The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: wealth

Kellogg’s – We’re Not Done Yet

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 6.14.36 PMI LOOKED UP SO SEE FOUR PEOPLE coming down our driveway.  They introduced themselves, but it’s what they said next that set the tone: “We’re from Kellogg’s.”

They were insecure but had lots to say about wanting me back in politics, about the corporate agenda, about what this community has meant to them.  And then, sadly: “Glen, how do we get help from the food bank when the time comes?”

This is rapidly becoming the state of modern community life – people who helped arrange food drives at Kellogg’s were now going to require some of that very food themselves.  This is no way to run a society, and nor is it any way to treat people who built our cities and regions.  Sadly, my morning wasn’t done.

I headed to a local coffee shop and encountered another Kellogg’s employee who wanted to thank me for my blog post the day before and to say how much it meant to the workers.  Yet the sadness on his face said it all.  At that moment, a former Conservative MP – a good friend – walked in the door with his wife.  He reminded us that in 1984, the Mulroney government had granted $223 million to Kellogg’s in London for an expansion project that would make the local plant one of the most technologically advanced manufacturing facilities in the entire company – 1,140,000 square feet. 

“Glen, I was there when the Prime Minister came to down to announce the funds and we were assured by the company that this would make for a prosperous future. What happened?” he asked. 

Simple math would tell us that the our funds were used to assist a company to build a more solid future in London not quite 30 years ago.  Now that company is leaving, having used our investment to make their fortune, and leaving hundreds of devastated families in their wake.  What happened indeed!  We feel like a community undone.

Work seemed to really matter in our community.  But that was before the evolution of the new economy, where elites could move anywhere around the globe in search of cheaper labour; where they would press governments, foreign and domestic, for ever lower taxes and the diminishing of labour and environmental standards, and where the ultimate goal was treating labour as a commodity rather than a standard of dignity or a necessity to community.  Only a generation ago we believed that wealth would increase in dramatic terms and that jobs would be available for everybody.  The first part has become the reality while the second lies in ruins.  In a period of a generation, work has gone from edifying the soul by giving it value to undermining it by forcing it into banality.  Where we once hoped for a better world, driven by equity and progress, we now face the real chance of massive global unemployment and the spread of poverty.  We are entering an era of cheap people and very expensive machines.  As the world hurtles along this path, directed by a global financial juggernaut of the few, the link between labour and prosperity will be a part of our past, not our future.

We must find a way to dignify work once more and enable wealth to work for the many. A bleak future is never inevitable in a world where citizens still possess the opportunity to turn their countries around.

So let’s start with some easy steps.  Here are two ideas.

This morning I spoke with my friend, Andrew Lockie, director of the United Way in London, and proposed that our two organizations hold a community reception for Kellogg’s employees in the spring.  Both the United Way and the London Food Bank have been huge beneficiaries of funds and food from these employees.  And that is just what we will do, drawing in other community partners like labour groups, businesses, civil society groups, and citizens aplenty.  We will celebrate and honour those among us who didn’t just live here, but actually built our community.  We are in the process of putting that event together and we trust everyone will be there.

And, then, let’s begin a larger conversation on the future of work.  It was in the 1930s that things seemed so inevitable and that the capitalist barons owned not only their companies and wealth, but the future.  But at some point, citizens and their politicians came together and reversed a trend that seemed inevitable.  The boom that resulted for those moments of daring created the great middle-class.  Of course, we live in a globalized world now and bringing companies back to the community table won’t prove easy.  But if a global consensus can be reached, it can be done.  Capitalism will hang itself if it proceeds down this course. Let’s think of ways we can further that conversation and start talking about the new and valuable work of tomorrow, a more ethical capitalism, living wages, and the important and dignity of work for all of us.

The employees of Kellogg’s, and even the company itself for a time, remind us what is possible when investment in a community matters.  London has some remarkable citizens from Kellogg’s to celebrate, and then we must turn our attention to a future where citizenship – corporate and individual – begins the process of building renewed communities.  We’re not done yet.

Who Says the Rich Create the Wealth?

Like many of you, I really get into TED talks – the series of brief videos that run the gamut of everything we find interesting in this world.  And more and more of these talks have been centering on the idea of income inequality and its effects on nations around the world.  It’s the old argument about the 1% and the rest, but with an increasing number of economists and researchers weighing in on how it destroys our capacity to grow and respond as citizens, companies, and nations.

