The Parallel Parliament

Glen Pearson

Think You Know Your World? A Quiz.

Posted on April 12, 2018

Hans Rosling revolutionized my perspective of the world back in 2006, with his thoughts on world health and development.  Though he passed away last year of liver failure, his TED talks remain some of the most popular.  He remained a good friend and advisor to Bill and Melinda Gates prior to this death.

His final book, Factfulness, reminds us how little we truly know of the world and humanity’s great potential and maintains that things are really better than we believe.  It’s a debatable point, but in his field of global health few could match his scope nor the innovative methods he utilized in promoting his ideas.

Just how necessary minds like his are is apparent in the earliest portions of Factfulness, when he challenges us to take a quiz pertaining to our knowledge of the broader world and global trends.  Here is the quiz, listed without comment but powerful in the idea that we all have much more to learn of our world if we wish to hold a fuller perspective. See how you do.

 

1. In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?

□ A: 20 percent, □ B: 40 percent, □ C: 60 percent

 

2. Where does the majority of the world population live?

□ A: Low-income countries, □ B: Middle-income countries,  □ C: High-income countries

 

3. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has …

□ A: almost doubled, □ B: remained more or less the same, □ C: almost halved

 

4. What is the life expectancy of the world today?

□ A: 50 years, □ B: 60 years, □ C: 70 years

 

5. There are 2 billion children in the world today, aged 0 to 15 years old. How many children will there be in the year 2100, according to the United Nations?

□ A: 4 billion, □ B: 3 billion, □ C: 2 billion

 

6. The UN predicts that by 2100 the world population will have increased by another 4 billion people. What is the main reason?

□ A: There will be more children (age below 15), □ B: There will be more adults (age 15 to 74), □ C: There will be more very old people (age 75 and older)

 

7. How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years?

□ A: More than doubled, □ B: Remained about the same, □ C: Decreased to less than half

 

8. How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease?

□ A: 20 percent, □ B: 50 percent, □ C: 80 percent

 

9. Worldwide, 30-year-old men have spent 10 years in school, on average. How many years have women of the same age spent in school?

□ A: 9 years, □ B: 6 years, □ C: 3 years

 

10. In 1996, tigers, giant pandas, and black rhinos were all listed as endangered. How many of these three species are more critically endangered today?

□ A: Two of them, □ B: One of them, □ C: None of them

 

11. How many people in the world have some access to electricity?

□ A: 20 percent, □ B: 50 percent, □ C: 80 percent

 

12. Global climate experts believe that, over the next 100 years, the average temperature will …

□ A: get warmer, □ B: remain the same, □ C: get colder

 

Here are the correct answers: 1: C, 2: B, 3: C, 4: C, 5: C, 6: B, 7: C, 8: C, 9: A, 10: C, 11: C, 12: A

 

“Development is about transforming the lives of people, not just transforming economies” – Joseph Stiglitz

Putting the Social Back Into Social Media

Posted on April 10, 2018

Two weeks ago, many Londoners were asking whether the time had come to get off Facebook altogether. Individuals who have blithely used the platform for years were fearing for their privacy, security and politics.

Yet the implications for communities are as insidious, and perhaps even more destructive, as for individuals. Victoria’s mayor, Lisa Helps, in a blog titled “Why I’m quitting Facebook,” decided the time had come for her because:

“Facebook peddles in outrage . . . It has become a toxic echo chamber where people who have anything positive to say are often in defense mode against negativity and anger. Continuous reinforcement of existing beliefs tends to entrench those beliefs more deeply, while also making them more extreme and resistant to contrary facts.”

If you’re someone who fervently believes in democracy, this is gripping stuff, primarily since it can affect entire communities.

London is no exception.

Because Facebook shapes the messages we receive on its platform according to our own preferences, we easily can get ourselves into the position where facts or research don’t matter as much as do our opinions and the opinions of those who agree with us.

It gets all the worse because we are about to embark on provincial and civic election campaigns. The Facebook loop adds rocket fuel to our divisions and likely turns important issues, like the bus rapid transitproposal, into something of a bloodbath.

