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.
Bourdon, Sébastien (1616-1671) The Selling of Joseph into Slavery
The Occupy mouvement that took hold in 2011 has transformed its efforts into something quite interesting. They recently launched the Rolling Jubilee, a program to use past and new donations to purchase and forgive distressed debt from individuals (see Guardian article). The aim is to relieve pressure from people who are being chased by debt collectors and allow them to rebuild their lives. Because it targets distressed debt being sold on secondary markets, the Rolling Jubilee can be purchase debt for pennies on the dollar. They claim to be able to purchase $1ooo of distressed debt for only $50.
Few doubt that debt loads are serious problem in our society. With consumer and household debt near record highs, this financial ball and chain inhibits investments in businesses, harms communities, slows new purchases and reduces our ability to relaunch the economy. As described in the amazing article “Debt: The first five thousand years“, debt forgiveness has been with us since debt itself, “Biblical prophets instituted a similar custom, the Jubilee, whereby after seven years all debts were similarly cancelled.” A modern massive debt forgiveness program would have a significant impact, freeing millions of people to reinvest in our societies.
The Rolling Jubilee from Occupy and debt forgiveness programs in general should not be employed for everyone at once. Instead, debt annulments should target people who incurred large medical expenses, unforeseen accidents or who invested in education. Debt incurred during times of duress is the classic path towards bondage and indentured labour. Releasing people from their debts is akin to blowing fresh air into society. The Rolling Jubilee claims 62% of US bankruptcies are due to medical accidents, so their program should help individuals who needed medical assistance, but lacked insurance coverage. However, because student debt cannot be resold on secondary markets, the rolling jubilee is not capable of purchasing and forgiving student loans.
Student debt, currently over 14 billion dollars in Canada, is a huge restriction on economic growth (see article). Young people, looking to invest in a home, have children and make big purchases after graduation inevitably have to put those decisions off until they can relieve some student debt. This harms all of us. And, as a nation we could accelerate that debt repayment. Similar to Occupy’s Rolling Jubilee, the government and individuals could create a debt matching program where any student loan repayment is matched, or more, by a fund, allowing individuals to pay back their loans much faster.
Such a repayment matching program would encourage responsible individuals to prioritize student loan repayment and would reward people who spent their money on education. The freed individuals will be more likely to purchase homes, buy cars and have children – helping lift the economy out of the doldrums, grow tax revenues and restore confidence in our country.
A massive debt forgiveness program for students, individuals with medical issues and other unforeseen accidents would be a noble and efficient path towards a renewed Canada.
P.S. Of course, a long term solution to student loans would be to reduce tuition fees and innovate in education delivery mechanisms, but one thing at a time! (see my other article in french here).
La crise étudiante de 2012 a déjà fait couler beaucoup d’encre, mais je propose néanmoins d’offrir quelques réflexions. Avec l’élection du Parti Québecois, il semble que la crise soit terminée – enfin, pour le moment. Lors des démonstrations du printemps dernier, j’ai eu de nombreuses discussions avec des personnes des deux côtés du débat. Les arguments avancés étaient sensibles et logiques; financement des universités, juste part vs. accessibilité pour tous les étudiants. Ils n’allaient toutefois pas toujours au fond de la question de la juste valeur de l’éducation supérieure et des priorités d’une société.
J’avoue que je n’ai pas participé aux manifestations, mais je ne soutenais pas non plus la hausse proposée. Je crois que la situation est plus complexe et nuancée que les positions simplistes de l’ancien gouvernement et des associations étudiantes. Selon moi, notre but en tant que société devrait être d’offrir un système d’éducation accessible à tous les jeunes avec des frais de scolarité modulés selon le salaire et le diplôme obtenu.
Il est objectivement vrai que la vie des jeunes finissants universitaires est plus difficile aujourd’hui qu’elle l’était en 1965 ou en 1985. Les emplois sont plus précaires, moins accessibles et moins rémunérés. Le logement coûte beaucoup plus cher, même en tenant compte de l’inflation, et beaucoup de jeunes se demandent comment ils vont faire pour acheter une maison et élever une famille sans s’endetter à vie. Ces craintes et angoisses sont une des grandes sources des manifestations et réclamations des jeunes Québécois et Québécoises (on constate les mêmes craintes dans le mouvement mondial d’Occupons Wall Street en 2012).
Il demeure néanmoins que beaucoup de gouvernements à travers le monde peinent à combler leurs budgets et qu’ils sont nombreux à couper dans les programmes sociaux. Au Québec et ailleurs, les dépenses d’État grimpent sans cesse, dû à un système de santé qui doit servir une population vieillissante et le besoin d’investir dans le renouvellement des infrastructures.
Au Québec, nous avons déjà les impôts les plus élevés en Amérique du Nord et nous venons d’augmenter les taxes de ventes, ce qui affecte particulièrement les personnes de la classe moyenne. Même avec ces efforts, nous sommes une province pauvre. En 2012, le Québec recevra près de 4,4 milliards de dollars en transferts de péréquation. Cette situation ne peut durer, surtout avec un gouvernement fédéral conservateur et les négociations des transferts de péréquation en 2013. Il faut donc absolument trouver des moyens d’améliorer l’efficacité des services publics et de les rendre plus “intelligents”.
