How a ‘stupid painter from Switzerland’ is revolutionizing work

BY Enno Schmidt  April 9, 2014 at 2:22 PM EDT
The leader of the Swiss movement for a guaranteed basic income explains why even if the Swiss people vote against the referendum, the basic income will still have won. Photo by Flickr user Kopf oder Zahl.

The leader of the Swiss movement for a guaranteed basic income explains why even if the Swiss people vote against the referendum, the basic income can still claim a victory. Above, Generation Basic Income activists pose with the 8 million coins they dumped in front of the Swiss parliament last fall. Photo by Flickr user Kopf oder Zahl.

Editor’s Note: As Making Sen$e reported Monday night on the NewsHour, Switzerland will soon vote on a referendum to guarantee every citizen a basic income of 30,000 Francs. The referendum won’t pass. The leader of the movement advocating for the unconditional income, artist Enno Schmidt, admits that. But, he says, that’s not the point.

When activists dumped 8 million coins (one for each citizen) outside the Swiss parliament last fall, they were starting a national debate, and that, according to Schmidt, is what matters. The initiative to get the referendum on the ballot garnered more than 120,000 signatures, but signing on, Schmidt explains, doesn’t necessarily mean that you support the proposal; it just means you want it discussed and put to the population for a vote.

In our extended conversation with Schmidt, below, he explains what that national conversation is and why it’s worth having — even if the Swiss people don’t approve the referendum. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity. Watch the full Making Sen$e report below.

Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor


Paul Solman: What’s the basic idea behind the basic income?

Enno Schmidt: The basic idea is to develop social life. Not because things are so bad, but because we can [live in a better society.] We’ve had this odd thought that work and income are combined, and that’s not the truth.

Paul Solman: But historically, work and income have been linked, haven’t they? The more productive you are, the more income you get. Are you trying to lessen the importance of money in the economy?

Enno Schmidt: Yes, that’s what I want. There’s too much misunderstanding of what an economy is. An economy is about working together, or working and doing something for other people. We have to go back to bringing work and living more closely together. We need more and more work, but it’s not linked exactly to getting an income.

We are for a free market, much more free of a market than we have today. An unconditional basic income is a basis to become rich, to become successful, or to do things that are important but that you don’t have money for. The basic income is given so you can act free. There are incentives but no compulsion.

Like Soviet Style?

Paul Solman: But don’t we need compulsion? Hasn’t the failure of the Soviet Union, for example, shown that without the incentive of getting income for work, people will not work?

Enno Schmidt: The Soviet Union and the real socialist countries showed that it is stupid to bring work and income so close together. The unconditional basic income is the opposite of Communism. An unconditional basic income sets you free to do the things you want. The success of countries like us in Europe, you in the United States, comes not from compulsion; It comes from being inspired and engaged. This is our success. Compulsion is not successful — it is unproductive; it makes people ill.

Paul Solman: It makes the people ill, but it gets them out of bed in the morning, doesn’t it?

Enno Schmidt: We asked a lot of people, what would you do with an unconditional basic income? And nearly 80 percent said they would continue to work. And 10 percent said, “Oh, I would sleep longer and then look at what I do.” And in the next five minutes of talking with them, they would say they wanted to study or do more for their old mother. People are blind to all the problems in the world because of this ideology that to work is to earn money.

Paul Solman: So this concept isn’t born of compassion for people, but is more about reconfiguring the relationship of income to work?

Enno Schmidt: We need more productivity, and that’s only possible if we set the people free — allow them to have more initiative and self-responsibility.

What Kind of Freedom Are We Talking About?

Paul Solman: You’ve said this is similar to the anti-slavery movement?

Enno Schmidt: It’s similar because the argument against stopping slavery was “it is bad for business.” Everybody said, “We will have four million people on the street who need structure.” And that’s the same mentality when we say today that there are [other] people who need compulsion to work, [and that giving them an unconditional income will mean they do nothing]. “Not me, not you, you are my friend,” we say; “it’s another kind of population in the world that [needs that compulsion.]” Today, we don’t pay these people enough because we think they do dirty work. The truth is they do work that is very valuable in society, but we think that because they have no possibility of fighting [for another job] or negotiating [their freedom], it’s dirty work. The freedom that comes with the unconditional basic income is the ability to say no to a low-paying job.

