Jonathan Brun


[:en]Four Ideas to Change the World[:]

[:en]Time passes by so fast, I have been busy at Nimonik and had little time to write about the things I see in this crazy world. Luckily, NASA just announced the discovery of a 0.98 similar planet, so we can have a back-up planet if we do not sort out issues here. We will however need some form of traveling device near the speed of light to get there, or faster. Elon Musk? If Elon cannot solve it, here are four ideas that I am really passionate about these days and that I think can change society for the better. Read on about them if you can, I hope to elaborate in more detail in the near(ish) future.

  1. Liquid Feedback – A system to make decision making democratic and fluid.
  2. Rolling Jubilee – debt annulment for medical debt or the creation of a debtors union to free people from quasi-debtors jail. Don’t forget to read the great 5,000 years of debt.
  3. Basic Income – Distribution of common wealth (land tax, spectrum charges, pollution charges) to all citizens on an equal basis. Great book here on Citizen dividends, another term for basic income.
  4. A Tax on Capital – reduce the influence of capital in society and encourages people to invest their money in active assets that produce goods and services, as opposed to become rentiers living off the work of others. Read Pikettys Capital in the 21st century, best book in a long, long time.


[:en]Response to The Walrus Prostitution Debate[:]

[:en]Here is a recent letter to the Walrus that I wrote. If you are interested in Canada, The Walrus is a great publication.

Traffic Jam

As the organizer of a recent debate on the new prostitution bill, C-36, I am familiar with the emotional discourse surrounding sex-trafficking numbers (“Dirty Tricks,” December). Both sides of the broader debate, for legalization and for abolition, have a tendency to distort statistics. And as Alexandra Kimball indicates, each side has a hidden agenda: the legalization camp sees money to be made, while the abolitionists see sin.

We cannot deny that this debate is a moral one, and not simply a matter of mathematical analysis. Should society simply condone the selling of sexual services, primarily by women to men? Progress requires equality, and the abolition of prostitution is a stepping stone toward greater gender equality. As long as it is profitable and socially acceptable for women to sell their bodies, the practice will continue. The solution is to remove the demand from the market and encourage women to seek alternative means of employment. Sweden’s prostitution laws (passed in 1999 and the model for Bill C-36) have led to a precipitous drop in human trafficking and the sale of sexual services in that country—numbers, yet again.

What’s clear: we must choose between believing our fellow Canadians sometimes have to resort to prostitution to earn a living, and believing that we can offer them something better.[:]

How to build a Citizen Movement for Basic Income

[:en]This is the text to be presented at the North American Basic Income Guarantee Conference in New York City on February 28th, 2015. More information on the conference here.



Hello, my name is Jonathan Brun, I previously founded two citizen action groups that successfully lobbied for more government transparency – or what we call open data – in Montréal and in the province of Québec. I am the Québec spokesperson for the Canadian Basic Income Network and the cofounder of the Québec Basic Income citizen initiative. I am a web entrepreneur and obviously passionate about basic income.

This talk is aimed to help those who are looking to organize around basic income. It is of course not a comprehensive guide or contextualized to your environment. I hope it helps some organizers here in the United States and elsewhere structure your efforts, build them out and exert influence. I believe basic income is possible in our lifetimes, but it will require thousands of hours of hard work, dedication and discipline. The following steps are not comprehensive, but I believe they are essential to any citizen initiative.

The five steps I wish to cover today in about 10 minutes are:

1. Building an Identity
2. Getting Organized
3. Spreading the Message
4. Growing a Mouvement
5. Exerting Pressure

1. Building an Identity

The first step to any mouvement is to clearly lay out your own identity. Who is the Basic Income mouvement and why does it exist? When people hear about Basic Income they should immediately have a clear picture in their mind of the organization, its aims, goals and its way communicating. Ask yourselves this, if the Basic Income Mouvement were an animal, which animal would it be?

This need for an identity is essential to any successful organization – non-profit or for-profit. What do we think when we are asked what the World Wildlife Federation is, Greenpeace, the United Farm Workers, the Teamsters, The Tea Party, The Occupy Mouvement, etc. There is an image that comes to mind within a few seconds, that image will define the way people react the following things you say – so it is of the utmost importance.

