Capitalism?), one of the two contemporary UBI intellectual heavyweights, the other being Guy Standing (Beyond the New Paternalism: Basic Security as Equality). In my reading of their works, Professors Van Parijs and Standing went head to head about the relationship between capitalism and UBI. For Professor Van Parijs the productive, wealth-generating capacity of capitalism made the UBI possible, enhancing the prospect of each person’s freedom, whereas for Professor Standing capitalism made UBI necessary because of its capacity to eviscerate labor, portending human misery and social unrest. Capitalism as a force for individual and social good vs. capitalism as a force for adverse individual and social consequences made for an interesting mix of scholars and activists who participated in BIEN and USBIG Congresses.

Professors Van Parijs and Widerquist also seemed to be at odds about the idea of freedom. Professor Widerquist, who asked me to comment on an early version of what became his 2006 dissertation from Oxford University (“Property and the Power to Say No: A Freedom-Based Argument for Basic Income”) and the basis of his book Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income, dichotomized freedom as a status attribute of personhood, one either had it or did not, implying that a UBI would have to be at a level sufficiently high to enable anyone to reject a job offer s/he deemed unsuitable for any reason while living reasonably well financially. Professor Van Parjis’ idea of freedom was more like a gradient, one had varying degrees of it, enabling him to view any UBI level as an acceptable alternative to not having a UBI at all. I took issue with both, thinking status freedom too narrow if based only on one’s economic circumstances, and a gradient insufficient if the level of UBI had little or no significant impact on the lives of poor individuals and families.

Finally, while drafting the ethics of poverty essay and thinking about a paper for the 2004 USBIG Congress, I also noticed an announcement for the former Yeshiva University Political Scientist Professor Ross Zucker’s Democratic Distributive Justice (2000), which also had a proposal for a guaranteed income. Professor Zucker’s justification for UBI differed from Professor Van Parijs, focusing less on freedom and more on the consumption aspects of making more money available to everyone as consumers.

What I initially learned from my reading of UBI related materials resulted in three articles: (1) “Redistributive Schemes That Skirt Poverty: Reconsidering Social Justice in Light of Van Parijs and Zucker,” published in the Journal of Poverty (2005); (2) “The Unconditional Basic Income Guarantee: Attempts to Eclipse the Welfare State,” published in International Social Work (2008); and (3) “Standing Polanyi on His Head: The Basic Income Guarantee as a Response to the Commodification of Labor,” published in Race, Gender & Class (2008). These articles formed the basis of presentations as several BIEN and related conferences.

While participating in these conferences and meeting international scholars with varying viewpoints and insights about the merits of UBI schemes, I also got the idea for a book documenting how related proposals were faring politically across the globe. With support from Philippe Van Parijs, Yannick Vanderborght, Jurgen De Wispelaere, Michael Lewis, and Eri Noguchi, I applied for and was awarded an $8,000 Summer Research Fellowship from the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Center for International Affairs at Yeshiva University in May 2006, based on the proposal, “Achieving a Basic Income Guarantee: Efforts-to-Date Around the World.” Essentially, I classified the countries I examined into two groups, those, which for all practical purposes rejected UBI schemes (South Africa, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Columbia) and those which sought to build upon or expand other social welfare provisions with the eventual aim of achieving UBI (e.g., a child allowance in Argentina, the Bolsa Família Program in Brazil, a child tax benefit in Canada, guaranteed minimum pension income for low-income persons in Chile, expanding the non-means-tested child benefit in Ireland, and baby bond proposals in the US).

I was taken to task somewhat when I presented the preliminary findings at the 2007 Congress of the USBIG Network in New York, though I had retitled the paper, “The Death Knoll of BIG or BIG by Stealth” for dramatological purposes. Few Congress participants were willing to accept that basic income guarantees were dead-on-arrival policy options anywhere. One session participant, Conference of Religious Ireland (later Social Justice Ireland) Co-Director Father Seán Healy, contended that there was more going on in Ireland than what was visibly available online and in the BIEN Newsflashes and USBIG Newsletters, implying also that my research would benefit from more extensive collaboration with those on the ground who could provide greater nuances about UBI-related politics involved in each country.

I took Father Healy’s and likeminded comments from others to heart, realizing that a single-authored book on the topic was unfeasible, perhaps even foolhardy on my part, given the country-by-country variability of the politics and efficacy of advocacy efforts involved in getting the idea of a basic income guarantee on the public agenda.

Over time, I gathered a group of scholars to contribute to my edited volume, Basic Income Guarantee and Politics: International Experiences and Perspectives on the Viability of Income Guarantee, published in 2012 in the Palgrave Macmillan series Exploring the Basic Income Guarantee.

