The 16th Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) Congress was held at Sogang University, Seoul, from July 7-9 as part of Korean Basic Income Week.
The Congress brought together hundreds of basic income (BI) scholars and activists from around the world at a time when BI is attracting considerable public and media attention.
After the June 5 Swiss referendum in which 23% of voters supported the introduction of a generous basic income, the Congress provided a great opportunity to assess the prospects of implementing BI in various national and local settings.
BIEN2016 comprised an academic conference, a gathering of basic income activists, and BIEN’s General Assembly.
Scholars from across the social sciences and humanities presented over a hundred papers covering all aspects of the BI debate. I gave a paper on feminist arguments for basic income as part of my doctoral research.
Plenary speakers included Japanese economist Toru Yamamori, former research director at India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association Sarath Davala, Spanish sociologist David Casassas and Die Linke co-chair Katja Kipping.
The Belgian philosopher Philippe Van Parijs, a founder of BIEN, was another plenary speaker. His 1995 book Real Freedom for All: What (if anything) can justify capitalism? is a key text in basic income studies.
In his talk, Van Parijs argued that BI could meet the pressing need for a ‘structural solution for unemployment that does not rely on sustained growth’, while also forming part of a new ‘mobilising utopia’.
He struck a cautionary note regarding the mooted Dutch and Finnish BI trials that have garnered recent media attention.
Van Parijs argued that short-term trials could not be expected to transform labour markets in the same way as a permanent BI. He added that these trials are difficult to conduct and the results can be framed in very different ways.
We saw a striking illustration of this last point in relation to the negative income tax experiments carried out in the US and Canada in the 1970s.
The trials at four US sites and in the Canadian province of Manitoba included nearly 9,000 participants and sought to emulate the experimental research methods of the physical sciences.
Analysis of the US results showed a very modest reduction in work effort, among other largely positive effects. However, one finding seemed to show a sharp increase in divorce rates for African American trial participants.
This result caused some strong advocates of the policy, including Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to withdraw their support. The divorce rate finding was later shown (in 1990) to be a statistical error but the political damage at the time was severe.
The results of the Manitoba ‘mincome’ trials were simply archived without analysis after the project was cancelled in 1978 due to a loss of political support.
In relation to the current proposals, the national Finnish trial has been delayed until early 2018 and it remains to be seen which of the municipal-level Dutch trials will actually go ahead.
At BIEN2016, the conference closed with a stirring rendition of Blowin’ in the Wind led by former Brazilian Senator, and veteran basic income advocate, Eduardo Supplicy.
We then moved on to the General Assembly, which, among its items of business, passed a motion that clarified the definition of BI. The motion read:
Basic Income has the five following characteristics:
- Periodic: it is paid at regular intervals (for example every month), not as a one-off grant
- Cash payment: it is paid in an appropriate medium of exchange, allowing those who receive it to decide what they spend it on. It is not, therefore, paid either in kind (such as food or services) or in vouchers dedicated to a specific use.
- Individual: it is paid on an individual basis—and not, for instance, to households
- Universal: it is paid to all, without means test
- Unconditional: it is paid without a requirement to work or to demonstrate willingness-to-work.
This is significant as it explicitly rejects the neoliberal policies (vouchers, food stamps) and the paternalism (workfare) advocated by some right-wing libertarian supporters of forms of BI.
Finally, I’d like to think the many Korean organisers and sponsors, including dozens of young volunteers, who made BIEN2016 such a pleasure to attend.
I hope the same energy and enthusiasm will be on display at BIEN2017 in Lisbon next June and at BIEN2018 in Finland the following year.