Jonathan Brun

Satyagraha

This Christmas, Give Cash

Walking home from the bar last night I came to a dark underpass. Under the bridge there stood a man who asked me for 25 cents. Too often, I would walk by and not give anything, making up excuses, “No change”, “No Time”, or “No Interest”. Last night I did not have 25 cents or any change, but I did have some bills. Since learning about basic income and the philosophy behind it, I am more and more convinced that the ideal way to help others is to let them help themselves. And the best way to help people improve their situation is to give them the means to do it. So, instead of walking past the man under the bridge, I pulled out my wallet and gave him 10 dollars. He was thrilled, opened his  arms and gave me a hugging embrace. He seemed genuinely grateful.

Giving money directly to the needy is growing in popularity. Joy Sun gave a good TED Talk on her conversion from a traditional aid worker to becoming an advocate for direct cash transfers to the world’s poorest, leading her to start GiveDirectly. Another TEDx talk explains well the benefits of Basic Income and a shorter talk by a founding father of modern basic income mouvement explains that a direct cash transfer puts a floor under people’s feet and allows them to stand up. We give cash presents at our friends’ weddings or our children’s birthdays, so why not give cash to the less fortunate?

Of course a 10$ gift to a person on the street will not be enough to change his life, but it is a good exercise in compassion and direct exchange with the less fortunate. Direct cash transfers and basic income do not negate the need for societal investments in infrastructure, education and other common services. Yet, when it comes to helping someone who is down on their luck, cash is often best.

Last year a Chinese billionaire announced he would offer a free Christmas lunch and a direct cash transfer to the homeless in New York City. Thousands showed up for their meal and cash, but at the end of the meal the homeless were informed that the cash would instead be donated to a local charity and not given to the people present. They were understandably angry. Many had planned to use the money for travel, clothes, food or other items of their own choice. The local charity had good intentions, but the point is that no matter how much effort we put towards understanding someone’s needs, we will never know exactly what they want.

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This advertisement above is a perfect example of the complexity of poverty, it states “Why can’t street kids get a life?”. The explanation that follows is unreadable from the distance where you can stand, about 10 feet away, but is clearly long, complex and detailed. It concludes simply “That’s why”. We should have the humility to respect all people and their unique challenges and life stories. To help them, we need to trust them and one way to demonstrate trust is to give them your hard earned money without constraints. Try it this holiday season.

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 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!

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

1118180_12103858_lz

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

 

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

photo

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 cyrano@makeyourgirlfriendhappy.com with your LinkedIn profile, Twitter handle, and other pertinent information (CV, letter of motivation).

http://makeyourgirlfriendhappy.com/positions#leader

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

Why you should care about government surveillance

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“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”Benjamin Franklin

For the same reason you buy home insurance, you should stand against government surveillance. The recent revelations of the National Security Agency (NSA) PRISM project that collects electronic communications are shocking – though not surprising. Under this program and others, the US Government actively monitors electronic communication of most Americans and most Canadians speaking with Americans. The NSA watches us in the name of security. They claim the collected information helps prevent catastrophic terrorist attacks, a sort of Minority Report that predicts crimes before they happen. We consent to this in the name of security. Is the exchange of freedom for temporary peace worth the cost?

If we define freedom as the freedom from oppression and the freedom to act as we desire, within the constraints of democratically enacted law, then it follows that we are no longer free. These surveillance programs remove your most basic freedom – whether you realize it or not. You cannot act freely if your thoughts, relationships, and speech are constantly monitored and analyzed; you end up in constant fear of oppression by the state. Did you know Ernest Hemingway committed suicide due to depression, compounded by constant surveillance by the FBI because of socialist sympathies?

The threat of force is usually enough to exert power. With your phone records, emails, Facebook messages and GPS locations; one day, when convenient, the people who have this information can ruin your life. Since the average citizen breaks three laws a day by speeding, paying cash, or fishing out of season – you are already guilty of something and the prosecutors already have all the evidence they need. No matter how hard you try or how good you think you are, you will break the law, some law, and the record is stored in a server farm, not so far away. Of course you will likely never be prosecuted, but one day that can all change.

Most of us buy home insurance to protect against catastrophic events – fire, flood, or tornadoes. We fear losing something precious and expensive, so we pay a fee just in case. Since you could opt for a vacation instead of insurance premiums, you are sacrificing current pleasure for peace of mind. With massive government surveillance programs, nothing stands between a zealous prosecutor (read: flood) and a destroyed life. A principal lever to restrict power is to restrict information. The creation of barriers between government and citizens might cost security today, but they offer freedom tomorrow. The power of government is well demonstrated by the prosecution of activists. This year, when faced with 25 years behind jail and mountains of legal bills for trying to help free publicly funded information, Aaron Schwartz killed himself – like Hemingway. Bradly Manning, the person behind Cablegate, is in jail indefinitely. Mandela spent 25 years in jail. The list is long.

