The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: capitalism

Raising the Floor

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TUESDAY OF THIS WEEK WAS EQUAL PAY DAY – a date missed by millions.

We have the four main kinds of wages: minimum, subsistence, living, and fair wages. But the most important one is missing from this list – equal wage. According to Statistics Canada, women over 15 make up 48% of our national workforce. Yet when you add it all up, women working full-time make 72 cents for every dollar made by men undertaking the same responsibilities. So, yes, efforts at improving wages are vital for those in low-income situations, but our ultimate efforts must seriously embrace an equal wage between the genders.

It’s one thing to recognize gender equality and elevate women’s issues in public consciousness and in politics, but until equal pay for equal work is achieved our words will ring hollow.

This emptiness has endured for decades – a reality acknowledged by the United Nations in 2015 when it recognized that out of 34 countries, Canada maintained the 7th highest gender wage gap. That put us at 27th on the list. The UN Human Rights Report concluded that “the persisting inequalities between women and men,” including this high level of pay gap, had a disproportionate effect on low-income women, visible minority women, and indigenous women.

Okay, so this is a bit embarrassing, but the real discomfort we might be experiencing is that we have yet to make significant headway. As with the concept of a Living Wage, implementation will take time, especially due to all the complexities that will impact equal pay for equal work. It takes time for us to get our heads around the problem. We understand that. But the needle has moved so little in recent years, even as gender issues have take on increased prominence in the public, political, and policy arenas.

Talk to most people in any coffee shop today and you’ll find near unanimous agreement with the idea of equal pay for equal work, yet we somehow never get around to it, either to study it or level the economic playing field. For sure, it will be a costly advancement, but so is defeating climate change, poverty, or unemployment – challenges upon which societies move ahead.

Another excuse for inaction has been that what is going on right now is legal – no one’s breaking the law. As my friend Tim Carrie posted on Facebook yesterday:

  • Apartheid was legal.
  • The Holocaust we legal.
  • Slavery as legal.
  • Colonialism was legal.

There’s a lesson in this – namely that legality is primarily about power, not justice, and the longer we permit these legal paradigms to linger the harder it will be for the human race to make any effective advancement. Laws must be changed.  Or as author Farshad Asl plainly stated: “Leadership is the act of serving others and has no gender preference.” But we do have this preference and it infests so much of our collective life. It’s expensive. It’s hurtful. It’s inhumane. And if our aspirations mean anything, it’s unCanadian.

Hillary Clinton has been fond of saying American’s primary season that it’s time to break through the glass ceiling in regards to women’s role in society and in leadership. Agreed. But as Sheryl Sandberg has written: “We must raise both the ceiling and the floor.”  That can’t be done without equal pay.

Tomorrow:  More about equal pay and how to take action

Middle-Out

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“AMERICA’S PREMIER SELF-LOATHING PLUTOCRAT“ – no kidding, that’s what they call Nick Hanauer. He’s been in these blog posts before, where we spoke of his criticizing his peers for robbing the wealth of the United States instead of investing in productivity.

He’s now at it again, only this time championing a $15 minimum wage south of the border. Again, his peers and the corporate elite are irate with his position, and small business owners aren’t wild about it either, but his rationale, and the way he publicizes it, is carrying some momentum. In fact, the way he sees it, it’s not the labour leader or minimum wage employee who’s the best face of the effort, but his own. His rationale? “A guy like me – a very successful capitalist – is the best face for the message of reforming capitalism, right? I’m the one who can say, ‘It doesn’t have to be that way.’“

Hanaeur made his billions primarily through shrewd investments in businesses like Amazon, but somewhere along the way he came to understand that a wealth that is moving ever-upward would result in a nation spinning ever-downward. He puts it plainly:

“The other side thinks that growth produces a thriving middle class. That’s wrong and backwards. When they say (his peers) that the better profits are, the better it will be for everybody, I’m the one who can say ‘That’s a lie.’ A thriving middle class is the source of growth in a technological, capitalist economy.  Investing in the middle class is the most pro-business thing you can do.”