These aren’t simply differences of opinion on things that matter to us; they are issues that can tear us apart at the time when our city is endeavouring to find a collective path forward.

One would hope tools such as Facebook would help us break down barriers of misunderstanding and work out innovative ways for moving ahead. For the moment at least, that’s not what we’re getting.

Facebook, like Twitter, has become weaponized, and despite all the advantages such platforms offer in the way of activism, knowledge sharing and collaboration, they also have divided us in a fashion we have rarely experienced before. We are moving from politics to tribalism, a development Facebook has leveraged to gain its vast empire of more than two billion users.

Something fundamental has changed in how we communicate as a community. Since those first days of our incorporation as a city in 1855, citizens were in contact in schools, markets, movie houses, theatres, festivals, houses of worship and businesses, and by just walking about. All that began to change when home entertainment increasingly kept people inside.

But with the arrival of the internet, citizen life coalesced around online services, chiefly Facebook. We were in touch, but more often than not with people of like mind. We began living in bubbles, making it more difficult for stores and politicians to succeed at getting us together. Direct sociability receded. In its place were a keypad and a screen capable of getting us what we required without ever leaving home.

This is what Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, confessed in the midst of the recent scandal: “I don’t know if I really understood the consequences . . . the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to two billion people and literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

Much of what electronics has done to society is our own doing as citizens and groups. We wanted something so useful for free, forgetting that civic discourse costs dearly if it is to be effective. It needs to be tolerant, understanding, honest, frank and, above all, collaborative in our pursuit of a better city.

Most citizens use technology that way, but the minority who disagree vehemently and disrespectfully have created the same kind of antipathy that hyper-partisanship has fomented in our recent politics, people turn off and also turn away from collective engagement.

We require tools like Facebook if we are to move forward as a city, but not if they undermine our security and our collective goodwill. The first part is Facebook’s responsibility; the second is up to us.

Information Isn’t Knowledge

Posted on April 10, 2018

On a recent Freakonomics Radio podcast, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg had to confess that he has struggled with the platform’s effect on democracy, politics and citizenship:

“We’ve been focused on making the world more open and connected.  And I always thought that that would be enough to solve a lot of problems by itself.”

Okay, to a point, that’s fair enough.  There was a lot of excitement at the launch of various social media platforms.  Political dysfunction seemed everywhere.  Citizenship appeared on the rise.  And the belief that we could solve our own problems was causing us to abandon institutions and history in favour of interaction, innovation and inclusion.

But the problem has become just as Zuckerberg stated it on the podcast: “The world today is more divided than I would have expected for the level of openness and connection that we have today.”

In other words, his ideology was more dosed with naïveté than was understood at the time.  You can’t just make the world better by letting everyone vent their opinions on the important issues of the day like racism, poverty, climate change, politics, gender equality, or even democracy itself.  In a world where everyone confuses opinion with fact or context, there is no end to supposition or doubt.  The problem is that we require clarity and that is a rare commodity in today’s complex world.

While Zuckerberg claimed in the podcast that his intent was to bring people together across various divides through the use of information, the outcome has proved to be something far different, as he confessed that it can “cause people to lash out.”

The founder of Facebook would have done well to reflect on Albert Einstein’s observation, that “information is not knowledge.”  In the Google age, information really isn’t a problem; in fact, we might have too much of it, leaving us with confusion as to how to proceed into the future.

Anyone can now post information through a multitude of social platforms, but in the end split the citizenry even more as a result.  Just because someone possesses something doesn’t mean that they know it or have experienced it.  Zuckerberg simply overlooked how the pursuit of information, and its various possibilities for monetization, rather than leading to enlightenment could instead result in ignorance.  It ended up placing democracy itself in a position that threatens its future.

There was a time when Mark Zuckerberg pulled together a team to scope out a possible run for the president of the United States.  His main qualifications?  Money and owning a huge company.  Sadly, the world has experienced far too much of both in high political places.  The assumption that owning billions or running a vast enterprise is just the ticket for the Oval Office is to confuse wisdom with wealth.  Both are possible in politics, though not often.

