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.)


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A basic income and unrigging the system, Robert Reich, fall 2015

Robert Reich at Town Hall Seattle, October 2015

RR portrait

The very last questioner in the Q & A following Robert Reich’s talk at Town Hall Seattle this past October, challenged him with the words of Martin Luther King in a 1966 Leadership retreat, which were essentially these: “There is something wrong with capitalism. It is time for America to move toward a democratic socialism. I believe in the right of a guaranteed minimum income.”

The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.*
– Martin Luther King

In response, Reich handed the questioner a copy of his book, Saving Capitalism for the Many, Not the Few. Then he said, “The last two chapters in that book make the case for a universal basic income.” While he argued that “isms” are not helpful, he went on to say, “We need to ask the fundamental question, which is: Is this system working for all of us, giving us all a fair shot? Or is the system biased in some very important structural ways. And if it’s biased, how exactly do we unrig that system?”

Reich believes our current system is rigged. Earlier, in his more formal talk, Reich maintained that to “unrig” it, the system’s rules must change. “You can’t have a market without government,” he said, because the market needs rules. It needs rules around property, contracts, monopoly, bankruptcy, enforcement, and more. The market can’t function without these mechanisms. The rules change over time, and, right now, the rules are being changed to serve the few not the many. The changes are a major cause of inequality and of the declining income of the poor and middle-class. “Wide-spread prosperity isn’t just a moral good, it’s an economic good as well.” The low and middle-classes don’t have enough purchasing power to generate a healthy economy. And he added, “Wall Street isn’t the job generator; the middle class is.”

Other forces have picked up steam over the past 35 years and also work against a system for the many. Reich outlined some of them briefly at Town Hall and discusses them in his new book, Saving Capitalism for the Many, Not the Few: globalism and the outsourcing of labor that accompanies it for one, and labor-replacing technologies for another. But both his talk and his book focus on the increasing failure of the rules, on what in the rules needs to change, and on how the changes could be made.

The vast majority must regain influence over how the market is organized.    – Robert Reich

Over the same 35 years, large corporations and banks, along with wealthy individuals, have been able to get changes in the rules to benefit themselves. And this feeds on itself, he added. “As income and wealth have concentrated at the top, political power has moved there as well.” We need to “lift the curtain” on how the rules of the “free market” are being set and learn how government rules are allowing money to flow upward, from the bottom to the top. One of Reich’s reasons for optimism today is a belief that “if the smaller players understood this dynamic,” they could ally themselves and form a new countervailing power. “The vast majority must regain influence over how the market is organized.”

In addition to understanding how the rules are being changed, the vast majority comprising this countervailing force will need some good new ideas. His book describes a range ideas for policies that need to change, including reform of our campaign finance system to get money out of politics, ways corporations could be reinvented, and possible additions and revisions to the tax code. And he proposes what he calls a “citizen’s bequest,” a way to “redistribute the profits from [new and] marvelous labor-saving inventions so we’ll have the money to buy the free time they provide,” to quote from his blog post on Labor Day this year, “Labor Day 2028.” That is, as he envisions it, this citizen’s bequest could be a way to fund the provision of a basic minimum income.

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In the end, his final questioner at Town Hall gave Reich what he’d hoped for, “an opportunity to summarize with great exhortation.” He closed with this:

We believe in a system that works for all of us. We don’t believe in an aristocracy. We don’t believe there should be people called ‘the working poor,’ who are working full time and are still poor. We don’t believe there should be non-working rich. We don’t believe in pure equality – that’s silly – but we believe in a system where everyone has a chance, a real chance, to make it, and everyone moves upward as the economy improves. We believe there is a moral core to this system, whatever you want to call it.

And then he read the final paragraph in his book:

The vast majority of the nation’s citizens do have the power to alter the rules of the market to meet their needs. But to exercise that power, they must understand what is happening and where their interests lie, and they must join together. We have done so before. If history is any guide and common sense has any sway, we will do so again.

_______________________

*    Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1967).

You can watch the video of Robert Reich’s talk at Town Hall here.


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Unpaid, in spite of their value


What worries you most, and/or excites you most, about the future of work and workers?  Put another way: What will be the most consequential changes in the world of work and workers, and what anxieties and possibilities will they produce?

