BI News Expands with the UBI Movement


Unconditional Basic Income is a movement. Five or ten years ago the idea was little discussed outside of a few limited—mostly academic—circles. Now activists are campaigning for it all over the world. The mainstream media is writing about it. It is becoming a part of the political debate.

When I agreed to write the USBIG NewsFlash in 1999, Basic Income was so far out of the popular mindset, I didn’t think there would be enough news to fill a newsletter every two months, but even in those pre-Great-Recession days, there was always something to report. The expansion of worldwide attention to basic income has been great for the movement, but it’s created a difficult task for BI News. There is so much Basic Income-related news that Basic Income News (the website) and its accompanying NewsFlashes (email newsletters) will have to expand along with the movement. With this issue, both the BIEN and the USBIG NewsFlashes will become monthly (instead of bi-monthly) publications.

Basic Income News—once mostly written by one or two people—is now written by a growing team of volunteer reporters. Toby Rane and Jenna van Draanen have recently completed training to join Josh Martin, Craig Axford, F. H. Pitts, and me as members of the group of rotating volunteers who keep up with all the BIG news—as best we can—making sure Basic Income News is updated daily. Four others (Pablo E. Yanes Rizo, Andrea Fumagalli, Jason Burke Murphy, and Toru Yamamori) are currently in the training process. Yanes and Fumagalli are far enough in the process that they have already contributed pieces to the website and the accompanying NewsFlashes.

We have found that a rotating team of about five or six people can keep up with most of the English-language news leads that come up. Usually a different reporter takes full responsibility for the news section of the website each week. We now have a functioning, rotating English-language team, and we hope to have similar teams in Spanish, French, German, and other languages. We hope also to expand our features section as well to include regular blogs, interviews, and opinion pieces.

Since the retirement of two past editors, Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght, both of whom had great multi-lingual skills, Basic Income News has fallen behind in our coverage of news from non-English-language sources. We hope that to expand the team in ways that will also allow us to cover many more languages. We have currently have a few volunteers with knowledge of Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Japanese. We could certainly use more volunteers with skills in those and other languages (including English). If you would like to volunteer for Basic Income News, please send me an email: Karl@Widerquist.com.

-Karl Widerquist, Mojo Coffee House, October 7; revised the Rook Café, Freret Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, October 8, 2014

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The Basic Income Guarantee and Tautological Libertarianism


The right-libertarian journal, Cato Unbound, has published a 4-party debate on Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) this month. Matt Zwolinski started it off with a second-best or pragmatic argument for BIG. He doesn’t say outright that BIG is better than many right-libertarians most favored policy of eliminating of all redistribution of property, but he argues that BIG is far superior to the complex and inefficient system that characterizes the current welfare system.

Manzi’s response stems from standard for the property-rights-with-no-exceptions version of libertarianism. In a nutshell, BIG would probably reduce how much propertyless people work for people with property; therefore, necessarily, it is bad. He dismisses Zwolinki’s argument that work disincentives can be a good thing by labeling it “subjective” and “value-laden,” without noting that a subjective and value-laden argument can only be countered by another subjective and value-laden argument, which he does not offer. He just assumes any and all work disincentives are bad. So, he doesn’t actually lay a glove on Zwolinski’s argument.

The closest he comes to explain the values that led him to the belief that all work disincentives are bad is to say that BIG has always been unpopular in the United States. Yet, to say something is unpopular is not say whether it is a good or bad thing. It doesn’t say whether we should try to change people’s minds about it. At any time in American history up until five or maybe ten years ago, he could have made the same argument against same-sex marriage. Now it’s popular; thanks to people worked hard to change other people’s minds. Is BIG or anything else worthy of a similar effort? Manzi implies that nothing that is currently unpopular is ever worth the effort to change people’s minds.

