By Jim Slotek
I’m already down with a doc that uses Star Trek: The Next Generation as ideological ammo. So it is with Free Lunch Society, Austrian director Christian Tod’s quirky look at the feasibility and increasing acceptance of a guaranteed minimum income.
The movie opens with a first season TNG episode in which a handful of 20th Century folk are woken in the 23rd from cryogenic stasis. What’s changed? Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) tells an obnoxious former billionaire (Peter Mark Richman), “People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of 'things.' We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions.”
In fact, The Jetsons might have been a better starting point. Made in the ‘60s, it’s an indication of just how long ago we foresaw technology inevitably creating a future with less work than people. We just assumed it would be a paradise of leisure. No one imagined that the money saved would go into a few pockets, with the rest of us financially bereft.
So, it’s not surprising (if not so well known) that in the ‘60s, no less raving Marxists than Richard Nixon and Donald Rumsfeld are revealed to have pushed for what conservative economist Milton Friedman euphemistically called, “negative income tax” (in which people earning below a certain amount would receive supplemented pay from the government). The appeal to conservatives: it would theoretically eliminate the welfare bureaucracy.
If you’ve been taking the temperature of debate these days, you know that a guaranteed minimum income is in vogue on both sides of the ideological divide, as well as among many in the business world.
There are people who will still vociferously denounce it as (gasp) socialism, and beyond a few soundbites, Free Lunch Society doesn’t devote much energy to giving the opposition a soapbox.
But it scrupulously (and playfully) offers up a timeline of social experiments and mainly positive results that suggests – though we may never have warp drive and transporters – that Capt. Picard’s utopian future of equal straits is not unimaginable.
Included is the great Canadian “Mincom” experiment in Dauphin, Manitoba in the ‘70s, I which everyone over 18 received $1,250 up front annually. Alaska’s oil-boom riches have been doled out to all its citizens in amounts of up to $3,000 annually per person (an amount that becomes substantial if you have a family). Switzerland had a referendum on a guaranteed income as part of a recent general election, with 25% voting for (a number activists are happy to use as a starting point).
But in the end, it may be the African country of Namibia that takes the first plunge, having both the political will and village experiments that have turned around lives.
Star Trek aside, Tod’s use of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land as background mood music is not subtle, but it’s appropriate. It is hard to argue – even if there were someone in the film to do so – that jobs as we used to understand them (holidays, benefits, pensions) are not becoming obsolete.
If a majority are left out of the new economy, Free Lunch Society’s vision could be a far preferable outcome than all the rest.
Free Lunch Society. Directed by Christian Tod. Opens January 26 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema