A few members of Congress recently have suggested that the United States government institute an emergency Universal Basic Income (UBI) in response to the twin crises of coronavirus and the stock market collapse, which many economists believe could signal the start of a significant recession. UBI provides an unconditional sum of money from the government for permanent residents whether or not they work. Proposals for an emergency UBI vary. One common suggestion from lawmakers is $1,000 a month for adults and $500 a month for children for four months or more if the coronavirus persists. This amount would be an enormous help in this crisis.
I’ve studied UBI for more than 20 years, and I find that opposition to it usually comes down to two main arguments: that everyone should work or that we simply can’t afford it. Whether these are valid or invalid arguments against UBI in normal times has been debated for decades, but they simply don’t apply to the emergency UBI during the current situation.
Right now, we don’t need everyone to work. In fact, we need a lot of people to stop working. We don’t want food service and healthcare workers who might be sick to go into work and infect people because they can’t afford to stay home. In an economy where millions of people live paycheck-to-paycheck, an emergency UBI would give non-essential employees the opportunity to stay home during the coronavirus outbreak, slowing the spread of the disease. The more people we have who can afford to stay home the better off we’ll be, at least for the duration of the outbreak.
Most economists will agree that the economy needs injections of cash right now. When economies slide into recession, there is a “multiplier effect” as people lose their jobs and businesses contract, they spend less. Other people then lose their jobs or contract their businesses, and this multiplier effect continues. The economy shrinks, income declines, and money literally disappears from circulation.
Governments can help stop this process by creating money and injecting it into circulation. After the 2008-2009 economic meltdown, the United States government and governments around the world created trillions of dollars worth of currency out of thin air and injected it into the economy, usually by buying back their own debt, in an effort to stimulate demand and reverse the multiplier effect. Buying back government debt isn’t necessarily the best way to stimulate the economy, however. The money goes mostly to people who are already rich, and they have very little incentive to invest that money when everyone else is losing income.
An emergency UBI is just about the best economic stimulator that exists in modern times because it gets money in the hands of everyone. No one’s income would go to zero due to stock market-related layoffs or corona-related precautions. That income helps people maintain some of their spending, which helps prevent others from losing their jobs through the multiplier effect.
Congress should act now. An emergency UBI, providing $1,000 per adult and $500 per child, per month, for four months or as long as the outbreak lasts, can help everyone get through this critical time. The sooner our government acts, the sooner we start to recover. We don’t know how bad coronavirus will get. We shouldn’t have to worry about how we will be able to buy food and pay rent as well.
The pair Daniel Raventós and Julie Wark have analyzed the corona virus outbreak and consequent economic downturn and call for an immediate implementation of basic income in each country, truly a global response to a global crisis. It can be read, from the onset of the article:
Apart from the medical threat revealing a brutal class divide in healthcare, the coronavirus pandemic is creating social and economic havoc among non-rich populations. If ever the need for a universal basic income was evident, it is now. But governments, trying to save the neoliberal system, and making the most of the disaster to lay the foundations for a new round of disaster capitalism, won’t see it. To give a couple of examples of this catastrophe profiteering, laissez-faire entrepreneur par excellence, Sir Richard Branson, wants a £7.5 billion government bailout for his airline, and Trump has proposed a $700 billion stimulus package in which industries will be “stimulated” at the expense of Social Security and, once again, the poor. So much for the free market.
Blogger’s note:this post is by a guest contributor, Stacey Rutland. The opinions expressed are hers alone. They are not necessarily shared by me or by the Basic Income Earth Network. -Karl Widerquist
Super Tuesday is extra super this year!
Three incredible congressional candidates are running on UBI and taking on the establishment in California (LA, SF, and Southeast CA). Income Movement is proud to endorse David Kim, James Ellars, and Agatha Bacelar.
Follow them, donate to them, vote for them. Or reach out to your friends and family who are in these districts and make sure they know there is a candidate on their ballot worth supporting. First and second place move onto the general in California which means all three of these candidates are super competitive.
Real change happens at the ballot box. It starts now. #incomemovement #ubi #basicincome
UBI Candidate Highlight: Super Tuesday
There are three UBI candidates running for Congress with primaries tomorrow! 24 hours is more than enough time to make a difference. Tweet, share, and bother your friends in California to vote for these basic income advocates. We’ll be highlighting more candidates across the country soon.
Agatha Bacelar: Congress, CA-12 (San Francisco) Primary Election: March 3, 2020
Running against Nancy Pelosi is a 28-year-old Brazilian immigrant and San Franciscan. She’s running for Congress because we must act on climate, must reduce systemic inequalities, and must make our representatives reflective of and responsive to the people. San Francisco has a powerful legacy. Agatha believes it’s time to reclaim its roots and elect a Congresswoman who will represent the 100%.
