Whatever happened to the BIG push? Comments on building resilient organizations

I have lately had someone ask me about the “BIG push” event in Burlington a couple of years back. That is, the Basic Income Guarantee push; an initiative of one Rob Rainer to bring a movement for such a program into existence. It was adopted by the Basic Income Canada Network and for awhile seemed to almost take over that organization. We do not hear much about this BIG push any more and it is worth considering why.

Initiatives of one single person usually do not go anywhere, especially when they are about trying to create a job or even a personal empire. In the world of social activismand movement building, there are always a lot of people like that. Despite their great energy and often personal magnetism they always do more harm than good. It is better to discourage such people.

National Anti-Poverty Organization

I first encountered Rainer when he was still working in Toronto. He helped a bit with an event I put together about Citizen’s Income, as we were calling it at the time. He did not seem to want to become closely involved in this group, which soon broke up anyway. About that time he left for Ottawa.

When I next heard of him he had become executive director or similar title to the National Anti-Poverty Organization. I had been acquainted with this outfit for some time. It had existed since the seventies but was having a hard time surviving and finding any real purpose.

I was still living in Calgary about 1993 when a friend I was working with
asked me to be a delegate to a special NAPO conference. This was called to discuss a new financial plan for the organization. This was when the anti poverty movement in Calgary was being seriously harassed and broken up.

Clive was becoming depressed. He could not go himself and could no longer find anyone but me to send to this conference. I was not the best choice. I had one week’s notice and I had just had facial surgery with my jaw wired shut. I was still very zonked from the general anesthetic.

The surgery, by the way, was to correct a deformity I had from childhood. I had to fight the Alberta health care system very hard to get it done.

Clive talked about how the only organizations advocating for social programs were groups started in the seventies. It would be impossible to get something like NAPO started today; I mean in 1993. Most groups had a hard time funding themselves and were more focused on keeping their heads down.

The directors of NAPO had come up with a financing plan that involved focussing on building up a donor base so that it did not have to keep depending on government and foundation funds. This seemed reasonably sane to me, as long as at the end of building up the base, NAPO got down to business.

Alas, I could not participate well in the conference. I was too zonked out by general anesthetic hangover. I missed most of it because I could not get woken up until mid morning and then I could not find out where things were being held. This was at the University of Ottawa, by the way.

I was and still am very annoyed about the way I was treated by people. I could not get any assistance from anyone and was treated like a mental patient who got into the conference by mistake. I first met John Clarke of OCAP while there; or rather, got a blank stare from him when I tried introducing myself.

It wasn’t much of a trip. I even missed the flight home and had to negotiate with Air Canada to get on a later one. However, as my head cleared and I got into contactwith some people at NAPO HQ in Ottawa, they were somewhat apologetic about all this.

Canada Assistance Plan

I was even being considered as a regular delegate to NAPO from Alberta. However, I had come to the conclusion that I absolutely had to get out of Alberta. The NAPO conference happened over voting day for the 1993 elections, causing me to miss voting. The new Cretin, er, Chretien regime wasted no time in wiping out the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP).

The CAP had been in place since 1965, requiring provinces to provide social assistance based on the fact, not the cause, of need. I had that line well learned when I was fighting the vicious lunatics of the Alberta social services for the right to exist and obtain medical care. Chretien swept CAP away with almost no opposition from all these supposed anti-poverty groups. It was about three quarters of the way to a Basic Income.

I knew that when CAP went it would be a massacre in Alberta and it was. The only thing that moderated it was when British Columbia became swamped with refugees from Alberta and protested. I had obtained a disability benefit by that time, however I made plans to move too, though in another direction.

I got good advice from my friends at NAPO HQ. Go to Ottawa, Toronto, or Kitchener Waterloo. Stay out of Hastings county, Ontario. At the time, housing was reasonably available in Toronto and I stayed. However, as I struggled to get established here I lost track of NAPO for awhile.

Canada Without Poverty

When I started trying to reconnect with NAPO, all the people I knew had left, and I had trouble establishing contact with the new people. I did not know if the funding base program was a success or not. A few more years on, and I called the NAPO office in Ottawa and was amazed to find the phone answered by a notorious poverty pimp type from Toronto.

