A message of Hope for the Greek People: the case for a basic income

I received this message to the Greek people by Stanislas Jourdan, an independent journalist who until recently was working for French newspaper La Tribune. The text was originally posted here and I am reposting it here.

Defaulting on its debt and exiting the eurozone is certainly the best thing to do for Greece now. However, this won’t fix all the damages Greece experienced these last years of economical dictatorship. Greece needs more than that. Greece needs a new hope. I think what Greece needs is a basic income.

Let’s face it: far from preserving Greece from bankruptcy, European leaders are denying the simple fact that Greece is already a bankrupt country. Yet the Greek State cannot pay its hospitals’ medicine providers, delays VAT reimbursement, and even the central bank of Greece is printing euros to bail out insolvent banks.

More than never, now is time for a realistic diagnostic: if something might help Greece preserve its economy, defaulting on its debt burden is certainly the first step. Leaving the eurozone would be the second. If necessary, temporarily printing money to fill the budgetary gap, would be another possibility.

These three simple things would relieve every greek citizen from the repayement of an odious debt, it would lead to devaluation of the new drachma thus reinforcing competitivity of the Greek economy. In the end, this would supposedly tackle the vicious circle of economical depression. Theoritically, at least.

Practically, I know things are not so easy, and that these three steps raise a lot of different issues, and will not magically solve all the problems. So, how can we do better than that ? How can we build a better future in Greece, beyond the default ? How can we make this decision progressive and desirable ?

I am not Greek nor i am living there, however, through a lot of readings and some talks with Greek people, i think i have an idea about what is happening there. And I have been thinking of some part of a solution…

A confidence deficit

I feel that what Greece needs the most is much beyond economical measures. The most precious thing Greece has lost these last years is confidence. Confidence in itself, confidence towards others citizens, neighbours, confidence in the future, not to mention confidence in politicians.

This has to be fixed, but deeply relies on economical issues. You cannot ask people to trust each others when they are suffering from hard economical pressures. When you’re too poor to feed yourself or your children, well, things like morality, common sense, or citizenship becomes all relative. This is no more than a human thing, right ?

Moreover, confidence cannot be reached when people feel totally unequal towards some of their fellow citizens. There are studies (notably French ones) that prove this point: the more social welfare is unequal, the more people feel jealous and aren’t willing to play by the rules. They would try to take advantage of the system as much as they can and/or feel others are doing.

What i am saying is that Greece cannot get back on its feets as long as a new social contract is written democratically. And such a contract as to be built upon equality.

The basic income scenario

I don’t have any magic wand, but there is an idea that has been emerging for some years now, here in France, but in many other countries as well : the basic income guarantee. What’s that ? Basically, this consists in giving every citizen a monthly grant. Let say a minimum of 300€ a month for every Greek (this amount should be debated democratically). More from wikipedia:

A basic income guarantee is a proposed system of social security, that regularly provides each citizen with a sum of money. (…) Except for citizenship, a basic income is entirely unconditional. Furthermore, there is no means test; the richest as well as the poorest citizens would receive it.

In others words, if you earn a salary, you also earn the basic income. This detail is important: it means more incentives to work than just receiving the basic income. Of course, the richer actually reimburse the basic income they earn through taxes.

The counterpart of this basic income would be a removal of most of the current social grants, and (at least) a reduction of pensions grants, and unemployment allowances, thus downsizing the government intervention in terms of administration weight and bureaucracy. Also, this would imply big reforms towards a simplification of the greek fiscal system, perhaps with something like a flat tax.

Greece is in debt crisis, and i suggest to spend more?

Humm, yes and no. On the one hand, yes Greece needs a stimulus, on the other hand, the basic income should be funded partially through the transfer of existing budgets, thus not increasing the total budget of the Greek government, but rather optimizing it.

Now that said, i am not a specialist in the Greek economy and have no idea about the figures we are talking about. Defaulting on the public debt will probably help, but might not be sufficient. In this case, the central bank would to the rest.

Indeed, let’s not forget that if Greece were to exit the eurozone, Greece could then ask its central bank to print money and provide the funds this measure requires. I know this is a sensible topic for many economists, but before throwing me some Weimar-like arguments, please mind that Greece has been suffering from a big bank run for two years now, therefore deflation is more a threat than inflation right now. Growth is being slashed down because of a lack of money, not because of a lack of production factors.

And even though inflation were to rise, let’s not forget that giving a basic income to everyone, you are actually compensating the poorest from an hypothetical loss of purchasing power. Furthermore, in a situation where the government doesn’t manage to collect taxes properly, monetary-driven inflation is actually another way to tax people (the richer, by the way) and fund public spendings. As long as everyone truly benefit from the money you print (and not only the civil servants for instance), i think we can agree this is fair.

And at least, once in History, a central bank in the world would actually behave in favor of People and not only for banks and governments…

Greece badly needs a new Hope

I know this sounds like just another utopia. But this is a very serious proposal i have been advocating for, here in France for several years now.

And I am not alone supporting the idea. For many years, economists have been working on and defending such an idea (some of them, like James Tobin, got Nobel prices). Some countries such as Canada and the United States even experimented such a system. At a wider scale, Brazil also implemented a basic-income like system, called the Bolsa Familia. If you are curious, I highly recommend you to read some papers about these experiments: researchers not only found great results about economical output, but also in terms of Education, health and security issues.

Still, people keep on telling me « people will stop working ! ». And i say : « Of course, the others would ! But you wouldn’t, right ? ». Only once for two year, one person admitted to me he would take some rest before going back to work, so i guess not so many people would actually stop working (as the experiments show, overall).

So what about you ? Would you really stop working ? Or would you simply look for a way to create wealth accordingly to your own values and beliefs ? And if you think so, then wouldn’t it be a good idea to allow such a move in everyone’s life ?

There are many reasons that makes the basic income a good solution, from the end of extreme poverty, better redistribution of wealth and productivity gains, the inversion of the bargaining power in the society (to the civil society), and recognition of the non-market economy. I suggest you to read this text (here in greek) if you want to understand a bit more the vision of the society behind this proposal.

Again, i know this sounds crazy, utopist, or whatever reaction this raises for you. But doesn’t Greece need a new hope now ? Don’t protesters, occupyers, indignados, all over the world need a dream ? At least mine is technically feasible.

Now it’s up to you to embrace it, and make it a reality.

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