Manzi mentions my article, “A Failure to Communicate: What (If Anything) Can we Learn From the Negative Income Tax Experiments,” but doesn’t actually engage with its arguments about work disincentives. One argument is that any decline in work effort would—by standard theory—cause an increase in wages partly counteracting the decline in work effort and further increasing the incomes of the working poor—presumably the people a BIG is supposed to help.

Another argument in that article is that the “decline” in work effort was only relative—the experimental group vs. control group. But the experiments also found whether people were in the experimental or control group was not the primary causal factor determining whether they worked or not. The macroeconomic health of the economy was more important in determining how much a person worked than whether or not they received a BIG. Therefore, the experiments indicated that if you have a strong macroeconomy, you can have both BIG and high employment. People who received a negative income tax took more time to find the right job, but in all the experiments, if good jobs were available, people took them. If you want propertyless people to work for the owners of property whether or not jobs pay decent wages or provide good working conditions, then the absence of BIG or anything like it is what you should favor. If you want all jobs to be good jobs, BIG is the policy to favor.

Cato Unbound

Cato Unbound

Another of the main arguments in my article was that, without foundation, many people responded to the evidence of a relative decline in work effort by making a subjective and value-laden assumption that all reductions in work effort are necessarily a bad thing. Manzi makes that very assumption and does not explain—much less defend—the subjecctive foundations underlying his assumption.

It’s what he leaves out, what he doesn’t call attention to, that is the real problem in Manzi’s article. Typical of some brands of right-libertarianism, it’s from a tradition of newspeak. He’s for slavery and he calls it freedom. It’s perhaps unfair to hang all of the rest of what I have to say on Manzi, but it is a common position running throughout a great deal of right-libertarian literature from Nozick and Rothbard and many, many others. Manzi’s essay, by the absence of its foundations, is a good example of how successfully this argument has become taken for granted—not just among right-libertarians but in mainstream political dialogue.

In the rights-based libertarian tradition, a situation in which one group of people has no other option but to work for another group of people is called “freedom” as long as that other group of people are called “property owners” and the working class is propertyless. I call it slavery, but to right-libertarians the opposite is slavery. Any redistribution to relieve people from forced work is supposedly reduces freedom; it’s even “on par with forced labor,” in Nozick’s words. If property owners give jobs or charity to the propertyless, that’s “voluntary” and consistent with freedom, but if the government taxes and redistributes property that’s “force,” “coercion,” and “interference” which supposedly violates negative freedom.

How did these propertyless people get into the position in which they have to work for the propertied? Over a long history, property owners use the force of the legal system to force, coerce, or interfere with other people, establishing “property rights” without the consent of or compensation for the people they thereby force into a state of propertyless. Before property rights, all were free from interference to use the resources of the Earth as they wished; under the type of property rights we have today and under the ideals envisioned by right-libertarians, “property owners” are free to interfere with any use the propertyless might make of the Earth’s resources. When everything is owned by someone else, the propertyless lose so much liberty that they’re unfree to work for themselves. They’re effectively born in debt, owning their labor to the to at least one member of the group that owns property. They face interference with anything in the world they might do for themselves unless and until they accept a subordinate position to a property owner? Doesn’t that make them unfree in the most negative sense of the term?

Right-libertarians usually get around this question by definitional fiat. The interference the rich do to the poor, when they say “We own the Earth and you don’t,” simply doesn’t count. It’s not interference because it doesn’t violate your rights. You have no right to the land; therefore, you have no right to be free from laboring for the people who do, and so we don’t even call it a loss freedom when use the force of the legal system to maintain that situation. The poor are always born in debt, every generation owing their labor to the propertied group, but that doesn’t make them “unfree” because they have no right to be free from being born into debt. I hope this makes my allegation of right-libertarian “newspeak” clear.