It is not just activists who need fear the hammer of the judge. The well intentioned citizen who may have toked up in college, drank one too many beers, driven a little too fast or forgot to declare a little income has just as much to fear when those above him know every detail of every mistake he ever made. Want to run for mayor or take down a crooked politician? Forget it. Your competitors have all the details on your mistress, your drinking habits, and they can bring out that email you sent to your ex-girlfriend after a few too many drinks. The threat to harm is as powerful as the actual blow.

Freedom costs something. If we want a free society, we must give up certain short term comforts. We decided that our justice system should let some guilty criminals go free to ensure fewer innocent citizens are jailed. Today, we presume innocence and the government must prove you are guilty without a reasonable doubt. Mass surveillance removes the barriers between the citizen and the government, the consequences are a shackled society where we all live in fear and our actions are restricted. Freedom requires walls between centres of power, it requires limiting what government, companies and each of us know about each other. To know everything about everyone is to be all powerful. A surveillance state is the closest thing we have to an all-knowing, all powerful, judgmental Catholic God who sends us to hell for our inevitable sinful thoughts.

Democracy was conceived to remove absolute monarchs and distribute power amongst the people. Lincoln’s democracy, based on a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” will perish from this earth if it possesses a window into our minds. If you voluntarily give your hard earned liberties to secret government courts, private interests and power hungry institutions, do not expect them back anytime soon. If and when they decide to come for you, it will be at their convenience. The bag-men don’t come when the sun shines and the world watches, they come at night.

********

The well known poem by pastor Martin Niemöller rings very true.

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Links of interest

Harvard Economists lose to Open Scientific Data

Open Data in scientific studies is just as important as open government data. Just last week, a major study by prominent Harvard economists was completely demolished because a grad student looked at their raw data and determined there were multiple computing errors. No need to repeat what has been said, so go read this and this.

Imagine if government published its data on hospital performance vs. investment, comparisons of school teaching strategies and other valuable datasets? Grad students, citizens and organizations would surely find errors, issues and room for improvement.

 

Open Data Muscle

HansFranz

Canadian open data needs to get pumped up! In the past year, the UK government has announced a 10 million pound investment into the  Open Data Institute and the Google Foundation gave over 1.6 million dollars to the UK group MySociety and over 2.1 million to the US Sunlight Foundation. In Canada, we have yet to see a similar engagement from a government, a private individual or foundations.

Without adequate resources, the open data enthusiasts in Canada will be unable to compete with their UK or US counterparts. The limited supply of software developers who are passionate about technology, transparency and government will be drawn to companies that can put bread on the table. Jurisdictions with political leadership and who offer long term financial backing to talented developers and designers will develop the open data ecosystem first. Their technologies will eventually be implemented in Canada, when the data becomes available, but the brains and jobs will stay firmly planted offshore.

Canada’s Scientific Research and Development program supports thousands of tech companies across Canada, but non-profits are ineligible. Québec poured money into video games and aerospace, Ontario supported Waterloo’s RIM and the car industry and Alberta has the Tar Sands. We need an investment program for government data analysis and use. If open data apps can improve government and public service performance by just 1%, the returns will be massive.

Despite lots of talk, no provincial, municipal or federal government in Canada has shown leadership on open data in the form that matters most – money. Like it or not, without substantial financial support from government, projects such as OpenParliament, What Do They Know, Represent or MaMairie cannot survive. In addition to user facing applications, groups across the country need support to ensure our outdated access to information laws are reformed, that democratic institutions are modernized and that citizens take action on pressing social issues. If Sweden brought its deficit from nearly 80% of GDP to under 33% through the modernization of its democratic institutions, we can do the same and open government is part of the solution.

Jake Porway, of DataKind, recently wrote a great piece in the Harvard Business Review outlining the need to increase the financing behind open data. We need to somehow convince Canadian foundations, citizens, companies and governments of the pressing need to invest real cash into open data and apps. Without the build up of talent and resources, weekend Hackathon projects will continue to be just that: weekend projects. We need institutional capacity to affect political change. Who will have the courage to take a risk on Canada’s burgeoning open data community?

The Value of Democracy

Civic participation isn’t for everyone. In the non-profit and democratic fields, we too often attempt to convert the general public to our worldview that all citizens should be actively engaged in their communities, participate in votes, attend public assemblies and actively engage with their elected officials. This idealistic view of society drives many folks towards apathy and a perception that we’re a bunch of goodie-two-shoes.

