Jonathan Brun


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”!


Some articles of note on our beloved sharing economy:

Antifragility by Taleb

On Basic Income

This simple concept could change the world: Give everyone a revenue 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!


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.


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


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


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?


This piece above is a rebuttal to this one:

Also see support for our gray lady here:


Ignorance, Slavery and the Illusion of Education Reform

For Education blog Post
Noam Chomsky was recently asked at his Jon Dewey Memorial lecture at Columbia University what he thought of education reform, he replied, “It is a euphemism for the dismantling of public education” (1). Lately, I have been thinking a good deal about freedom, liberty and the path to serfdom. How do you enslave people without making them realize their slavery?

There are a variety of ways and tools to enslave people: debt, ignorance, ethnic divisions, manipulation, …etc. But, I think the most powerful method is to deny people education and to devalue reasoning and science. We are managing to do both of those quite well in North America. With sky rocketing education costs and stagnant wages for low and middle income positions, many people not born to privilege must forgoe higher education. Elementary and Secondary education is also under attack through budget cuts and blind use of standardize testing (4).

The Canadian government has also mounted a full out attack on scientific research and debate (2). They closed down low-cost world class research centres such as the Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario. They have gagged government scientists and failed to appoint any top level advisers with the slightest scientific background to the Prime Minister’s office. The message is clear, education and science are out.

There is a running joke in Russia that it is the only country where you can hire a cleaning lady with a PhD. We laugh, but it is true. The Soviets did many horrible things and were no fan of individual freedom, but they did offer high quality universal education. However, a consequence of higher education is often that a person is less likely to blindly do what they are told. In North America, the dominant narrative in society is that you should consume. More goods, bigger house, better car etc. Buy more, be happy. This is a message that can be easily conveyed to people who lack analytical skills to detect when they are being manipulated.

I would be curious to know if anyone has studied the relationship between education and consumption patterns. It seems to me that the more educated you are, the less likely you are to consume material goods – but I do not know of any studies that prove it. In Québec, we have pretty affordable education, seven dollar a day daycare and high calibre primary and secondary education. Perhaps that is why storefronts in the downtown core are empty and the economy is stuttering?

Ignorance is perhaps the most powerful tool to keep someone enslaved, it is even more powerful when the person is unaware of their ignorance. Without knowledge and reasoning, we are subject to what we are told. The lack of questioning of the policies and economic principles in general Canadian society is worrisome. As public education institutions such as the CBC become commercialized due to budget cuts, higher education fees continue to rise and teacher’s pay keep getting reduced – we should ask ourselves what kind of Canada we will have in 20 years. The satirical website The Onion, perhaps put it most succinctly by asking, “Are we leaving our children far enough behind that they will never take our jobs” (3).

High quality education costs a great deal of money, because the true aim of eduction is to give a deep, meaningful understanding of a subject and allow a person to perform in a competitive real world situation. Much of the educational reforms proposed by different groups – online videos, Coursera, Khan Academy … etc. often give the illusion of high quality education, but in fact give a very superficial understanding of a subject matter.  Also, the fact that most online courses are taken in isolation of other students reduces your ability compare yourself to other students in ways that are not quantifiable. I am not saying online courses are of no use, they are great for casual learning and reinforcing general principles or digging into a specific subject – but they are no replacement for free traditional teacher based teaching.

I recall my time in engineering school and how came to realize how much better some of my peers were. My test scores were respectable, I finished with a 3.4 GPA at McGill, but I knew deep down that my depth of knowledge was not nearly as good as some of my friends. My test scores were often the result of cramming before exams, a bit of luck, on the spot reasoning and a calm demeanour during exam time. One element of my education was my appreciation of the qualities of other individuals and a clarification of my own competencies, capabilities and true passions. I fear that an isolated education leads to misplaced levels of confidence.

Paul Potts came onto the music scene in 2007 when he performed a portion of Puccini’s Nessun dorma! on the reality television show (5), “Britain’s Got Talent”. He went on to win the show and put out a series of discs. His rags to riches story was inspiring and heart warming, so when he put out his latest album, I bought a copy. It was average. At the time of his instant fame, many veteran opera singers came out and said his performance was full of mistakes and false notes. Of course, the average person who rarely listened to opera could not tell the difference, especially since it lasted no more than 30 seconds. But once you put him up in a truly competitive market – against other Opera singers – you saw all his shortcomings and his lack of years and years of formal opera training.

