Guaranteed Annual Income
|February 19, 2002||Posted by Jeffery J. Smith under Archive, Progress Report, The Progress Report|
You Deserve More Than You’ve Been Receiving
Basic Income Conference Makes Waves
by Jeffery J. Smith
The futuristic city of Amsterdam was the site of the 1998 conference of the Basic Income European Network (BIEN) September 10 – 12. From all over the world, academics and activists, government officials and business people, met in a stately building along a picturesque canal to advance the cause of an equitable distribution of income for all.
Although the idea of an unconditional supplemental income may seem beyond the horizon to many Americans, in Europe this conference was hosted by the University of Amsterdam and co-sponsored by eleven governmental bodies, including the European Commission and the Dutch Ministry of Economics. Opening night, the Mayor and Alderman of Amsterdam received the group.
About 135 of us “bienistas” gathered for three days of discussion. The public meeting (on a Saturday morning, not a week day evening as may be more usual in the US) drew another 60 locals, including more young people than typically come to an American intellectual event. While much of the discussion was a bit academic and esoteric, it is this small yet determined band of academics (to echo Margaret Mead) who are promoting a basic income and with some success.
It seems in Europe, at least, there may be less schism between cloister and court, between academics and policy-makers. Speaking at BIENs event were a Liberal (libertarian) Member of the Dutch Parliament, an Austrian Liberal Member of the Austrian Parliament, a Swedish Green Member of the European Parliament, and others highly placed in various national ministries.
The first country to adopt a basic income will probably be a smaller one with Proportional Representation on the fringe of Europe, where taxes are high and unemployment higher. The idea is discussed by the major parties in Austria and annually at national conferences on poverty.
The idea has even been adopted by four major parties in Finland including the Greens who also advocate the collection of land rent. The countrys Archbishop also supports “a basic income paid to everyone.”
However, it is in Ireland where the Greens, perhaps the most geonomic party, advocate both collecting natural rent and disbursing it as a citizens dividend. Furthermore, the government is funding two major studies of basic income and endows an organization to tour the country explaining the merits of the basic income proposal.
For a basic income to be adopted, the question of who pays needs a persuasive answer. Though the issue of the funding source was one of the three main themes of this year’s conference, the conferees did not seem to take it as seriously as the other questions such as what happens to the labor market (when marginal workers no longer need to work for wages).
Most in attendance assumed an income tax is needed to transfer income from haves to have-nots. A minority (about one third of the 37 presentations) – not an opposed minority but just a new wrinkle in the BIEN movement – noted the advantages of either making polluters pay, and/or tapping the publicly-generated values that usually attach to land and resources, while also, perhaps, untaxing earned income. The roughly one dozen presenters each provided a different slant on the tax shift / subsidy shift idea (which I am happy to provide to anyone interested).
A curious lot, the plenary did vote to locate the panel presenting the idea of shifting taxes off earnings, onto privilege, in the plenary hall (the biggest meeting room). Because taxes ignore how wealth is amassed in the first place (they just insist upon a cut later, and usually from the middle-class rather than the richest elite) and at the margin discourage employment and investment, one would have thought, naively, that our fellow “bienistas” would leap at natural rent, a funding source both equitable and sustainable. Afterwards, however, people politely noted how bucolic and old-fashioned the idea of sharing Earths worth sounded, like a venerable agrarian reform, irrelevant to modern, urban people concerned about injustice, corporations, environment, etc.
The role of rent – and our new status as tenants to the banking establishment – are too subtle, very difficult to highlight, especially to a somewhat leftist gathering. Most conferees still wanted to sidestep the question of funding and just strive to get a basic income in place, letting others (in or out of government) figure out how to fund it. For the minority, its back to the drawing board.
Some of the more prominent rent-collection advocates presenting in Amsterdam were Dr. Robert R. Schutz, author of THE $30,000 SOLUTION; Dr. Paul Metz, a lobbyist for big business who cites Henry George, the 19th century American most responsible for popularizing the rent-share idea; and Dr. Murat Borovali of the University of Manchester who cited Dr. James Robertson, a former economist for the British cabinet who focuses squarely on a citizens dividend from various rents (and who gave me the pleasure of his company while passing thru England).
Ironically, when the considerate and articulate gentleman representing the US (Michael Howard, a philosophy prof at the University of Maine) gave his report on the state of the movement in America, he cited the Greens and the citizens dividend; in the audience was the Green who coined the term and pushed the idea — that’s me. (A complete list of all the attendees is available to anyone who wants to communicate with the Basic Income Euro. Net.)
The last day of the conference, the people from North America, about 10 of us, got together to strategize for the future. We’re now in computer contact trying to draw more together to synergize an indigenous movement on par with our cohorts across the water. Here, though, we may have to tackle head on the issue of the funding source.
North American “bienistas” are as far behind Europeans as are the typical US cities behind Amsterdam, the American Experiment Perfected. Rationalized drug laws (one could smell hash in the streets), socialized medicine, bike paths and bikes nearly as numerous as cars, sylvan landscaping, preserved architecture … plus the scene is lively yet safe and clean. The people are friendly and easy to joke with in the stores (everybody is very proud of their perfect English). Three different sets of tourists asked me for directions; I must have looked as at home as I felt.
Jeffery J. Smith of Portland is president of The Geonomy Society, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Portland, Oregon.
For a lot more information about a basic income, Citizens Dividend, click here.
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