BIEN congress 2014 (part two)

First day; USBIG meets BICN

The best part of the BIEN congress 2014 was on the first day, before the bulk of the international people had arrived. People from North America got together and discussed how to get a social movement going for a Basic Income. Yet the organization of this did leave something to be desired, and I have some ideas as to why.

This part of it was put together by Karl Widerquist, who I have been noticing is one of these people with great energy, and a need to be the center of everything, but is not very practical. He heads the US movement, Basic Income Guarantee or BIG. The U.S. group is too slanted to libertarianism and is too focussed on abstract debates.

In the morning we split into US and Canada forums and then came together in the afternoon. The Canada discussion was lively but a bit predictible and inconclusive. The more important points were; that we need a more comprehensive language for expressing our ideas. There are some kinds of ideas/activities we should not engage in, although these were not well enumerated.

There were problematic terms such as; "Guarantee for all". Who is "all"? "Decent" is also too vague.

We need to talk about principles because a "right" cannot be defined.

As for the term "meaningful work", only work in the labor market is stated. What about other work; caregiving, etc?

We got to discussing benefit levels. We could agree that a Basic Income benefit must be above present welfare benefit levels and be paid to individuals.

We got into strategy a bit but did not have enough time. There is a fashion these days to talk about "evidence based decision making." If you show the politicians "evidence" that what you want is rational, they will do it. But it was asserted that politicians do not really like "evidence". People would like politicians to respond to evidence. In fact, politicians like stories, anecdotes, that they can sell.

Kelly Ernst wanted us to start a "New Canadian Social Movement" but we were not going to figure out how to do that in two and a half hours. Everybody is trying to build a new social movement in Canada and making little progress.

Ernst talked about the need to argue and lobby effectively for BI. Everybody needs to have the "elevator pitch" ready, as well as the "streetcar pitch" and the "lecture". To do this we need to get at the core values of BI and to avoid the "rationalist delusion". A lot of BI people are very much in a rationalist delusion; that is, if you just keep "reasoning" about something eventually there will be one right answer and everybody will agree with it. This leads to endless papers and studies and congresses, but slow progress.

Much of the Canadian discussion spilled out into the afternoon joint session, with the Americans relatively quiet.


Kelly Ernst of Calgary is part of the more "social" approach to Basic Income, and thinks more in terms of structure and strategy. He wants to get BI networks going in the top twenty Canadian cities. He wants to get funding going; people want to give us money, we have to ask for it.

I am ambivalent about funding. We need some funding in order to do anything, even carry out effective deliberations about what to do with it. But I know from experience that one of the best ways to blow apart a new advocacy organization is to give it some money before the group has been well shaken down, decided its basic principles, and developed an effective leadership.

If we get some money, then we have to prove we can use it effectively. If we screw up, we do not get any more. It will make it hard for any new BI group to get funding. I speak from experience; I have seen several anti-poverty groups get some money and then completely blow it. It was either diverted to other purposes or plain stolen.

How much should a BI be? Proposals ranged from $6000 to $24000. Ernst believes that the latter would bankrupt Canada. Somebody had the idea that a "modestly targeted" BI in Canada would be $38, 611 per person per year. I do not know how this figure was derived or what is "modest" about it.

On strategies for achieving BI, the idea of asking for a pilot project was proposed. An American piped in that, based on American experiences, a pilot can be a delaying tactic and can be set up to fail and to produce propaganda against a BI.

As usual with BI discussions, the discussion of funding it was the most contentious and brought out the more ungrounded ideas. Much of it is around an obsession with the Bank of Canada and its role in issuing money. There seems to be confusion about what the role is; some want B of C to stop issuing money. I had thought that the idea of most of these monetary cranks was that the B of C should start issuing money by making interest free loans to governments.

I do not understand where all this comes from. We do not need to borrow anything, there is no need to inflate the currency in this way. Cynthia L'Hirondelle has in the past regaled me with the idea she has picked up that as long as there is "slack" in the economy, issuing new money to fund a BI will not create inflation.

I will here briefly dispense with my response to that; first, once this "slack" is taken up in the economy, then what? Second, is there really "slack" in the economy? Just because there are more unemployed does not mean the productive potential of the economy is not being fully utilized; it means the unemployed are not needed.

There is also the aspect of limits to economic growth and even the need to reduce production and consumption for environmental reasons. But Ernst gets the basic problem when he said that a BI needs to be funded by changes in tax policies, not monetary policies. This is the basic problem with talking in monetary terms, whether you want to defend the system or overthrow it; the problems are structural, not monetary.

Somebody was very also persistent in wanting to talk about a carbon tax to fund a BI. Ernst was able to cut off further misuse of time by convincing people to move these discussions to the panels on financing the BI.

One final mighty topic was the concept of universality. This too could take up not just three hours but a whole congress. Do we give a BI to everybody? What about drug addicts? What about other "hard to reach" people? People who cannot help themselves are only put in danger by giving them money and housing.

I would agree with that point; as a long time resident of social housing, I have seen the enormous destructive effects of "deinstitutionalization" on poor neighborhoods and on the deinstitutionalized themselves. But this started something of a commotion; people were being discriminatory toward certain social classes.

The BICN chair, Sheila Regehr, was able to settle things down, increasing my estimation of her. She said that BI will not solve everything, but it will free resources to deal with the "hard to reach". Those who can look after themselves will be free to do so and will need to further support. Without a BI, says Sheila, all classes of society become victimized.

The corollary to this is that a BI cannot be absolute. This is what got Jurgen DeWispaleare's left libertarian principles in a bit of a knot. He said he does not like the "Spirit Level'" idea, that is widely adhered to now by BI advocates. This is from recent the book which presented the thesis that the economics of the rich do not work for the poor. Incentives do not work for the poor because they still leave them poor. Only incentives that get them out of the misery of poverty have any effect.

Jurg thinks the idea that some people should be protected drives a wedge into BI. He tried to talk about the "risk with dignity" idea form the U.S. This is that people still have to have the possibility of failure even under a BI, in order to have "dignity". But the trend is away from Libertarian approaches to BI, which must be hard on the founders of the modern BI movement like Jurg. And people were by then streaming out the door.