He has pronounced his feelings on basic income, the future of jobs, poverty, housing, transportation and education in preparation for a possible political run.  But, really, politics is about people, on the ground, where they live.  Just because one is rich doesn’t make him realistic; money doesn’t automatically translate to meaning.  Rarely is this accomplished.

And now we understand how his leadership style might have put the country on the road to disaster.  If he opts to violate the privacy of tens of millions of his citizens, and countless more worldwide, what will result for democracy?  Citizenship, civil society, accountability, responsibility – none of these can seriously be reduced to algorithms without stripping learned humanity in the process.

Now the leader of a company with over two billion customers is being forced to face the elected representatives of democracy and we’ll have to see what the outcome will be.  But this we now understand: an Information Age, followed by a Technology Age, could just as well result in a Dysfunctional Age as anything else.  We are learning that anything that comes for free actually could cost us our future.  Something to remember as we seek to incorporate some hard-hitting lessons.

If You Want to Fix Poverty, Fix the Economy

Posted on April 5, 2018

This is from a post I wrote a few years ago (October 2015) and it still seems as relevant today.  We’re still not making the choices necessary to attain serious poverty reduction.

 

He awoke from a deep slumber a couple of weeks ago to the sound of phone ringing incessantly, but when he answered he didn’t mind. Angus Deaton was being informed by someone on the other end of the phone that he was being awarded the Nobel Prize for Economic Science. Interestingly, it was how he shed new light on persistent poverty that earned him the credit. Or as the Nobel committee put it:

“To design economic policy that promotes welfare and reduces poverty, we must first understand individual consumption choices. Angus Deaton has enhanced this understanding.”

Deaton wasn’t so much focused on large market trends as on the average household and how choices are made within it. The Nobel committee has recently honoured a number of academics who have shown through their research that markets are inefficient and that there is great difficulty in knowing what to do about it.  Poverty is beginning to gain traction because of its very unfairness.

For too long now – centuries really – we have placed the blame for being of low-income squarely on the shoulders of the poor themselves. The amount of times we have heard that certain people should just get a job, or stop wasting their money on trivialities, or should go back to school stretches almost to infinity.

But to think that way is to misconstrue what is really happening. Worse, it can bring out some of the worst of subtle prejudices when we blindly believe that people are poor primarily because they are too idle or lack ambition. In reality, it is the way we organize our societies and the way institutions themselves enforce that organizing effect that leads to fewer and fewer opportunities for those in low-income situations.

A huge percentage of the non-working poor have been deemed irrelevant by a market design that increasingly seeks the advantage of productivity without heavy labour costs. People by the thousands are losing their jobs to this trend and yet it remains easier for us to blame the unemployed than it is for us to ask serious questions about the very future of work itself. If capitalism can increasingly get by without people, why, then, do we continue to lay blame on those who have been cast off? No serious researcher can lay claim to the belief that endless possibilities lie before the poor. In-depth data reminds us that people are increasingly constrained because how we construct democracy, promote capitalism, and determine the destination of wealth is, ever increasingly, limiting the opportunities for industrious people to enjoy a more prosperous life.

The secret, of course, is not to change the poor but the systems that create them. Yet it remains easier to blame a person down and out on their luck than it is to confront financial policies, political parties, elite societal structures, or crony capitalism. And, as Angus Deaton recently pointed out in his Nobel prizing winning work, when households themselves make selections that enforce the current financial structure, even average citizens can play a troubling role in enforcing poverty.

The importance of all this is that we could change these realities, but only if we show a willingness to pay for a more equitable society – all of us, including companies. That would require us to develop economic structures that don’t deliberately impoverish those the market deems disposable.

