It started on Tuesday, 13th of November 2018, with a 200 large committee of environmental activists (Sunrise Movement) crowding Nancy Pelosi’s office premises at the Capitol Building. The activists called upon Pelosi, the Democrats House speaker, to push for a real, ambitious and wide-reaching plan to curb climate change. That alone would probably amount to little as far as media coverage was concerned. However, the event was mediatized by recently elected Democrat MP and young political leader Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who stepped in and weighted her support, attracting lots of media attention.
What first seemed to be the aftermath of yet another Democrat internal dispute over climate change issues, turned out to be a positive reinforcement between Democratic leaders to start pushing for a deep strategy which can eventually set real policy to solve the climate crisis. Recent Pelosi efforts to revive energy independence and global warming related issues in the Househad turned out inconsequential, which only made the new Resolution presented by Alexandria stand out even more.
This Resolution aims to have a so called “Plan for a Green New Deal” ready by no later than January 1st 2019, and a final draft legislation by April 1st 2019 (with a proviso that it should not be extended, under any circumstance, further than March 1st 2020). This plan, supported by both the Sunrise Movement activist group and the Justice Democrats (a pioneering partnership), ambitiously aims to completely decarbonize the US economy, ramp up renewables to 100% and eliminate poverty in all United States within a 10 year timespan.
The ending poverty part of the plan starts with the provision of a job guarantee, coupled with training and education opportunities for all Americans, to assist in the transition to abetter (for most people), decarbonized economy. The concept of a job guarantee had already been given attention by Democrat “heavy-weights” like former President Obama and his Vice Joe Biden, putting an emphasis on its (alleged) non-monetary advantages (at least in the United States context) – e.g.: dignity, sense of purpose, recognition. However, basic income has appealed to Democrats in the last few years (adding Bernie Sanders and even Hillary Clinton into the pot), and so it appears under number four of Alexandria’s plan, after the taking care of disadvantaged communities affected by climate change, and reducing deep inequalities – racial, regional, gender-based, income and access to infrastructure – within the territory. However, and according to basic income activists such as Guy Standing, Scott Santens and Annie Miller, basic income could have an important role precisely in addressing these last two issues.
The Resolution clearly states that environmental issues cannot be separated from social/economic problems, hence the focus on both. Such deep connection has already been considered and analysed by several thinkers of our time, such as Phillipe van Parijs, André Gorz and Charles Eisenstein. Therefore, the moment in time, the nature of the document and its content seems to be aligned with the demands of today’s crisis, particularly in the United States. Finally, on the financial side of the Resolution, the idea is to use Federal Reserve funds, the foundation of a new public bank and/or theuse of public venture funds to cover for the Plan’s expenses, hence focusing on public finances and asset management. That certainly appeals more to a Commons-oriented solution to environmental and social issues, rather than a private-donor type of approach such as a few coming from Silicon Valley recently.
More information at:
David Roberts, “AlexandriaOcasio-Cortez is already pressuring Nancy Pelosi on climate change”, Vox, November 15th 2018
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez website – Green New Deal
KarlWiderquist, “Obamaspeaks favorably about UBI but stops short of endorsing it (for the secondtime)”, Basic Income News, July 18th 2018
AndréCoelho, “Joe Biden believes thatjobs are the future, rather than basic income”, Basic Income News, September 23rd 2018
Phillipe Van Parijs, “PoliticalEcology: From Autonomous Sphere to Basic Income”, Basic Income Studies, December 2009
Daniele Fabbri, “Douglas Rushkoff Warns That Universal Basic IncomeIs Just Silicon Valley’s Latest Scam”, Basic Income News, November 25th 2018
I have been part of Basic Income Earth Network’s and US Basic Income Guarantee Network’s social media team for a while and I want to clarify something for as many readers as possible. There are three ways of looking at the basic income movement: Basic Income can be endorsed as a (1) proposal or (2) a project or (3) an idea. A lot of communication causes people to evaluate each other more harshly than they need to because they mistake where the speaker or writer is coming from.
I will say what I mean and show how this distinction helps me.
(1) Basic Income as Proposal: When I describe basic income as a proposal, I am referring to any bill or law that implements an unconditional grant. Here we are looking at the policy. Here are some US-based examples:
Alaska invests a small amount of the land rent it charges and puts out the dividend to every citizen. They give about $2,000 to every individual and $8,000 for a family of four.
