EDITORIAL: Open Letter To All Candidates For The European Parliament


[Karl Widerquist, co-chair of the Basic Income Earth Networ]

During the 2014 elections for the European Parliament, the Basic Income Earth Network, at the request of its partner, Unconditional Basic Income Europe, signed an open letter to all candidates for the European parliament. The full text of the open letter follows.

Open Letter To All Candidates For The European Parliament

Given the commitment by the EU to reduce poverty by 20 million by 2020, most people want to know: What will you do to deliver results for people in the European Union? Did you know that according to the most recent data available, around one fourth of the EU population, that is about 120 million people, are at risk of poverty? However, given the prolonged economic crisis since 2008 and increasing automation of production permanently eliminating many jobs, there are reasons to believe that the situation will get even worse in the future if nothing changes.

Unconditional Basic Income Europe, which represents basic income networks and organisations in 25 EU countries, along with Basic Income Earth Network, with members all around the globe, would like to underline the current threat which income inequality represents to a peaceful, democratic and social Europe. Therefore we expect our newly elected representatives to support those strategies which will promote social cohesion and ensure sustainable and inclusive development in Europe. Our representatives should see the crisis as a wake-up call.

Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) is an amount of money, paid on a regular basis to each individual unconditionally and universally, high enough to ensure a material existence and participation in society. It differs from traditional guaranteed minimum income (GMI) / social security schemes by removing the bureaucracy and its costs as well as the stigma of means-testing. UBI also eliminates the disincentive to work caused by the high marginal tax rates (65-95%) imposed by these schemes.

Pilot studies throughout the world have proved that UBI is a far more effective tool for reducing poverty and inequality than traditional social security schemes and subsidies, with more positive effects on local economies, health, societal cohesion, public safety and education. An unconditional basic income implemented throughout Europe could also reduce tensions created by intra-EU immigration forced by lack of economic opportunity. It may seem like a radical proposal, but the current ‘business as usual’ attitude is not sustainable and endangers the EU itself.

We expect our representatives and the European Commission to take further serious and practical steps on the European Parliament resolution 2010/2039(INI) of 20 October 2010 on the role of minimum income in combating poverty and promoting an inclusive society in Europe.

Considering that the unemployment rate will gradually increase due to technological advancement while productivity increases, ordinary Guaranteed Minimum Income schemes are becoming less and less effective, leading to rising inequality and social exclusion – all these lead to conclusion that we need culture change to tackle these problems. If you are elected, will you raise a debate about unconditional basic income in the European Parliament and will you stand for implementing it in the EU?

The 9th of May is celebrated as Europe Day because of the Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950 by French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman. He had a strong vision of a Europe which was  peaceful and prosperous for everybody without exception. Europe has become peaceful and prosperous, but not for everybody. Let´s finish the job Robert Schuman has started. What are we waiting for?

Undersigned by:

Unconditional Basic Income Europe
Basic Income Earth Network

The  open letter was originally posted at: http://one-europe.info/initiative/open-letter-to-all-candidates-for-the-european-parliament


Sources about poverty in Europe and Unconditional Basic Income:

Ending Poverty is a Political Choice! http://www.eapn.eu/en/news-and-publications/press-room/eapn-press-releases/ending-poverty-is-a-political-choice

Short movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zru79jcVTt4

Recent interview with Prof. Philippe van Parijs, Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL): “Van Parijs: An unconditional basic income in Europe will help end the crisis“ http://www.euractiv.com/sections/social-europe-jobs/van-parijs-unconditional-basic-income-europe-will-help-end-crisis-301503

For more profound insight, please watch the movie “Basic Income – a Cultural Impulse“ http://dotsub.com/view/26520150-1acc-4fd0-9acd-169d95c9abe1

Unconditional Basic Income Europe: http://basicincome-europe.org/
Basic Income Earth Network: http://www.basicincome.org

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Review of “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies.”


