The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: economy

Why Can’t Canada Feed Itself?

the war against hunger is truly

NOT EVERY PERSON IS HUNGRY, BUT MOST hungry people are poor. There’s no way around it; a person with too little nutrients finds life an ever-greater challenge. “We have to eat to live,” said Marty Rubin, “and that’s our timeless tale of tragedy.” In the modern West, this is becoming increasingly so.

Speaking to Global News a short while ago, Priscilla from Saskatoon put out the stark choices that consistently drive some to hunger: “If I attempt to eat healthy, bills wouldn’t get paid. And most of the time I’m balancing what’s more important – a roof over our heads or the ability to eat healthy – or even eat three meals a day.”

How can it be that one of the richest nations on earth, and that exports vast quantities of food overseas, ends up in a place where an increasing amount of families can either afford a place to live or healthy food, but not both?

Food bank use across the country never relented, even a number of years after the Great Recession supposedly ended. But there is one subtle though critical development: a larger number of food bank clients are working, many are highly educated. Yet at the end of the day, this still can’t afford to effectively feed their families without cutting other important aspects of living.

According to recent studies, four millions Canadians are living in some form of food insecurity. That’s a lot, and it continues to climb even though job numbers have increased marginally. Historically, Canada has rounded off the rough edges of poverty and hunger through a national form of social safety net, but that net now has huge holes in it, leaving entire families to drop out of security and into poverty.

A compelling recent study by a McMaster University professor, Atif Kubursi, concluded that Ontario’s local food supply would create thousands of more jobs in the province, including some seven thousand in Hamilton, Ontario alone. At the same time it would be better for the environment and allow citizens healthier choices.

One troubling finding of the report, titled Dollars and Sense: Opportunity to Strengthen Ontario’s Food System, is that Ontario actually doesn’t produce enough food to feed itself, though it would easily have the potential to do so.

In a strange twist of globalization fate, Ontario residents prefer the look of imported fresh produce from the Florida area over home grown foodstuffs. And yet Florida residents prefer Ontario’s produce. Go figure. Understandably, consumers have become highly selective in what they want to eat, but that doesn’t mean they are highly educated as to the choices. Ontario fresh produce is every bit as nutritious as Florida’s, but most don’t know that.

Another finding in the study is that, although Ontario imports $20 billion worth of food products each year, over half of that amount could be grown in the province directly if there was just the will to put it together. At the moment, Ontario imports twice what it exports.

Kobursi’s conclusion of all this was revealing: “Ontario is missing regional economic development opportunities to enhance and support the production and distribution of local food.” We all sense this to be true. The Canadian healthy living guidelines on food have been well researched, and if we were to eat according to those recommendations, consumer demand would drive change throughout the province’s entire food industry, creating more employment opportunities in the process. That says something in an industry that already employs over 767,000 people in the province. That’s 11% of our jobs.

What is true in Ontario is frequently mirrored across the country. Somehow we have permitted a vital industry to largely bypass the hungriest of Canadians. And maybe that’s the problem. As singer and celebrity Bono put it: “If you want to eliminate hunger, everybody has to be involved.” At present we have the knowledge and the research to teach us how to reform and revitalize our food systems so that can Canada could feed its own as well as the world, creating prosperity in the process. We need to find that formula and it will have to be consumers that drive it forward because governments, at least at present, show little inclination to tackle poverty in any serious fashion.

Social justice in any nation is vital to its future credibility, but if low-income Canadians only have enough food to last them for a few days, all those aspects of social justice, from housing to health, from employment to equality, have to take a back seat while hunger itself devours their hope and opportunities in just a few days. No nation can survive intact that permits a growing number of citizens to remain in poverty even as the economy supposedly improves.

When the Past Can’t Escape the Present

wet maple leaf copy

TODAY THE LONDON FOOD BANK LAUNCHES its 29th Spring Food Drive amid growing doubts concerning this country’s resolve to take poverty, and those mired within it, seriously. Dr. Jason Gilliland, professor from Western University will report at the press conference that poverty and hunger have now become entrenched, not only in our city, but in numerous communities across the country.