Venture capitalist and millionaire entrepreneur, Nick Hanauer, wrote an op-ed for Bloomberg News that went hyper-viral.  It talked about how it’s not the wealthy that create jobs and prosperity but the delicate link between companies and their customers.  In other words, wealth is created through the symbiotic relationship between both these groups.  It created a sensation, and so the organizers of TED Talks asked him to make a presentation at one of their conferences.  He agreed and you can see the result by playing the video above. It’s only five minutes long but its impact has left a longer trail.

Hanauer’s presentation gained immediate popularity, bringing out the instinct, which millions share, that something is not right in our economic models.  But the video also brought on an increasing amount of detractors – primarily those of the 1% who didn’t like this exposure by one of their own.  The result?  TED Talks pulled the video.  Fortunately it’s still on YouTube.

Why was the video pulled?  Good question.  The official explanation was that it was too partisan, but some feel the elite put enough pressure on the organizers to get the video yanked.  Whatever the reason, it’s compelling stuff and belongs as part of the growing debate on income inequality and its steadily eroding effects on modern economies.  Hanauer’s belief that it’s actually the middle-class that creates wealth and jobs completely opposes the current paradigm, which maintains that it is the top-tier of wealth owners who make all the difference.  Regardless of whether you fully agree or not, it’s compelling stuff, well worth your attention and, hopefully, engagement.  It’s time to start fighting back, as only committed citizens in a free and democratic society can do.

 

 

Fishtown

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Ever heard of Fishtown?  Charles Murray, author of “The Bell Curve,” has been arguing for as long as people would listen that poverty involves much more than just an economic predicament.  The longer people are trapped in it, he reasons, the more poverty drains the moral and ethical depths of modern society.  He believes it all started in the 1960s, when fundamental trusts – self-restraint, family, personal responsibility, faith, politics and country – began to be undermined.  The result has been a kind of social deterioration that situates people living in poverty beyond the normal restraints of low-income and in depleted communities that no longer have the resolve to deal with such situations in the complex manner they deserve.  Just providing even a basic income for such families might not provide the effect for which policy makers would hope.

To illustrate our modern predicament, Murray came up with the fictional community called Fishtown and laid out what he believed was transpiring in normal communities across North America.

Now let us return to the relationship of Fishtown’s decline with America’s civic culture.  The decline of industriousness among Fishtown males strikes at the heart of the signature of civic culture – the spirit of enterprise, stick-to-it-iveness, and hard work to make a better life for oneself and one’s children.  The divergence in marriage and the rise of single-parent homes has cascading effects.  The webs of civic engagement in an ordinary community are spun largely by parents who are trying to foster the right environment for their children – lobbying the city council to install four-way stop signs at an intersection where children play, coaching the Little League teams, using the P.T.A. to improve the neighbourhood school.  For that matter, many of the broader political issues in a town or small city are fought out because of their direct and indirect effects on the environment for raising children.  Married fathers are a good source of labour for these tasks.  Unmarried fathers are not.  Nor can the void be filled by the moms.  Single mothers who want to foster the right environment for their children are usually doing double duty already, trying to be the breadwinner and an attentive parent at the same time.  Few single mothers have much or energy to spare for community activities.”

In other words, the devastating effects of unemployment and poverty leave a troubling legacy on citizens, especially mothers, and males who have been used to being contributors to community life.

Culture is a fluid thing.  Provide the kind of stability that good public policy can enhance, such as in the decades following the Second World War, and culture can have a profound effect just because of its longevity.  But the topsy-turvy world of our recent political and economic sectors has witnessed a slow undermining of institutions and practices that once were essential to establishing better futures for our children.  It is one thing to endure a season of poverty due to occasional recessions, but the gradual expansion of the low-income class in our country begins to have effect on the world we are presently building.  If sustained poverty is no longer a moral travesty to be solved but becomes, instead, an abiding and growing reality in our communities that we learn to accept, then the very essence of what we once believed about society quickly becomes negotiable and expendable.

