The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: poverty

Would Martin Luther King Jr. Have Supported the TPP?

 

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JUSTIN TRUDEAU WAS IN DAVOS, SWITZERLAND, at the World Economic Forum yesterday reminding the world’s elite that Canada was a great place in which to invest. That’s exactly what prime ministers are supposed to be doing. The key issue however is how to invest.

Our new Prime Minister has an important decision to make regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal involving 12 countries. Many have warned that this isn’t about trade at all but about the growing ability of corporate business interests to affect domestic policy. The rather stark opposition to the deal from a litany of civil society groups, economists like Jeffrey Sachs, Joseph Stiglitz, and the founder of Research in Motion, Jim Balsillie – all normally strong promoters of globalization, has been noted. Even the United Nations has come out in opposition, claiming that the deal favours global capital instead of strengthening democracy by removing decision-making away from the average voter. Trudeau’s promise to leverage an increased voice for civil society seems, on the surface at least, to be violated by the TPP deal.

The focus of this week’s blog posts have been on the abiding influence of Martin Luther King Jr. and how he approached vital files like poverty and civil rights. What would he counsel regarding the TPP if he were still present among us. We can’t propose to know the direct answer, but he would provide us some criteria regarding such a major decision. And he would ask questions, serious ones.

He would surely remind us that the rash of trade deals in the last three decades have coincided with the growth of poverty in affluent nations, the lowering of labour standards, a threatening toll on the environment, and a burgeoning disillusionment with government and democracy. He would then challenge us to question if these things were related. The leaders in Davos will hear of the newest research from Oxfam showing that “income and wealth are being sucked up among the elite at a fantastic rate.” The same study will inform them that a mere 62 people have $1.76 trillion (US), or more than half of the world’s population.

These aren’t easy questions, but must be asked, and King would ask them directly. It isn’t just that with fabulous amounts of wealth being created that most of the planet gets little of it in proportion to the wealthy. King would look at this development through the lens of social justice and not mere economics. He would challenge us to do the same. And he would wonder why the world’s governing leaders would continue signing deals that move us down that perilous road. Better yet, he would ask if such deals could effectively be adjusted to solve these problems.

I suspect he would hang his head in disillusionment, sensing that his great dream of equality would have to once again be deferred. He would be aware that most of the political leaders would have quoted him at one point or another during their respective tenures, but that they quietly refused to bring about the changes necessary for the dream to be realized. He would put it in the terms he used during his message at New York’s Riverside Church (April 4, 1967):

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people among our decision makers, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Today he would, with justification, add climate change, poverty, democratic decline, and the failure to build gender equality to the list.

Those who maintain that deals like the TPP are ultimately good for us must tell us why past such deals have been unsuccessful in solving these problems. Furthermore, they will have to wonder if such arrangements haven’t actually had a hand in causing them in the first place.

It is always a dangerous thing to suggest what a historical figure would say in the modern era, and I don’t wish to imply whether King would say yes or no. But he would ask the questions and he would wonder if all these economic dealings that benefit a few over the many are arcing our world towards justice or away from it.

Ultimately King was a moral voice and it is that voice that is missing in the halls of both finance and parliaments today. His ethical strains cut through the fog of distortion and spoke truth to the establishment. To his credit, Justin Trudeau claimed such a voice when he brought gender equality to the federal cabinet and when he claimed a new day for the Indigenous people of Canada. These were moral victories, not mere political expediency. Now he must sit down and answer these questions that King would have asked and decide whether to side with civil society and citizens or with the elite money gatherers. No trade deal in the world brings about justice; only acts of conscience are capable of it. And if politics today is to be successful, and democracy itself to be saved, it is time for the latter.

50 Years Ago, Martin Luther King Jr. Said We Had the Resources to End Poverty. What Happened?

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ALL THIS WEEK WE’LL BE LOOKING at the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and if it still has a prevailing effect on the modern era. He had certain core principles he stuck to, elaborated upon, and ultimately died for. We respect him. We quote him. Some even venerate him. But in so many ways we have refused to walk the path he led.

The day following his receiving of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King delivered his famous Nobel Lecture titled, “The Quest for Peace.” His reasonings didn’t go in the direction people anticipated. He wondered how we can really have peace, or even maintain it, if we continue to leave large swaths of our populations in poverty. Then he delivered a stark admission:

“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.”

He was greeted with a huge round of applause on that occasion over 50 years ago, but we must ask ourselves: what happened? How, after the explosion of the global economy, the movement of so many nations towards democracy, and an era of relative peace among nations, can it be that the needle has moved so little on the poverty file? Recent estimates claim that 30% of the world continues to live in poverty and that, in the affluent nations, people suffering in low-income situations are actually on the increase.

The biggest problems faced by the world’s poor are actually lack of the most basic things required for survival – clean water, food, health, shelter, safety, social inclusion, and the opportunity to participate in their own solutions. And yet, for all the wealth presently generated in this world, we can’t deliver on these most fundamental of resources.

If King was right and we had the resources a half-century ago, what do we say now that the world is flushed with cash that accrues increasingly to a small minority? It’s truer now than in his time that the resources are there, and yet we haven’t progressed as a civilization to the point where we can solve the most basic and durable of human problems.