This is a difficult spot to arrive at for Canadians, for it effectively moves poverty from being a serious issue to tackle to a permanent class of individuals and families. Effectively, we appear to be coming to an end of what American author E. J. Dionne Jr. calls “the Long Consensus” –  an era where governments from all jurisdictions legally came together to join their forces to battle numerous challenges, including poverty.

In Canada, we call it federalism, which had its foundations established at the Quebec Conference in 1864. It became the basic legal and jurisdictional framework through which the federal government, provinces, territories, and communities interacted and shared resources with one another to face the challenges of such a large nation. Up until the last three decades its strengths were far greater than its weaknesses, resulting in Canada becoming a beacon to the world for the exquisite balance it achieved between social justice and the economy.

Recent years have witnessed the slow dissolution of these partnerships to where we have now reached the point where we are forced to admit that the great nation of Canada can no longer afford to end poverty.

The conditions of federalism were a promissory note to every Canadian. This note was a vow that every man, woman, and child in Canada would be guaranteed the attention of all three levels of government in regards to their welfare and potential. But instead of honoring that obligation, we have been given instead a bad cheque marked “insufficient funds.” This has transcended political ideologies and, because of that reality, every government has failed in the past 30 years to one degree or another.

Author Richard Hofstadtr observed that, “memory is the thread of personal identity, history of public identity.” If that’s the case, then Canada’s rich history is slowly disappearing through a kind of collective dementia. What we built together we are now watching being undone.

Yet all this is transpiring when the wealth generated in Canada has risen remarkably in that same period of time, thanks in part to new information technologies and global reach that now means most of the profits from that growth have gone to a small percentage at the top of income distribution. The result has been financial inequality that has reached troubling levels. It begs a fair question: Why have we – governments, bureaucrats, citizens, media – been unwilling or unable to halt the growth of inequality or to use an increasing amount of that generated wealth for the common good?

The growth of the global economy no longer means opportunity, but “downsizing,” re-engineered jobs. Yet through all this there has been little public protest about the changing power structures of the economic architecture.

The failure of the governors and the governed to protect the responsibilities of federalism, instead leaving us to the fluctuations of the markets, has mean that instead of “opportunity” we have “austerity,” and a re-engineered workplace that functions ultimately for the benefit of those already with great wealth.

Instead of watching over the precarious nature of Canadian federalism, a tendency has grown over many years that caused the power and financial elite to forego at least a measure of their civic consciousness, their sense of ethical obligation to society at large, in pursuit of their own ambitions. For many within this privileged cohort it has gone a step farther with the emergence of predatory attitude towards the rest of society.

This has had a troubling effect on the Canadian dream, especially on those of low-income who can no longer find a way ahead. Those coming to food banks express an increasing concern over what appears to be the withdrawal of institutional support, both public and private. They are experiencing something of a crisis of civic membership, a troubling belief that while the public remains generous in food donations, there is a growing sense that they are being pushed out of the mainstream – a kind of redundancy that leaves them with a sense of hopelessness. They feel that their struggles for individual survival are slowly replacing the sense of social solidarity this country once enjoyed. If the poor are losing hope, can the middle-class be far behind, especially if the current financial trend towards inequality deepens? And just to be clear, the volunteer charitable sector in no way can pick up the slack left when government retreated from the public space in the past three decades.

We had never imagined that the global economy, nor the stock market, nor the profit margin could determine our institutional choices unless we were first consulted as a people and permitted to choose. Politics essentially fooled us, parading federalism’s historic social compact, all the while acquiescing to setting the stage for the new financial order.

We once had a rich Canadian history of a federalism that helped Canada become one of the most humane nations on earth, but that national history now can’t be separated from a financial present run amok. Our national agreements have themselves become unequal and ineffective in the process. Our history is trapped in our present injustice, and the poor are the first to sense it.

Devouring Social Capital

topple-capitalism

WHEN CANADIAN MARK CARNEY LEFT his post as the head of the Bank of Canada to take on the prestigious role as the Bank of England’s governor, it was like he was jumping from the frying pan into the fire. That was almost 18 months ago and times have been turbulent for the world economy, including Britain’s. He was deemed a typical mild-mannered Canadian who would bring a sense of stability. So when he was asked to speak at England’s prestigious Guild Hall to the country’s elites no one was expecting anything out of the ordinary.. They should have been better prepared.

