Dear Nation Magazine Discussion Group in DC:
Poverty and growing income inequality are on the national agenda. That’s partly thanks to Occupy Wall Street, partly to the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, the fiscal crisis, and the current prospects of a jobless recovery due to automation and out-sourcing of jobs, as many Americans are struggling to pay our bills. Liberal Democrats want to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, and President Obama’s budget proposal would do that in a big way. Conservative Republicans, including Paul Ryan, are talking about reducing poverty by cutting and consolidating current programs to empower market-based solutions. With the two sides far apart, as usual, the forecast is continuing political paralysis.
Another option is basic income, and it’s gaining traction from both sides. The concept is simple, and actually updates ideas that a majority of Americans supported in the 1960. A version of this idea was nearly enacted.
[This coming Saturday 15 March] We have a unique opportunity to discuss these issues with Steven Shafarman, the author of several books on basic income and a member of the coordinating committee of the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network. Steven is creating a presentation for us that will be lively and interactive.
Context for The Basic Income Guarantee:
Basic income is a set amount, say $1,000 a month, ideally enough so people can afford food, shelter, and clothing, at least. Provide that to every American citizen: homeless veterans, working adults, retired grandparents, CEOs, celebrities, and so on. Basic economic security, guaranteed. A baseline of economic equality and economic justice.
Proponents would pay for the basic income by cutting or eliminating current programs that become superfluous. Welfare and corporate welfare, to start, also excess military spending and a variety of tax breaks and subsidies that mostly go to the rich. The prospect of major cuts are the main reason this approach appeals to libertarians and conservatives.
The 1960s plans were quite complicated. Democrats used the term guaranteed income, and leading supporters included Martin Luther King Jr., George McGovern, and economists James Tobin and John Kenneth Galbraith. Republicans preferred the term negative income tax, and the main proponent was economist Milton Friedman. In 1970, a plan to provide a guaranteed income to poor families passed the House of Representatives by a margin of two-to-one. But it was narrowly blocked in the Senate Finance Committee; extreme conservatives opposed any expanded welfare, extreme liberals wanted something more generous, and together they outvoted the moderates. That was the Family Assistance Plan, presented by Richard Nixon and authored by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. A watered-down compromise was enacted in 1975 and still exists today: the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Basic income, moreover, has a long and illustrious history, starting with Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Paine’s 1797 pamphlet, Agrarian Justice, is remarkably relevant to many modern concerns, including climate change. Similar ideas sparked the Progressive and Populist movements of the 1890s and were instrumental in winning Social Security in 1935. A form of basic income actually exists today in Alaska: every resident receives a yearly payment from government, the Permanent Fund Dividend. It was $2,069 in 2008, and $900 in 2013.)
Questions to consider:
1. How can a guaranteed income address the fiscal crisis, contribute to a sustainable economy, and promote greater social justice in the US? Would a guaranteed income undermine the incentive to work in a capitalist society?
2. How large should the basic income be for basic economic security?
3. Would the basic income be generous enough to lift people out of poverty? How does a basic income compare to a minimum wage or a living wage?
4. Should there be some eligibility criteria, such as a work requirement, or some obligation to contribute to society’s well-being?
5. Should this be for all residents or only citizens? Should immigrants be included? What about undocumented workers? How comfortable are Americans with redistributing income—especially to people who are often perceived as less deserving than themselves?
6. How should we finance the basic income (e.g. reduction in both individual welfare for low income safety net recipients, deductions for the middle class, and loopholes for the wealthy and public subsidies for corporate welfare; a progressive income tax, a flat income tax; a carbon tax; land value tax? financial transaction taxes, etc.)?
7. Can you envision a mass movement to make this happen? Are we moving closer to a guaranteed income now or further away? Would you join such a movement?
8. What might a guaranteed income mean for our democracy and prospects for political reform, such as ending Citizens United? Would a guaranteed income increase the likelihood of community service and collective responsibility or reinforce self-centeredness and the value “what’s in it for me”?
9. What are the dangers of dismantling our existing social welfare programs (which admittedly are often stigmatized) in the absence of a strong sense of social solidarity in our highly individualistic, materialistic, and competitive culture? Is poverty primarily a lack of income or a culture of lower expectations and lower self-esteem?
10. Does a social movement for a guaranteed income suggest a model for uniting liberal democrats and conservative republicans that could be applied to other policies that our country is ideologically divided on now?
1. The U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network, www.usbig.net USBIG is an informal network of activists and academics with a newsletter, online papers, and a yearly meeting. Founded in 2001.
2. The Basic Income Earth Network, www.basicincome.org was founded in 1986 as the Basic Income European Network, and the ‘E’ was redefined after the 2002 Congress. BIEN members have been instrumental in generating interest in these ideas around the world. The group meets in alternate years in different locations. The next meeting will be the first in North America, June 2014 in Montreal.
3. Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice. The pamphlet is online, and there’s a link from the history section of Social Security Administration. http://www.socialsecurity.gov/
4. In the 1880s, the leading proponents of economic security were Henry George and Edward Bellamy. Both wrote books that sold more than a million copies. (Wikipedia)
5. In the 1930s, mass movements mobilized around Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth ideas and the Townsend Plan. Both are acknowledged for their role in generating the political will for Social Security. More information is at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/
6. Annie Lowrey, “Switzerland’s Proposal to Pay People for Being Alive”, New York Times, November 12, 2013 at the URL http://www.nytimes.com/2013/
7. Bruce Bartlett, “Rethinking the Idea of a Basic Income for All”, New York Times blog, December 10, 2013 at the URL http://economix.blogs.nytimes.
8. Danny Vinik, “Giving All Americans a Basic Income Would End Poverty”, originally in Business Insider, November 17, 2013 at the URL http://www.slate.com/blogs/
9. Leon Neyfakh, “Should the government pay you to be alive?”, Boston Globe, February 9, 2014 at the URL
Our next Nation Magazine Discussion Group meeting will take place on Saturday, March 15, 2014 from 3-5:30 PM at the Cleveland Park Public Library (3310 Connecticut Avenue) on the second floor. The library is located two blocks south of the Cleveland Park metro station on the Red Line, and there is free parking on McComb Street which intersects with Connecticut Avenue on the corner where the library is located.
Steven Shafarman will serve as our resource person for this discussion. Steven is a member of the coordinating committee of the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network, and he has presented talks at several meetings of the Basic Income Earth Network. He is the author of five books, including Peaceful, Positive Revolution: Economic Security for Every American. (Copies will be available.)
You are welcome and encouraged to invite persons to the meeting who are interested in the topic and prepared to participate in the discussion.
Bob Griss, Coordinator,
Nation Magazine Discussion Group in DC