The Healthy Climate and Family Security Act would put a cap on carbon, charge fees, and distribute the revenue to everyone. This would amount to about $1,000 per person and $4,000 for a family of four. (Ref. www.climateandprosperity.org)
The Fair Tax act gets rid of the income tax and replaces it with a national sales tax. They acknowledge that this move would hurt low-income people so they include a dividend for all. They list around $7,200. (https://fairtax.org/)
An interesting common feature of these three examples is that basic income was an afterthought for many supporters. These proposals are not parts of projects that seek to abolish poverty or secure independence for all.
The Alaskan Governor at the time the dividend was implemented, Jay Hammond, was following the basic income movement and he sought a more substantial amount. Alaska, however, has never had a basic income movement. There has never been an attempt to push the grant all the way to a poverty-ending amount. That said, at $2,000 a year for all family members, the Alaskan Permanent Fund raises the incomes of low-income families more than most other proposals out there. The dividends were largely an accidental product of the State’s Constitution, which gave un-owned land to the State. If power-brokers in Alaska had known that this land included some of the most lucrative oil reserves in the world, this would not have happened. Hammond’s commitment combined with these fortunate circumstances produced the Alaska Permanent Fund.
Supporters of the Healthy Climate and Family Security Act are mainly trying to develop an answer to the threat of climate change. They understand that a cap on carbon would raise prices on fuel and other things that many low and moderate income people need. Some supporters are enthused about the dividend to be sure, but it is very seldom sold as a stepping stone for a dividend high enough to foster independence. Again, with that said, there are very few proposals that would result in an increase in average income of $1,000 in low-income communities.
Fair Tax supporters are primarily focused on getting rid of the income tax. The dividend is seldom emphasized in their literature. When it comes to the impact on poverty, the math is more complex for this proposal, because the new sales tax would be high. Proponents do cite economists who stress that the Fair Tax would have a progressive impact.
When Basic Income Earth Network or US Basic Income Guarantee Network links to an article describing a project like this, we get a lot of comments that evaluate them as if they were the entire basic income project. The proposal is treated like a project. We are informed that you cannot live on $2,000 a year. We know that. Many respondents “project” projects onto proposals. They don’t evaluate the proposal but an imagined series of other proposals that would stem from an imputed project. When Silicon Valley investors start a basic income pilot, we are told that they want to cut this and that. But they have not said so, and we will not know their project until they start making concrete demands.
Lots of media presume that a basic income replaces all other social provisions, which is a view that I have only rarely encountered in my time with engaged members of USBIG and BIEN. We hear a lot of false news that Holland or Finland is replacing everything with BI. Projects are being foisted onto proposals and policies.
Keep in mind that a basic income may well be implemented as an afterthought or as a part of a project that most anti-poverty activists oppose. Charles Murray’s proposal would consist of $10,000 per person and a $3,000 health care voucher. This would replace everything that currently promotes social protection. When he emphasizes the amount of money this would save, that includes bureaucratic expenses, but that also entails a huge withdrawal of other expenses, such as social provisions that many anti-poverty activities would rather keep .
While we should not endorse a bill that implemented Murray’s proposal, we can acknowledge the grant is a good idea if it is not accompanied with harmful cuts. If such a basic income were to be implemented (and Paul Ryan has expressed an interest in consolidating anti-poverty provisions), those who support BI as part of an anti-poverty project will have to fight to keep the grant and raise it. We have to talk about basic income now so that anti-poverty activists do not oppose it.
(2) Basic Income as Project: Once a basic income is part of a project, we have to look at what the whole project seeks to do. Many of the supporters of basic income pilots in Finland also support austerity as the right response to the European financial crisis. Almost everyone involved with Basic Income Earth Network and its affiliates are opposed to austerity. They see basic income as a way to combat poverty directly, with less bureaucracy and more security for most citizens. Many supporters of basic income in Finland are working to make sure the pilots are an opportunity to push basic income as emancipatory .
How it is funded, what is cut, what is not cut—all of these factors turn a policy item (an unconditional cash grant) into a project. We have to learn how to assess whole projects.
Left-wing organizations should make a basic income part of their left-wing project. Left-wingers that denounce basic income as “neo-liberal” are refusing to de-link the policy from a rival project. They should write out what sorts of basic income they would support and condemn the powers-that-be for not securing economic independence for all.