He surprised everyone when he launched into his view of how capitalism itself is at risk. “Just as any revolution eats its children, unchecked market fundamentalism can devour the social capital for the long-term dynamism of capitalism itself,” he offered at the beginning of his speech, to which the room grew deathly quiet.

Carney talked about how the affluent nations had subtly morphed from being market economies to market societies and how that fundamentally changed everything. He said he worried about the “mistrust” that was clearly growing between citizens and the global financial order..

Then he went on to describe how investment needs to change if capitalism is to save itself. “Prosperity requires not just investment in economic capital, but investment in social capital.” In case people wondered about what he meant by “social” capital, he defined it as, “the links, shared values and beliefs in a society which encourage individuals not only to take responsibility for themselves and their families but also to trust each other and work collaboratively to support each other.” The eerie silence in the room continued..

Carney reminded his audience that six years after the economic crisis, the core problem remained, with little desire among the financial elites to remedy it. And the longer they took to address it, the more populists movements were growing, both in developing and developed nations, and they were getting increasingly angry. What else should we expect, he argued, “when bankers make enormous sums, while taxpayers pick up the tag for their failures.”

And then he gave his prescriptions to remedy the ailment. 1) recreate fair and effective markets with real transparency and make every effort, through codes of conduct and regulatory obligations, to instill “a new integrity;” 2) curtail compensation offering large bonuses for short-term returns; 3) end the kind of investment that overvalues the present and the discounting of the future; 4) above all, understand that “the answers start from recognizing that financial capitalism is not an end in itself, but a means to promote investment, innovation, growth and prosperity for all.

Governor Carney closed by reminding those listening that human beings matter. He found it ironic that in an age that has seen poverty getting better in the developing world there has also been a spread of new poverty in the affluent nations. He concluded with the belief that it is the loss at all levels of community, of social capital, that most threatens the world, and capitalism itself.

Then the mild-mannered Canadian sat down following prophetic utterances that not only showed his human grasp of capitalism, but served as a warning that if economies are all about money and not people, then there is no way out of our present financial mess.

Two-Fold Shame

454923495_statue_of_liberty_crying315_xlarge

IT CAUGHT A LARGE NUMBER OF AMERICANS off-guard, but there it was, on record, and an abrupt turnaround from a few years earlier.

Although Mitt Romney dropped out of the race to be the Republican presidential nominee last week, he had nevertheless raised eyebrows when claiming that his interest in entering the contest was based on a deep desire to address poverty and income inequality. A subject that barely reached the surface in his last presidential run against Obama, the plight of the marginalized was now front and centre. Moreover, he announced his concern for another group as well.

“It’s a tragedy, a human tragedy, that the middle class in this country by and large doesn’t believe that the future will be better than the past. We haven’t seen rising incomes over decades. The rich have gotten richer, income equality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty than ever before under this president.”

And there it is – “this president.” This wasn’t really about poverty, but about using a popular belief – poverty and the stagnation of the middle class – in order to leverage some political advantage over the Democrats – the Democrats have used similar tactics. It has become a convenient Republican ploy to gain back the White House. Their favourite candidate of the moment, Jeb Bush (George W.’s brother), has recently concluded that, “while the last eight years have been pretty good ones for top-earners, they’ve been a lost decade for the rest of America.” Add to the list of those leading Republicans making such pronouncements Rick Santorum and Rand Paul and it becomes clear that the party will attempt to steal a page from the Democratic messaging and seek to become champions for the poor and middle class.

It must be, in part, because so much has changed since the last campaign. It has now become clear that the majority of Americans have endorsed the income inequality argument and Republicans will seek to tap into it. But what about just three years ago when Romney declared, “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there?” Or when he flipped that statement and said, “I am not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine?”

There are many other such declarations from not all that long ago, but it was Romney’s support of the Paul Ryan budget that would bring about draconian cuts to the poor that truly revealed his hand.