I was invited to respond to this question with a short essay for a column, “The Future of Work and Workers,” in Pacific Standard, a print and online magazine with a U.S. western perspective and a national readership. The Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford asked the same question of business and union leaders, social scientists, technology thinkers, activists, and journalists from around the world. The columns were published every weekday from early August through November, 2015.1  My essay,  “Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value,” appeared on November 3, 2015. An updated and slightly revised version of it follows here.  — Anne Focke, February 7, 2020


Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value

“I sit as artists have sat for centuries, laboring unpaid. Yet I am sure this is work. I am sure it is productive, and I hope it will be of value.” Marilyn Waring wrote this in the first paragraph of her 1989 book, If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics. The contributors to this column could have written it now, in 2015.

I’m sure all of the contributors labored over their essays, and I’m certain the columns are of value. They raise questions that matter, offer a wide range of perspectives, identify problems, and suggest directions we might take to find answers, maybe even inspiring us to action. Yet payment was not part of the bargain.

The work of writers and journalists and poets is an essential public good and a fundamental part of civil society. In most cases we work for something more than a financial return. You might say it’s a “calling,” or a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action, one we likely consider a moral good.

When Marilyn Waring wrote her book, I was an artist and moved primarily in artists’ worlds. Observing us as a group, I wondered why we didn’t seem to fit into the economy, despite hard and persistent work and the value the art gave to so many. The artists around me made a distinction between the “jobs” that paid their bills and the “work” they felt compelled to do. Although some artists find a niche for their work that pays well, the percentage of income that most artists earn from their art work – that is, not from their jobs of teaching, waitressing, data entry, or bus driving – is nominal.

The distinction between jobs and work serves me still. Although I first saw this scenario among artists, many people do work that’s valuable to others but that goes unpaid or is paid poorly. It’s valuable work, but it’s a terrible job. Work that strengthens the common good – caring for the young and the old, teaching and sharing knowledge, making songs and poems, improving the environment, or engaging civically in our democracy – seems to fall low on the pay scale or outside it altogether. And the increasing inequality of our economic system is making this worse. I’m reminded of another column in this series in which Lydia DePillis asks: “Why should a fast-food cook or a home health aide make less than a machine operator anyway?” To which I’d add, is the work somehow inherently less valuable?

Many of us who work in public service or for the common good care about our work. We often actually like working, especially when it matters in the lives of others. The problem is it’s hard to make a living this way.

Can this ever change? Can we who labor for the common good can find common cause? Can we activate a collective will to be part of finding and fighting for solutions that would let us and others dedicate ourselves to work with purpose and meaning, while also making a decent living – with health care, time off, and savings for when we can’t work?

To find common ground we need starting points. The words and music, images and stories of poets and song writers, visual artists and theater workers can inspire us. Our common ground can draw on knowledge gained in many different lines of work to spark ideas and help put words to what we’ve experienced.

We won’t find common cause in the workplace where workers have found it in the past. The fact is, many of us work in what has been called the “gig economy.” All of us are scattered across distances as independent contractors, freelancers, temporary or part-time workers, and volunteers. How will we find common cause when we don’t have a shared workplace in the conventional sense? Where can we gather and talk, share our anger and frustration as well as our creativity and new ideas? What spaces serve as today’s office water cooler?

As I look around me, I see gatherings already happening in many different kinds of spaces. I hear of more conversations and salons, roundtables and house meetings now than I have in decades. For the most part they don’t emerge from specific workplaces, and they tend to be, like our work, dispersed and unconnected. Some have names, like Soup Salon, Geeks Who Drink, Civic Cocktails, Poetry Potluck, the World Dance Party, Pecha Kucha, Think and Drink, and many more just in my town, Seattle. Others are unnamed and take place in small shared work spaces that we make ourselves in coffee shops, in artists’ shared studios, or in co-working spaces. And yet more take place after work in parking lots and bars and at meetings in living rooms or on weekends in churches and at our kids’ soccer games.

Speaking in Seattle in 2014 about the future of work, Andy Stern – former president of the Service Employees International Union – stressed the importance of aligning our economy with work that’s valuable and needed in society. As one idea, he suggested we find a way to provide a baseline income to people who do this valuable work.2  His closing message was, “We just don’t have a great set of new ideas!” What we need now, he stressed, “is a whole group of people who will come up with a whole new set of ideas for how to do this.”

