As far as political goals go, the one Basic Income Action has organized to fight for stands to prove pretty popular: Give free money to everyone, every year, no questions asked. This is not a collective of high school class presidents seeking to expand upon their winning junior year campaigns, but a dead-serious national nonprofit touting a legitimate economic solution to rising joblessness and inequality. And they're bringing it to Washington.
Basic Income Action is, according to co-founder Dan O'Sullivan, "the first national organization educating and organizing the public to support a basic income." In an email, he tells me that "Our goal is to educate and organize people to take action to win a basic income here in the US."
Interest in a basic income, also called a guaranteed or universal income, an annual unearned salary, or just "getting handed a giant lump sum of free cash every year," is percolating. Of late, it's been the subject of magazine features, it's been championed by economists from major financial institutions, and it's even been touted on the presidential campaign trail.
So it makes sense that the idea's most vehement advocates believe the time is right to start an organized, nationwide push to get basic income listed on ballot initiatives across the country.
"The time is right for a national movement for basic income as support for the idea continues to build," O'Sullivan told me. "From Robert Reich to Martin Ford to Marshall Brain, people are speaking out for the need to ensure basic economic security for all, independent of work and jobs."
BIA, which was formed out of an annual conference on the subject, has launched a slick website that steers visitors to a petition aimed at all contending presidential candidates. "To: All Candidates for President of the United States," it begins, "We call on you to support a basic income, which would give money to every American to meet at least our basic needs."
This week, which supporters have christened Basic Income Week, BIA is instigating as much of a full court press as the nascent movement can muster: There's a Reddit AMA with one of the founders, the petition, and the movement's first political action: A salon in Washington, DC.
Scott Santens is another prominent basic income advocate—he's a moderator on the Basic Income subreddit and broadcasts the fact that he enjoys an "80 percent personal basic income" thanks to supporters who fund him on the crowd-patronage site Patreon—and, naturally, sits on the Founding Committee of Basic Income Action.
"To me it marks the rebirth of the political movement for basic income in the US," he told me. "The momentum that was lost in the 1970s is coming back, and this time, arguably because of our quickly advancing technology, it's here to stay."
Perhaps the biggest thrust of the basic income movement's argument is that technology is eliminating jobs, and they're not coming back. (Hence we see more wealth accumulating at the top 1 percent, the class that happens to own the bulk of the automated labor; and an infamous economic recovery that has largely benefitted the rich, not the middle class.) They point to the successful pilot programs like the one in Manitoba, Canada, where residents were given a Mincome and social well-being fairly unambiguously improved, or in Alaska, where the Permanent Fund serves as a powerful example of a partial basic income—and is immensely popular.
Most of all, BIA and others argue that at a time when machines can and do perform most of the vital tasks for human survival, well, we should let them.
"There's no stopping an idea whose time has come and I think we'll see more organizations like BIA being founded, and more local groups being started, all in recognition of the long overdue need to implement a new socioeconomic foundation on which to build our future," Santens said.
Still, the movement is young, and small—there's no doubt that interest is growing in many corners of the tech sector, economics and political communities, but there have been few large public demonstrations in the US, or organized efforts to push the idea into the legislative realm. Perhaps we're seeing those seeds sown now. The plan, according to BIA, is to step up "aggressive" outreach and education efforts, growing a coalition of support in local groups around the nation, then targeting states with ballot initiatives.
The same group that successfully translated grassroots support for marijuana legalization in Washington DC, for instance, is joining BIA to do the same for a basic income. And just imagine if a proposal made the ballot in California that promised every resident enough free money to meet their basic needs—think voters would bite? We may find out, soon.
"Step one to all of this is growing the conversation for basic income to a critical mass and connecting the people who believe it needs to happen," Santens said, "and that's what BIA is for, to grow and connect, and to win."