Perhaps Mitt Romney has gone through some kind of genuine conversion, but the coincidence of this occurring just as the Republican nominee race is heating up is too important to ignore. It could be that we have arrived at a point in time whereby poverty is being acknowledged by political parties at the same time as they refuse to land on solid policies that would eradicate it.

This is especially true when talking about the eroding middle class. The three main political parties in Canada have now latched on to it as a growing theme for the upcoming national election, but the proof of the seriousness of those beliefs will only emerge if the political establishments are prepared to confront the runaway wealth of Canada’s elite and if they are dedicated to working with the larger companies to invest more in Canadians communities and the workers themselves.

The will to tackle poverty and economic inequality has been a struggle for every generation to undertake. Will we do it this time? It is when riches themselves come under suspicion that the opportunity exists to work back to some kind of balance. It is as Confucius noted, “In a country well-governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”  We are now confronting both at the same time.

 

 

 

 

 

Innovation Agents

 

335

ONE OF THE GREAT CRITICISMS THAT HAS that always confronted the World Economic Summit in Davos each and every year is that its pronouncements sounds so grandiose and global when in fact little, if anything, concrete seems to come from all that talk and collaboration. We need evidence, the kind that is supposed to emerge when connected minds and collaborative intelligence get together and map out a way forward. Proof of what is possible is far more important to the billions in this world than mere projections of what could be.

In numerous and provocative dimensions this is what billionaire and elite rebel Nick Hanauer has been prodding his peers to do: get real. Yet he understands that financial reform will prove impossible without political renewal. As long as the political spectrum remains as rigid and ideologically fixed as it has shown in recent decades, any sense of change in world finance won’t find a willing partner in transformation politics.

Hanauer points out that many of the greatest democratic movements occurred far away from the apex of power, in regional areas where citizens successfully mobilized on issues ranging from pensions to affordable health care. Often the reason is not merely due to the dynamic resources of those pressing for change, but the demoralizing inflexibility coming from party central – all parties.

“The politicians just don’t get it, and haven’t for years,” he observes. “The Right screams for growth and the Left keeps calling for fairness – and they both just keep losing legitimacy.”

It’s really not in the nature of government to innovate, except on rare occasions. Governments have historically been viewed as providing stability, maintaining the status quo, but that has become precisely the problem in the modern era. Political parties remain entrenched, making renewal all but impossible. In such a setting, how will they take risks, thinking radically outside the box, or even take the lead from outside forces. It’s true that governments around the world became far too easily influenced by free market ideologies, but that has now left both politics and capitalism as appearing unable to solve our greatest problems. While political leaders in places like Davos acknowledge that financial inequality has become one of our greatest challenges, they see no desire for change from the financial order and so remain mired in their redundancy. The status quo no longer works because far too many people are being left out of the wealth being generated.

Not even a year ago, the Coordination of National Digital Strategy of Mexico launched a program called “Innovation Agent.” They invited leaders from within both government and capitalism and asked them to think of the great global challenges in the way average people would see them. Over the course of time the organizers easily spotted the true innovators from both sectors and were amazed at how they worked together to formulate solutions.

Yet the success of the exercise wasn’t so much predicated upon the ability of the participants to start thinking like average people as it was the freedom the innovators felt once removed from the stifling orthodoxies and ideologies of both politics and business. The business innovators showed remarkable dexterity, not only in admitting corporate failures but of the need for governments to take on a more equitable leadership role. And the politicians? Once they were freed from partisan constraints, they were far more effective in designing collaborate solutions that showed promise.

Participants in the exercise acknowledged that in order to build governments and businesses that truly apply themselves to the challenges before the world they must get out of being isolated from citizens in general. Innovation didn’t come for the participants until they were willing to entertain the possibility of destroying the old paradigms and partisan leanings.

To succeed in reforming both politics and business we must find some way to get them outside of their comfortable confines and into communities where the greatest kinds of innovations play out. The governing and corporate sectors have come to be exclusively defined by three general terms – size, money, and power. Until they both work together to change that perception, it will only be a matter of time, as Hanauer repeatedly claims, until everything collapses due to irrelevance.

%d bloggers like this: