Jonathan Brun

Satyagraha

What unites the left and right?

Artwork by Pawel Kuczynski

Artwork by Pawel Kuczynski

The media portrays the left and right as two indissociable social blocks that only speak to each other through talking heads shows. Yet on many issues I have found consensus between apparently left and right wing folks. The question therefore arises: what ties them together when they disagree on so many things?

Reading Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book The Divided Mind or watching his TED Talk explain well what makes the left and the right different. According to Haidt, the left operates on two molar pillars when they evaluate issues: Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity, whereas right wing people tend to evaluate decisions on all five pillars including the first two and adding  Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect and Purity/Sanctity. Both his book and talk are convincing, but they leave out the key element of what binds the two groups together.

On many social issues I manage to find agreement with right wing people – especially on moral questions such as the abolition of prostitution, organ sales, pollution and responsible financial management. In a great article by Fréderic Lordon in Le Monde Diplomatique (# 726) I finally found a convincing answer. Lordon summarizes what it is to be ‘left wing’, he states that to be a leftist is to refuse the sovereignty of capital, and to refuse to let capital rule our society. I would go further and add that this principle is not a leftist mantra, but one that defines progress.

To let capital rule is not to be right wing per se, but it is a form of apathy towards the forces of the powerful. To let the powerful, both individuals and corporate, dictate the rules of the game is to leave an open field for their control of society by the mathematical dictates of money. For most of history this was the case, capital in the form of land and resources dictated the norms of society and its structure. Born a peasant, always a peasant. Historically the poor could never accumulate enough capital to free themselves from servitude and the landed aristocracy were thus secure in their place. Only with the American and French revolutions did we see an evolution towards a different power structure that was less centered on capital accumulation. This was further reinforced in the 20th century after the two world wars, which destroyed a significant portion of our accumulated capital, helping reset the parameters of power.

Perhaps the most important book of this young century is Thomas Picketty’s tome on Capital, Capital in the 21st Century. His remarkable work outlines how capital interacts with society and how in our capitalist system, capital inevitably tends to accumulate at the top of the pyramid. Seven hundred pages might be simplified as “the rich get richer because they start richer and the masses can never hope to catch up”. Picketty traces capital movements in France, England and the United States since the late 18th century and clearly demonstrates the interactions of capital and social power structures. His book is worth every page and though it is long it will change the way you see our modern day society. For an even longer perspective on the role of capital, or rather debt – which is just negative capital – the book and long article by the same name, 5,000 years of debt, outlines how debt and money set the path for slavery, war and control of power.

What I have found in my discussions at conferences, events and with politicians is that the only path of progress is through the prism of a refusal to let capital rule society. It is tempting to use currency to try and quantify everything, we see this even in the environmental mouvement, which is too often negatively labelled as left wing or “tree hugging”. Numerous environmentalists want a cap and trade mechanisms for carbon emissions or wish to quantify the ‘value’ of nature, such as the Amazon Rainforest, and then issue bonds on the financial markets for the forest’s consumption of CO2. But, to place all of human society and the natural world we live in in the frame work of capital is to cede to the desires of the powerful. It is a trap. If we frame all of our decisions in financial terms, we are voluntarily giving in to a world view that will place us under a ruling elite who control the vast majority of the capital in the world.

The path of a progressive society is not through revolution or through higher taxes, but through a shared understanding that capital is not our master. There are certain things that should not be capitalized or even quantified; a Sequoia tree is beautiful as it is, not as a financial bond and a clean river is holy in and of itself and is not simply a sum of its value when bottled and sold. Capital has its function and its place, but that place must be tightly controlled and boxed off by democratic institutions that truly represent the people and their priorities for a society which prioritizes health, equal opportunity and quality of life for all. On that goal, I believe both the right and the left share a common desire.

Generational divide on Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

I wrote this letter for the Montréal Gazette last week, they decided not to publish it. Interestingly, they only seem to publish right wing views on Israel.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem to be return as reliably as our cold winters. This most recent conflict pits a strong Israeli state against Hamas and its thousands of rockets. There are no winners in this conflict, only losers. With another 15 children killed at the time of writing, the loss of civilian lives now stands at over 1300 Palestinians, of which nearly 200 are innocent children, and three Israelis. What are those deaths for?

In an opinion piece in the Montreal Gazette two days ago, Reuben Poupko, Rabbi of Beth Israel Beth Aaron in Côte St-Luc, and an executive member of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs seems to know. He categorically states, “Just to repeat what should be obvious: Hamas wants this conflict, Israel does not.” If Mr. Poupko claims to be a holy man of wisdom, he should know better than to make such categorical remarks.

Mr. Poupko, a man of faith, goes on to explain, “Dead Palestinians provide the public-relations lifeblood of Hamas. It knows how deranged the response to Israel can be. It knows that many people in the West will embrace its ongoing attempts to delegitimize the Jewish State.” The notion that people who stand in solidarity with Palestinian civilians and their children are doing so out of support for rocket attacks is absurd.