Pour résoudre des problèmes de société comme la hausse des frais de scolarité, il faut entamer un dialogue de société. D’une part, on doit mieux comprendre et exposer les états financiers de nos institutions d’enseignement (voir article de Québec Ouvert). D’autre part, les étudiants doivent comprendre qu’il faut modifier le système actuel. Une démocratie qui fonctionne demande l’action constructive des citoyens et du gouvernement. Trop souvent, les citoyens revendiquent sans offrir de travailler à trouver des solutions réalisables. Ce manque de communication oblige le gouvernement à prendre des décisions sans la participation des citoyens concernés, ce qui peut mener à des manifestations comme nous en avons connues.
Le principe qui devrait guider nos discussions à propos des frais de scolarité est simple : garantir l’accessibilité de notre système d’éducation à chaque Québécois et Québécoise. Si nous sommes en accord sur notre but, la question devient alors comment fait-on?
Mon profond désir pour le Québec est que nous devenons une méritocratie. Une société où les personnes peuvent monter et descendre les échelles socioéconomiques selon leurs compétences et éthiques de travail. Pour cela, il est absolument essentiel d’avoir un système d’éducation accessible à tous les citoyens car l’éducation est le meilleur moyen pour égaliser le terrain de jeu entre les couches sociales.
Des études démontrent qu’il y a peu de corrélation entre le coût d’un diplôme universitaire et l’accessibilité, mais beaucoup entre l’accès et la mobilité sociale. Le gel des frais de scolarité proposé par les étudiants est une approche « bulldozeur » où l’on devrait employer un couteau. Pourquoi ne pas augmenter les frais d’un diplôme médical qui coûte beaucoup plus cher à offrir et qui mène à un emploi quasi garanti avec un salaire de 150 000$? Mis à part quelques professions, il est vrai qu’il est impossible de prévoir la valeur d’un diplôme, ce système n’est donc pas simple à implanter. Il s’agit toutefois d’une bonne piste de reflexion.
D’un autre côté, il semble logique que l’on offre la gratuité scolaire pour des bacs en histoire, philosophie et autres domaines qui offrent moins de possibilités d’emploi, mais qui enrichissent la vie des étudiants et la culture générale de notre société. Ces diplômés en histoire et en arts pourront ensuite s’investir dans une formation plus technique telle que la médecine, le droit et l’ingénierie qui proposent de meilleures opportunités d’emploi. L’excellent article du magazine Walrus explique clairement les difficultés démographiques et socio-économiques de notre système d’éducation actuel.
Pour offrir une éducation de qualité à un prix abordable ou nul, il nous faut une économie qui fonctionne. Le mouvement étudiant du printemps 2012 s’est trop mêlé avec des mouvements anticapitalistes et anarchistes en visant le Grand Prix de Montréal, Power Corporation ou les banques. Peu de citoyens de la classe moyenne croient à présent dans une vision anarchiste ou anticapitaliste. Ils sont plutôt de l’opinion que la richesse d’une société provient des entreprises qui emploient des personnes, produisent des produits et paient des impôts. Nos écoles, musées, arts et cultures ont besoin d’un secteur privé fort, responsable et stable. L’inverse est également vrai, les entreprises ont besoin de citoyens et travailleurs bien instruits. Lorsque j’ai traversé la Russie, j’ai souvent entendu la blague que c’est le seul pays où l’on peut embaucher une femme de ménage détenant un doctorat.
Comme vous l’aurez deviné, je n’ai pas de solution magique à proposer à ce problème de société. Je souhaite tout de même proposer quelques idées qui pourraient aider à moderniser nos institutions d’éducation et améliorer leur état fiscal.
1. Gratuité pour certains diplômes
Je propose la gratuité scolaire pour certains diplômes et des hausses des frais de scolarité pour d’autres. Un baccalauréat en histoire n’est pas la même chose qu’un diplôme en médecine. Geler tous les frais pour tous les programmes, comme le propose les associations étudiantes, c’est l’équivalent de mettre le même prix sur tous les produits dans un supermarché. En augmentant les frais de scolarité pour tout le monde, on finit par encourager les personnes à se concentrer dans des professions qui sont rentables. Cela risque de mener à une société sans fond culturel, philosophique et politique — bref, sans profondeur.
À ce sujet, le système australien, que je ne prétends pas connaître en détails, me semble logique. Les frais de scolarité dépendent du salaire après les études. Par exemple, si une personne fait des études en droit et devient avocat en droit des affaires, celle-ci doit payer plus de frais de scolarité qu’un avocat pratiquant en droit social par exemple. En modulant les frais de scolarité selon le salaire après les études, nous communiquerons mieux la valeur d’une éducation tout en garantissant la liberté de choisir ses études sans crainte d’endettement excessif. Cette approche rend le financement du système d’éducation plus intelligent (même le président Obama propose quelque chose de semblable aux États-Unis).