A similar story, though with a less happy ending, is the fall of Thomas “TJ” Webster Jr., a street basketball player. He was a down and out street ball player who believed he had a shot at the world’s most prestigious street basketball tournament. Back home, he practiced by himself or with some of the locals, whom he easily beat. His confidence was inflated beyond measure and with his meagre savings, he boarded a bus for the New York City street ball tournament. The great article in SB Nation outlines his journey and his downfall (6). Upon arrival in NYC, he entered the tournament and the gaps in his game, skills and tactics quickly rose to the surface – in the face of the very real competition. His lack of years formal training and competition in basketball camps and on college campuses killed any chance he thought he had. There was no replacement for years of gruelling work and competition in the furnace of college sports.

Though there are a few cases of lone self taught geniuses such as Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (7), the vast majority of excellence is born through mass high quality education in a competitive and collaborative environment. The short story about education is that there are no shortcuts. Someone who says they have a magic solution to high quality education is either ignorant, naive or has ulterior motives. Education reform is possible, but it should be done in very small and measured dosses and frankly, any improvement in education will require more resources – not less. We want to build Pavarottis and Lebron James, not Paul Potts and TJs.

To ensure we build a strong society, we must improve our education system and be very cautious of any education reform that does not involve more resources and importance on the quality of education. The Finnish education system is amongst the best and it unsurprisingly includes very high teacher pay, smaller classrooms and not much of a reliance on technology (8). It is essential that we stand up for very high quality free education for all.



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The State of The Poppy


Alpha Delta Phi Memorial (McGill) Brothers on the front during WW1.

Walking around Toronto and Montréal these days, it is remarkable how few people are sporting poppies. To be fair, I grew up at an anglophone all-boy school and then joined a fraternity with strong military ties at McGill, so between November 1st and November 11th poppies were everywhere. The fraternity was in fact renamed the Memorial Chapter because over 30 brothers died in each world war. Of course, the horrors of war have disappeared from our lives, thanks to international agreements, democracy and darker things too – mercenaries and drones who do our dirty work for us. Keeping the dogs of war at bay requires constant education, the active promotion of peace and so that we always remember the tremendous price we once did pay.I am a passionate proponent of non-violence and have argued for wearing a white poppy. However, wearing no poppy is far worse than either a red or white poppy.

Are the lack of poppies a reflection of continued separation of the individual from the national identity? Are we so absorbed by Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones or Occupation Double that we cannot pause to donate a few dollars to our veterans associations and ponder the lives lost during war? With civil war raging in Syria, a counter-revolution in Egypt, drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan, massacres of Muslims in Burma and innumerable other conflicts of suffering and pain, surely we can take a bit of time to reflect about war and violence in our society. A nation is by definition a series of individuals bound by culture and traditions; otherwise, we become a bunch of autonomous individuals engaged in financial transactions. History and shared experience form the bedrock of our national identity.

With decreasing historical knowledge across Canada, it is not surprising to see less poppies. Ignorance of history is a dangerous path to tread down, we will be prone to repeat the errors of the past and our defences to new assaults will be weakened. As Cicero stated, “To not know history is to forever be a child”. As far as I can tell, the lack of poppies are not restricted to the young, new Canadians or any particular group of people – it seems to be widespread and troubling. With the Conservative government cutting and slashing veterans’ affairs and pensions for soldiers, it is a better time than ever to show national solidarity. You need not agree with war in general or our interventions in Afghanistan, I certainly do not. But demonstrating you know about the wars we have fought and are currently fighting is a way to show you care about Canada, its history, about your family and about your neighbours. This year, I decided to wear both a white and red poppy because I believe in helping the veterans and in promoting peace, I hope you will join me.

Photo on 2013-11-05 at 4.03 PM #2

Looking for Business Partner – romance, e-commerce, social media, blogging, and more

I am looking for a business partner to build a great company; the foundations are laid, we just need muscle power!

In 2010, I started a project called Make your Girlfriend Happy that has been sitting dormant for two years. If you know a great writer who is passionate about content and technology, please, please put them in touch with me.

To get the site running properly again for Valentine’s day 2014, I am looking to find someone by September. Any names or tips are greatly appreciated.

Full details below!