If anything, Montréalers are saddened that our locally manufactured weapons and our financial support is supporting this ongoing conflict. People around the world, both Arab, non-arab and Jewish are losing faith in the prospects of any peace settlement and are choosing to stand with the underdog.

As a young Jewish person who has traveled to both Israel and a number of Arab countries, it is difficult to relate to my parents and grandparents generation who fled the wars of Europe. My grandfather came to Canada from Poland in 1937, just before the massacre of innocent civilians started there. His perceptions of Israel were framed by the wars of 48, 67, and 73; my Jewish mother inherited much of that framing (and we have slowly been convincing her to change). My brothers and my perception of the situation is driven by the first and second intifadas, the security wall and the current Gaza conflict. We no longer see Israel as the fledgling state that required financial and unconditional moral support from the overseas Jewish community just to survive.

The Federation CJA, Canada’s largest Jewish organization has failed to change their message for a younger generation. They still only discuss short-term threats to Israel and overlook the longer term impacts of losing the support of the younger generation. On the Federation CJA website, their updates of the current conflict make no mention of Palestinians. The CJA updates literally do not mention the word Palestinians, as if they do not exist. Times change and institutions must modernize their message if they hope to stay relevant. If the Federation CJA and synagogues such as Beth Israel Beth Aaron wish to gain the support of my generation of Jews they will need to learn to navigate a much more nuanced and complex perception of Israel and Palestine.

Israel – Gaza Conflict v.2014

kibbutz

As a person of Jewish heritage, the situation in Israel is disheartening to say the least. There are of course mountains of commentary, books and debates on the issue, so my thoughts will not add much. Whenever the conflict in Israel flares up, every four of five years lately, I recall what Noam Chomsky said in his updated preface to his 1983 book Fateful Triangle,

“For some time, I’ve been compelled to arrange speaking engagements long in advance. Sometimes a title is requested for a talk scheduled several years ahead. There is, I’ve found, one title that always works: “The current crisis in the Middle East”. One can’t exactly predict what the crisis will be far down the road, but that there will be one is a fairly safe prediction.”

He goes on to accurately state, “This will continue to be the case as long as basic problems of the region are not addressed.” Coincidentally, I was born in 1983, the year Fateful Triangle was first published and not much has changed (well actually it has gotten much worse).

There is not much I can do to change the conflict in Gaza, so I mourn the innocent deaths and hope that one day the aging Jewish lobby will pass the baton to a younger, more nuanced Jewish lobby. The emergence of the J Street lobby in Washington is a promising sign, but it will take at least another five to ten years before US policy (and Canadian) is affected. Countries are rarely destroyed from outside, but rather from within. I believe that is happening to Israel.

This excellent summary of the situation in the Globe and Mail explains the radical rise of nationalism and racism in Israel. Though it may have hit a boiling point after the kidnapping and killing of the three Israelis in the West Bank, it has been a long time coming. If you build a 20 m wall around millions of people and only interact with them at checkpoints and while wearing a bullet-proof vest, you are probably going to dehumanize your relationship with them. Go figure.

In terms of hope for peace, I have none. This conflict will continue as long as the United States and other countries fund Israel at a higher rate per capita than any other country in the world. And they will continue to support Israel as long as the Jewish lobbies fund political campaigns that support extremist Israeli policy. Until both the US withdraws its financial support and the Jewish lobbies change their tune, Israel will have the means to build walls, buy tanks and do what they want. Money talks, it’s not complicated. The moral highground for unconditional defense of Israel ended decades ago.

Within Israel, there is clearly a growing divide. Peace activists are being attacked by Israelis and by police. The hassidic ultra-orthodox community, who in theory do not support the state of Israel, are growing in number and the radical settlers are further polarizing the political scene. Once Israel becomes as religious and nationalistic as the pariahs of the West; Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, etc., the mainstream Jewish communities abroad will stop supporting Israel. The lack of support, both financial and moral, by the Jewish communities will allow the United States to withdraw some of its support – something they have not meaningfully done since George Bush Sr. in 1991.

What else can I say, the situation is sad, but was predictable. What can we do? As a Jewish person, you can contact your national lobbying group – CJA in Canada, others wherever you might live – and let them know your position on their unquestioning support for the military attack that is causing so much pain and suffering. Contacting your MP would not kill you either. We could divest and boycott, but frankly I don’t even know if I buy anything from Israel. Ultimately, I think that this situation will not end well at all for Israel, though it might take some time to play out. What a shame, the socialist Kibbutz Israel of the early 20th and mid 20th century was so promising. What a shame and what a shame on us for letting it get here.

The Shortcomings of Data Analysis

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Over the past year, my belief that more information can lead to meaningful change is waning. One thing is certain, more information in open and digital formats has tremendous potential to improve society, companies and lives – but it has limits. No amount of information will solve homelessness, poverty, environmental pollution or other serious problems that we are facing.

