Jonathan Brun

On Unbridled Free Speech

In University I met Gil Troy, a right wing law processor who supported George W. Bush and the Iraq War. His many bad ideas included his respect and preference for complete free speech. I asked him if he believed in “Free speech or in free speech“. The latter being a somewhat controlled version of the US version. He responded that he preferred no limitations on free speech. I think that his belief stemmed from a trust that if you offer free speech, the truth will emerge and the control of free speech was too dangerous to sit within the jurisdiction of a state bureaucracy.

The problem with complete unbridled free speech is that it has been weaponized by online platforms. This year, the famous TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference took the courageous step of inviting a journalist to directly confront the tech platforms and call out their hypocrisy. The talk is a powerful indictment of their crimes.

This powerful talk does not go into detail. It barely mentions the crimes against humanity in Myanmar that were facilitated by Facebook. It does not mention the online abuse and bullying that is occurring on a variety of platforms or the blackmailing of all sorts of people, from ex-girlfriends with “revenge porn” to activists fighting for Palestinian human rights. In short, Carole Cadwalladr outlines how the internet is an amazing technology, but it has been weaponized and our governments have not had the courage to act.

Part of our failure to act stems from our love of freedom of speech. We have a very deeply held believe that the freer the speech, the better our societies will be. This was generally true in the past, where the cost of spreading disinformation and lies was substantial – you had to print pamphlets, newspapers, create radio stations and television stations. The costs did not stop hate from being propagated against all sorts of groups, but the setup costs at least allowed us some measure of control over these groups. We could monitor, tax and potentially levy penalties. Companies such as Fox News allowed the George W. Bush administration to propagate lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths. The other cable networks and many newspapers went along for the ride. Nevertheless, online platforms have something no one has ever had: detailed psychological information on most citizens. That information is being weaponized in new and very powerful ways. In today’s online world, information and its consumption simply moves too fast for us to police in our traditional ways.

H.G. Wells famously said, “Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe. Let us learn the truth and spread it as far and wide as our circumstances allow. ” But, it seems that spreading truth is not enough. We need to actively police and fight disinformation and lies that are leading people towards political movements and parties that have very dangerous undertones. The solution cannot be a lock down of freedom of speech or the creation of firewalls as we see in China. However, we also cannot let the world’s most profitable corporations have free run to make profits on our worst human inclinations.

Published on April 21, 2019

Books are beautiful

A book is a beautiful thing. Dedicating 200 to 600 pages to a subject gives you the time to focus and dive into a concept, idea or world. In our distraction driven world, it is harder and harder for us to take the time to focus on a bigger thought and give ourselves enough time to absorb the context. In contrast to distractions such as Facebook, Twitter or blogs, a good book will leave a much deeper impression on your brain due to the time you must devote to it. As someone once said, there is no book that doesn’t have something to teach you.

Nearly all the online mediums have one sole purpose. They exist to grab your attention and time to then serve you ads, sell your data and make money. The Romans had the gladiators, the Victorians had their opium, and we have our phones. There are few options except disconnection. Turn off all notifications, shutdown the devices and read something long, then think about it.

What makes a book so beautiful is its generosity. A book requires time, but it asks nothing in return. No ads, no interactions, just read me and learn something.

Published on March 23, 2019

Can a bourgeois be progressive?

I grew up bourgeois. Skiing, horseback riding, private school, vacations in France. My grandfather even died while fox hunting on horseback! In the Middle Ages a bourgeois was someone who lived in a village center (as opposed to a peasant farmer) and had certain privileges. In contrast to aristocrats, who lived entirely off the backs of others, bourgeois had “earned” their position through hard work and commerce. Today, a bourgeois may be defined as “a person with social behaviour and political views held to be influenced by private-property interest” (Webster).

The consequence of this framework is that you prioritize actions and activities that are based on a view of society as being organized through the control of capital – rather than through social or a collective decision making process. For better or worse, the framework we grow up in is very hard to escape. It is exceedingly rare for a person to fundamentally change who they are. A change of that depth can require a renunciation of religion, family, values and cultural identity. My case is no different.

To make our society function better we need to set realistic and achievable ways of living together in relative harmony. Asking people to give up their identities rarely works well. It was tried in totalitarian states (USSR, North Korea, Mao China,…) – the results were not pretty. In my opinion, the challenge is not so much to change our fundamental self, but rather to better understand realities that not our own. To facilitate day to day life we typically assume other people have a similar DNA, thought process and underlying skill-set. Said in a different way, we presume that we have a similar set of circumstances and are starting from the same point in the race of life. We therefore reason that another person can accomplish the same thing as us if only they were disciplined as us. The video below summarizes the fallacy.

