The LEAP of Faith at OISE

The biggest BI event in Toronto since the Basic Income Canada Network congress in 2012 went off at OISE auditorium on April 13. In fact that was where the congress happened. Someone estimated that 600 people attended the event put on by the LEAP coalition at the old rumble cavern.

The inspiration was a section in the LEAP manifesto adopted by the NDP at its last policy convention. Section 13 reads as follows;

“Since so much of the labour of caretaking – whether of people or the planet – is currently unpaid and often performed by women, we call for a vigorous debate about the introduction of a universal basic annual income.”

Find the manifesto at https://leapmanifesto.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/leaplet_reading.pdf

There are problems with this section. It calls only for a “vigorous debate”. Some of us are not so enamoured with debates, we do not find them too useful. What is really needed is some people getting out and doing some work. As well, more people who can actually explain what the issue is really about.

The section frames the BI solely in terms of one narrow problem; the lack of recognition of the value of care givers. This can be dangerous as it gives the idea that a BI is just about a caregiver’s allowance. As well, they use four different words to refer to the BI, but never define what they are talking about.

So to the debate itself, which came up on video shortly after the event. This video is found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfAxpc-r_EM

Here are my notes on it;

It is interesting that the vote before and after the event did not change. About 2/3rds of the hall were for a BI. Jo Grey put in a supplemental question at the end; who supports a human rights approach to BI? That was almost unanimous.

Avi Lewis. He is a journalist and documentary film maker. He is the lead organizer of the discussion and the moderator. He says he does not have his own mind made up about BI.

He notes that the section 13 in LEAP is weasel worded; it calls for a debate. It is a negotiated text among social groups with diverging ideas about it.

Avi notes that we are “among allies.” We are all on the left-progressive side of the political spectrum. But it is apparent what the big dividing line is between us all.

Avi hits on the key yardstick for measuring if a BI is good for bad. The question to ask is; does the BI plan increase people’s power over their lives, or decrease it?

He also pointed out the flaw in Caron’s a argumentation. He has this lofty rhetoric about putting forward something of our own rather than being on the defensive against Liberal and conservative attacks on what we already have. But his own proposal is not much better than what the Wynne liberals want to do.

Jo Grey. She comes from “human rights” activism and is a long time advocate of a Basic Income. She says just raising the rates does not solve most of the real problems poor people face.

She knows what she is talking about; she raised a family by herself on welfare in St. Jamestown and is still here to tell about it. People today do not have time to do anything to aid the community, they are so busy running around trying to get by. Ultimately, it is about freedom from fear.

She delivered the best rebut to the “anti” camp. That is, they do not propose anything else. The left is stuck in “anti” and cannot find anything to be for. What is their alternative?

As well, where are all these employers who are going to be able to pay a “living wage?” Small businesses provide most of the jobs and most can’t pay a living wage in the present economy. She also notices that the living cost in Toronto is about twice what it is everywhere else, and seems to grasp the consequences of that.

She likes the idea of the pilot. She says it shows the province admits there is a problem. If they do not do anything about it this gives us a way to take them to court. Jo is always a bit over optimistic about the efficacy of taking governments to court over social issues.

At the end of three years of the pilot, have we simply lost three years? What else was going to happen in those three years anyway?

As for how to pay for a BI, how are we going to pay for an increase in welfare payments? As for support from the ruling class, the big reason we are now having discussion of BI is that they realize we are this close to violent revolution and are considering an alternative to having their wealth confiscated. Over to you, John.

Guy Caron. He is a trained economist and an NDP member of parliament form Quebec, currently running to be leader of the NDP. He has BI on his platform.

He says that we have the means with the GIS and child benefit, the machinery to deliver a BI. Why don’t we use this? It will require some “investment”. It will require some restructuring of the economy and tax system.

It is not “should we do it” but when and how it gets done. Do we let the conservatives do it their way or do we do it our way? Exactly right, I say! Should I vote for this Guy? Alas, I don’t think he has a great chance of winning the leadership.

John Clarke. Most Torontonians know Clarke. He is the head of the OCAP group, the main proponents of “revolutionary class struggle” in the city. His theme, hammered hard, is that there is no end run around the capitalist system.

All talk about the positive benefits but not about the societal context in which it must be established, is misguided. All social programs are reluctant concessions by the state. He notes that the right wing views BI as a wage top up.

Oddly, he is not as optimistic as Jo about the prospects of revolution in the near future. It is likely he has the same view as most ”revolutionaries”; that the revolution is real only when we control it. It won’t happen until things get a lot worse. Then the people will rise up and from that we get to seize power and impose our ideas on everyone els, except we will get it right this time. Pft!

Yet Clarke finds a point of a agreement with Grey. He asks why the province should not just give what they are giving to these test subjects to everybody right now. Yes, that would be a good start.

Jessica Sikora. She is an official of a social worker’s union. She kept emphasizing the word “basic”. BI was “a bandaid on a gaping wound”. She pointed out that the provincial proposal for a BI pilot would have no net benefit to its recipients. All gains are taxed away.

A BI would not be implemented in a vacuum, says she. So, we wait until we have an enlightened government? When would that happen? The NDP has historically been famous for talking left when out of office and acting right when in office. The Rae NDP government in Ontario is famous for being harsh to welfare recipients and with setting up the even harsher actions of the Harris government.

What is striking about her argumentation is the very paternalistic subtext to it. She praises the “fifteen and fairness” campaign and has the idea that the BI is about undermining that campaign. But $15 an hour minimum wages only helps people we are able to work.

Further, she is hung up on this “collective bargaining” idea. She believes people should be attached to a workplace so that the employer has responsibility for paying them a decent wage. This is paternalistic and bordering on feudalistic.

The divide

In sum, the antis both talked in terms of industrial age thinking. The pros were thinking about the world of the future. Basic Income does indeed give the left a way forward. It is the key component of what has been lacking in all “left” discourse until now; an actual model of how a socialist society could work. Some who are “on the left” are able to take it up and some are still stuck in failed dogmas from the past.

Conclusion

My favourite line of the whole debate came from Jo Grey. She asked; “Isn’t it better for us all to be fighting for a Basic Income that all fighting in a million different directions for a million different things”? ( Minute 1:17 on the tape) This is exactly my own philosophy about advocacy.

Reply to Maytree foundation brief: Would a universal basic income reduce poverty?

Lately the Maytree foundation came out with a brief which appears to reject the income guarantees concept, but in a somewhat ambiguous way. I had thought that Maytree was supporting a Basic Income/Guaranteed Living Income. However, this report, written by Noah Zon, needs to be read between the lines.

It seems to be responding to the provincial initiative for a Basic Income pilot, rather than the broader concept of an Income Guarantee. This leads to a Basic problem with the Basic Income movement; they cannot get it that the concept by itself is way too broad. It can be taken to mean a wide array of very different policies with very different aims, some of them quite menacing to the working and under classes, and to society at large.

Thus, the Health and Strength Action Group has desired to respond to the Maytree report, but has been unsure about exactly what it wants to say. The suggestion that Maytree is getting leaned on by its funders may have some truth to it. Zon seems a bit ambiguous about the concept; often arguing against himself.

HSAG has already produced a letter to Maytree, making most of the same criticisms of its attitude toward BI that I would make. We know that the BI movement is at present not very coherent, but what we need is constructive criticism, not an ideological position. Yes, we know that present social programs are inadequate. But they will not be fixed with just a little more money. They were bad policy to begin with. They have been around for half a century with no change despite great criticism their obvious dysfunctionality.

Zon repeats the old argument that a Canada wide BI plan would be unaffordable. He prices it at $300 billion. He ignores that present income maintenance programs cost $160 billion. He also ignores just how much money is taken out of the system by tax giveaways, dodges, and hidden subsidies. If all the misguided giveaways to corporations and wealth in the past thirty years were reversed, there would be plenty of money for an income guarantee.

standing  income guarantees up straight

Rather than repeat what has been said, I will take a response to the Maytree report to the next level. This will complement, not replicate, what is already said. This is; to do what the BI movement has failed to do; lay out what is or should be being advocated. I am going to go back to classic income guarantees rhetoric, from the Robert Theobald generation. This was all before the BIEN people appeared and started this “go nowhere” debate about philosophical “reciprocity”.

Yes, here is the rub; income guarantee movements fail to first of all define the problem they are trying to solve. They tend to be made up of people who fetishize debate and tend to get lost in debate. Thus the present BI movement seems to be for everything and nothing, and thus goes nowhere.

There is no point in advocating for it in industrial age terms, as BIEN and BICN try to do. A Guaranteed Living Income is to be advocated in the terms of the “post industrial” age. The concept as it was originally articulated by the best of the “post modern” thinkers, was not presented as a solution for industrial age problems. It is a way of making the post industrial age work, by relearning the things humankind forgot during the horrors of the industrial age.