The Open Data mouvement of which I was an active part and still play a role in remains very important. Yet fundamentally, it can only lead to incremental improvements to a system that is arguable broken at its roots. Take for example the debate around homelessness, an emerging trend is the comparison of costs between the medical, policing related to their existence with the cost of offering housing, money and assistance. Social scientists have crunched the numbers and clearly demonstrate it is more cost effective to house a person at taxpayer cost than to let them live on the streets and land up in the hospital or in jail. This analysis was made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s story of Million Dollar Murray and has since been confirmed by other studies and used by the city of Cleveland in its recent attempts to end homelessness. Yet, should we be making these types of decisions based on monetary costs?

Harvard professor Michael Sandel has repeatedly argued that we have strayed too far down the path of financialization of our decisions (The lost art of democratic debate). I would go further and argue we have relied too much on data analysis and not enough on morality. If we were to look at statistics on the state of black youth in the United States, where over 60% get arrested once in their life (more sad stats), we could almost say that they must be genetically prone to a life of crime. Of course, we know it is rather their social environment and state discrimination that has led to this horrifying statistics. The latter decision is a moral one that returns to the idea that all humans are created equal – this is not based on any data analysis, but rather on our deep rooted morality and centuries of struggle for social justice.

The list areas of society where we have turned towards data analysis instead of meaningful debate and morality is long. When I worked as an environmental consultant, we conducted life cycle analysis of products. The goal was to determine the impact of a product on the environment by determining the impact of all of its components – ressources, transport, waste collection, etc. We could then compare alternatives and try to piece together a less impactful product by swapping parts or changing transport methods. When asked how he achieved massive cost savings in rocketry, Elon Musk, todays greatest industrial innovator, stated that they reason from first principles (lecture). Instead of simply building on existing rocket technology and doing data analysis, they returned to basics and ask fundamental questions. Elon and his team asked, “what are the lowest possible costs, based on physics, for rockets to be built and launched?”. Returning to lice cycle analysis, what I found after two years of work was that the best way to reduce the impact on the environment of products is not to swap parts but rather to return the original design, and rethink it from the ground up. That is a much harder task.

Fundamentally, this inability to analyze complex systems and determine solutions from data analysis is tied to chaos theory and complexity (and quantum mechanics, but that’s another rabbit hole). Systems – human and technological – are so complex that true innovation can only be done through deep reflection. Another interesting example of the failure of algorithms to solve problems is search and rescue technology used to find sailors who have been thrown overboard. In this great article about a fisherman who was thrown overboard, they describe the use of a computer algorithm to predict his location based on the weather and ocean currents. After days of searching, they returned to the old methods and eventually found him. The fisherman had latched onto a lobster cage, which altered his path dramatically. The algorithms could not possibly have taken that into account. I am not saying that all technology is bad or that we should return to stone tablets, but rather that we should not think that we can simply outsource thinking to computer algorithms or data analysis.

This thought was discussed by Noam Chomsky at a recent presentation at Google. He was asked about data analysis, AI and innovation through statistical analysis of things like search terms and large data sets. He responded that deep insights about things such as linguistics, his field of expertise, were not and cannot be brought about through statistical analysis of language. Rather, innovation in understanding language is done through insights that are then confirmed by data, not the other way around.

A last example of the failure or upcoming failure of data analysis is the idiotic trend towards smart cities. Adam Greenfield wrote a highly insightful book entitled “Against Smart Cities (buy)”. Greenfield explains how certain governments are attempting to build systems that monitor and calculate everything in a city from the size of policing forces to street size and resource allocation. Even Montréal is going down this path with their recent Smart City initiative and their restructuring of funding based on mysterious algorithms developed by bureaucrats. This tactic has been tried and has failed. Just in Montréal, top-down planning based on ‘data’ led to things like the Mirabel airport that is now scheduled for demolition (link) and car centric monstrosities such as the Parc-Pine interchange (photos and details). Those two situations took statistics – the number of flights (link) to Montréal and the number of cars in Montréal – and simply extrapolated them based on years. Both failed to account for changing economic conditions, regulatory frameworks and physical limitations of auxiliary infrastructure. The point here is that no matter how much data you have, there is inevitably important data that you do not have and can never have. It is therefore imperative that your decisions be based on logic that has been challenged through debate, not just data.

If we should not make large decisions based on data, it follows that large data analysis or access to more data is not likely to lead to meaningful positive change. At best, we can hope for incremental improvements or optimization. When I began working in the Open Data mouvement, I thought more access to data could actually change power politics. But, now I am rather less certain. Data is necessary, not not the enough. In a capitalistic society, like ours, money is power. If we want to empower people we need to give them actual power, which really means monetary capital. In a great article by Adam Greenfield, he stated quite eloquently that technological or even structural changes in resource allocation will not liberate individuals, he said:

“My mistake in the past — and, in retrospect, it’s an astonishingly naïve and determinist one — was to think that emergent networked forms of shared resource utilization might in themselves give rise to any particularly liberatory politics of everyday life. Experience has taught me that such notionally transformative frameworks as do arise very readily get appropriated by existing ways of valuing, doing and being; whatever emancipatory potential may reside in them swiftly falls before path dependency and the weight of habit, and the gesture as a whole comes to nought.” Link

This thought is echoed and backed up by mountains of data in the recent best seller Capital in the 21st Century. At the end of the second part of the book, Thomas Picketty clearly states “Si l’on souhaite véritablement fonder un ordre social plus juste et rationnel, fondé sur l’utilité commune, il n’est pas suffisant de s’en remettre aux caprices de la technologie”. This basically translates to “If we want to truly change the social order and make it more just and fair, based on common utility, it is not enough to rely on technological innovation”. And while he is talking about the ability of new technology to change the old order, the argument could easily be extended to data. No amount of data will bring about a just world and it remains unclear data even bends the arc of history towards justice.