Free-market enthusiasts (I am not calling them “right-wing”) should make a basic income part of their free-market project. Those that denounce a basic income as “socialist” or “communist” are refusing to de-link the policy from a rival project. They need basic income if they care about extending the benefits of markets to everyone.
In the US, there are no left-wing or free-market organizations (or magazines or parties) that have stated clearly whether or not basic income is part of their project. My hypothetical left-wingers and free-marketers are based on reading a few thousand Facebook comments and individual columnists.
De-linking the proposal from the project can be difficult. Would an otherwise free-market-oriented economist with a basic income in the mix still be “left-wing”? Is basic income such a good policy that we should support someone who supports a rival project? Some people are suspect of an Alaska-style dividend just because they know the state usually votes Republican.
These are the sort of choices we will face. If a supporter of a rival project embraces basic income, one has to decide whether or not to jump ship. Some basic income supporters will want to work within other projects. Some will work within the Greens or within Socialist or Labor or Environmental organizations. Others might name a particular bill and lobby for it.
Basic Income Action in the US has stated that they seek any unconditional grant that leaves the least-well-off and the majority with more income than before. They have lobbied for the Healthy Climate and Family Security Act and hope to get a bill sponsored that has a full-fledged basic income in mind. BIA argues that this project improves any other project. Whether they are the left or the right, whether they have a good tax plan or a bad one in mind, they would be that much better with a basic income in the mix. See them at www.basicincomeaction.org.
(3) Basic Income as Idea: There is another way to think about basic income. This is an idea that gets in your head. Once you realize that it is mostly a question of political will, you start to think about how different the world would be if everyone had a share. You start to wonder how different schools would be. How different political life would be. How different the art world and the sport world would be.
When I first heard about basic income, I was excited because I saw it getting to people who need it. I had seen the manipulation of money and power deny the invisible and the powerless the resources they need. Too many times I saw “jobs programs” pretend to hire “everyone who sought work.” Sports arenas and lectures were sold as anti-poverty programs. A basic income gets around all that. Now, I think more about how much more powerful low-income communities will be. And I see better the work they are already doing.
Sarath Davala, Renana Jhabvala, Soumya Kapoor Mehta, and Guy Standing organized a pilot program in India and wrote a book that testifies to its emancipatory effects. A video they made provides a nice synopsis. One sees here an image of strong people made more powerful.
I see the same impact in low-income parts of the US. Basic income gets around the pretending so many people do when they approach poverty. I wrote a piece on how a basic income could work in the Saint Louis/Ferguson area that has this sort of emancipation in mind. One of my main goals was to get readers to just see what a difference more income would make. We should spare them the hectoring about each and every choice they make and issue a share.
The Swiss Basic Income Movement mostly sought to push basic income as an idea in Switzerland but also all over the world. History’s largest poster posed the question: What Would You Do If Your Income Were Taken Care Of? They posed it in English and reassembled the poster in Berlin . A picture of the poster was shown in Times Square. They are posing a question to the world.
The movement has pushed people to think about what makes a life and a society good. Long before basic income becomes a policy, it does great work as an idea.
Another example is the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres. Their shelters talk with residents about basic income. They have a copy of the Pictou Statement they wrote in which they proclaim their support for basic income.
The statement calls on some of the most vulnerable people in the world to think about how different things would be if everyone had a share:
“We refuse to accept market measures of wealth. They make invisible the important caring work of women in every society. They ignore the well-being of people and the planet, deny the value of women’s work, and define the collective wealth of our social programs and public institutions as “costs” which cannot be borne. They undermine social connections and capacities (social currency).”
Publicly endorsing basic income offers a chance for different relationships between people. When a shelter tells someone fleeing assault that they want a different allocation of resources, this breaks the long chain of bureaucrats, landlords, advisors, and hustlers. When I tell someone that I think they deserve a share, I have a chance to show that I recognize them as valuable. That is a powerful idea.
I have also found that people who are not sure they believe basic income is feasible politically end up pointing to other social provisions that they consider more efficient or politically feasible. They start to talk about education and health and public employment. This is a far better conversation than one that argues between some provisions and no provisions, which is the one we are hearing far too often. That is a powerful idea.