If you want to do some reading on it, you can plow through the heavy philosophical thinkers such as Boudreiu or Baudrillard, but the more “popular” authors such as David Graeber or Jeremy Rifkin will be more useful. The object of an Income Guarantee is to restore the dignity and security of the person lost during the age of capitalism. This passing age is an aberration in history. Through out history, in any civilization, the obligation of society was to insure to all its members a means of living which did not put them at a disadvantage with their peers. The only exceptions were slaves and outcastes.

The sound arguments for income guarantees all start from this premise. It is usually stated as “free people do not rent themselves out” or “free people do not sell themselves for wages”. They usually notice that this was the accepted wisdom until the industrial age. In most societies, wage workers were considered contemptible. To build their system, the emergent capitalist class had to break down resistance over generations, to get people convinced that if you would not accept being a “wage slave” then you were a “bum”.

its about “rights”, stupids!

Some poverty elimination advocacy groups are focussed now on the ‘human rights” approach; they are framing their pitches around it. That is also the right approach for any sort of income guarantees advocate. To advocate for something, you should never take the “shotgun” approach; making every possible argument for it, treating them all equally. Some will be weaker, and can be taken out of context to discredit the entire object being advocated for.

You should always find the core reason for something, and argue from that. All other reasons for a Basic Income should be secondary to it and flow from it. The right to security and dignity of the person is the pole star that keeps the income guarantee ship on course and gives us the strongest possible argument.

Who is going to argue against security and dignity of the person? Advocates for “work” will try to flip the issue upside down, but this is a dishonest argument easily flipped back right side up. Work that does not even pay enough to survive on does not build character. Being dependant on a boss who can fire you at any time for any reason or no reason does not make dignity. Having no control of your own time even when not on the job, and having to comply with any order no matter how senseless or abusive, does not make freedom.

Freedom and dignity of the person requires a basic autonomy of the person. Persons must have the right and the means to live without doing anything at all, except what interests or benefits them. This requires an income adequate to live on; a partial income does not serve the purpose.

Surplus

The arguments against this will be faux economic and “ethical”. The economy would collapse if it had to carry such a large number of people who add nothing to the total wealth. And, why should some people have to work harder so others can do nothing?

The argument against both of these lines is systemic. About 60% to 80% of the work being done for pay is “make work”. That is, doing something which would make no difference if it were not being done. It has been like this in all societies all down history, due to the need of any system for redundancy. That is, for the surplus energy in the system with which to be able to maintain and run itself.

The real problem in any system is what to do with its surplus energy. A plant casts seeds. A machine throws off heat. A company might turn the surplus into expanding the business or into paying dividends. Primitive societies hold potlatches and other gift exchanging arrangements. Advanced economies can use up surplus energy on growth, on war and imperial expansion, or on increased leisure. In the present world, the first two options are becoming non viable.

Another aspect to this is what Marxists call the “organic composition of capital”. Contrary to popular belief, Marx never had a “labor theory of value”. The Liberal economists like Ricardo did, but it is wrong. Labor has always been only one part of the cost of producing something and steadily declines as a ratio as technology progresses. But more importantly, the total cost of making anything is approaching zero.

Thus, the idea that everyone should be employed full time, or that the total wealth of a society is effected by someone not being employed always has been ridiculous. As capitalism declines into post capitalism, this becomes obvious. Thus, the claim that someone refusing to work forces others to work harder becomes increasingly ridiculous. This also makes absurd the “reciprocity problem” imagined by the moral philosophers who founded BIEN.

That is the core argument for a Guaranteed Living Income. Flowing from it are the two outrider issues; the need for a deep democracy, and for a steady state economy. They make a perfect triad, with GLI enabling people to participate in a democracy, and solving the effective demand problem in post industrial economies. A strong democracy insures that the economy is run for the benefit of the public, not shareholders.

Now, I invite the Maytree foundation to take another look at the income guarantees concept from this perspective, and see if it makes more sense this time around.

As well, when I get some more time, I will lay out what a valid income guarantee proposal would look like, based on these principles. Then, Maytree, we will have something to actually discuss. Tr

Guaranteed Living Income and the Battle for the Future

Well, I tried to be involved in an interesting discussion taking place at https://thawvictoria.wordpress.com/2016/10/21/an-open-letter-to-sarah-sheridan-and-jean-swanson-responding-to-guaranteed-annual-income-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly-the-volcano/comment-page-1/#comment-311

I am not going to reproduce the other posts here. You will have to go to it yourselves, assuming it stays up. It was brought to my attention by Cynthia at Livable4all. I wrote out my own take on it, below, but I can’t seem to post it. This is another reason why I generally dislike the internet as a forum. It silos people off. People start hearing only other people just like them.

It starts with an article written by two Vancouver poverty activist types, one of whom I know, Jean Swanson. It gives pretty much the stock argument against any kind of GLI; that it is something rich people want, so it must be something bad. It does have a rather condescending tone. Speaking for an income guarantee is not like “ waiting to win the lotto”.

Someone who describes herself as “multi generational impoverished” ripped into this. She said that the minimum income movement “came from the poor” which is not quite accurate. But it was something advocated by Martin Luther King, who did plan to make it a core of his campaign.

What I have to say is, simply, that there is no way around having some kind of BI system. You can have a good one or a bad one. The present welfare system was never a good policy and is not worth defending.

This is the text;

Yes, thanks for writing this, @KymHothead. Thanks, @Livable4all, for bringing it to my attention. This exchange exactly puts the finger on what the real debates about GLI are about. Sheridan and Swanson also come across as exemplars of the big problem with every kind of “anti-poverty organization”. They presume to know what is best for poor people.

They do point to the problem with any sort of Basic Income scheme, but I do not think they actually realize it. We know that rich exploiters of the poor have long been advocating their version of a BI. We know that government bureaucrats are coming up with bait and switch versions of a BI which will not really help anything.

But nothing except a BI/GLI is going to solve the problems of living in the post industrial world. There is no other way out for the growing “outclass” of people for whom the post industrial world has no use and offers nothing.

Yes, post industrial, post capitalist world. Nobody seems to have really read or believed old Karl Marx, including even the “Marxists”. Marx did not have any “labor theory of value”. He had a theory of the organic composition of capital. Capitalism makes profits when the labor component of capital is high; the human, the organic capital.

As technology advances and humans are less needed to run the productive system, the organic composition falls and the rate of profit falls. This causes the repeated cycles of booms and depressions. This used to be solved by new technologies as well as imperialism, meaning conquered captive markets, rising living standards, reduced work times, etc. Lately it has been patched up with make work jobs.

As we read in the latest works from Jeremy Rifkn, especially “The Zero Marginal Cost Society”, we are now at the stage where it costs very little, in terms of labor or resources, to produce everything we need. Marx is thumping in his grave, saying “told you so!”

However, he may have been optimistic about what follows from the end of the line for capitalism. Rather than just disappear and let us all develop a socialist society, they will likely try to create some sort of neo-fuedal society. Andy Stern, the American union leader turned GLI advocate, calls this the “hunger games” future.

More optimistic futurologists have talked about the “Star Trek” future, where “replicators” make everything we need. We can then devote ourselves to great thoughts and deeds. Boldly go where we haven’t gone before, zoom!

These are the two models of the future before us. What we are entering is the age of struggle for the Star Trek versus the Hunger Games future. Checking out of the struggle is not an option. The Sheridens and Swansons of the world want our present avant Charles Dickens world to just be a more “Ebeneezer Scrooge after the Ghost of Christmases Future” future. That will not happen.

We are going to have a post industrial, post capitalist society. This will inevitably require some form of a Basic Income. Most of the population will simply not be needed full-time, year-round in the productive economy. Unless the capitalist ruling elite find some way to wipe out about eighty percent of us, and no doubt some of them will try, they will have to provide for all of us.

However, the other option is for us to do what old Karl advised in the first place; take control of the means of production. No, that does not mean to turn it al over to a Soviet style bureaucracy. Modern production is becoming more and more decentralized, requiring knowledge, not huge equipment inputs. It is really about taking control of the benefits of production away from the capitalists and committing it to meet human needs.

In the twenty first century, the dope who does not get it that there is class war, is pitiable. Likewise, the cretin who believes we will win or even break even at class war by trying to reform the existing welfare system is pathetic. The fight is not about whether to have a Basic Income but whose kind are we having.

It is the Star Trek future versus the Hunger Games future. What side are you on? To fail to perceive the real nature of any conflict is always to choose the wrong side by default. To refuse to fight on the terrain of a Basic Income is to accept a hunger games, neo-feudal kind of future world.

By the way, the kind of income guarantee I want to live in I call a Guaranteed Living Income (GLI). It is a predictable, stable, flat sum delivered at frequent intervals. Basic Income seems to have become a catch all term. The distinguishing feature of a bad BI is that they want to run it through the tax system as some form of variable tax rebate or credit.

If you want to abolish poverty this is where the battle is fought. Join the battle.

My web site is at www.livingrant.ch

Submission on Voting Reform

Here is what I sent in to the Electoral Reform committee. I think it is worth a read and I hope they actually read it. I actually sent it in  about ten o’clock on Friday.  That was actually the date for verbal submissions but I see no need to do that.