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P.S. These are the reasons I want more deep, challenging debate in society and why we have started the Fight club politique http://jonathanbrun.com/fightclubpolitique

A couple more links bibliography

How Politics Makes us Stupid – and More Information will not help, it will hurt

TED talking of Stephen Pinker and Rebbecca Goldstein Animation on the power of reason

GE rebuilding a home heater made in China (NPR)

The Sharing Economy a Prelude to Revolution?

Everyone is gaga over the “sharing economy” – ra, ra, ra!

What exactly is meant by the sharing economy remains a bit of a mystery to me, the list often includes: ZipCar, AirBnB, Uber taxi service, Carpooling services, TaskRabbit, ODesk for hiring remote workers, power tool lending sites, and it keeps on growing. Wikipedia defines it as “The Sharing Economy (sometimes also referred to as the share economy, shared economy, mesh, collaborative economy, collaborative consumption) is a socioeconomic system built around the sharing of human and physical assets.”

The use of the internet to decentralize systems is far more complex than I originally thought, but I would like to take issue with the belief all disruption is good and the sharing economy is beneficial to society. Take as an example four situations of use of AirBnB, the apartment rental site.

  1. A person has an apartment and goes on vacation, they rent it out on AirBnB.
  2. A person has an apartment with an extra room, they could have a roommate to save money. Instead, they rent out their extra room 10 nights a month, which covers what a long term roommate would pay.
  3. A person has an apartment. They rent it out on AirBnB and go traveling with the extra cash they are making by renting out a rent-controlled apartment.
  4. A landlord converts a long term rent-controlled rental unit into a short term hotel.

All four of these situations pose unique opportunities and threats – yet they are all grouped under the “Sharing Economy” banner. When I spoke with Robin Chase, founder of ZipCar, about these situations, she agreed that the latter two cases were problematic for society and should be blocked. She also admitted the first two are not as clean cut as we might think. This is a blog post, not a book – so my analysis will be limited. Let me introduce a scientific concept to this essay, Thermal Mass

Thermal mass is a concept in building design that describes how the mass of the building provides “inertia” against temperature fluctuations, sometimes known as the thermal flywheel effect.[1] For example, when outside temperatures are fluctuating throughout the day, a large thermal mass within the insulated portion of a house can serve to “flatten out” the daily temperature fluctuations, since the thermal mass will absorb thermal energy when the surroundings are higher in temperature than the mass, and give thermal energy back when the surroundings are cooler, without reaching thermal equilibrium. – Wikipedia

The sharing economy removes thermal mass from society. We take full-time tax cab drivers and get part timers to use Uber, we take extra bedrooms and rent them on AirBnB, we take cars and rent them out by the hour on ZipCar. In principle, this is inline with economic progress – improving efficiency and re-allocating resources. Cars use less gasoline per mile today, flights are 30% cheaper and homes are more energy efficient.

Optimizing the use of under-utilized assets is generally a good thing – who wants waste? But, the times you want thermal mass or even waste is when you go through a lean time. In ancient times, before Wal-Mart and Costco, you had to produce your own food – on a farm or parcel of land! In a bad harvest year, families died, towns withered and war broke out to calm the peasants. Today we store millions of tonnes of food and our easy access to nutrition ensures we have less risk of a quick descent into chaos and society wide hunger. This seems good: we are optimizing systems without compromising the actual service. A car that runs on 10 miles a gallon is objectively better than a car that runs on 5 miles a gallon – assuming all else is equal.

Yet, when it comes to human society, things are rarely so simple. In human communities, all else is rarely equal. A system with low thermal mass heats up very fast, but also cools very fast – try spending 24 hours in the desert. So, low thermal mass increases volatility. As we disassemble our institutions in the name of disruption and efficiency, we are removing some of the thermal mass that helps stabilize society. We are closing hotels to open AirBnB, we are producing less cars to use ZipCar, we are hiring consultants instead of employees. These actions all improve efficiency and profitability in the short term, but when winter comes we might regret our lack of fat. If a sudden influx of refugees arrive, extra hotel space is useful; if cars are needed to transport medical or military equipment (see WWI), ZipCar might pose an issue; employees pay more taxes in a more consistent manner than consultants, schools require money to operate. So, when an object or service is not measured in isolation from society, i.e. a car, but is rather intertwined with human society – its value changes in relationship to both its use and it’s availability for use.

Most of our cars sit in our driveway or parking spot 20-23 hours a day. That is hardly useful. But, the availability of the car to be used by you at anytime during those 20-23 hours has some value. How much value? I do not know, but it is worth thinking about.