Shortly after that, it seemed like NAPO had collapsed. By that time, I had a good idea of why. Its structure made it vulnerable to take overs by opportunists, if one could get a job on the staff. The board were spread all across the country, and were mostly poorly trained “experience of poverty” folks like me.

I am not sure just how it went down, but it seems a troll got a foot in the door, moved his/her buddies in, scooped the funds from this “funder base”, and when it dried up, moved on. That is what poverty pimps do. I wrote off NAPO as another poverty organization that was not able to survive in the neo-liberal environment.

Lo, a bit later Rainer called me up. He wanted me to come to Ottawa because he was putting together a conference to talk about reviving NAPO. I was suspicious about Rainer but very curious, and it was a free trip to Ottawa.

I was not pleased to find that I was dragged up there in mid winter for no apparent reason other than to be a backdrop to a press conference. There was no meeting; Rainer had just decided on his own to change the whole structure of NAPO, and its name to “Canada Without Poverty” (CWP).

Someone I was working with in Toronto went up to Ottawa to help the new CWP reorganize all the old NAPO files. He was amazed to find that NAPOs main purpose in the 1970s had been to push for a “Mincome” as they were calling then what is being called now “Basic Income”.

I chanced to be in Ottawa again and I dropped into the office of NAPO cum
CWP. My friend and some people from the religious antipoverty organizations were working there. Rainer was nowhere to be found. They admitted that CWP was having some financial problems which they were trying to overcome.

They were amazed at what they were finding in the old NAPO records about previous movements for a BI. It seems even Henry Ford liked the idea. I tried finding out something of what had gone wrong with old NAPO, but they did not want to talk about that.

Basic Income Canada Network and the BIG push

The people then working for CWP were keen on BI. One of them organized the new Basic Income Canada Network congress in Toronto in 2012. This was a joint congress with the American BIG ( Basic Income Guarantee). It seems the US BIG had decided to hold a big organizing push, to build a member base. This push seems to have attracted mostly libertarian types who have pushed the U.S. movement in a rightward direction.

However, this is where Rainer got his idea of a BIG push in Canada. At the next BICN congress, in Montreal in 2014, the space in the agenda where we wanted an open discussion about the direction of the Canadian movement was crowded out by the BIG mouth with the BIG push. His plans did not seem to me to be very practical but I cannot recall details.

Shortly after the BIG meeting in Burlington, Rainer got a job with the Green party for eight months. He decided to put the PUSH on hold while he went to make some money. The last I heard he was still working for the Green party and the PUSH had fizzled.

My informant who attended the Burlington meeting got calls for some time after from people wanting to know what happened to the BIG push. Some of the people who were there have now gone on to start BI groups in small cities of Ontario. It is a concern that many of them have a shaky understanding of the basic concepts of Basic Income.

There is no mention anymore of ‘BIG push’ on the BICN web site. CWP seems to have revived sufficiently to start a law suit with the federal government over the “ten percent” rule for charity organizations. That is, if they want donors who can claim a tax write off, no more than one tenth of their income must be spent on political activity.

I recall that the idea behind old NAPO’s finance plan was to find donors who did not require charity receipts, so that they were not restricted in their activities. Many advocacy organizations and their donors these days are asking why they need these charity receipts, which so restrict their action, instead of donors just giving to what they support.

the seven “C”s

The moral of this story? If you are going to be an organization disposing of substantial funds, and with a political goal which might be a threat to power, you are likely to be a target for takeover or takedown. I wrote a piece awhile back about the “seven cs” which must be navigated if you are going to reach your destination.

The “C”s are; creeps, crazies, criminals, cops, cadres, careerists, and the worst “C” of all, the one which generally gives the others the opportunity they need; codependants.

There is an endless supply of nut cases out there, and people who just get a kick out of gaming other people. A board of naive do gooders with control of some money is a dream for con artists and there still some groups who specialize in hijacking such boards.

Some very political groups get looked into by the civil police forces, but there are private police groups too. Some of them are actually vigilantes, others just protecting special interests; for example resource companies sending agents into environmental groups. You never take anyone at face value when real money and power are involved.

