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Top Mincome director says Canadian basic income advocates should act fast

Roderick Benns recently interviewed Ron Hikel, the executive director of the well-known Mincome project in Dauphin, Manitoba. It was a program that ran from from 1974 through 1978 which helped establish a minimum income for about a third of the people who lived there. Hikel was also the former deputy minister of health in Manitoba, and was deputy chief of staff to a US Congressman, working on Capitol Hill in the first two years of Barack Obama’s administration. He is currently researching a book on the failure of the delivery of ‘public good’ services, such as acute and public health care, child welfare, the prevention of domestic violence, and safe food, water and workplaces. Hikel lives in Toronto.

Benns: What are two or three big take-aways about basic income policy that Mincome taught you?

Hikel: The biggest single take-away is that whatever a government decides to do, or not do, depends very much on their political evaluation of the policy environment prevailing at any given moment; and that this context can change very quickly. It can go from favourable to neutral to hostile in a short time. Unfortunately, controlled social science experiments take years, if they are done properly, and in that time, the policy atmosphere will most certainly change. This can make the once-possible, unimaginable and the previously unimaginable quite attractive. That is both what happened to Mincome when the governments decided not to analyze the data, and also explains why more than 40 years later, the concept has cycled back into fashion. I cannot guess how long this new phase will last, but those who believe in the idea should be acting quickly.

Benns: What gives you great optimism about the basic income movement in Canada right now?

Hikel: I fear I have spent too many years in and around governments to be awash in the warm glow of expectation. Rather, I do see several new social and economic factors that are prompting renewed and widely-spread interest in the concept. One of these is the precariousness of new job creation paying enough to live decently on, resulting from  great  technological innovation and globalization, given the  associated  job destruction here in Canada  and re-location elsewhere. Also, the movement is now international, prompting, in response, consideration of various forms of basic income in at least half a dozen nations. This in turn legitimizes Canadian government interest. But I would not yet confuse that interest with a firm decision to act.

Benns: Do you have a preference – universal demogrant or more like the negative income tax model which would be universally available in times of need? Why?

Hikel: As to a favoured form of basic income design, that is best left up to governments to decide, based on their policy objectives, their sense of the public interest, the size of the  available spend and the extent to which any new program is used to consolidate or integrate it with existing income support programs. I believe in that old adage ‘perfection can be the enemy of progress.’ A modest program, once introduced and improved by experience over time, can be safely made more generous later.

Benns: One of the biggest concerns heard about basic income is that people will choose not to work. Is there a justifiable fear that soon there won’t be anyone to do the more unsavoury jobs out there?

Hikel: As to the legitimacy of the fear of reducing work incentives, the experiments of the 1970s show varying results. That concern can be largely anticipated and mitigated by finding the right program design, combined with effective operating rules, for a particular province, region, or nation. Differing provincial demographic and economic factors need to be considered here. The same thing applies to  avoiding adverse effects on wage rates and employment. Some of those matters are best left to economists, in consultation with business leaders, unions and community leaders.



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