Inspiration in dark times: how a contagious, idealistic economic idea might transform Europe

Given the frightening news coming out of Washington every day, it might be easy to ignore what is happening over in Europe. For those of us anxious to develop a new economic vision here at home, we would do so at our peril. The seeds of what might be a new social contract in America have been planted and are starting to grow across the Atlantic.

This will be a transformational year in European politics. Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands all have general elections, and the United Kingdom will map out its plan to leave the union. The choice in front of European voters is clear: either submit to the grim nationalism and populism emerging from the right — as the United States has regrettably done — or develop a vision that shows everyday people that government can actually make their lives better.

The good news is that a new generation of leaders is touting lofty ideals and audacious goals to inspire European voters to believe again in a robust economy that works for everyone. Their agendas are varied, but the radically simple idea of providing a basic income to all is inspiring a new conversation about what the future might hold across the continent.

In France, the mainstream left party shocked the political system last month by choosing Benoit Hamon as its nominee to the Presidency. Hamon defeated former prime minister Manual Valls and several others. The centerpiece of his vision: simplifying the sprawling, complex French bureaucracy to offer a universal income of €750 per month to all French citizens. The French media spent much of 2016 dissecting and critiquing the idea. All the attention on the basic income turned the primary into a referendum on the idea, and the voters decidedly chose to embrace it.

What was once a fringe idea is quickly entering the mainstream political conversation. The most powerful official in the European Union, the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker last month called for all European Union member-states to provide a minimum basic income to their citizens. The famous economist Thomas Piketty also embraced the idea in a limited form last month.

Meanwhile basic income experiments are sprouting up all across Europe. The Finns began a large basic income experiment last month with 2,000 adults to assess its impact on work and family. The Dutch have a pilot of their own in Utrecht, and the Scots may similarly experiment in Fife or Glasgow. Regardless of how the presidential election turns out, the French region around Bordeaux is planning an experiment of its own.

Thousands have opened their wallets for a different kind of experiment in Germany. Everyday people have donated millions of euros to a website called MyBasicIncome that provides an income floor to people chosen through its lottery system. (Outside of Europe, experiments are also happening in regions of Canada, Kenya, and in Oakland, California.)

The idea is catching on at a local level in the US as well. In Hawaii, State Representative Chris Lee introduced a resolution in the State House to establish the Hawaii Economic Security Working Group, a group dedicated to making economic recommendations in response to increasing automation and globalization. In Washington, DC, citizens are organizing to price carbon and distribute the revenue as a base income to residents of the district. Local leaders in San Francisco are thinking about how to design a pilot, although they are still raising the money to make it happen. And in New York City, local leaders are calling for a meaningful local expansion of the earned income tax credit which creates an income floor through cash transfers. These are small, but important first steps to sort through the right way to design basic income policies.

In Europe, they are thinking more expansively. Some of the most ambitious plans would create a European dividend for all citizens of the European Union as a way of uniting and forging a single European identity. Others would push the European Central Bank to do its quantitative easing (QE) through helicopter money — “QE for the people” — rather than supporting the finance industry. Researchers, academics, and policymakers need to explore these options and others to develop a robust, detailed policy framework that speaks to the skeptics’ concerns.

Europe faces different challenges than we do in the United States, but what we share in common is the choice between a bleak, backwards economic vision and an emergent set of proposals that are purposefully and confidently audacious and creative. Provocative ideas like a basic income need refinement and development; but the excitement they inspire is contagious, and their impact on the lives of people could be transformative.

In dark times, we can take a little hope in that.