A minimum basic income?

A discussion at Penny U

7:00 pm, Friday, December 4, 2015
Town Hall Seattle, downstairs cafe

Late last year (11/30/14), a video was posted on Penny U’s blog telling of a Swiss proposal to guarantee every citizen a minimum yearly income, regardless of other wealth or employment. A similar idea came up again at the end of Robert Reich’s talk at Town Hall earlier this fall. A short piece posted here earlier, “Guaranteed Income and Unrigging the System,” highlighted this aspect of Reich’s talk.

Reich proposes it as a way to counteract the widening gap between those with extreme wealth and power and those without, a condition that threatens, he says, not only our economy but our democracy. He suggests that this minimum might be funded through a “citizen’s bequest,” that would, in his words, “distribute the gains from technological advances in such a way that nearly everyone would have the means to benefit from them.”

Variations on this idea are not new. In the final chapters of his book, Reich mentions both Thomas Paine in Agrarian Justice, 1797 and conservative economist F.A. Hayek in 1979 as precedents. The last question posed to Reich at Town Hall quoted Martin Luther King, who, in the last years of his life, advocated for a guaranteed income as the solution to poverty. But the debate is far from settled.

We will discuss aspects of this debate at Penny U beginning with these questions:

  • Assuming that rules could be changed and funding found, is a guaranteed minimum income even a good idea?

It would support the leisure and “freedom from pressing economic cares,” that economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1928 that we would achieve by 2028. It could provide a decent living for the workers with a “calling” who are now unpaid, mentioned in my essay, “Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value.” It could allow today’s overworked workers to live fuller lives. But would people use their time well or are we inherently lazy, with tendencies toward free-loading?

  • If it’s a good idea, how would such a mechanism be put in place?

Reich contends that, first, the existing system would have to be unrigged, and, to do that, a knowledgeable “countervailing power” would have to emerge among the “vast majority.” Is that possible? What would it look like? Is it beginning to exist already? How would it gain momentum?

  • If it’s a good idea and the rules could be changed, how would it be funded?

Robert Reich proposes a citizen’s bequest. Jaron Lanier has proposed that big companies using your data – Amazon, Google, Facebook, etc. – should pay a tiny royalty whenever they use it; it’s valuable data, it’s yours, and the small amounts would add up. We could learn from Alaska’s experiment with the oil dividend that it gives all its citizens. And others propose that funds for this purpose could be freed up by eliminating our whole welfare system. Which of these idea are most useful or likely? What other good ideas are out there?

On Friday, after short opening introductions and a little background, we’ll break into small groups around cafe tables for individual conversations that will allow everyone to participate.

If you’re in the area, please join us!

(And, if you can come, you can RSVP here.)

9099 Logo-red_D, nick squared


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