Part of building an identity is branding. In a modern society, such as the United States or Canada, we have tough competition of people’s attention – and donations (eventually). Our competition is not so much other non-profits or other mouvements, but rather the media landscape in general. People are bombarded with advertisements and content 24/7 – they see advertisements and information all day, every day, on their televisions, radios, computers and phones. If we want to gain even 5 minutes of the average person’s attention, the Basic Income mouvement must be presented in a catchy and professional manner.

This requires a professional logo, powerful copy on websites and printed material, a great catch phrase and even more. The recent social mouvements in Ukraine and Thailand and elsewhere had a number of common features – one of which was a colour. A colour or colour scheme is a powerful symbol – think of the national flags or the major corporations we know about, their colours are a pillar of their identity. This is not recent and includes everything form the thirteen colonies to the french revolutionaries, who used the red white and blue to symbolize their difference with the ruling classes. The Basic Income mouvement should consider adopting a colour that allows itself to be easily identified. This colour would then be used on t-shirts, communications and other items. In Canada, we are adopting purple to ensure we are not tied to a political party and it is a colour that is not commonly used – it also has a link to peace.

The fonts and layout used on the website and the printed materials must also be consistent. Building an identity requires  number of pieces, but it should not be taken lightly or disregarded as something for large organizations, well funded political mouvements or corporations. No mouvement can be successful without a strong and clear identity.

2. Getting Organized

It has been said that there are two challenges in building a sustainable mouvement – getting organized and staying organized. Basic Income, in North America at least, has yet to get organized. It may therefore be premature to discuss staying organized, but it is something we should keep in the back of our minds. Part of the reason that the civil rights mouvement fell apart after the death of Martin Luther King, was that its organizational structure was terribly poor. But I digress, let’s discuss getting organized.

Start small, but use scalable models. In the business world, when someone is proposing a new venture, one of the first questions is, “Is it scalable”. Which means, with more capital or ressources, does your model grow in a cost effective manner. If your model cannot grow cost effectively and generate a profit, then you are not scalable, which is a death sentence. While the initial work done by any organization is typically arduous and labour intensive, it needs to lay a foundation on which the organization can sustainably build up its structure.

The beginnings should be simple. The United Farm Workers, led by Cesar Chavez, defended the rights of farm workers, but when they started they did so in a simple format not dissimilar to certain corporations such as Tupperware. They organized discussions at people’s homes, around their kitchen tables, by doing this for five months, they were then able to call a general convention that brought together farmers and their families to define a common way forward.

Now, one challenge with comparing basic income to other social mouvements is this: “Who is most concerned with basic income?” In all likelihood it is the underprivileged and the disenfranchised, though a good article by Geoff Simmons in New Zealand laid out 10 potential people who would benefit most: Students, The Working Poor, Volunteers, Entrepreneurs and a few more. However, should we base a Basic Income mouvement around this group of people – the poor and students, it is likely going to affect our identity – making basic income  harder sell to the middle class and the political elites. To ensure a broad base of support for the mouvement, we must create  coalition of groups that all have something substantial to gain from basic income. If they have too little to gain, they will not mobilize their ressources to help.

So, getting organized requires that we very actively reach out to anti-poverty groups, right wing government reduction groups, student organizations, volunteer networks and single revenue homes while also explaining the tax benefits to the middle and ruling classes. This process will take a significant amount of time and lots of hard work.

3. Spreading the message

Once a base has been established, the next step is to spread the message. This can be done through a series of tactics. Publicity stunts, such as the coin deposit done by the swiss mouvement help in attracting press attention. Op-eds, and articles in the mainstream press would help as well. But, the key element is the need to leverage existing institutions to help scale the mouvement.

On a side note, we all know there is growing mainstream press coverage of basic income and people in high places murmuring things about it. Even Bill Clinton was seen carrying the book, With Liberty and Dividends for all, that covers the need for Basic Income. However, do not confuse this with spreading the message about a Basic Income Mouvement – we are talking here about spreading the message that a mass citizen mouvement is requesting basic income.