The Second Machine Age

The Second Machine Age

[Review by Karl Widerquist]

This book was recommended to me as technology-based argument for the basic income guarantee (BIG), and it is, but its support is tentative and only for BIG in the form of the Negative Income Tax (NIT), not in the form of a Universal Basic Income (UBI).

The authors define the computer revolution that is currently underway as “the second machine age.” The industrial revolution was “the first machine age.” It brought machines that could apply power to do simple but profoundly important tasks, eventually replacing most human- and animal-powered industries with steam, electrical power, and so on. Machines of the first machine age could often do those tasks much better than humans or beasts of burden ever could. For example, the replacements for horses—automobiles, trains, and airplanes—can carry more people and more cargo father and faster than horses ever could.

Machines of the second machine age have gone beyond the application of power; they are also replacing some human brainwork. Calculators have been around so long that few people are aware they replaced a form of human labor, called “computers.” In the early 20th century, “computers” were people who did computations. It was skilled brainwork, far beyond the capabilities of the up-and-coming technologies of the day, such as the internal combustion engine. Computers (as we define the term today) have almost entirely replaced that form of human labor, and their ability to substitute for human labor only continues to increase—especially when combined with robotics.

The computational powers of computers are so strong can already beat the best chess masters and “Jeopardy” champions. Self-driving cars, which have turned driving into a complex computational task, will not only relieve us all of the task of driving to work, they have the potential to put every professional driver out of business. Perhaps computers, then, will someday learn not just to calculate, but also to think and evaluate. If so, might they eventually replace the need for all human labor?

Erik Brynjolfsson

Erik Brynjolfsson

Perhaps, but Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, the authors of the Second Machine Age, do not base their arguments on any such scenario. The possibility of a truly thinking computer is out there, but no one knows how to make a computer think, and no one knows when or how that might happen.

So, the authors focus on the improvements in computers that we can see and envision right now: machines that can augment and aid human thought with computational ability increasing at the current exponential rate. As long as computers are calculating but not truly thinking, humans will have an important role in production. For example, although computers can beat an unaided chess master, they cannot beat a reasonably skilled human chess player aided by computer. This is the focus of the book: computers and robotics taking over routinized tasks (both physical and mental), while humans still the deep thinking with access to aid from more and more computer power.

This change will be enough to radically transform the labor market and eliminate many (if not most) of the jobs that currently exist. At the enormous rate of increase in computing power, one does not have to envision a self-aware, sentient machine to see that the effects on the economy will be profound. According to the authors, “in the next 24 months, the planet will add more computer power than it did in all previous history; over the next 24 years, the increase will likely be over a thousand-fold.”

The book’s analysis of those changes is very much based on mainstream economic theory. In the books analysis, increases in unemployment and decreases in wages are attributed almost entirely to a decline in demand for labor thanks to the introduction of labor-replacing technology. Political economy considerations, in which powerful people and corporations manipulate the rules of the economy to keep wages low and employment precarious, are not addressed. When the authors consider shifting taxes from payroll to pollution, they don’t consider that powerful corporations have been using their power over the political process very effectively to block any such changes.

Andrew McAfee

Andrew McAfee

Yet, the book demonstrates that even with purely mainstream economic tools, the need to do something is obvious. We have to address the effects of the computer revolution on the labor market. The second machine age creates an enormous opportunity for everyone to become free from drudgery, to focus their time on the goals that they care most about. But it also creates a great danger in which all the benefits of second machine age will go to the people and corporations who own the machines, while the vast majority of people around the world who depend on the labor market to make their living will find themselves fighting for fewer jobs with lower and lower wages.

The technology-replacement argument for BIG has been a major strand in BIG literature at least since the Robert Theobald began writing about the “triple revolution” in the early 1960s.[*] So, approaching this book as I did, I was on the lookout through a large chuck of the book, waiting for BIG to come up. I was very surprised to see the entire “Policy Recommendations” chapter go by without a mention of BIG.

