Monday, June 23, 2008

12th Conference of the Basic Income* Earth Network

Dublin, June 19-22, 2008

The keynote speech was from Peter Townsend, from the LSE and Bristol University, a well-respected social economist. He advocates Universal Child Benefit, that is, globally applied under the UN basing it on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as a way of meeting the UN's Millennium Development Goals for the relief of child poverty. He advised that a Tobin Tax could provide $500Bn a year to provide the money for his scheme. Other speakers also mentioned the Tobin Tax - it is noteworthy how often it pops up in all sorts of contexts. BI has an important role in relieving poverty. It occurs to me that the Make Poverty History movement should focus on the BI idea.

Townsend mentioned in passing that "Trickledown" (the neo-liberal idea that we need economic growth to solve poverty or environmental problems) is now completely discredited in economics.

Several speakers made the link between BI and human rights, in the sense that security and freedom from poverty and hunger is a basic human right. This connection between BI and HR became a recurring theme of the congress.

It occurred to me during the discussion that BI as a human right needs to be set into its ecological context. BI symbolises the right for a human to live on the planet. However, if the planet cannot physically support the human population, the human right to live becomes null and void. The human right therefore needs to be balanced with human responsibilities to minimise our ecological footprint, and terminate total human population growth. More on this later.

Pablo Yanes argues that BI is an important way of achieving better income equity.

Manuel Franzmann addressed the central objection to BI, namely that people would cease to work. He allowed that some might choose not to work, but that this small group of professional surfers and pot-heads would be offset by the majority desire for a meaningful life would motivate people to take on work.

There is also the matter of Basic Income being just that - basic - so the financial motivation will be there to take on work in order to have a more comfortable life. Add to this the fact that it will be easier to take up work, since the old unemployment trap caused by the loss of benefits at the point where the claimant takes on work, will no longer exist.

I contributed a couple of points from Bills of Health, that work (unless actually physically or emotionally toxic) was actually good for health, and was rated fifth from the top in a list of activities that made people happy. And yes, there were more than five items in the list....

Friday afternoon workshops described how a BI proposal in the Spanish Parliament was lost 300-20. Al Sheahan from the US related how he wrote a Basic Income Guarantee Bill in the US Congress: he was unable to collect a significant number of sponsors. Despite the successes described later, these failures show that there is a mountain that we have to climb with BI, which is why we should use the Green Wage Subsidy as a backdoor approach.

Raventos and Wark reasoned that the Universal Declaration of Emergent Human Rights implied a BI as a guarantee for the right to avoid hunger. In other words, BI itself is a human right. The reasoning here is good, providing that human numbers do not overwhelm the ability of the Earth to feed them. A new contract is needed between governments and people: Governments will undertake to feed people, if people will undertake to restrict their offspring to replacement level.

Interesting views from the old Left and Right political axis were presented in a plenary. Katja Kipping, a German MP for the Left party reviewed the discussion in Germany. She mentioned that the Greens were at first keen on BI, but abandoned it after reunification. She favoured a gradualist approach, beginning with groups like children, pensioners and artists. However, the Left is by no means solidly in favour.

Hugh Segal is a Conservative senator in the Canadian Parliament. He gave a witty and effective speech. He reasoned that if the State has a right to take your income in taxes, it has a duty to restore your income if you lose your job. Reducing poverty should cause savings in terms of crime and health care. He quoted a list of famous conservatives who advocated BI including Churchill, Nixon, Milton Friedman and Samuel Brittan.

Charles M A Clarke from New York made an interesting point about critics of BI. The Right claim that it interferes with the markets and gives the workers too much bargaining power, while the Left say that it is a Wage Subsidy (i.e. bad), that it might help make Capitalism work, and that it weakens the workers' bargaining power.

Which just points up the futility of the old left-right antithesis. I commented that the Green parties in Sao Paolo had given BI an approving mention in their recent policy document.

On Friday evening we went to drink wine at an official reception in Dublin's Custom House hosted by the Minister of Heritage, Comoantas Glas' very own Green Minister, John Gormley. I shook his hand and thanked him for his work. I refrained from mentioning Tara as it was a brief encounter.

Saturday began with my presentation "Introducing Basic Income by the Back Door in a Recession" - the proposal that Green enterprises could benefit by increasing their workforce by bringing workers in off the unemployment queues who retain their benefit while working, just as they would with BI. I made clear that it was not official GPRW policy. In contrast to its rejection by GPEW Conference, there was no hostility to this proposal.