Many successful social mouvements in the United States leveraged powerful organizations that already had scale such as religious organizations. In New York, where religion is perhaps less prominent in people’s lives, we often forget the importance of the Church, Mosque Synagogue or Temple in people’s lives. Everything from the Civil Rights mouvement to the Farm Workers to anti-war mouvements were able to effectively leverage religious institutions to both spread their message and position themselves as a just and holy cause. This piggy back effort can also be applied to other groups such as unions, non-profit groups and celebrities. It can be an important tool to spreading the message farther and faster than what we can do alone.

4. Growing a Mouvement

Once you are organized, a major challenge is maintaining momentum. You must constantly keep your troops motivated, at attention and willing to take action. This can be done in a number of ways.

You can organize events, conferences and common meals. One key element is that the members of your mouvement must see progress and small victories, or else they get frustrated and leave. For example during our effort for more government transparency, we hosted letter writing campaigns where we sent hand written letters to elected officials, many of them got a response, which led them to remain motivated. We also hosted Hackathons, which is an event that brings together technologists and other people to design technological solutions to problems. In Montreal, corruption had been making headlines for the last few years and so we leveraged or piggy-backed on this problem to organize an event called “Hacking Corruption”. The event brought together bureaucrats, technologists, journalists and others to build technological solutions to help fight corruption. Due to its timing, catchy headline and our identity, we were able to get 300 people, 10 politicians and most of the local, provincial and national media to cover the event. The visibility brought us new members, but more importantly it reenergized the existing base of volunteers.

Another thing to mention when growing a mouvement is how to handle motivated highly volunteers. As you grow and attract new people to your mouvement, you inevitably come into contact with highly motivated volunteers who are willing to go above and beyond typical requirements. It is essential that you empower these individual to take action and demonstrate that they are valued by the organization. If you do not, you risk losing them and they may start rival organizations. However, some motivated volunteers, can have difficulty following orders or sticking to a party line, so you must find a way to frame them into something productive that they are satisfied with and that allows you to maintain control over the messaging. This is perhaps one of the more challenging parts of growing an organization and each volunteer who wants to go beyond the typical tasks needs to be treated according to their specificities.

In summary, to grow a mouvement you need to piggy back on existing movements, groups or actions. You need to empower individuals and you must achieve small periodic victories to keep the troops motivated.

5. Exerting Pressure

When civil rights leads met with Franklin Delanor Roosevelt and asked for help for African Americans, he replied “Make me”. By this he meant that the social mouvements must form enough pressure so that the decision makers are obliged to act and have a public legitimacy to do so.

During our efforts to increase government transparency, we identified people within the city administration who were already advocating for our policy. We did this through LinkedIn – which is a powerful tool. We met with these people, off the record, to gain insights into how the city worked and why the policy had not already been done – who was opposing it, who was for it and what were the key roadblocks inside the administration. This is essential information, that is actually easy to obtain, and will pay huge dividends.

You can apply pressure from outside an organization, but your mouvement can also allow people within the organization to apply pressure. When we started the group, there were already people within the city administration who had been asking for such a policy. However, because there was no external pressure on the city, the higher-ups could point out the lack of public support and dismiss the internal demands of the employees. Just as we are competing for the attention of the general public when trying to promote basic income, we are also competing for the attention and decision making time of the powers that be. Our outside group empowered our insider allies to go back to their superiors and apply pressure.

Ultimately, effecting massive change on government or society requires us to identify the current pillars of support for a policy or system and systematically move those pillars of support to our own goals. We do not want the pillars to crumble, as that leads to anarchy (see Libya), but we want to transfer their weight bearing capacities to our structure.

I hope this has been useful information and that you an use it to build a citizen mouvement for Basic Income in the United States.


From Dictatorship to Democracy – Gene Sharp
Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David Garrow
Why David Sometimes Wins – Strategy, Leadership and the California Farm Worker Mouvement – Miriam Pawal
Bolivar: American Liberator  – Maria Arana
The Black Jacobins – C.L.R James
Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela
Ghandi an Autobiography – Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi
René Lévesque, un homme et son rêve – Pierre Godin
The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns – Sasha  Issenberg
The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction – William Doyle[:]

[:en]The CBC Must do Slow TV and More[:fr]The CBC Must Do Slow TV and More[:]


Over the past few years I have come to know many journalists at the CBC/Radio-Canada and as a concerned Canadian citizen, I have grown worried about the fate of our public broadcaster. This summer and fall, I had the pleasure and privilege of sitting down with Shelagh Kinch, head of CBC Québec, and twice with Hubert Lacroix, president of CBC/Radio-Canada. The meetings were all a closed-door frank discussions of the challenges our public broadcaster faces in this evolving media landscape.