The authors finally addressed BIG in the penultimate chapter entitled, “long-term recommendations.” In the audio version of the book, the authors spend about 20 minutes (out of the 9-hour audiobook) talking about BIG. They recount some of the history of the guaranteed income movement in the United States with sympathy, and write, “Will we need to revive the idea of a basic income in the decades to come? Maybe, but it’s not our first choice.” They opt instead for an NIT, writing “We support turning the Earned Income Tax Credit into a full-fledged Negative Income Tax by making it larger and making it universal.”

Their discussion of why they prefer the NIT to UBI is perhaps the weakest part of the book. They favor work. They want to maintain the wage-labor economy, because, taking inspiration from Voltaire, they argue that work saves people from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need. I am skeptical about this claim. I view it as an employers’ slogan to justify a subservient workforce, but my skepticism about this argument is not why I find the book’s argument for the NIT over UBI to be the weakest part of the book. The reason is that the argument from work-incentives gives no reason to prefer the NIT to UBI. The authors view the NIT as a “work subsidy,” but it is no more a work subsidy than UBI.

The NIT and the UBI are both BIGs, by that, I mean they both guarantee a certain level below which no one’s income will fall—call this the “grant level.” Both allow people to live without working. UBI does this by giving the grant to everyone whether they work or not, but taxing them on their private income. NIT does this by giving the full grant only to those who make no private income and taking a little of it back as they make private income. In standard economic theory, the “take-back rate” of the NIT is equivalent to the “tax-rate” of the UBI, and so either one can be called “marginal tax rate.”

Applying standard mainstream economic theory (which is used throughout the book), the variables that affect people’s labor market behavior are the grant level and marginal tax rate. The higher the grant level and the higher the marginal tax rate, the lower the incentive to work whether the BIG is an NIT or a UBI. You can have an NIT or a UBI with high or low marginal tax rates and grant levels, and you can have a UBI or an NIT that have the same grant level and marginal tax rate. It is for this reason that Milton Friedman, the economist and champion of the NIT, gave for drawing equivalence between the two programs:

INTERVIEWER: “How do you evaluate the proposition of a basic or citizen´s income compared to the alternative of a negative income tax?”
FRIEDMAN: “A basic or citizen’s income is not an alternative to a negative income tax. It is simply another way to introduce a negative income tax”.
-Eduardo Suplicy, USBIG NewsFlash interview, June 2000, http://www.usbig.net/newsletters/june.html

If the book’s arguments for work incentives are sound, I seen an argument for a modest BIG with a low marginal tax rate, but I see no argument one way or another why the BIG should be under the NIT or the UBI model.

Whatever one thinks about the issue of NIT versus UBI, the book presents an extremely sophisticated and powerful argument for moving in the direction of BIG. Therefore, it is a book that anyone interested in any form of BIG should examine closely.
-Karl Widerquist, Cru Coffee House, Beaufort, North Carolina, June 2, 2014, revised June 14, 2014

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014. Audio edition: Grand Haven, Michigan: Brilliance Audio, 2014.


[*] Mostly in three works, The Challenge of Abundance (1961), The Triple Revolution (1964), and The Guaranteed Income (1966).

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Allan Sheahen, the steeplechase runner of the BIG movement, has died


Al Sheahen. Photo courtesy of Tom Sheahen, via the Los Angeles Daily News

Al Sheahen. Photo courtesy of Tom Sheahen, via the Los Angeles Daily News

[Karl Widerquist]

Allan “Al” Sheahen was an author, an athlete, a disc jockey, a promoter, a publisher, and a long-time campaigner for the basic income guarantee (BIG). He died at his home in Sherman Oaks, California on October 29, 2013 after battling myelofibrosis (a slow-moving bone-marrow disease) for over ten years.

Sheahen is known in the movement for BIG as a tireless, long-term campaigner for BIG. He helped to found the USBIG Network. He helped keep the idea alive during the era in which it fell out of mainstream politics in the United States. And he wrote some of the best introductory books on BIG.

