A young person’s guide to a guaranteed or basic income: part 7

Keeping what’s good from the past

“There is a fire burning over the earth, taking with it plants and animals, ancient skills and visionary wisdom. At risk is a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination, an oral and written language composed of the memories of countless elders and healers, warriors,  farmers, fishermen, midwives, poets and saints – in short , the artistic, intellectual, and spiritual expression of the full complexity and diversity of the human experience. Quelling this flame, this spreading inferno, and rediscovering a new appreciation for the diversity of the human spirit as expressed by culture, is among the central challenges of our time.”[1]

Wade Davis- The Wayfinders – 2009

In this seventh and final meditation on a guaranteed annual or basic income for young people, I will admit to hijacking Wade Davis’ exquisite prose to make a less monumental observation concerning Canada’s income security system.

Our income security system in Canada is inadequate as it relates to the poor and many parts of it are confusing, outmoded and unfair. But that does not make it a terrible system. In many ways, it reflects our culture and much that is good within it. We need to be very careful about what we dismantle or allow to disappear inadvertently.

Old Age Security, the Guaranteed Income Supplement, our new child benefit system, CPP and EI are very good programs that – with a little bit of redesign work – could take vast swaths of people out of poverty. There is no good reason to throw them out and every reason to build enhancements using them as key building blocks of a new system.

Carl Jung said in his famous defense of astrology:

“We are born at a given moment in a given place and like vintage years of wine we have the qualities of the year and of the season in which we are born. Astrology does not lay claim to anything else.”[2]

Our income security programs that pay out $160 billion a year all bear the earmarks of their vintages. The beginning era of modern social assistance spanned from 1916 to 1939. Social insurance’ beginnings in Canada span the 26 years from 1940 to 1966. Old Age and disability pensions began in 1927 and took their present form at the end of the 1960’s. The era of refundable tax credits began at the federal level in 1978 and continues to this day. Much of our system is now settled in place well beyond their eras of invention. This history is both remarkable and important.

Still, to many, our present income security system can look like 20 cats in a bag. To a young person it must look like a horrible hodge-podge of divergent efforts mummified by Band-Aids. But to repeat Wade Davis, our system, like our culture is:

“…a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination, an oral and written language composed of the memories of countless elders and healers…”

Throughout the history of man, there have been countless movements to fix the burden of an unsatisfactory present with a clean slate, a ‘tabula rasa’.  ‘Starting over’ appeals to an element within the human spirit – it is neither right nor wrong.

Tinkering and fixing things with ‘chicken wire and glue’ is equally an element of our humanity. Most of us admire the 1950’s cars in Cuba that still run with hundreds of reengineered parts and workarounds. The point is that they still work. ‘Clean slaters’ and ‘fixer/tinkerers’ each have their own place in the annals of reform and depending on the problem at hand, they are equally revered or reviled.

With a guaranteed annual income, our collective impulse to wipe the slate clean comes to the fore while a basic income – that adds another $30 billion into the system and greatly reduces the role of welfare – appeals to our collective impulse to tinker and fix.

Almost 30 years ago in 1987, Michael C. Wolfson raised these ideas in his landmark essay: The Arithmetic of Income Security Reform.[3] On page 47, he distinguishes between two options: “modest tinkering” and “profound demolition”.  These options remain relevant today but the interesting thing is that Wolfson set out in a great detail what these two options actually meant in terms of the programs that would be altered or replaced. He used real numbers and set out (at least on paper) what tinkering and demolition actually meant from a design perspective.

Fast forward 30 years later and these options are still relevant but as an interested public, we seem to be unencumbered of the most rudimentary design details even though our current income security system has changed in many important ways (EI cuts, welfare reform, growth in child benefits, CPP changes etc.). In this sense, modest tinkering continues apace while profound demolition becomes less and less feasible or relevant. Absent sweeping reform, modest tinkering continues by default.

But here’s the thing: 2016 is different than 1987 because we are now walking a tightrope without a net. There is no serious set of proposals to design a basic income and equally, almost nothing as to how a GAI would actually work.

Throughout this series, I have posed questions about what can and should be cut and what can and should be added. I raised the issue that programs representing over 70% of our present system are not income tested. I noted how programs for the very poor are extremely Draconian in their design and are set up to confiscate almost every resource that a low income person might realize.

In contrast, many of our programs are designed to supplement the income of the better off without any regard to their income and resources. I asked whether we were going to take these programs away from the better off and I concluded it would not be without a fight.

Speaking personally, I now receive CPP and OAS on top of a defined benefit pension that’s far higher than any guarantee will ever be. Should my OAS be taken away from me? Should the CPP benefit that I paid into for 46 years from 1966 to 2012 be cancelled and withdrawn?

If not, should we not consider how quick we are to confiscate income from poor people? For example, the new Trudeau government recently increased the Guaranteed Income Supplement[4] but without a single word in their own defense, designed a new clawback on poor seniors with incomes between $4,600 and $8,400 a year without touching the clawback of well to do seniors that begins at an income of $72,809 a year.

And all the while, the same government has agreed to study the idea of a basic income? Incredible!


“But be careful what you wish for ’cause
you just might get it, you just might get it, you just might get it
but be careful what you wish for ’cause
you just might get it, you just might get it, you just might get it.”

“When I Grow Up”
The Pussycat Dolls featuring Rodney Jerkins
(Track 1:) Doll Domination [2008]

Let’s think about the science of archaeology[5] as a way of concluding this essay and this series. The short definition on Google says archeology is:

“…the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains.”

One element of the archaeological enterprise is that modern societies often discover that their predecessors knew how to do things in ways that moderns neither understand nor are able to conceive.  Wade Davis’ The Wayfinders provides numerous examples of this phenomenon.

I believe that archaeology as I conceive it here has an important message for a Guaranteed Annual or Basic Income. That message is to quote the Pussycat Dolls and the famous expression– ‘…be careful what you wish for, you just may get it’.

When we neither understand nor are able to conceive of a past achievement, it means that in some way shape or form, a slate was wiped clean without an understanding of the design of the achievement. I fear that the present discussion of a guaranteed annual income (and to some extent a basic income), could suffer a similar fate. It need not be so.


[1] Wade Davis, The Wayfinders – Why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world – CBC Massey Lectures- 2009, House of Anansi Press, page 34

[2] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/carl_jung_108743

[3] Michael C. Wolfson, The Arithmetic of Income Security Reform., Approaches to Income Security Reform, Shirley Seward and Mario Iacobacci, Halifax: Institute for Research on Public Policy, pp. 41-85, 1987. Reproduced with the permission of the author. (Don’t worry about the virus warning when you click the above URL)

[4] http://www.budget.gc.ca/2016/docs/plan/budget2016-en.pdf p.171

[5] https://www.google.ca/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=archaeology%20definition