James Ellars: Congress, CA-08 (Southeast CA)
Primary Election: March 3, 2020
James is the fourth of six children, and grew up in a working class family in southern California. James supports policies like Democracy Dollars and the Freedom Dividend paired with a VAT. Income Movement is proud to support James Ellars for Congress.
David Kim: Congress, CA-34 (Los Angeles) Primary Election: March 3, 2020
David is an attorney, author, and community activist running against an establishment Democrat. David’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Korea. David is running to pass basic income and medicare for all, relieve student debt, and eradicate poverty for all. Income Movement is proud to support David Kim for Congress.
With Andrew Yang out of the presidential race, the time is now for the Yang Gang to decide whether and how to build on their accomplishments. I think the Yang Gang should take heart for all they’ve done and realize that they have the power to transform their campaign into an effective long-term movement for the Humanity First platform as a whole and/or for its flagship proposal, the Universal Basic Income (UBI), in particular. Here are my thoughts on the how to do that:
Basic Income March in New York, 2020, with subliminal message, “join the movement”
Why the Yang Gang should be proud of their accomplishments:
The Yang Gang built a huge movement for a very unusual set of ideas in a very short time. I thought the US UBI movement had grown a lot in the several years before Yang’s campaign but that was nothing compared to the growth it’s had since Yang got in the race.
The movement affected the national and international dialogue at the highest levels.
I think that a very large number of Yang Gang members are committed to continuing to work on UBI & other Humanity First ideas in the long term, and now is the time to decide how—while the movement has momentum and local and national Yang Gangs are assembled.
Basic Income March in San Fransisco, 2020
The most important things to decide right now are the things the Yang Gang can do as a group:
Build on the existing enthusiasm now while it’s still hot. Try to keep as much of the gang together as possible. Transform all those local Yang Gangs into a network of local groups working either for UBI specifically or for the Humanity First platform in general.
I supposed you could keep the name Yang Gang, but you might want to pick a new name like “the UBI Gang,” “the Humanity First Gang,” “Forward Humanity,” etc. I don’t know whether Yang would be allowed to give some of his leftover campaign funds (if there are any) to whatever movement grows out of his campaign or whether people would be willing to contribute to a long-term movement like they did for the Campaign. But it would be great if some of them did.
I’d most like to see the Yang Gang do so by becoming a political movement for UBI. There’s already group called “Income Movement” committed to doing that. They organized the UBI march in 30 cities worldwide last October. It’ll be bigger this year. They’re doing more than just that, and they can do lots more if dozens or hundreds of local Yang Gangs join up with them. I’d love to see every local Yang Gang become a local chapter of the Income Movement with every member supporting it as strongly as they supported Yang (both with time and with money). Obviously, that won’t happen but if one-tenth of the membership of one-tenth of the local Yang Gangs does this with one-fourth of the effort, they will greatly multiple the size and influence of the Income Movement, and they will keep the US UBI movement growing.
Diane Pagen led local NYC UBI group that grew into the Income Movement. It’s also the most successful local UBI group in the USA so far. She might need help, or she might have advice for people trying to replicate Basic Income NYC’s success.
There’s also a UBI caucus of dozens of candidates running on UBI platforms across America right now—mostly in House and Senate races. I bet there are dozens or even hundreds more running for lower offices. I bet the UBI Caucus needs lots of volunteers working in lots of different ways, and the coordinated effort of all the former Yang Gangs across the country would help enormously.
Some local Yang Gang’s might want to switch as a group to be the Gang of their local member of the UBI caucus. This will probably be the best strategy for Yang Gang’s located in places with a caucus member who is both trustworthy and a viable candidate. It will require some research.
I don’t know whether the Income Movement, the Pac, & the caucus should work together, but that’s something to look into.
I’m less enthusiastic about converting the Yang Gang into a long-term movement for the whole of the Humanity First platform. It might be worthwhile, but my guess is that it’s harder to keep a group together around a broad platform across many different issues than it is to organize groups dedicated to action on single issues.
Probably the Yang Gang will splinter into several different groups working for different aspects of the Humanity First platform in different ways. That’s OK. That’s a good thing. A collection of smaller groups doing parallel work has some advantages over one larger-group.
Whatever happens, the first step is for the local Yang Gang’s to meet and talk over their ideas of how to move forward from here.
