By gathering over 100,000 signatures – which they delivered last Friday along with 8 million 5-cent coins representing the country’s population – activists have secured a vote in Switzerland on an audacious proposal: providing a basic monthly income of about $2,800 U.S. dollars to each adult in the country. (A date for the vote hasn’t yet been set.) Such basic income proposals, which have drawn increased attention since the 2008 financial crash, offer a night-and-day contrast to the current U.S. debate over what to cut and by how much.
Salon called up John Schmitt, a senior economist at the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research, to discuss the economics and politics of having the government send everyone in the country a monthly check.
What is a universal basic income, and why are we hearing more about it now?
The proposals that are floating around the world vary a lot. But the basic idea is, no matter what you do, if you’re a resident — or in some cases, a citizen — you get a certain amount of money each month. And it’s completely unconditional: If you’re rich you get it, if you’re poor you get. If you’re a good person you get it, if you’re a bad person you get it. And it does not depend on you doing anything other than making whatever effort is involved to collect the money. It’s been a topic of discussion for several decades. Why is it happening right now? I think it’s obvious that it’s a reaction to the high level of economic inequality that we’ve seen. Most European countries haven’t had big increases in inequality at the same scale that we [in the U.S.] have, [but] some of them have had much more than they’re used to.
Some have argued that the mass anti-austerity protests and strikes in Europe have been relatively unsuccessful at changing policy. Do you think that’s so? Is that related to this movement?
I think it’s very clearly the case that the political action that’s been taken so far has not been able to end austerity. I would say, certainly in the case of Greece, the political activism strengthened the hand of the government negotiators with respect to what the final agreement between various authorities and the Greeks would be, because the Greek government could point out the window and say, “You know, if we don’t get a better deal, there’s going to be more of what we’ve seen in the streets.”