Poverty shapes the minds of the people entrapped in it in ways that we are only now becoming more cognizant of.  New research suggests that ongoing poverty imposes a kind of tax on the brain.  So much time is spent wrestling with poverty’s realities – scarce resources, poor health, lack of nutritious foodstuffs, the ever wrestling between income and expenses – that those in poverty have little left with which to concentrate on the positives, like education, community, legacy, parenting, or employment.

Worse, scientists now believe that such drains on the brain build over time.  If a child is reared in poverty, those experiences will linger into their adulthood.  Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that those who grow up poor developed impaired brain function as adults.  They experienced greater difficulty in managing their emotions or in balancing the numerous demands on time and resources.  Regardless of what their income status was at the age of 24, all those years in poverty left lasting consequences in adaptability and progress. 

Considered as a whole, the research implies that sustained poverty continually taxes the brain of the adults to such a degree that truly caring for their children becomes exceedingly difficult.  The researchers termed this “trajectories” of those experiencing poverty over lengthy periods of time. 

As long as any modern society permits sustained periods of poverty immersion, it will have to come to terms with the troubling reality that the fruits of such tolerance will carry over for generations.  The greatest problem regarding the growth in poverty in Canadian society is not so much its presence, but its permanence.  No simplistic answer will do.  The only effective solution will involve complex societal, economic, political, ethical, and employment interventions set within the context of a society that will no longer accept a form of poverty that becomes sustained.  If, as many suggest, we are the smartest generation in history, surely we can build consensus and utilize the tools to accomplish it.

Preparing For Survival

It wasn’t all that long ago that even Friedrich Engels spoke of how wealth could lift the economic burden from millions:

Anarchy in social production is replaced by systematic, definite organization.  The struggle for individual existence disappears.  Then for the first time man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones … It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.” 

What can we say to all this now?  In a generation we have gone from thinking that wealth would increase in dramatic terms and that jobs would be available for everybody.  The first part has become the reality while the second lies in ruins.  In the period of a decade we have gone from people feeling worn down and depressed from being unable to find work to experiencing the same emotions from the rigors of holding down two or more part-time jobs.  In the period of a generation, work has gone from edifying the soul by giving it value to undermining it by forcing it into banality.jobless

The historic decoupling of consumption and production hasn’t let to some kind of utopia but a kind of global disruption that has dislocated key sectors of modern society.  This is even true in the emerging economies of the developing world, where the spread of wealth in those nations is causing an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor.  In other words, greater parts of those populations will be working longer hours for less remuneration – a mirror image of the affluent world.

Where we once hoped for a better world, driven by equity and progress, we now faced the real chance of massive global unemployment and the spread of poverty.  We are rapidly entering an age of cheap people and very expensive machines.  As the world heads headlong, driven by a global financial juggernaut with few checks and balances, the link between labour and prosperity will be a part of our past, not the future.

Work, which has anchored our modern value system since the days of the Industrial Revolution, is dangerously close to becoming untethered to the ability to acquire wealth.  The centuries-old theory that to be a responsible and productive human being is to work, to engage oneself in the production of goods necessary to the overall well-being of society, is under great stress.  Where once people looked at their retirement years as a time of worth and pleasure derived from a lifetime of work, they now view it as a time of diminishing returns.

We have come full circle following a grand historic reversal.  In ancient times, labour was often little more than basic existence for the majority, while for the elite there could be a life of leisure, learning, and public participation in things like citizenship and politics.  But as the work of the oxen gave way to the wheel, which gave way to the steam and internal combustion engines, an entire middle class of workers was created which, paid well for their labour, paid well for the products they could acquire.  The more that model worked, the more robust the economy became.

Not any more.  Where 150 years ago 80% of Canadians worked on farms or ranches, today that number stands closer to 2%.  What happened in the agricultural economy in the last century is now taking place in the industrial economy, leaving increased levels of unemployment or underemployment in the wake.  And already we are beginning to spot a similar trend in the service sector, which has traditionally paid lower labour wages than its industrial counterpart.  Even the information sector is giving way to mechanized efficiencies that is inevitably reducing its dependence on the human contribution.

What this all is leading up to is some remarkable social and economic dislocation in the populations of both the developed and developing world.  We hear not a whit of this from the political class, but the main fallout from the lack of preparation for this incoming jobless tsunami will be in our communities and will have direct effect on our families and neighbours.  As author John-Talmage Mathis put it: “When the noise is gone, and the air is still … prepare for survival.”