Finally, I hope any UBI move movement that grows out of the Yang Gang presses for a much more ambitious UBI: especially the UBI proposal should be more than $1000 per month and includes children. I got the impression Yang’s version was a pre-compromise tailored for the political climate of the 2020 presidential election (and it worked well). But a long-term movement should work toward an exciting, ambitious goal, and compromise down from there only if it’s essential to getting something passed.
Assembled in America
Things Yang Gang alumni can do individually:
If you like working on political campaigns, research the UBI caucus, pick a candidate you can trust, and work as hard for their campaign as you did for the Yang Gang even if no one else from your local gang is doing it. The only candidate I know well enough to recommend at this point is James Felton Keith, who’s running to represent Harlem in the House of Representatives. I don’t know what he calls his volunteers—the Keith Gang, the JFK Gang, or whatever—but I bet they can use a lot more volunteers. Scott Santens has already joined the Mike Broihier campaign for Senate in Kentucky. Broihier has strongly endorsed UBI and other elements of Yang’s platform.
Volunteer and/or donate money to organizations like USBIG and BIEN. They are very different from the political activist groups mentioned above, but their role in the movement is just as important. They work on education and information about UBI. They are tax-exempt non-profits. (Political activist groups are subject to taxes.) The world needs lots of education and information about UBI. These organizations need lots and lots of volunteers and financial donations. Right now, BIEN is extremely short on reporters for Basic Income News. They could use like 100 reporters, but one new dedicated reporter would be enormously valuable. If you wrote one objective, just-the-facts story about UBI per week you’d quickly become one of the most valuable volunteers in the organization. I was the news editor of USBIG and then BIEN for a total of about 15 years. Doing so made me an expert on UBI. It indirectly led me to publishing at least three books and to the opportunity to speak about UBI on all six inhabited continents—including meeting heads of state one day and people living in shantytowns the next (in both Brazil and Namibia). It’s a thankless job on a day-to-day, but to me, it proved to be a great job in the long run. If your skill-set is more toward this kind of thing than activism, do it.
You could do what I did when I got enthused about UBI. I was a sleeper-cell of one for 16 years. I completed high school, got a college degree, got a PhD, and only then started working directly on UBI. I’m not really an activist, I specialize in “primary research” in both social science and philosophy. It won’t be the best strategy for most people, but that’s how I was able to give my best contribution.
It’s OK to leave UBI to others and work to stop the environmental collapse or to reunite families separated at the border, etc.
Do something else for UBI that I haven’t thought of. You might come up with some idea that everybody thinks is crazy. To be level-headed you have to realize that they’re probably right but because they could be wrong and because you feel so strongly, you should give yourself permission to follow up just in case. Even if 9-out-of-10 people in that position are wrong, you never know if you’re that tenth person with that great out-of-the-box idea.
Yang Gang Supporters
Little thoughts about how to make whatever you do work:
Don’t waste any time thinking about which remaining presidential candidate the Yang Gang should endorse. Yang’s platform is too unique and Yang Gang members are too individualistic to make it possible for them to move as a useful block to another presidential campaign. Yang will probably endorse someone, but that’s his business.
Don’t put any effort into organizing for Andrew Yang’s next political campaign unless and until he asks you to do so. His next campaign will probably be local and probably not where you live. Even if his next campaign is national, it probably won’t start for at least a year, maybe several years. So, any effort for possible-future-candidate Yang is likely to be wasteful and frustrating.
Accept that the UBI movement won’t grow as fast next year as it did last year. Last year was a phenomenon. Growth will probably slow before it picks up again. That’s OK. That’s how long-term movements grow.
The effort to build on the Yang Gang’s accomplishments requires acceptance that movement for UBI and/or the Humanity First platform is long-term.
Believe in the ultimate success of the movement. Why? Not because anyone can actually predict the future, but because hope will make you happy. Despair will make you sad and less effective. However…
Don’t expect any progress in your lifetime. Assume the movement will succeed after you’re dead, and take any progress you see at any time as a bonus. Why? Because getting bonuses makes you happy. Every good piece of progress will exceed your expectations. Having dashed expectations makes you sad and frustrated. This attitude has really worked for me for the years. I’ve expect nothing, but I’ve watched the movement grow every year since I started paying close attention the 1990s.
Don’t expect anyone else to do anything for the movement. Don’t even expect people to follow through on their promises. Take anything anyone else does as a bonus. Why? Because get bonuses will make you happy. Being let down will make you sad and frustrated. If you expect 20 people and two show up, you’ll be disappointed. If you expect nobody, and two people show up, you’ll be like “Wow, two people!”