There are various political parties, mostly of the left, whose idea of building their support base involves taking over community organizations and their resources. It is not just revolutionaries; the NDP is hated in poor neighborhoods and those in certain issue categories because of their aggressive cadres and their idea that they “own” everything “left”.

Careerists are those who are trying to make a job or career for themselves. It seems Rainer lost most of his interest in Basic Income when it became clear that raising $300 000 to ‘push big’ with was not going to happen. I suspect he also found out that the NDP cadres had already stripped NAPO by time he got there. CWP proved not to be Rainer’s golden future either. It is good that he seems to be doing well in the Green party; he will be less disruptive of smaller organizations.

Codependents are people who think their well being depends on subordinating their own emotional needs to those of others and want everyone else to do the same. They usually think they are doing something useful and wise when they try to reconcile sound characters to the “C”s listed here.

stabilizing principles

The moral within the moral? If you are going to build a social movement to fight for something like a Basic Income, you need to hold to three principles. They will keep you on course and able to defend against takeovers. The first is that by the time you are asking people for money looking for politicians to talk to, the debates should be over and you should know what you are for.

The second, build slowly and systematically, bringing in new people only when they understand what the organization is for. Third, understand the importance of structure and process within a collaborative effort.

These are hard concepts for most people born in Canada post about 1950, who for various reasons tend to have the idea that things should just sort of happen organically. Or, that some great leader is supposed to emerge and tell everyone what to do. I believe that is why social organizations have become so ineffective in Canada,especially since about 1980. These cultural barriers are at least partly created on purpose by elites for purposes of mass control. They will have to be overcome if we are going to build a better future with ideas like a Basic Income.

A position on the Ontario Basic Income pilot project.

The Ontario government has included an item in its most recent throne speech announcing a plan to conduct a “pilot” for a Basic Income. Ex senator Hugh Segal has been engaged to write an initial report about it, which is to be released in September.

A Basic Income is described by several organizations advocating for one as an income adequate to maintain a dignified existence, paid to everyone as a right and without condition. In Canada there is a lack of any effective movement advocating for a Basic Income and the concern is often expressed that many people are using the term to mean different things, often advocating policies which are in complete contradiction to the above definition.

A problem with the concept of a Basic Income is that it tends to be an elite idea. There is little or no grassroots movement advocating for it. Yet it often happens that social progress is advocated by a small group of thinkers in government or academia before a tipping point occurs and the idea becomes a mass movement.

It is a general rule that social programs never become enacted until there is a strong social movement pushing for it. This is just as true in Canada as elsewhere, although in Canada many people seem to believe in a mythology that social programs are enacted by enlightened elites. Everything from employment insurance to health care to child benefits happened in Canada because they had already been established elsewhere and a demand built up to establish them in Canada.

There is an international movement to establish a Basic Income and many successful local experiments have been carried out. But no country has yet enacted one. There is much enthusiasm for the “pilot” Basic Income of the government of Finland despite the problems with its design.

one sided conversation

It takes years to build a really effective grassroots organization to advocate for something like a BI. Development is often obstructed by people who refuse to believe any kind of structure is needed, with a funding source and a professional staff. I spent many years observing the pathetically slow development of Fair Vote Canada around the issue of voting reform. I am impressed by the relatively rapid development of the LeadNow group which is focussed on the same issue.

The problem with FVC has been that it was founded by people with an academic rather than activist orientation. This has also been the problem with the main organizations for a BI in Canada and internationally, Basic Income Canada Network and Basic Income Earth Network. These lack the capacity to articulate a clear vision of a Basic Income or to engage with government or public opinion on the concept.

What is especially concerning is the lack of understanding of the vagueness of the basic concept. It could be actualized in many ways, some of them with positive consequences for underclass people and for society in general, and some of them with very negative consequences. Many people involved with BI groups have the idea that a broad and loose discussion of a BI is going to somehow lead organically to a consensus on a BI. This shows a lack of understanding of the class based nature of this society, of the restrictions of public discourse and deliberation under a class hegemony, and of the nature of persuasion and understanding, which is disturbing in supposedly highly educated people.

