Clearly, time has come for BIG idea


Jamie Swift  Thursday, January 5, 2017 7:05:36 EST PM

Just over a year ago, Kingston city council passed a groundbreaking motion by backing the basic income guarantee (BIG). Political support, stoked by the urging of local activists, was unanimous, a sign of the broad political appeal that BIG now enjoys.

Within a few months, the Ontario government’s 2016 budget had included a provision for a pilot project to study the actual implementation of what has also been called a universal basic income and, decades ago, a guaranteed annual income.

Ontario soon commissioned a report to examine just how a basic income pilot could unfold. It hired longtime BIG supporter, the Conserative Hugh Segal, to lay out the options. Last month, the former senator was one of the speakers at a lunch event sponsored by the Community Foundation for Kingston and Area. The organizers had to add extra tables to fit in the overflow crowd. A similar crowd is expected at a government consultation here next week.

Clearly, BIG is an idea whose time has come. It’s been on the political table from Finland to India, Scotland to Namibia.

Much of the discussion of the notion that everyone — no matter what their employment status — should be entitled to a basic, livable income has focused on BIG as a tool for tackling shameful levels of poverty and inequality that persist in one of the richest places on the planet. Seems we have enough to ensure everyone gets enough.

(The total pay for Canada’s highest-paid 100 CEOs was $9.5 million in 2015. That’s 193 times more than the average working stiff who takes home $49,510. By 11:47 a.m. on Jan. 3, 2017 — the first working day this year — the average top CEO had already pocketed that $49.5K.)

But though it’s usually promoted as a way to reduce poverty, there’s much more to the basic income idea than that. It has the potential to confront a future in which automation is destroying jobs. Meanwhile, corporate employment strategies have fractured the world of work by bringing in part-time, temporary, contract and offshore work.

“There’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills,” argues Rutgers University historian James Livingstone, “unless of course you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.”

The Basic Income Charter recently developed by the Kingston Action Group for a Basic Income Guarantee (KAGBIG) argues for an unconditional, universal basic income — part of a broad social support system including affordable housing, child care, dental care and pharmacare. It offers a just and humane future — some would call it utopian — as well as way to get there.

“What’s to be done as we watch the erosion of the job market that leaves more people out in the cold?” asks retired Queen’s law professor Toni Pickard, co-founder of KAGBIG. “Robots and precarious work mean that we have to decouple livable income from jobs. Basic income is a great start down that path.”

Set too low, a basic income would be a recipe for continuing poverty. It would also offer a subsidy for low-wage employers. Set at a livable level, in addition to eliminating poverty, BIG would enable workers to reject low-wage, dead-end work. It would provide incomes for those who do socially indispensable caring work outside the paid labour market. It would significantly reduce health, education and criminal justice costs. It would make it more feasible for women to leave abusive relationships.

BIG is an idea that attracts support — and sometimes sharp critique — from across the political spectrum. The Fraser Institute on the right and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives on the left (source of those startling CEO numbers) are publishing reports on BIG.

Real change has often centred around ideas whose time has come. Ideas that are commonplace today that were once scorned as utopian: an end to slavery, votes for men without property, votes for women, universal health care.

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at,” wrote Oscar Wilde. “Progress is the realization of Utopias.”

The Ontario government will hold a consultation session on the pilot study for a basic income guarantee on Monday, Jan. 9, at the Ramada Hotel and Conference Centre, 33 Benson St., from 6:30 to 9 p.m.

Kingston writer Jamie Swift is the author of numerous books, most recently “The Vimy Trap: Or, How We learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War.” He lectures at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University and is a member of the Kingston Action Group for a Basic Income Guarantee.