Accept the individuality of Yang Gang alumni. People will choose different strategies. Some will work on political issues that have nothing to do with the Humanity Frist platform. Others will do something nonpolitical, like care for relatives who need care. Others will work for something to do with Humanity First in ways that you’re convinced will fail. Don’t waste time telling them how wrong they are for not doing what you’re doing. You can give them quick advice, like I have in this blog post, but if they don’t take it, wish them well and hope you’re wrong. The belief that there’s only one right path is step toward becoming a cult, and becoming a cult is a one-way ticket to political irrelevance.
The UBI movement has so-far escaped becoming a cult because it has no party line. People support different sizes of UBI, different ways to resource it, and different strategies to promote it. People who are turned off by one person’s argument for UBI might be brought in by someone else’s conflicting argument for or version of UBI. If people start in-fighting and kicking others out for supporting the wrong version of UBI, we’ll stop growing & start shrinking.
The Yang Gang has to avoid becoming a cult of personality, a cult of the platform, or a cult of some specific version of UBI. Luckily, it’s easy to avoid becoming a cult: respect each other (see above).
The idea that people should respect each other might seem obvious, but there are a lot of people in the UBI movement who can’t seem to do it. I know people who’ve been working on UBI for 20 years, but their work seems to consist mostly of telling the rest of the movement that they’re doing the wrong thing. Lighting a candle is better than cursing the darkness, and it’s even worse to curse people who light candles for not doing enough.
Obviously, thank others for what they do. As obvious as that is, I haven’t done it enough. My thanks and apologies to everyone.
Finally, don’t take my work for anything. Everything I say is on an IMHO basis. Evidence-based reasoning is our greatest strength.
UBI march near a sign for the Devine 9 Cafe, which is located in Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia.
A new article (“Exit strategy or exit trap? Basic income and the ‘power to say no’ in the age of precarious employment“) has been published by Simon Birnbaum and Jurgen De Wispelaere, analysing the “power to say no” argument as a support for basic income policies. The researchers show that this argument may be flawed, given what they consider a realistic analysis of the present-day labor market.
Forty years ago today—February 7, 1980—was a small milestone for the Universal Basic Income (UBI) movement: Milton and Rose Friedman dedicated an episode of their television show to a form of basic income guarantee called the Negative Income Tax. This episode might have been the last gasp of the UBI movement’s second wave, which came very close to the centers of power in the United States and Canada in the 1960s and early 70s but had been declining for nearly a decade.
I’m a little embarrassed that this TV show and its accompanying book was my entry into the UBI movement because I disagree with the Friedmans on so many other issues now, but I have to give them credit.
Although Friedman brought his fame and Nobel-Laureate credibility to UBI and related policies, that broadcast did little to stop the decline in UBI’s popularity. It gradually vanished from mainstream politics in the United States and in most countries. It remained an idea for academics, minor parties, fringe activists for decades, only to emerge—seemingly out of nowhere—as a growing worldwide movement over the last 10 years.
So, that day wasn’t a huge milestone for the UBI movement. But it was a big day for me. It was my 15th birthday. I watched the show. I was enthralled with the idea. So, today is my 55th birthday and 40th anniversary as a UBI supporter. That’s probably a good time to write a personal account of what it’s been like following the UBI movement as it fell and rose again.
Movements don’t come from nowhere even if they seem to. I realize now that the groundwork for UBI’s takeoff had been building since the mid-1980s even as it receded from the mainstream political dialogue, and even as the people involved had no way to know at the time. I can’t take any credit for UBI’s rise, but I followed it very closely, so maybe my person account will be useful.
Although I was a firm supporter from 1980, I couldn’t do much for the UBI movement, because there wasn’t much of one, and I had to go through high school and college. Then I bounced around between crappy, low-paid jobs for three years, before starting graduate school.
The two things I could do for UBI in that period were think and talk about it. The more I thought about it, and the more I learned about politics and economics, the stronger my support became. I began to see UBI as the centerpiece of a just society.
1980 was a depressing time to become a UBI supporter—especially in the United States. There were small waves of support for it in various places around the world during this period and an intellectual movement for UBI began growing in parts of Europe by the mid-80s, but none of that news reached me in the USA. There was no internet. I had the mainstream media, the library, and word of mouth, which was nearly useless.
Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan
I found myself arguing for an increasingly unpopular idea. As the memory of its popularity in the 60s and 70s faded, fewer and fewer people even knew what it was. Politicians like Ronald Reagan in the USA and Margaret Thatcher in the UK were slowly but successfully dismantling the welfare systems in their countries and vilifying just about everyone who qualified for benefits. People to the left-of-center were so much on the defensive that they were afraid to admit that the current welfare model needed improvement, because they were afraid any admission like that would make it more vulnerable to attack. Left-of-center people often argued that unconditionality was good in the abstract but political support for “the work ethic” was so strong that the only way to make sure benefits were adequate and safe from attack was to direct them exclusively to “the truly needy.”