And speaking of the word “disposable,” it is the very lack of disposable income that lies at the root of poverty, not those people who lack it. It was Gandhi who made the troubling observation concerning how the colonial systems resulted in grinding poverty by claiming that, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” Prejudice is at its worst when we not only wrongfully demean people, but when it refuses to provide them opportunity. Benign bigotry can be just as violent as a clenched fist. An opinion in the lack of evidence is nothing other than prejudice. With all that is up against the marginalized, and the economic systems that keep them in despair, useless accusations is the last thing they need. Fewer things are more frightful than ignorance that leads to inaction.

Angering Our Democracy to Death

Posted on April 3, 2018

Every couple of years I make the journey out West to spend some time with my old high school friends.  We’ve all worked hard at maintaining that contact despite the fact that the twists and turns in our lives have occasionally left us on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to certain issues.  Most of our days are spent in talking, occasionally, debating, and in acknowledgment that the liberal-conservative distinctions in our temperaments could, in other conditions, create deep divisions among us.

But they don’t because we carry some history together and thus have learned mutual respect.  One of them noted yesterday that it remains a wonderful thing that, despite the deep divisions in politics these days, we have nevertheless worked on those differences and maintained our connections to one another.

This is far more common than we give credit for, but in most cases a certain kind amity is formed because, along with our opinions as Canadians, there is also the desire for such distinctions to be worked out in the context of relationship.  Where that connection is present, political, social and cultural compromise is possible.

Yet it truly is hard to maintain when there are others who would exacerbate our divisions in order to acquire power over us.

Out and about with these old friends, we would reminisce about the expectations we entertained as youth.  Each succeeding generation would be better off that the one before it. More money would be available.  We would each own a house when our parents never did.  We would get to university, after which good jobs would be available.  And our children’s world would enjoy even greater progress than our own.  This was the cultural atmosphere that we lived in when young and which prevailed in Western societies for generations.

But it didn’t work out that way so much.  The cultural expectations today are that labour wages will remain stagnant.  Climate change seems unstoppable.  Some might never be able to afford at house.  Our politics are becoming dysfunctional.  Those with great wealth will protect it, lobby to remove regulations that would normally keep them from expanding it, and they would strip the public sector of all but its most basic functions.  Progress will be limited.  Hope will be deferred or denied or just abandoned altogether.

This is the context which now houses and drives our modern political systems.  Historically, political parties would seek to expand their base to reach new supporters in order to hopefully gain or maintain power.  But a tragic new development has occurred in our politics that actually seeks to do the opposite – instead of expanding the base through better policies, parties now seek to enrage it.  And this is done by reminding people of those very things that have kept people from attaining and enjoying the “good life.”

Suddenly citizen life and its politics of choice become “us vs. them” or “me vs. we,” and it’s only a matter of time before we realize too late what Abraham Lincoln knew: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  So instead of reaching new voters we belittle them instead, target them for online abuse, and talk about how they have ruined everything in this country.  Why do such a thing?  Because it enrages the base we already possess, stoking the fire of animosity, and turning citizen against citizen in ways we have never entertained or tolerated in this country.

Then things begin to happen in ways we can’t spot.  A state of ignorance suddenly becomes a political strength (the less we know of opponents the easier it is to fan the hatred and rouse the base).  Intolerance become patriotism, as the way in which we get our country back is take it out on those we blame for ruining the past.  Angering voters is the way of promoting and defending democracy.

And there we have it at last.  Our politics soon enough begins to twist our culture in ways that ensure that Humpty Dumpty will never be able to put the pieces back together again. Politics has become angry war. Democracy has merely become a struggle over resources rather than national character.  And Canada, if we’re not careful, can resemble a lot of other countries that somehow lost their respectful DNA in the war over power.  Their politics are driving the bus.

We will enter the state once defined by Voltaire if we’re not careful: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”  Our politics requires renewal, to be sure.  But if our way of achieving that reformation is through political war and the dividing of the nation, then citizens will never acquire the genius to reenergize our collective and public life for the good because we’ll all be too busy either fighting one another or opting out of the system altogether.

My friends and I are working hard to discover a better way despite the distance, differing temperaments, and political distinctions.  The sooner Canadians commit to striking the same agreements, the sooner we can walk ourselves back from destruction.

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