Paul Solman: So in a sense, this is a critique of the market system in the year 2014, that the market, the global market, is not getting people to do what they could be doing, or even should be doing.

Enno Schmidt: An unconditional basic income will make it so you cannot pay so little for this valuable work because the people are sovereign to say no. It’s a civil right that your existence is not negotiable by the market.

Paul Solman: But why would I ever clean the toilets if I didn’t have to? if I’m getting a basic income, I’d rather do something useful like take care of my mother or my grandkids.

Enno Schmidt: The toilet cleaner earns more money, and a basic income is only a basic income, you know? That’s not so much money to live on, so most people want to have more.

And look, talk with the people who are cleaning toilets or sitting at the cashiers at the supermarkets; this is valuable work. You become more aware of the value of this work with an unconditional basic income.

Paul Solman: Why would I become any more respectful of a toilet cleaner?

Enno Schmidt: Because a toilet cleaner gets, for example, $2,000 to do that, plus his basic income. The toilet cleaner is a very important job, and very well paid.

Paul Solman: So you expect that companies will now have to pay more to get someone to clean their toilets?

Enno Schmidt: Yes, that could be, and that’s an important point, but on the other hand, it could be that you change the way you deal with these people if you don’t have a dirty image of their job.

Paul Solman: Because there’s a narrower gap between the people at the top and the people at the bottom?

Enno Schmidt: Yes, because everybody is free.

How Would It Actually Work?

Paul Solman: If you do this, won’t every poor person in the world flood into Switzerland?

Enno Schmidt: You can’t go to Switzerland and live there, and then get an unconditional basic income. You have to have an address to get it. It’s not so easy.

Paul Solman: Isn’t this going to be incredibly expensive?

Enno Schmidt: What will happen is the other incomes from work, salaries, wages and social security benefits can and will go down.

Paul Solman: Why are prices going to go down?

Enno Schmidt: Because work is cheaper. So for example, let’s say you earn $2,000, and then from an unconditional basic income, you earn $1,000. So your director will ask you to work for $1,000 now. It’s the same [pay] in your pocket: you have $1,000 from the unconditional income and $1,000 from your employer.

Paul Solman: But I can imagine saying no, no, you’ve got to pay me at least as much as you did before because I don’t need the job the way I used to.

Enno Schmidt: I talk with so many people, so often, and mostly, at first, they say, “I’m working for money,” and then they realize, no, that’s not really it. Then they realize that they like doing the work and would like to do it better. A lot of engineers said to me that with an unconditional basic income they’d be much more free to be responsible. “We are so quick in the moment, there are so many stresses,” they say, “it’s not responsible what we are doing, and I want to do this work, but more responsibly.”

Will It Pass?

Paul Solman: Will the referendum get voted in?

Enno Schmidt: No. We’ve had 120,000 people who have said, yes, we want to discuss this initiative. They haven’t said yes, we are for an unconditional basic income.

Paul Solman: So this is the beginning of a process for you?

Enno Schmidt: Yes, this is the main important point — that it’s not a new, ready, fixed model. It’s an idea.

In the 1980s, there was a referendum in Switzerland to abolish the army. The army was of paramount importance in Switzerland, so for many, this idea was like high treason. So when 36 percent of the Swiss people voted to abolish the army, people were astonished. Even though the majority had voted against it, because the minority was so great, the importance of the army fell sharply. After that, the army played a much smaller role. And so, by that I mean that even if only 30 percent vote for our initiative, a few things will change. And then we will start the next initiative.

Where Will the Movement Go?

Enno Schmidt: I’ve done a lot of interviews in the United States, and the American people, from my experience, they taste the idea. They don’t want to know what this idea exactly is. Then they go around and are very quick to say it’s more efficient, it’s more fair to the people, it’s good to the people. But “Hey,” they ask, “should every American live like this stupid painter from Switzerland?”

Paul Solman: Are you a stupid painter from Switzerland?

Enno Schmidt: Yes, this is what the Australians wrote.

Paul Solman: You seem like you’re not embarrassed or ashamed by that?

Enno Schmidt: No, I’m proud of this because to do something good, you have to be a bit stupid in that moment. Being a bit stupid [allows] you to see more. Don’t be too intelligent because then you can think of every possible objection [to doing something like advocating for the basic income.]