Of course, right-libertarians tell us that they defend property rights because they believe in freedom. Now we see that they’re simply defining freedom as the defense of the property rights system they want to see. This is why I think it is fair to use to term tautological libertarianism to describe versions of it that simply define freedom as the freedom do what you have the right to do. They argue we must have libertarian property rights so we can be free, but libertarian freedom turns out to be defined as nothing but the exercise of property rights so defined. Or they argue that we must define property rights this way so that people can be free. And around and around the logical circle we go. Not all libertarians (or even all right-libertarians) take the tautological shortcut, but far too many of them do. A circular argument can appear very powerful if you don’t reveal the whole circle at once. One paper argues this: we must have the definition of property rights because freedom is important. Another paper argues this: we must have this definition of freedom because property rights are important. If you show only one argument at a time, it appears powerful. You put both arguments together, and you have no argument at all. The less of the logic you see, the more powerful the argument appears to be.

You would need a powerful argument to explain why interfering with the propertyless in such a way as to put them effectively in debt to the upper class simply doesn’t count as a violation of freedom. And such an argument could only be subjective and value laden. But if the treatment of property ownership as synonymous with freedom is pervasive enough, you never have to make that argument. You can take it for granted.

Manzi expects his readers to take that kind of argument—or some other subjective and value laden argument—for granted when he assumes that any reduction in the number of hours the propertyless are forced to work for the propertied group is necessarily a bad thing. That’s slavery caused by the application of force, interfering with negative freedom of individuals to do things for themselves. He can call it freedom if he wants, but it’s still slavery.
-Karl Widerquist, Virginia Beach, VA (revised Roanoke, VA), August, 2014

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Heidi Laura interviews Karl Widerquist


Heidi Laura -Weekendavisen
Heidi Laura -Weekendavisen

Heidi Laura, of Danish Weekendavisen, conducted this interview (by email) with Karl Widerquist in late February 2014. She used only parts of the interview for her article in Weekendavisen, and she gave BI News permission to use the interview in its entirety. Karl Widerquist is the editor of BI News, co-chair of the Basic Income Earth Network, and an Associate Professor at SFS-Qatar, Georgetown University. He is the author of Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income: A Theory of Freedom as the Power to Say No.

Heidi Laura: There are several models for a basic income; could you comment on those most commonly promoted and to what extent each of them would increase the equality and freedom of the citizens?

Karl Widerquist
Karl Widerquist

Karl Widerquist: It’s better to say that there are two main models of the Basic Income Guarantee, (BIG) rather than several models of Basic Income (BI). We’re dealing with terms used in very different ways by many different people. So, it’s not really possible to say what definitions are definitive, but let me explain the most commonly used definitions. BIG is the government ensured guaranteed that no citizen’s income will fall below a certain level for any reason—including the refusal to work. Usually that level is defined as enough to meet basic needs, and a guaranteed income below that level is usually considered a partial BIG.

There are two ways to guarantee no one’s income falls below a certain level: through a BI and/or through a negative income tax (NIT). Basic Income gives a regular unconditional income to all citizens on an individual basis without either a means test or a work requirement. This means everyone gets the income whether or not they have other income. But it does not mean everyone’s income goes up. If we introduced a BI, high-income earners would receive it, but they’d also pay more taxes, so on balance they would have lower income. Like the BI, the NIT has no work requirement, but it is means tested. It ensures that no citizen’s income falls below a certain level by paying only the citizens who need it. Under most plans the NIT is gradually phased out so that an individual always has a financial incentive to earn more.

Within the BI alone, in one sense there is only one model: a universal grant to all citizens without exception. It can be higher or lower, but it always follows that model. To the extent that there are different models of BI, they could be defined by the financing of if. Some people link BI to income taxes, others to sales or VAT taxes, and others to land, natural resource, and rent taxes. This third model links BI to assets over which citizens have a claim of joint ownership. You want to live on our land? Pay into our BI fund. You want to drill or mine our resources? Pay into our BI fund.

Laura: Can the current social systems in the Western world be called distributively unjust?

Widerquist: Yes, the current welfare system is stingy and punitive. Even some of the more generous social welfare systems waste a lot of time supervising the poor and making them prove their worth, as if the mere fact of being poor made them morally suspect. We—the voters—need to get over our ridiculous belief that we are the moral superiors of those with less money.

