Jonathan Brun

How to Save the World – Liquid Feedback, Basic Income and More Politicians

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced he would not be reforming the electoral process despite making a very clear and unequivocal commitment to do just that during his most recent election campaign. He said, “election will be the last federal election using first-past-the-post.” But we all know campaign promises are meant to be broken, silly rabbit! Trudeau claimed that there was no consensus concerning the type of electoral system we should put in place and there was not enough momentum to change the current system. While both points are true, I believe the real reason he did not move forward with the change was simple: the return on investment was not there.

Parliamentary Westminster democracies and Republics are broken in too many ways to count. Political journalist Andrew Coyne wrote a great piece in the Walrus outlining the accumulation of power in the prime minister’s hands and the disempowerment of members of parliament, and therefore citizens, over the past century. He dives into more detail in his recent talk (“Our Broken Democracy“) and even proposes some solutions to our situation. He chalks up the failure of Canadian democracy to things like the nomination power that the Prime Minister has over each MP (the PM can choose not to sign the MPs card and thus disqualify the person), the nomination of judges and many other government positions, the lack of proportional representation and the tight party lines that are enforced by the whips and the prime minister’s office.

While Coyne’s points are valid, he makes a most common mistake: he is reasoning from analogy, not from first principles. His proposed reforms to our system assume that our system has the correct foundation and that Westminster parliament is still appropriate to our situation. Nearly all of his proposed solutions exist in other democracies in some form, Germany has mixed-proportional representation, the US elects its judges and France does not hold to party lines. The system is broken and Coyne is is trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together with pieces from other democratic systems.

Changing an electoral system is a huge undertaking, it requires discussion with civil society, bureaucrats, politicians from different levels, societal education and much, much more. I cannot think of any country that has made a significant reform to its electoral system outside of a seismic event such as an economic or political collapse. The reality is that any electoral system we could imagine – within the realm of the existing systems – is just not that much better than the current system. Preferential voting, mixed proportional, proportional or something else might improve our ‘democratic performance’ by a couple percent (whatever that might mean) – but the cost to implement the change would be massive.

As I discussed in my 2012 TEDx talk, Canadian democracy needs much more than a fresh coat of paint. We are talking about a system that was designed before electricity, the internet, cars, trains, and planes. The US Republican system, as an example, still has a number of procedural rules that are based on the travel time by horse and buggy to and from Washington D.C.! Coyne and many other democratic reform activists seem constrained by their assumption that radical change is not possible or desirable. Or perhaps radical change – that is, attacking the root of the problem – does not even enter their train of thought. Who knows.

Four Critical Books on the Structure of Society

A great book I read a couple years ago is A People’s History of the World by Chris Harmen. The book charts the rise and fall of societies from the points of view of the working classes. Written by a self-proclaimed Marxist who applies the lens of class struggle to world history, it covers a wide array of political movements and outlines some of the underlying trends. The book puts in perspective our own system and how much of our democratic institutions were built by the male and older middle-upper class to allow them to retain control of the system, while appeasing some of the democratic demands of the people. The systems put in place in the British, French and American revolutions were done to ensure an orderly transition from kings and queens to a political elite that could be controlled by the same, but slightly larger, entourage.

A book that goes well with this one is David Graeber’s Debt, which charts evolution of debt in society. Debt and the way we treat it determines much of our social fabric. Who owns what is largely determined by who owes what. This essential book compares societies around the world and across time and proposes some radical changes to our current financial framework. I cannot effectively summarize this masterpiece, but you can read the short essay that David Graeber wrote himself. If the book does anything, it shatters your view that the system we have today is inevitable or ideal. Debt and our indebtedness through mortgages, credit cards, medical debt and student debt is a massive burden on society that is killing the potential of billions of people.

The trend of accumulation of power in the upper classes has come back to the forefront with the blockbuster book, Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Picketty. The central thesis of the book is that when economic growth is less than the return on capital, wealth moves towards the top of society. That is, a worker who is basically riding economic growth through wage increases can never catch up to a person who is earning their revenues through return on capital. The historic norm for return on capital, most of which is housing, is 5%. So growth below that leads to an accumulation of wealth at the top. Of course, the book outlines the case and the structure of capital in a much more detailed way that we should all try to understand. Growth in the west is currently just above 2%, but between WWI and about 1970, it was near or above 5%. Coincidentally that period saw the rise of the middle class, free education, universal healthcare and massive technological innovation.

