In her concluding keynote for Staging Sustainability 2014, Adrienne Goehler exhorted conference attendees to support a “basic income grant” as a universal right. She put it succinctly: the current system forces overproduction in all realms, even art. The current system of grants for artists, inadequate in so many other ways, operates almost exclusively on a project basis, forcing artists who seek support to think in terms of novelty and output rather than allowing adequate time for work to evolve and emerge organically. As Adrienne said, sustainability needs deceleration. All of us need the leisure to rest, ruminate, imagine ways to throw off the chain of overproduction and overconsumption and rediscover a way of living in balance with each other and the life this planet supports.

“Guaranteed annual income,” “basic income grant,” and “guaranteed minimum income” (or six other ways of saying the same thing) describes a stipend available without a means test or other conditions to any and every person. There’s an international coalition – Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), which holds its 15th annual congress in Montreal this summer – organized around three simple principles defining a basic income:

it is being paid to individuals rather than households;
it is paid irrespective of any income from other sources;
it is paid without requiring the performance of any work or the willingness to accept a job if offered.

The phrase “basic income grant” struck me with a powerful resonance – two, in fact. First, since the problem with so much arts advocacy is that it is perceived as special pleading by a class of citizens for their own support – a hot potato – a basic income grant would help to cool things down. When everyone has the same entitlement, the whole conversation changes. We have a glimmer of this in the use that performing arts groups sometimes make of unemployment insurance, with companies paying in during the season when artists and other workers are employed in mounting plays and concerts, and members of the company collecting unemployment to tide them over during the off-season. I’ve heard it said more than once that unemployment benefits are the largest single source of subsidy for U.S. performing arts. I haven’t done the math to verify that, but the basic point stands regardless.

Second, it reminded me of Richard Nixon. Did you know that 45 years ago, Nixon sensibly proposed a guaranteed annual income as an efficient substitute for all means-tested welfare programs? In 1969, Nixon floated the Family Assistance Plan, a favorite idea of his advisor (and later a New York Democratic Senator) Daniel P. Moynihan. This was intended for families with children, not individuals, but all families would be equally eligible. The proposal actually got through the House Ways and Means Committe, but no further. The dollar amount was low, triggering some objections. But mostly, it was the same attitude likely to arise in opposition to the basic income grant today: a punishing distate for the notion that people would be able to live without working for wages.

The logic of this escapes me utterly: after all, the fatest cats of every society live off interest and dividends and the generous tax breaks that protect their privileges, which is to say the work of others. Read my recent blog about Oxfam’s report on the polarization of wealth, and explain why that doesn’t excite the same distaste. But then, it really has nothing to do with logic, does it? The deeply puritanical idea that the poor deserve their poverty and ought to be punished for it permeates and pollutes all of our welfare systems. It shames all of us that we allow this.

Nixon is no hero of mine, but it does say something about the rightward distance the Republican Party has traveled to try and imagine one of today’s spokespersons proposing such a thing without being willing to sacrifice his or her political future.

You’ll see at the BIEN site many proposals for different ways of guaranteeing a basic income, and many discussions of the proposals’ implications. The figure I’ve heard bandied around the most is 1500 Euros a month, which is a bit more than $2000, or about $24,000 per year. This is about half the mean income in both Germany and the U.S. and about twice the amount our federal government has set the poverty guideline for an individual. Out here in the Bay Area, I’d find it hard to make ends meet on that income, but because I would be able to supplement it with taxable earnings, it would provide the cushion that I wish for along with zillions of other creative workers: I could write my next book in between speaking gigs; I could pause for an extended think a few times a year without feeling I was stealing the time from basic livelihood; I could rest and restore myself for the work I’m eager to take on next. What would you do?

The federal government spent over $4 trillion on means-tested programs and tax credits last year (this doesn’t count the cost of administering them, of course). If about a third of US residents (100 million) accepted the basic income grant, that would amount to about $2.4 trillion (plus a much, much smaller administrative cost). In offering these numbers, I’m simplifying greatly, but the fundamental point is simple: shouldn’t we give serious consideration to an alternative to our current welfare scandal that would support necessary deceleration and free many people to give significant energy to the social and personal creativity we now need for a resilient future?

My husband has been into listening to the Rolling Stones lately, and I’ve been enjoying them too. What could be more apt than “Salt of The Earth”?


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