Laura: What do you see as the greatest advantage of a basic income?

Widerquist: The greatest advantage of basic income is freedom. We put the poor and dissatisfied in society in the position where they have few real choices, no real possibility to reject subordination to others. They cannot use the resources of the land directly for their own benefit. Society makes rules to ensure that all the Earth is owned by someone else. If some other group owns a resource essential to your survival, they own you. The only legal way to access the resources of the Earth are to work for—i.e. take orders from, be a subordinate to—someone who owns some of those resources. If you reject that subordinate position you have few options—eat out of a garbage can or beg perhaps. You can try to get money from existing social welfare systems, but as we’ve discussed, you’ll find them punitive and overbearing in their rules.

Laura: An often heard argument against basic income is that it would reduce the incentive to work; what is the scholarly reply to this argument?

Widerquist: The very question reflects the socially unjust assumptions embedded in all or most existing social welfare systems and in the political mentality of many of our leaders. If someone is unwilling to accept a job offer, we jump to the assumption that he or she is a bad or lazy person for refusing to work. But there are too sides to the job-offer coin. Why don’t we assume the employer is bad or stingy for not making a better offer? By framing the question in the way we do, we have sided with the more privileged people in our society. Assuming they treat their inferiors just fine, and if the inferiors refuse to accept whatever their superiors offer, we can judge them as bad people. We thereby put the privileged in the position where they can make very bad job offers and expect to have them accepted. We create poverty wages.

I think we’ve got it exactly wrong. I believe in freedom. If the two parties don’t agree to a price in a setting in which both of them have the power to say no, then it doesn’t mean one of them is a bad person, it means that the deal is bad: it doesn’t work for the two people. We need to make workers free to say no to give employers the incentive to pay good wages and provide good working conditions. If we make our workers so desperate that they have to take any job offered, we should expect job offers to be horrible.

Another problem with that question is that as economists usually define the term, a Basic Income (BI) has no work disincentive at all. It is given to everyone whether or not they work. You don’t have to quit your job to get the BI. It has no marginal incentive against work. If people have a BI, and someone comes along with an attractive job offer, people have nothing to lose by taking that job. If jobs can’t provide enough to encourage that free people to take them, if they’re just barely getting by, they’re probably not productive enough to be worth doing. Everyone has his price. If we as a society want people to work, we have to pay wages high enough and working conditions good enough to attract people to choose work.

Laura: How would you describe the study of basic income as a scholarly field today? Is it growing?

Widerquist: It is growing, but not nearly as much as activism on BI is growing. As the editor of BI News and the USBIG NewsFlash since 1999, I’ve watched developments on BIG closely for more than 13 years, and something very new has happened in the last year or two is amazing. People across Europe and all over the world are suddenly working to get BIG on the political agenda in a wide diversity of countries. The work is going on in different ways in different places, and for me, it’s just great to see.

Laura: Do you see the upcoming vote in Switzerland as a sign of a growing or renewed interest in Basic Income?

Widerquist: Yes, the Swiss movement is the most impressive achievement so far of the new activism for the Basic Income Guarantee (BIG). In a country of only about 8 million people, they managed to get 127,000 people to sign a petition demanding not only BI but a very substantial BI. They helped to jump start a flurry of media interest which has not yet died down. The European Citizens Initiative for Unconditional Basic Income was also an impressive achievement. They didn’t reach the enormous threshold necessary to trigger a response from the European Council, but they helped to create a movement across Europe, including in places such as Hungary and Slovenia, which have never had a movement before.

There are non-governmental organizations attempting to test or employ the BIG model in Africa, Indian, and South America. There’s a new organization promoting a single BIG across the Southern African Development Community. It’s been endorsed by the Occupy Movement in North America. South Korea is looking into hosting the next Congress of the Basic Income Earth Network. The movement is all around the world.