We have now returned to a situation where owning a building is potentially more lucrative than riding on society’s innovative capability – this is a dangerous situation. Since wealth (specifically capital that can be leveraged or become liquid) is simply a storage unit for power, we seem headed towards a return to a plutocracy of some sort. Despite the common assumption that we live in a democratic society where the government is held accountable by the people, power – both political and financial – has actually shifted away from the population in the past forty years and into an elite of extremely wealthy individuals.

However, over the past fifty years a significant portion of the population has been made docile by television, video games and low cost products from emerging markets. Our own greed and sloth have led us to a situation where the good jobs are gone and the future does not look that great. While the majority of society’s situation has stagnated, our elite accumulates more power and a great deal more money thanks to globalization and the segregation of the supply chain of major corporations. The excellent book The Great Convergence explains how there are three key elements to a society’s economic structure: The movement of goods, ideas and people.

The first pillar, goods, was made much cheaper with the invention of the steam engine, allowing Europe to move its goods to markets around the world. Previously, you could only sell to local shops. The second pillar, ideas, has been made extremely cheap through the Internet and telephone, allowing companies to move their knowledge to emerging, low-cost markets. This has led to a convergence of salaries around the world. The cost of labour in Eastern China is now approaching the cost of labour in the United States. The last pillar, the movement of people has not been solved. It is still rather costly to move people around the wold, but telepresence systems, hyper loops and high speed trains may change that. For now at least, the book paints a clear picture of globalization and the impact it has had on the working classes in the “western world” – basically it has killed a lot of their jobs.

Moving back to politics, which is intrinsically linked to economics, we can see that the political trends around the world are only getting worse thanks to endemic corruption. In the United States, where unlimited political contributions by corporations are a sad reality, the situation is even worse. Super PACS, which allow money to be funnelled to political messaging, have taken over the political system. It is not just the paid advertisements that get set by a wealthy elite, the messaging in those paid advertising and the issues they focus on inevitably get carried over into the “mainstream” press and even the “fake news” sites. Larry Lessig of creative commons fame, is putting together a Super PAC to end Super PACs (TED Talk)). He is trying to raise a large amount money to change the public financing laws. We will see how that works out, I have my doubts. Countries such as Canada have strict donation systems and I am not certain that our political system is significantly better. On a side note, he who must not be named, was elected with a much smaller campaign budget than Clinton. This may indicate something as to the value of Lessig’s initiative.

From what I can tell, the only reasonable remedy to our current trajectory is a dramatic shift away from our current form of governance. If there is one country we should look to for recent inspiration, it would be Iceland. During the 2008 financial collapse, Iceland was plunged into crises due to capitalist cowboys who took out massive loans on behalf of unwitting taxpayers and gambled on the financial markets. During the collapse, creditors came calling and in response to attempts by bankers from the city of London and New York to claim those loans, Iceland nationalized the banks, wiped out the loans and re-wrote its constitution (which was later overturned, but hey, they tried!). While Canadian banks are in good condition, they are continuing to underwrite incredulous housing prices and credit card debt with little hesitation. We will see what recent interest rate hikes have on the market. We might want to have a public discussion on the subject of debt, profits and what role banks have in democratic society. As mentioned, money, the money supply and power are intrinsically linked. You cannot realistically meaningfully reform political power without reforming the capital structure of society. And reforming capital structures is even harder than reforming political structures!

Government Structure

The previous Canadian government applied massive budget cuts to our public broadcaster/educator, cut science research and reduced capacity of Statistics Canada – these are all ways to blind the electorate and future governments. In discussions with people in the current administration, they have pointed out the need to rebuild parts of the Canadian public service and that until this is done, certain policies and proposals have stalled.

With a reduced government, it is easier for to turn to private interests as a solution and privatize “underperforming” assets. You can see the evidence of this shift with the the now common public-private partnerships and the Greek financial crisis. Even in the sensible, polite and peace loving country of Canada, we have let both our provincial and federal governments remove democratic power and transfer it to closed door meetings and financial interests as illustrated by our recent international free trade agreements that were not discussed publicly until they were complete.

In terms of solutions, we need to leave our Westminster or Republican box and return to first principles. If we want a government for the people, by the people and of the people, we should start our thinking from scratch. A simple patchwork of mixed proportional representation, reformed prime-ministerial powers and reformed party leadership powers are not enough to fix our situation. We must think much, much bigger. We are facing massive environmental and economic challenges. The planet is warming faster than ever and countries we once laughed off as uninviting and non-competitive have taken over in technologically advanced industries such as high speed trains, electronics and satellites. In addition to our current problems, our society has stagnated – the United States can no longer send humans to space, a billion people are hungry, we have 27 million slaves in the world and full-time employment at minimum wage is below the poverty line.