2. Transparence dans les états financiers des universités
Comme l’initiative populaire Québec Ouvert (dont je suis cofondateur) l’a très bien décrit, nous devons augmenter la transparence des finances de nos institutions d’enseignement. Si le public et les étudiants ne peuvent pas facilement analyser les finances, comment peut-on proposer des solutions? Les états financiers, les dépenses et les salaires des employés devraient être rendus publics en format ouvert et numérique. Avec ces informations, les étudiants pourront davantage être en mesure de participer aux grandes décisions et aider dans la gestion de leur université.
3. Diffuser gratuitement le contenu des universités québécoises en ligne
Il faut non seulement moderniser la gestion financière, mais aussi les méthodes d’enseignement. À ma connaissance, il n’y a aucune université québécoise qui diffuse gratuitement les cours sur Internet. Pourtant, des universités américaines telles que MIT et Stanford le font depuis plusieurs années. La diffusion des cours serait un moyen d’offrir plus d’éducation aux Québecois, de faire rayonner nos institutions à l’extérieur du Québec et de valoriser le travail de nos professeurs et chercheurs. On pourrait contribuer à Open CourseWare (OCW) ou à d’autres programmes d’enseignement gratuits en ligne. Des cours tel que Justice à Harvard aide à diffuser la philosophie morale à des millions de personnes à travers le monde et Khan Academy aide les étudiants à l’école secondaire (voir son TED Talk). Cela pourrait également contribuer à augmenter l’intérêt des étudiants à fréquenter l’université et réduire le décrochage scolaire en démontrant ce que les universités ont à offrir.
4. Révolutionner la publication des livres scolaires
Nous pourrions également embarquer dans la libération d’information d’enseignement en rendant les livres de cours gratuits sur Internet à tous les niveaux du système d’éducation. L’industrie du livre d’éducation est déjà très connue pour ses moyens néfastes d’extraire le plus d’argent possible des étudiants (billet en anglais ici et commentaires). Le Québec pourrait devenir un exemple à travers le monde en encourageant nos professeurs à créer ou à collaborer pour offrir des livres libre source sur internet. En travaillant à libérer nos connaissances et les offrir aux autres, les institutions d’enseignement québécoises rayonneront à l’échelle internationale et pourront aider l’enseignement dans des pays francophones en voie de développement. La Californie vient de signer une loi qui permettra la création de livres de cours en format ouvert et qui aidera à réduire les coûts d’enseignement. Et lors d’un Hackathon en Finlande, des professeurs ont créé un livre gratuit en ligne pour leurs étudiants.
Certes ces idées proposées semblent peut être dramatiques et demandent un changement de culture profond, mais je crois que nous pourrons seulement résoudre nos problèmes de société en apportant des changements majeurs. Il faut s’attaquer à la racine de nos problèmes, pas simplement appliquer des pansements temporaires. Nos institutions d’enseignement ont été conçues pour le 20ième siècle sans internet, nous devons les moderniser en tenant compte des possibilité de diffusion de contenu, de partage de responsabilité et de transparence de gestion.
Il n’y a pas de solution facile à ces problèmes, mais il est évident que nous ne pouvons pas continuer sur la voie actuelle. Le gouvernement et les étudiants doivent laisser leurs positions idéologiques derrière eux et changer le paradigme dans lequel notre système d’éducation se trouve. La justice sociale ne se règlera pas cet automne, il est donc essentiel que nous entamions une discussion de profondeur à propos de nos valeurs de société et de nos institutions d’enseignement.
My two favourite films are Baraka and now, Samsara. Both are silent movies that travel the globe in exquisite detail. Far too many movies use speech, sound effects and music as a form of filler for mediocre stories, images, and acting. These two films show you factory farms, sex workers, garbage pickers, wealth, poverty, and beautiful art – but they do not tell you what to think. In many ways I find the experience more fulfilling. The absence of a narrator seems to be a sign of respect by the director for the audience’s intelligence. That respect conveyed through emptiness is perhaps what differentiates art from entertainment. Art makes you think, entertainment tells you what to think – or not to think.
So far, it has been a fairly standard election campaign – ridiculous promises, libel and mud slinging from all sides. Only a few days in, it remains impossible to say how it will all end; however, I will dare to make one or two small predictions. The political landscape will be significantly different after the election.
The Parti Québecois, created by René Levesque with the sole purpose of Québec independence, has run its course. While the independence mouvement fell short of complete independence, it had a massive impact on the distribution of federal-provincial powers. Québec and other provinces dramatically increased their share of political power thanks to the PQ and for that we should be thankful. However, it is time to move on from the indpendance debate (for now). The PQ needs to break apart – with centre-left voters moving to a provincial NDP or a more moderate Québec Solidaire (QS) and hardcore nationalists moving to Option Nationale (ON). Similarly, the Liberal party will lose voters to the CAQ, but potentially pick up some centre-right PQ voters.