He finds politicians uninspiring and his fellow plutocrats unimaginative. And so he set about to battle for the $15 minimum in the public arena, and its picking up steam. It began when he made a presentation on the subject to the Democracy Alliance in 2012. What was ironic wasn’t just that he was a plutocrat, but that, while labour leaders were promoting a $10 minimum wage, Hanaeur came in $5 higher. Soon enough striking fast-food workers across the country rallied to his call. When he centered his efforts shortly afterwards in Sea Tac, Washington, that community became the country’s first $15 an hour minimum wage community. Soon enough Seattle followed, as did Los Angeles and San Francisco. Now the concept is under serious consideration in many states and cities across America.

We have all heard the arguments from the other side, about how raising minimum wage will put downward pressure on business and result in increasing job loss, but Hanaeur counters that it will lead to more jobs for the simple reason that workers will have more money and create demand for more products and services. He calls it “a positive feedback loop of prosperity.” Some supporting economists call it “middle-out economics.”

This odd notion that if poor people start doing better it’s bad for the economy is increasingly wearing thin, and the way that the next generation is taking to the message of Bernie Sanders on this point is likely a sign that the time for change in financial policy is now possible. “Trickle down” is slowly yielding to “middle-out.”

The fact that Hanaeur’s efforts are building increasing support from capitalists and economists means that the old divide between labour and business is slowly dissolving, leaving the field open for a new kind of economic policy based on the engine of average people with a bit of capital to spend. In a political season like no other that America has witnessed, “middle-out” just might stand a chance.

Working Without Meaning

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INCREASINGLY AT THE LONDON FOOD BANK WE ARE encountering those recently without work or holding down one or two minimum wage jobs as they seek to make ends meet for their families. It’s an endlessly disillusioning process – one showing no sign of abatement.

But this is the new world, the new economy, the new reality of employment. Millions are facing it, and despite training and education they are witnessing that link between work and wealth disappear in real-time and with real fallout. We see what happens when democracy stumbles along through cycles of low voter turnout and the dysfunction that inevitably follows. Suddenly power migrates upward, with citizens cut off from it in ever-increasing ways. Well, it’s now like that with employment. Wealthy owners and shareholders move farther off into the world elite as workers watch them disappear over the horizon in an endlessly globalized world. Unless corrected, this de-linking will result in the ultimate separation between democracy and wealth.

Aristotle used to say that “pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” Well, not so much anymore. Surveys continue to point to the disillusionment and dissatisfaction experienced by workers as their direct association with wealth creation and production disappears.

As we proceed down this path, we are confronted with a developing world of ironies and opposites. Employability replaces employment. There are people without jobs and jobs without people. Part-time jobs are easily outnumbering full-time ones. Employment numbers go down as people giving up looking for work increases. A growing number of people are working with declining benefits, or none at all, as employment legislation comes under the gun. Rapidly disappearing are the pensions, occupation safety initiatives, employment insurance, and meaningful work environment so necessary to healthy productivity.

Futurists like Jeremy Rifkin talk about the likelihood of “a near workerless information society.” For all intents and purposes, he believes that employment reached its peak years ago and a steady decline is now sinking in.

Then we get those confusing declarations about how it isn’t government that creates jobs, but the free market. But with capitalism enjoying more freedoms that ever in history, we are left to wonder: where are the jobs if this declaration is true? The real answer, naturally enough, is that consumers provide the incentives for job creation. Yet what happens when consumers, or all those people on minimum wage or no wage at all, have little disposal income to utilize? If work is still the way people earn their livings, how can any future be productive if people can’t find the jobs required to sustain such a construct? If wealth can be increasingly generated by investing in more wealth, why would investors, or companies, show any real interests in making their profits in the historic fashion by hiring workers?

We’re in a bind and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the vital connection between work and meaning is imploding. Having a job used to mean holding status in a community. One provided for her or his family. Skills were important, and applying them with diligence was highly regarded.