A friend of mine once explained that you should wait for new technology to be 10 times or 1000% better before you change your machine. This is true of televisions, computers and other things. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it… unless you have something that is 10X more powerful.

So in light of all that, we need to think seriously if we can reform our way to a solution or if we need to start talking about a major overhaul of our democratic system. Here are three ideas that might have an impact.

1. Dramatically increase the number of elected officials

With 338 federal MPs, about 100 MNAs per province and a few city councillors per city, it is too easy to control and co-opt the system. In the 1980s British television series, “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister”, the UK PM asks his political advisor for suggestions on how to reform the borough level political system.

She counsels a scheme recently put forward by a Professor Marriott, which would give power back to the people by making town halls genuinely accountable. This involves making each councillor responsible for just 200 local residents, which would then lead to a large local council that would report to a smaller executive committee. Councillors would then be in close contact with those that voted for them — and would have to listen to their concerns. By the end of the episode, the civil service, fearful of losing power to “the people” teams up with power hungry politicians, who think they know better than the average citizen, to convince the prime minister that the idea is ridiculous.

Scientific studies have shown that the average human has evolved to live in a community of 250 people, we are comfortable knowing and interacting with that many people. In ancient times when a tribe expanded beyond those numbers, they would break off and form another group. If one person can only know 250 people then I would propose we should have 1 representative per 250 people. In Canada, with 35 million people that would be 140 000 representatives – they could either be spread out across the various levels of government or we could enforce that ratio of 1:250 for each level of government. At that ratio, Québec would need 64 000 representatives and in Montréal, 6 000 representatives. Not that China is exactly a democracy, but the Communist Party does have 89 million members, or about 1 in 12 Chinese or probably 1 in 8 adults. Their way of functioning is fascinating and merits a closer look. The long term potential of the Chinese system is debatable (as is the West’s), but it is surely working for most Chinese right now.

Getting that many people to have a coherent discussion and make decisions was impossible before the Internet. The German Pirate Party has proposed an interesting solution to the issue of delegating authority in large groups. Their system called Liquid Feedback allows a person to offer your vote on a subject matter (i.e. Environment, Economic Policy,…) to someone else. However, you ca withdraw your vote delegation at anytime!

During election time, because of my involvement in politics, many of my less politically inclined friends ask me for whom they should vote. Many of them would happily hand me their vote if they could. The beauty of the Liquid Feedback system is that you can hand off your vote to someone else, but you can also withdraw it at anytime. So, if you really trust someone on copyright reform and someone else on agriculture policy you could hand off your votes on those issues to people you trust, but if you change your mind or if they change their positions, you can withdraw your vote. Such a system starts to approach a true democracy.

A combination of a radical increase in the size of representative bodies and the delegation of votes with withdrawal powers would make it much harder to lobby and co-opt the system. It would also force many more people to actively Think about public issues and consequently spend less time on items that do not contribute to the advancement of society.

Convince a larger group of people of the merits of a policy, rather than a small isolated group should inevitably lead to policies that benefit more people. To reach consensus in large groups, you actually need to propose sensible policy with facts and reason. Aboriginal groups’ decision making process was restricted due to the lack of a written language (see my post here). Their need to discuss and reach consensus rather than create a policy and enforce it through written directives, was an inspiration for the leaders of the American revolution.

2. Limit the number of terms

The initial concept of representative democracy was that a person would volunteer some of their time to represent their community and then return to their line of work. A true democratic politician cannot be a professional politician, they should be a member of society who wishes to contribute their time, knowledge and experience. I would propose that no representative should be allowed to serve more than two or three consecutive terms. In combination with the increase in the number of representatives, this would result in a tremendous churn of people through the democratic system. Interestingly, China cycles its top members between State Owned Enterprises (Crown Corporations), various governmental departments and actual positions in the party. China also has mandatory retirement ages. This shuffling of the political deck would result in two things – more people would familiarize themselves with democratic institutions and it would avoid the creation of power bases amongst a clique of people.

Admittedly, the downside to term limits is that it can create lame duck situations where civil servants and other pretenders to power know they can wait out a curent representative’s term. It is critical that this not only apply to the President, as in many countries, or else you end up having lame duck presidents while members of parliament or congress bide their time and build up political capital that can reach beyond that of the executive leader.