If there is one common philosophy in the professionally successful upper middle class is that with hard work, discipline and education anyone can achieve success. This way of thinking is encapsulated in interviews with titans such as billionaire Charles Koch and Arnold Schwarzenegger. In both cases, there is a clear presumption that anyone can follow their lead. Koch and Schwarzenneger fail to acknowledge that they are unique in some way or had any sort of advantage. Koch was born into a wealthy family and received high levels of education. Arnold had a certain attitude an DNA that drove him to insane levels of work and motivation. As the hilarious Australian comic Tim Minchin said, even if you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps in a difficult situation, you still did not create the DNA that led you to succeed in a difficult situation and overcome obstacles nor did you create the social conditions that enabled success (rule of law, invention of money,… etc.). One simple example of luck is our health and the health of our families. Numerous studies show that to escape poverty in countries like the United States that does not have goo health care, you need to stay healthy and have your family stay healthy for decades. One illness can kill your chances to get an education or retain stable employment. We should all take a moment to pause and think about what it genuinely takes to be successful and I think we quickly realize that only part of it is attributable to the individual choices we make.

On the recommendation of Jordan Peterson (with whom I have serious disagreements with), I read The Road to Wigam Pier by George Orwell. It is perhaps one of the most impactful books I have read in a long time. The book is part reportage, part political commentary. Orwell tears apart the 1920s British left wing society that claims to be in solidarity with the working class, but in fact despises most of their habits. Orwell goes into the coal mines of Northern England and lives with the workers, to say the least, it was not a fun job and the living conditions were abominable. He goes on to skewer the righteous “progressive” liberal English society who has a clear disdain for the working class habits even though they claim to be in solidarity with the coal miners. Not much has changed.

This cleavage in the left is still present today. Well meaning progressives talk about social change (sometimes radical), helping the less fortunate and affecting meaningful improvement in society. Yet, these left wing progressives fail to reach out to the working poor and more importantly, they do not really respect them. The number of self proclaimed progressives who buy from Amazon, use Uber or wear clothes made in sweatshops in Bangladesh is astounding. All while proselytizing, the progressive left remains in its safe jobs and take nice vacations around the world.

Solidarity requires sacrifice. Words and actions will not make a meaningful dent unless you can demonstrate true devotion to a cause. The only way to show your true devotion is to knowingly, willingly and happily sacrifice pleasure for something you believe in. We sacrifice all the time for our children and family. We sacrifice for success in sports. We sacrifice for our businesses and careers. But, we often fail to sacrifice for the causes we claim to believe in.

By definition, liberal progressives believe that a well governed and democratic state can bring prosperity and justice. But, it is very easy to slip into a mindset of criticizing the state and criticizing taxes. Paying taxes is a form of sacrifice. You are giving up money that you could use for pleasure in exchange for security and social infrastructure services, in some countries, taxes also go to helping your fellow citizens lift themselves up. Of course, the very wealthy always find they pay too much taxes and that they can be both progressive and not sacrifice. This contradiction and fact that many progressives are lying to themselves was shoved in their faces by Rutger Bergman at Davos this year.

Too often, progressives seem to think we can have our cake and eat it too. They seem to think we can make society progress without substantial taxes or without change that will affect their lifestyle. Yet, countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Finland offer high qualities of life to the majority of their citizens because they pay very high taxes and their governments can therefore provide education, infrastructure and high quality services. The only other option for decent distribution of wealth is for the wealthy to voluntarily take modest salaries, as done in Japan. The latter option is possible, but only within an extremely strong culture. For western liberal countries, it seems the only path to progress is through higher taxation and forced sacrifice by the upper middle class and upper classes.

Published on February 2, 2019

Radical change is difficult to manage

Progressive change remains the preferred option. Large systems are complex and involve relationships between people and unites of people (organizations) with intertwined interests, affecting a change is usually something that needs to be done progressively to limit the side effects of that change. In addition, most of the time, social, political and economic environments are stable. If you pick a random point in time there is rarely a need for big changes or for radical decision making. Despite this apparent stability, there are situations where major events creep out of the woodwork and shatter the monotony of our daily lives. When these events do happen, how do we know that an organization or nation should attempt to affect radical change rather than progressive improvements?