Our political parties, and the great structure of bureaucracy around them, know all this to be true, but instead they talk about jobs as though everything is normal. Fair enough; we’ve been hearing that for decades. The real question, however, is how can they get all this new wealth and fragile employment in the same room? Or will they even try?

Can we envision a different kind of economy, where work among the elderly, education, those in need of mental health support, the sick, homeless, poor, in libraries and culture, those requiring work training, those in research, or in community and international development take on greater importance? Of course we can, but that would mean partnering with the wealth generators within capitalism to produce a healthy consumer context and better quality of life for everyone. We wait in vain for a political or a free market commitment to that kind of venture. But should it not happen, then both capitalism and democracy will continue on the parallel slide they are already experiencing, and nothing but an agitated and alarmed citizenship can save them.

On October 2, 2015, the London Poverty Research Centre at King’s University College, London, will hold a special economic conference where two economists – Mike Moffatt from the Ivey Business School and the Mowat Centre, and Armine Yalnizyan, from the Canadian Policy of Policy Alternatives – help us to consider the nature of modern employment and what must be done to put meaning back into it and into our communities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can Technology Save Us?

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SO MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN ON THIS SUBJECT for 30 years that it’s become something of a preoccupation for many. But let’s just answer the question directly: no, technology can’t save the world – at least not alone.

But there is potential, lots of it. Everything is in the process of being “connected” to everything else, people too. Almost 90% of the data in the world today has been created only in the past two years. In only five more years, 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet. The advances in DNA mapping and bioinformatics will turn humans into living data fields to be researched, monitored, and perhaps made healthier. Data in general will grow ten-fold in the next five years, to 44 trillion gigabytes.

And there’s an even deeper pool to draw from in the near future. Almost 99% of the data in the world today is what is termed “dark matter” – information that hasn’t been processed in a way that allows the knowledge and insights within that data to benefit us. That’s likely to change soon, however.

Just this bit of information alone would definitely lend credibility to the claim that technology has powerful potential to affect our future, just as it’s increasingly shaping our present. Yet the deeper we get into the digital domain the greater our challenges seem to become – advances in technology haven’t translated into mitigating climate change, reducing poverty, minimizing conflicts, or winning the battle for human rights.

Queen Noor of Jordan recently wrote about how this disconnect between technological advancement and our progress toward our highest aspirations will eventually stall civilization unless we link moral progress to the other advancements. She rightfully notes that technological progress without moral progress is merely an illusion of progress. She then lists a string of issues going on in our world where we seem unable to create change for the better.

“To go forward, to write a narrative of real and lasting progress, we must go back,” Noor says. She doesn’t mean turn back the clock, but to re-embrace the values we seem to have laid aside in our collective pursuit of wealth and comfort. “We must return to the roots of our common humanity and to the universal values that connect us to each other,” she adds. It’s an odd situation that just as the world is more connected digitally than it ever has been, we are in danger of growing too far apart from one another.

Marc Benioff echoes her sentiments. He’s the chairman and CEO of Salesforce and a pioneer in cloud computing. For all his accomplishments, he’s worried that, “Technology alone isn’t enough to improve the state of the world.” He understands that technology and public policy are two different things and that without proper progressive legislation all the digital advances won’t help us over our steepest obstacles. He singles out how governments have cut back drastically enough in research that we are falling behind in our efforts to solve our deepest woes. In both the United States and Canada, public funding for basic research and to universities  has dropped dramatically and we’ll pay the price for it at some point.

Benioff wonders how such advanced societies that develop and take advantage of the great strides in technology could possibly accept growing poverty at the same time, or how, given the clear damage caused by climate change, governments and citizens seem so enamoured by their technical devices to the detriment of the natural order. He’s a business leader who refuses to see the bottom line as his sole purpose. He writes like a pioneer in business with a broader awareness, as when he says,

“An environment in peril – oceans rising an average of 3.2 millimetres per year – is not good for business. Millions of people lacking in educational opportunity is not good for business. More than 200 million unemployed people worldwide is not good for business.”

