Basic Income Guarantee vs. The Corporate
March 2, 2005
By David Swanson
A case can be made that the left in the United States is too eager
to compromise, that because we have no far left, our moderate left
is more easily dismissed as extreme. This contrasts with a far right
that advocates - for decades if necessary - for extremely unpopular
positions (such as eliminating Social Security), thus rendering
the right's goals (such as partially dismantling Social Security)
respectable, moderate, and middle of the road.
But what happens when people in this country begin promoting an
idea from the left that is completely off the map, that is not a
response to a White House initiative, that does not propose to damage
the country or the world a little bit less than the Republicans
want, that actually sets forth an innovative proposal?
Many people in this country have no way to answer that question,
because fundamentally what happens - in contrast to what happens
with ideas from the right - is that the corporate media blacks out
the proposal. With some proposals, such as single-payer health care,
the blackout is incomplete. The proposal is given minimal attention
and is even included in opinion surveys, such as the October 2003
ABC News/Washington Post poll, which found that 62 percent of Americans
favor single-payer health care. But the idea is carefully marginalized
by the media, and labeled politically impractical, so that most
of that 62 percent almost certainly have no
idea they sit in a majority.
With other proposals the media blackout is virtually absolute.
Consumers of the media have no reason to imagine these proposals
exist at all, much less have enough information to form a useful
opinion about them. This is the case with an idea that has garnered
considerable attention in Europe, Africa, and South America, but
virtually no mainstream media attention in the United States. That
idea? The basic income guarantee.
This basic income guarantee, or BIG as it's known to the activists
and academics who make up the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network
"is a government ensured guarantee that no one's income will fall
below the level necessary to meet their most basic needs for any
How would a basic income guarantee work? Each month, every adult
would receive a check from the government, for the exact same amount.
These checks, notes the Citizen Policies Institute, would be "large
enough to meet basic costs of food and shelter, and perhaps health
care, but not so large as to undermine incentives to work, earn,
save, and invest." The checks, likely "in the range of $400 to $800
a month," would go to everyone, working or not working, wealthy
or not wealthy.
I should note quickly that some of the chief proponents of the
basic income guarantee in the United States today would object to
my characterizing the idea as "left." They would note that supporters
of an income guarantee have historically fallen across a broad political
spectrum, from liberals like John Kenneth Galbraith to to such right
wingers as Milton Friedman. A limited BIG was actually endorsed
by President Nixon in 1970 and passed by the U.S. House, but not
Under Republican Governor Jay Hammond, the state of Alaska established
an income guarantee in 1976 that sets aside 25 percent of the state's
tax revenue from oil production. The money goes into a permanent
fund run by an appointed board of trustees. Every year, the fund
pays a portion of investment earnings to any person who has lived
in the state for at least a year. Since the first checks were mailed
in 1982, each resident has received $21,902.
Former Governor Hammond has, in recent years, promoted the Alaska
program as a model that should be applied to Iraq. Mary Landrieu
(D.-La.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have advanced the same idea.
They have proposed a fund created out of Iraqi oil revenues that
would put money directly into the hands of every Iraqi.
That idea has international support as well. Brazilian Senator
Eduardo Suplicy, the sponsor of BIG legislation in Brazil signed
into law last year, has pushed the notion extensively.
"When the Brazilian Sergio Vieira de Melo was nominated to be
the coordinator of the United Nations' actions in Iraq, in May 2003,
I contacted him, suggesting that the Alaskan model be applied for
the Iraqis," says Suplicy. "He quickly replied positively and said
that he would share the suggestion with the relevant authorities.
The following month, on June 23 in a speech in Jordan, Ambassador
Paul Bremer, the chief administrator in Iraq, said: 'Some profits
from oil sales could be distributed to Iraq's citizens as "dividends,"
along the lines of the system used by the State of Alaska.'"