A month prior to his tragic end, King busied himself with planning the “Poor People’s Campaign” – an effort that was predicated upon the belief that civil rights can never be achieved and guaranteed as long as people, especially the vulnerable, don’t have the means to live peacefully and productively. King seemed especially concerned about those living in hunger. Since then we have had the proliferation of food banks, monumental starvation in developing nations, billions of dollars of good food thrown into garbage dumps, and child poverty at stubbornly high levels. What are we thinking? How do we justify it? If King couldn’t do so in his generation, surely we can’t in our own.

Franklin Roosevelt noted during the Great Depression that, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” In all honesty, we have failed that test – which then puts the lie to our belief in inevitable progress.

Martin Luther King Jr. would surely have agreed with Roosevelt’s observation, as he would with that of author John Green: “There is no Them. There are only facets of Us.”

It’s time to stop quoting King and start moving forward on the ethical foundations of what he fought for. Our greatest regret as a generation might be the understanding that in failing to take the road not taken that King offered us, we will never discover the fullness of life that might have been ours if we had learned to share the wealth. Fifty years on and little has changed. Time for a civilization reset.

A Manger’s Long Shadow

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HE APPROACHED US LAST FRIDAY morning during the Day of Giving that Bell Media was running for the London Food Bank. The downtown market was busy but somehow he seemed familiar. He dropped his three bags of groceries into the waiting bin, stopped for a moment, and said quietly to me, “Thanks for all you’re doing for folks. I’ve had to use the food bank during some of the worst moments of my life and I just felt I had to give back.” I asked him for his phone number so we could talk later and then he was off.

When we finally connected later in the day, he told me of how his parents had been killed in a car accident when he was a teen and how he had only known poverty since. He had fallen into substance abuse for a time, even suffering bouts of homelessness, but had pulled himself out of that state, taking on odd part-time work. His fiancée died of an embolism two months previous and he was in a funk. Then he heard of the food drive on the radio and began making his way to the market. He was no longer one of winter’s outcasts, but an abundant giver of groceries out of the little money he had. I hung up the phone, emotional and humbled by his durability and outlook.

For anyone willing to consider the longer arc of that original Christmas narrative, something similar appears. We know that the night in the manger was probably the last of the young family’s peaceful days for some time. Almost overnight they became refugees. On the threat of death they quickly travelled cross-border into Egypt in search of security.

This much we are aware of, but we frequently overlook the words of that child when he got older. Looking out over the beleaguered age and a fearful people, Jesus said, “Do what you can for the least of these.” But then he put his words in context to those days following his birth.

“For I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me water. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you provided them.”

He was recalling his refugee days, those moments where only through the help of others could his family survive and he now wanted to give back. He was reminding us that we need to go deeper in order to reach higher – deeper into those moments in our lives where we learned from our parents, a teacher, a lover, a friend, a faith, a circumstance, or a workmate, the value of giving.

In knowing loneliness we have learned to be better companions. In feeling outcast, we have become more welcoming. In failing we have become more understanding of the weaknesses of others. In moments of emotional trauma we have learned to triage our own resources in order to help others heal. We learned all this, not at the knee of Santa, but at the feet of humanity and we are better for it.

We understand that in a world where violence begets violence and destruction follows destruction, something new needs to arise. We are reaching a threshold. Only a great sense of purpose can overcome our fears and change our divided world. We know from experience that without passion nothing happens, but we are witnessing in our own time that without true compassion, the wrong thing happens. In places around the world it is passionate people who are killing for their cause and the more of them there are, the more troubled we become. Only when compassion itself governs our choices can we hope to heal our world.

And that is the moral of this story: let’s be kind and welcoming this holiday season because we have had such privileges afforded to us in the our past. Like the man donating at the market, we have all been shown kindness by others and it is ever our turn to act in similar fashion. The Christmas story continued in the life of Jesus because his manger still cast a long shadow over him. He had been hungry, hunted, and hated but in the most crucial of moments the kindness of strangers turned him into a giving being. Now it’s our turn this Christmas season. It’s not a question of acting different, but of being who we are in our best moments, and we have plenty of those to give.

Merry Christmas, and the most meaningful of holiday seasons to you all.

 

 

Basic Income: Go Deep or Go Home

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AN INITIATIVE AS VAST AS A BASIC INCOME for poorer Canadians, sweeping as it is, can carry its own dangers. Specifically, it could prompt an over simplified view of poverty, prompting many to believe that solutions can be found through a universal program. It’s a hazard that deserves some thought.

Many Canadians view poverty as merely an economic problem – the lack of adequate finances available to a specific number of citizens and their families. We make similar judgments on issues like foreign aid and indigenous problems in Canada. But poverty is often more about societal barriers and a lack of understanding than anything else.

Someone who has a disability and is low on finances doesn’t have their mobility and acceptance problems solved by an increase in cash. A veteran struggling to survive economically and struggling with PTSD still faces almost insurmountable problems even with a healthier bank balance. A new Canadian facing language and cultural challenges will still have difficulty locating meaningful employment regardless of income. A single mother, forced to choose between childcare, caring for aging parents, and job retraining won’t find a universal answer in a Basic Income – her problems are really ones of time and human resources.