11:59 Special. Read this Paper! Voting reform must be understood in the context of democratic evolution

Here is my submission regarding voting reform. My name is Tim Rourke. I live in Toronto and come originally for Alberta. I have a degree in Political Science from the University of Toronto. I live on a disability pension and have for most of my life. This gives me some time to be involved in voting reform organizing, and with democratic reform more generally.

I worked with Fair Vote Canada for some years. I attended most sessions of the Ontario Citizen’s Assembly as an observer. I have been involved with the much studied participatory budgeting process within the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, the city’s social housing arm. It seems to me that voting reform in Canada must be understood within the context of the long process of developing and deepening democracy all over the world.

Modernizing

I think most of the problem with Canada is with obsolete institutions which have never been updated since colonial times. Fixing the voting system would be only a first step to a more thorough overhaul of government. Moving to a more consensual legislature like most other advanced countries did long ago would make it easier to begin reforming other aspects of government. It will be harder for interest groups who simply do not like democracy to obstruct public initiatives.

As a democracy deepens it goes from a representational model to a deliberative one. That is, one that is both direct and participatory; in which the public participates in discussing and forming policy and then votes on measures directly. There is also the concept of a delegative democracy, whereby local assemblies in which everyone participates select delegates, not representatives, to higher ones, which might then choose delegates to yet higher ones. As opposed to a representative, a delegate is directly responsible to the body which points her and serves at its pleasure. This eliminates most of the problems with electoral and partisan politics.

A delegative system is found in a few places where the public really got a chance to set up their own system; it seems instinctive to people. In places where democracy is well advanced, referenda and various forms of public consultation are commonly used. There is a science to conducting proper referenda and they are hard to do where strong party politics and privately controlled media try to manage public perceptions.

Process

There are many forms of citizen consultation, some genuine. and some bogus. They are called Citizen’s Assemblies, Citizen’s Juries, Planning Circles, Participatory. Budgeting, etc. The basic idea is to choose some level headed people by a random process and let them listen to experts on a matter, debate among themselves, usually with the help of a professional facilitator, and reach a decision. It may be an allocation of limited budget resources, the formulation of a referendum question, or a decision on an administrative matter.

There is no really good process of deciding the voting reform issue that would not involve some form of participatory democracy. A referendum question would need to be formulated by some form of Citizen’s Assembly. Parliament just deciding on its own would smell of a conflict of interest. The result would lack validity and thus be open to being undone by the next parliament. It has been wisely said that the voting system belongs to the people, not to the parliament. Thus it needs to be legitimized by some consultative process which is seen as valid and fair.

Among the problems we are facing with this voting reform process is that Canada does not have much experience at real democracy. We do not know how to go about things like referenda and Citizen’s Assemblies. We have also got ourselves stuck in this severe time constraint. It seems to be that the way out of this would be to do the best public consultation possible given these limitations, come out with the best solution within the constraints, and go with it. But, mandate a consultation and referendum on it after two elections.

However, it should be possible to do a decent Citizen’s Assembly within the time frame, about a year. We do have some experience at it, in Ontario and B.C. In both cases, they were done rather well but partisan politics deliberately sabotaged them at the end. The objections raised to a CA, that it would be hugely expensive, or that there is no way to select or manage such a large group of people, are not serious. All these problems could be overcome within the time needed with a bit of common sense and a willingness of politicians to give it a chance to work.

And of course, a CA would cost some money. If it is expensive, then expensive compared to what exactly? Democracy is always too expensive for people who do not really accept democracy.

Senator Axworthy has proposed a CA. The electoral reform committee has heard from Professor Thomson, who very ably led the Ontario Citizen’s Assembly. I attended most sessions of the Ontario CA as an observer and was impressed by it. Below are my own thoughts about how a federal CA could work.

suggestion

The CA should be 100 people, half of each gender of course. Google tells me that 22 would be francophone, 4 aboriginal, and 21 immigrants. We can only go so far with getting a “representative” Canadian population, or we will end up with something like the genius ideas on the Fair Vote Canada discussion boards, like having to find someone who is one quarter of a transgendered person. The group should also be roughly proportional to geographic areas, for example 18 from the Prairies.

These people could be found through jury rolls and a selection committee. It would not be all that hard. The problem would be in getting 100 people who can commit for two months and could travel to Ottawa. The Ontario assembly met on weekends. People were flown or bussed, some from the far reaches of the province, put up in hotels and flown back sunday evening.

A better solution might be to bring them to Ottawa for a solid month and pay them their usual incomes while they are there. Then you bring the usual experts to them. If the logistics of shipping them around the country is too much the public consultations could be done by teleconference. You then finally let them come to a decision with the help of professional facilitators.

So the problems of a Citizen’s Assembly are not all that great. They should be surmountable by an entity with the resources of the federal government. There will have to be the will to face down the yowling of the conservative party. The other parties must agree to pass whatever the assembly comes up with, and abide by it.

Urban-rural model

To conclude, as to the type of voting reform I would like to see, I am impressed by the model developed by the former Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, J.P. Kingsley. It seems to me to be the best compromise between the realities of Canada and the needs for a collaborative legislature.

Some will complain that it is not fully proportional. There is no way to have enough “overhang” or compensational seats given the set number of seats each province can have. But the idea of strict proportionality comes from the “Mathematicians” who have controlled Fair Vote Canada in Past.

What is really important in voting reform is to have multi member constituencies. Single member constituencies are very undemocratic and are what is really wrong with our present system. One person cannot “represent” an entire district; that is absurd. Multimember districts create some competition between representatives which reduces opportunity for abuse and corruption. It gives many more people a representative whom they actually voted for.

Finally, it seems to me that the process of voting reform is itself a learning process. Canada is not really very democratic. Its institutions are frozen in the colonial age. We are starting to run up against this inability to manage reform, and in a grievous way. In learning how to fix the voting system, we create the knowledge by which further citizen driven reforms become possible, including ones which require constitutional amendment.

It is said that the most dangerous idea to democracy is that we already have one. Let us go on with establishing and developing our democracy in Canada.

Whatever happened to the BIG push? Comments on building resilient organizations

I have lately had someone ask me about the “BIG push” event in Burlington a couple of years back. That is, the Basic Income Guarantee push; an initiative of one Rob Rainer to bring a movement for such a program into existence. It was adopted by the Basic Income Canada Network and for awhile seemed to almost take over that organization. We do not hear much about this BIG push any more and it is worth considering why.

Initiatives of one single person usually do not go anywhere, especially when they are about trying to create a job or even a personal empire. In the world of social activismand movement building, there are always a lot of people like that. Despite their great energy and often personal magnetism they always do more harm than good. It is better to discourage such people.

National Anti-Poverty Organization

I first encountered Rainer when he was still working in Toronto. He helped a bit with an event I put together about Citizen’s Income, as we were calling it at the time. He did not seem to want to become closely involved in this group, which soon broke up anyway. About that time he left for Ottawa.

When I next heard of him he had become executive director or similar title to the National Anti-Poverty Organization. I had been acquainted with this outfit for some time. It had existed since the seventies but was having a hard time surviving and finding any real purpose.

I was still living in Calgary about 1993 when a friend I was working with
asked me to be a delegate to a special NAPO conference. This was called to discuss a new financial plan for the organization. This was when the anti poverty movement in Calgary was being seriously harassed and broken up.

Clive was becoming depressed. He could not go himself and could no longer find anyone but me to send to this conference. I was not the best choice. I had one week’s notice and I had just had facial surgery with my jaw wired shut. I was still very zonked from the general anesthetic.

The surgery, by the way, was to correct a deformity I had from childhood. I had to fight the Alberta health care system very hard to get it done.

Clive talked about how the only organizations advocating for social programs were groups started in the seventies. It would be impossible to get something like NAPO started today; I mean in 1993. Most groups had a hard time funding themselves and were more focused on keeping their heads down.

The directors of NAPO had come up with a financing plan that involved focussing on building up a donor base so that it did not have to keep depending on government and foundation funds. This seemed reasonably sane to me, as long as at the end of building up the base, NAPO got down to business.

Alas, I could not participate well in the conference. I was too zonked out by general anesthetic hangover. I missed most of it because I could not get woken up until mid morning and then I could not find out where things were being held. This was at the University of Ottawa, by the way.

I was and still am very annoyed about the way I was treated by people. I could not get any assistance from anyone and was treated like a mental patient who got into the conference by mistake. I first met John Clarke of OCAP while there; or rather, got a blank stare from him when I tried introducing myself.

It wasn’t much of a trip. I even missed the flight home and had to negotiate with Air Canada to get on a later one. However, as my head cleared and I got into contactwith some people at NAPO HQ in Ottawa, they were somewhat apologetic about all this.

Canada Assistance Plan

I was even being considered as a regular delegate to NAPO from Alberta. However, I had come to the conclusion that I absolutely had to get out of Alberta. The NAPO conference happened over voting day for the 1993 elections, causing me to miss voting. The new Cretin, er, Chretien regime wasted no time in wiping out the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP).