If your readers want to get involved, they can contact me at karl@widerquist.com. If they want to know more they should visit www.binews.org. This website provides daily updated news about BIG from all around the world. They should also go to www.basicincome.org—the website of the Basic Income Earth Network—which has information about BIG, our upcoming Congress, and links to national affiliates around the world.

Basic Income, Weekendavisen

Basic Income, Weekendavisen

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Report from the 15th Congress of the Basic Income Earth Network


Karl Widerquist, co-chair of the Basic Income Earth Network

The 15th International Congress of the Basic Income Earth Network was held in Montreal at McGill University from June 27 to June 29, 2014, and a pre-conference North American day was held on June 26. The event was sold out with well over 200 people attending.

Street art in Boulevard Saint Laurent, Labrona -Basic Income Canada Network

Street art in Boulevard Saint Laurent, Labrona -Basic Income Canada Network

Two of the central topics at the conference were the recent basic income pilot projects the recent petition drives for basic income. Renana Jhabvala, of Self-Employed Women’s Association and Guy Standing, of School of Oriental and African Studies discussed the recent pilot project in India. Among other results, basic income was found to increase health and employment.

Enno Schmidt, Co-founder of the Initiative Basic Income in Switzerland and president of the Cultural Impulse Switzerland Foundation, and Stanislas Jourdan, Co-founder of the French Movement for Basic Income and Coordinator for Unconditional Basic Income Europe, talked with Barbara Jacobson, of Basic Income UK, and Philippe Van Parijs, of BIEN, about the citizens initiatives of basic income in Switzerland and the European Union (EU). Between the two initiatives, activists raises more than 400,000 signatures, enough to trigger a vote in Switzerland to take place in 2015 or 2016. Although the EU movement did not receive enough signatures to trigger a vote, it created headlines across the continent, sparked a pan-European movement for BIG (UBIEurope), and organized national movements in all of the EU’s member states.

Joe Soss, of University of Minnesota, gave the NABIG (North American Basic Income Guarantee) lecture, which was surprisingly optimistic despite its depressing title, “Disciplining the Poor, Downsizing Democracy?” He discussed how many recent social policies from welfare “reform” to the 500% increase in the incarceration rate are part of an international trend toward treating poverty as willful misbehavior curable only by discipline. The optimism came from his belief that people are coming to recognize what’s been happening, and they’re fighting back through various movements.

The conference included a good mix of academics and activists. The Congress generated press around Canada and to some extent around the world. Some of the attendees started an international youth activist organization for the basic income, called Basic Income Generation. The Basic Income Canada Network furthered its push for a $20,000 basic income for all Canadians. The theme of technological unemployment recurred through many of the sessions—much more than it has in any past BIEN Congress. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twentieth Century, was discussed by many of the academics at the Congress. And discussion of the Great Recession was frequent.

The Congress closed with BIEN’s General Assembly (GA) meeting. The GA voted to recognize five new affiliates from Norway, France, Portugal, Europe (UBIEurope) and the Southern African Development Community (the SADC BIG Coalition). UBIEurope and the SADC BIG Coalition have become BIEN’s first transnational affiliates.

A new Executive Committee (EC) was elected by the GA, including Louise Haagh and Karl Widerquist as Co-Chairs, Anja Askeland as Secretary, Borja Barragué as Treasurer, and Andrea Fumagalli, Toru Yamamori, Pablo Yanes Rizo, and Jason Murphy as EC members for News and Outreach.

Several issues were tabled (delayed) due to lack of time. These included some proposed amendments to BIEN’s statutes and a proposal to change BIEN’s definition of unconditional basic income to include a clause that it must be high enough to allow individuals to live in dignity.

The GA ended with a bit of drama. Before we could give up the room to the cleaning crew, which had been waiting much longer than they expected, the GA had to decide the location of the next Congress between three impressive proposals from affiliates in Finland, the Netherlands, and South Korea. As time was running out, the representatives of Netherlands and Finland both dropped their bid in favor of Seoul, Korea, and the motion was quickly passed unanimously.

