The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Is Reducing Financial Inequality Really Possible?

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WE’VE TALKED ABOUT IT, ADVOCATED AGAINST IT, lived with it, and continually felt defeated by it. Despite the best efforts of millions of individuals and groups to tackle the glaring presence of financial inequality in our community, country, and the world, we can be forgiven for feeling no closer to solving it.

We understand about the advances in technology, the challenges to employment, corporations that can shift their operations where they please, and the sheer magnitude of the capitalistic behemoth that stands astride the world appearing unshakable and unremorseful. We have emerged from the last economic recession (the worst since the Depression) and seemed to have learned little from its negative causes. Wealth continues to be moved upwards, to a few people who now control the major share of the world’s finances.

Alexis de Tocqueville is a name hardly mentioned anymore but his observations are as keen today as they were during the 18th century in America. In a piece he later published, titled How an Aristocracy May Be Created by Industry, he made a startling observation:

I think that, generally speaking, the manufacturing aristocracy which we see rising before our eyes is one of the hardest that have appeared on earth … The friends of democracy should keep their eyes anxiously fixed in that direction. For if ever again permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy make their way into the world, it will have been by that door that they entered.

Keep in mind, he wrote these observations in 1835, but we can’t help acknowledging that the “door” he referred to has been wide open for some time. He premised that, in a free society, based upon the tenuous balance between free markets, social cohesion, and democratic participation, any monopoly, especially over money, would spell ruin to the democratic experiment and the hopes of millions, not just a few.

There’s lot of places where blame can be put – corporations, global financial bodies, a distracted citizenry – but ultimately it all comes to rest on just plain bad politics. When they were lobbied by financial groups to forego urging businesses to invest in new sectors by training future workers and paying them accordingly, political leaders readily replied, leaving millions out of work around the world. Politics oversaw a restructuring that deregulated many of those financial protocols that once used to protect communities. At the same time as they permitted significant corporate tax breaks, governments also failed to invest in the kind of physical infrastructure that connected communities and assisted with the flow of goods and people.

The list of such actions is far more extensive than any of us realized. But we have felt it, and that sense of foreboding has not left us. But here’s the point: each one was a political choice, and the damage from each could have been better minimized if our politics hadn’t been sick and ailing. Different political choices would have resulted in less inequality today. One gets the sense that, following every economic downturn in recent decades, that more of the legislative restraints were taken off the free market in hopes of recapturing past glory. It worked, in that fabulous wealth was generated. Unfortunately, that wealth placed such a huge wedge in society, rewarding those above and pressing down on those beneath the cut, that inequality now characterizes our age more than any in recent decades. All this wealth. All this money. All this inequality. These realities are all linked by the prevalence of poorly aimed political choices.

But there is a glimmer of hope: if the fault lies in our politics, then the solution lies in our democratic instincts. For these to function more effectively, it will take citizens and not a detached elite to correct them, for democracy is based on our ability to correct a system by applying ourselves to the problem. Governments grew lax because we grew distracted, and when numerous capitalist leaders spotted that, they rushed through that door de Tocqueville talked about and occupied the positions of dominance.

Those in control of power and wealth, in most cases, won’t relinquish such amenities freely. It will take citizens, responsible businesses, and democratic organizations coming together and actually selecting people for politics who know where their grounding is – family, community, meaningful work, a more peaceful world, a sense of inner accountability and humility.

Can we reduce financial inequality in our time? Absolutely, but only when we increase our sense of citizen responsibility. There’s the rub.

For Millennials: Talk Meaning, Not Just Money

 

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AUTHOR ROBERT PUTNAM NOTICED SOMETHING INTERESTING back in 1993. He discovered that between 1980 and 1993, the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10%, while those participating in league bowling declined by 40%. Putnam used that illustration as something of a symbol for the transformation that was taking place in the United States and turned it into a book titled, Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.

For two decades now research has shown that on both sides of the 49th Parallel we are becoming more individualistic and less institutional. There are pros and cons to such a development, leaving some social commentators to conclude younger generations remain more focused on their own concerns than those of society at large. The Millennials (born between 1980 and early-2000s) are largely singled out as leading this trend.

