The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: wealth

When Government Disappears


THE SIGNS OF IT ARE EVERYWHERE – university tuitions almost out of reach; poverty both systemic and entrenched; the decline in research almost across the board; significant cuts to foreign aid and diplomatic initiatives; and an increasing sense that Ottawa might as well be situated in some other country.

Then there is the emotional damage created when a people no longer look to the future with a robust sense of optimism or to government with any real kind of expectation. This collective decline in optimism is, in every way, as significant as the previously mentioned challenges.

Government itself is changing and it’s in the process of disappearing. The so-called “austerity agenda” has crippled numerous regions, including southwestern Ontario, and the much hoped for “austerity dividend” never really arrived. Proportionally, it seems as though only the wealthy and corporations are better off for all this. Governments, once so essential to our collective and individual quality of life, are in retreat but show no inclination to inform us that they are slowly leaving the field.

For three decades now the message has remained consistently the same: governments are to big, corporations require more tax breaks, and citizens do too. And so we bought into the rhetoric, watching with increasing alarm as the things we valued and cherished continue to be chipped away in favour of global competitiveness and domestic restructuring.

And it’s all gotten us where exactly? Phenomenal wealth has been created even during our times of restraint but it feels less and less like it descends into our lives. The tools we require to function as a prosperous and affluent nation no longer seem in our hands. Our public infrastructure – roads, railways, harbours, airports, electricity and water – will require literally billions to repair and upgrade, but that isn’t likely to happen when we can even contain the costs of spiraling post-secondary education.

In dealing with this decline in discretionary spending, governments feel they have only one option: slowly disappear from public expectations. And though it appears to be working (Canadians continue to feel less confidence in government’s ability to solve our greatest obstacles), the result is that the country itself is functioning less and less. We would never anticipate constructing a St. Lawrence Seaway today or expanding rail service across the entire country. We know better than to expect that from governments that continue to cry poor.

Part of the reason governments can shrink back into the background is because citizens have been doing the same thing. With little engagement and persuasion possible with their political representatives, Canadians feel they can do little else but provide for their families and perhaps focus instead on their local communities. Some battles are being won, but the war will be lost if we continue down this road.

With capitalism and democracy beset by numerous interconnected problems, and wealth housing itself in international venues far away from our beleaguered communities, it appears likely that the partnership between economic prosperity and social justice is no longer strong enough to carry us into the future. Three of the top ten economists listed by The Economist magazine – Paul Krugman, Thomas Piketty, and Joseph Stiglitz – worry that the historical consensus between these two important partners is perhaps beyond repair. The only thing that can restore it is a healthy democracy, where citizens successfully transition their ideals into the political space. But that’s no working so well now either.

This is precisely this time when visionary politics is supposed to show up, just as in the past. Instead, we have political parties looking to the middle-class to help them capture government when their ultimate concern should be for the welfare of all Canadians, not just one sector.

Naturally, there will be those who resent such thoughts, claiming things have never been better. But we all know that view is no longer saleable. Globe and Mail columnist, Lawrence Martin, reminded us recently that we are enduring the lowest run of economic growth in eight decades. He says the economists he has spoken to expect the trend to continue. He quotes Ivey Business School’s Paul Booth’s concern: “If we have another decade of growth at such a low rate, a whole bunch of economies, including emerging economies, will catch up and pass us by.”

If our political and economic elite maintain that the only answer to this is to head down the same course but at a faster rate, then our decline will only come that much quicker. Our only way of keeping governments from fading away from their responsibilities is to challenge them to present us with new and different visions for discovering a more equal and sustainable future and for us as citizens to be willing to invest in that future. Like it or not, government is us, and we can’t lose it without losing ourselves.

Can Conscience Save Politics



Vaclav Havel protested against dysfunctional politics for a long time before he eventually became the peoples’ choice as president of Czechoslovakia in 1989. As a playwright and a philosopher prior to his political ascendancy, he asked a penetrating question: “Are we implicit n the system that enslaves us, or are we what we always wanted to believe of ourselves?”

Though on the surface it seems that the average citizen believes conscience and politics have become mutually exclusive, it seems more likely that they hold on to the faint hope that in some way, or somehow, the political influence in our country can still bring us back to a place of meaning.

South of the border a story is rising that brings a glimmer of hope that things are maybe changing. Most Canadians wouldn’t be able to tell you much about Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, but in America this aging public figure, now challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, is capturing a whole new audience, pulling from across the political spectrum.

How can it be, considering that he has no big money donors, is a strong ideological voice from the Left, and has existed on the fringe for decades? Perhaps the answer is to be found in one word: conscience. “He’s the real deal and he’s never changed his message in order to secure more support,” one associate says. In many ways, he holds striking similarities to the ever-popular Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren. She, too, is seen as someone authentic and courageous while constantly fending off pressure to run herself for president.

In Sanders and Hillary Clinton the Democratic Party is confronted with what should be an easy choice. Clinton appears to have all the pieces and is a formidable, perhaps unstoppable, force. But questions of funding, and how she acquires it, runs contrary to the feeling of those who are convinced that people like Clinton and Republican contenders pander to the wealthy and are, in turn, too much under their influence.