We have this inherent tendency to reason by analogy. In fact, we should reason by first principles – we should not say, “How can we make the current parliamentary system slightly better through the copying of another system such as mixed proportional?”, we should instead reason by asking, “how do we best represent the interests of society and ensure we collaboratively design a future where we all benefit the most possible in the long term”. A true democratic system would entail more fluid exchanges with policy makers and a larger representation of the population’s wishes in policy making. Part of the solution is increasing the size of the elected body to offset the growth of the number of employees in the public service and the wealth accumulation in private industry, both of which represent important forms of power in society as well as inertia that prevents any change.

3. Basic Income

To be clear, my criticism of our mixed-economy capitalism is not indictment of capitalism in general. Our current framework of liberal representative government and Keynesian policies has succeeded in providing massive amounts of material wealth to the majority of citizens. Despite the fact that many people have been left behind, a visit to a typical supermarket is a friendly reminder of our tremendous wealth. Who is not blown away by the quantity, variety and quality of the food available in your average supermarket?

Yet, most will also agree that society has not completely fulfilled its promise of equal opportunity and justice. How can we affect change that moves us forward? The way society functions is primarily dictated by the distribution of power and capital in that society as described above. The well-known Golden Rule says, “Treat others as you wish to be treated”, but there is a more sinister version, “He who has the gold, makes the rules”. Our current power structure has not changed significantly since the instauration of representative democracy in the 18th century.

In the 18th century and early 19th century, most of the western world transferred power from a land-owning aristocratic class to a body of elected representatives in the form of a Republic (i.e. America, France) or a Parliamentary democracy (i.e. UK, Canada). These representatives are elected through universal suffrage in one elector format or another. Despite the inventions of the steam engine, electricity, cars and the internet – the electoral model for distributing power in society has not substantially changed.

Money is a form of accumulated power. Currently, the vast majority of citizens are trapped by their financial situations. We are tied down by a combination of high property costs, the expense of raising children and overspending due to our consumer culture and advertising industry. Few of us have time to get involved in social change or in our communities. We do not contribute due to a lack of time, but for a lack of economic freedom which zaps our energy and motivation. Basic Income, a movement that is gaining traction around the world, is a potential solution to some of society’s ills.

To change the world, you must change the power structure. Yet, to change the structure within the current structure is extremely challenging. This is largely why it has not happened and why it took revolutions, blood and tears in nearly all countries to affect meaningful change. In his excellent Essay, “Enough with this Basic Income Bullshit”, Nicolas Colin outlines his criticisms of Basic Income. Largely, it boils down to a skepticism that people are willing to sacrifice life and limb for a Basic Income. He says “This is yet another reason why I’m skeptical about basic income: I simply don’t see the movement behind it. It’s intellectually seductive, a lot of people like the idea, but I’ve never met anyone for whom basic income is literally a personal question of life and death.” He is right.

From my point of view, the current electoral system will never implement a meaningful basic income unless a massive crisis hits society. In Switzerland, where a referendum on the subject was held last year, the results were interesting. At firs the elected officials were open to the idea, but once they understood that Basic Income was a transfer of power to the citizens, they unanimously voted against it. The population of the conservative country did vote for it to the tune of 30%, not bad for a first try!

The only type of basic income that elected representatives might support is one that simplifies bureaucracy and reduces government costs. This could be a either a low amount or a negative income tax. In other words, what our politicians might support is a program that transfers power from the bureaucrats to the politicians. As they say, the quickest way to be disappointed in someone is to expect them to act against their self-interest. Expecting our elected representatives to vote to remove power from their own hands is a recipe for disappointment.

Bearing this in mind, the only path to a real universal basic income (or a Citizen’s Dividend as I prefer to structure it) is through a Political Party. A political party must be born that holds at its core that a basic income is a fundamental right that allows for a decent standard of living to all. The party must have a clear net dollar figure and a clear proposal for changing the current tax system. Though they need this issue at their core, this party must not fall into the trap of being perceived as a one-issue party (i.e. Green Party) and must have concrete proposals for all areas of society – economy, environment, family, immigration etc. A basic income political party must rally a variety of actors to its defence, forming such a coalition would be a monumental task – not unlike the work of American or French revolutionaries. It seems the Germans, innovative as they are, have started the first Basic Income Political Party.

Forming a political party whose number one priority is a basic income would allow for a few benefits. First, it would allow basic income advocates and supports to center around a party. It would allow for political donations and related tax benefits to support a group of basic income advocates. And thirdly it would put pressure on existing parties to adopt pro-basic income positions to try and offset the movement.

