Published on February 13, 2017
Basic Income as a Solution to Capitalism’s Structural Problems
Thomas Picketty’s seminal book Capital in the 21st Century outlined some of the underlining principles of capitalism. His main thesis is that if the return on capital is greater than economic growth, wealth inequality grows. The rich get richer because they can earn a greater return on their investments than the growth of wages. This ensures that those without capital cannot catch up to those with.
This is a critical and structural problem of our current capitalist system and if left uncorrected, it will lead us back to an aristocratic world with elites too powerful to touch. The gap between return on capital and economic growth must be closed to ensure a level playing field for all.
Capitalism is fantastic. It has brought tremendous material prosperity, advances in science and technology and a general security to the world. While it is a great system, it needs adjustments, like any machine might. One adjustment that could very well save it from its own destruction is the institution of a basic income. A basic income in and of itself is not the solution, it is rather the effect it will have on the economy and the change to society’s power structure.
A principal cause of the post-war economic prosperity identified by Picketty was the destruction of capital during the wars. During WW1 and WW2, capital to income ratios – that is the amount of capital in society to the income of society – went from 8 to 1 to 3 to 1. The subsequent growth and accumulation of wealth at the top of the ladder has led us back to a world where capital to income in society is back at the dangerous levels of 8 to 1. The last time this happened, we had demagogues, fascists and dictators take over the most prosperous countries in the world.
There are other ways to destroy capital: inflation, a tax on capital or through economic growth that is greater than return on capital. All three of these would reduce the relative weight of current capital in society and thus encourage individuals and corporations to invest in productive assets – factories and such. One interesting analysis of this situation was presented by Oliver Heydorn at the 2015 North American Basic Income Guarantee (NABIG) conference in New York city. He explained how the difference in accounting practices for capital expenditures and operational expenditures (where you can depreciate capital expenditures) leads to the same gap between the return on capital and wages that we see with Picketty. Oliver is a social creditist and their political theories merit a closer look. Social Creditists stipulate that due to certain accounting practices and monetary policy, we inevitably obtain a growing gap between the revenues from labour (salaries) and the return on capital investments. This leads to a labour force with less and less purchasing power as the costs of goods increase faster than their wages do. This loss in purchasing power leads to less consumption which compounds into less jobs and a stagnant economy. We are living in that world now.
Social Creditists promote the idea of a central authority that monitors prices and cost of living and wages and issues currency in concordance with the gaps. Specifically, they advocate that “The solution to these problems is to create and issue a sufficient volume of debt-free money in the form of the compensated price and the National Dividend to equate the rate of flow of final prices with the rate of flow of consumer purchasing power.”
A National Dividend could very well be seen as a basic income. It would provide more purchasing power to the average citizen and rebalance the relationship between capital and income, bringing us back to a better situation not unlike that of the 1950s, 1960s and early 70s.
On Trump and Revolution
Rome survived Caligula. Caligula, the roman emperor who named a horse senator, organized mass orgies and committed numerous atrocities and ruled over Rome from 37 AD to 41 AD. Rome, being a large and powerful empire with a bureaucratic system, survived and even grew under Caligula’s divine leadership. Similarly, America will continue to grow with Trump in power. The American Presidency, as Elon Musk said, is a captain-ship of a very large vessel with a small rudder. The impact of the president is completely blown out of proportion by the media. A good or a bad president has much smaller impact on American society than most think.
There has been more ink shed on Trump than perhaps on any other politician. I recognize the irony of my publication of year another blog post on the subject. Yet, his victory is a massive signal to those of use who are far removed from the reality of many blue and white collar workers. My brother lives in London and he was flabbergasted by Brexit. He and I had no clue of the levels of anger in the US or the UK that sent both countries down a path led by isolationist and nationalistic leads with dubious track records as members of the human race. People seem so fed up with the lack of progress by the establishment that they will overlook personal faults and outright lies. This is not the first time, nor will it be the last time that a person rises to power in an unexpected way. For a more in-depth analysis of the worldwide rise of populists and the actual electoral strategy of Donald Trump take a look at HyperNormalization by British documentarian, Adam Curtis.
An American colleague once told be a story. A private equity company bought a manufacturing company. The investors came out from New York to the plant and asked the workers to build a stage outside the factory for a big announcement. The staff built a big wooden stage, with a podium, and a staircase. The investors asked them to gather all the employees for an announcement. With the hundreds of staff gathered, the investors got up on the stage and promptly announced that the factory was being moved to Mexico and they were all fired.
This story is not uncommon. Part of the fault is our own, we want cheap products. Our societal dictate that the all powerful consumer must have a cheaper iPhone, a cheaper car, or a cheaper flight. Don’t get me wrong, who wants to spend more than they have to? But, the consequence of these moves to low cost countries is now truly hitting home. The people who worked at these factories, all across America, Canada and other developed countries are revolting. People who once had good unionized job with a good pension and a path to a home and two cars is working as a greater at Wal-Mart. Not only has this happened to line workers at a factory, it has happened to middle managers, executives and top earners who previously had a good quality of life and a path to success for their children. People are angry and rightfully so.