In Québec, one never knows how elections will end, but it seems unlikely any party has enough support for a majority government. The old bi-polar PQ – PLQ world is crumbling. Already, many of my left wing francophone friends are planning to vote Québec Solidaire and some of my moderate and fiscally right-wing anglophone friends are seriously looking at the CAQ. The PQ can no longer coherently hold so many different political views together – left, centre-left, francophone, and sovereignty. Reading the PQ electoral platform is like taking a time machine back 20 years, they are out of touch. More common than not, citizens vote governments out not in and my guess is that will happen with Charest. Everyone seems tired of him and as long as the CAQ, ON and QS don’t do anything too stupid we should end up with a very diverse National Assemble this fall.
National debt, taxes and government inefficiency are regular dinner table talk these days. The discussion usually boils down to: pro-government save the poor vs. anti-(big)-government do-it-yourself arguments. Both sides have valid points and deserve being listened to, but when push comes to shove, there is no denying that the services we take for granted cost lots of money. Fire trucks, roads, schools, hospitals are expensive and cuts are harder than most people think.
Working in China in 2005 was my first in-depth experience in a emerging country. Of all the things I learned there, the lack of public services really hit home. It was only by going to China and later to other developing countries, that I realized the vast amount of relatively high quality services we have. From retirement homes, to the justice system, to free healthcare and honest police; our government provides a lot of services.
Could some of our services be delivered more efficiently, handed over to the private sector or given back to the citizens? Of course. But on the whole, I firmly believe that high quality and costly services are a required ingredient of a free society. To deliver those services, we need large and robust intitutions. Michael Ignatieff’s point that “government is the granite under our feet” is accurate. Yet, what matters most is not the rate of taxation or the size of government, but rather the perceived value of those taxes. As when you go shopping, we want our money’s worth.
Unsurprisingly, we continue to think there is a better, faster and easier way – the grass is always greener on the other side. Way back in the late 20th century, we were proclaiming the rise of the Asian Tigers as a new economic powerhouse. Their growth was a steady 10% and they seemed invincible, yet it all came to a screeching halt in 1997 with the asian financial crisis. Paul Krugman’s seminal paper The Myth of Asia’s Miracle on the frailty of South East Asian economies in 1994 prophetically predicted the outcome. His point can be boiled down to diminishing returns on investment as your economy grows. Infrastructure in an emerging country is an easy win, it’s easy to get 10% growth when you dodge environmental laws, build basic infrastructure, skip over worker’s rights and pay minimal heed to a functioning justice system. For a while, you can achieve amazing growth – the Soviet Union did it between 1930 – 1970 and China is doing it now, but eventually, your lack of institutional human infrastructure catches up with you. (see Three little pigs case study)
Some countries avoid the pitfalls of relying on easy growth – South Korea comes to mind, but most fail. While we bemoan the low growth in the EU and the US, we fail to realize it is the natural evolution of the system. It is not that you cannot continue to grow once you are a developed economy, but rather that economic growth becomes harder and harder. However, the value of the extra dollar of growth in a developing country has far more resilience than in a country lacking infrastructure. Not all dollars are equal, an extra GDP point in a country where you respect the environment and worker’s rights is more valuable than a GDP point where you do not. Not morally more valuable, but tangibly more valuable; the dollar of GDP is more durable, can withstand more shock and is more robust. Canada’s Tar Sands driven growth is a mirage, just as Baku was once a prosperous economy, Alberta’s growth is based on a depleting resource with increasing extraction costs. Alberta, and Canada, should follow the Norwegian practice and pour oil profits into a safe fund for the future.
There are many instances of decisions we have taken as society to reduce growth in the name of social stability and human rights. From union protecting laws to our complex justice system, we place citizens before GDP. Building up intelligent environmental laws might slow economic growth temporarily, but it will reinforce the foundation of our economy and lay the ground for long term stability.
Our admittedly imperfect legal system is a prime example of doing the right thing despite gigantic costs. It is extremely expensive to have due process and it’s much, much cheaper to torture or just toss people in jail. China’s failure to modernize its legal system will inevitably bite it in the butt. In fact, the lack of due process already drives many wealthy Chinese to flee their homeland for Canada and the US.
So, the next time a discussion turns to taxation rates, unions or the cost of environmental regulations, remember that it is not the individual value of a service or law that matters, but its role in sustaining a vibrant and robust human society.
As I prance around Montréal and Québec trying to improve government services with open data, talks, activism and apps, I often get blank stares. Following the blank stares come the proclamations only slightly less direct than, “Government is a huge bureaucratic mess that spends like a drunken sailor and needs to be cut down to size.” While there are parts of this that are clearly true – government is often inefficient – people often fail to realize that government is not external to society. Government does not work in a vaccum, it is dependant on taxes (personal, property, corporate, other), people, civil society, and a vibrant economy. Importantly, access to capital and an ability to earn interest on assets is as important for government as it is for private companies.
Today, we are seeing dramatic austerity programs implemented in Spain, UK, Greece and other parts of the world. It is a social experiment on a global scale. On one side, we have the United States, Canada and Australia who are spending money and avoiding dramatic cuts and on the other side we have European countries making massive cuts. We will see the results, but it is interesting to understand the causes. In a global economy, money flows to places of security and banks are happy to accomodate both the wealthy fleeing failing countries and the governments desperately requiring capital to mask their faltering finances.