Also, as we disassemble our traditional businesses such as hotel companies, taxi fleets and employees in the name of “sharing” – the challenge of governments to collect tax dollars increases. Collecting tax money from 1 million companies is a lot more work than collecting the same amount from 10 big companies. Of course, the former system is in theory more robust to economic shock – maybe. As governments collect less and less taxes due to an increasingly complex economy and decentralization or revenue generation, they are forced into austerity and budget cuts. Those budget cuts will likely undermine the social safety net (unemployment benefits, pensions, education, healthcare), reduce our ability to support industry during economic downturns and fund a high quality education system. As those systems disintegrate due to budget shortfalls, citizens are forced to rent out their couch on AirBnB to make ends meet, sacrifice education for work or become a part time Uber driver. The sharing economy might in fact be a tool to take apart civilization.

Let’s be honest, Warren Buffet is not renting out his couch on AirBnB. The users of the “sharing economy” are primarily low and middle income people. The working classes, with large mortgages and rents are being pushed towards working extra hours or renting out their assets to pay for their growing bills. But then, their rent increases because their neighbors are also renting out their place on AirBnB. The vicious cycle of forcing everyone to utilize every asset and every spare moment actually leads to an increase in cost of the very same assets and services we need to have a good life. The sharing economy might be an elaborate trick we are playing on ourselves. Just as the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland kept running faster and faster, without ever making progress – we are moving away from a 40 hour work-week into a world where we host AirBnB guests, rent out our cars, and pick up the laundry for our neighbor and spend less time with our kids.

The French revolution is rather complicated and I am by no means an expert. However, it is worth noting that the French revolution did not break out solely because of a noble cause (democracy) championed by the oppressed underclass. The French revolution can be traced back to taxation. In the French situation, the government at the time attempted to levy additional taxes on the wealthy aristocratic class to pay for a series of wars (support of US independence actually) and chronic state underfunding. The wealthy princes and nobles refused to pony up the cash and the government basically went bankrupt. The government’s failure to collect taxes impeded its ability to ensure basic security and services and security to the french citizenry; the lack of tax money led to the collapse of trust by the French public in the King of France. The evaporated trust turned into the revolution and eventually, the king’s and many tax-evading noblemens’ heads being severed from their bodies.

Vive le “Sharing Economy”!

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Some articles of note on our beloved sharing economy:

Antifragility by Taleb

http://www.salon.com/2013/05/12/jaron_lanier_the_internet_destroyed_the_middle_class/

https://news.vice.com/articles/why-airbnb-will-probably-get-you-evicted-and-priced-out-of-the-city

http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/S-F-cracks-down-on-Airbnb-rentals-5381237.php#photo-6130485

http://www.businessweek.com/videos/2013-06-26/are-carpooling-services-illegal

http://m.newyorker.com/talk/financial/2013/04/29/130429ta_talk_surowiecki

http://www.bizjournals.com/sanjose/news/2014/01/13/uber-car-attacked-by-paris-cab-drivers.html

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/travel/quebec-cracks-down-on-airbnb/article12162984/

On Basic Minimum Income

This simple concept could change the world: Give everyone a salary without constraints.

Under the model referred to as Basic Minimum Income,  all citizens would receive a monthly cheque for a reasonable amount of money. The amount would cover basic needs – food, shelter – allowing you to survive, but not stay idle. Citizens would still need to conduct some form of work and those that earn enough would ultimately pay back this stipend through their income tax. This proposal is going to a referendum in Switzerland and gaining increased attention amongst both left and right wing policy wonks.

In Switzerland, they are proposing to dole out $33,000 to each citizen every year. In oil rich countries, such as Qatar, salaries are already paid out to citizens. The Dutch dole out over $1800 a month to welfare recipients. The concept of free money to citizens is well established, it is just masked as pension plans, welfare payments and unemployment benefits. Yet, a simpler version could bring a number of benefits. There is mounting evidence that the best way to empower people, communities and reboot our economy is to simply hand out cash.

Basic Minimum Income is not a new idea, it has been proposed by leaders at both ends of the political spectrum. Proponents of basic minimum income range from the neoliberal economist Milton Friedman to the socialist civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., who stated clearly,

“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” — Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community

Money is power. By better distributing society’s wealth, while simultaneously simplifying its management, we will hand power back to the people. With the added power and freedom, citizens would be expected to more fully participate in public life, better care for their children and parents, and contribute to the improvement of their communities and country. Ultimately, democracy is about distributed egalitarian power and without adequate financial freedom a large portion of our population cannot participate in the governing of society.

The money for this program would likely come from a variety of sources. First, numerous existing programs such as unemployment benefits, welfare, pension plans and student grants would be cancelled. Secondly, we could cut administrative cost substantially since we will no longer need to manage these programs. Third, new sources of revenues could be identified, some likely candidates include natural resources, a sales tax on online business, the repatriation of money held in tax havens and larger taxes on bank profits. By combining a simplification of our complex social programs and our complex loophole prone tax code, we could find the money to pay for a Basic Minimum Income.