The core challenge is that there is no way to accurately predict uprisings, revolutions, market changes or economic downturns. There are at least three principal reasons why a sudden change in a stable system is so unpredictable.

The first reason is the well documented phenomenon commonly known as the “Black Swan” effect. This “Black Swan” is so named because Europeans thought all Swans were white until they discovered Black Swans in Australia. The surprise of finding a Black Swan was utterly unpredictable based on all prior European knowledge of Swans being white. We can boil down this type or issue to a set of false assumptions or a simple ignorance of the possible varieties available. As Donald Rumsfeld said, it is the “unknown unknowns” or things we do not know we do not know that can really surprise us.

The second type of surprise are “known unknowns”. For example, we know there is a certain level of discontent in all societies and a certain number of unhappy citizens, but we do not know when they will mobilize for change. Another example is our knowledge of the degradation of the natural environment due to global warming and other effects, but we do not know when a massive storm will appear of when the arctic permafrost will melt, releasing tremendous amounts of greenhouse gases that could change the ocean currents, leading to massive weather changes and likely economic collapse. Referred to as a Tipping point, some stable systems quickly flip into another state and it is tremendously hard to know where that point lies. If we had the ability to accurately predict big changes, we would simply avoid them. If a dictator can determine that a revolution or uprising is coming, he would act and the uprising would never occur. If the USSR had known the system was crashing in the late 80s, they may have done more to try to prevent it. Instead, leaders are nearly always caught flat footed when big changes arrive. The unpredictability of change makes leadership that much more important – it is easy to govern in times of stability, it is much, much harder to govern in times of change.

The third is the simple challenge or inertia in the face of a clear change. This is most common in the business world where new technologies regularly upset industries. It was pretty clear that internet penetration and bandwidth were constantly increasing since the 1990s. It was also clear that Blockbuster revenues and profits were progressively decreasing during that period. Despite this clear and present danger, Blockbuster made little to no effort to adapt their business model and emulate companies like Netflix (or buy them). Part of it was the inertia of a large organization and part of it was their business model which was based on retail outlines, physical assets and late fees. There are very few companies that successfully navigate a change in business models.

In stable environments, systems are usually robust and mechanic enough to survive idiotic leadership. Rome’s imperial machine trudged along through the reigns of buffoons such as Nero and Caligula (who named a hose Senator), but later struggled when real change reared its head. The real change that brought down the empire was likely a combination of religion, discontent in Northern Europe, falling production the mines in Spain, a lack of new territories to rape and pillage and a crumbling of social cohesion. External radical change is very, very hard to manage and this is especially true if it is multi-pronged and not from a single source (i.e. a clear enemy).

When we are forced to embrace radical change to survive, leadership is typically the determining factor in a successful outcome. Whether your own organization is undergoing radical change or whether it is an external change (i.e. change in technology or the market), the most critical thing is for the leadership to be strong, wise and be able to act quickly. The wrong decisions can have dire consequences, but no decision is usually even worse. Three historical examples of poorly managed radical change include the Spanish invasion of the Americas, the closing of China and the French Revolution.

When Cortès disembarked in Central America, the native Aztecs were dominant in the region. Cortès and his few dozen Spaniards were able to mobilize smaller rival clans and take advantage of the Aztecs lack of knowledge of Spaniards to topple a regime that had been in power for centuries. Had the Aztec leaders overcome their own history with rival clans and found compromise with them or had the Aztecs taken the time to gather intelligence on Cortès (even post landing) they likely could have stopped him or at least significantly delayed the devastation of the Americas by the European invaders. Instead, they went head on against Cortès based on their past experience with other tribes and the Aztecs were utterly destroyed.

For most of human history, China was the most powerful and wealthiest nation in the world. Yet, after their leadership decided to close the country in the early 15th century the country progressively became poor and backwards. The once mighty country became so weak that small Europeans armies were able to force China to give up parts of its territory and allow the import Opium so that Europeans could make a handsome profit at the cost of millions of drugged Chinese. This trend of submission continued until the Chinese revolutions in the early 20th century. A fifty year period of turmoil and challenge followed and only ended with death of Mao. While the communist regime provided some benefits in the form of longer lifespan, dignity for peasant workers and freedom from servitude. Despite the progress China was headed in a very bad direction when Mao died in 1976. At the time, there was a significant and complex power struggle that could have gone a different way. Instead of the election of Deng Xiaoping as leader, the communist party could have chosen a safer bet in the form of a Mao stooge who would have prolonged or worsened the situation. The Chinese miracle rests largely on the outstanding leadership of Deng, without him it is hard to imagine China as it is today. Deng ably navigated the factions within the communist party and throughout China, opening up the country and starting an economic miracle no one could have predicted.