Some commentators said that Trump’s victory was Whitelash against progress on social and racial progress. They say that the vote for Trump was a vote against a black president and black lives matter. There is no doubt that the US is a very racist place, both in the north and the south. You can simply read books such as Between the World and Me, A Case for Reparations or The Arc of Justice to see how racism is very deeply embedded in US society (and most others too). The presidency tends to cycle between the left and the right, which is not surprising. One team wins, the other adjusts and comes back. Back and forth we go. The arc of history is long and may bend towards justice, but it is not straight. Southern pro-slavery president Hayes was a response to Lincoln and emancipation. Nixon was a response to Lindon B. Johnson and the Voting Rights Act and Trump is a response to Obama. However, I think that Trump was a response to the lack of change Obama brought, not the actual change that did occur. Obama did not get much done for black Americans, did not create high paying jobs or reduce the American deficit, or improve government services substantially. Many people who voted for the Hope of Obama, voted for the Greatness of Trump. People want progress and they will go where that is offered with honesty. Clinton represented nothing – just more of the same.
Trump, for all his numerous faults, really believes in himself and he makes a compelling case. I remember an interview during the primaries on Fox News where Trump really made an impact, he is an expert communicator – much like George W. Bush. He just speaks in a different tongue that the educated class, one that appeals to a significant portion of the US population who had to suffer through the US public school system. This video compilation, selectively chosen, certainly makes Trump look great and revolutionary.
Personally I am a horrible predictor of politics. I thought Clinton would win, that Trudeau had no chance and that George W. Bush would never win in 2004. So, my opinion is not exactly worth much. Will Trump be able to execute on his promises, such as his 100 day plan, unlikely. Congress, despite being Republican, is fundamentally pro-big business due to campaign finance laws. Corporations might bite on the tax cuts, the oil and gas exploration and other items, but it will be simply amazing if Congress goes along with term limits (an idea I actually agree with) or the destruction of NAFTA. I am sure they will work something out.
With Brexit and Trump, one thing has become clear. Our societies have been cleaved in two – educated urbanites working in open-space offices with espresso machines (I plead guilty!) and a working class in lousy jobs, diminishing purchasing power and no prospect of measurable improvement. In many ways, this actually reflects the natural tendency of capitalist societies and has been thoroughly documented in Picketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century. His research shows that the period after WW2 was an exception and what Trump supporters or Brits or even the French refer to as the 30 glorious years after the war, was a historical anomaly that was only possible due to the massive destruction of capital during the war and very high tax rates.
As soon as capital can earn money faster than a worker can, society dives back into a world of the haves and have-notes where it is nearly impossible to cross the chasm between the two. Can we go back in time to the boom years of the 50s- late 70s. Yes, it is possible, but it would take a worldwide war on the accumulation of capital at the top and a massive redistribution or quantitative easing for the people along with a revolution in the electoral system and a new division of power. How likely is that to happen without war? Not likely, but not impossible.
Also, this Munk Debate on the rise of Trump is pretty good.Published on November 27, 2016
Comment battre Denis Coderre
Depuis trois ans, Denis Coderre est maire de Montréal. M. Coderre est un politicien extrêmement habile qui a réussi à rallier de nombreuses personnes incluant plusieurs conseillers de Projet Montréal. Il faut avouer que M. Coderre a amélioré la ville et il semble un bien meilleur maire que son prédécesseur, M. Tremblay. Malgré cela, les failles dans sa façon populiste de gouverner commencent à apparaître. Ses initiatives telles que l’ouverture des bars jusqu’à l’aube ou l’interdiction des pitbulls se font démonter devant les tribunaux. Des contrats à des amis de M. Coderre, des votes rapides sur de gros contrats de TI ou encore l’espionnage des journalistes de La Presse commence à illuminer les vraies priorités de Denis Coderre.
En contrepartie, Guillaume Lavoie est une personne posée qui prend le temps de réfléchir avant d’agir. Je dirais que la meilleure façon de comprendre Guillaume Lavoie est de consulter le Collège néo-classique qu’il a cofondé et qui offre des cours sur la rhétorique, les grands textes philosophiques et divers enjeux qui permettent de « se faire une tête en comptant davantage sur sa culture générale, sa capacité d’analyse et de liens avec le contexte historique…». Selon moi une capacité à réfléchir dans un contexte dynamique et avec une vision à long terme est la qualité fondamentale d’un leader.
Pour battre un politicien populiste, ça nous prend quelqu’un avec des croyances profondes. Un populiste pourra toujours battre un technocrate de l’establishment, nous venons de le voir aux États-Unis et au Royaume-Uni. Il faut offrir une vision claire et précise. J’ai pu connaitre Guillaume à travers mes travaux à Montréal Ouvert et notre lutte pour les données ouvertes et il a été parmi les premiers conseillers à nous appuyer. Il a vu, justement, que les données ouvertes permettent à la ville de prendre de meilleures décisions et de mieux consulter le public sur des enjeux importants. Je pense que Guillaume offre une vision claire de la ville qu’il souhaite avoir : transparente, démocratique, sécuritaire et bien gérée et ce, au bénéfice de tous les citoyens.