A monthly income of $2 200, basically minimum wage, currently puts you at the Canadian poverty line. By adding a monthly $1300 stipend to the lowest salaries, we would bump someone living on the edge of poverty to a much better position, where they can invest in their future and their children’s future. For someone already earning a middle-income, say $45 000, an additional $1500 would let them pay for extra activities for their children, invest in their home or start that company they were thinking of. I will explore the math for Montréal, Canada and Québec in a future blog post, but I am convinced that basic minimum incomes is the foundation of a new, more potent democracy for the 21st century.

Ultimately, a basic minimum income is about freedom. Freedom from some of the constraints of a wage labour existence and the empowerment of individuals to participate more actively in social life and in their communities. The link between labour and servitude is a struggle we have dealt with since the beginning of civilization. The Greek philosopher Demosthenes stated simply,

“Many are the servile acts which free men are compelled by poverty to perform…” (Against Eubulides, 57, 45).

The benefits for basic minimum income (also called guaranteed minimum income) are numerous, but here are three.

1. Simplify governement bureaucracy or take out the middle man

Right now, we offer a myriad of programs to financially help people integrate the job market, go to school, or retire. All of these programs, and more, could be cut. Instead, we simply give out cash.

In the American sitcom “Seinfeld”, George once made the joke that life would be much better if you started as an old person, with money, got younger and younger, while retaining you wealth and ended as an orgasm. A basic minimum income would help compensate for the aggregation of wealth in the top age bracket. It would also allow for students and young families to invest in their education and future, making all of society richer.

By handing out cash, we would take power away from government, bureaucrats, politicians and place that power in the hands of citizens. The point is not that all government workers are bad, but rather that people tend to have a better idea of what they need than someone else. Of course mistakes will be made with these monthly payments, but generally speaking, less errors will be made than what we are currently doing.

Studies are emerging that show foreign aid (1) is better spent with clean, simple cheques to families than complex investment programs designed by policy wonks. The more complex a program, the more prone it is to corruption and abuse. Both abroad and at home, our complex systems are abused by crooks, costing us all a lot of money. As crazy as it might sound, people generally have a good idea of what they could use money for and when put in their hands (especially women), they tend to invest, pay back debt and build a future for themselves. If it works in Africa, why not here.

2. Place a foundation under peoples’ feet

Poverty is not simply a financial figure, it is a mental state. People without reliable income or a secure job live in constant insecurity. They do not know if or when they can pay the rent, feed the kids or can ask for a raise or promotion for feat or losing their job. The constant stress and worry contribute to mental health problems which harm them, their families and ultimately cost society extra resources for their treatment and policing. The lack of stability also reduces low-wage workers or temporary workers’ ability to go to school and move up the social ladder.

A minimum basic income would stabilize these workers, allowing them to focus on their long term future, instead of their weekly bills.

3. Encourage consumption

Islamic finance claims that a fundamental part of a healthy economy is the constant circulation of money. Like blood in the body, you want money to be constantly circulating, any dead pools are just that – dead. By distributing cash to citizens, consumption of goods and services will increase. This will lead to more tax dollars for the government, more stores staying open and a general increase in economic activity – which benefits everyone.

Imagine for a moment the impact of giving $ 1 500 dollars a month to someone on minimum wage, which is about $ 2 200 dollars per month at 35 hours per week. That person, who is perhaps a parent, would instantly be able to buy new clothes for they children, purchase higher quality food or invest in their home. They would generate tremendous economic activity and this is of course true for people above minimum wage too.

Arguments against a basic minimum income

The most common response to this remarkably simple idea of giving money out is that people need to earn their money and free money will reduce incentive to work. While I agree that handing out free money may reduce some incentive to engage in work, it will probably reduce people’s need to do undesirable work – serve at McDonald’s, mop floors or make low quality products. If anything, giving people a good exit strategy from low quality work will force companies to innovate and offer higher quality, more creative and better work environments where humans actually want to work.

To head off on a small tangent, basic minimum income will probably push companies to automate repetitive non-value added tasks. Henry Ford once said,

“If you need a machine and don’t buy it, then you will ultimately find that you have paid for it and don’t have it.”

A similar expression is that if something can be automated, it should be. During my time as a coop student at McGill, one of my peers was offered a job at a mine site. The company later admitted that prior to offering him the job, they did a cost analysis comparing his salary to the cost of a machine that would do exactly his job. He was cheaper than the machine and unsurprisingly his summer job was as boring as you could imagine. He took samples and tested their acidity for 4 months. If we had a basic minimum income (and a higher minimum wage), they would have bought machine due to a lack of candidates willing to work for low salary and both the student and the company would have been better off. By offering a basic minimum income, employers will be forced to automate repetitive non-value added tasks in their workplace to encourage people to work for them. A push towards higher workplace efficiency will make the average job more intellectually challenging and fulfilling, ultimately making our economy more advanced and more competitive.

