This interview with Green Party candidate for Congress Ian Schlakman of Maryland's Second Congressional District was originally published on Basic Income News on October 31, 2014.
When and how were you first introduced to the idea of a basic income guarantee?
I first learned about a negative income tax when I was about 20. I really liked the idea but the implementation seemed a bit confusing. A year and a half ago I began looking at parties and races for the 2014 elections. I also started seeing news stories about Universal Basic Income (UBI) from Switzerland. While running, I got a crash course in how to create focus and maintain consistency in messaging.
I initially entered the race due to my cyber security credentials and to challenge Rep. Dutch Ruppersburger on his handling of Snowden and the NSA (he is the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee). Later on, I decided that my core issue would be a UBI.
Messaging a complex idea like UBI definitely posed some challenges. First we came up with “Think BIG with a Basic Income Guarantee”. But then a high-ranking Green Party US (GPUS) staffer suggested that we change, or explain BIG by bringing up Social Security. He also pointed out that BIG has been in the GPUS platform for years.
Now we use “Social Security for All” in our messaging. Frankly, it’s the easiest way to explain a UBI to everyday people. An excellent side-effect of this is that in a day and age when Social Security is being attacked, it makes a clear distinction that I would fight to expand Social Security to everyone.
As a candidate for the Green Party, what effects do you believe a basic income will have on traditionally considered key components of the Green Party platform like a cleaner environment, progress on climate change, and the pursuit of sustainability?
The challenge was to show that the Greens are more than just environmentalist. I relied a lot on the Green Party platform. Take a look at it. It’s huge, it’s thorough, and it’s very well- thought-out. The platform already had a lot of great reasons for a BIG and several other economic justice and economic stimulus ideas.
Our economic system demands that you make an income to pay for your essentials. I personally believe that’s wrong. In a world of such extreme abundance, we should be moving to a “Post Scarcity” age. But as a Congressman, it’s not my job to turn my opinion into legislation.
The reality that you have to work no matter what to pay for life’s essentials has far-reaching consequences on the environment and the health of communities. If someone desperately needs work, (like so many of us do) they have to work anywhere that will hire them. This means if only high-polluting, low-wage jobs that are harmful to the environment are available in your community, such as fast-food or mountaintop removal mining projects, then that’s where you have to work or you won’t be able to survive.
A Social Security for All program would be a great step in making sure you don’t have to choose between harming your community and paying your rent. Also, it would allow entrepreneurs a bit of breathing room when they begin their business ventures. So if you wanted to quit your job in fast-food and start a business as a local tailor, a BIG would really help while you’re in the crucial startup months.
When we started pushing for a BIG, we started gaining lots of Twitter followers but they were mostly from Europe. A BIG was (and arguably still is) relatively unheard of in the USA. It became clear rather quickly that explaining what a BIG is and why it’s an excellent idea was going to be harder than I anticipated. When we’re on Reddit or Facebook it’s easy to assume that everyone knows what you’re talking about when you mention BIG or UBI. When you have between 30 to 120 seconds to describe what you would do on Social Security in a debate to an audience that’s never heard of BIG, let’s just say it’s tough.
When you run for public office and you take on a responsibility to the public, you have to realize that most people spend their spare time with their families, fixing up their homes, working a second job, working a third job, etc. You have to be willing to take on the challenge of explaining big (no pun intended) concepts in very brief sound bites.
To answer your question directly, Social Security for All is my preferred method of explaining a BIG. If elected, I would work with a coalition of Democrats who want to expand Social Security and Republicans who are familiar with things like Milton Friedman’s Negative Income Tax. My goal is to create some truly bipartisan legislation that would give everyone a BIG.
You’ve mentioned universal healthcare and a $15 minimum wage as part of your platform of “thinking BIG” with basic income. What other big ideas do you want the opportunity to fight for in Congress?
I would like to deescalate our military presence abroad. I would work with progressive Democrats and libertarian Republicans to end current military actions overseas, close foreign military bases (especially in countries that don’t want us there) and bring our troops home. I would take every opportunity to stop military drone operations. I would never authorize spending for what Ron Paul calls “illegal wars”. Congress (including my opponent, Democrat Dutch Ruppersburger) just authorized a half BILLION dollars for military action in Syria. I would have voted against this. I don’t care what party the President is from, if they want money for a war then they need to follow the Constitution and get Congress to declare war. America should be seen as a country that takes military violence very seriously and follows its own Constitution.
Some suggest that having a basic income should lead to a more civic-minded and politically-engaged citizenry. Do you consider basic income one step toward weakening corruption and strengthening democracy? What other steps would you take in Congress to reduce the corrupting influence of money on government?
YES! As I mentioned previously, far too many people are working over 40 hours a week, more than 1 job, etc. This leaves no time for art, mental health, recreation and democratic engagement! This is a huge problem.
In Maryland, we have a fantastic organization called GMOM (Get Money out of Maryland) that I’ve worked with. I know they have chapters in all 50 states and I would encourage people to find their state and local chapters.
How can those interested in helping make basic income a reality help you and your campaign?
We as activists, advocates and academics tend to gloss over the need for financial and volunteer support when it comes to elections. A BIG will not just appear one day. We all need to support candidates that take the risk of supporting something as exceptional as a BIG.
There are a few Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and independents that know about and support a UBI. But remember it’s been a staple of the Green Party for years. So make an effort to contact your local Green candidates and donate some money or some time.
As for my campaign, please spread the word on social media! Please consider a donation even if you only have $5. And if you really want to get involved, sign-up to volunteer on our website at ian42.com/volunteer. We are focusing on making phone calls from now until the end of the campaign to make sure our supporters get out and vote. If you’re able to help out (either in the Baltimore area or from across the country) please let us know!