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Guy Caron is not a household name in Canadian politics. Yet.
But Caron kicked off his campaign for the New Democratic Party leadership this week with a policy proposal that’s becoming the subject of a lot of political chatter in Canada and beyond: a guaranteed basic income.
The idea could well become the sleeper issue in Canadian politics in 2017 — not just in the NDP but across the political spectrum, drawing in non-partisan advocates as well.
Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and PayPal, has thrown his considerable international profile behind the idea of a guaranteed basic income in recent months, arguing that governments may have no other option as more and more people lose their jobs to technology.
In an interview with CNBC in late 2016, Musk said: “There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation... I am not sure what else one would do.”
The demise of manufacturing jobs — and the fraught question of what to do about it — seems to have separated the political world into two camps: one consisting of those who believe that the job losses are due to open trade or foreign competition, and another made up of those who believe that technology is to blame. The basic income idea is coming mainly from this second group.
Donald Trump, the new U.S. president, falls into the “blame-trade” category, of course. His predecessor, Barack Obama, did not. When former president Obama was in Ottawa for the “Three Amigos” summit last year — many months before Trump’s victory — he laid out the trade-automation division quite neatly at a press conference with reporters.
The subject then was how to sell open trade as a burgeoning populist political climate was turning against it. “This nostalgia,” Obama said, “about an era when everybody was working in manufacturing jobs and you didn’t need a college degree, and you could go in and as long as you worked hard, you could support a family and live a middle-class life — that has been undermined far more by automation than it has been by outsourcing or the shift of jobs to low-income or low-wage countries.”
A couple of months later, talking about this same phenomenon, Obama told Wired magazine that the answer might well be a basic guaranteed income. “Now, whether a universal income is the right model... is it gonna be accepted by a broad base of people?... That’s a debate that we’ll be having over the next 10 or 20 years,” he said.
Trump’s victory — and his many promises to make America great again by shredding or “tweaking” trade deals — may have stalled this conversation in the U.S., or at least in the White House, for a few years.