Recent global research is now telling us something quite different, however. Of the top ten concerns for Millennials across the globe, only 3 of the top 10 are economic, and only 1 of the top 5. They are concerned about unemployment (37%) and financial inequality among nations (28%). Yet they are just as concerned about how we are using up our natural resources (33%), climate change (32%), and personal safety (23%). The rise of poverty also registered in their concerns.

The report was commissioned by the global firm Deloitte, and polled more than 7,000 Millennials in 28 countries. Researchers were somewhat surprised to discover that the emphasis placed on social over economic challenges was the same from developed and developing nations. Across the board, Millennials rated the role of government as providing education, access to hospitals, meaningful work, and the safety of citizens above that of improving the financial status of citizens. And they went further, answering that the ultimate purpose of government is to advance social progress rather than just trusting everything to the financial sector. In fact, they no longer believe that economic growth alone is sufficient for providing meaningful lives and communities.

It gets even more interesting. Those Millennials taking part in the research stated clearly that social progress is not merely the responsibility of governments, but also of businesses and the corporate sector. Concern was expressed that not enough resources were placed in essentials like infrastructure and investments in communities that would allow them to live with better quality of life standards.

What is all this saying? To begin with, we can dispel the myth that Millennials are far more narcissistic than their older counterparts. It’s simply not true. They might be less institutional in personal activities, but they comprehend the importance of institutional resources for solving our greatest problems and protecting our quality of life.

I don’t know many Millennials who bowl, but I have encountered thousands who engage in citizenship, struggle for women’s equity and human rights, and who think of people as more than what’s in their bank account. Above all, they know of the need for community and social inclusion. Community equity isn’t a generational possession, but a shared human trait that transcends age and cohorts. That’s enough upon which to build a successful future.

To Our New Council, With Love

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LONDON, ONTARIO, CAN BE FORGIVEN FOR FEELING some wind in its sails, despite having passed through some difficult years. We have a new mayor, a mostly new city council, and a new spring in our step. Feels good.

Those who were elected have a passion for their city and it’s not hard to spot. We need sound leadership if we are to proceed. And, in their desire to lead, they’ll need to follow the leadership of the community if they are to make the difference they obviously seek.

So, here is my prayer for all of you, the new team, based on the clear respect for your stepping forward and the awareness of the challenges you face.

First, please keep yourself. I’ve had a bit of experience in politics and it was troubling how easily political representatives permit themselves to become exclusively the extension of other people’s wants and desires. It’s vital to know your community, but your authenticity and usefulness will be centered on who you are and why you ran for office in the first place. To know oneself is important for political life; to keep yourself, however, is vital. Londoners didn’t elect robots, but living people in whom we wish to learn trust. That won’t be possible if you can’t stay real.

Be honest … please. Someone in Ottawa once explained to me that the secret of remaining in politics in putting on a difference face for everyone, as needed. It was some of the dumbest advice I’ve ever received. Politics isn’t only the art of the possible; it involves the transfer of trust, back and forth between citizen and representative. Start faking it with us, and trust is gone. And once it’s lost everything is just power plays or ambivalence.

I pray you make clear time for your family and friends. It is inherent in the very nature of politics that it soaks you for everything you can give it. Don’t give it that advantage. It is these very people who got you to where you are, and if you permit the demands of thousands of citizens to displace the honour you owe to those closest to you, it won’t be long until you lose your way, removed from those things that once gave you grounding and understanding.

Don’t forget to be humble. You didn’t get to where you are at this moment just because you’re so smart or innovative; you got there because citizens voted for you. When your community decides to trust you with leadership, it means that they not only deserve your best but also your devotedness to the honour of serving those who marked the ballot for you in the first place. Politics is not about pandering or policy, but ultimately about people. You have been elected to serve, not to seek advantage. The voters will never forget that; neither should you.

Please be kind. I have known so many good people who entered politics and who then permitted it to turn their spirits repeatedly to stone – so much so that they came to resent the very citizens that were supposed to be serving. You are to administer both the resources and understanding of the city to those that live and function within it. Resent those you are to be serving and it will be inevitable that you’ll care only about the power and perks of your position. Take time for your people, quality time, and they will keep you grounded and honoured – not because you’re a politician, but because you are a good person.