I think I speak for all of BIEN’s leadership when I write that we are looking forward to working with Korea on the 2016 Congress and to working with UBIE and all of BIEN’s European affiliates to help build on the political moment for basic income has devleoped on that continent.
-Karl Widerquist, Cru Coffee House, Beaufort, North Carolina, June 13, 2014

Some of the press coverage of the BIEN Congress:

Ahn Hyo-sang, “[Special report] Basic income movement gaining momentum worldwide.The Hankyoreh, July12, 2014.

Benjamin Shingler, “$20,000 per person: Activists push for guaranteed minimum income for CanadiansThe Globe and Mail, 29 June 2014.

Beryl Wajsman, “The fierce urgency for a guaranteed national income”, The Metropolitain, 30 June 2014.

The Canadian Press, “Guaranteed $20K income for all Canadians endorsed by academics”, CBC News, 30 June 2014.

Deirdre Fulton, “New Campaign Pushes for ‘Basic Income Guarantee’ in Canada“, Common Dreams, 3 July 2014.

Dan Delmar, “The Exchange Podcast with Dan Delmar,” CJAD 800AM Radio, 2 July 2014. [Discussion of BIG begins about 18 minutes into the broadcast.]

Jacob Kearey-Moreland, “Universal Income Worth a Look”, Orilla Packet, 4 July 2014.

Mélanie Loisel, “Le revenu garanti est la voie de l’avenir, croit Blais”, Le Devoir, 30 June 2014.

The BIEN General Assembly Meeting

The BIEN General Assembly Meeting

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Review of Marshall Brain, “Manna: Two Visions of Humanity’s Future”


Review by Karl Widerquist

Marshall Brain is a science writer (both fiction and non-), futurist, founder of the website How Stuff Works, and a long-time advocate of basic income. His book, Manna: Two Visions of Humanity’s Future, makes a case for basic income—and for a post-work society altogether—through the vehicle of science fiction.

The novel is essentially a thought experiment, working through two possible ways in which society might react when technology becomes so sophisticated that machines replace virtually all human labor. In the dystopian part of the story, America essentially warehouses its excess human labor in humane, but highly restricted and regimented residential community. In the later part of the story, the main character makes his way to Australia where the resources that make the machines run are jointly owned, and people do not have to work if they do not want to.

Marshall Brain via cyberpunkreview

Marshall Brain via cyberpunkreview

The story moves quickly beyond basic income to a society that has no more need of paid labor. In Manna’s vision, there is such little need for human effort that people are free to pursue whatever projects they wish, some of which is things we would call “work” but not “paid labor.”

No doubt not all readers will find all aspects of Brain’s utopian vision to be truly utopian. His characters willingly concede a great deal of power over their lives and their own bodies to a centralized, impersonal computer system. They do it for security, but the fear that it will be misused will hit some readers even if it is ignored in the book.

The most important part of the book for BIG supporters is the warning in the dystopian portion of the book. America deals with less need for labor by squeezing wages and then eventually warehousing workers. Brain’s nonfiction work has argued that the rate of increase in computer and robotics technology makes the level of technology discussed in this book a realistic possibility—perhaps sooner than most of us think.

In any case, robotics technology is already here. It’s replacing human effort on a daily basis. It’s affecting our labor market, and those affects will increase every year from now on. Whether or not it will eventually replace all labor, we have to think about how to react to the labor it is now replacing on a daily basis. If we no longer need everyone to work, then BIG has to be part of the solution.
-Karl Widerquist, Cru Coffee House, Beaufort, North Carolina

Marshall Brain, Manna: Two Visions of Humanity’s Future. BYG Publishing, Inc. 2012.
Amazon page: http://www.amazon.com/Manna-Two-Visions-Humanitys-Future-ebook/dp/B007HQH67U.
Author’s website for the book: http://marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm.

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