A friend and well-known activist, Dmitri Roussopolous, recently brought to my attention a little known fact. He explained that most progressive initiatives start at the municipal level, not the national or state level. Accessing power at the municipal level is much easier than at the state level and the formation of a policy or political position at the municipal level is within grasp of a motivated group of citizens. Once established at one municipality, the policy can spread to other cities as it demonstrates it viability. A Basic Income Political Party may be best starting at a city level and creating a basic income at the municipal level through municipal taxes, congestion charges, and tourist taxes. The media attention this would create for the idea and the movement would be significant. Though a basic income at the municipal level would be lower due to the revenues available, it could be a real tool to convince others that it is a sound policy and that it will not lead to mass laziness.

The reality is that civil society is still trying to fight for change using 20th century tools – primarily protests, strikes, unions and other such mechanisms. In our globalized and technologically advanced world, civil society is struggling to compete with complex trade agreements, powerful and addictive technologies, a highly advanced advertising industry and a certain status quo that believes the defeat of communism marked the end of all major political discussions. To truly make an impact in everyone’s lives, we need a solution that will free citizens to participate in public life.

Ancient Greek democracy was based on slavery. Free men of Athens could participate in debate because they had slaves working for them. The slaves took care of the more basic tasks – construction, agriculture, food preparation and transportation. Today, we have the opportunity to create our own slaves through our technological innovations. Thanks to machinery from the steam pump to the washing machine to the airplane, we have and will replace a great deal of our drudgery with technology. Try to do your laundry by hand and you may realize how liberating that washing machine is!

Deep meaningful change can not come from a minority of society. The means of organization and communication of the masses are too powerful for any minority of a society to rise up and seize power. Additionally, due to the international economic system, markets and external relations, any attempt by a small minority of the population to change things will be crushed. As such, the only way to affect significant change in the structure of society is to convince a majority of people to follow us.

We must build an army of people motivated by their own personal interests, the interests of their children and a general desire to improve things. Humanity’s deepest and most powerful desire is to be free. As the late Robbin Williams said, when playing the Genie said in Aladdin, “But oh, to be free. Not to have to go “Poof! What do you need, “Poof! What do you need, Poof! What do you need?”. To be my own master. Such a thing would be greater than all the magic and all the treasures in all the world. But what am I talking about? Let’s get real here, that’s never gonna happen. Genie, wake up and smell the hummus.” No Genie, it is possible.

In my view, basic income is the most direct and powerful way to free ourselves and start a new form of society. A significant portion of society is caught between their revenues and their debts, they must meet their mortgage payments, accept less desirable jobs or compromise their decisions to satisfy their short term needs. If we can free people from short term anxiety and accompanying mental issues, we may be able to free the metaphorical genie from the bottle – and then who knows what will happen. As a side note, perhaps one reason many companies are started by upper middle class people – Gates, Musk,… – is that they have a certain freedom to experiment.

The list of society’s problems are long and complex. The list goes from overfishing, environmental degradation, sectarian wars, economic collapse, to populist nationalists! These issues are overwhelming to any of us and it is far easier to tune out than it is to engage. Basic income would enable us to confront many of these issues as we would free up parts of our brains to think about issues other than short term requirements.

What Next?

Capital structures of society are tightly bound with power structures. Changing one, changes the other. Which head do you tackle first? The answer is likely not easy, but if we can consider the idea of increasing the representation of the people in the power structure, offering a basic income and increasing the churn of elected officials, we should move closer to a society where the average citizen has a better shot at accomplishing their goals and society can make wiser decisions.

The only way to affect such massive change is to fight. In all likelihood, the fight will fail. But, it is worth it none the less. To keep our system and to keep switching from red to blue, blue to red, seems like an exercise in madness. It is challenging to consolidate these ideas into an essay, but the four books mentioned are fascinating and worth a read. If it were up to me, a basic income, liquid feedback and term limits would be the top three priorities for a society. With these three ingredients in place, anything is possible.

Published on August 20, 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.

Bibliography

http://www.socred.org/blogs/view/a-national-dividend-vs-a-basic-income-similarities-and-differences
http://www.peoplescapitalism.org/presentations/PeoplesCapitalismpaper3.pdf
http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/Published%20writing/paper%20for%20basic%20income%20studies.pdf
http://www.pieria.co.uk/articles/how_basic_income_will_save_capitalism

Published on December 4, 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

Four Ideas to Change the World

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.
Published on July 23, 2015

How to build a Citizen Movement for Basic Income

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.

 

Introduction

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.

**Bibliography**

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

How to build an open data movement in your city, state, or province OKFN data camp 2011 from montrealouvert

http://blog.okfn.org/2011/09/12/how-to-build-an-open-data-initiative-for-your-city/

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Published on February 24, 2015