It is becoming clearer and clearer that the banks played a nefarious role in the evolving crisis. More than money changers, they actively entrapped governments and short changed them on their returns. We now know Goldman Sachs lent massive amounts of money to Greece in complex packages with restrictive terms few mortals could comprehend, a behaviour not dissimilar from a loan shark. In the same manner a drug dealer makes his clients dependant on them, Goldman Sachs made Greece dependent on their loans. Concurrently, banks around the world were rigging interest rates on municipal bonds and capital, reducing revenues to governments and further pushing them into dependency.
The magnitude of the scandal is just starting to emerge into sight, LIBOR being the biggest baking scandal ever. The evolving LIBOR (infographic) scandal affects 800 Trillion dollars (not a typo) of debt and securities and the municipal bond fixing scheme in the United States harmed thousands of towns. I encourage you to read the Rolling Stone piece on interest rate bidding by banks for management of municipalities’ capital, but basically both scandals are price fixing on a massive scale (see Bill Moyer’s show). These tactics of price fixing undermine the integrity of the system and lay bare the hypocrisy of solely blaming governments for budget shortfalls and overspending.
Fixing these problems and ensuring good governance by national and municipal governments requires diligent and talented people. Getting talented people into public service is harder than ever. Our society’s culture, since perhaps the 1980s, values private sector work over public work. Consequently, the best and brightest minds go into the private sector. This leads to further erosion of government services as mediocrity permeates government services, pushing yet more talented members of society into the private sector. And on and on until we hit a wall, we might be there.
Long story short, let us not be so quick to judge, sentence, and execute government for gross incompetence; the entire system is at fault and it will take a lot of hard work to fix it.
Charity requires sacrifice. Perhaps sacrifice is not the best word, but rather austerity and humility. Lately, I have been thinking of the nature of charity.
Today, too many charitable organizations have been turned into fundraising machines that now have money as their primary goal. While financial ressources are essential to helping others, it cannot be an organization’s primary purpose. Charitable action must be duty bound, meaning it must be an action that directly helps others with as little benefit to yourself as possible. In contrast to this principle, in recent years we have seen the dramatic rise of sporting events as means for charitable organizations to raise money for their operations, such examples include 24-hour bike rides, hockey games with former professional athletes or ski marathons. The obvious argument about these organized events is the percentage of raised money that actually makes it to the organization. While that is a fair criticism, I believe it misses the moral imperative of participation in these events.
When I was a student at McGill University, a good friend of mine started a charitable organization to build a school in war ravaged northern Uganda. This was a noble cause indeed; if anyone needed more free schooling, it was them. To raise capital for the school, she employed a number of tactics and strategies. Most of them consisted in asking for money, organizing marches and promoting the organization. But, some of the strategies included hosting fancy parties at high end nightclubs in Montreal where a portion of the bar revenue would go to the organization in question. So, 22-year old students would gleefully spend their parents money on champagne and expensive vodka with the solace that some portion of their extravagance would make it to destitute children in Northern Uganda.
To me, these fundraising strategies of sporting events and gala evenings are a false form of charity because the participants of the events are enjoying themselves first and being charitable second. While enjoyment alone is not a sin, it does pose a problem when it becomes the main driver of participation. In Montreal, a large Cancer Society organizes a fundraising bike ride from Montréal to Québec in addition to other cities. The event in question is sponsored by Enbridge, a major pipeline company who has had numerous spills of highly polluting and carcinogenic oil into the environment and who propose a dangerous pipeline across pristine natural land in British Columbia. But I digress, participants of the bike rides to cure cancer must raise a minimum of 2500$ to participate, receive a jersey, food and infrastructure. They then get to bike in the beautiful Québec countryside for two days; I’m sorry that sounds more like a vacation than a charity event. From my perspective, true charity is only possible when you decide to forgo worldly pleasures for the joy of helping others. You cannot do both at the same time.
Through that reasoning, I find it very hard to donate money to these types of events. They smack of false charity that might be successful in raising awareness and generating revenue, but fail to meet the fundamental definition of charity. Jesus did not say, “Let’s party on 100 shekel Roman wine and give 15% for the redemption of our souls and children’s education.” The ends do not justify the means.
It is important to not blindly give to charity. The pink ribbon campaign for breast cancer research is another example of the transformation of charity into a commercial practice. Companies who offer unhealthy drinks and products slap the pink ribbon onto their products in the hope of selling more and perhaps trickling some money to cancer research. Many of their products are in fact potentially carcinogenic – from hairspray to sugary drinks to products made in polluting factories in China by poorly paid workers and then transported across the world on bunker oil burning tankers that cause smog and acid rain. How can that be called charity?
Charity must come from the depths of the soul. Before you can give charity, you must first become a charitable person and it begins and ends with yourself. As Gandhi stated, “Be the change you want to see”. In our times, people like Warren Buffet perhaps best exemplify this. Despite his massive wealth, he lives modestly and plans to progressively give away nearly all his money. I have heard rumours he even refused to give money to his grandchildren for cars and washing machines, he believes that material possessions should be earned when they can be. When a person lacks the ability earn their way, due to oppression, bad luck or some other event – they deserve help.