The obvious weakness of this indirect argument amazes me. Almost all benefits in the USA, the UK, and many other countries, have been based on the model of separating the “truly needy” from the “undeserving poor” since their inception, but they have seldom if ever been adequate, and never free from attack.
Even some nominally left-of-center parties joined in, such as in 1996 when Bill Clinton led a bipartisan effort to “end welfare as we know it,” which basically meant reducing or eliminating benefits for the poorest children in the country because supposedly their mothers were bad people for taking care of children instead of “working.” Never mind that minimum wages weren’t enough to get single mothers or their children out of poverty, much less pay for child care. Never mind that this popular belief coincided with an equally popular belief that mothers whose husbands had money were bad people because they “worked” instead of taking care of children.
Watching things get worse for the least advantaged galvanized my opposition to conditions. Money is power. Propertylessness is powerlessness. Our society uses a judgmental, punative system to force the least advantage to work for poverty wages. So, my support for UBI as a 31-year-old recent PhD in 1996 was as strong or stronger than it had been as a 15-year-old high school freshmen in 1980, and by now I had some of the skills I needed to work on it in the way I most wanted to—as an academic researcher. There are an infinite number of ways to contribute to a movement. So, I did what I thought I could do well.
Michael A. Lewis
My entry into the UBI movement began in the summer of 1996 while having breakfast the 7A Diner with Michael A. Lewis and Pam Donovan—two other recent PhDs and from the City University of New York. We’d been talked about politics a lot throughout our grad-school years. We had very different perspectives, but that day we all agreed that UBI or something like it was the most important social policy our country could introduce it right now.
Pam said, “then we have to write a paper on it.”
She quickly realized she was too busy with other work to take part, but Michael and I did, and we have been collaborators on-and-off ever since. The feeling that I wasn’t the only one left in the world willing to work for this policy was great. It got my started writing on this issue, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
When Michael and I had a draft of a paper (that would take ten years to publish), we looked through academic journals in our fields (economics and sociology) to find people who’d written recently on the issue, and asked them for feedback. We had to search under at least a half dozen differnt names (guaranteed income, social dividend, etc.) because UBI had not yet emerged as the standard term. But we found about 20 people’s names and email address. We began getting to know people working on this topic.
In 1997, while I was working at the Levy Institute of Bard College in upstate New York, Malcolm Sawyer asked if I new about the Basic Income European Network (BIEN), which it turned out, had been holding conferences on this idea since 1986. I got online and made plans to attended the next BIEN Congress, which was in Amsterdam in 1998. I can’t describe the feeling of being in a room with of several hundred UBI supporters after 18 years feeling like I was the only one. I’ve attended every BIEN Congress since.
At the conference, I was a new PhD, just getting started, with zero publications. So, I was a little nervous when I introduced myself to the organizer, Robert van der Veen, one of the key UBI researchers whose work had helped bring this issue back into the academic dialogue a dozen years earlier.
But when I thanked him for the work he’d done organizing the conference, he looked at my name tag and said, “And thank you. It was when I got your proposal, that I knew there would be at least one good paper at this conference.”
That comment gave me confidence that I had something to contribute. I hope that helps me remember to compliment others.
I also spoke to another key researcher, the secretary of BIEN, Philippe Van Parijs. I asked him how I could get involved with the network. Because BIEN was a European organization at the time, he said they really needed Americans to organize something like BIEN in the United States. Michael and I had a mailing list of about 20 interested people. That’s a start.
Because I was the only one who had time, they let me be coordinator and write the newsletter, eventually named the NewsFlash. That job gave me the opportunity to scour the internet for any UBI-related news I could find every two months. Sometimes it was hard to find, but I was surprised that there was always something to put in the NewsFlash. And that always put me in a good mood.
Jurgen De Wispelaere
I was the editor and main writer (sometimes the only writer) of the USBIG NewsFlash for it’s first 15 years, and it became a lot of work, but it also was a great education. It was a hard and sometimes thankless job, but I leared so much about the movement, it led to writing a lot of things that weren’t thankless, like writing this article, and collaborating on various projects with Michael Howard and Jurgen De Wispelaere.
From the early 2000s, I was all in with the UBI movement. I’ve attended every USBIG and BIEN and BIEN Congress since then. I’ve written as much as I could in UBI, and I volunteered for whatever I was able to do.When BIEN expanded from a “European” to an “Earth Network” in 2004, USBIG became an affiliate and several USBIG members, like Eri Noguchi, Almaz Zelleke, and me) joned the executive committe at various times. Eventually I was elected cochair along with Ingrid Van Niekerk, and later Louise Haagh.