Another common response to basic minimum income is that people will waste the money on booze, cigarettes and luxury items. My response is to ask you, “What would you do with $ 1 500 extra per month?”. Most parents or grand-parents say they would spend it on their children, offering them more activities, and taking more vacation to spend with them, etc. The rest of us, without offspring, risk spending it on good and services, helping kick-start the tepid economy we currently have.

A last negative comment to rebuke is the idea that offering this money would cause inflation, rent-seeking or that we simply cannot print this money. First, most of the money I am proposing to hand out comes from existing programs. For the rest, we could print it with little risk. A recent article outlines how during the 2008 financial crisis the United States alone printed 3.6 trillion dollars! Some feared this would lead to inflation, but in fact inflation has not budged. The article in question proposes to print an extra 200 or so billion dollars to be used for foreign aid (5). It is an interesting idea and we could certainly print that money and more and give it to our our citizens at home – who might even donate some of it to foreign aid!

Conclusion

The concept of basic minimum income solves a number of problems – government bureaucracy, lack of democratic power, and a slow economy. It appeals to both left wing and right wing people and can act as a catalyst for a rebirth of the notion of government and shared societal responsibilities. Hopefully, once some forward thinking countries have adopted such a system (i.e. Switzerland or Scandinavian Countries) and we all see how well it works, we will do it here. This spring, there is a conference at McGill on Basic Minimum Income, I hope you will join me there.

P.S. After my stint as an Open Data activist in Montréal and Québec, I am considering putting my time towards Basic Minimum Income in Canada. Please let me know what you think of this idea and help promote it within your networks.

P.P.S. Be certain to check out Basic Income Canada Network as they seem to be leading the charge at the Federal level.

Bibliography

1. Study on handing out cash as foreign aid program
2. Government Guaranteed Basic Income
3. Moral Aspects of Basic Income – Marco Nappolini
4. Free Money for everyone
5. Print money for foreign aid
6. Switzerland referendum
7. Rethinking the Idea of a Basic Income for All
8. Québec Solidaire support basic minimum income in Québec
9. Funny take on automation

État du Québec 2013 : Des Québécois(es) brillant(e)s

Voici ma réponse à la question « D’après vous, à quoi la participation citoyenne peut-elle être utile? », publiée dans l’État du Québec 2013 — une livre essentielle pour toute personne concernée par l’évolution de notre société. Disponible en librairie ici.

Des Québécois(es) brillant(e)s

Les meilleures décisions sont celles prises par les personnes et les groupes concernés. Dès que l’on éloigne les décideurs des partis affectés, un clivage entre l’impact voulu et la réalité se façonne. En tant que citoyens ayant des familles, des amis et des emplois, nous constatons quotidiennement des problèmes dans nos quartiers et nos milieux de travail. Même si nous ne détenons pas nécessairement les réponses à portée de main, des citoyens mobilisés, éduqués et impliqués ont les moyens de s’informer et de proposer des pistes de solutions qui peuvent améliorer leur qualité de vie. « Monsieur et Madame tout le monde » est beaucoup plus intelligent qu’on ne le pense.

Chez Wal-Mart, les employés jouissent de pouvoirs remarquables. Malgré sa taille imposante, chaque employé, peu importe son rang ou son niveau d’éducation, peut consulter le coût et le profit de tout article en magasin – des informations normalement gardées secrètes. S’il le croît opportun, il peut également décider de mettre un article en vente sans l’autorisation d’un supérieur. Lors d’une belle fin de semaine, un employé peut donc réduire le prix des BBQ à son gré. Wal-Mart sait que ses employés connaissent mieux leur communauté que son siège social et octroie le pouvoir décisionnel en conséquence. Bien que nos gouvernements soient plus complexes qu’un magasin Wal-Mart, ils partagent deux ressemblances: leur taille ainsi que la diversité des individus impliqués dans leur succès. Wal-Mart démontre bien que les grandes organisations qui comptent des millions d’employés ainsi que des centaines de millions de clients sont plus efficaces lorsque le pouvoir est partagé avec les gens qui sont sur le terrain.

Des études scientifiques financées et gérées par un gouvernement central sont essentielles pour prendre des décisions locales éclairées. Or, l’information ainsi cueillie et traitée se doit d’être accessible à tous. Si chaque employé de Wal-Mart peut consulter les détails de tout produit en magasin, chaque citoyen québécois doit être en mesure de consulter les plus petits détails de ses institutions publiques. L’accès à plus d’informations met les citoyens sur un pied d’égalité avec les fonctionnaires et les élus, permettant ainsi aux Québécois de se rapprocher de l’idéal grec d’une ville qui se réunit pour décider ensemble.

Si le but de la démocratie est de réaliser la volonté du peuple, les pouvoirs décisionnels doivent être remis entre ses mains. Tel que Platon l’a expliqué, “le plus grand châtiment pour l’homme de bien, s’il refuse de gouverner les autres, c’est d’être gouverné par un plus méchant que soi”. C’est donc par l’implication citoyenne que nous réussirons à faire cheminer notre société et à bâtir une démocratie moderne qui fera rayonner le Québec à travers le monde.

