Exclusive: The Activist Behind Switzerland’s Referendum for Guaranteed Income
Enno Schmidt of Switzerland’s Basic Income Initiative collected 100,000 signatures to provide every adult citizen with $2,800/month.
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
Swiss citizens will soon vote on a proposal to provide a basic income for all adults of $2,800 per month. The measure was introduced by grassroots activists from the Basic Income Initiative, who collected 100,000 signatures needed for a referendum.
Joining us for an exclusive interview is cofounder of the Basic Income Initiative, Enno Schmidt. Enno is an artist and author of the film Basic Income: A Cultural Impulse.
Thanks for joining us, Enno.
ENNO SCHMIDT, COFOUNDER, BASIC INCOME INITIATIVE: Thank you. Hello.
DESVARIEUX: So, Enno, your initiative has captured worldwide media coverage. And can you just provide for us a little bit of background about how this initiative came to be?
SCHMIDT: I think it’s interesting for the people that it starts with two people–it was Daniel and me–who thought, what will be the most necessary film and that what we really want to do? And we decided, yeah, the best thing is people has money enough to do what they really want to be creative, to develop what they can do for other people or need for theirself. And so we start this thing, basic income.
And basic income means enough money to live without need. And in Switzerland it’s only a number to say 2,500 francs. I don’t know how many it is in the States. It’s not to be rich. It’s simply to say, today we are rich enough and there are goods enough that we can say everybody needs an income to live. And why shall we–why have we to bound it to conditions?
And it’s an idea, for example, of the ’60s in the United States. Milton Friedman tried such things. It was a negative income tax, called so.
And we can say it’s a moment in the world, it’s a new century, a new vision, a social vision to say, set the people free by living, and then they do their things. And they are paid for their work, but the basic has to be sure for everybody.
And so we go with this in Switzerland. And the thing in Switzerland is that you have this direct democracy. And that means you can go with such wishes, such an idea. What really changed many things and let you look to all this facts new and to–yeah, it’s a bit of philosophical thing, but it’s a moral thing. It’s to acknowledge where we are now. And you can do this in Switzerland by such an initiative. And then the whole population discuss it and think about it, because–.
DESVARIEUX: Enno, there are probably some people watching this and saying to themselves, $2,800 a month? Wow, that’s a lot of money. There are some Americans who are working full-time and who don’t even make that much. Do you see this measure as a way to reduce inequality or poverty, or even both?
SCHMIDT: First, this highness of a basic income, it’s not so simple to exchange the worth of francs to dollar. It is to live and to have enough to live. And it’s not especially focused on the poor people. It’s like a human right. It is a right to live. And that is a thought. It’s not so much the thought to say people are working hard and have this. If they do so, I think they earn less, they earn not very much. And with a basic income, their position is a better one to say, okay, when I do this work, and it’s necessary, it’s worthwhile, then give me more money for that.
DESVARIEUX: So if the Swiss voters actually pass this law, do you know if they would be the first country ever to have a basic income?
SCHMIDT: Yeah, they will be the first country in this democratical way.
In Alaska, for example, there is a mass of money, what’s spent by the population without conditions from the taxes or from the money from the oil. Or there is experience in Namibia in Africa for three years, and they give them a basic income, and this village where they did that grows up. And in Brasilia, for example, it’s in the law, it’s written in the law, basic income, it’s one point of this family program in Brazilia, but it don’t happens, don’t run, because you have to pay a bit to be registered for that.
So the idea is, I think, all over the world coming. And Switzerland maybe is not the first country, because it needs time. From now on, we have two, three, or four years’ time to vote, and then comes this voting. And I think most of people will say no, it’s too early, or it’s too radical, or so. And then it’s–it’s going on.
The important thing about this is to discuss it, to think about it. And maybe the United States are more quick or maybe Germany is more quick.
But I think we have this role in the moment to give a message in the world. And this message, first of all, is: more rights by the people, by everyone, more direct democracy, more influence of the ideas and thinking of the people in the politician world, and to think new about what income is, what work is. So we are going in a globalized world. We are all working for each other. And let’s have a consciousness about that, and let’s ensure our life basic to do this things we really want to do for other people or for ourselves.