A lot of people have seen police violence, corruption, and the privileged position of the wealthy, and they just can’t imagine a government that macro-manages and micro-manages a just economy. However, they have seen Social Security issue a check to everyone and they have seen the IRS tax forms issue an exemption. They know that this proposal is simple enough for even a bureaucratic government to implement. That makes this a powerful idea.
Lots of people are saying that they think basic income is great, and then they get challenged to produce a proposal or to spell out their project. I want to see more basic income policy proposals out there. I want to see more people make basic income part of their projects. But we also need to see people saying “The world be better if we did this.” We need to get as many people as we can to say “That’s a powerful idea.”
By Clive Lord
Almost everyone I know of who supports the Basic Income (BI) does so on the grounds of social justice. I agree of course, but for me less inequality is only the second most important of three reasons to support the Basic, or as we call it in Britain, the Citizen’s Income.
When I joined the embryonic PEOPLE, now the UK Green Party, in 1973, I listened as an enquirer to a spiel based on the threats to the global environment caused by indiscriminate economic growth, which had been exposed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology report Limits to Growth in 1972. I agreed with every word, but I had a question:
“What is your social policy? You are proposing a deep recession. I agree it will be necessary, but every recession to date has caused widespread hardship. What will you do when desperate people start looting?”
The answer was: “If we have to, we shall shoot them in the street. Social breakdown is hardly the best way to alleviate poverty.”
It is all very well readers being as appalled as I was, because the basic premise was right. The speaker then challenged me:
“Do you have a better social policy in mind?”
I didn’t. I spent the journey home wrestling with my own question. Guess what I came up with. I discovered later that the Basic Income had already been invented several times, for different reasons, starting with Thomas Paine in 1798. But even now, 43 years later, limiting economic activity to the ability of the ecosphere to cope was not part of the “successful” Paris climate agreement in December 2015. It will fail without that. A Basic Income will allow a steady state economy to be acceptable to whole populations, and so become a policy option, but it will have to be world-wide.
It will be dismissed as “unaffordable” – this would only be true if the economy has collapsed beyond the ability to provide basic necessities for all, but if linked to ecological realities it will entail drastic redistribution. This brings us to the more common justification for a BI of reducing inequality, but if all the Basic Income does is allow the poor to spend money confiscated from the rich, the Paris agreement is doomed.
However, I am continually perplexed by the widespread failure to grasp the malevolence of means testing – taking benefits away as soon as the claimant has any other income.
The next few paragraphs refer to the UK but will apply anywhere means tested benefits are used. For the person losing a means tested benefit, the effect is identical to a massive marginal tax. The clearest demonstration of this can be found in an unexpected source: the 2009 report Dynamic Benefits: towards welfare that works, released by the Centre for Social Justice. The Centre was set up by Iain Duncan Smith, who has been Work and Pensions secretary in the UK Coalition, now Conservative government since 2010 – and has recently resigned in protest against announced cuts to disability benefits. Dynamic Benefits was the foundation for the government’s welfare ‘reform’ policies. Its key recommendation was the Universal Credit (UC), whereby on finding employment a claimant would retain 45% of their former benefits. The former Work and Pensions secretary reduced this to 35% on taking office. This means that the former claimant is faced with a tax rate equivalent of 65%. Bankers on the highest tax rate lose 45% of their income.
In Dynamic Benefits, there are several graphs showing benefit withdrawal rates as though they were taxes. In fact, the first part of the report, outlining the problem, is an excellent statement of the case for a Basic income. The UC is an emaciated BI which attempts to remove the work disincentive of means testing, but still penalises beneficiaries disproportionately vis-à-vis high-income earners.
While Iain Duncan Smith’s stated reason for resigning was cuts to disability benefits, I believe the real reason is the imminent scrapping of the UC. In four years since being announced, the UC has only reached 5% of the 4.5 million who should be eligible. The Department of Work and Pensions is claiming that the UC will be fully rolled out by May 2021. The track record of slippage to date makes that improbable. That the initiator of benefit sanctions, the bedroom tax, and Work Capability Assessments presents himself as the defender of the weak and vulnerable is sickening, but Dynamic Benefits remains a useful document for basic income debates.
But my third reason is much more fundamental. A Basic income can begin a shift to a totally new culture. Instead of haves vs have nots, or bosses vs workers , the new fault line will be those who want to preserve natural systems versus those who believe there will always be a technological answer. This will enable a low growth economy to protect the ecosphere.
