The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: poverty

A Tale of Two City Mayors

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IN ALL THE RUSH AND EXCITEMENT ABOUT THE recent federal election and the ambitious agenda put forward by Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau, we tend to forget that there are already numerous examples of sweeping, at times breathtaking, agendas being put forward by some of this country’s mayors.

Naheed Nenshi (Calgary) and Don Iveson (Edmonton), have not only had enough of being neglected by the more senior political jurisdictions, they are actually setting out strong policy options whether or not Alberta or Ottawa are ready for them. Having already insisted that they would like to open discussions with their senior partners on the prospect of becoming charter cities, they are now experimenting with the idea of their respective cities becoming testing grounds for the concept of a basic income.

We’ll explore this concept in greater detail in our next post, but in its simplest form a basic income means giving every citizen a certain amount of funds to cover the various challenges they encounter in life. For years it had been broached and introduced as an innovative means whereby people of low-income can be elevated to a more secure economic level within Canadian society.

This is an idea that has been around for decades and has supporters from all sides of the political spectrum. And though it has slowly progressed in awareness, the point of this post is that two key mayors are taking on the political establishment in support of this idea, not for ideological reasons, but because they are attempting to bring relief to their marginalized citizens when the prevailing system doesn’t work – just what mayors are supposed to do.

Nenshi is just doing his job, but he is accomplishing it with daring. Speaking at the National Poverty Reduction Summit in Ottawa in May, he called for a “brave step” in fighting poverty by supporting the basic income. It is for this kind of leadership that Nenshi was awarded the World Mayor prize in 2014 – not just because he is smart and innovative, but because he displays courage in tackling the status quo.

He has found an equally audacious counterpart in the province’s capital a few miles north. Edmonton’s Don Iveson hit the ground running on the poverty file from the moment he became mayor in 2013, not just ceding responsibility for new solutions to others, but by leading the charge himself. Saying he wanted to greatly reduce the city’s poverty in one generation, he immediately began bridge building with the city’s business community and with other interested partners. “We have to think inter-generationally,” he says, “to get it right for the future, not just for the politically expedient short-term.” Then his boldness came to the fore in a few words: “I’d rather do the right thing and lose the next election than do the wrong thing and win.”

These are interested days in the fabric of Canadian life, a time where poverty is becoming increasingly worrisome for Canadians. Yet the file is so complex that it’s difficult to know how to begin reducing it. Just having the will to change is not enough in this case; there must be leadership of the kind that forays out into all political, corporate, and civil society jurisdictions and calls everyone to begin walking into the future together rather than as mere disparate parts. Good will is a terrific beginning, but fair-minded determination inspired by bold leaders of spirit is what it will take if we are to succeed. Two mayors have opted to lead instead of delegate or bemoan the lack of attentiveness from senior political jurisdictions. In seeing their respective cities worthy of their very best, they are in the process of becoming exemplary leaders themselves.

If You Want to Fix Poverty, Fix the Economy

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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.

 

 

The Long Road From Charity to Justice

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MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. HAD EXACTLY one year left before an assassin’s bullet struck him down and traumatized a nation. He had spent recent months attempting to break through the “indifference barrier” by drawing a direct link between racism to poverty. It wasn’t enough, he would maintain, to seek equal rights for black Americans if they remained mired in poverty. And so on this particular night, April 4, 1967, at New York City’s Riverside Church, he laid it out as he had seen and experienced it:

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

And there it was. He was calling on the nation to give more to charity, but to also change its structure so that human justice and not mere charity became the ultimate motivator and goal. He assumed most knew the story of the Good Samaritan, of how a man is beaten and robbed, left by the road side, and of how a compassionate Samaritan helped him. He praised such actions, seeing them as a great aspect of the American character. Yet he reminded his generation that true compassion is attacking the forces and systems that leave others in need in the first place.

As King saw it, to those living on the margins of our communities, acts of charity and compassion should be our very first response to meet the need. But then there is the next stage. What caused it? Who is responsible? How can we change things at their source so that acts of charity are not as required as those were we help those who begin to find their footing?