For most of European history, France was the wealthiest and most powerful nation in Europe. It had a larger territory and a stronger government than most rival powers. Despite its apparent advantage, when uprisings began in the late 18th century, the French king failed to compromise or react in a semi intelligent way. His failure to take a quick decision for either a constitutional monarchy (like the English) or a violent crackdown against the Republicans probably led to his beheading and the decades of violence of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Had the king taken a more moderate tone it seems likely that the aristocracy would have survived like the other European aristocracies that still exist today. A failure to lead in times of radical change led to the loss of many heads.

In a more modern and less violent context, this failure to enact radical change is visible in the corporate world. The number of large, dominant companies who fail to act is astounding. Despite their McKinsey consultants and their Harvard MBAs, company after company fail to change in the face of clear and present danger. The list is long and is not limited to the commonly known cases of failure – Nokia, BlockBuster, Kodak, Sears and more. As Amazon leader Jeff Bezzos said, even “Amazon will eventually go bankrupt”. Like it or not, our external environment will change and we must adapt or die. How can know when to make radical changes to a stable organization that is facing a changing environment?

The need to made radical change lies not only with the dominant powers, but also with the opposition that is trying to change things. The Arab uprisings of 2010-2015 held tremendous promise, but ultimately mostly failed to affect progress. Libya is in a full out civil war, Bashar Al-Assad seems poised to remain in power, the Egyptian military is stronger than ever and Yemen is blood stained battlefield. Only Tunisia seems to have improved its situation. Was this outcome a failure of leadership? I do not know enough about these complex situations to comment, but it seems that to unseat a strongman government, there must be a high level of cohesiveness in the opposition forces. If there is not a high level of cohesion or a controlling faction in the uprisings, the division of the opposition ultimately leads to its downfall. The Bolsheviks took control of the Russian revolution in 1917 and the Jacobins did a similar move during the French Revolution – ensuring the revolution happened. The failure of a strong willed party to take control in the Arab Uprisings and remove the pillars of support from the old regimes may may have led to their failure.

But the question remains, when do you know that radical change is needed? Even if we know radical change is needed, how do we mobilize the forces and undercut the current structure. The most well-known how-to manual for starting a revolution is the recently deceased Gene Sharp’s “From Dictatorship to Democracy”, also a documentary. But, the book does not clearly identify how to know when to start such a revolution – only how to conduct one.

Of course the flip side to all of this is to ask when radical change is not needed and should be stopped before it creates more problems than it solves. In Canada, there was attempted revolutions (or at least uprisings) in 1837 as well as Québec independence efforts in 1980 and 1995, all of which failed. Would Québec or Canada be better had they succeeded? We do not know, but stopping those radical changes certainly came down to questions of leadership at the time.

I do not have any sort of conclusion or specific proposal on the necessity of radical change. The topic is too vast and complex to offer any simple analysis. But, despite it complexity, I believe that in the next twenty years we will be confronted with a number of questions that may require radical change in our society. The list is long, but my top ten external events that will require us to choose between radical change or dire consequences are:

  1. The rise of China,
  2. Resistance to antibiotics,
  3. Collapse of US power,
  4. Collapse of the US dollar as our reserve currently,
  5. Disintegration of the European Union,
  6. Uprising in Saudi Arabia,
  7. Impacts of global warming and pollution,
  8. Ecological system collapse and impacts on our food supply,
  9. Housing market crash in China and elsewhere, and
  10. Cybersecurity issues.

All of the above issues are highly unpredictable in terms of when or where they may happen or what the consequences might be. The assassination of the Archduke of the Austro-Hungarian empire led to the slaughter of millions of people and the restructuring of the entire world. It was a match that set a tinderbox alight. No one knows what big event may alter our realities and is therefore critical that our leaders and systems be designed to avoid catastrophic failures such as Blockbuster, the Aztec empire or the French revolution. We must prepare ourselves for the eventuality of large changes by increasing the robustness, flexibility and adaptability of our countries and organizations.