The CAP had been in place since 1965, requiring provinces to provide social assistance based on the fact, not the cause, of need. I had that line well learned when I was fighting the vicious lunatics of the Alberta social services for the right to exist and obtain medical care. Chretien swept CAP away with almost no opposition from all these supposed anti-poverty groups. It was about three quarters of the way to a Basic Income.

I knew that when CAP went it would be a massacre in Alberta and it was. The only thing that moderated it was when British Columbia became swamped with refugees from Alberta and protested. I had obtained a disability benefit by that time, however I made plans to move too, though in another direction.

I got good advice from my friends at NAPO HQ. Go to Ottawa, Toronto, or Kitchener Waterloo. Stay out of Hastings county, Ontario. At the time, housing was reasonably available in Toronto and I stayed. However, as I struggled to get established here I lost track of NAPO for awhile.

Canada Without Poverty

When I started trying to reconnect with NAPO, all the people I knew had left, and I had trouble establishing contact with the new people. I did not know if the funding base program was a success or not. A few more years on, and I called the NAPO office in Ottawa and was amazed to find the phone answered by a notorious poverty pimp type from Toronto.

Shortly after that, it seemed like NAPO had collapsed. By that time, I had a good idea of why. Its structure made it vulnerable to take overs by opportunists, if one could get a job on the staff. The board were spread all across the country, and were mostly poorly trained “experience of poverty” folks like me.

I am not sure just how it went down, but it seems a troll got a foot in the door, moved his/her buddies in, scooped the funds from this “funder base”, and when it dried up, moved on. That is what poverty pimps do. I wrote off NAPO as another poverty organization that was not able to survive in the neo-liberal environment.

Lo, a bit later Rainer called me up. He wanted me to come to Ottawa because he was putting together a conference to talk about reviving NAPO. I was suspicious about Rainer but very curious, and it was a free trip to Ottawa.

I was not pleased to find that I was dragged up there in mid winter for no apparent reason other than to be a backdrop to a press conference. There was no meeting; Rainer had just decided on his own to change the whole structure of NAPO, and its name to “Canada Without Poverty” (CWP).

Someone I was working with in Toronto went up to Ottawa to help the new CWP reorganize all the old NAPO files. He was amazed to find that NAPOs main purpose in the 1970s had been to push for a “Mincome” as they were calling then what is being called now “Basic Income”.

I chanced to be in Ottawa again and I dropped into the office of NAPO cum
CWP. My friend and some people from the religious antipoverty organizations were working there. Rainer was nowhere to be found. They admitted that CWP was having some financial problems which they were trying to overcome.

They were amazed at what they were finding in the old NAPO records about previous movements for a BI. It seems even Henry Ford liked the idea. I tried finding out something of what had gone wrong with old NAPO, but they did not want to talk about that.

Basic Income Canada Network and the BIG push

The people then working for CWP were keen on BI. One of them organized the new Basic Income Canada Network congress in Toronto in 2012. This was a joint congress with the American BIG ( Basic Income Guarantee). It seems the US BIG had decided to hold a big organizing push, to build a member base. This push seems to have attracted mostly libertarian types who have pushed the U.S. movement in a rightward direction.

However, this is where Rainer got his idea of a BIG push in Canada. At the next BICN congress, in Montreal in 2014, the space in the agenda where we wanted an open discussion about the direction of the Canadian movement was crowded out by the BIG mouth with the BIG push. His plans did not seem to me to be very practical but I cannot recall details.

Shortly after the BIG meeting in Burlington, Rainer got a job with the Green party for eight months. He decided to put the PUSH on hold while he went to make some money. The last I heard he was still working for the Green party and the PUSH had fizzled.

My informant who attended the Burlington meeting got calls for some time after from people wanting to know what happened to the BIG push. Some of the people who were there have now gone on to start BI groups in small cities of Ontario. It is a concern that many of them have a shaky understanding of the basic concepts of Basic Income.

There is no mention anymore of ‘BIG push’ on the BICN web site. CWP seems to have revived sufficiently to start a law suit with the federal government over the “ten percent” rule for charity organizations. That is, if they want donors who can claim a tax write off, no more than one tenth of their income must be spent on political activity.

I recall that the idea behind old NAPO’s finance plan was to find donors who did not require charity receipts, so that they were not restricted in their activities. Many advocacy organizations and their donors these days are asking why they need these charity receipts, which so restrict their action, instead of donors just giving to what they support.

the seven “C”s

The moral of this story? If you are going to be an organization disposing of substantial funds, and with a political goal which might be a threat to power, you are likely to be a target for takeover or takedown. I wrote a piece awhile back about the “seven cs” which must be navigated if you are going to reach your destination.

The “C”s are; creeps, crazies, criminals, cops, cadres, careerists, and the worst “C” of all, the one which generally gives the others the opportunity they need; codependants.

There is an endless supply of nut cases out there, and people who just get a kick out of gaming other people. A board of naive do gooders with control of some money is a dream for con artists and there still some groups who specialize in hijacking such boards.

Some very political groups get looked into by the civil police forces, but there are private police groups too. Some of them are actually vigilantes, others just protecting special interests; for example resource companies sending agents into environmental groups. You never take anyone at face value when real money and power are involved.

There are various political parties, mostly of the left, whose idea of building their support base involves taking over community organizations and their resources. It is not just revolutionaries; the NDP is hated in poor neighborhoods and those in certain issue categories because of their aggressive cadres and their idea that they “own” everything “left”.

Careerists are those who are trying to make a job or career for themselves. It seems Rainer lost most of his interest in Basic Income when it became clear that raising $300 000 to ‘push big’ with was not going to happen. I suspect he also found out that the NDP cadres had already stripped NAPO by time he got there. CWP proved not to be Rainer’s golden future either. It is good that he seems to be doing well in the Green party; he will be less disruptive of smaller organizations.

Codependents are people who think their well being depends on subordinating their own emotional needs to those of others and want everyone else to do the same. They usually think they are doing something useful and wise when they try to reconcile sound characters to the “C”s listed here.

stabilizing principles

The moral within the moral? If you are going to build a social movement to fight for something like a Basic Income, you need to hold to three principles. They will keep you on course and able to defend against takeovers. The first is that by the time you are asking people for money looking for politicians to talk to, the debates should be over and you should know what you are for.

The second, build slowly and systematically, bringing in new people only when they understand what the organization is for. Third, understand the importance of structure and process within a collaborative effort.

These are hard concepts for most people born in Canada post about 1950, who for various reasons tend to have the idea that things should just sort of happen organically. Or, that some great leader is supposed to emerge and tell everyone what to do. I believe that is why social organizations have become so ineffective in Canada,especially since about 1980. These cultural barriers are at least partly created on purpose by elites for purposes of mass control. They will have to be overcome if we are going to build a better future with ideas like a Basic Income.

A position on the Ontario Basic Income pilot project.

The Ontario government has included an item in its most recent throne speech announcing a plan to conduct a “pilot” for a Basic Income. Ex senator Hugh Segal has been engaged to write an initial report about it, which is to be released in September.

A Basic Income is described by several organizations advocating for one as an income adequate to maintain a dignified existence, paid to everyone as a right and without condition. In Canada there is a lack of any effective movement advocating for a Basic Income and the concern is often expressed that many people are using the term to mean different things, often advocating policies which are in complete contradiction to the above definition.

A problem with the concept of a Basic Income is that it tends to be an elite idea. There is little or no grassroots movement advocating for it. Yet it often happens that social progress is advocated by a small group of thinkers in government or academia before a tipping point occurs and the idea becomes a mass movement.

It is a general rule that social programs never become enacted until there is a strong social movement pushing for it. This is just as true in Canada as elsewhere, although in Canada many people seem to believe in a mythology that social programs are enacted by enlightened elites. Everything from employment insurance to health care to child benefits happened in Canada because they had already been established elsewhere and a demand built up to establish them in Canada.

There is an international movement to establish a Basic Income and many successful local experiments have been carried out. But no country has yet enacted one. There is much enthusiasm for the “pilot” Basic Income of the government of Finland despite the problems with its design.

one sided conversation

It takes years to build a really effective grassroots organization to advocate for something like a BI. Development is often obstructed by people who refuse to believe any kind of structure is needed, with a funding source and a professional staff. I spent many years observing the pathetically slow development of Fair Vote Canada around the issue of voting reform. I am impressed by the relatively rapid development of the LeadNow group which is focussed on the same issue.

The problem with FVC has been that it was founded by people with an academic rather than activist orientation. This has also been the problem with the main organizations for a BI in Canada and internationally, Basic Income Canada Network and Basic Income Earth Network. These lack the capacity to articulate a clear vision of a Basic Income or to engage with government or public opinion on the concept.

What is especially concerning is the lack of understanding of the vagueness of the basic concept. It could be actualized in many ways, some of them with positive consequences for underclass people and for society in general, and some of them with very negative consequences. Many people involved with BI groups have the idea that a broad and loose discussion of a BI is going to somehow lead organically to a consensus on a BI. This shows a lack of understanding of the class based nature of this society, of the restrictions of public discourse and deliberation under a class hegemony, and of the nature of persuasion and understanding, which is disturbing in supposedly highly educated people.