Benioff’s solution? “Technology innovation, married with a more compassionate capitalism and civic engagement, has the potential to address these problems in the next decade and make the world a better place for us all.”

No, technology cannot save our world unless it is partnered with conscientious leadership and citizenship commitment. Thanks to modern technical advancements we have the tools; now all we need is the will to use them for the service of the human race and the planet.

The Explosion of Civil Society

 

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AS THE HOLDER OF THE HIGHEST POLITICAL OFFICE in the land, President Grover Cleveland gained due praise for his integrity, honesty, and a commitment for self-reliance. He struggled mightily against political corruption in an era where it was all too prevalent. He was liked across party lines. Yet his pro-business stance sustained a system where the free market found little to inhibit it. The increasing pressure to reform capitalism before it consumed the social wealth of the nation went largely ignored by Cleveland.  At one point he said, “The factory is the temple and the workers worship at the temple.”  The economy took a severe downturn by the end of his term.

The period just prior to the end of the 1800s also felt massive migrations from the country into the city as the manufacturing industry successfully shifted the nation’s economic system from agrarian to urban. Many became dislocated in the process and the cry was continually raised by millions for a more receptive federal government that put an emphasis on some kind of social/economic compact that would respect the importance of cities.

And then something remarkable happened. Between 1880 and 1910, a civil society movement grew out of the subtle rebellion that changed and humanized almost every level of American society. As the government grew remote and the free market became the dominant force, and explosion of some of the nation’s great civic institutions erupted that would eventually modify capitalism itself and prepare it for years of unprecedented growth and success. Founded in that period, they line up as a “Whos-Who” of citizen organizations:

  • Red Cross
  • YWCA
  • Boy Scouts
  • Urban League
  • Labour unions
  • Parent-teacher associations
  • Rotary Clubs
  • Legions
  • Knights of Columbus
  • Sierra Club

Soon enough municipal charters were developed by citizen groups that oversaw the supply of transportation, water, gas, and electricity. Christian organizations joined together to fight for equal rights for women, including the right to vote. Numerous groups joined forces to fight promote labour laws and to strive for an 8-hour workday.

There had been a social capital deficit in America created by great economic and technological change aided and abetted by a government that refused to consider the fallout of such dislocation. When the political powers refused to listen concerning the growth of poverty, the lack of equality, and the ignoring of communities, it was citizens and not their corporations or governments that pushed back. Great reformers like Jane Adams pressed for political action to alleviate the direct conditions that cities were facing.

The result of all these efforts was nothing less than transforming. Most understood the importance of capitalism and markets, just not at the expense of people and hope, and they worked to develop a more balanced system between the free market and the freedom of opportunity for citizens. They worked with government over three decades rather than abandoning it. And from those efforts came the Federal Reserve Bank, regulation of food and drugs, the establishment of the Department of Labour, the creation of the U.S. Forest Service, and the preservation of more than 170 million acres of land through a vast network of national parks.

Virtually all of the groups mentioned above sought for balance, not dominance, and their efforts were ultimately rewarded a short while later in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Capitalism, reminded of its responsibility to the communities in which it functioned, nevertheless was unleashed in ways unimaginable three decades earlier, rewarding citizens with decades of unprecedented wealth.  And civil society, rooted as it was in local communities, brought citizenship to entirely new levels.

Canada followed a similar, though not as diversified, course, but the results were equally remarkable. The free market generated wealth and employment, and civil society produced people of value, industriousness, education, health, and responsibility. It was the beginning of the remarkable age that unleashed the creativity and dedication of citizens and businesses.

The parallels with our own times hardly need to be raised at this point. We are a people struggling with how to bring that balance of economy and humanity back into alignment. And it leads us to wonder whether we can do it again, whether we can pull ourselves out of our disillusionment with all the prevalent powers that march to a drummer not our own?

Andy Warhol observed that people, “Always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” Perhaps it’s time we put that to the test – again.

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