He was born in June 28, 1932 in Cleveland, Ohio and moved to California in 1957. His first book on BIG, Guaranteed Income: The Right to Economic Security (Gain Publications), was published in January of 1983—perhaps the nadir of the BIG movement in the United states.

BIG, under various names including the guaranteed income, had been a major topic in mainstream American politics from the mid-1960s to the mid-70s when it was seen by many people across the political spectrum as the obvious next step to improve the welfare system. However, BIG dropped out of favor in the late-70s when new right politicians such as Ronald Reagan found success vilifying the poor as a lazy rabble. Supporters of the welfare system went on the defensive and stopped looking for new ideas, except perhaps for those that placated the new right’s desire for stringent work requirements.

Into that void, Sheahen’s 1983 book argued that it made so much more sense just to put a floor under everyone’s income. He raised all the objections of the other side. He asked the toughest questions. He answered them with knowledgeable but disarmingly simple, compelling prose that anyone could understand. Many “BIGists” believe this book is still the best available introduction to BIG, with the possible exception of his 2012 book.

In the political climate of 1983, Sheahen’s book was widely ignored.

Mark Crumpton interviews Allan Sheahen -Bloomberg Television

Mark Crumpton interviews Allan Sheahen -Bloomberg Television

Sheahen did not stop. He was a journalist, and he wrote a long string of editorials on BIG and other topics in publications across the country. Over the years he wrote for Time, the Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Daily News, the Huffington Post, and many other publications.

In 1999, the BIG movement began to revive in the United States. A group made up mostly of east coast academics established the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network (USBIG). Sheahen quickly joined. He not only became a leader of the organization, but also, along with Robert Harris, Francis Fox Piven, and others, he gave the new movement for BIG a connection with the movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Basic Income Guarantee: Your Right to Economic Security

Basic Income Guarantee: Your Right to Economic Security

As a leader of USBIG, Sheahen stepped up his work. He attended and presented new ideas at the annual USBIG Congresses—now know as North American BIG (NABIG) Congresses—and at the biannual BIEN Congresses. In 2004 he coauthored the paper, “A Proposal to Transform the Standard Deduction into a Refundable Tax Credit,” which was the basis for a bill introduced into the U.S. Congress as “H.R. 5257 (109th): Tax Cut for the Rest of Us Act of 2006.” The idea of the bill was simple: replace the standard tax deduction with an equivalent-sized refundable tax credit, and in the process introducing a small BIG. The preamble to the bill states simply, “To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide a basic income guarantee in the form of a refundable tax credit for taxpayers who do not itemize deductions.”

Sheahen not only coauthored the paper on which the bill was based; he also lobbied for the bill. He made several trips to Washington and met with any Member of Congress or staffer who was willing to talk about the idea. He found a Member of Congress to introduce the bill and at least one other to sign on as cosponsor. But the bill did not get out of committee and expired at the end of 109th Congress. It has not as yet been introduced.

Sheahen’s next major project was a new book, The Basic Income Guarantee: Your Right to Economic Security (published June 19, 2012, by Palgrave Macmillan). It was largely an update of Sheahen’s 1983 book, but this time it was put out by a major publisher with greater distribution. According to former U.S. Senator and former Democratic nominee for president, George McGovern, “This book is a great idea – brilliantly stated. Some may think it’s ultra-liberal, as they did when I proposed a similar idea in 1972. I see it as true conservatism – the right of income for all Americans sufficient for food, shelter, and basic necessities. Or, what Jefferson referred to as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The book came out at a time with growing interest in BIG. It continues to sell well, and it is the most popular item in Palgrave’s book series, “Exploring the Basic Income Guarantee.” Sheahen followed up the book with a speaking tour and a large number of editorials in major newspapers. As late as August of 2013, less than 90 days before his death, Sheahen was on television, radio, and the print media campaigning for BIG. Right up to the end, after more than 30 years in the fight, Sheahen was one of the hardest working people in the BIG movement.