However, my point is that the kind of grass roots movement which could engage government and the public voice in order to bring about a good form of Basic Income, is not there yet. The present push within some governments to test out a Basic Income seems to come from a desire to preempt demand, to either discredit the idea, delay it until interest passes, or set in stone a very limited form of BI. To repeat, there is at present no effective advocacy for BI, no “one ask”.

Manitoba winds

The BI proponents who attended the last congress in Winnipeg in May of this year need to recall what was said about pilot BI projects, especially by people who have been, and who presently are, involved in running BI experiments.

The person who ran the famous Dauphin, Manitoba experiment in the 1970s believes now the whole thing was a waste of public money due to the incompetence of people in government. There was never enough funding to do the experiment properly in the first place, and then it was abruptly terminated with no provision for analyzing or even storing the data. Without the initiative of doctor Evelyn Forget, the whole program would have been a complete waste.

Jurgen De Wispelaere is now working with the Finnish government on its design of a Basic Income pilot. He also finds the project to be under funded and poorly designed. There will not be a sufficient number of people/subjects in the study for statistical significance. He also points out that there is a difference between a pilot and an experiment. An experiment ends when it is done. A pilot in the right use of the term means a project which is intended to be open ended, to start out small, get the bugs shaken out of it, and be ramped up into a full scale and permanent program.

Karl Widerquist was especially impatient with talk of more experiments and pilots. The idea has been studied to death in dozens of experiments. What is needed is for someone to do it. An experiment is at any rate of little use. The experimental group does not exist outside of place and time, and the larger economy. The results of an experiment can be influenced by what is going on in the larger community or the economy at the time.

Further, the experiment can interact with the local economy. For example, local employers may decide to prefer participants in the experiment because they can pay them less. Landlords may prefer to rent to participants because they are surer of getting their rent.

An experiment can be designed to fail. The results can also be fudged or misinterpreted to discredit the BI. For example, in some American experiments, labor force participation decreased slightly. This was because some people stayed in school longer and some mothers stayed home with their kids. Even though primary providers worked more, the reduced hours effect was exaggerated to discredit the concept of BI.

It is generally not a good idea to try to bring out such a revolutionary program as this, with such effects on the status quo in society, by degrees or with a pilot project. As was noted at the Montreal BIEN congress in 2014, the flaws of such a program are usually not corrected, they are instead used to attack the program. You need to bring in something like this all at once, and then you can fine tune it.

no can do, Ontario

Now, I get to the specific problems with any BI project run by a province. At the start, this Ontario project is as bogus as could be because a province cannot have a Basic Income of its own. It will not have the money to do it because only the federal government has the needed tax powers.

If somehow this funding problem could be overcome, what would happen when impoverished people from other provinces start to come to Ontario looking for a better life? This is what happened with the Namibia experiment. Principles of Federalism will prevent the province from refusing them.

Now, what will happen if each province was required to create its own BI, like with the health care system or the old Canada Assistance plan? This sets up a “race to the bottom”; each province will set its BI as low as possible to avoid drawing in other province’s underclasses.

Any study of social programs in Canada shows that leaving them to the provinces to run creates just these kinds of downward tendencies. Yet some discussants of national social policies are strongly attached to the idea of provincial social programs. One must wonder what the real motive behind that is.

What does not work well in Canada are the older social programs of the 1960s through 1980s period, based on federal transfers to provinces. The social programs which work well are the more recent ones, mainly aimed at seniors and children, which come straight from the federal government. Even here, the provinces have tended to get in the way with “clawbacks” and such things. It is peculiar that anyone would want the provinces mixed up with any kind of new social program.

To sum this point up, a Basic Income is something which must be done by the federal government. If the provinces or municipalities would like to help out, let them help lobby the federal institutions to establish a BI. Or, get the housing programs going which will be needed to make a BI work.

valid concerns

So, what is the Wynne government really trying to do here? One thing which comes to mind is an effort to pressure the federal government into adopting a Basic Income policy, as they did with the Ontario pension until the Trudeau government came into office and began to expand the Canada pension scheme. The federal government has stated it will not become involved in any Basic Income plan. This is not a good way of trying to get another government to do something.

Various anti poverty groups when asked about a Basic Income relate conversations which they or their allies and associates have had with government officials. Lately, when such groups have tried to talk about poverty reduction, raising the minimum wage and similar issues, they are told to just wait, the government is going to create a Basic Income plan and that will “fix everything”. This has prompted many anti-poverty activists and groups to start speaking out strongly against a Basic Income.

The concerns of these people are justified. The biggest problem within a BI movement is that most people still do not get it that the same terms are being used to talk about different things. Many of the ideas put under the rubric of a BI would be very bad for most low and middle income people. Much like the FVC organization, the BI movement has failed to grasp the need to define what is and is not being advocated. This failing damaged FVC greatly and is now starting to bite BICN and other BI advocate groups.

The arguments being used against a BI are not “straw man” arguments. They are a arguments against ideas described as part of a BI, and which the BI movement has not clearly renounced. These ideas include; that a BI will make a minimum wage unnecessary. That a BI will allow for the elimination of most or all social programs. That a BI will allow employers to pay lower wages in order to remain “competitive”. That a BI can be used as a rent subsidy so that slumlords can get higher returns on their property.

These are legitimate concerns about the BI movement and the Wynne government’s intentions, which people who are not of a neo-liberal ideological tendency will have. This includes the overwhelming majority of the population. If the BI movement ever wants to get general public support for a BI, it must address these concerns.

This means we must think about what the Wynne government is trying to do. I have had one BI activist tell me he has heard that key people within the provincial government have had a “road to Damascus” moment and realized that the neo-liberal policies they have been pushing have never worked and are prepared to turn around. If so, why do they not move to raise corporate taxes, and stop the privatization of hydro, and the attacks on doctors?

NIT wits

It is unlikely that they intend a full BI program. They have not got the money to run programs they are obligated to provide now. Even with a “Negative Income Tax” model which Mr. Segal is apparently advocating, they would have to get federal cooperation. It would still cost them a substantial amount of money, from direct and indirect tax expenditures, unless they choose to take it from existing programs.

A Negative Income Tax has been well shown to be absolutely the wrong way to administer a Basic Income. It would be very complicated; people would have to calculate their incomes several times a year. For people with variable incomes, and there are many these days, that is a non starter.

The rigid attachment of some block heads to this idea seems to come from the fact that the Dauphin experiment was run that way. This was in the days before computers and the internet, and tax refunds were the only way to do it. Yet the people who worked on the Dauphin experiment recall that its biggest problem was the trouble people had with their income tax. Many people refused to take the income supplement because it was too much headache.

But lo, we are now in the internet age. Now we have the machinery which can deliver payments such as the child benefit or the Guaranteed Income Supplement into people’s bank accounts every month. That is how the recipients of a BI will want it and need it.

Another reason why this pre-internet age zombie idea for delivering a BI is so persistent is that it fits with the ideology of some Libertarian tag-alongs in the BI movement. That is, the tax system can be “revenue neutral”, with some redistribution from the better off to the worst off, but nothing for government with which to provide for anything else.

Some try to defend an NIT by saying it will be cheaper to run than a demogrant. Only people who “really need” the top up will get it. There is no room in this paper to refute NIT in every detail, but their idea of NIT is cheaper because it is not really a BI. It is a wage top up. It also allows government to conceal increased taxes in the slightly better off, rather than the wealthy, to pay a new form of ‘welfare’ to the poorest.

To sum up here, the province does not have the legal or fiscal means to provide a real and useful BI. That is, a demogrant delivered to everyone below a set income level, much higher than the “poverty line”. That is, enough for people to live in a dignified way. That is, a fixed and predictible amount delivered electronically every month.

cooptation?

If the province really had some wage top up idea in mind, it seems unlikely it would go through a “pilot” of several years. The flaws of their idea would become too apparent. Perhaps the pilot will be constructed to fail, thus discrediting the BI concept.

The provincial liberals have been very good at neutralizing the anti-poverty movement by stringing it along. Some participants in initiatives like “25 in 5” went totally ga-ga that the province responded to them and let them think they were having a hand in shaping a government program. Their behavior was shameful; like they assumed the right to bargain away the rights of impoverished people.

Many people who have staked out territory in the new Basic Income movement show signs of willingness to go in this direction. Especially so based on the way they have interacted with officials of some local governments, attaching to their support much more significance than it deserves. An engagement between the province and BI activists is likely to lead to a break point within the BI movement between such people, and those whose objective is more important than their ego.

When or if this break comes, it needs to be allowed to happen. The flatterers can do their thing, and the rest of us can get on with building real support without being tied into processes that can go nowhere. The experience of FVC and many other advocacy groups shows that nothing can be more destructive than the frantic efforts to hold together factions who have shown conflicting agendas and need to go their own ways.

questions, Ms. Wynne

Now I get to the sharp point of this paper; how a BI movement in Ontario needs to respond to a provincial initiative on BI. Basically, with profound skepticism. We need to keep firmly in mind that the province cannot possibly give us a BI; that has to come from the federal government.