In this world, our personal actions are the only thing we have control over and true charity must come from the person. Humility and austerity must be the foundation of giving; without it, the act of charity becomes a narcissistic event that regardless of the financial success, lacks the morality, humility and honesty required to kneel down in the mud and help our fellow human stand up.
This year, I had the great privilege of being invited to give a talk on the future of democracy at TEDxMontreal. The event was wonderfully organized and the other speakers were all fantastic. Below is the talk and the original text, from which I deviated a bit due to fatigue, stress, and talking too slow. Overall, I think it went well, but I am very keen for your feedback. Was my point clear? Was it convincing? Are you ready to upgrade our democracy?
Jonathan Brun says it’s time to upgrade our democracy.
Do you remember the future? I am talking about the future we used to dream of: The flying cars, the miracle cures, the smiling families, spotless streets and monorails. What happened to it? Where is it?
I mean, part of it is here. We’ve sent a man to the moon, we’ve got devices that allow us to talk with anyone in the world, and we can easily procure the most exotic foods. In fact, anyone of of us can walk out of this room, down the street and for twenty bucks you can buy spices from India and vegetables from China. And even at minimum wage that’s only a few hours of labour.
Yet, if your city is any I know of, on your walk to the supermarket you’re likely to cross a person asking for money and possibly needing medical and psychological help. So, while we still have homelessness in our wealthiest cities, we can purchase 3$ spices from India. Let’s face it, our imagined future is not yet here – we still so many of the problems we thought we would have solved by now – poverty, access to education, affordable healthcare or equality between men and women. These problems we have failed to solve are communal failures, it’s not a single person or group’s or political party’s fault, it is our fault. If we all agree homelesness is bad and we don’t want it, why can’t we get government and society to act? We need to start talking better.
In 2011, a borough in the city of Montreal tried something new and innovative. They created an online budget simulator. Citizens could modify the budget, reduce certain services such as library hours and increase others, like pothole repairs. However, before submitting their budget, they had to balance it. This exercise played two important roles. First, it educates citizens about the costs of services. Secondly, it put the citizen in the same shoes as the public administrator. The borough received over 500 balanced budgets that allowed them to make representative decisions on behalf of the citizens. This hard data from the citizens was structured around facts, making the city administration accountable.
Contrast that to an in-person budget consultation, where people physically go to a consultation, maybe a dozen people in this room have been to one. They typically cost 10 times more and receives far less valuable data. The people who come to in person consultations often are the most outspoken, engaged and vocal. They all seem to unicorns and money trees, who doesn’t!
How do you reach that single mother of three working two jobs? You certainly can’t ask her to travel 45 minutes to speak for two minutes during a four hour town hall meeting. The barrier to participation is just too high for her.
This budget simulator allows her to participate and voice her priorities. And that’s the key, we need to get government and all citizens, from the single mother to the bike riding hipster, talking in a constructive manner. We need social feedback loops. The private sector has great feedback loops, they’re called products. You like something you buy it, you don’t you dont. Companies that sell products prosper. In democacy our best feedback loop is voting and we know how well that works.
Many municipal elections only get 30% participation, that is 1/3 people – just in case the math wasn’t clear! How many of us can say we voted at your last municipal election. Democracy advocates promise various solutions to this problem – changes to the electoral system, education, awareness, or instilling civic responsibility, etc – they aim to bump those participations by 2, 3, or 5%. I’m sorry, that’s a pathetic goal. I will not be satisfied until everyone in this room feels they can have an impact ont heir communities.
Not so long ago, we were debating if women should vote, I mean they’re only half the population. Emma Goldman was a militant feminist of the late 19th and early 20th century. When that debate was going on, she wrote an essay where she stands against woman suffrage. Not because women are incapable, or uneducated or too emotional, but because voting is a distraction from true democracy. She worried giving the right to vote would lead to apathy. I often hear, “Hey I voted, I participated, now let me watch TV!” But democracy is not a 20 minute exercise every 4 years.
The main reason people seem apathetic is simple is not because they don’t care, they do. People feel they don’t have an impact.
People tell me all the time – they’ve tried, they sent a letter to their elected official, participated in a consultation and nothing came of it – they go home feeling government is this massive structure of immovable size and even if they spent all of their spare time trying to affect it, they’d fail. The feedback loop for government is too slow. And that apathy is born out of perceived powerlessness.
Occasionally, we do rally together for change – most often in movies where we’re attacked by aliens or our when our underdog sports team wins the championship. With those external threats and victories, we become one, we engage in a common project, look in the same direction, our differences melt away and we focus our energy on the task at hand. But the real hard problems are not external to us – it’s not the Taliban, communists, or an alien race that threaten us; it is our own shortcomings, our own crime and injustice done upon our neighbours.