So bipartisan support currently exists for the idea of a basic
income guarantee, but only apparently for Iraqis. And even that
Iraqi BIG has yet to be created. As Karl Widerquist of USBIG has
noted, in the 1970s right-wingers viewed a basic income guarantee
as a simpler and more efficient replacement for a relatively large
and complex welfare state. Now they view it as the recreation of
a safety net that they have been largely succeeded in shredding.
Thus BIG has become a proposal supported only from the left, which
means, these days, that we hardly hear about it at all.
BIG in the U.S. Media
The media in the United States, as the above discussion suggests,
has had any number of terrific "hooks" that could have triggered
articles about the idea of a basic income guarantee, hooks that
range from the war on Iraq to the passage of an income guarantee
in Brazil. USBIG has also held annual conferences featuring legislators,
academics, and activists; and other events and press conferences
about the BIG idea have abounded. Throughout this all, the media
has remained distinctly disinterested.
Earlier this month, the Institute for Public Accuracy sent a press
release to media recommending interviews with Senator Suplicy and
with Steve Shafarman, the president of Citizen Policies Institute.
A search in Google News for either of those names or for "basic
income guarantee" finds no related articles. A search in the Nexis
database for these and similar terms in the past 60 days finds nothing
related to the topic.
Searches in Nexis over the past two years find little more. I
could not find a single broadcast transcript or print editorial
or column on the topic. I found one Associated Press article from
February 2004 and one Los Angeles Times article from May
2003 on the congressional proposal for Iraq. I found extensive coverage
of political changes in Brazil and Senator Suplicy (92 articles
mentioning "Eduardo Suplicy"), but nothing from U.S. media about
his BIG legislation. The two articles on Iraq, from the AP and the
LA Times, were excellent. But neither broached the subject
of a BIG in the United States. Thus, the media's blackout of the
BIG idea as a possibility in the United States has been complete.
Or nearly so. Shafarman this month has done radio interviews on
a college station in Boston, the Pacifica station in Los Angeles,
and WHAS in Louisville KY.
Will the blackout be broken? The Fourth Congress of the U.S. Basic
Income Guarantee Network will be held in New York City March 4-6.
Details are available at http://usbig.net.
Clearly this conference will generate a rich exchange of ideas,
proposals, variations, and counter proposals. Will the media notice?
Will newspapers begin accepting op-eds on the topic? Will the independent
media push the idea until the corporate media is forced to place
it squarely on the table of our public discourse? We shall see.
What's the BIG Idea?
There are a number of reasons why progressives should promote
the idea of a basic income guarantee. For one thing, the public
should be aware that we do indeed have a bold, positive vision to
offer. BIG ought to be part of a wide-ranging progressive agenda
that includes universal free quality education from preschool through
college, single-payer health care, a living wage for all work, work
for all who want it, affordable housing, the right to form a trade
union, an environmentally sustainable economy, and the application
of these same values in our foreign affairs.
If we had a basic income guarantee in the United States, no one
would have to prove they are poor or unemployed to get a check.
The checks would go to everyone, Of course, some checks would be
wasted on awesomely affluent Americans who have absolutely no financial
worries. But awesomely affluent Americans are already getting billions
in tax breaks and giveaways from the public treasury. More importantly,
by making the BIG universal, we would eliminate the need for a huge
bureaucracy to determine who should receive it and also eliminate
the stigma that has been attached to recipients of welfare. As with
welfare, some will choose to live off the BIG and not seek employment
at all. But those who do find work will not face a reduction in
their BIG check.
That some small percentage of people, if a BIG existed, would
not work cannot possibly be considered a fatal flaw in the BIG idea,
not in a country where we already have a significant percentage
of people not working, including those unable to work, those with
no need to work and no desire to, those searching for work, those
who have given up on searching for work, those who have calculated
that they would spend more on child care than they would earn if
they took a job, those who are behind bars as a result of crimes
that tend to increase with unemployment and poverty, those working
part-time who want full-time jobs, and those working full-time or
more who would prefer to work part-time and train for other work
if they could afford to.
