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Coming to a consensus on the definition of Basic Income to move from Idea to Reality

Let me share with you, at this closing plenary session, some reflections that I’ve gleaned on coming to a consensus while listening to the various discussions at this BIEN congress in Glasgow.

In any group of basic income supporters who are trying to achieve a consensus, you will find at least two types of participants.

The first, call her Alice, is profoundly motivated by the idea, or perhaps I should say, the ideal of a basic income. For her, it is a radical idea that she does not necessarily see implemented in the near future. She is wary of any changes that could be introduced in the course of bringing the idea to life which might corrupt the ideal. She supports basic income because of its transformative effect on society in areas such as poverty, inequality, and human rights. She wants to change the hearts and minds of those who don't believe that UBI is an appropriate solution to these problems. She believes that rational discussion will sway their opinion and make them change their minds. Of course, she realizes that this approach usually fails. However, she sees no other option than to keep trying through organizing, activism and protest. The alternative is to abandon all hope of changing society by changing people.

The second type, call him Bob, also supports basic income and is profoundly attached to its ideals. Unlike Alice, he sees opportunities to implement a basic income in the very near future and is worried that these opportunities will be missed. Alice is justified in suspecting that Bob is willing to make changes in the interest of expediency. Bob's work on models and experiments has convinced him of the benefits UBI can bring. He, like Alice, expects doubters to be convinced by this evidence. When this fails, what can he do except gather more evidence?

And then there's P, who admires and appreciates Alice and Bob’s commitment and hard work.

Why does P support basic income?

He is in it for the money. He wants UBI implemented in his lifetime so he himself can collect the benefits.

P’s focus is on selling the product. Yes, UBI can be described as a product. Bob and Alice face the same challenges as Heineken in selling its sparkling elixir.

As a product, UBI must be engineered, manufactured, and distributed. Like beer, UBI must be marketed so that our customers buy what it represents rather than what it is. We can’t expect to overthrow the consumer society and its mechanisms overnight. Our best hope is to bend them to our purpose. Agreeing on what our product is, in fact, is secondary to selling the product itself.

Each customer requires a different marketing plan:

  • Allies require solidarity

  • Pundits require debunking

  • Opponents require reassurance

  • Supporters require inspiration

  • Activists require encouragement

  • Politicians need to know how UBI will get them re-elected

When people buy into UBI potion, they buy a dream as they quench their thirst — with their favourite flavour.

Seeing a consensus as a marketing plan casts consensus making in a different light. Consensus is more than agreement. It’s a goal-oriented activity. It's only by agreeing to adapt our message to the audience that we will succeed in selling our particular brand of social justice. The implementation of UBI anywhere in the world would be a monument to the consensus achieved in that lucky country.

Or it might be an accident!

Let me finish with a few examples of what I mean by marketing UBI.

Some approaches strike me as being poor marketing.

For instance, the association of UBI with poverty reduction is counterproductive. Poverty reduction is without a doubt a feature of UBI just as there is alcohol in beer. However, just as alcohol is never mentioned in beer commercials, UBI should promote values such as fairness and security rather than evoke such a fraught and depressing topic as poverty.

Another example of poor marketing: the very notion of UBI as an income throws us back to the concept of work. The idea that revenue is earned by working is deeply rooted in our collective imagination. UBI's delinking of work and income can be threatening. Emphasizing that you get the benefit even when you work is better than focusing on the absence of a work requirement. At least that’s what I think a focus group would show.

Examples of good marketing:

  • Emphasizing fairness and opportunity rather than money.

  • Slogan “Think about what you would do with UBI” (we know people think others will squander theirs)

  • Use the acronym until it has a life of its own like IBM. A huge marketing advantage.

  • Reassure doubters that you be is not a new and untested policy. Point to well tested examples “hiding in plain sight.”

In conclusion:

Consensus, in the sense of agreement among peers, may be impossible to achieve. Thank God, it may not be necessary if we focus instead on adapting our message to a particular audience. The purpose of collaboration is not the affirmation of one's views. The common goal of all basic income supporters should be to sell basic income as effectively as possible, in every context, so as to move from idea to reality.


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