Basic income heroes: Karl Widerquist edition

Karl Widerquist, in addition to being a personal hero of mine, is co-chair of the Basic Income Earth Network, the world's leading advocacy organization for a universal basic income. An associate professor of philosophy at SFS-Qatar, Georgetown University, Karl is the author of several books, including Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income: A Theory of Freedom as the Power to Say (Palgrave Macmillan 2013). He holds two doctorates—one in Political Theory form Oxford University (2006) and one in Economics from the City University of New York (1996). He took time from his busy schedule to answer some questions about the basic income guarantee, or BIG.

As you noted on the basic income news blog, press coverage for BIG has been steadily increasing across North America recently. What was the most surprising outcome — whether good or bad — from the most recent international basic income conference in Montreal?

I guess the most surprising outcome for me was when I chairing the General Assembly meeting, and I was told we had a half hour to complete the meeting and leave the building, when I was expecting the discussion to go on for another two hours. That surprise was hardly the most significant development, but a lot was accomplished at the General Assembly meeting. Several new affiliate networks were recognized, including Unconditional Basic Income Europe, the Europe-wide activist network that grew out of last year's petition drive for Basic Income. The GA chose Korea as the site of the 2016 conference, and elected the new executive committee. I was reelected as co-chair. Louise Haagh (originally from Denmark, now living in Britain) joined me as the other co-chair. Other members are from Norway, Spain, the United States, Italy, Mexico, and Japan. The new executive committee has promised to greatly expand BInews.org and to constitute BIEN as an official non-profit organization.

There were new and interesting ideas presented in the sessions, as always. I've been going to basic income conferences since 1998, but there's always something new to learn.

But the most exciting thing about this conference was the enthusiasm. There was a feeling throughout the meeting that we were part of a movement that is growing quickly and catching on around the world. We're not as far out on the fringe as we once were. People are joining the movement, and they're enthusiastic about getting involved and helping out. A new youth movement—Basic Income Generation—was founded at the meeting. They hope to be an activist wing of BIEN and to take care of some of our social media presence.

One of the most frustrating things people tell me, when they hear that I'm in favor of a basic income, is that people just need to "adapt to the market." That might have been true in the 20th century, but "adapting to the market" is no longer a viable option for people. As Brian Merchant pointed out in a Motherboard piece back in January, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook combined account for over $1 trillion of market capitalization. Yet they only employ around 150,000 people total. He says: "That’s less than half the number of people who work for GE. And it’s roughly the number of people that enter the U.S. job market every month. In other words, it’s a farce to believe that tech giants, internet startups, and app developers will ever be able to employ the same number of people that manufacturing once did." What do you tell people when they give you the "you-just-need-to-adapt" argument?

Your question brings up two issues, technological unemployment and what to tell people who say just adapt to the market. I'll talk about technological unemployment first. This is not a new argument for BIG. Robert Theobald and others were talking about it as a justification for BIG 50 years ago. But it's being used with increasing frequency lately. Searching the internet to keep BInews.org up to date, I see new articles on the link between technological unemployment and BIG on an almost daily basis. I think this argument is catching on now because both because of the Great Recession and because of the obvious strides in computers and robotics that are coming out.

Two things about the technology issue are important. First, it's not something way off in the future. It's happening now. People think that this will be an issue some day when there simply are no more jobs. New technologies have been putting people out of work—and therefore disrupting people's lives—for centuries. Maybe the economy can reabsorb the displaced eventually, but it has never been able to reabsorb them immediately, and therefore, it disrupts their lives. It takes away their income and the career they've counted on. No one has the perfect foresight needed to see this coming. Good, hardworking people lose their careers every day because of technological change. We need the technological change. Most of it will make our lives better in the long run, and it creates the possibility to provide more for everything. Only a cold and heartless society would refuse to use some of the benefits of that new productivity to help people who are hurt by the transition. A BIG is the best way to make sure that everyone can weather whatever disruptions might come along.