However, my point is that the kind of grass roots movement which could engage government and the public voice in order to bring about a good form of Basic Income, is not there yet. The present push within some governments to test out a Basic Income seems to come from a desire to preempt demand, to either discredit the idea, delay it until interest passes, or set in stone a very limited form of BI. To repeat, there is at present no effective advocacy for BI, no “one ask”.

Manitoba winds

The BI proponents who attended the last congress in Winnipeg in May of this year need to recall what was said about pilot BI projects, especially by people who have been, and who presently are, involved in running BI experiments.

The person who ran the famous Dauphin, Manitoba experiment in the 1970s believes now the whole thing was a waste of public money due to the incompetence of people in government. There was never enough funding to do the experiment properly in the first place, and then it was abruptly terminated with no provision for analyzing or even storing the data. Without the initiative of doctor Evelyn Forget, the whole program would have been a complete waste.

Jurgen De Wispelaere is now working with the Finnish government on its design of a Basic Income pilot. He also finds the project to be under funded and poorly designed. There will not be a sufficient number of people/subjects in the study for statistical significance. He also points out that there is a difference between a pilot and an experiment. An experiment ends when it is done. A pilot in the right use of the term means a project which is intended to be open ended, to start out small, get the bugs shaken out of it, and be ramped up into a full scale and permanent program.

Karl Widerquist was especially impatient with talk of more experiments and pilots. The idea has been studied to death in dozens of experiments. What is needed is for someone to do it. An experiment is at any rate of little use. The experimental group does not exist outside of place and time, and the larger economy. The results of an experiment can be influenced by what is going on in the larger community or the economy at the time.

Further, the experiment can interact with the local economy. For example, local employers may decide to prefer participants in the experiment because they can pay them less. Landlords may prefer to rent to participants because they are surer of getting their rent.

An experiment can be designed to fail. The results can also be fudged or misinterpreted to discredit the BI. For example, in some American experiments, labor force participation decreased slightly. This was because some people stayed in school longer and some mothers stayed home with their kids. Even though primary providers worked more, the reduced hours effect was exaggerated to discredit the concept of BI.

It is generally not a good idea to try to bring out such a revolutionary program as this, with such effects on the status quo in society, by degrees or with a pilot project. As was noted at the Montreal BIEN congress in 2014, the flaws of such a program are usually not corrected, they are instead used to attack the program. You need to bring in something like this all at once, and then you can fine tune it.

no can do, Ontario

Now, I get to the specific problems with any BI project run by a province. At the start, this Ontario project is as bogus as could be because a province cannot have a Basic Income of its own. It will not have the money to do it because only the federal government has the needed tax powers.

If somehow this funding problem could be overcome, what would happen when impoverished people from other provinces start to come to Ontario looking for a better life? This is what happened with the Namibia experiment. Principles of Federalism will prevent the province from refusing them.

Now, what will happen if each province was required to create its own BI, like with the health care system or the old Canada Assistance plan? This sets up a “race to the bottom”; each province will set its BI as low as possible to avoid drawing in other province’s underclasses.

Any study of social programs in Canada shows that leaving them to the provinces to run creates just these kinds of downward tendencies. Yet some discussants of national social policies are strongly attached to the idea of provincial social programs. One must wonder what the real motive behind that is.

What does not work well in Canada are the older social programs of the 1960s through 1980s period, based on federal transfers to provinces. The social programs which work well are the more recent ones, mainly aimed at seniors and children, which come straight from the federal government. Even here, the provinces have tended to get in the way with “clawbacks” and such things. It is peculiar that anyone would want the provinces mixed up with any kind of new social program.

To sum this point up, a Basic Income is something which must be done by the federal government. If the provinces or municipalities would like to help out, let them help lobby the federal institutions to establish a BI. Or, get the housing programs going which will be needed to make a BI work.

valid concerns

So, what is the Wynne government really trying to do here? One thing which comes to mind is an effort to pressure the federal government into adopting a Basic Income policy, as they did with the Ontario pension until the Trudeau government came into office and began to expand the Canada pension scheme. The federal government has stated it will not become involved in any Basic Income plan. This is not a good way of trying to get another government to do something.

