BIEN congress 2014 (part one)

July 20, 2014

a trip to Montreal

Well, it looks like everybody from Canada who was at the BIEN 2014 conference in Montreal has recovered enough to begin writing about it. It is time I left off some other stuff I have had to work on and start focussing on matters arising from the congress. First of all, to write up my personal notes about it.

Some people might find some of what I write to offend their sense of themselves. If so, move on because I am not responsible for your sensibilities. These are my own impressions and opinions of what I saw while there. Other people will post their views. I think most of the proceedings were videoed and will eventually be available on line. So will most of the papers presented.

It was quite a trip. I am something of a homebody, I do not enjoy travel. I hadn't slept in a non Toronto bed since I went to the (Basic Income Canada Network) BICN conference in Ottawa in 2009. I was worried about having to walk a long ways to reach the conference site. But no, there was space in the MacGill university dormitories, only three blocks away from the congress site at the law school on the MacGill campus.

One hitch; the MacGill campus is built up the side of the mountain that is at the heart of Montreal. So I had quite a hike each morning up Rue MacTavish. Jurgen invited people to hike the rest of the way to the top of the mountain and take in the view of Montreal. Not many people took him up.

Instead I did my recreational walking on level ground. It is easier on my heel spurs. I liked the area around my residence; very bohemian and studenty. The only thing close to it in Toronto would be The Annex, but this was less gentrified.

I was amazed at the number of homeless people, and how desperate they looked. We have them in Toronto, but there they are everywhere. Quebec is supposed to be more socially progressive? However, the streets are better maintained than in Toronto.

I asked the guy at the Subway sub sandwich shop around the corner from my residence. He was concerned that the government was not looking after these people and dismayed when I told him there were fewer per block than in Toronto. I also explained a bit about Basic Income to him and left him a leaflet. He said he thought that would be a good idea, but with a tone that said he really thought the idea was too "utopian" and anyway beyond the understanding of working stiffs like him.

Good old Subways. I did not have to worry about what to eat in Montreal. There is a Subways across the street from my apartment in Toronto and I often grab their wares if I have to do something in the morning and do not have time to cook. One near my residence and one across the street from the conference site. Probably one at the north pole. But they are much better eating than most fast food.

at the Congress

But anyway... the congress. The start of this was at the Toronto "BIEN Canada" event in 2012, when we got together afterwards and relaunched ourselves, and decided to call ourselves Basic Income Canada Network. We also got persuaded that hosting BIEN's 2014 congress would be a good way to develop our organization.

I did some work on the organizing committee, setting parameters by conference call. I worked the phones trying to drum up funding, attendees, and presenters, and to get media there. I was not really needed at the congress, but I spent a shift at the registration desk, helping latecomers hook up to wifi before they went into internet withdrawal, explaining the conference agenda, and showing them where the washrooms were.

BIEN was originally Basic Income European Network, then became Earth Network when the US and Brazil joined and they did not want to change the logo. It was started in Belgium in 1986 by some university professors of ethics. They have been holding these congresses every second year since then, going as far afield as Brazil and South Africa.

By now they have generated enough academic papers on the ethics of capitalism and the Basic Income to choke an elephant. Some people suggest that the BI movement needs to move away from academics to activists. That seems to be slowly happening.

I think that is why this conference was not as stimulating as the one in 2012. In Toronto we got a lot of activist type people from across Canada, and some from abroad, together to talk about what they were doing. This one was mostly academics and, I think, wannabe academics peddling their papers.

I am disappointed that some of the Canadian people who had been at the Toronto event were not there to talk to some of these international types. Worse, we could not even invite them to this event because somebody managed to lose the contact list for them. Kizzy Paris took the lead in organizing that one, but she wants to focus on her new baby now. I hope this time somebody keeps that information.

There was not as much tweeting going on as at the Toronto conference. This was alright because I was unable to do as much tweeting. I forgot an important part of my cell phone charger. I had the part that goes in the phone but forgot the part that goes in the wall. I was able to bum one of these "cubes" from a woman who happened to have hers with her, but I could not find her again. Mostly I just tweeted in the residences computer room when I got back there.

A problem with this format of event is that you often have to miss one session you wanted in order to attend the other. I focussed on sessions which dealt with the political problems of building such a movement for a Basic Income. But many of these people were terrible speakers, often just read their papers.

I can not really understand the mentality of some of these "academic' people. I talked to one of them in the hallway, who I thought had some interesting ideas but was a poor speaker. I could not get her to send me a copy; she was very proprietary about it. I also got the impression she was not going to post it on the BIEN congress archive, either.

She has no academic position, calls herself an "independent researcher". She came at her own expense. It reminded me of a professor I had at University of Toronto. He had a couple of terrific essays which really opened up the field of cognitive science but threatened to go after any student who used it outside the class, for copyright violation. l wonder why someone bothers to research and write something if they do not want anyone to read it?

Some of the most interesting discussions were out in the hallways and common areas.