And surely anyone's displeasure with people receiving a basic
income without working should not outweigh their displeasure with
the current state of affairs in which 35 million Americans, including
13 million children, live in poverty, and at least half a million
Americans lack the most basic of life's necessities, a home.
Handouts based on "means testing" the poor too often create stigmas
and bureaucracies - and fail to reach many of the intended recipients.
The earned income tax credit (EITC), for instance, only goes to
those who know to apply for it. Corporate-funded opponents of living
wage standards have taken to advocating for (or pretending to advocate
for) the EITC as an alternative to a living wage, but there should
be no conflict between decent wage standards and support for those
A BIG should coexist harmoniously with a living wage law, but
may conflict with the EITC and some of the remnants of the New Deal.
One BIG proponent, Steve Shafarman, even wants to make BIG more
appealing to conservatives by arguing that, with a BIG in effect,
we could eliminate many existing social programs and maybe the progressive
income tax as well. Is this wise?
I don't think so. Progressive taxes, unlike "flat taxes," serve
the useful purpose of restraining disparities in wealth. We need
to be strengthening the progressivity in our tax system, not eroding
it further. We may even need a "maximum wage" along the lines proposed
by labor journalist Sam Pizzigati, that is, a 100 percent tax on
all income over 10 or 25 times the minimum wage. That would give
our nation's most rich and powerful a personal incentive in enhancing
the well-being of our nation's poorest workers. And the BIG, if
enacted, would make sure that all those who can't work are guaranteed
If we do not restore value to the minimum wage (and index it to
automatically keep pace with the cost of living, as we must do with
the BIG), the greatest disincentive to work will not be the BIG
but the declining wages received for working.
What Will Get BIG into the Media?
The sorts of topics that almost never make it through the filter
of the corporate media are generally those that have no serious
corporate supporter (single-payer health care), as well as those
that have major corporate supporters but no serious corporate opponents
(the incredible waste in the Pentagon budget).
So what would it take to get BIG into the media? Probably no amount
of spinning, compromising, or appealing to corporate self-interest
will do it. It's also doubtful that the Bush Administration's PR
approach - blatant lying - will help.
A basic income guarantee is not possible in the United States
without serious media reform. The corporate media holds a tight
grip on our political agenda. No one will ever be able to buy enough
commercials for a BIG to make it happen. No one will ever be able
to come with a "spin" on BIG brilliant enough to force the corporate
media to sit up and take notice.
What we need is diverse and democratic media, media worthy of
being considered a plural noun. We need to continue building the
movement for media reform through Congress and the FCC. We need
to restore some sort of fairness doctrine. We need to strengthen
limits on media ownership. We need, ultimately, to divorce content
providers from the controllers of the media pipelines. We need to
invest in truly public media outlets, to support community-funded
outlets. And we need to make it much easier for new media outlets
to get started.
But, more importantly, we need to create our own media. Central
to this - because the labor movement has the resources - must be
the restoration in this country of significant labor media. A proposal
for the development of labor media into a force to be reckoned with
can be found on the website of the International Labor Communications
Association at http://ILCAonline.org.
All this, of course, amounts to an incredibly ambitious agenda.
Where do we start? How about working to create an alliance between
the living wage movement, the media reform movement, and unions
open to organizing at newspapers? Imagine if we were to target large
chains of small local newspapers paying poverty wages and producing
fourth-rate reporting. Imagine if we built a community movement
for a living wage for reporters. We could focus on the link between
low wages for reporters and poor-quality reporting on the issues
that community organizations care about.
Imagine if then we used the strength of the coalitions we've built
to advance our political agenda around issues like BIG. Improved
local newspapers, I suspect, would be far better read than our current
major media outlets, such as the ones in New York that will probably
not notice the USBIG conference this coming weekend.
David Swanson is media coordinator for the International Labor