Various anti poverty groups when asked about a Basic Income relate conversations which they or their allies and associates have had with government officials. Lately, when such groups have tried to talk about poverty reduction, raising the minimum wage and similar issues, they are told to just wait, the government is going to create a Basic Income plan and that will “fix everything”. This has prompted many anti-poverty activists and groups to start speaking out strongly against a Basic Income.

The concerns of these people are justified. The biggest problem within a BI movement is that most people still do not get it that the same terms are being used to talk about different things. Many of the ideas put under the rubric of a BI would be very bad for most low and middle income people. Much like the FVC organization, the BI movement has failed to grasp the need to define what is and is not being advocated. This failing damaged FVC greatly and is now starting to bite BICN and other BI advocate groups.

The arguments being used against a BI are not “straw man” arguments. They are a arguments against ideas described as part of a BI, and which the BI movement has not clearly renounced. These ideas include; that a BI will make a minimum wage unnecessary. That a BI will allow for the elimination of most or all social programs. That a BI will allow employers to pay lower wages in order to remain “competitive”. That a BI can be used as a rent subsidy so that slumlords can get higher returns on their property.

These are legitimate concerns about the BI movement and the Wynne government’s intentions, which people who are not of a neo-liberal ideological tendency will have. This includes the overwhelming majority of the population. If the BI movement ever wants to get general public support for a BI, it must address these concerns.

This means we must think about what the Wynne government is trying to do. I have had one BI activist tell me he has heard that key people within the provincial government have had a “road to Damascus” moment and realized that the neo-liberal policies they have been pushing have never worked and are prepared to turn around. If so, why do they not move to raise corporate taxes, and stop the privatization of hydro, and the attacks on doctors?

NIT wits

It is unlikely that they intend a full BI program. They have not got the money to run programs they are obligated to provide now. Even with a “Negative Income Tax” model which Mr. Segal is apparently advocating, they would have to get federal cooperation. It would still cost them a substantial amount of money, from direct and indirect tax expenditures, unless they choose to take it from existing programs.

A Negative Income Tax has been well shown to be absolutely the wrong way to administer a Basic Income. It would be very complicated; people would have to calculate their incomes several times a year. For people with variable incomes, and there are many these days, that is a non starter.

The rigid attachment of some block heads to this idea seems to come from the fact that the Dauphin experiment was run that way. This was in the days before computers and the internet, and tax refunds were the only way to do it. Yet the people who worked on the Dauphin experiment recall that its biggest problem was the trouble people had with their income tax. Many people refused to take the income supplement because it was too much headache.

But lo, we are now in the internet age. Now we have the machinery which can deliver payments such as the child benefit or the Guaranteed Income Supplement into people’s bank accounts every month. That is how the recipients of a BI will want it and need it.

Another reason why this pre-internet age zombie idea for delivering a BI is so persistent is that it fits with the ideology of some Libertarian tag-alongs in the BI movement. That is, the tax system can be “revenue neutral”, with some redistribution from the better off to the worst off, but nothing for government with which to provide for anything else.

Some try to defend an NIT by saying it will be cheaper to run than a demogrant. Only people who “really need” the top up will get it. There is no room in this paper to refute NIT in every detail, but their idea of NIT is cheaper because it is not really a BI. It is a wage top up. It also allows government to conceal increased taxes in the slightly better off, rather than the wealthy, to pay a new form of ‘welfare’ to the poorest.

To sum up here, the province does not have the legal or fiscal means to provide a real and useful BI. That is, a demogrant delivered to everyone below a set income level, much higher than the “poverty line”. That is, enough for people to live in a dignified way. That is, a fixed and predictible amount delivered electronically every month.


If the province really had some wage top up idea in mind, it seems unlikely it would go through a “pilot” of several years. The flaws of their idea would become too apparent. Perhaps the pilot will be constructed to fail, thus discrediting the BI concept.