Financial inequality continues to appear at the top of the list of concerns for Democratic voters in advance of the nomination and this is precisely why Sanders has appeared out of obscurity to capture public attention. He has been speaking out on the negative influence of big money for years and has been one of those stressing the need for campaign finance reform. You can hear the effectiveness of his message here.  He has held his convictions for decades, even though he has had to endure slights from the political mainstream. When he recently said in an interview, “I’m the only candidate who is prepared to take on a billionaire class which controls our economy and increasingly controls the political life of this country,” he drew significant support from across the country because people understand that he has been saying this for years, an action that had previously resulted in ridicule.

But not anymore. His voice has found a place to land effectively: in the aspirations of millions of voters. And this is what makes him worrisome to elite Democrats and Republicans alike. Hearkening back to Havel’s question at the beginning of this post, what happens when contenders themselves are “implicit in the system?” The serious challenges facing our world aren’t going to be solved by political aspirants who alter their platforms in an endless effort to corral the vote, or who say one thing while they are running, only to do whatever their party says once they’ve succeeded. We need people who are the “real deal,” and we feel like that now more than at any other time in recent history.

Upon becoming president, Havel summed up the choice any politician must confront:

“Can we find a new way of governing that allows us to move forward, to bring politics to a deeper level that engages our whole beings, and to save our civilization from its collective hubris?”

Increasingly, American voters are looking to Sanders who is one who could perhaps bring such an influence to the upcoming presidential election. It is highly unlikely that he would beat Clinton, but the addition of his authentic voice to the debate can at least remind the political class that voters are tired of a politics that doesn’t work despite who gets elected. Canada has its own federal election coming later this year and Canadians are just as weary as their southern counterparts, and putting conscience over endless compromise will have more appeal than ever.

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.

The Explosion of Civil Society



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.

Poverty’s Great Unknown – Facets of Us


IN SPEAKING FREQUENTLY EACH WEEK, it’s becoming clear that more and more groups are broaching the subject of poverty and what might be done about it. They have become aware that the London Food Bank is attempting to develop a new model in which people can be treated with greater dignity, offered more personal choice, and achieve success at avoiding the problems of “poverty stigmatism.” In an interview yesterday I was asked why the food bank doesn’t just close its doors and get on with the delivering a new way of doing things.

The answer to that question is actually fairly simple: communities are complex organisms and if any change is to prove successful, then citizens, organizations, and food bank users themselves must be brought into the development phase of a new model. Whatever answers emerge from such an exercise will carry the authority of a community sense of ownership as opposed to one group merely deciding on its own.

But there is a second problem, and it effectively impacts the above exercise in confounding and complex ways. I speak of the very stubbornness of poverty itself in this country. Part of our trouble in finding solutions concerns our collective ignorance of the poverty dilemma. Just as a taste of what we are referring to, the next two posts will consider some things most people don’t know about poverty and its presence in our communities.

1) Child poverty in Canada remains far too high, even after two decades of attempts to lower it. According to UNICEF’s recent survey, this country is below average among wealthy nations when it comes to dealing effectively with children in difficult economic situations. The survey highlighted the fact that in Canada 13.3% represents the number of those children in poverty, as opposed to 11% in 35 other advanced economies. Worse still, a full one-half of First Nations children remain mired in poverty. For any food bank this is a significant problem. Slightly under 40% of clients serviced by the London Food Bank are children 17 and under, and their needs won’t be going away until we take their plight seriously.  And that means assisting their parents.

2) The burdens of poverty are different depending on which group we are talking about. Economic stringency doesn’t hit everyone universally the same. People with disabilities face unique challenges compared to, say, someone unemployed. Single parents must take a different approach than two-parent families. Immigrants face an extensive list of challenges. Troublingly, the number of seniors with fixed pensions coming to food banks is increasing. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to poverty and no food bank can underestimate this reality.

3) It’s difficult to get a true measure of poverty, and the termination of Statistics Canada Long Form Census only makes this exploration more difficult. Recently the London Food Bank partnered with the Sisters of St. Joseph, with funding from the London Community Foundation, to inaugurate the London Poverty Research Centre for a specific reason: it remains a very difficult thing to acquire evidence-based statistics on those living in poverty. The Centre, now under the auspices of Kings University College, is seeking to develop a city-wide data base that can be used by all groups and individuals to get something of an accurate assessment on just how deep the constraints of poverty go in our community. You can’t really consider changing your model until your know what you’re up against.

4) Debt is becoming a serious problem. Statistics Canada recently reported that the average Canadian household debt-to-income ratio has climbed to a new high of 163.4%. That means that the average Canadian owes $1.63 (CDN) for every dollar they earn. That’s problematic for most of us, but what about those below the poverty line? Many worked up until just a year or two ago, but now that they are unemployed their personal debt makes getting ahead all the more difficult. And Canadians caught up in such a debt cycle are often resistant to government interventions for the poor that require tax investments.

We can segregate those trapped in poverty all we like, but at some point their numbers increase to a level where we have to acknowledge that the lack of solutions says something about us, not them.  “There is no Them.  There are only facets of Us,” says author John Green.  The fact that we permit the reality of poverty to grow in our midst is merely a sign of our lack of imagination and our desire to leave it for others to solve.  It should be clear now that nothing will transpire until those “facets of Us” that accept the status quo are no longer acceptable to us and that the better angels of our nature can never emerge if we permit the clutches of poverty to claim so many among us.

Tomorrow:Poverty’s Great Unknown (2)



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