Published on January 20, 2019

On the current collapse of the liberal order

“Real artists ship!” – a famous line from Steve Jobs.

Steve extolled that great people not only have great ideas, but they execute on them and deliver them to customers. If there is one reason that the liberal order seems to be collapsing around the world, I would propose that it is due to a failure to deliver improved living conditions to the majority of the citizens. Problem solved!

In the excellent Munk debate between David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, and Stephen Bannon, former advisor to Donald Trump, they lay out a clear vision of what is at stake. While Frum claims that liberalism is the only way forward, Bannon states that future lies with populism. He goes onto say that the only real question is whether the populism will be left wing or right wing. Bannon explains how the middle and lower middle class have been left behind and have not been able to realize the ‘American Dream’. With stagnant wages, rising housing prices and greatly increased precarity of jobs, this is not some radical populist plot – it is reality.

People have expectations. Expectations are usually set by your family and societal context – if you are born in the West, you are typically told that if you work hard, you can get ahead. When you do work hard and realize that you can never catch up with rising costs and a class that has a head start, you understandably grow frustrated. The liberal elite, which I assure you exists, has great difficulty realizing that this is the reality for many people. Why exactly they cannot realize this is a bit confusing to me. For one, I would argue that the liberal elite is in many ways biased against the understanding of unfairness in society because they have succeeded personally. Some may even have come from lower middle class backgrounds, but most are likely to have come from upper middle class backgrounds. They say – “If I could do it, why can’t someone else?”. Yet, many With moderately wealthy parents had tonnes of hidden benefits – parents could pay for their school and support them during their studies as well as provide a safety net in case of failure. Many people from this class were able to excel and obtain a good education, good positions in society and even start profitably companies. In many situations they underestimate the value of the support they received. In many ways, this family or cultural support is similar to environmental externalities, it is something you are vaguely aware of, but you do not think it is That important or that it applies to you. This accounting failure is as relevant as our greenhouse gas emissions. We do not see the environmental or social damage of our actions because they are externalities that are not actually calculated in the costs of services. Similarly, we do not count the social (or biological) advantages we were given.

As the wealth gap widens and the ‘deplorables’ (term coined by Hillary Clinton about Trump supporters) fall further and further behind, they turn to alternative means of changing the system. I know people who were both Bernie Sanders supporters and Donald Trump supporters. From a political point of view, this is completely contradictory – one advocates for strong socialism and one is for a free for all with no regulations. Yet, the commonality between the two is clear – they both propose something that is quite different from the offerings of Reagan, Bushes, Clinton and Obama. They are proposing a major restructuring of the state.

This cleavage in society cannot continue indefinitely. Either the liberal elites will come to their senses and implement real change or a populist force will take over. Historically, right wing populists have been more successful thanks to their lack of respect for individual rights, rule of law or other niceties. Right wingers can and will grab power, whatever the cost. The left wing populists (except radicals), tend to play a bit more by the rules and are thus hobbled in their quest for power. That is not to say that the rise of right wing populists is inevitable, it is not. However, the only way to get society out of this populist death spiral is to start delivering higher quality services and more opportunity at a much faster rate.

We can criticize China and its government for many things – spying, human rights violations, pollution,… etc. But, there is one thing that Chinese government very much believes in – improving the quality of life of its citizens. If China had a slogan, it might be “Build, build, build!”. By injecting massive amounts of money into physical and digital infrastructure, China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and offered hope to all. Their prioritization of material progress over nearly all else has allowed the government to stay in power and maintain the support of the people. The shear scale of China’s infrastructure cannot be communicated in words, you need to go and see. Metros, high speed rail, skyscrapers, highways, the list is so long. In the west, our governments have been mired in analysis and have failed to deploy the ressources of the state to actually improve people’s daily lives. The people view government as a wasteful apparatus that supports liberal elites and inefficient bureaucracies who are more interested in their own interests than those of the citizens. This, my friends, is the source of our problem.

If we can actually make government efficient, deliver new infrastructure to people at a rate that they find reasonable and demonstrate that the average quality of life will improve – the liberal order can be saved. There is no other solution. We cannot debate our way out of this situation or placate people with false promises and occasional tax cuts. We need to build infrastructure both quickly and for the long term. The list of key deliverables is not long – faster and better medical service, well paid jobs, faster and better transportation and higher quality education for all – do that and the rest will follow.

Published on December 20, 2018