Make your Girlfriend Happy is a dormant startup in need of some love. Started in late 2010, the site has been sitting idle for the past two years. We are looking for an entrepreneurial new lead who wants to grow the company and take it to the next level! If you love startups, social media, technology and romance – this is the place for you.

You will be in charge – responsibilities vary from strategy to design to marketing. The site still receives lots of traffic and has thousands of members. There is currently no revenue, though some business models have been tested and work.

Significant equity will be issued to the appropriate person.
Some concrete tasks you will be responsible for:

  • Content creation
  • Social media strategy and content
  • Execute a business model
  • Deal with affiliate partners
  • Improve the technological infrastructure and features

The company is currently owned by Jonathan Brun, an experience web professional, who has technical capabilities and resources for further developing the site. He will advise on strategy and technological development, but you will be the lead decision maker. The position can be part-time or full-time and work can be accomplished at any time of the day, from anywhere. You should have experience and knowledge of online marketing, communications, public relations and basic analytics skills.

If you are interested in starting the relationship revolution, please send an email to with your LinkedIn profile, Twitter handle, and other pertinent information (CV, letter of motivation).

Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) 2013 – Thinking Small

For the second time, I attended the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) in New York City in June 2013. The lineup of speakers was excellent, I got to see the great Ethan Zuckerman from the MIT Civic Lab, Sasha Issenberg, author of the Victory Lab, Robin Chase founder of ZipCar and many more. The conference was titled “Think bigger”, but despite the heavyweight attendees, PDF 2013 seemed focused on small incremental change.

There has been a recent war of words between technology detractors such as Evgeny Morozev and tech promoters such as Tim O’Reilly. Basically, Evgeny accuses much of Silicon Valley of paying blind faith to technology’s ability to solve problems. Some tech promoters argue that with more computing power, a better algorithm or distributed intelligence, social problems will be solved through innovation. Who am I to judge, but if tech evangelists’ faith were true, surely we would expect a better situation in 2013. If we applied a more technology = good equation; America, home to the most advanced technological firms in the world, should be the beacon of social justice and equal opportunity.

Many talks at PDF discussed volunteer mobilization strategies for elections, crowd funding campaigns, increasing transparency in politics and other applications of technology to politics, government and civil society. However, no speaker dared mention that only 55% of people vote in US Presidential elections and from the president to the city level, there are only two political parties in the entire United States. It seems the world of tech promoters confuses operational management with investment strategy.

In a government budget, you have two main sections – operations and major investments, they are distinct and managed differently. There is little doubt that open data and technology have an important role to play in improving operational management, we can automate, streamline, digitize and publish information for internal and external use. The nature of the government – autocratic, democratic or tyrannical – matters little to this, a pot hole is a pot hole is a pothole. However, applying technology to large scale complex social issues that require massive investment rarely provides meaningful improvement. If a system is fundamentally flawed at its roots, you cannot fix it with an app.

The world’s wealthiest societies’ list of societal problems are long and damning. Fifty years ago, who would have thought that  the United States of 2013 would have over 2.2 million people in jail, 32 states would still have the death penalty and more than 50 million Americans would live in poverty? No technology can solve these failures. There is no such thing as a better death penalty, better segregation, or better poverty – there are only absolute goals. Despite our clear failings to address our most basic problems, the speakers and participants at the Personal Democracy Forum seem oblivious to the reality outside their tech bubble, or if they do know about it, they dare not whisper its name.

Many of these problems have been solved elsewhere. Yet, the people in power seem uninterested in solving them or perhaps they have their reasons not to. To maintain power you must do many things, but one key task is to be a master of distraction. You must deviate your potential competition from meaningful endeavours that might undermine your power. To get your most talented opponents to focus their forces on side battles is an essential tool in any ruler’s arsenal. In the same way magicians divert their audience away from their slight of hand, the powerful distract the competition from undermining their pillars of support. Yes, we must also have bread and circuses for the masses who might join with the competition. But the educated, wealthy, intelligent people at Personal Democracy Forum are the competition to the rulers, not the masses.

In many ways, too many projects discussed at the conference come across as side shows that will not fundamentally change anything. Just because you can engineer something, does not mean you should or that it will be useful. Nico Mele was repeatedly quoted as having stated, “The best minds of my generation are working on getting people to click on more ads”. I would add, “The best noble minds of my generation are working on incremental change to a fundamentally broken system”. We expose campaign finance trails on multi-billion dollar elections, we adopt hydrants in cities with rampant poverty, and we expose crime statistics while millions rot in jail. We must focus our resources on the root of our problems – not the symptoms.