And so I think the leading position in the moment with Switzerland is not that they will have, the first one, this money, but they bring the new power in this discussion all over the world about rights of population, human rights, and that this human right is not only in Africa or where the people are in hunger or that; it’s in our countries too.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. And the Swiss will have another opportunity to exercise their direct democratic rights. There’s going to be a separate referendum scheduled for November. Swiss voters will have the opportunity to pass the world’s strictest executive compensation laws, limiting executive pay to 12 times the lowest-paid employee. Have you been involved at all in the executive compensation campaign? And do you support it? And why?
SCHMIDT: No, both not. We are not involved and we don’t support it. So that is a thought. But that is a totally different other thing like a basic income [incompr.] to be [incompr.] to make something in a rule. And I think it’s unrealistic. It’s emotional stuff. Yeah, maybe it is okay to say so, such things, but it’s only who–I don’t know. It’s one thought. And I think that don’t moves anything further on. So it’s very–.
DESVARIEUX: Enno, is it because, as you described earlier, that you’re hoping that this initiative, the basic income initiative, is not about class warfare, it’s not about trying to take money from the rich? Why do you have reservations about the executive compensation campaign?
SCHMIDT: Because I’m against this old position to say the rich people has to give to the poor and we have to make [incompr.] power and violence and all this old class fighting. This class fighting leads us to this situation today where the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. It’s not the right way. The result is very horrible.
So for me it’s important to say this idea of basic income, it aims to everybody as a person, as a man. And let’s do the things together. And I think it’s not naive [incompr.] It is another kind to look on each other and to say, it’s our thing together. And at least, yeah, the rich people will pay more for the basic income than the poor one. The poor will pay nearly, like, nothing. But that’s not the program to say, take it from the rich. It is real much more too old, this social thinking, 100 years old, and the result is that it become not better but more worse.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. But how are you hoping to fund this basic income initiative if it’s not coming from the rich?
SCHMIDT: The basic income financing, yeah, that’s important question, and because the thing is not that everybody gets this money on top. It is that it is free. You get your basic income. But what will happen then? Then we’ll start a new deal about income by work. And the incomes by the work and the social incomes, transfer incomes, will go down. And it’s necessary to don’t become inflation. So that means it is not so much that the people has more money, but that the basic, what everybody has today, more or less, is unconditionally and stays by the person their whole life. And the income by work is bounded by the work and is standing by the work. So the financing is how to transfer this money from the incomes of today in an unconditional income.
And if this will happen, what I said, that the work incomes will go down, then you can put a tax for income, for basic income, unconditional basic income, in the prices or wherever you want. But in the prices it will be paid by the consumer. That means with an unconditional basic incomes, costs of work will go down, and on the prices what will go down too you can put on this tax for the basic income to transfer the money in the unconditional basic incomes.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. So, Enno, just really quickly, can you just let us know how likely is this to pass? Have you seen any polls?
DESVARIEUX: Yes. Have you seen any polls?
SCHMIDT: Polls? I don’t know the word polls.
DESVARIEUX: Polls. Like, have you seen any surveys that have been done to say that voters are supporting this basic income initiative?
SCHMIDT: I’m sorry. Ask it again.
DESVARIEUX: Have you seen any surveys that have been done to say that people are supporting this initiative? What are the odds?
SCHMIDT: What are the odds?
DESVARIEUX: Are a lot of people voicing that they are in support of this? Or do you think that it will pass? That’s what I’m asking, basically.
SCHMIDT: Ah. Okay. Most of the people in Switzerland in the moment think that it is too radical. And the voting, the most of people saying the voting will pass, will have more no than yes.
But if the Swiss people understand in this time, from now on to the voting, in these years, if they understand that it is more to go in the direction to decide about a way, not to decide about some case only, then it is not absolutely impossible that more people say yes to this initiative than no. But I think, yeah, even if they are 40 percent yes and 60 no, it is a great success, because it makes visible how many people want to go further on in this direction. And that is a part of democracy–especially in Switzerland, but I think all over the world–that even if only 30 or 40 percent are for this initiative and vote for it, that means for the government and that means for the other people in the country to know, wow, there are so many people who want it, we have to go further on with it, even if the voting passes.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. We’ll certainly stay on top of this story. Best of luck to you, and thank you for joining us, Enno.
SCHMIDT: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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