Reflections on Basic Income Canada 2012 Congress
by Tim Rourke, Citizen's Income Toronto, June 2012
THE BIG IDEA
I have long been an advocate of the concept of a Gauranteed Annual Income, or as it is now being called, a Basic Income. I live in Toronto, so I could attend he BICN conference despite my limited income. Acquaintances of mine who are also interested in Basic Income also have limited incomes, do not live in Toronto, and so did not attend. I took notes as well as I could of the presentations I attended and then typed them up and put them on the net. I also noted the debates that bubbled up around the presentations. Some of my e-mail friends liked my stuff and one suggested I write up a shorter report to be published in local media.
I should explain briefly what a Basic Income is. It is the idea that the best way to cure poverty is to give everybody enough money without conditions so that they can look after themselves. The idea has its precedents but has truly emerged only within the past century. Only in the past generation has a global movement developed to push for it.
The Basic Income Europe Network (BIEN) has become Basic Income Earth Network and a growing number of national organizations are emerging and becoming members. The United States Basic Income Guarantee (USBIG) has been around for awhile. In 2008 some Canadian Basic Income proponents attending the BIEN conference in Ireland decided to form BIEN Canada.
The group has had some difficulties and is now called BICN. It has no money and some trouble even putting up a web site, but has somehow managed to hold three successful conferences. I was able to attend Ottawa in 2009. I did not attend the one held in Montreal in 2010 with USBIG and Quebec groups. I know that there have been some internal conflicts in this group and I can make some good guesses as to why. But they are my guesses and the people who know anything are tight lipped about it for fear of compromising the development of the organization and concept in Canada.
At the end of the conference, before those traveling had to leave, people who were interested in being part of a Basic Income Canada Network gathered together. It is frustrating that this was thrown in at the last minute, instead of being the most important part of the conference. In the end, people recorded their e-mail addresses on a sheet from my well used notebook. This was handed over to those who undertook to arrange some way we could all communicate with each other.
Karl Widerquist was one of the original founders of BIEN. He is also a founder of USBIG and is a University Professor in The States. He has taken some interest in the development of BICN.
He said that an interaction between activists and academics is needed. He believes that BICN is capable of holding another conference like this in two years, or even of hosting the BIEN world conference that is held every other year, which he says would not be harder to manage than this. He gives an impression of frustration with the leadership of BICN.
MY LITTLE BIT OF WISDOM
I have been around antipoverty activism groups in different provinces in Canada for almost thirty years. People have to get it that to found an organization like this does take some hard headed leadership. You are going to be dealing with money and power, even if it is only potential money and power, or with something that could interfere with somebody's money and power. People will do some very nasty things over money and power. You cannot blindly trust all who come along and say they support Basic Income.
THE CHALLENGE FACING BI ACTIVISTS
Discussion in the hallways and on the various twitter pages gave clues as to who the real allies and enemies of a BICN would be. The tone was set by the first "plenary address", from an economist for a labor think tank. She got up many people's noses by theorizing that, while Basic Income was nothing if not a big idea, and it had certainly been around for awhile, it was an idea whose time never seems to come.
She had no ideas about when the time would come. She just thought we should focus on the incomes of the wealthy rather than the poor and that we are supposed to know "the drill", which is "Wake Up! Speak Up! Act Up!" She also thinks that "Basic income could present a significant threat to the welfare state!"
Here is the problem with "the left", from the politicians, to labor, to the revolutionaries; Basic Income is totally outside their way of framing reality. They cannot fathom that "the welfare state" is not something beneficial to poor people, who usually do not see it as such. It is still a hierarchical social order that makes most people "job takers, wage takers, and order takers".
Widerquist in his own presentation said that what people want is to not have to take orders from other people. He blamed the left for the development of neo-liberalism in the past thirty years. In the 1970s the conservatives were actually willing to consider reforms. There was a movement for a Guaranteed Income and it came close to reality. It was the left which undermined it; were more concerned with holding onto what they had already created.
Other presenters broke with "left" orthodoxy. One described Basic Income as the keystone of a new social order. Others talked about it being a super strike fund for labor. Others said it could provide the capital to start up many types of cooperatives, which are difficult to get going at present. This was not a true conference, but a "work shop" type event with speakers presenting concurrently in different rooms. It was hard to decide which ones to attend. There was so much of interest that it was a bit overwhelming; hard to absorb it all.
Evelyn Forget spoke about the Manitoba Mincome experiment of the 1970s, which showed the beneficial effects of a Basic Income, even if it was only applied for a short time. We had a few possible Basic Income plans costed out. Charles Karelis discussed his research on incentive systems, and why the incentives that work for the well off do not work for people caught in poverty.
In and around this swirled the debates within the Basic Income community. Trish Hennessey said that it is a mistake to talk about the costs of BI until it has been "sold". Other people said that the first thing "government people" ask about a BI scheme is the cost.
Some people talked about financing a BI with a flat tax on the first penny of earned income. Other people found even the phrase "earned income" offensive. The idea that somebody getting a BI set at what the welfare rate is now, then having to pay the same tax as a millionaire, was offensive. A flat tax is a common ploy of "kill the government" types to hammer down state revenues.
A NEW WORLD
Some complained that even some proponents of BI talked about poverty as if it were a moral failing rather than a shortage of money. Anyone holding such a view kept quiet at this forum. Once the idea is accepted that survival must be separated from "work", a new world opens up and was on display at the BICN conference; a wealth of new concepts and possibilities.
These presentations are to be posted on BICN's web site. This will take work, with few people to do it, therefore time. But when it is up it will be a great resource for people wanting to know how to really end poverty.
Here are the most useful links on the web right now, about a Basic Income:
Basic Income News, the new project of BIEN.
The web site of BASIC INCOME CANADA NETWORK .
The website of USBIG