Meeting People

Scottish lady

One of the most interesting people was the Scottish lady I met when we both checked into the rez at the same time. She was a big Scottish nationalist. Scots need to pass the referendum on Independence because they are a more progressive people and need to be free of the Thatcherism and austerity crap going on in the UK. An independent Scotland might be the first country in Europe to start a BI.

We got into interesting permutations of the separatist issue, like what if the Gaelic speakers in the highlands want autonomy from the rest of Scotland. Or, if the Innu and Inuit of the far north of Quebec do not want to be in an independent Quebec. My advice to Scottish nationalists is that if the referendum fails, forget about it for twenty years. I recalled how Parizeau's "lobsters in the pot" remarks damaged the separatist cause.

UBIE lady

I met an American woman who lived in England, who heard I was from Toronto and asked how the "Toronto dollars" thing was going. She was interested in alternative currencies. I told her the project was pretty much defunct. I never understood the point of it anyway, because you can't really buy anything with the Toronto dollar, except at a few shops around St. Lawrence market.

We got into monetary ideas. I think there are more crank ideas about national currencies and finance than anything else. I told her of the "Georgist" I encountered there who tried to give me the pitch for the "single tax" and was very hard to get rid of. She agreed; she had these people infiltrating the group she worked with, starting flame wars on the net, and so on.

We agreed that most problems with national finances could be solved by returning the power to issue money to governments and away from banks, and to insure progressive taxation. It does not need to be more complicated than that. Most of these crank monetary and taxation schemes would destroy the fiscal capacity of governemtns, which is no doubt the real attraction for their promoters.

Later I discovered that this woman was the chair person of this new European BI coalition which was trying to pull itself together. This produced some debate at the BIEN business session on the last day; I will get into that later.

Enno Schmidt

I also talked with Enno Schmidt, who organized the Swiss referendum, after he stole my chair when I went to the washroom. He acknowledged that the referendum was not going to win, but the idea was to get the public thinking about it. I agreed with that strategy; the idea of voting reform in Canada took off after the failed referenda on the subject.

I talked with him a bit about the difficulty of organizing mass movements and influencing governments in Canada. The political system is very archaic because there is no mechanism for constitutional reform. Especially, no system for referenda by public initiative as in Switzerland. The population of Canada is spread out in pockets over a vast area. This makes the people very locally oriented, uninterested in national issues. I think he found my insights interesting.

Phillippe Van Parij

Phillippe Van Parij did not seem to find me very interesting. I caught him at the reception and talked him up about how I did a university paper in which I extensively cited his book. My thesis was that a Basic Income cannot be defended in classical liberal terms. It is a post modern issue which must be discussed in post modern terms out of Lyotard and Bataille. You know, like western society has reached a dead end in socio-political philosophy and needs to work backward and see how it got there. Maybe the problem is not of scarcity but disposing of surplus energy flows...

I had him backed up to the nibblies bar but he grabbed a thingie on a toothpick and escaped. Oh, dear; maybe I forgot to change my underwear. But I am sure he is tired of discussing his theme; I think the Basic Income movement has largely moved on from it. I guess these old Belgians stick around because it is their baby, even if it has outgrown them.

Sharon Murphy

I finally met several people I have been corresponding with for a long time. Sharon Murphy looks as stunted and withered as she sounded on all the conference calls, but has a surprising energy. She said that back in Nova Scotia people call her the energizer bunny. Keep going and going, Sharon.

Cynthia L'Hirondelle

I met Cynthia L'Hirondelle. She maintains the best website on the net on the topic of Guaranteed Liveable Income. She is also a big twitterer about Basic Income issues. She says she does that because she is too old to go out and do demonstrations.

But she convinced me to start up a twitter account. I was dubious at first, but now I am also a twitterer. I think I was a decisive factor in her being able to get there at all. At first she did not want to when she could not raise the money. They had wanted her to make a presentation.. But ways were found to enable her to come.

I liked her presentation, about how she eventually convinced her highly self reliant father of the virtues of a Basic Income. It was not part of the regular program; it was to late to reinsert it to the program. We got it announced and some people heard it in one of the side rooms. She should polish it up and present it in some more venues.

On the last day of the conference, she asked me what the session I had just attended was about. I realized I did not know. Many of these modules were repetitive and unfocussed, like a stream of muck out of which you pick the golden nuggets. But after a few days, my brain was tired and had pretty much stopped processing it.

Cynthia and I talked about the attitudes of some of the presenters, who often seemed to exaggerate the difficulties of achieving a Basic Income. For some of them, it is like a philosophical football they kick around but do not really believe in. Some seem very elitist and oppose any strategy of a mass movement, as that might lead to the wrong kind of Basic Income.

Cynthia said that she would much rather talk to people who oppose BI that those who just say it can never be done. They are like a big black hole and; flush! She made a flushing movement.

In the next part of this, I will discuss the golden nuggets I was able to pick out of the muck.