So, Ms. Wynne, what is the point to this exercise? Is there a real intention to create a BI for Ontarians? If so, where will Ontario get the money for it? It seems likely you will try to run it as a ‘NIT” in a revenue neutral way. This sounds like an expansion of the “PST”, “renters credit”, and other refundable credits the province has been giving out in recent years. If so, it will be nice for poor people to have, but not be nearly enough to solve the problems for which a BI is needed.

What is a “pilot” needed for, Ms. Wynne? If you want to enact such a program, why don’t you just go ahead with it? What is the pilot supposed to show, anyway? What will be the criteria of a successful pilot? What will become of this pilot, and all the data collected, and the money spent on it, if after the end of three years you are no longer in government?

If you want to give poor people more money through the tax system, Ms. Wynne, you do not need a pilot for it. We wish you would just do it. But that is not really a BI. Only the federal government can give us that.

However, Ms. Wynne, we are concerned about what our friends in such groups as those demanding a rise in the minimum wage, and seeking an increase in welfare and disability benefits, are telling us about conversations they are having with provincial government officials. They are told that there is no need for them to worry anymore about raising wage or welfare or disability rates, because the province is going to bring in a Basic Income which will solve the poverty problem.

Are these people simply telling us stories? There is no way that the province has the means to eliminate poverty by itself. A BI will not make things like a minimum wage or services for the disabled unnecessary. The BI movement in Ontario stands in solidarity with labor rights and disability rights groups.

Now, Ms. Wynne, since Ontario cannot deliver a BI we question what this pilot is really about. If it is an attempt to coopt us in the way the anti-poverty movement has been coopted, most of us will not be taken in that way. If this test is set up to fail and to discredit a BI, we will expose this. If the idea is to freeze discussion about a BI until interest in it dies away, we do not think interest will fade away this time, as it has before, as the need for it is now becoming acute.

Ms. Wynne, whatever your aim is with this BI pilot, it cannot go anywhere. It will be a waste of time and a waste of public money. It is likely to be more inconvenience than help to those who become study subjects, and what happens to them when the study ends? Whatever data come out of it will not prove much.

we need this;

If you really would like to see a BI in Canada, Ms. Wynne, then work with us in applying pressure to the federal government to establish one. A real Bi program would be like this;

1) Enacted by the federal government all at once, not as a pilot or a phased in program.

2) A monthly demogrant delivered by automatic deposit to the lower two thirds of the population by income.

3) An amount adequate to insure a dignified life for everyone, not geared to the statistics Canada low income cutoff.

Any claim such a program is unaffordable is bogus. It could be covered by redirecting funds for programs made redundant by BI, plus restoration of corporate tax cuts of the past twenty which should not have been made.

Such a program will require a high minimum wage, rent controls, and a renewed housing program. All health care programs must remain and be enhanced. Provincial social welfare, no longer needed to deal with mass poverty, can be redirected toward hard core needs.

To conclude, if this “pilot project” does nothing but cause the scattered BI groups in Ontario to coalesce into an effective advocacy organization, and clarify their goals, it will have been of some use.

voting reform politics on a hot August day

single member constituent

Last week I was at my MPs summer picnic. I used to have some nice M.P.s, Bill Graham and then Bob Rae. Lately I have had an MP, Chrystia Freeland, who was not really too interested in the riding. She was planning to run somewhere else after redistribution.

When the redistributions were done, she chose to run in one of the new ridings created. The M.P. for Toronto center after the election was Bill Morneau, the new finance minister. As befits something named “Toronto Center”, we always have a big shot in Ottawa to represent us.

Morneau also seems to be a good “riding person”. However, the redistribution also distributed me out of Toronto Center into one of the new ridings. The district drawers should not be allowed to cut through neighborhoods like they seem to have a mania for doing. In the north of the Toronto center riding, the Church and Wellesley area was chopped up among three ridings. In the south, where I am, two neighborhoods got chopped in two right down their main streets.

So if the denizens of St. Lawrence want to complain about their eternal nemesis, the Port Authority, or try to get some federal money put into whatever public works need some work, they have to go to two different M.P.s depending on which side of The Esplanade they are on.

Those north of it can go up Parliament street to near Regent Park to visit with our “representative”. We know where Regent and Moss parks are; many of us moved from there. They studied St. Lawrence when they went about redeveloping Regent.

But if we are banished south of the red line, we have to get through to the other side of downtown to tell our sorrows to our great interceder. Most of us have nothing in common with Liberty Village and China Town; don’t even know where they are. Above all we are disdainful of the “mondo condo” mess along Queen’s Quay from Yonge west, now creeping into our territory.

My one and only representative in Ottawa is now Adam Vaughan. His father Colin had also been a TV news Johnny turned politician. Adam also became a city councillor but got fed up with local politics and ran federally.

my well ground axes

When he was a councillor I has some words with him about the Federation of Metro Tenants Associations, which I have a long standing grievance with. I asked him why he wants to support such a downright criminal group. He mumbled something about how if I know something criminal going on I should call the cops. Haw, haw.

But ultimately, the only solution for outfits like FMTA is governmental reform in Toronto. If every councillor could not act like a party of one and only a few of them together able to block just about anything, much of the corruption in Toronto would have its cover blown.

These days Adam is federal, and what is going on Federally that concerns me is governmental reform at the federal level. If we can get that, I suspect that local governmental reform would become easier. But there is a more personal issue for me; getting some money for the hours I was not able to work on the election last October.

I have already blogged enough elsewhere about my misadventures as an advance poll supervisor in the last federal election. I had as a boss a chief returning officer who was a complete nut case. I was stuck between her ridiculous rules and the Liberal party’s scrutineers who rightly wanted to be able to do their work.

The latest I have heard is that elections Canada, which had been full of conservative appointees, is in the process of being cleaned up by the new government. But it remains totally disorganized almost a year after the elections. When I call Gatineau I get handed around among shmooks who talk like they got hired off the street that morning and are still looking for the washrooms.

The returning officer in question is refusing to quit even though she was suspended toward the end of the campaign. From the stuff I obtained out of “Freedom of Info”, she had no staff trained a week before the election, but was sitting on over 1000 applications. Someone had to come down from Gatineau and pull Elections Canada’s chestnuts out of the fire.

So a few of us who had signed on for the full election and then lost our jobs because of this would like to be made whole for the money we should have made. There is now a Vaughan staffer looking into all this but I have not heard from her in awhile. Ah, well. It is August. Everything is at a crawl.

at Adam’s picnic

All the federal government is doing in the summer is run its election reform committee and hold community picnics. So I got on my bike and headed up the Queen’s Quay bike route to Little Norway park, under ominous clouds and steamy Toronto summer air.

A few people were already buzzing around Vaughan, vying for their moment in The Eye. I got a hamburger as the rain started pouring down. I stood with my burger getting soggy as I watched someone who was taking all the space under the canopy and whose brain power seemed to be taxed in getting some ketchup onto his burger.

Finally I got a dressed up burger and headed over to the trees to consume it. By the time I finished it the rain had settled back to a sprinkle and I got some cake and juice.

I sat back down under the tree canopy on a concrete embankment, and watched the picnic. The attendance was small due to the rain. Vaughan did not seem to mind getting wet, he was still talking people up. I went over to him.

He soon turned to me. We did not shake hands, I noticed he usually doesn’t do that. Everyone is germ phobic these days. I had decided my topic would be voting reform. I asked when he was going to do his obligatory consultation on that. It seems he has it arranged for September 10th.

I had to wonder if he really remembered me or any of my issues. He has to meet dozens of people every day. I might meet one new person every couple of days and I could not possibly remember more than a fraction of them. When I attend a conference like the one last May in Winnipeg I get totally boggled. My poor old fibrofogged mind.

topic for today

But he cannot do anything about FMTA as a Federale and my Elections Canada problem is being processed by his staff. The problem now is getting voting reform going. I suggested that a consensus seems to be emerging that a citizen’s assembly, such as B.C. and Ontario organized, is the way to go. Senator Axworthy seems to be a big proponent.

He disputed that there was any such consensus. He seemed to have the idea that since time was already getting tight, the ER committee should just bring forward a recommendation and send it to the Elections Canada bureaucracy. I suggested that time was not all that tight. Yes, Elections Canada needed two years lead time, but the next election could be delayed a year if needed.

Adam did not seem to think much of the idea of delaying the next election for a year. But a citizen’s assembly could take much less than a year, and then legislation could be dealt with quickly, and you would still have time to get in place whatever EC needs to get in place. I think the Ontario assembly took four months of weekends, in fact.

Adam was concerned about who was going to be on this assembly; how was it going to be representative of the population. I am actually a big expert on the Ontario Assembly. I attended most of the meetings open to the general public and got hold of much of the information they were informed by.

I started explaining how the members of the assembly were selected, but I realized this was too much to get across and instead suggested he read up on the assembly. There is plenty about how it worked on the net. I had my own web pages about it before I took it down. But he seemed very skeptical and hit me with a pretty good question; there are three hundred thirty eight federal ridings as opposed to just one hundred and five provincial, so how was this assembly going to function?