Second, people recognize that labor-replacing technological change can cause unemployment, but they often fail to recognize that there is another possible outcome: low wages. Right now our economy has a great capacity to absorb labor—in low wage, service jobs. A lot of the jobs that are being outmoded are well-paying, middle class jobs. This might cause an overall increase in unemployment, but it is at least equally likely, and perhaps more likely within the next few decades, to cause more people to wind up in the low-wage end of the service sector. We've been seeing it for decades with McJobs, and now were even seeing an increase in domestic servants—butlers, maids, cleaners, and nannies are making a comeback at very low wages. A BIG can allow people in any kind of job—including the low end of the service sector—to bargain for a higher wage. If you've got a population with nowhere else to go and a strong need for any kind of job to keep them alive, you have a recipe for low wages. Give the workers an out with a BIG, and you give the workers the leverage to demand that every job is a good job, paying enough to live with dignity.

About adapting to the market, the market is changing faster and faster. We aren't all going to be the next Steve Jobs, or even the next middle class manager who manages to pick an industry that's going to be around for a while. When I hear phrases like that, I hear a privileged group of people, giving self-serving advice to people born in much less advantaged circumstances: adapt to lower wages; adapt to doing what you're told; adapt to the bottom of the hierarchy. The world is not a meritocracy. We have to make the economy serve the people—not the other way around. BIG can that do.

What's been a recent positive development that has made you more optimistic that we will have the momentum and political will to create a basic income in this country?

The biggest developments have been abroad, but movement is happening in the USA as well.

Over the last several years, there have been pilot projects and experiments in Basic Income or something very close to it in India, Namibia, Uganda, Kenya, and Brazil. The findings have been uniformly positive: people are healthier both mentally and physically, children do better in school, infant mortality decreases, and in developing countries at least, people actually work more. They do so because a cushion protecting them from the daily effects of extreme deprivation allows them to build their skills and find better jobs and more work.

In Europe there is growing activism for BIG. In the past year or so more than 100,000 Swiss citizens signed a petition for BIG. Under Swiss law, this was enough to command a referendum on BIG. This will probably take place in 2015 or 2016. A similar petition drive in the European Union (EU) gathered 285,000 signatures, not enough to command a referendum there, but the drive called great attention to the movement; it left behind national activist organizations in all 28 of the EU's member states. Local groups are forming. People are seeing BIG as a growing movement they want to be a part of.

There have not so far been similar movements in the United States. But the movement is growing, and discussion of the idea is growing. People are talking about BIG more than they have since the 1970s. Mainstream politicians are being asked their position on it. Major news publications are including stories and editorials about it.

The Occupy Movement, the 99 percent movement, and other new progressive social activist movements that have developed in response to the Great Recession have begun to make people look at poverty and inequality with a new light. People are questioning the old conventional wisdom. For decades, even most progressives believed that any policy designed to promote equality should also be consistent with "the work ethic," by which people usually meant that we have to make the poor jump through hoops and show their willingness to do the lowest paid, most degrading jobs before they could be eligible for one cent of help. Many people are now beginning to realize that policies based on that idea are not progressive. They are great for low wage employers, but they put human beings at the mercy of employers. Once we get that awful idea out of our heads, we can talk about policies that can ensure that every single human being has access to the resources they need to survive. As Bertrand Russel said nearly 100 years ago, "A certain small income, sufficient for necessities, should be secured for all, whether they work or not, and that a larger income should be given to those who are willing to engage in some work which the community recognizes as useful. On this basis we may build further."

For people interested in reading more about basic income, what are some resources you point them to?

There's so much.

See Basic Income News at BInews.org. This is a daily updated website with the latest news on BIG, in all its forms. It has links to much of the latest literature on BIG, and links to newsletters going back as far as 1986.

See USBIG's "about BIG" page at: http://www.usbig.net/whatisbig.php.

Of course, I'm going to recommend my work. Most of my academic work is online at: http://works.bepress.com/widerquist/. I also write nonacademic articles about BIG. Many of them are at: http://usbig.net/bigblog/.

Links from those places can take people to a lot of literature about all aspects of BIG.

If any of your readers have questions, they can contact me at Karl@widerquist.com. And if people want to get involved, I'm in touch with many of the organizations promoting and/or research BIG. So, contact me for that as well.

Karl Widerquist

Karl Widerquist