Recently, here in Montreal, a high school student was severely beaten by a classmate. The fight, or rather the pounding, was announced in advance – by text message. The time and location were set – everyone knew what was coming, except the victim.
The students, friends, congregated outside, and waited. The bully, twice the size of the victim, grabbed him and then proceeded to punch and kick his classmate until blood stained the cement school yard. The kid’s eye was shattered, his jaw broken and everyone just stared. This vicious violence was not done by a gang, or a criminal, it was done by a classmate, a neighbour.
And while this student’s face was being smashed in, fifty of his classmates looked on and taped the savagery on their smart phones, all eager to upload to Youtube. This spectacle of unbelievable apathy happens all the time at schools around the world.
I was picked on at school, called names, pushed around – discussing democratic reform in second grade was not as popular as you might think. My guess is many of us were bullied, or saw it happen, or even participated in it. When bullies strike, we can blame the school for a failure to intervene, or blame the bully for hitting the classmate or blame the onlookers who dont intervene. The answer of course is that everyone is to blame.
Injustice always starts at the personal level, but it can quickly become intitutionalized and grow – like a cancer.
My jewish name is Joseph, I’m named after my grandfather, Joseph, who I am told was a strong Polish man with a thick neck and a mean temper. He was born in Poland in 1920, in 1939, with dark clouds descending over Europe, his father Moishe and mother Clara decided to emigrate from from south eastern Poland to Canada, just east of Winnipeg. They fled Poland just in time.
The situation for jews in Europe in 1939 was so bad, so dire, that my great grandfather’s family was willing to give up all material possessions, board a ship, travel to a land they did not know – simply for the hope of escape. We all know Europe’s tenuous democracy completely disintegrated in the 1930s. But, it did not collapse in one night or with one man, it crumbled under collective apathy. The rights of many of its citizens were slowly and then quickly removed – the feedback loops that I spoke about earlier, that are essential to strong democracy were methodically dismantled. And people stood by.
Cities with 25% jewish populations, that is 1 out of 4 people, again – for your math, emerged from the war with nary a jew in site. With the exception of two of his cousins, my grandfather’s entire polish family was killed.
Killing 6 million people is hard; much harder than you might think. In case you were thinking about it. These 6 million people had to be identified, categorized and transported from throughout Europe to extermination camps where they were methodically sorted, worked to the bone and killed. That is a complex task and the only way to do it, is with computer technology. In fact, the use of IBM punch card technology was absolutely essential to finding, moving and killing these innocent citizens of europe. It was so important that the founder and CEO of IBM, Thomas Watson, received the Merit cross of the German Eagle, a high honour from the Nazi Regime.
So, let me be very, very clear. Technology is definitely not our saviour, it can be used to either end – good or bad.
Clearly, technology is not THE solution, it is just a tool, it is amoral. In many ways, we have avoided using technology for bad, instead we have used it for entertainment. But if we use our technology for 3D movies, never-ending video games or social check-ins won’t solve poverty. They are closed feedback loops that have no impact on real life.
Not only is it entertainment. We’re surrounded by technology – HD Tvs, the internet, cars, text messaging. When i can text my friend in China and get a intentateous response, I have different expecttions. Consequently, people’s expectations have changed. We demand instant gratification from our technology and government bureaucracy is anything but instant.
How can we ensure our technological innovations are used to improve democracy? You see, the opposite of war or conflict is not peace, it’s dialogue. As long we’re talking we can’t be fighting. And talking can change things, words matter.
Just as Emma Goldman had said, a truly democratic society is not one that votes every 4 years – it’s one that cares. Cares about the disenfranchised, the poor and the criminals. To solve our hard issues, our common problems that we talked about earlier, we must hold a continuous discussion that allows us to make constant adjustments to our policies and traditions. Yes, definitely easier said than done.
How do we focus that lost energy, that human potential spent watching TV into something productive – something that make’s society better. How do we help thousands of homeless people get off the streets and into jobs, how do we ensure a clean environment and a balanced budget. How can we get you engaged in solving our common problems?
Because civic engagement’s competing product is not apathy, it’s entertainment. As long as it’s easier to come home after a day’s work and sit in front of your TV than to improve your community, we’re gonna fail. So making it easy to engage is part of the solution.
Not only does it have to be easy, but people need to feel rewarded for participating. They need to feel the same high when greening their neighbourhood as someone does when they attain level 54 Magic Orc in the online video game World of Warcraft. What no warcraft players here?
Until we close that gap of reward, we cannot solve our communal problems. No amount of education is going to change that.
Because, we live in a competitive world, our attention constantly drawn to the shiny new toy. Clearly our capitalist feedback loops work great. We get a new iPhone every year. If the metric for capitalist success is money, what is government’s metric?
Data. Hard information on our environment, our prisons, our education – that is how we will measure our success. We need government to open up their data so that engaged citizens and organizations can see what is happening. whats broken and whats working. We need Data about budgets, contracts, infrastructure, services, immigration and everything government touches. This is the currency of society, it represents something deeper and more meaningful than money ever can.