Gradually, I became a recognizable part of the group of people working on UBI.
BIEN chair, Louise Haagh
But the group didn’t even feel like a movement. It felt like a discussion forum. Most of the membership were academics, and even the activists didn’t have critical mass to organize many actions. Instead, they tended either to focus on policies that were steps in the direction of UBI or to write about UBI like the academics but in more accessible way.
The movement was not only small; it was greying. In the mid-2000s, Guy Standing, referred to me as one of “the young people.”
I said, “Guy, I’m like, 40 years old.”
But that was young enough to be one of the younger people at the BIEN Congress.
Guy Standing–probably the most prolific author of UBI research–occupying Washing in 2011
Now that people in their teens and twenties working harder for UBI than anyone else, it’s hard to believe that as recently as 10 or 15 years ago, we were worried about getting young people involved. The movement was still made up mostly of die-hards from the second wave of UBI support, which had subsided more than 20 years earlier. I couldn’t even count myself as an exception because I learned about at the tail end of that wave of mainstream support. Maybe the UBI movement was the a ghost of Guaranteed Income movement of the 1960s.
Michael Howard unconditionally supporting the umbrella
In retrospect, the perception that the movement would slowly die off is obviously wrong. Even though UBI was continuing to recede from the mainstream political dialogue in most countries, subtle signs that the movement was regaining strength were visible. The first national Basic Income network began in the UK in 1985. The first international conference was held in 1986 and it led to the foundation of the first international network, BIEN. Since then local, national, and international groups had been gradually appearing around Europe and around the world. Minor parties in Parliaments in various European countries and elsewhere had been gradually endorsing UBI.
Localized waves of mainstream interest in UBI came and went throughout this period in places like Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada, and South Africa. Even after these waves subsided, they left behind diehards who contributed to the growing international discussion and activism for UBI.
As USBIG’s Newsletter editor in the 2000s, I watched the subtle growth of the movement continue without really noticing that significance of its gradual acceleration. Not many other people did either. I never heard anyone saying this discussion and these actions are growing in a way that’s going to lead to a worldwide wave of UBI support that would make it a visible part of the mainstream political discussion across dozens of countries by in the 2010s.
In 2006, US two activists, Al Sheahen and Steven Shafarman got a member of U.S. Congress to submit a bill to introduce small UBI. This bill was supposed to part of a strategy to rally support and press attention to UBI. Despite a lot of lobbying efforts by Al, Steve, and a few others, only two Members of Congress signed on to support the bill; there was basically zero press attention to it and zero activism for it. No one bothered to reintroduce the bill in the 2007 Congress. And the two Members of Congress (Bob Filner and Jesse Jackson Jr.) both ended up convicted of unrelated crimes a few years later.
About that time, networks in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria created the first International Basic Income Week, which has grown every year since, and now takes place on all six contents. But it took me several years even to hear about it because it had no web-presence in English.
Zephania Kameeta, Namibian Minister of Poverty Eradication and former Bishop of the Lutheran Church of Namibia
At 2006 BIEN Congress, Zephania Kameeta, slammed his fist on the podiumand said, “Words, words, words. It’s time for action.” I was thinking, “Here we go again. Someone else is going to curse the people lighting candles in the darkness and tell them that they need to stop what they’re doing and start working on his idea.” But he instantly surprised. He announced he raised enough money to start a UBI pilot project in Namibia–the first such experience since 1980, and the forerunner of dozens that are happening now.
These days I look back at 2006 as the year that the UBI reached an inflection point and started to take off, but even following the news as closely as I was, I didn’t notice until 2012.
Before then, the news and research about UBI was small enough that I had time enough to read or listen to a lot of it, seemingly most of it, or at least most of the English-language stuff that seemed important to me. It was getting easier to fill the newsletter, but I felt like I had a good handle on it.
It went smoothly for about a year, but in 2012 Yannick, Joerg, and I all noticed something was happening. Suddenly, there was so much UBI-related news, that the three of us together couldn’t keep up with it.
The three of us new that UBI was taking off. It’s been rising ever since.
I’d finally noticed that the third wave of UBI movement was happening. And the period in which I had to wonder whether the third wave was going to be as big as the second wave was extremely brief. In about 2010, I was asked to write a chapter called “Is Basic Income Still Worth Talking About?” (not my idea for a title and my answer was yes). But by the time book came out the question already sounded dated. More UBI activity was going around the world than at any time before.