I went into the meetings as a skeptic, thinking that Lacroix might be doing Harper’s biddings with the cuts he has implementer or thinking that the CBC did not really want to change. During the three meetings, both Hubert and Shelagh expertly outlined the important changes the organization is making to trim costs and modernize its service offerings. They confronted challenges – from Aboriginals who felt left out of the CBC reporting to millennials who hated their simple apps to rural communities who were not getting coverage. They spoke truthfully and honestly and I am now convinced there is progress.

High Tech Solutions

The apps are looking better and specific projects such as the World Cup video player and the Sochi Olympics show the CBC understands the potential for digital tools to compliment and augment content. Yet, the cuts continue and one wonders how much innovation and high quality content they will be able to produce with their reduced staffs and budgets. There is enough commentary on their need for better technology, going mobile and going online – so I will not add to it.

Low Tech Solutions

Though the CBC needs to keep its apps, online solutions and interactive productions up to speed with consumer expectations, there is an area that the CBC has yet to tap. The national Norwegian broadcaster, NKR, recently embarked on a simple, counter intuitive and powerful type of show: Slow TV.

One of their producers recently gave a hilarious and inspiring TED Talk on the subject. The concept is ridiculously simple, film apparently mundane events in real time and show them on television. The Norwegians did a seven hour show that filmed a train crossing the country, then they filmed a five day boat journey from southern Norway to Northern Norway, then a show an 8 hour show that included cutting and burning firewood and most recently, they filmed 8 hours of salmon fishing, it took 3 hours to catch the first fish!

There are a few remarkable things about this. First, over 20% of the Norwegian population tuned in at some point to these shows. Secondly, it build a link between Norwegians as the events filmed were all closely tied to their National identify. And lastly, the shows go against everything you are taught about the modern viewer – that you need action, plot-lines, big budgets and drama to keep someone engaged. Of course, Slow TV cannot replace all forms of television, but it is a beautiful compliment to our frenetic lives and bombardment of our minds with action, explosions and violence.

As you watch these shows, you are forced to slow down your own thinking and you suddenly start to see the layers and nuances that exist in life. You watch someone cutting firewood and you slowly see the scares on their hands, the look in their face and the forest around them. You see details and perhaps you even start to construct a plot. Was this person who is cutting wood a good father? Was he a good son? How did he end up where he is? Of course, you do not and will not get the answers, but just having the time to ask the questions changes the way you see yourself and your fellow citizens.

The CBC should produce Slow TV. They can start with just one show and like the NKR, it should be an annual or semi-annual event. The show should focus on something Canadian and it should help build our national identity. Perhaps the Trans-Canadian train, a long sled ride across the north, a long canoe trip, fishing, or some other event. Slow TV would be a low-tech, low-cost solution that makes Canadians wake up to the need for a National Broadcaster to link us together and maintain our national identity.

No Magic Solutions

Yet, despite progress, there are no magic solutions. A number of interesting statistics were highlighted by Hubert Lacroix. In short, the CBC only receives $29 per Canadian per year and has a mandate to serve all Canadians, in two languages and in six time zones. In contrast, the Norwegian broadcaster, NKR, receives 180$ per Norwegian. Also of note, the cuts did not start under Harper, but have been a continuous trend for the last twenty years. If you also include the current massive migration of ad revenue to online platforms such as Facebook and Google, the CBC is between a rock and a hard place.

It is easy to say, “Be like the BBC” – produce more and better content and you’ll get more funding. However the BBC gets $ 97 per Brit (and there are more of them) and they only have to serve one time zone in one language, it’s like an NHL team competing against a junior hockey team.

