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In Memoriam  
Reflections on the life work of Robert Schutz

by Theodore Roszak

EarthSaint Column, EarthLight Magazine #44, Winter 2002


     

Those of us who knew Bob Schutz personally will grieve for the loss of a friend. But Bob was more than a noble soul and a model citizen; he was also a first-class economist. In that respect we might do well to spend some time appreciating his last book, The $30,000 Solution.

The $30,000 Solution (Santa Barbara, Fithian Press, 1996) is one of those marvelous little books from a small press that hasn't a ghost of a chance of getting the reviews it deserves in major publications. Take that as a sad measure of our cultural condition. The mainstream has less and less capacity to cope with the unusual, the divergent, the unorthodox, and so bright ideas have an ever harder time bearing fruit. Proposals like Bob's for sharing the wealth of the nation are often seen as fringe economics. But far from being a book that belongs to the fringe, The $30,000 Solution embodies a solid body of thought that has come to be called "basic income economics."

In general, basic income policies are premised on the understanding that industrial societies have arrived at a post-scarcity economy where the necessities of life can be efficiently and cheaply provided for everybody in abundance. Such societies no longer need to employ most of their workforce in order to produce the food, shelter, health care, transport, education, and basic communications required for a decent standard of living. In the United States, for example, only 2 percent of the population now produces more food than the rest of us can eat. Distribute the necessities fairly, and nobody would have to work for more than a few hours a day, if that much, in order to have a modest, healthy life with much leisure.

After years of teaching industrial history, I find people still unable to grasp the full significance of industrialization. It means eliminating human labor, substituting machines for heavy, dirty, dangerous, and boring work so that we can make a human use of human beings. That's the basis on which Bob believes we can guarantee every citizen the right to a subsistence income.

If this sounds outlandish to you, do a little research in the history of your time. Even before World War II, James Meade, eventually to be a Nobel-laureate in economics, was advocating an unconditional state subsidy as a matter of right. During the war, the British Liberal politician Lady Rhys Williams proposed a basic income under the name of "the social dividend." The idea wound up divided among several public programs and so became the modern welfare state. In the United States, basic income came to be known as the guaranteed annual income.

Economists of the stature of John Kenneth Galbraith (The Affluent Society), Robert Theobald (The Guaranteed Income), and Milton Friedman were major pro-basic income participants in the debate that flourished during the 1950s and 1960s. The Triple Revolution movement, a Ford Foundation effort, enlisted enormous intellectual support for basic income during the 1970s as the simplest solution to all the problems that money can solve. In 1966 even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was willing to sponsor a national symposium on guaranteed income. Political leaders left, right, and center agreed that our society was rich enough to abolish poverty; they differed only on the means of doing it. Liberals favored a congeries of government programs like Social Security; conservatives like Barry Goldwater preferred a negative income tax that needed no costly bureaucratic supervision.

The idea of a guaranteed annual income underlay Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Johnson, swamped by Vietnam, wasn't bold enough to carry through. But guess whose words these are? "I [have] proposed that for the first time in America's history we establish a floor under the income of every American family with children. We called it the Family Assistance Plan." That's Richard Nixon speaking in 1970 about his 1969 proposal to "lift people out of poverty ... to restore pride and dignity and self-respect." Like LBJ's program, Nixon's vision was a casualty of the partisan bitterness of Vietnam-era politics.

What has survived from that era is Bill Clinton's Earned Income Credit, a variation on Friedman's negative income tax. The IRS now sends a supplementary income to families that earn below poverty level. As of 1997, the most recent high-level brainstorming on the subject took place at the Aspen Institute Domestic Strategy Group where the Harvard economist David Ellwood proposed using the Earned Tax Credit as a way of distributing money to the poor.

Bob's plan for establishing a generous cost-of-living income is simpler and better-argued than many of these proposals. He proposes a guaranteed $30,000 for each adult (as of the 1990s) based on the redistribution of unearned income: rent, interest, capital gains, dividends, winnings, gifts, and inheritance. This is very like what economists calls a "wealth tax." And, yes, he does a fine job of defining "unearned."

Why have ideas like this commanded so little attention since the 1970s? It isn't because the country has gotten poorer. We are now a more affluent society than when Galbraith wrote in the 1950s. All I can say is that this represents a striking example of collective, public amnesia. The result of that amnesia is the obscenely widening gap between rich and poor we see in the United States today.

Bob's book is a skillful, beautifully-argued effort that musters all the most forceful arguments for an economics of equity and compassion. Can we afford to pay everybody in this country $30,000 a year? Just read his book. He addresses every doubt you may have. Then check out a few other sources. In the August 24, 2001 Times Literary Supplement, there is a lengthy review of a few new versions, one of which (What's Wrong with a Free Lunch, by Phillipe van Partijs and others) has just been released by Beacon Books. Take a look at Jeremy Rifkin's The End of Work. Or log on to the Web and search for keyword BIEN for Basic Income European Network to find a listing of publications and conferences around the world. (The full address is:

http://www.econ.ucl.ac.be/ETES/BIEN/BlinEurope.html

In a broader context, The $30,000 Solution belongs to a tradition of economic thought that dates back to the original Utopia. Thomas More's Utopia, written in 1517, was the first work to contend that crime derives from social causes, above all from poverty. Therefore, he argued, the fundamental issue of an ethical economics is how to share the wealth for the good of all - exactly the opposite of market economics, which bases itself on self-interest, competition, and devil take the hindmost. Interesting that long before industrial technology began churning out more material abundance than we can find landfills to bury it in, Thomas More was convinced that, for a minimal amount of work by everybody, there would be enough to go around-provided we started by sharing necessities.

Meet everybody's needs before gratifying anybody's wants: you can find that principle brought up to date in Ernst Callenbach's Ecotopia. There are scores of ways to configure such a goal. For example, as stout a conservative as Winston Churchill championed the idea of building a "floor" under the economy that would keep people from sinking into poverty, but also providing a "ladder" for the ambitious or avaricious who want to make more and buy more. In short: a dual economy that puts subsistence first, luxury second - but, please note, does finally get around to producing luxuries for those who want them. That was Paul Goodman's idea in his classic 1947 work Communitas. Bob, writing in the context of an even greater abundance than Goodman had in view, also favors permitting more income for those who want to "work more for the right reasons," including just plain wanting more money. And why not? Even within intelligent environmental constraints, we can probably afford lots of nonsense merchandise.

The $30,000 Solution is a great-hearted effort for Bob to have bequeathed to us. As I read back through the book, one question nags at me. Why isn't basic income the great movement of our time?


Theodore Roszak's latest book is Longevity Revolution: As Boomers Become Elders, Berkeley Hills Books, 2000.


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