On Debates of Ideas

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Today’s debates are terribly tame. From Charlie Rose puff pieces to debates on the CBC, we rarely see a discussion get heated or see a person truly pressed to explain the foundations of their ideas. This lack of in-depth criticism led me to start the Fight Club politique.

Our first event discussed “If Québec becomes an independent country, the Island of Montréal should declare itself a city state”. The discussion was animated and intense. In the room we had 25 people from across the political spectrum, anglophone and francophone, federalists, socialist sovereigntists, socialist federalists and even more. Just having that variety of opinion in a room was fun. Of course, nothing conclusive came of our 90 minute discussion, but the evening ended with the room divided on the motion – which means it must have been an even handed fight.

Our next event will likely try to tackle Prostitution laws in Canada. Last year, the supreme court struck down two and a half articles of the criminal code that deal with prostitution issues. The court has given the government one year to introduce legislation to bring the criminal code into line with the charter. This landmark decision create a new question, “what should prostitution law look like?”. Should it be modeled on the Nordic model or the legalization of prostitution as done in Australia, New Zealand and other places, or something else?

In preparation for more intellectual battles, I highly recommend the AlJazeera English debate show, “Head to Head“. From the episodes I have seen, you get a fantastic mix of panelists with diametrically opposed views and a very well prepared host who leaves nothing on the table. The discussions and arguments that emerge from the conflict demonstrate the complexity of the issues at hand and leave some bloodied. To train yourself for our next Fight club politique, take a look at the discussion with Richard Dawkins, Tariq Ramadan and Shlomo ben Ami. Great stuff!

Hope to see you all in May to discuss the hot topic of prostitution law, dive into moral and ethical dilemmas and propose something concrete that uses social science and ethics to help women and society move forward!

Fight club politique and other news

Salon_de_Madame_Geoffrin

Despite having started a number of articles, I have not been able to finish much lately. My energy has been focused on Québec Ouvert, where we just launched I Vote for Transperency 2014 for the current provincial elections, Nimonik where we are expanding and growing our operations and finally, on a new project titled Fight Club Politique.

The political debate club is an idea that came up while reading some excellent books on the american and french revolutions (For Liberty and Glory and A short introduction to the french revolution). The idea is to have an open discussion on political issues of the day, to draw local leaders into an intellectual brawl and to have a good time. More than anything, it is an experiment.

So far, I have not determined the exact format, location or structure, I think something will emerge after a few rounds. The first proposed debate topic will likely be, “If Québec seperates from Canada, Montréal should declare itself to be a city-state”. Should be lots of fun, hope you can join!

Montréal will be remembered

Montréal will be remembered

by Jonathan Brun

Why do we remember Rome, Constantinople, Athens or other ancient cities? Culture, Art, History. No one remembers a place or an individual for their economic wealth. The few wealthy people we remember are those that gave their fortunes to charity – Rockefeller, Carney – and even then their memory fades after a couple hundred years. The people and things we remember are transmissible, they are writers, singers, playwrights, painters and sculptors. People who create.

Montréal creates. We have more world renowned artists than any other Canadian place, by far. Not only do we thrive in the arts, we also produce festivals and concerts that are known around the world. I agree we can’t spend all of our time partying, but we do build jets, amazing technology companies, trains and conduct world class research at our universities.

In addition to being a great center for the arts and sciences, Montréal is home to some of the strongest social justice activists on the continent. We have $7 a day daycare, decent free medical services, affordable housing and high social mobility. All of those services and the other ones we often don’t realize we have, cost money – they inevitably take away resources from bankers, real estate developers and other corporations who might otherwise make larger profits. Most of my anglophone educated Jewish family left in the 80s, they preferred to move away than learn a new language or change their way of being. Québec made a societal choice: we place social justice over corporate profits.

Don’t get be wrong, Montréal is far from perfect. We have corruption, infrastructure issues and a sluggish economy – but those are all more common in other cities than people care to admit. It is easy to reduce unemployment, just cut the minimum wage and abuse workers like they do in America or Germany, or destroy the environment by digging up oil and gas, like they do in Alberta and Norway. So yes, we have problems, but so does everyone else – they are just different problems.

I am born and raised in Montréal, I have traveled to many countries – both rich and poor, hot and cold – we have much to be proud of. I remain convinced that in 500 years we will be remembered. We will be remembered for a place where two languages and two religions mix peacefully, a place that fed Richler, Charlebois, Tremblay, that studied at world class universities and whose people fought for free education, free medicare and affordable housing, who built jets, trains and amazing technology companies. Yet, it is clear Montréal will not be fixed without Montréalers. We must work together to bring the city to a new level of prosperity and equality, we need every citizen’s help. What will you do?

Bibliography

This piece above is a rebuttal to this one:

http://www.ixdaily.com/grind/4685146e388222f3c65ba1eca674e86555a65395/#.Utf_G_tBNJw

Also see support for our gray lady here:

http://www.lactualite.com/actualites/politique/le-peuple-quebecois-peut-marcher-la-tete-haute/

http://ca.askmen.com/fine_living/travel/montreal-is-awesome.html