Few, if any, fundamental questions were asked at PDF 2013. It seems all the speakers assumed that the current forms of government, voting and American democracy may be defective, but with just one more app, a little more elbow grease and some hard work – the system can be made to work. No participant or speaker mentioned our moral obligations to each other, our duty to sacrifice, or our need to rally around a common cause. Just apply an upgrade and reboot.

Here are a few words I never heard uttered at the conference: “sacrifice”, “common good”, “large government programs”, “revolution”, “increased taxation”, “new forms of taxation”, “constitutional congress”, or “attack pillars of support”. Everyone at PDF seems to believe that we can keep what we have and find innovative solutions to massive social problems. No sacrifices required.

TEDxMontreal, where I spoke, was sick with the same disease. One speaker at TEDxMontreal outlined a new stove he built for rural Indian villagers. The stove replaced dirty indoor open fires with cleanly burned pelletized farm waste, helping reduce lung diseases caused by smoke inhalation. At PDF 2013, a talk outlined a plan to deliver medicine to poor towns in in Africa with drone technology; no need for roads, simply fly in the medicine. These two proposals are massive cop-outs from fundamental, large-scale foundational projects of running gas lines and electric cables, laying rail and paving roads. Infrastructure projects have innumerable side benefits, one of which is to build community ties and lift a country to a new level of development. Compare India to China and the progress made in the last 35 years. Heck, compare the Soviet Union from 1910 to 1980 to Brazil in the same period. I dare you, look it up. Common sacrifice is what nation building is all about. There are certain massive investments that require sacrifice by all for the common good, something we need more of. We cannot shortcut success with technology hacks.

The list of patches to a broken society that were presented at Personal Democracy Forum was long. Some people argued that massive amounts of money in American politics was a non-issue because a favourite candidate with more money lost to a slightly less financed campaign. Or, if campaign financing is transparent, people will take it into account when voting. Any reasonable analysis demonstrates money in politics is a toxic force. Want a solution that does not involve technology? In Québec, we unanimously passed a law that limits campaign donations to 125$ per person per year and no corporate donations and campaign expenditures to 6 million dollars. This is the most progressive campaign finance law in the world. Removing money from politics (on both the revenue and the expense side) is fundamental to a functioning democracy. No app required.

Think voting needs to be made more efficient? The team of Kate Kronis and Kathryn Peters are proposing new technology for running elections and counting votes. Do you recall the hanging chad technology of Florida? They have a solution – more technology! Want an easy to use solution with no technology, high accuracy and easy recount ability? In Canada, we go to the polling station, fill out an ultra-simple paper ballot and we then manually count them (see photo above).

Despite my cynicism, there are of course some interesting technological projects that could fundamentally change things, or be used by agents of change. I love the Pirate Party’s Liquid Feedback system, the new collaborative Icelandic constitution, driverless cars and online participatory budgeting. At Personal Democracy Forum, I felt too many of the bright talented people who could change the world were engaged in a small side games – not realizing the real power-play at hand. Bumping voter turnout by 1% when only 55% vote in a two party system is not meaningful success. They were blinded by the light of technology, hoping our next great technology will change it all.

In conclusion, I propose some actual big ideas that others have already implemented with great success: Free higher education, dirt cheap daycare for children, a base salary for all citizens, decriminalization of marijuana and other drugs, mass pardons of prisoners, mass debt forgiveness, a manned mission to mars, increased taxes on financial transactions, a new constitutional congress, a new election system based on preferential voting and mixed representation, strong privacy laws and no money in politics. Now put away the iPhone and get to work!

Links of interest

Larry Lessig on Republic Lost – Money in Politics
Clean Burning Stoves at TEDxMontreal
Drone medicine delivery
Law on campaign finance in Quebec
Evegny Morozev on Tim O’Reilly
Tim O’Reilly responding (can’t find it, but it’s somewhere on the internet)
Ethan Zuckerman Vancouver Human Right’s Lecture on the Arab Spring
Sasha Issenberg’s Victory Lab
George Packer: Can Silicon Valley Embrace Politics? : The New Yorker