Sans transparence, nous n’avons pas de démocratie. Guillaume a d’ailleurs très bien expliqué dans une lettre à La Presse la contradiction entre des conseillers qui ont un pouvoir de vote, mais qui n’ont pas l’information nécessaire pour voter de manière informée. Les documents qui accompagnent des contrats de dizaines de millions de dollars peuvent être donnés aux conseillers quelque heures avant le conseil ou même pendant une réunion de conseil! On ne peut pas bâtir une ville moderne, démocratique et bien la gérer de cette manière. Chaque année la ville dépense environ cinq milliards de dollars et si nous n’améliorons pas notre façon d’octroyer les contrats, nous ne nous sortirons jamais de nos chantiers de construction, de nos nids-de-poule ou de la corruption. Todd Park, l’ancien directeur des technologies du gouvernement américain a dit: « les deux problèmes fondamentaux des gouvernements modernes sont l’approvisionnement et la gestion des ressources humaines ». Sans résoudre ces deux immenses failles, les gouvernements ne peuvent pas avancer.
L’Allemagne et le nord de l’Europe sont les champions de la gestion gouvernementale et de la qualité de vie. Un élément commun qu’on retrouve dans ces pays est une réflexion et analyse approfondie pour tout changement de politique. Cette démarche et son contraste avec les façons de faire au Québec qui est, franchement ‘broche à foins’. Le manque d’analyse des budgets et des décisions dans le secteur public est très bien expliqué par Bill Gates dans un TED Talk. En bref, sans un changement de notre façon de penser les politiques publiques, nous ne pouvons pas espérer que les choses changent. Guillaume Lavoie offre de faire les choses autrement.Published on November 22, 2016
Shifting the Narrative on Wealth, the State and Deserving People
In the excellent talk below, Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former Finance Minister lays out the compelling case for basic income. One of his key points, which basic income advocates should take to heart is the imperative to shift our social narrative on work, labour and the creation of wealth.
Yanis explains how we currently view the State and the private market as separate entities, when in fact they are one and the same. Without one, you cannot have the other. To convince people that a basic income is the logical and ethical thing for society to do, we must reframe the discussion as a dividend for the members of a society that produces wealth. There is no such thing as private wealth. All wealth is built upon the contributions of others – past and present. Without the invention of the internet and computers, I would not have my current job or company and without government, the internet would not exist – nor would the other private companies whose technology we use. Whether we like it or not, all wealth is communal. This point is also convincingly argued in Peter Barnes book, With Liberty and Dividend’s for All. If all wealth is created communally, then its benefits (or profits) should be distibuted to the community that created it. That is how dividend’s work for shareholder’s in a company and that is how a basic income could work.
Basic income advocates must also confront the other hard truth about a basic income: it is given to all and there are no deserving and undeserving members of a society. Not only is there no easy way to determine deserving vs. undeserving people, the very concept of designating some as deserving creates a power structure where bureaucrats can determine who is helped and who is not. I remember seeing a few years ago, in Toronto, a fantastic ad about why a punk on the street could not get a job. The ad was between the subway lines and about 10 ft from the viewer. It read, “Why can’t street kids get a life?” followed by large block of small text that could not be read from a distance, but presumably has a complex explanation, followed by “That’s why.” Life is complicated. A basic income would be a dividend for all members of a society to improve their chances in life – all while removing some of the arbitrary power government currently has.
Lastly, Vanis makes an excellent point that the wealthy already receive dividends and their children or relatives who did not earn the wealth are not terribly deserving of those dividends. Why does Paris Hilton deserve a dividend, but a kid from a working class family does not deserve one? In fact, both of them should have a dividend in the form of a Basic Income. I put this argument and others to a skeptical earner of a dividend, Stephen Bronfman who inherited money from his father’s business successes. Though he was unconvinced the beginning of the talk, he came around to being open to the idea by the end and I hope to fully convince him soon.
The time for basic income is coming, but to get us there we will need to shift the narrative we tell each other and our children about the origins of wealth and who deserves it. Wealth can only be created if there is a state and the rule of law and the more wealth we inherit, as a society or as an individual, the more wealth we can create. A society with inventions and discoveries to work off of, will create more wealth than a primitive society starting from scratch. Without calculus or antibiotics, today’s civilization cannot exist. A basic income is the fairest and simplest mechanism for us to create wealth while ensuring everyone can fully participate in society and reach their full potential.
On another note, Yanis Varoufakis book on the EU and the Greek crisis is fantastic : And the Weak shall Suffer what they must?. It provides clear (if opinionated) economic insights into the challenges of international monetary systems and the fundamental contradiction of a common currency between export nations (i.e. Germany) and import nations (i.e Italy). Canada overcame this challenge of export provinces and import provinces with a strong redistribution system between the provinces called ‘Equalization Payments‘. Québec has received about 5 billion dollars in annual transfers for the past decade, helping avoid the social and economic collapse as we see in Greece today. If you are interested in the history of the gold standard, Bretton Woods and the current impasse in the EU, the book is well worth the read. Also see his discussion with Chomsky on this topic and others.
Published on July 20, 2016