The third wave dwarfs the second wave, and it’s the first genuinely worldwide wave of UBI support. I stepped down as editor of Basic Income News, five years ago (Andre Coelho took over), but I still follow the news as much as I can.
I discussed a dozen or so sources of this rise in another article. I won’t reiterate them here.
Barb Jacobson, one of the many people who work on the European Citizens Initiative for UBI and helped turn it into UBI-Europe
Today, the wave continues to grow from multiple sources even as its most visible driver keeps shifting every couple of years. First, it was two activist-led experiments in Namibia and India. Next, it was two petition drives to get UBI on the ballot in Switzerland and the European Union. Then two campaigns together raised over a half million signatures, and the EU campaign organized in every single EU member state. Somebody took the time to ask people in Malta to gather signatures for UBI. Somebody in Malta said yes. And some people in Malta—along with 350,000 people across 18 other countries—signed.
Look how small and out of the way that place is
After that, the media generated by those two initiatives inspired different kinds of activism around the world. Local, regional, national, and international groups seemed to appear everywhere.
At about the same time, the automation discussion exploded with tech industry people including some deep-pocketed and/or famous entrepreneurs, some of them used their position and resources to promote the idea. Then governments and large institutions around the world started running Basic Income experiments, sometimes in partnership with wealthy individuals or firms. So many experiments are now underway, it is hard to keep track.
Today, the most visible driver of the movement is Andrew Yang‘s campaign for U.S. Present. He’s the first major candidate to make UBI his central campaign issue. In
Andrew Yang upholds UBI as the Freedom Dividend
the 1972 US election, both major-party nominees endorsed forms of UBI, but neither of them made much of an issue of it.
Writing for the USBIG Newsflash during the 2000-2008 elections, I was unable to find any U.S. major parties’ Presidential, Gubernatorial, or Congressional candidates (aside from the two jailbirds mentioned above) even being asked about the issue. The issue was endorsed by Green Party candidates (thanks in part to Steve), and it was in alive in top-level politics in some other countries. But mainstream U.S. politicians almost always either ignored it completely or distanced themselves from that radical idea.
In the 2012 and 2016 election cycles, mainstream politicians including Bernie Sanders, Barak Obama, and Hillary Clinton stared being asked about it. Instead of feeling like they had to distance themselves from the idea, they tended to say favorable things about it while trying to convince UBI supporters that the most effective way to move in that direction right now was to join them in supporting some very non-UBI policies. That kind of response indicates that they recognized that UBI movement as worth courting, and that doing so was a net benefit over any negative they might get from association with an idea that had been too radical to touch since 1972—when even George McGovern quietly deemphasized it after receiving a difficult attack from Hubert Humphry in a primary debate.
Scott Santens with Conrad Shaw (“the UBI guy”/filmmaker) in a good mood after the Basic Income March, October 26, 2019
Yang’s version of UBI is ambitious, but not as much as most UBI supporters want to see. However, he’s been inspired is a part of the UBI movement. His plan is a start. He’s received dedicated support from one of the most prominent UBI activist-writers in the United States, Scott Santens. Should UBI supporters endorse a candidate? I, for one, suggest we endorse the candidate who has endorsed us.
Yang’s campaign has raised UBI to greater prominence that it’s ever before received in the United States. It has forced all the Democratic candidates to state a position on the issue. He’s made it more difficult for other politicians to dismissively say nice things about the movement while trying to sell supporters on a non-UBI policy. If they’re not ready to endorse UBI right now, they have to explain why not, and often those arguments against UBI-now don’t look that great for people who see themselves as left-of-center. They sound reactionary and judgmental. If you’re serious about inequality, poverty, making sure everyone (no just the 1%) benefit from our prosperity: stop judging, start helping.
A small part of the Yang Gang in Los Angeles
Yang has built a network of “Yang Gangs” around America, and these groups are rallying around UBI more than any of Yang’s other policy proposals. Many dedicated members of the Yang Gang did not know what UBI was a year ago. Whether these gangs will grow into a long-term movement for UBI remains to be seen, but they’re giving a big boost to the UBI movement right now, and it’s spreading around the world.
Yang’s campaign has certainly reached more people than Milton Friedman’s TV show. Whatever happens it will leave behind many dedicated UBI supporters who will bring their ideas and enthusiasm to UBI research activism for a very long time. Maybe some of them will write articles in 2060, looking back on 40 years of activism–hopefully with a lot of successes to look back on.
Although Yang’s campaign is the most visible driver of the movement, right now, much more is going on–too much to chronicle. Experimental results will begin trickling out soon, and that will keep UBI in the news for years. Several documentaries about UBI are in production. UBI has become a major issue in India–especially in the state of Sikkim.