Allan Sheahan running hurdles -MasterTrack.com

Allan Sheahan running hurdles -MasterTrack.com

When he wasn’t working on BIG, Sheahen was an author, a disc jockey, a publisher, an announcer, and a competitor in and leading organizer of Masters Athletics—athletics for men and women over 35 years old. He was active in Masters Track and Field for decades, and he was so important to the movement that when he died, Mastertrack entitled their bibliography, “A giant has died: Al Sheahen was our chronicler and conscience.” According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, he served ten years as the Treasurer of the World Association of Veteran Athletes. He founded the magazine National Masters News and served as its editor for nearly four decades. According to The Los Angeles Daily News, in 1998, he was inducted into the Masters Track and Field Hall of Fame. His favored events were the 400-meter hurdles and the 3000-meter steeplechase—longest obstacle-jumping event in running. A long-distance obstacle race is a fitting metaphor for Sheahen’s three-decades of work for the BIG movement. The goal was far; the obstacles were many; and Sheahen ran on and on.
-Karl Widerquist, Mojo’s Coffee House, Freret Street, New Orleans, LA, April 2014

Personal note: I’ve worked with Al for nearly 15 years in USBIG, in BIEN, on the BIG Bill, and in Palgrave-Macmillan book series. At times he’s been a colleague, a mentor, and an inspiration—both from his hard work and from ability to communicate difficult ideas in an easily understandable way. It is a sad duty to write about his death.

For more on Al Sheahen and his work on Basic Income, see the following links:

The USBIG Network will organize a tribute to Al Sheahen at the Thirteenth Annual North American Basic Income Guarantee Congress, which will be held on June 26 in Montreal—a preconference workshop of the 15th International Congress of the Basic Income Earth Network, Friday June 27th to Sunday June 29th, 2014, McGill Faculty of Law, Montreal, Quebec.

Allan Sheahen -the Huffington Post

Allan Sheahen -the Huffington Post

Ken Stone, “A giant has died: Al Sheahen was our chronicler and conscience.MasterTrack, October 31, 2013.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Obituary: Allan John ‘Al’ Sheahen.The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Nov. 3, 2013.

The Los Angeles Daily News. “Ode to Al Sheahen, a long time Daily News letters contributor.The Los Angeles Daily News. October/31/13.

Allan Sheahen’s page at the Huffington Post.

USBIG, “Allan Sheahen tours to promote his book, the Basic Income Guarantee: Your right to economic security.” BI News, July 11, 2013.”

USBIG, “Allan Sheahen’s BIG tour continues.BI News, July 21, 2013

VIDEO: Bloomberg national television discusses BIG, July 23, 2013

VIDEO: Huffington Post, 17-minute video discusses BIG: “America The Poor,” August 24, 2013

Allan Sheahen, “Fulfilling One Of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dreams: A Basic Income Guarantee.International Business Times, August 20, 2013. (This is probably Sheahen’s last published article.

H.R. 5257 (109th): Tax Cut for the Rest of Us Act of 2006.

Al Sheahen and Karl Widerquist, “A Proposal to Transform the Standard Deduction into a Refundable Tax Credit.” USBIG Discussion Paper No. 93, August 2004 (Revised, October 2004).

This article was later revised and combined with a historical discussion of BIG in the United States, and published as:
Karl Widerquist and Allan Sheahen, September 3, 2012. “The Basic Income Guarantee in the United States: Past Experience, Current Proposals” in Basic Income Worldwide: Horizons of Reform, Matthew Murray and Carole Pateman (eds.) New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 11-32

Articles by and about Al Sheahen on BI News.