Despite the underdog story, the CBC has clearly thought through their options and there are many smart and devoted people working there. They have summarized their strategy in the CBC Plan for Us All, which lays out their attempt to modernize their offerings and go digital. The plan is good, but ultimately not enough. Hubert Lacroix is a very smart man and I believe he is sincere in his attempts to save the CBC, despite what some former Radio-Canada journalists might believe. Beyond government cuts and ad revenue issues, there are problems with the unionized workforce that protects older employees and reduces their ability to hire young digital natives, there are also inherited costs of infrastructure and a perception in Western Canada that the CBC is not worth anything. The list of problems is long, but the key element here is a lack of resources.

At the end of the day, the CBC needs to drive eyeballs and ears to their content and the best way to do that is through high quality and differentiated content – such as Slow TV. Easier said than done. When top-quality productions like House of Cards cost 7 million dollars to produce, for one hour of television and the most costly CBC show ever, The Border, cost 1.3 million dollars an hour to produce, it is clear that the CBC cannot compete with HBO and Netflix. Ultimately the English part of CBC is competing with the United States and so far, Canadians seem to prefer US shows. The CBC could cut a lot of mediocre shows, but that still won’t be enough. And, it is notoriously hard to pick winners and losers based on scripts. The head of a major Hollywood studio once said, “If I had said yes to all the films I refused and no to all the films I produced, I would be in the same place.” With the current funding, the numbers just do not work and there is no clear way the CBC can dig itself out of its current death spiral.

Sure, they could try and emulate some other broadcasters with higher quality reporting. They could try and jump on a variety of internet platforms that the ‘cool’ kids are using, Facebook, Twitter, today and Quartz and Medium tomorrow. Tackling multiple and ever changing platforms is a very hard challenge and likely futile, it requires intimate understanding of the nature of the platforms and constant adaptation to new platforms. It strikes me as unsustainable for the CBC to chase after all these broadcast channels. The only way to bring back the CBC is to produce great, innovative and Canadian content.

To produce great content, in a market that is overshadowed by Hollywood, we need to decide as a society if the CBC is something Canada believes in. At first, I was a skeptic of the CBC’s desire to change or to invest in new talent. They have been slow to move on data journalism, online access to content, mobile apps and data visualization – but they are headed in that direction. Their plan is good and their top brass seem keenly aware of the need to move faster. Now, there remains only one remaining piece in the ‘Save the CBC puzzle’, Canadians.

A public broadcaster is a societal decision. We must decide if we want one and if we do, we must give it the means to fight in a competitive market and produce great content. Each Canadian should contribute, from one source or another, as much as the average of the top twenty countries, 82$ per year. That would nearly triple the current funding and would allow the CBC to actually invest in it’s people, which represent 70% of its costs, and its technology. Frankly, more money is the only solution for our public broadcaster and the only people who can make that happen are Canadians. Canadians need to wake up and choose between a well funded CBC or no CBC at all.

So, in no particular order are four crazy ideas for the CBC.

1. Become a Landlord Not a Tenant.

The CBC is proposing to sell its real estate and become a tenant of newer, more modern buildings. It has closed large buildings in Canadian cities and is downsizing its physical footprint. Instead, the CBC should grow its footprint and use the extra real estate to offer affordable rents to emerging artists and innovative technical organizations who can work with and compliment CBC offerings – helping plant good ideas in the CBC.

2. Move away from Windows and costly web hosting

CBC could likely save millions of dollars by movings its computer terminals away from Microsoft products and movings its hosting solutions to lower cost hosts.

3. Reduce the footprint in Toronto and grow operations in Montreal, or other low cost cities

By moving a good portion of operations to Montreal or other Canadian cities, salaries and real estate costs could be dramatically reduced from the current downtown Toronto operation.

4. Go on a Strike and/or Run

To wake Canadians up to the reality of the funding at the CBC, the staff and administration could hold an unlimited strike. The risk is of course Harper shuts down the CBC, but the upside is he might be forced to increase funding – a little friendly wager shall we say. Hubert Lacroix likes to jog, so perhaps during the strike he could run across Canada – Terry Fox style – to raise awareness for the CBC and its handicap. It could even be filmed as Slow TV!

I hope you will join me in encouraging the CBC and its attempt to modernize and grow for a 21st century audience.[:]

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.


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


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

Screen Shot 2014-07-12 at 11.50.27 AM

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.


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

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”!


Some articles of note on our beloved sharing economy:

Antifragility by Taleb