James Felton Keith & Diane Pagen
James Felton Keith, a candidate for Congress in Harlem, recently teamed up with long-term UBI activists, such as Diane Pagen, to organized a Basic Income march in October 26, 2019 in New York. The idea quickly spread around the world: 30 cities heald UBI marches that weekend.
Two other candidates for Congress, Chivona Newsome in the Bronx, and Agatha Bacelar in San Fransisco participated in the march and have given UBI a prominent place in their platform. I’ve gotten to know J. F. Keith. He’s not just someone who’s willing to say something nice about UBI. He’s a part of the movement. His voice in Congress could greatly raise the prominence of the idea.
From 1980 to 1996, I was an isolated UBI supporter. Then I was part of what felt like an all-but-hopelessly marginalized group of UBI supporters for another 15 years or so. For nearly a decade, I’ve been a part of growing movement that seems to reach new milestones every few months. In the process, I’ve got from being one of the kids of the movement to a member of the old guard. I’ve had the chance to speak about UBI on all five continents. I even got to speak at the 2019 UBI March in New York.
Congressional candidate, Chivona Newsome, who is making UBI in issue
Being a respected part of this movement is the most satisfying part of my professional career. There is no group whose repect I value more. I hope everyone knows the respect is mutual. The chance to meet and correspond with so many people working for UBI in so many different ways has a been an adventure. The diversity of this group–so many people working in their own way on their own version of UBI or something like it–is what keeps this idea growing.
I’ve watched this movement grow with my mouth hanging open. Each success surprises me. People have given me and other visible members of the old guard way more credit for this wave of support than we deserve. Nobody saw this coming. Nobody said, this is what’s going to happen, and this is how we’ll do it. I can say that because I’ve attended most of the major UBI conferences since 1998.
Congressional candidate, Agatha Bacelar, who is making UBI an issue
Asking who should get the credit from the UBI movement is like asking which brick holds up the wall. The wall is the bricks. The movement is the people is the people involved. The third wave of the UBI movement is being driven by extremely diverse support coming from all over the world for different reasons. The third wave is happening because a bunch of different people tried a bunch of different things–and some of it worked.
If you’ve said anything nice about UBI any time in the last 40 years, you helped build a movement. There’s no way to sort out who to credit and no point in trying.
We don’t know what happens next. This wave might be the one that makes UBI happen, but support might go into a period of decline for an unpredictable amount of time before picking up steam again. All I can say is whether the movement stalls or grows, don’t give up. Support has gone up and down several times, but it’s trended up for over 100 years. The diehards who kept working on UBI when it fell out of favor in their country made it into a bigger movement than it ever was before. It was that tiny group of people putting paper crowns on the heads of perplexed passerbys that started the snowball of activism that made it wasy for the UBI march to spread all over the world. Or maybe 100 other little actions started the snowball.
If you want to get involved, there are an infinite number of valuable things you could do. Find something other people aren’t doing or that we need more people doing. If you need ideas what needs doing, I have lots of them.
I don’t know how long it will take, but I think UBI will win eventually. The conditional welfare state, extreme capitalism, and extreme socialism have consistently failed to solve the underlying problems of inequality, poverty, and privilege. The have failed because even if the know that propertyless is power, they have failed to realize that propertylessness is powerlessness and that making powerlessness the default position of everyone but the 1% is the ultimate class privilege.
UBI March, New York, 2019. Photo by Franklin Chávez
As long as inequality, poverty, and privilege exist, so does the opportunity to build the movement for UBI. The struggle doesn’t end until justice wins. Justice doesn’t win until the privileged stop telling the poor what to do so we can end the powerlessness that makes so many people in world weak, vulnerable, and marginalized.
-Karl Widerquist, Hey Cafe, New Orleans Louisiana, February 7, 2020 (with parts writted earlier and in other places). Updated February 9, 2020
AUTHOR’s NOTE: This article makes no attempt to comprehensively over the UBI movement. It’s the view from my perspective. It’s about the small slice of the enormous UBI movement that I’ve interacted with most closely. My apologies to the hundreds of dedicated people whose names just didn’t happen to come up.
That’s me giving my talk at the UBI March in the New York.
The 2020 BIEN Congress was to be held in Brisbane in Australia from the 28th to the 30th September 2020. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the event has been cancelled. BIEN’s Executive Committee and the Scottish and Australian congress Local Organising Committees have agreed the following statement: ‘The Scottish and Australian Congress Local Organisation Committees have agreed that the current plan is to hold the 2021 BIEN congress in Scotland and the 2022 BIEN congress in Australia.’
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