So where will the ideas come from?

As artists have learned through time, we will just have to do it ourselves, that is, all of us, laboring purposefully and often unpaid. If we come together in many configurations, across different industries and interests, asking questions, arguing, sharing what we know, being inspired to learn more and if we then begin to connect and share with other groups doing the same, we just may find not only the great new ideas but also a revitalized sense of the common good.


Notes

  1. Pacific Standard has archived many these columns on its website here, and I highly recommend reading others as well.
  2. In 2016 Andy Stern published a book on this idea titled, Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream.


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An eighth layer

 

Eighth layer main graphic blog
Shortly after I left one of my few “real” jobs, I was invited to be a kind of case study. Yikes! I thought. How do I prepare for that?

It was 2009. Renny Pritikin, museum curator and poet, had asked me to speak to a class in curatorial practice that he teaches at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco…no preparation necessary. He would just ask me questions – poking and prodding. He wanted to get students thinking about the real-life ramifications of their job choice. He wanted them to see another way to live a life in the arts. I would be an example, he wrote, of “someone with the courage to reinvent yourself, to make jobs for yourself rather than passively wait for someone else to hire you for their job.”

It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d reflected on the life I’ve made up for myself, but doing so in the context of a class more clearly raised questions I continue to ask, in evolving variations. What do I have to share and how can I share it? What does it mean to have gotten a living without having a job, and how do I live with some of the consequences? How are lives sustained when devoted to work that is not supported by market or government? Does my arts life affect my work, even when it doesn’t look like art? What are the practical implications of a life in the commons? What does it mean to be 70 and still kicking? How’s the best way to spend these “extra” years, years most people didn’t have 100 years ago and many don’t have now?

In a speech at a dinner celebrating his 70th birthday, Mark Twain spoke of standing unafraid and unabashed on his “seven-terraced summit.” I see it a little differently. It’s not just that I hope not to have reached the summit quite yet. I see my past as a seven-layered substructure that gives me something a little more solid to stand on than I had when I was twenty, a platform for building connections, having conversations, provoking questions, thinking deeply – a foundation for writing, learning, living, loving, and figuring out what to do with all my questions.

While I like thinking of myself as an aging commoner… deep down I aspire to cause a bit of a ruckus, to be une ancienne terrible. I take to heart my own words excerpted from a piece done for the Frye Art Museum in 2013:

Let’s raise up a music of sighs, the pale dew, the veils,
the things that are hard to see, invisible and elusive.
We’ll move in between, connecting as switches acting on genes.
We’ll make shared spaces, soup pots and cauldrons, chambers and rooms.

Get up, get up!
Let’s get going.

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What’s happening to work?

Work, sign 2
How are the concepts of jobs and work changing or being redefined? What kinds of work does our current economic system support and not support?

Over the decades I’ve often wondered why so much important work isn’t supported, or isn’t supported well, by the economic and political world we live in, like making art or poetry, caring for children and aging adults, protecting the environment, or pulling people together to talk, work, solve problems, or celebrate together. My curiosity probably began when I realized that much of my work seemed to fall outside the mainstream economy. Also I’ve lived among artists and have come to believe they’re among the most resourceful people around in the way they put their economic lives together. But they’re certainly not alone. Since last fall, I’ve collaborated with Edward Wolcher and Town Hall Seattle on a conversation series about the changing nature of work, jumpstarted by ideas from speakers on Town Hall’s stages. The conversations have involved people whose work falls in many worlds.

My own inquiry and curiosity about it continue. There’s so much about work to be said, learned, discussed, and debated – about how it’s changing, what its future will be, how our assumptions may have to change, and what we can do.

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Trying to do everything looks a bit like this . . .


 

Collapsible force crop 1

Trying to do everything often feels like this – all over the place, heading in many directions, and all at the same time right now!  It’s work for pay underway, little projects waiting their turn, new ideas to explore, archives to look through and learn from, conversations that matter, things half done so far, and almost all with other people. It can be hard to find the center.

Sometimes I get pulled one way . . .

Collapsible force crop 2

and sometimes I pull off in another.

Collapsible force crop 3

And sometimes I settle into just one and let the rest wait.

sinking into one thing 1

Most of the time, I love the ride.

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