This list could go on and on. Yes, a Basic Income would ease some of the economic strain, but it doesn’t answer the problems of poor physical access in buildings for those struggling with physical challenges, unaffordable university tuition, the devastating water defilement in many First Nations communities, the unwillingness of employers to take a chance on a new Canadian, or the unjustifiable difference in wage between what a woman makes in comparison to a male counterpart.

None of these difficulties will be overcome by guaranteeing a person on the margins a certain annual income. Basic Income would never be effective against poverty unless supports are supplied over and above economic security. The tendency of oversimplifying poverty runs the danger of governments and citizens alike washing their hands of responsibility once some kind of magical formula is implemented on a national or provincial scale.

“In a perfect world,” Neal Shusterman writes in his book Unwind, “everything would be either black or white, right or wrong, and everyone would know the difference. But this isn’t a perfect world. The problem is people who think it is.”

More insightful yet is Benjamin Walker’s observation:

“People are still people, and they make their decisions based on their life experiences and their beliefs. You really can’t divorce people from their daily lives. It’s important to fight against stereotypes and oversimplifications in people who are always complex.”

When Free Trade was implemented a few decades ago, workers were promised that structural support programs would be provided, assisting with enhanced work retraining and transition into a new work environment. Hardly any of that happened and worker dislocation and unemployment have never recovered from the dislocation. A vast economic plan failed because of a lack of follow-up, a negligence of the complexities of such an initiative of universal scope.

Those promoting a Basic Income would do well to remember that the implementation of just such an initiative could be giving both governments and society itself a “get out of jail free” card. Poverty is all of our responsibility. Cutting a cheque and getting on with our daily private concerns is often how charity is practiced. True anti-poverty efforts are ultimately about social justice, not good intentions, about aligning society with the rigors of equity and not merely the free-flowing structure of capitalism or traditional politics.

The promotion of a Basic Income initiative must be accompanied by a thorough understanding that poverty itself is a complex as the people and families struggling beneath its load. To deny that complexity in favour of a simplistic solution will not only result in sloppy policy, but the presence of an entrenched poverty at the same time as society believes it has solved the problem.

Basic Income and Transforming a Generation

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THE CONCEPT OF A BASIC INCOME ISN’T ONE simple construct but a wide range of ideas of which all or some could end up in a final policy proposal. Even its name isn’t a sure thing. In recent years it has been labeled a Guaranteed Annual Income, a Guaranteed Income Supplement, Basic Income Guarantee, a Social Wage, or even a Citizen’s Dividend.

While many have fought for such an initiative for various reasons, it has been primarily its potential for eliminating poverty that has become the focus for recent Basic Income activity. The ability to provide low-income Canadians with a guaranteed level of funding, proponents say, would eliminate the need for the heavy programming and bureaucratic expenses related to administering initiatives to help the needy. Some maintain that the sheer savings on programming alone would be sufficient to get Canadians out of poverty. There is much debate on this at present, but the possibility of lifting so many Canadians to a secure economic level through one comprehensive initiative has proved remarkably appealing.

Proponents from the Left say it will eradicate poverty; those from the Right maintain it will save governments money. Yet the potential of a Basic Income is intriguing in other ways perhaps far more compelling. Since Canada’s founding a woman’s economic status has been directly linked to that of her father or her spouse. As philosopher Carole Pateman writes: “A basic income would, for the first time, provide women with modest life-long independence and security.” For new Canadians the possibilities of starting from a secure economic base would provide them great potential for settling in a community, accessing educational opportunities, and provide them some status.

Experimentation with Basic Income initiatives have been going on around the world in places like Germany, Brazil, France, Britain, and even Mexico and Columbia. And it’s happening in all the places for the same reason that it’s gaining traction in Canada: poverty is systemic, growing, and won’t go away. In tomorrow’s post we’ll deal with the negative implications of what it all means, but for the present support for a Basic Income is compelling. Outside of changing the entire financial order, transforming the flow of funds between political jurisdictions, or permitting Canadians cities and communities to have more powers of taxation, it would be challenging to find another initiative so all-encompassing and comprehensive as a Basic Income initiative.

By way of possibilities, consider what took place in the appointing of the new federal cabinet yesterday in Ottawa. Advocates have been saying for decades that we should be reaching gender equality by now in our politics, but the sheer dominance of the male-dominated political order was content to eke its way towards such a target over the course of many years. Justin Trudeau’s appointment of a 50-50 cabinet showed just how inured we had become to political and gender renewal. In a welcome instant he turned the possibilities of politics on its head.

As we tinker increasingly with inter-generational poverty, what is to keep us from alleviating it in one broad sweep of creativity, legislation, and civil society support? Nothing, except our own lack of resolve and the paltriness of our expectations. Trudeau’s cabinet selection reminds us that history is of little use to us if can’t transcend its barriers to find a better place. Crippling poverty can be vanquished but only if we resolve within ourselves to finally do it. In such a setting, the Basic Income might be the way forward.

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