Allan Sheahen

Allan Sheahen

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The Goals of BI News


Basic Income is suddenly the subject of much more discussion around the world. Political movements are growing. The media, social networks, and blogs have suddenly devoted more attention to basic income. Basic Income News (BI News) suddenly has much more news to report. The website is running two-to-five stories a day, and its accompanying NewsFlashes have more news than they can fit. This is a good time to talk about the goals of BI News and the accompanying NewsFlashes.

BIEN

BIEN

BI News has three main goals. Most importantly, it keeps readers informed about all the news directly relevant to the Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) around the word. Secondly, it keeps readers informed about events organized about BIG and publications written about BIG. Thirdly, it includes features providing a mouthpiece for members of BIEN and its affiliates to write blogs, opinion pieces, and book reviews about BIG.

The first goal of BI News is important because activists, researchers, and anyone interested in BIG need a place where they can find out what is happening around the world that is relevant to BIG. No one other website is doing it, and no others are likely to start. You can’t just search Google News for “basic income” and expect to find all the news about BIG. There are more than a dozen, perhaps dozens, of terms for BIG in English alone. There are policies and programs that are forms of BIG or that share some of the characteristics of BIG but that are not discussed in terms of BIG: the Alaska Dividend, some cash transfers, the Earned Income Tax Credit, dividends from casino revenue on U.S. Indian Reservations, the Bolsa Familia in Brazil, GiveDirectly in Uganda, and many, many more. There are also policies that are described in the words “basic income” or words very similar to terms for BIG but aren’t BIG or aren’t very closely related to it. The news section of BI News shows readers what proposals, policies, and social activism around the world related to BIG and explains that connection.

USBIG

USBIG

This effort requires consistent monitoring of mainstream news, social media, blogs, and other sources of information. It involves original reporting to make the necessary connections to BIG as well as meta-reporting—reporting about reporting. Articles in this section of BI News are written from a neutral perspective, because the goal of this section is not to persuade but to inform. There are many arguments going around about BIG, but only one news source dedicated to informing people about BIG. This service is valuable to activists, researchers, and anyone interested in BIG.

This section reports only on issues directly relating to BIG. It doesn’t report on other social policies or on the economic and social conditions that create a need for BIG unless there is some direct connection to BIG in the news on these issues. The reason is that news indirectly relating to BIG outnumbers the news about BIG by orders of magnitude. If BI News reported on all these other things, its focus on BIG would be lost.

Stories from the news section of BI News can be found at this link: http://binews.org/category/latest-news/.

CIT (UK)

CIT (UK)

The second goal of BI News is to keep people informed about events being held and literature being written about BIG around the world. The goal of publicizing events is obvious. It helps our members, our affiliates, other networks, and hosting institutions to publicize events related to BIG. The goal of keeping up with the literature is important because of the dispersion and the diversity of the BIG literature today. So many different terms for BIG are used that there simply is no easy way to find it on a search. As far as we know, no other group is keeping a comprehensive bibliography of the literature on BIG as BI News attempts to do.

BI News posts summaries of the more important publications and attempts to post at least the publication information and a link to all publications, even the less important ones. We do this because, even if one individual publication is not terribly importantly by itself, the dialogue as a whole is important. If you want to know what is being said about BIG at a given time or what has been said over a given period, BI News has collected and organized that information. We’re doing a fairly good job of that for English-language publications right now, and hopefully, as we expand we will do it for more and more languages.

Articles in these sections are also written from a neutral perspective, because as with the goal of reporting the news, the goal of reporting on events and publications is also to inform, not to persuade. The literature and events in this section also must directly relate to BIG, again because reporting on wider literature would sacrifice our focus on BIG.

The BI literature posts on BI News are here: http://binews.org/category/bi-literature/.

Events posts are here: http://binews.org/category/events/. Links are here: http://binews.org/category/links/.