Please don’t lose yourself in these next four years; if you lose your way, so do we, and we’ve already had enough of that. Just like your citizens, love your community as though it is worthy of our very best efforts. Court it. Pursue it. Build a life with it. Love is at its best when it prompts us to serve others. Serve us with respect and understanding and we will honour you with our loyalty and talents. We love our city, but we will have to manage it through you, and that is a responsibility beyond measure. We’re turning a page together.  Let’s give it our best shot.

 

Run to Meet the Moon

 

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OUR FAMILY WILL HEAD DOWNTOWN TO THE CENOTAPH this evening, as we do every year on Remembrance Day, and lay two roses on its steps – one each for Jane’s father and my own. Occasionally I leave a poem to Dad as my own way of saying thanks for struggling for what he believed in, despite the emotional and physical wounds he received during World War Two.

During that conflict, along with being a soldier, he also wrote poems from the front for the Calgary Herald. One of these is titled The Moon and Mars. I bring it out every year and have to come to terms with the reality that Lloyd Pearson was not only a brave citizen but a confounded one as well. I’m starting to understand what he was getting at.

In The Moon and Mars, he speaks about his love for his country, his family, his local community, and romantic love. All these he likens to the seasons of the moon and its ability to enchant the human race with its sense of affection and possibility. But always on the heels of those sentiments came the presence of Mars – the ancient god of war, as epitomized by the Red Planet, who saw peace as merely the trite interplay that happens between conflicts. The hue of the moon over the battlefields nevertheless calmed my father’s soul, reminding him of why he was fighting. But the redness of Mars always drove him to despair because it was about how war seemed to regularly outdo the penchant for peace.

Years later, he would tell me how he came to believe that war was what happened when people stopped listening to the better angels of their nature. Once, as we sailed in the water off Penticton, British Columbia, he said that the most important thing about why he fought was that the love he felt for those people behind and with him was stronger than any animosity he might have felt for the enemy in front of him.

In other words, my Dad, like millions of others, fought for the kind of life he believed in. He had fought for the nationalization of parks in Western Canada, endeavoured to find ways to help the poor find work, was president of his neighbourhood association, a great believer in sports, and sought to expand the vote to Alberta’s aboriginal populations. These were the things he was fighting to preserve, along with the welfare of his family.

I wonder what he would think now. How would he respond to the fact that food banks are growing? Could he tolerate a kind of politics that refused to dedicate the resources required to locate the approximately 1,000 aboriginal woman who are presumed murdered or have disappeared in Canada? What would he say about all those recent veterans who for the life of them can’t access the benefits promised them after they returned home to struggle with PTSD, family poverty, even suicide? His world had been one in which the burgeoning middle-class could find employment, build their communities through good paying jobs, and bring up their children to follow a life that was bigger than themselves.

Lloyd Pearson died almost 40 years ago, but I sometimes fret that his dream died with him. There was a very real sense that, for him, the true battle of World War Two wasn’t about ridding the world of tyranny, but about building the kind of Canada that was fair, prosperous, sustainable, and equitable. Hitler and Mussolini are gone. The fascists were defeated. But sometime along the way, we began losing the battle at home. In place of abundance we have food banks; instead of communities we struggle with homelessness; in the place of enlightened lives we have education solely for the sake of employment; and instead of citizens with purpose we have components of capitalism with little sense of honour to those communities in which it thrives. Mars seems alive and well and I think that reality alone would break Dad’s heart.

Harry Leslie Smith is 90 years old, a veteran, and living out his final years in Britain. He has said that this will be his final year for wearing a poppy because we don’t truly honour those who perished in conflict if we continue to lay aside the true purposes for which democracy stands and for which they fought. He powerfully concludes in his piece in the Guardian:

Next year, I won’t wear the poppy but I will until my last breath remember the past and the struggles my generation made to build this country into a civilized state for the working and middle classes. If we are to survive as a progressive nation we have to start tending to our living because the wounded: our poor, our underemployed youth, our hard-pressed middle class and our struggling seniors shouldn’t be left to die on the battleground of modern life.