 

The Seven Sins

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Just a few weeks before he was tragically assassinated, Mahatma Gandhi spoke of current troublesome trends that he eventually titled The Seven Sins:

Wealth without work

Pleasure without conscience

Knowledge without character

Commerce without morality

Science without humanity

Worship without sacrifice

Politics without principles

Over 60 years later, these seven blunders have been so institutionalized that they have been structured into modern society in ways that are endemic.

Given the increased emphasis on the acquisition of wealth in these last two decades, the reality of people making money off of money as opposed to working with hands and minds has revolutionized the global economy and ostracized communities and entire countries in the process.

The rise of the middle class following the Second World War put money in the average person’s pocket in measures unheard of in all of human history.  We became a consumer culture, acquiring articles and pursuits of pleasure that gave little thought to the deplorable labour conditions, environmental degradation, and the unemployment crisis that resulted from our acquisitions.

The rapid rise of technology has permitted our “Google generation” to learn almost any fact by the click of a button.  But we have acquired knowledge devoid of consequences – facts without faith, and data without direction.  It is knowledge without character.

Commerce without morality takes place at almost every level in a consumer culture, with little thought being given to the consequences on a generation in which money has become an end in itself.

The vast explosion of scientific research and data has taken us from the depths of space to the mysteries of the womb.  But it has become a manic kind of discovery that far outpaces the human ability to comprehend its implications, let alone handle it.

Worship once used to entail acts of human betterment and personal character growth, but today religious people pick and choose what they like from their faith and toss out the rest.  The result has been a faith without force and almost fully incapable of preparing its adherents to fend off the incursions of materialism.

“Politics without principles” – has this condemnation not infiltrated every level of political dealings in our modern world.  It’s so bad that the modern citizen has trouble putting the word politics and principles in the same sentence.

It remains a startling reality that the vast majority of modern citizens have never heard of Gandhi’s seven sins.  I listed them in one my blogs a couple of years ago and was inundated with requests for their origin.  They are as compelling as they are brief, but it shocked many of the readers to learn that they were compiled in 1947. 

In reality, Gandhi was seeking a balance, not a severe tipping of the scales in one direction or the other.  Some have accused him of making his seven sins extreme, leaving him open to Western criticisms of disliking capitalism or pleasure.  Of all the words in the seven sins, one is used more than any other – without.  At no point does he exclude wealth, pleasure, knowledge or science.  He merely points out that the lack of balancing factors on such powerful impulses will inevitably lead to subtle violence that can eventually become more public.  If we were to put this point in its context we would say that Gandhi called for wealth and work, science and humanity, pleasure and conscience, knowledge and character, worship and sacrifice, politics and principles.

Life is a mystery, full of unknowns.  But there are consequences to placing all our efforts behind one dimension.  Pretending to solve human problems while forgetting humanity can only lead to unbalance, a sense of futility, even violence and inequity.  We wouldn’t have to think very hard to come up with other examples of how society requires this sense of proportion and balance – individuality and community, history and progress, private interests and public interests, justice and mercy, religion and reason, or law and freedom.

We live in an era where we adore and worship rock stars and forget God.  We secretly admire millionaires and billionaires but deride civil servants.  We somehow desire great wealth but wish to be noble and ethical at the same time.  We dote on our children but increasingly neglect the elderly.  We generously give to food banks but permit the growth of child poverty and hunger.  We demand government to be accountable and then refuse to vote.  We extol human rights but deny them to our aboriginal communities.  We glorify private wealth but assist in the decline of our public treasures.

This is the current state of the human race: possessing solutions to all these things affordable and within our grasp, but lacking the will to secure their achievement.  Gandhi himself observed that, “a nation’s culture resides in the hearts and soul of its people.” But what if our collective soul is distracted or misdirected that we secure our own decline?  This is our present predicament as a species; other species have gone extinct for misinterpreting such signals of their own danger.

The front line where all these complexities intersect is housed in our communities.  There more than anyplace else, citizens can begin the process of rediscovering balance in our collective life.  It will take sacrifice and diligence, and no small amount of humility.  But the great question is still out there: are we ready for that responsibility?

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