BIN Italia

BIN Italia

Persuasion is the third goal of BI News. The features section, which includes blogs, opinion pieces, book reviews, and occasional podcasts and interviews, performs this function. This section provides an outlet for BIEN members to write their opinions about BIG, sometimes directed at other supporters, sometimes directed at a wider audience. Arguing for the cause of BIG has obvious value, but there are several reasons why this goal ranks third. The readership of BI News is overwhelmingly made up of people who already support BIG. They’re already convinced; their primary need is for information. Another reason this is a lesser important goal is that there are many places around the world where people can publish features having to do with BIG, but only BI News is pursuing the first two goals. However, making the case for BIG is valuable. BI News provides a place for BIEN members and supporters to become a part of that dialogue. Right now we’re running an average of about one feature per week, but we are hoping to increase that substantially, perhaps eventually to one feature per day.

A list of and links to the latest features can be found on the homepage of BI News: http://binews.org/. Blogs can be found by going to the Features dropdown list and selecting blogs.

To keep up with these goals, BI News maintains a website, updated at least once a day, and a regular newsletter, collecting the recent stories from the website. As we expand our volunteer base, we will expand what we do.
-Karl Widerquist, Doha, Qatar, March 2014

Volunteers needed for BI News

If you’d like to help, we need volunteers. Primarily we need people with one of two skills. We need writers to help us report the news and we need people with website-design skills to help us improve how we present it. Among our writers, we need people with language skills. The languages we need most are English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and Italian, but if news is happening in any language, we need writers to report on it. If you would like to help spread the word about BIG, please contact the editor of BI News, Karl Widerquist <Karl@widerquist.com>.

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The Basic Income Guarantee Becomes a Rorschach Test in the U.S. Media


The Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) recently became a part of a flurry of discussion on the internet and in the media, when Jesse A. Myerson, of Rolling Stone Magazine, included it in a list of “Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For.” This ensuing discussion reveals a lot about the many different ways people see BIG.

The other reforms on the list were a guaranteed job, a land value tax, a sovereign wealth fund, and a public bank. Myerson framed the reforms as liberal, progressive ideas that should be especially appealing to the more-free-thinking millennial generation.

Soon after, Dylan Matthews, of the Washington Post, had the brilliant idea of reframing all five reforms as conservative proposals. Although his introduction clearly spelled out what he was doing, the reaction in comments and elsewhere was telling. Democrats tended to oppose the ideas, and Republicans tended to support them, even thought Democrats and Republicans who read Myerson’s piece had opposite reactions.

Ezra Klein, also of the Washington Post, wrote an article discussing the inconsistent reactions attributing it to framing (people react differently to a questions depending on how it was asked) and to trust (as a shortcut for paying closer attention, people often react differently to ideas depending on who supports or opposes those ideas).

A good example of framing came out between two other authors writing in response to Myerson. Before the two articles about framing were published, Matt Breuenig brought up Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend and made a favorable comparison between it and communism. John Aronno, of Alaska Commons, writing after but apparently without knowledge of the two articles about framing, responded to Breunig by arguing that the Alaska Dividend was not communism, but “the owner state.” That’s an excellent frame.

Emily Swanson, of the Huffington Post, got into the discussion by conduction a poll, purported to show, “What People Really Think Of Rolling Stone’s 5 Reforms For Millennials.” The poll could do nothing of the kind, but I’ll get to that. First, let’s see what it could do.

Swanson asked, “Would you favor or oppose expanding Social Security to every American, regardless of age, to guarantee a basic income to every American?” She found, among Americans as a whole, opposition beat support by a margin of 54 to 35 percent. Among people under 30, the margin was narrower, 44 to 40 percent. BIG was favored by 53 percent of black Americans, 54 percent of Democrats, and 19 percent of Republicans.”

What does all this say about BIG and its political prospects?