One of the things that impressed me about the BIEN and USBIG Congresses overall was the tone set by Professor Van Parijs. I found Professor Van Parjis quite personable and open to criticism, some of which came from me, though the most challenging perhaps from Rutgers University Law Professor Phil Harvey who clearly preferred job guarantees over income guarantees. I always felt welcome, as I suspect Professor Harvey did, given the number of papers we presented over the years at BIEN and USBIG Congresses. On several occasions, I heard Professor Van Parijs iterate that the primary role of BIEN was to promote discussion about the merits of the idea, about ethical and practical considerations that one might argue for and against UBI so that our collective thinking about it would be enhanced.

The prospect of UBI remains a scholarly interest of mine, though UBI seems a difficult sell politically in the US. Even the self-identified libertarian Charles Murray, one of UBI’s major proponents, acknowledged that UBI was a political nonstarter. Some traction can be found in the tech sector, as Professor Michael Lewis and I noted in our introduction to the special symposium on UBI in the Autumn 2016 issue of the Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare. I also included UBI as a policy option in the closing chapter of U.S. Social Welfare Reform. On occasion, I also continue to assign related readings for my social welfare policy classes.

 

Richard K. Caputo is professor of social policy and research at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work in New York City. This retrospective is adapted from a chapter in his forthcoming academic memoir, Connecting the Dots: An Intellectual Autobiography of a Social Work Academician.


At the end of 2016, the year in which BIEN celebrated the 30th anniversary of its birth, all Life Members were invited to reflect on their own personal journeys with the organization. See other contributions to the feature edition here.

BIEN Stories: Michael Howard

BIEN Stories: Michael Howard

Michael Howard (Coordinator of US Basic Income Guarantee Network)

I can remember the moment when I first took a keen interest in basic income. I was familiar with the idea, having spent a research leave at the European University Institute in Fiesole, when Philippe Van Parijs was there writing Real Freedom for All. We had some casual conversations, but I failed to appreciate the radical implications of basic income, until some months later, when I happened to read one of Philippe’s essays, in a collection on social class edited by E.O. Wright.

My work up to that point was focused on market socialism and worker self-management, and, more generally, just and feasible alternatives to capitalism. I thought that the way to address the democratic deficits and inequalities of capitalism, without abandoning its efficiencies, was to convert capitalist enterprises into worker-managed firms operating in a market economy, and also to democratize investment decisions through a system of public banks.

When I read Philippe’s essay, I realized that the model of work I was presupposing, where workers work full-time over many years for a single enterprise, was disappearing. Philippe observed that many in our generation were finding themselves in and out of paid employment, working part-time, or in temporary positions, relying on fellowships, increasingly finding themselves in a precarious position regarding income and work. I invited Philippe to my campus for a series of talks, and to discuss my work.

I attended my first BIEN congress in Amsterdam. In some ways it was my favorite. While I would not wish BIEN to return to an attendance level where everyone meets for the whole conference in the same room, it was great to be able to have one continuous conversation with everyone, and enough break time for serious one-on-one conversations on the side.

In the book I subsequently published, Self-Management and the Crisis of Socialism, I incorporated a basic income into the model of socialism I was defending. After the book, my focus shifted from market socialism and cooperatives to basic income, and I became a regular contributor to conferences on basic income.

I had the good fortune to spend a semester as a Hoover Fellow at the Catholic University in Louvain-la-Neuve. I worked with Karl Widerquist to edit two books on Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend. When the US Basic Income Guarantee Network needed a coordinator to take over from Karl in 2008, I was willing, and have been doing the job ever since.

It has been a pleasure and inspiration to work with the dedicated scholars and activists in USBIG and BIEN. During these roughly 25 years, I have seen basic income move from a novel idea, under discussion by academics and a few visionary activists in response to unprecedented changes in our world, to a policy idea being tested in South Africa, Brazil, the Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland, India, and Canada, and on the radar of mainstream policy makers in the US like Robert Reich and even President Obama. The growth of interest threatens to outpace the capacity of our organizations. USBIG, for example, is just now becoming incorporated, has relied on voluntary labor, and has operated without a budget since its beginning.

But BIEN, USBIG, and other organizations are gearing up to meet the rising interest and the important and difficult policy challenges and decisions that lie ahead. Despite recent turns toward the right in politics, I am confident that our best times lie ahead. Xenophobia and neoliberal austerity cannot solve the climate crisis, the disruptions created by the current wave of automation, persistent global poverty, and stagnating economies. Once the false promises of right wing populism are exposed, there will be an opening for new solutions, and basic income is likely to be an essential part of the mix. I look forward to rolling up my sleeves and working with my comrades in BIEN during these very interesting times.