We need to change the default setting of government. Today, governments are still in the 20th century. They are closed by default. They don’t publish information unless they feel it is essential, easy or have to by law. We need to switch government from a closed by default position to an open by default position. That is the beginning of a real conversation that matters.
All non personal, and I mean all, data needs to be made accessible in an open and digital format so it can easily be processed, visualized, digested and fed back into society in a way that allows us, the citizens, to mobilize, dialogue and close that feedback loop.
Once we all have access to the same knowledge, structured around the cold hard facts, we can begin to have a real conversation. We can remove government procedures and formalities that inhibit true conversation, remove red tape. We can ask our elected officials to enter the discussion on equal ground.
Now organizations around the world are working to make this happen. I mentioned an interactive budget earlier that is done by Open North here in Montreal. But groups are also building databases of elected representatives so other non-profits can mount advocacy campaigns.
These groups also work with media organizations to expose government contracts and route out corruption. They help citizens find clean restaurants, safe neighbourhoods, and easily file access to information requests. In short, these groups are laying the demoractic infrastructure of the 21st century. And it’s already changing things.
In 2007, Kenya had a contested presidential elections, which erupted into ethnic violence. Some intrepid Kenyan hackers built Ushahidi, an amazing tool to mobilize the public. The Ushahidi platform allows people to text in reports of violence, issues or anything really from their mobile phones – the information is then aggregated and displayed on an interactive map. This tool helped limit the ethic violence in Kenya and is now being used around the world for everything from clean water issues in native reserves to violence in the slums of Haiti. It is a tool, built by activists, that mobilizes citizens against the excesses of hatred. Is genocide possible with mobile phones and Ushaidi?
So that’s a start, but we need to spread these solutions to from rural villages in Bangladesh to the upper east side of New York City. We need to build a dialogue inside communities and amongst communities.
As technology and society’s expectations continue to accelerate, it is clear traditional forms of centralized government cannot keep up. People’s expectations are far ahead of what traditional government structure can provide.
The budget simulator I mentioned earlier helps public administrators understand their citizens needs in a simple, tangible and actionable way. What’s great about that example is the data you get, you see citizen profiles: drivers, cyclists, families, singles and then see issues where over 85% of the population was in agreement. This is what society is made up of – variety. We can see correlations between priorities, identify statistical significance and find many, many areas of agreement. The areas where we agree are the low hanging fruit, no government should hesitate to act on them.
But that is one thing, to get our flying cars, our monorails and our clean streets we need a new social contract between citizens and between citizens and government. Information, data, and therefore power, has to be handed back to the people.
Because, the next democracy is not some sort of new governing form based on an iPhone app. It’s a deep and fundamental opening up of government using techology. We go from a suit and tie periodic committee to an ongoing conversation with our elected officials and public services. It is a return to the roots of democracy, where apathy is the exception, not the rule, and where we can all meaningfully contribute to our communities.
So, no matter your day job or your interests – whether it’s security to clean water to a robust economy; wether you’re left and right wing, government matters, collective decisions affect your life and your children’s. We need to embrace techonology to close our society’s feedback loop and start meaninfgul dialogue amongst ourselves and with government. Because, we are the government, it is our and no one else’s to build that society of tomorrow. It’s time to upgrade our democracy.
Understanding a fellow person’s point of view is often extremely hard, yet it can be extremely powerful. Beyond our opposable thumbs, language and large brains – our ability to coordinate our actions into group priorities is probably the most defining human skill. We are remarkably good at discussing, finding compromise and choosing a path of action for a collective group. Yes, we have a war here and there, but we’re generally good at it.
I recently read three great books on negotiating, discusing hard issues and understanding another person’s moral perspective. Getting to Yes is a quick and easy read on negotiation tactics, it could be boiled down to: discuss principles, not positions. This classic negotiation book outlines easy skills you can employ in any negotiation.
Difficult Conversations is the follow up to Getting to Yes. It explains how to understand another person’s history and perspective on an issue. It walks through how to put yourself in the some else’s shoes and find solutions – or at least communicate better.
The recent book by Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, lays out a six pillar moral fondation that all humans use to evaluate decisions. It is an amazing book that is already having an impact in the political world. The six pillars he identifies through various studies are Care for the other (poverty), Harm to others (golden rule), Sanctity of institutions (church), Respect for Authority (father-son), Loyalty to a group (sports team, military) and Liberty and oppression (government, laws). You can read a detailed description of these pillars here and you can see Jonathan Haidt’s TED talk where he summarizes his findings. Haidt argues that Liberals (lefties) put much more emphais on the first two, while social conservatives place an equal(ish) emphasis on all six. There is a lot more meat to it than that, so I encourage all to take a look.
These three books are well written that really help you see where you’re priorities and concerns lie and where someone else might be speaking from. As with many great books, these ones analyse and then systematize many ideas and principles we know in the back of our mind, but have difficulty implementing or applying. I’m personally looking forward to using these tactics in a charged political discussion soon.
If all of us – especially those in the political world – read these books, the world would be a much more civil place. Of course, we will never agree on everything and political parties and opinions are here to stay, but these books paint a fascinating portrait of the human condition and how it alters our perception of the world.