Start with Klein’s framing issue. Klein would be mistaken to attribute the difference in reactions solely to irrationality and intellectual laziness on the part of the readers of the two pieces. The two proposals were not identical. Matthews’s conservative version of the proposal stressed scrapping the welfare system and replacing it with BIG. Myerson said nothing about scrapping anything. Furthermore, Myerson stressed that the BIG should be enough for people to live on, while Matthews did not mention anything about how large it could or should be. It’s true that some BIGists—if I may use that term for supporters of BIG—propose replacing most or all of the welfare system with a BIG, and probably all BIGists agree that at least some welfare state programs can be replaced if the BIG is large enough. However, if a conservative stresses scarping just about everything the government is currently doing to help the poor to replace it with a BIG—of undetermined size—liberals have good reason to be skeptical. Similarly, if a liberal proposes an enormous new program without mentioning any disliked programs it could replace, people who believe in a smaller government sector have good reason to be skeptical.

Even if the Matthews’s conservative version of Myerson’s reforms isn’t quite as telling as Klien makes it out to be, the framing and trust issues are real, and they certainly explain part of discrepancy Klein recognizes. This issue poses a challenge for BIGists. It has something to offend everyone. People to the left-of-center might see it as great help to the poor, but they might see it as an underhanded strategy to undermine what we are already doing for the poor. People to the right-of-center might see it as a more cost-effective alternative to the welfare state, but they might see it as a major expansion of it, and they might think it is an affront to the work ethic. In America, people to the left-of-center might think that too, and even if they don’t, they might think that they should back some other program not vulnerable to the anti-work ethic allegation.

If both sides frame it in the way most favorable to them, perhaps a large coalition behind it is possible. If both sides frame it the way most negative to them, perhaps an equally large coalition against it is possible. Either way you present it, you risk one side tagging it as a proposal from that other untrusted side.

Now turn to Swanson’s poll. The results are actually good news for U.S. BIGists. The idea has been so far off the political radar for so long, just the fact that somebody is asking the question shows progress. The 19-point margin of 54 to 35 is a large deficit to overcome, but it is not insurmountable. It puts BIG at about the same place same-sex marriage was in 2002 (according to Nate Silver). Given the current early-stage of activism for BIG, we should expect a deficit to overcome.

However, Swanson’s poll cannot tell us what people really think about BIG or any of the other reforms she asked about. Swanson was reacting to Myerson’s piece only. She was not reacting to the articles that revealed the enormous framing problem, and she made no attempt to address the framing issue. It would be interesting to see the results of polls framing the question differently. But even this couldn’t tell us what people really think. As Swanson admits, people tend to react negatively to proposals of an enormous change from the status quo. There is some reason why democratic governments have the programs they do at any given time, and hopefully this has something to do with their popularity. People, using caution, tend to be skeptical of major unfamiliar proposed changes to the political system. As people learn more about BIG—which hopefully they will—they’re beliefs will likely change and solidify. What happens then depends on many factors including the framing and trust issues that Klein discussed and hopefully also good argument and well researched evidence.

All this discussion shows many options about how to promote BIG, but it doesn’t give any easy answer for what strategy will be most effective.

-Karl Widerquist, Doha, Qatar, January 27, 2014

Below are links to the articles related to the recent media discussion over this issue:

Jesse Myerson, “Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For: Guaranteed Jobs, Universal Basic Incomes, Public Finance and More,” Rolling Stone, January 3, 2014.

Matt Bruenig, “A Spectre Is Haunting Alaska—the Spectre of Communism,” Policy Shop: Demos, January 5, 2014.

Matthew Bruenig, “Conservatives are losing their minds over economic reforms that already exist,” Salon, January 6, 2014.

Dylan Matthews, “Five conservative reforms millennials should be fighting for,” the Washington Post, January 7, 2014.

Ezra Klein, “The depressing psychological theory that explains Washington,” the Washington Post, January 10, 2014.

John Aronno, “Alaska’s Permanent Fund Isn’t Communism, It’s the Owner State,” the Huffington Post, 01/13/2014.

Emily Swanson, “Here’s What People Really Think Of Rolling Stone’s 5 Reforms For Millennials,” the Huffington Post, 01/13/2014.

-Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images via Rolling Stone Magazine
-Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images via Rolling Stone Magazine
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