Recap: North American Basic Income Guarantee (NABIG)

The North American Basic Income Guarantee (NABIG) congress, 15–18 June 2017, brought together about 80 academics, activist and organizers from the US and Canada in the movement for Basic Income.

Key takeaways

  • Demographics: Mostly white, mostly upper middle class. No surprises there.
  • Political: Mostly “mainstream progressives”, but libertarians and socialists were also represented. Despite the “left-leanings”, this was not in any way a political conference. The community recognizes that support for basic income comes from across the political spectrum.
  • Focus: Academic. Activists, organizers and do-ers represented, but somewhat marginalized.
  • Schedule; slides should be posted soon.
“Cash should be the benchmark by which other programs are measured”
 — Chris Hughs, Co-founder of Facebook, Economic Security Project

Hope and fear

The event served as my in-person introduction to the Basic Income community. It is my hope that the rigorous academic foundations will be built-upon for massive social change: interlocking institutions of empowerment as opposed to our current institutions of oppression. Where every man, woman and child — irregardless of the accident of birth — will be afforded meaningful economic security and the fundamental dignity of access to a basic level of resources, as opposed to only the white and affluent.

It is my fear is that a century from now, our descendants will look back and think us Monsters. Look back in horror at our present state of affairs. With more material abundance than the world has ever known, how could we have ignored our shared humanity, how could we have allowed others to die needlessly or subsist in deprivation. How could their grandparents and great-grandparents have stood by and done nothing in the face of such massive injustice? The same way we look upon slave owners, and more recently those who did nothing in the face of Jim Crow segregation, that ignored the fundamental humanity of a large swath of the US population. How could we not have provided a Basic Income for everyone?

Standout presentation: Ken Burak

Ken Burak (Northampton Community College) — “Monsters, Inc: Mythological Blueprint for Our Revolution”

One of the most common criticisms of Basic Income is that people would reduce paid labor. In our society, we compel people to sell themselves as wage-slaves under pain of death, being starved of the resources (as proxied by money) that they need to survive.

Ken used Disney’s Monsters Inc. as a parable for the horrors of the capitalist system. We are all, in participating in global neoliberal capitalism, Monsters. When Sully scares his friend Boo, he comes to the realisation that he, and the system he supports, are Monsters. The 1 min scene is worth a watch:

Until this point, Sully never really questioned why he, and everyone he knows, scared children in their beds to power their society. It was “normal.” Wage-slavery and compulsion to work under pain of resource starvation and death are “normal” in our society. We are all the proverbial child in a bed, being scared woke in terror by the fear of economic insecurity and destitution.

There is no natural law stating that the world, in our prevailing economic relations, need be governed by fear. There is enough material abundance to provide adequate shelter, food and other necessities for everyone on the planet, let alone the wealthiest country on Earth. And yet, we choose to let millions of Americans, especially American children, go hungry.

Basic Income can provide a base level of economic security for all, moving us away from a society based on fear. In the igNobel tradition, his presentation made me laugh and then think.

Standout session: Basic Income and Children

In the face of such strong evidence for cash transfers to children, it is especially damning that we collectively do less than nothing.

Lisa Gennetian (New York University) — “Income and the Developing Brain During the First Three Years of Life” shows evidence that even relatively modest cash transfers of $100/month have huge impacts on the development of children. The vast majority of the money is spent directly on the child, followed by broader family stability items. The common critique of spending on vices, is not supported. Families also saved a portion of the modest allowance. Provide the means, however little, and families will use it to empower themselves.

Steven Pressman (Colorado State University) — “A LITTLE BIG: the case for child allowances” points out how the child tax deduction is actively regressive. Wealthy parents save $1–2k per child. Poor parents receive nothing. A net transfer from the least able to afford, to the most able. Unfortunately, our tax code is littered with such injustice, from the mortgage interest deduction to 529 plans and 401k’s.

Samuel Hammond (Niskanen Center) — “Toward a Universal Child Benefit”, from a libertarian think-tank, lamented a market failure of under-investment, since parents are bared from owning equity in their children. At once, both a jarring reminder of capitalism taken to its logical extremes and the reason why there are just limits on markets. He also takes up the “conservative” case for leaving paternalism to parents and a pro-life argument for cash transfers — reducing abortions — both of which were well received by the largely mainstream progressive audience.¹

His talk reminds us that Basic Income is not about “left” or “right”, it’s about human dignity (via a base level of economic security).

Standout project: Bootstraps documentary

The Bootstraps project is a feature-length documentary film, sharing real American stories of what individuals do to empower themselves with a $1,000/month basic income for two years.

The community has strong moral/philosophical foundation and a preponderance of academic support for the utility of cash transfers; however, in connecting with the American people, the community seems to be lacking a real human voice.

The Bootstraps team, Conrad and Deia, are doing just that — bringing a human voice to basic income by following everyday Americans as a basic income for 2-years empowers the recipients to transform their lives.

As an early supporter of the project, I’ve been a little shocked at how difficult it’s been to get people to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to their beliefs. Conrad has written elsewhere about his experience.

The NABIG conference was little different. Platitudes and stated expressions of “support”, without as far as I observed, actual financial contributions. $10 from each conference participant, largely but not entirely upper middle class academics, would have put a huge dent in their crowdfunding campaign. For perspective, the group of ~15 I went to dinner with Saturday night spent $500+. I don’t know what spurred inaction by a group of people who claim to support basic income, but it certainly wasn’t a lack of means.

Open to constructive feedback

Some good news is that the community is relatively open, and seems willing to accept constructive feedback. For example, the USBIG meeting following the conference on Sunday included an agenda item for feedback.

Overall, the programming was fantastic. The meeting’s biggest area for improvement is access.

  • Free pre-registration meant that the conference was only 1/2 full, and folks may have been discouraged from attending.
  • Recording of sessions and live streaming for those unable to attend in person + posterity.
  • Travel scholarship for individuals from underrepresented communities
  • Solidarity housing to defray lodging costs for out-of-towners
  • Demographic survey, inc.: race, wealth, income (self-reported) to track progress towards inclusion

I am grateful to Pat Gray and Michael Lewis for fighting the good fight to secure the space, which was more than ample for a ~80 person conference.


1: Many social evils, such abortion, are the direct result of economic marginalization and insecurity, addressable in-part by Basic Income. Maybe, just maybe, social conservatives and feminists et al. can stop squabbling about de-funding Planned Parenthood and work together on basic economic security for all. Win-win.