If we are honest, most folks want a safe neighbourhood, a strong economy and fair opportunities of their children to succeed in society. While those elements absolutly require strong democratic institutions and an active population; we should not expect everyone to get engaged. The vast majority of our lives are managed by other people, plumbers plumb, electricians electrify, aerospace engineers build airplanes, painters paint, and bakers bake; why should democratic institution building be different?

Democratic activists improve democracy. Just as people are willing to pay for good plumbing, they should be willing to open their pocketbooks to improve democracy. The challenge then becomes to demonstrate the value of a strong democracy and its overarching impact on their lives and then allow them citizen to easily contribute towards our work. With the financial support of our fellow citizens, great things can be accomplished by the staff at Open North, the Sunlight Foundation, MySociety and other groups. The task at hand is to effectively communicate of the value of democracy and the urgency of change, two tasks that are harder than one might imagine.

P.S. Sorry for the lack of posts, see QuebecOuvert and Nimonik for my more recent blog posts.

Political vision and daringness

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Today’s politicians seem to be play to the centre; not the political centre, but the intellectual centre. Instead of grand, bold, crazy ideas such as putting a man to the moon, eradicating horrible diseases, or fundamentally reforming society through constitutional amendments, they propose moderate reforms that risk few upset stomachs.

The lack of vision saddens me. In our times of global economic turmoil, changing world order and environmental challenge, we need bold people willing to take risks. Nations remember the dreamers and doers not the tinkerers, we love the ones who dared us to extend our self-image to new heights. Our fascination and admiration of these people is easily confirmed by a cursory glance at our history books or by polls such as the one that puts Trudeau as our most popular prime minister. While historical romance may not be the best test of quality leadership, it is a sign of their impact on the country. While Trudeau had more than his fair share of enemies and he put Canada on the road to financial catastrophe, we love him for his daringness and his refusal to compromise. We need more people like that.

Why are so few politicians willing to dream big today? The canadian David Foot once stated, “Two thirds of everything can be explained by demographics” and interestingly, the population during the tenure of many of our great leaders was significantly younger than today. The reckless youth that were once the base of change are now aging baby boomers concerned with cashing out their home equity and retiring in comfort. Our lack of boldness is due to more than an aging population, but it certainly plays a role.

As the thinker Slavok Zizek recently put it, “The philosopher Jean-Claude Milner recently proposed the notion of the “stabilising class”: not the old ruling class, but all who are committed to the stability and continuity of the existing social, economic and political order – the class of those who, even when they call for a change, do so to ensure that nothing really will change. The key to electoral success in today’s developed states is winning over this class… The majority who voted for him [Obama] were put off by the radical changes advocated by the Republican market and religious fundamentalists.” Though that might be an over-simplification of Obama’s victory, there is an essence of truth: the electorate seems highly risk averse and afraid to think of a different world that might be.

The the radical changes proposed by the tea party, the evangelical right, the Occupy movement and even the more moderate student protests in Québec were too much for the middle class to swallow. Yet, the frustration that has boiled to the surface on both the right and the left expresses a deep frustration with our political system. Our  current trajectory of environmental destruction, increased debt and lack of social mobility must change much faster if we hope to avoid dire consequences.

From Drapeau in Montréal to Levesque in Québec to Trudeau in Canada, bold visionaries forge history, not the elected administrators we have today. The fact that the daring ones got elected and re-elected multiple times is a testament to their ability to enthral a nation, set a bold vision and execute – even if not perfectly. Today’s Canadian political landscape is sadly devoid of intellectual depth and leadership willing to upset the status quo or challenge our assumptions – yet, that is exactly what we need, more than ever (1). I’m convinced citizens are hungry for it; someone just needs to step up to the plate dare us.

In the private sector, Elon Musk is changing the world. After co-founding Paypal and selling it for billions, he set about revolutionizing the solar panel industry, creating electric cars and putting people in space. He aims to get us off fossil fuels and make humans a multi-planetary species, ambitious might be an understatement. Despite the grandeur of his goals he is succeeding. The Tesla Model S electric sedan just won Motor Trend Car of the year and Space X has launched two successful shipments to the International Space Station. He has created the greatest car in the world, that happens to be electric, and he has reduced space travel costs by over 95% (yes, you read that right). He did what most said was impossible and he did it with far less means than the current players in the market. If he can do it in technology, someone can do it in politics. We need a political Elon Musk.

P.S. Of course, the classic Apple Ad “The Crazy Ones” says this better than I can.

(1) See Foreign Policy top 100 thinkers and the lack of any Canadians on the list.