London debate highlights basic income arguments

An “Oxford-style” debate on basic income, attended by “hundreds of interested and engaged citizens,” was held April 18th at the Central Library in London (Ontario). (Watch the event: https://www.londonpubliclibrary.ca/story/2016/04/25/basic-income-guarantee-debate-video.) The debate highlighted some arguments against basic income that advocates must effectively counter: that basic income would link to the erosion of the “welfare state” and thus lead to a perpetuation and worsening of poverty; and that basic income would be cost-prohibitive and could not be afforded alongside other key investments in social security and social development. 

Speaking in favour of basic income were Jim Mulvale, PhD, Dean of the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Manitoba and Vice Chairperson of Basic Income Canada Network, and Chandra Pasma, “an Ottawa-based policy analyst specializing in issues of income security, poverty, social policy, and gender and politics.” (Mulvale and Pasma, two of Canada’s most knowledgeable basic income advocates, are authors of the introductory paper, Income Security for All Canadians: Understanding Guaranteed Income, published in 2009.) Speaking against basic income were Mike Moffatt, Assistant Professor in the Business, Economics and Public Policy group at the Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, and Margot Young, Professor in the Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia. (Young and Mulvale are also co-authors of the 2009 paper, Possibilities and Prospects: The Debate Over a Guaranteed Income, in which their agreements and disagreements at that time were presented.)

The debate comprised opening and closing remarks by each participant, sandwiching a period of exchange around a half dozen questions posed by moderator James Shelley. Speaking first, Mulvale noted five reasons in favour of basic income (poverty reduction; social equality; enhanced freedom; recognizing and supporting all forms of work; and building a more ecologically sustainable society). Young countered by saying that “basic income is a band-aid solution,” that it would “amount to guaranteed poverty,” and that a better alternative is a “Nordic model of social welfare.” Pasma retorted that basic income advocates support more than just basic income for addressing poverty but that, nonetheless, “poverty’s defining feature is lack of income.” (As Mulvale said, “basic income is one spoke in the social policy wheel.”) Like Young, Moffatt expressed concern that basic income would increase, not decrease poverty, and that using the tax system to distribute basic income would result in its uptake by those who don’t need it, for example those with wealth but low taxable income.

Young claimed that the (larger societal) debate is about “the most effective way to address poverty,” and voiced skepticism about basic income’s feasibility in the current political climate. Mulvale replied that both children’s benefits and seniors’ benefits, which are forms of basic income already in place, have been shown to be effective in reducing child and seniors’ poverty. Pasma highlighted that mental health problems are widespread and include people who are working but suffering from anxiety, stress and depression due their economic insecurity or simply having “crappy jobs.” “Poverty and insecurity will only worsen,” she added. “We need a revolution in how we think about income security.”

Moffatt scoffed at any claim that there are “lots of dollars to be found” by governments to support basic income. But Pasma had earlier noted that various federal governments have foregone billions of dollars due to tax cuts benefiting corporations and the wealthy, and have not pursued non-taxed revenue residing in offshore tax havens such as in Panama. “We can make different choices,” she said. But Young warned basic income advocates “to be careful what you ask for,” and advocated instead for a “livable wage, better labour policy and more public services.”

Following the debaters’ remarks, brief commentary was provided by Dr. Chris Mackie, Medical Officer of Health and Chief Executive Officer of the Middlesex-London Health Unit. Mackie identified areas of agreement among all debaters, e.g., “need to do more on poverty”; “the current system is broken”; “more living wage jobs.” He also highlighted the threat that automation poses to jobs, giving the example of 2.5 million truck drivers in the U.S. who could soon be displaced by driverless trucks. (Concern about looming, widespread technological unemployment is a factor in the apparent rise of interest in and support for basic income. For example, see the new international website, Business for Basic Income.)

And, Mackie noted that of 112 recommendations recently formulated for tackling poverty in London, one of them is for London to be a site for the Ontario government to run a basic income pilot project. In February the government made a budget statement commitment for such a project: Basic Income Canada Network, local basic income action groups around Ontario and many other interests are keen to ensure any pilot project is well designed, well implemented and well evaluated, as a stepping stone towards broad basic income availability in the near future.