These are sad words from someone who has earned his opinion and they make mine feeble, yet I will still don my poppy.  But they would light a fire in my Dad’s heart if he were alive today. He would say, “Take the torch, citizens; our real fight is about the fairness of home and not merely the foes overseas.” As Robert Frost would say, “Let us run to meet the moon.” Mars has had its way long enough.

Brain Breaking

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THERE WERE LOTS OF THINGS TO BE WORRIED ABOUT regarding this week’s mid-term election south of the border. In many ways it didn’t matter which party won what because we have seen this film before and the ultimate losers are citizens themselves. The partisan squabbles will only be magnified and the run-up to the next presidential election will be painful to watch.

Perhaps the most sinister portent of all wasn’t about who prevailed but who didn’t show up. Only 38% of voters filled out their ballots, reminding us yet again that politics continues on at the same time as democracy is in danger of dying.

But it’s not merely about the political class and how they just seem bent towards destroying one another; it also concerns citizens and how they appear pre-programmed in their choices.

As if to affirm this reality, New York University is undertaking research on how our brains appear to be hardwired for partisanship. The leader of the team, Jay Van Bavel, put it this way:

“Once you trip this wire, this trigger, this cue, that you are a part of ‘us-versus-them,’ it’s almost like the whole brain becomes re-coordinated in how it views people.”

Through the use of MRI research, Bavel discovered that when it comes to politics the brain regions used to empathize with others aren’t nearly as active when we see the face of someone who is from the opposite side of the political fence. Kind as we may be, tolerant as we might have become, those who are politically active nevertheless lose those qualities far more quickly the moment we encounter a person from the other team.

The research team discovered that even those individuals of opposing views who have never met one another before immediately feel their anger rise and their “opinion meter” rattle on at full throttle. Somewhat surprisingly, they discovered that those tested even experienced pleasure while beholding the pain of those with opposite political opinions.

Bavel thinks this tendency towards partisanship is the result of evolution, where groups survived by besting others desiring the same resources. This helps us to understand why ancient tribes went to war, but in a sophisticated modern democracy it spells serious trouble when the essence of modern life is supposed to be about compromise.

The moment that partisan side of our brain kicks in, it naturally begins pre-filtering facts to suit our purpose, even if the data isn’t true or justified. Again, in Bavel’s words, partisanship of this kind “breaks our brains.”

But its effects are worse than that: it breaks our communities, rendering them increasingly dysfunctional. Partisanship triumphs while democracy decays. If the essence of the democratic experience is attempting to understand the other side’s point of view, even if we should disagree with it, in order to reach compromise, then disqualifying others right from the start makes progress impossible. It all just becomes about one side besting the other – hardly one of the finer traits of functional civilization.

This biggest problem with this recurring situation is the disillusionment it creates within those who don’t harbour such personal biases. Put simply: they pull out, leaving the ballot box to those delighting in the combat. Which means that friction will inevitably beget friction. Some like that kind of political contact sport; most don’t. Pre-programmed brains most often blind partisans to the fact that the majority of fellow citizens are checking out when they should be engaging for the sake of community. Differences are one thing; blindness is another.

At some point democracy itself could become irrevocably lost if our public world is left to the sole property of those who treasure war over peace. And try as hard as they may, political parties have not yet discovered the ability to cooperate together for the sake of better policymaking and more functional communities.

Nevertheless, Bavel and his team, while still in the midst of their research, are discovering some reasons for hope. What would happen if we as citizens came to understand this penchant within us and began working on ourselves to the point where we stay in a situation long enough to understand the other point of view, whether or not we agreed? Would that not be some measure of victory? Indeed it would. And the best place to build that kind of patience and understanding is in our cities, where political parties have less of an impact and where we work, travel, play, worship, and learn together in real-time. We don’t sit across an aisle from one another and lob political grenades; we actually ride the same buses, attend the same restaurants, work with other parents on our kids’ sports teams, celebrate Canada Day together, and grieve in common over the sense of loss.

In other words, real life can save us from the manufactured one politics can create. Instead of being an end in itself, shared political responsibility could be the ongoing process where we build together despite our distinctions, or maybe even because of them.

Perhaps Carl Jung’s insight is more prescient now than ever: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” And if that understanding can lead us to a functional kind of tolerance, then politics can again be useful.

 

 

 

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