Yes, an assembly that size could get unwieldly. You would not want more than about eighty to one hundred on it, and how would these people be representative of the population and credible? By credible, not seen as handpicked. But this is a problem which could be worked out.

I told Adam that the big problem in Canada is we do not have much experience at deliberative democracy. They have much more in some European and South American countries. He needs to study the idea of deliberative assemblies more. He needs to listen more to the professor who chaired the Ontario Assembly and talked to the ER committee the previous week.

He smirked a bit and said something about hearing even more experts. He also said something about how the civil society groups concerned with voting reform should have come up with more definite proposals by now. It is interesting that he mentioned Leadnow, but not Fair Vote Canada. I would have agreed with him that these groups were really not very sophisticated or useful, though I do not think they should be seen as examples of democratic participation.

Leadnow is probably the best, but such groups tend to be made up of self important pinheads, or are astroturf for special interests. I know, I was involved with Fair Vote for some time. Such groups are not examples of discursive democracy because they have no mandate.

But someone else was waiting to lay their words of wisdom upon him and he turned away from me. I got some more cake and juice, and came back to listen.

Someone claiming to be a veteran of some Canadiana army peace keeping was concerned about the Liberals planning to do peace keeping again. I am not sure if these were his own experiences or those of his friends, but he talked about being in a contingent that had to report back; “if we can find a peace here, we will try to keep it”.

go home and remember

I did not like the look of the sky to the west, so soon I was back on my bike. I got home, inside my personal air conditioned island, and sat down as the rain started, and thought about this electoral reform problem.

I no longer support the idea of a referendum because the mechanisms are not there to do it right. You can’t do these on the fly. There has to be a process of educating the public about the issue and there has to be time and money for that. A good direct democratic system needs some sort of citizens assembly to study the issue and make recommendations.

The way the Ontario Citizen’s Assembly worked, or was set up to work, should be the gold standard. They got someone from the voters list, one for each riding, and did a screening process like a jury selection. Then they spend several months listening to experts. Then they deliberated and came up with recommendations.

The usual hordes of advocacy groups for various causes were told to go home; they were not doing it that way. I supported that, because most of these groups are mere self important busybodies and letting them do their “deputations” is a caricature of democracy.

Then the provincial government gave in to pressure from those who do not like any sort of advancement of democracy. They cut off all the funds for the project. There was no ‘education program’ for the public about the assemblies recommendations.

When election time came around most people did not know there was a referendum. Those who did were frustrated that they could not find out anything about the matter of the ‘randum. The government paid for a few public forums and hired people to explain the voting reform recommendations. Then these people got their chains yanked and were given sharp limitations on what they could say.

A few of the people who had served on the Citizen’s Assembly were furious at this. Some even wanted to start a law suit with the government for wasting their time for four months. The various community groups which had been ‘studying’ voting reform woke up and realized that if any sort of ‘yes’ campaign was going to happen, it had to come from them.

A major feat of organizing was pulled off as a few voting reform activists told the ” no, we are just a group of citizen experts consulting with government” types to get the fuck out of the way. Some funds were raised, materials printed, and some volunteers hit the streets, including me.

The response of the “main stream press” should have been predictable. Journalists tend to identify with the elite class and to have the idea that they are in control of The Truth. They are hostile to any idea of democracy except within the limited framework it is presently restricted to. The public is not supposed to know what it wants, it is supposed to be told.

There was an information blank out for most of the election campaign, then in the last two weeks came a torrent of misinformation. Basically, it used what people dislike about the present system, and used it to protect the present system, by transposing what people dislike onto the proportional system being proposed. For example, PR would put ‘party hacks” in control of selecting candidates, like they are not almost totally in control of candidate selection under the present system.

If you look at candidate nomination in PR countries, the party hacks tend to have a harder time stacking candidate slates because there are more alternatives they have to exclude. In open list systems, handpicked candidates tend to get knocked out in the general election and candidates with more rank and file support move up in rank.

In the end, the referendum lost in every riding, but had a strong showing in a few; precisely the ones where the “yes” campaign could get a good organization going on the ground.

From all this I would extract three simple rules for running a referendum.

1) The issue has to be thoroughly worked out, with a clear set of options set before the electorate.

2) The referendum campaign should not be run concurrent with a general election, as this divides attention.

3) The “yes” campaign needs plenty of time to organize itself, and plenty of money to do its work. There is no need to fund the “no” side, it will get unlimited resources from the “private sector”; you can count on that.

conclusions about a citizen’s Assembly

So, within this rushed timeframe which election promises and term limits have imposed on the vote reform process, a referendum is not going to work. But the reform does have to have some legitimacy, to make it harder for a conservative government to come in and restore the old rules the same way they were set aside; by legislative fiat.

This is why Axworthy’s idea of a Citizen’s Assembly is so smart. Vaughan’s idea of some of the advocacy groups just getting together and recommending something to the government would not be a good idea. LeadNow would likely be smart enough to refuse to go along with it. The pinheads of Fair Vote Canada would love to be “consulted” about vote reform but would then fall into discussions about the mathematics of various vote systems until everyone is exasperated.

But we are now left with the problem of how to run a Citizen’s Assembly on a national level. I had not thought enough about this yet. But before the dusk settled on a hot and rainy Toronto I had some ideas about it, which I will conclude this summer piece with.

The CA should be 100 people, half of each gender of course. Google tells me that 22 would be francophone, 4 aboriginal, and 21 immigrants. We can only go so far with getting a “representative” Canadian population, or we will end up with something like the genius ideas on the Fair Vote Canada discussion boards, like having to find someone who is one quarter of a transgendered person. The group should also be roughly proportional to geographic areas, for example 18 from the Prairies.

These people could be found through jury rolls and a selection committee. It would not be al that hard. The problem would be in getting 100 people who can commit for four months and could travel to Ottawa. The Ontario assembly met on weekends. People were flown or bussed, some from the far reaches of the province, but up in hotels and flown back sunday evening.

A better solution might be to bring them to Ottawa for a month solid, especially in summer, and pay them their incomes while they are there. Then you bring the usual experts to them and finally let them come to a decision with the help of professional facilitators.

So the problems of a Citizen’s Assembly are not all that great. They should be surmountable by an entity with the resources of the federal government. The will to put up with the yowling of the conservative party will have to be there. The other parties must agree to pass whatever the assembly comes up with, and be done with it.

And I am done with this.

Presentation on Cognitive Framing for Health and Strength Action Group.

 

“Framing” has become a big buzzword for left/progressive groups in North America. This is largely due to the work of Cognitive Scientist Professor George Lakoff in trying to explain to such groups why they keep losing the debate on the shape of society to the neoliberals and other “right wing” groups.

Lakoff gets frustrated because these people do not even understand his explanations. They think that all they have to do is adopt different phrase words in order to appeal to working class people. They are incapable of seeing their own “Aristotelean” way of thinking.

the cognitive revolution

This has always been a problem with western culture and civilization from the time of the Ancient Greeks. Even the scientific revolution has had a limited effect. In fact, the scientific revolution is very much an unfinished revolution even in the universities. I have found in my own experiences with academia a conflict between scientific and philosophic academics.

The trouble with modern liberals is that they are still educated in the Aristotelean, scholastic, rationalist line of western thinking which is very flawed. As Lakoff has noted, most right wing people have gone instead to business school and learned “marketing”. In other words, persuasion using the new academic discipline of Cognitive Science which has developed in the past fifty years.

I think the real ancestor of cognitive scientists is the philosopher David Hume back in the 1700s in Scotland, in the so called “age of reason”. He told people then that they have in fact no such faculty as “reason” and everything they do differs from what animals do only by degree. Later, Hegel in Germany told people that everything we know and do comes from a long “dialectic” process, passed on from one generation to the next.

Dialectics means that people seek a solution for a problem, the solution creates a new problem or “contradiction”, the solution for that creates another contradiction, and so on. This is often called, “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, the synthesis becoming the new thesis. Karl Marx was a great exponent of Hegelian dialectics.

A thinker called Alfred Korzybski in the 1940s developed what he called a system of “general semantics”, which taught people to solve their cognitive problems by thinking in a non Aristotelean or “Null A” way. People needed to become “conscious of abstracting”, that is, aware that their internal model of the world is not the same thing as the external reality. The word for a thing is not the thing itself, it is only a symbol.

But cognitive science really got going in the 1950s and 60s when people started trying to create artificial intelligence. They were forced to realize that their assumptions about how human intelligence worked were totally wrong. Machines which tried to solve problems with”reason” and “logic” got nowhere. If they tried solving problems by running through every possible solution they ran into a “combinatory explosion” because there are always infinite possibilities.

So scientists realized that intelligence was really about reducing huge amounts of information to simple patterns and models which could be dealt with; “reduction to simplicity”. Cognition requires three orders of abstraction; identification of salient objects in the world, identification of relations between these objects, and identification of principles governing relations between objects. Order one, two and three.