On Saturday afternoon Eduardo Suplicy described his long and successful struggle to set up BI in Brasil. He has succeeded in creating the Bolsa Familia programme for poor families, which is in place. He finds that some do not understand their entitlements, and is working to extend it towards being a universal benefit.

Paul Segal of Oxford University gave a clear and intelligent presentation on how to fund BI through taxes on resource wealth. When Governments benefit from oil strikes they tend to spend the money themselves - sometimes, indeed, on themselves. There is a recognised phenomenon, the "resource curse" that often causes social and economic problems in countries that get rich quick in this way. By giving the money to citizens to spend they avoid becoming remote from the people.

Overall this was an educative Conference, much larger than the one I attended about 10 years ago, and one that could point to several examples of BI being actually put in place. These are:



Mexico City


There is a possibility that Timor l'Este (East Timor) may adopt it soon, in response to its oil wealth.

Prof. Suplicy, who has a 15 years of experience in political advocacy of BI, gives the basis of the following case for the policy, which I have expanded here as necessary:

The arguments in favour of BI/CI can be summarised, and maybe we should produce this as a leaflet:

1 Natural justice: every citizen has the right to life. In Nature, this would be through access to an area of land, to grow food. Now this common wealth must be represented by money. Every citizen has the right to participate in the wealth of the nation, just as they have the responsibility of defending it if attacked. This means that BI stands for a basic human right, the right to life.

2 Complexity: at present, citizens have to be in some kind of trouble through poverty, illness or unemployment, before they benefit from the common wealth. This system generates a huge bureaucracy in administering specific benefits, which are delivered grudgingly in a way that lessens self esteem, often working to rigid targets set by government. BI does away with this complexity.

3 Unemployment trap: Low skilled people receiving benefits often find it difficult to get work that pays more than their benefit, because benefit is stopped when they get work. This does not happen with BI.

4 Freedom of choice for workers: BI enables people to refuse or walk away from work that is physically or emotionally unhealthy. This is an incentive for employers to create better conditions at work.

5 BI is an insurance against poverty, which is a cause of unhappiness, ill health crime and other social problems. It will offset one of the central weaknesses of capitalism, the divergence of fortune between rich and poor. BI will help to achieve one of the UN's Millennium Development Goals, the elimination of poverty world wide.

6 BI acknowledges the unpaid work of home makers and carers.

7 Cross party support: BI has gained support from across the political spectrum - from liberals, socialists, and conservatives. Churchill, Nixon, Milton Friedman and Samuel Brittan are advocates from the right, and Lord Meghnad Desai is a prominent Labour supporter. Although this support is only from individuals in these old traditions, among the emerging world wide Green political movement BI is approaching consensual status.

8 The first objection to BI is that it will be a "Shirkers Charter" enabling pot heads and surfers to do nothing. There will always be such people - not just among the poor, since people with private wealth also receive an income irrespective of their work. This is not a major problem, since most will want to work because of the human satisfaction that work provides, as well as its financial rewards.

9 The other common objection is that it would be costly. There are many studies which show how it can be made financially possible. Many point to significant savings in the administrative costs of the present system. Studies which show very high costs make high assumptions about the numbers who choose not to work. The benefits of BI in terms of social solidarity, and perceived justice will eventually feed back into financial benefits for society. There is a way of introducing BI that avoids this problem altogether, while greening the economy (Green Wage Supplement). We can also learn from the trials that are now happening in Alaska, Namibia, and Brasil.

9 A common question is why BI should be paid to people who are already wealthy? In fact, wealthy people will be paying more in tax for the nation's BI than they will be receiving as a relatively small deduction from their tax bill.

10 One question that is not raised is this: What will become of the army of government officials presently engaged in administration of today's welfare system? There are losers in any political change. It would be ridiculous to retain the present complex and inefficient benefit system simply because it creates work for bureaucrats. Some will be able to take early retirement, and others will be able to be redeployed to other areas of the Civil Service that are struggling to cope. For the rest - well, they will have their Basic Income to fall back on while they find other work.

*Basic Income is also called Citizen's Income

*Clive Lord and I attended this conference, at our own expense, by surface travel. Comhaontas Glas was among the supporters of this conference in Dublin. Greens were well represented among attenders and speakers. About 200 delegates from many countries were present.

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