Milton Friedman, an archetypal neo-liberal, was in favour of the Basic income. Market forces are a basic pillar of neo-liberalism, but instead of the current system whereby the strong can exploit the weak, persuasion will replace work compulsion. The would-be employee will have equal bargaining power with the boss. Needless to say, Employee Benefits such as healthcare cover will also need to be negotiable. Experiences in India and Namibia show that far from encouraging idleness, a BI facilitates entrepreneurship. But it will also allow people generally to heed eco-constraints, notably climate change, where competitive capitalism does not.
Anyone curious to know more, my Book, Citizens’ Income and Green Economics (2011) is available from the Green Economic Institute. My blog www.clivelord.wordpress.com which is more up to date, but inevitably less coherent, discusses the Tragedy of the Commons, population, the Greek crisis, migration and fracking.
We may yet save “Paris” (and the planet), and feed everyone. There is even something in it for the capitalists.
Clive Lord is a founding member of the British Green Party, a major contributor to the party’s first “Manifesto for a Sustainable Society” and a basic income advocate.
What does the future look like? No one knows and it is folly to argue one does. But we can think, we can even try to make predictions, depending on how much risk we are willing to take. To say, as Jeremy Rifkin suggests, that the future will look like a collaborative commons, based upon zero marginal cost, internet-linked nodal, laterally scalable shared green energized economy is all very well, and I definitely resonate with it, but is it inevitable? How zero cost is it? The price of generating an extra energy unit from a photovoltaic panel may be close to zero, but what about the panel itself? Who pays for it?
Proponents will say that photovoltaic panels are cheaper than they have ever been, huge economies of scale were possible in the last few years and any person these days can purchase photovoltaic panels. But is this true? Panels are cheaper than they were some years ago, no doubt, but a person first needs to eat, have a shelter, access some basic form of transportation and energy for cooking, lighting and such. Only after all that is guaranteed, can someone consider the photovoltaic panels, the electric car, or the 3D printer. The “future”, it seems, will not come until poverty is eliminated. Because poor people – 24.4 % of all European population was at risk of poverty in 2014, or 122 million people – cannot participate in this futuristic vision of the world unless their basic needs are met.
You doubt it? Then think about it. In most places, if you run out of money to pay for electricity, it is unlikely that your neighbors will help out by supplying you with some electricity, and even less likely that you will be given a photovoltaic system to produce your own energy. Where I live, at least, if I stop paying the electricity bill, they will cut me off, without a doubt. No matter how generous, how educated, how creative, how tolerant I might have been in life, the power company is completely indifferent: you do not pay, you will have to go without power. Period.
Things might be different in the future – and they certainly will. But at this moment the amount of money one has is less related to levels of education, generosity, creativity or tolerance, and more to status, power, social networks, dominance and violence. Attributing monetary value to people is a trap. The instant you say “this person is worth 1000 euros”, you automatically create an underclass of unworthy people. Those people might even be subject to discrimination and violence you object to, from deprivation and poverty to constant surveillance. So definitions or layers of worthiness cannot solve a core problem in present-day human species: our difficulty to share. To trust.
This is why I defend basic income. It represents a bold and clear statement: human dignity is not and must not be subject to discussions about worthiness or value. These attempts to quantify human beings are bound to fail, since our “value”, if we must speak of it, is incalculable. You cannot calculate it, so there is no use in trying. Basic income is also a crucial tool for participation. You cannot truly participate and contribute to a better society – let’s say by investing in a photovoltaic system – if you do not have the money to meet your basic needs.
This is why major societal challenges like climate change cannot be solved without addressing poverty. Because while there is poverty, people will simply not “do the right thing” when they cannot afford it. If the costs of living in a more sustainable way are higher than what they can afford, there is little choice but to eat whatever they can, buy the cheapest power appliances and drive the most affordable vehicles. And all these are still among the major polluters we are trying to eliminate.
Howard, Coordinator of the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network, writes this opinion piece as a condemning evaluation of the world’s lack of action to combat climate change. Climate summit meetings have created a cycle of (broken) promises to reduce carbon emissions, and Howard argues that governments should look to implement a carbon fee, whose proceeds should go toward a dividend for each citizen, resembling a basic income.
Michael Howard, “We should prepare for the worst consequences of climate change”, Bangor Daily News, 11 August 2015.