Reflecting on King’s words years later, Nelson Mandela concurred: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.” And as the south African leader knew, the prevailing system of his time would itself have to be changed if justice was to be achieved. He knew, as we all know deep within us, that if an economic and social system leaves huge fallout, then the very best of charitable generosity will never be enough. Will donating to a food bank alleviate hunger pangs? Absolutely. But it can never eradicate hunger itself. For that there must change at deeper levels.

Richard Nixon had a different point of view at that time, maintaining that the best method for eliminating poverty was to “enlist the greatest engine of progress ever developed – private enterprise.” In other words, Nixon was looking for millions of more Good Samaritans.

In a very real sense, the former president got his wish but not his desired outcome. The corporate structure that has taken over our public policy machinery has recruited a plentitude of corporate largesse for those at risk, offering funding, expertise, services, and leadership. But after almost half a century of this, where has it gotten us? Poverty, hunger, homelessness, mental health and addictions – all these have grown, not diminished under Nixon’s structure.  They have had their opportunity; it has not worked.

The time has seriously come to ask ourselves, individual and collectively, “Will we just let everybody worry about themselves and rely on charitable donations of time and money to get by? Is this what we would want for ourselves if we remained mired in poverty? If so, then it won’t be too long until the damage created by present structure will become so great that prosperity will never be gained other than by a few.

Or will we be different? Will we reform by our actions and votes the deep and unjust structural inequalities at our nation’s core that favour power and abandon the powerless? To that wonderful Canadian trait of generosity and charity can we add a passion and understanding for justice? There are no quick fixes in justice – it is a long road – but the results last decades and lift millions out of their despair. Charity by itself is surely limited, but when added to sincere efforts at systemic restructuring it can become a springboard for change. Without serious reform, charity just leads to an ever-increasing cycle of hopelessness. Charity gives, but justice changes. What will we fight for, the present or the future?

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.

Say the Word

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WE OFTEN ATTEMPT TO DEFINE THE WORLD WE LIVE IN by the use of a word or a phrase. We had the Stone, Iron, Industrial, Information, and now Technological Ages. When society is moving along without too many extremes, the requirement for words isn’t as essential, but when things get out-of-place or rocky we fall back on singular phrases or words to capture our predicament.

Aldous Huxley noted in his Brave New World, “Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly. They’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” Thus we got the “Roaring Twenties,” the “Depression,” the “Era of Civil Rights,” or the universal “Globalization.”

Slowly, inexorably, a new term is consistently showing up in conversations and media venues that is remarkable for its ability to draw together, into a kind of rough consensus, voices that heretofore remained divided by ideological fences. That next word is “Inequality,” and it’s about ready to become the caption of our era, our footstep in history’s timeline.

“Inequality” hardly requires much context anymore because we have been living it every day, not just in developing nations, but in what once seemed the endlessly prosperous Western countries, like our own. The amount of commentary it has received in the United States and Britain has placed it front and centre in any coffee shop or policy discussion. Canada is quickly catching up the longer it takes prosperity to return to our national life.

Perhaps it won’t. Our hard-earned reputation, mostly established in previous times, appears to be eroding as the economic gap between the rich and the rest is opening up a tear in the Canadian fabric. The real issue is not so much about how much wealth the top 1% has acquired in recent years but the amount not gained by the rest. There is something wrong; we can sense it but look in vain for any serious political or economic leadership to shrink that chasm.

It is repeatedly said that this past recession is still leaving its fingerprints all over our present life. Research by numerous groups, including the International Monetary Fund, point to the real possibility that growing income inequality actually delays any economic recovery and also shortens the periods of prosperity that follow downturns. As we wait in vain for our economy to bounce back from a recession that supposedly ended a while ago, perhaps we would be better to ask why so little is happening, and if part of that reason is the economic inequality in this country, then the sooner we get at some kind of solution the better off we will all be. But first we have to talk about it in all seriousness. – what its persistence presence means to our national life and the future of our children. Should we persist on this path, the word “equality” will eventually be removed from our national lexicon.

In the movie, Ender’s Game, one of the main characters makes an astute observation: “There are times when the world is rearranging itself, and at times like that, the right words can change the world.” The opposite is also true: the wrong words can diminish us – “inequality” perhaps being the prime example.

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