The provincial liberals have been very good at neutralizing the anti-poverty movement by stringing it along. Some participants in initiatives like “25 in 5” went totally ga-ga that the province responded to them and let them think they were having a hand in shaping a government program. Their behavior was shameful; like they assumed the right to bargain away the rights of impoverished people.

Many people who have staked out territory in the new Basic Income movement show signs of willingness to go in this direction. Especially so based on the way they have interacted with officials of some local governments, attaching to their support much more significance than it deserves. An engagement between the province and BI activists is likely to lead to a break point within the BI movement between such people, and those whose objective is more important than their ego.

When or if this break comes, it needs to be allowed to happen. The flatterers can do their thing, and the rest of us can get on with building real support without being tied into processes that can go nowhere. The experience of FVC and many other advocacy groups shows that nothing can be more destructive than the frantic efforts to hold together factions who have shown conflicting agendas and need to go their own ways.

questions, Ms. Wynne

Now I get to the sharp point of this paper; how a BI movement in Ontario needs to respond to a provincial initiative on BI. Basically, with profound skepticism. We need to keep firmly in mind that the province cannot possibly give us a BI; that has to come from the federal government.

So, Ms. Wynne, what is the point to this exercise? Is there a real intention to create a BI for Ontarians? If so, where will Ontario get the money for it? It seems likely you will try to run it as a ‘NIT” in a revenue neutral way. This sounds like an expansion of the “PST”, “renters credit”, and other refundable credits the province has been giving out in recent years. If so, it will be nice for poor people to have, but not be nearly enough to solve the problems for which a BI is needed.

What is a “pilot” needed for, Ms. Wynne? If you want to enact such a program, why don’t you just go ahead with it? What is the pilot supposed to show, anyway? What will be the criteria of a successful pilot? What will become of this pilot, and all the data collected, and the money spent on it, if after the end of three years you are no longer in government?

If you want to give poor people more money through the tax system, Ms. Wynne, you do not need a pilot for it. We wish you would just do it. But that is not really a BI. Only the federal government can give us that.

However, Ms. Wynne, we are concerned about what our friends in such groups as those demanding a rise in the minimum wage, and seeking an increase in welfare and disability benefits, are telling us about conversations they are having with provincial government officials. They are told that there is no need for them to worry anymore about raising wage or welfare or disability rates, because the province is going to bring in a Basic Income which will solve the poverty problem.

Are these people simply telling us stories? There is no way that the province has the means to eliminate poverty by itself. A BI will not make things like a minimum wage or services for the disabled unnecessary. The BI movement in Ontario stands in solidarity with labor rights and disability rights groups.

Now, Ms. Wynne, since Ontario cannot deliver a BI we question what this pilot is really about. If it is an attempt to coopt us in the way the anti-poverty movement has been coopted, most of us will not be taken in that way. If this test is set up to fail and to discredit a BI, we will expose this. If the idea is to freeze discussion about a BI until interest in it dies away, we do not think interest will fade away this time, as it has before, as the need for it is now becoming acute.

Ms. Wynne, whatever your aim is with this BI pilot, it cannot go anywhere. It will be a waste of time and a waste of public money. It is likely to be more inconvenience than help to those who become study subjects, and what happens to them when the study ends? Whatever data come out of it will not prove much.

we need this;

If you really would like to see a BI in Canada, Ms. Wynne, then work with us in applying pressure to the federal government to establish one. A real Bi program would be like this;

1) Enacted by the federal government all at once, not as a pilot or a phased in program.

2) A monthly demogrant delivered by automatic deposit to the lower two thirds of the population by income.

3) An amount adequate to insure a dignified life for everyone, not geared to the statistics Canada low income cutoff.

Any claim such a program is unaffordable is bogus. It could be covered by redirecting funds for programs made redundant by BI, plus restoration of corporate tax cuts of the past twenty which should not have been made.

Such a program will require a high minimum wage, rent controls, and a renewed housing program. All health care programs must remain and be enhanced. Provincial social welfare, no longer needed to deal with mass poverty, can be redirected toward hard core needs.

To conclude, if this “pilot project” does nothing but cause the scattered BI groups in Ontario to coalesce into an effective advocacy organization, and clarify their goals, it will have been of some use.