At the end of 2016, the year in which BIEN celebrated the 30th anniversary of its birth, all Life Members were invited to reflect on their own personal journeys with the organization. See other contributions to the feature edition here.

BIEN Stories: José A. Noguera

BIEN Stories: José A. Noguera

José A. Noguera (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, International Advisory Board of BIEN)

I still remember quite clearly the first time I read something about the idea of ​​a Basic Income (BI): it was back in 1991, when I was finishing my degree in Sociology in Barcelona, and spent most of my time reading abstruse texts of social theory. It was one of my favourite authors at that time, Jürgen Habermas, who gave me the clue in a chapter of his Political Essays, in which, somewhat cryptically (as is usual in him), he spoke of something like “decoupling income from work through a guaranteed income”. Obviously he was referring to the idea of ​​an unconditional income guarantee that authors such as André Gorz or Claus Offe had been popularizing in certain circles since the early 1980s (at that time I did not even know who Philippe Van Parijs was).

My reaction, I remember well, was of the type: “Of course! How is it that the Left did not think of that earlier?” (Obviously, the Left – and the Right – had thought about it, but I did not know.) And then I went on to “I definitely have to read more about this!”

Indeed, in the following years I did so: I then read the famous article by Van Parijs and Van der Veen and some of the debates it generated. I began to talk to colleagues and friends about the subject, and I even spoke about BI at some meetings of the Eco-Socialist political party I had joined, Iniciativa per Catalunya-Verds (ICV), with ambivalent results: while some (the more veteran) described it as a “Martian proposal”, others (the younger) showed a lot of interest and asked me for readings and further clarifications. A decade later, ICV was the only party in Spain incorporating BI in its program as a long-term goal, so I am pleased to think that my efforts were not in vain!

To be honest, at that time I approached the subject rather as an amateur and a political activist convinced that the Left had to make big cultural and ideological changes to conquer the future. But when I finished my doctoral thesis in 1998, with more time and an academic career ahead, I decided to dedicate part of it to studying BI more seriously. I published an article (that today I see infamous) on BI in Spain and I got a post-doc grant to study the topic at the London School of Economics and Political Science. London’s weather favoured reading, so between one pint of beer and another, I really started to grasp all the implications (and complications!) of implementing a BI in an advanced welfare system.

That year 2000 I attended my first BIEN Congress in Berlin, where I first met some of the BIEN founders, and, to my surprise, I discovered more Spaniards and Catalans interested in the idea. When I returned to Barcelona, and together with some of them, we created the Spanish Basic Income Network, which soon became an active national member of BIEN. Before we could notice, we were organising the 2004 Barcelona BIEN Congress in which the network became a worldwide organisation.

Since then, I have been discussing BI mainly from an academic (maybe even ‘technocratic’) point of view, more than from political advocacy, since I felt that was how I could honestly contribute better. That option, on the other hand, has also made me see all the complications and nuances of the debate about the BI, as well as the complexity of its practical implementation. Through the years I have published articles, participated in conferences and workshops, given talks, and together with Karl, Yannick and Jürgen, compiled the first comprehensive anthology on BI for Wiley-Blackwell (which was born and designed during memorable beer sessions at Turf Tavern in Oxford).

The Great Crisis of 2008 pushed me back from academic to political concerns. Widespread corruption, poverty, inequality and unemployment reached socially unbearable levels in my country. A new political movement, Podemos, emerged from the roots of the 15M demonstrations in order to fight the rampant cynicism of the political and economic elites and their policies. I immediately felt I should help that cause as I better could. They were sympathetic to BI from the start, so I start to work with them and by 2015 we finally designed a feasible proposal to progress in the right direction: a nationwide Guaranteed Income with no work condition attached, plus a wage supplement for low-income workers. The proposal created a sort of bandwagon effect by which many other political parties started to include income guarantee proposals in their programs.

BIEN has been during almost 20 years a source of intellectual excitement and political stimulation for me. I am confident that it will continue to be so. I believe that the future prospects of BI will depend on its supporters being able to combine the necessary doses of pragmatism and impartial analysis (thus resisting sectarian or self-serving attitudes), with the conviction that this is a good and just idea and it is worth defending it.

José A. Noguera is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the Universitat Autònoma de BarcelonaHe serves on the Board of the Spanish Basic Income Network (RRB) and on the International Advisory Board of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN).


At the end of 2016, the year in which BIEN celebrated the 30th anniversary of its birth, all Life Members were invited to reflect on their own personal journeys with the organization. See other contributions to the feature edition here.