What is called “magical thinking” is the misunderstanding of the principles of relationships between objects.

the evolution of understanding

This system evolved like everything else in living things, from simple to complex. The simplest organisms could react to things only reflexively, as by jerking their entire body in response to a stimulus at one spot. More complex organisms developed what is called “embodiment”. They developed an internal map of their bodies in order to control and direct them.

These days people who design complex computer control systems realize that they have to create a model within the computer’s circuitry, of the system it is to control.

Next, organisms had to develop a model of the external world in order to be able to respond to it and survive. It had to do this using a limited amount of sensory information and available processing power of the brain. A brain, even a primitive one, uses a lot of energy.

The larger brains needed to be able to make and use fire and tools required the extra energy made possible by the use of fire and tools. Using fire and tools enabled the brain to develop the circuitry for language. Manual processes are a kind of story or narrative, with a subject and object and a correct sequence to follow.

People had sign language before they developed speech. It took a long time after speech to start raising plants and animals and creating civilization. Learning how to do all these things required narratives; telling a stories about how things work and how to do things.

how understanding works

This is why the professor telling the student that her paper is a mere “narrative” and not in a proper form, is so stupid. What he means is, she is not thinking in an Aristotelean way. In other words, not “proving” by a “reasoned argument” that things are the way they are.

People who try to “reason” about things invariably get everything wrong. All knowledge is built from what is often called the “scientific method” but is really just using one’s brain the way it was designed by nature to work. You do not construct an ideal world in your head and then try to make it work in the real world. You look at how the world works and build a model of it in your head, always remembering that what you see depends on what you have already learned.

In the same way, if you want to convince somebody of something, you show that it is a better tool for understanding and for living in the world. You do not assume that the way you understand something is a universal truth. If you are a true scumball, you will try to confuse people and discredit what they know using abstract “reasoning”, meaning arguments which cannot be rebutted in their own terms but which are disconnected from reality.

A serious activist should above all refuse to deal with anyone who will not deal with others like human beings, using the system the human brain is set up with. This is the system of embodiment and narrative; of schema and frames, symbols, tropes, and analogies. Everyone thinks this way, because our brains are hard wired by evolution to see and process things in this way.

However, everyone’s experiences and perceived interests are different. Therefore a person’s inner model of the world can change rapidly when parts of the old one are not working anymore and where there is motive to change them. The key to persuasion is offering a better and more appealing narrative or framing.

The obstacles to people understanding something in a different way are usually social, not based on facts. It is said that “where you sit is where you stand” and ” it is hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it”. Often holding contradictory ideas is a means of self protection; if you can’t do anything to change something, acknowledging it can just lead to depression.

persuasion

So here are the basics of cognitive science as they relate to persuasion. It can actually get a lot more complicated than this. It is about a lot more than just “reframing” an issue, as those who misinterpreted Lakoff thought.

“Framing” an issue does not matter much if you do not have a better idea than what you are challenging. The real reason the “left/progressive” establishment has failed against neo-liberalism in the information wars of the past forty years is that they have nothing better to offer. It is not just that they think they have “The Facts” and that if people who are given the facts do not reason to the “correct” conclusion they must be stupid or crazy or evil. What they have to offer is as insulting and threatening to ordinary people as what the neo-liberals want.

The thing about the “human rights” approach to a Basic Income is that we do have something better to offer. The broad mass of people can be convinced of it if we can reach them, and if we can overcome the confusion that will be thrown up by those who want the forms of BI which will be bad for most people.

This is the motive for learning cognitive science; to be able to engage in this “framing” war. It is not about just trying to hijack the elite’s frames. You have to build new frames and completely new schema in people’s heads, and that is a long and hard job.

For example, people have been conditioned for generations to a negative framing of the word “socialism”, the organization of society to meet human needs rather than that of profit taking organizations. The term activates the frames of “communism” or of “out of control government”, taxing everyone to death and impeding their freedoms. It brings in the whole libertarian or neoliberal schema which sees all of history as a struggle against government. Government is always bad and we would all be better off with no government.

Trying to defeat the “socialism-bad” frame in relation to a Basic Income, by trying to reframe BI as a “socialist way to achieve the aims of capitalism”, is not going to impress many people. The whole neo-liberal schema, and all its composite frames and narratives, has to be tackled head on. Defeating it requires counter narratives, especially of democracy as a long, slow revolution for government in the interests of a majority. Or, “no-government” as chaos, as insecurity, a war of all against all, etc.

understanding is still evolving

I am not qualified to be a guru on cognitive mapping and information war. It requires some serious learning and the learning resources out there are not adequate yet, but they are getting better. I am publishing along with this article a few resources to get people started on an in depth study of “framing”.

This is what human rights oriented Basic Income or Guaranteed Living Income activists should be doing. We do not need more “rational” people going around telling everybody what is good for them by “fact based” analysis. While supplying suppressed facts is necessary too, people have to be persuaded to think about the subject in a better way. You do that by first having a better way of thinking about it, that people can support.

You can only convince those who are reachable. So, we can also do without people who think it is all about converting their opponents. Usually they have the idea that politics is about debates among elites. The worst are the academic rationalists who think they have to repeat the opponents debating points to show they have understood them. What they show is that they have accepted the opponents terms before they start, the sure way to lose any debate. Then they reinforce the opponents ideas. And finally they show they have no better ideas of their own.

I sum up my framing message for Basic Income activists thusly; have something to show people that is better than what your opponents are offering. Recognize that you have opponents, and that you are in an informational class war. Communicate the message in the way that people understand.

Of course, learn all you can about cognitive framing and develop, not your “arguments”, but completing frames and a thorough schema of a society built around a living income for everybody. All this will require considerable learning, far beyond what I can offer. I am still learning, myself.

Because the BI movement does not have these frames and schema and narratives ready yet, it is itself not quite ready yet. We have the “what” but not the “why” and “how”.

tr

Thoughts on the Fort MacMurray Fire and a Basic Income

I have something to add to the public discourse over the Fort MacMurray fire. It is often best to add something after the frenzy of the initial event has died down a bit, but this is getting a bit old. I have been very busy since the Basic Income Canada Network (BICN) congress in Winnipeg in May.

I attended it and have been writing up my notes and impressions about it and delivered a couple of talks on it. I have helped organize the frenzy of activities which have developed from the latest wave of interest in a Basic Income, also called Guaranteed Annual Income, Guaranteed Livable Income, and so on.

There may be more connection between the two topics than it first seems. There is not much reason for a large urban area like ‘Fort Mac’ to exist way out in the north Alberta Taiga. It is, or was, there to service the massive industrial complex built to extract a so called “synthetic crude” from the great tar sands deposits of the Athabasca country.

a colossal waste

The whole thing never made the slightest economic sense, for reasons I will get into in more detail. The stuff produced did not even yield gasoline; it was much better for refining into heavy fuel oil. For that a huge area had to be ripped up, which may not have been some of the most valuable land around, but which provided a living for some mostly aboriginal hunters, trappers, fishers, and loggers.

The huge forest fire which engulfed the area last month was predictable. It had nothing to do with the global warming nonsense, of course. Every kind of natural disaster is blamed on that now, and the connection made to the extra ‘carbon’ the synthetic crude is putting into the air and supposedly altering whatever it is exactly that is supposed to be being altered by “burning fossil fuels”.

You do not need to create a panic about ‘climate’ whatever or other in order to make a case for stopping foolish projects like the tar sands. Resources should be used as lightly as possible. Every effort should be made to “leave it in the ground”, and to leave the ground alone.

Even the Basic Income people have pretty much got that clear. There is no magic mountain of ‘resources’ which can be monetized in order to fund a Basic Income, so we do not have to grab the billionaires by the horns and make them start paying taxes. The flexible BI/GLI concept is now a way to convince people to consume less and thus place less demand on mother earth.

This lead to an lively debate with some other BICN 2016 congress participants in a university dorm in Winnipeg as we were watching TV news about the Fort Mac fire. If I could not entirely convince them that “climate change” was a load of hooey, at least they would agree that it was something which could be legitimately disputed and so should not be used as an argument for a BI.

The argument for minimizing the use of resources can be made without the climate crap, and BI really would be useful in achieving that. If everyone’s needs are assured, and the hold of capitalism over people’s lives weakened, people can be content to work less, consume less, create less waste, thus less “throughput” in the economy, and we will all be happier. Limited resources can be saved for the future.

As well, the justification for nonsense like the ‘tar sands’ will disappear. The new and nominally socialist government of the province of Alberta has no choice but to keep it going even after the fall in world oil prices rendered it even more economically nonviable that it was with high oil prices.

The Alberta government sells oil, which belongs to the people of Alberta, to the rest of the world for a small fraction of the world price. For decades, the oil has been practically given away because otherwise all that revenue will make government too self sufficient and apt to act in the public interest. That is just awful according to neo-liberal dogma. Yet Edmonton has still taken in enough money during times of good oil prices to buy off serious dissent and dissatisfaction.

In Oilberta, all sorts of unjustified projects are built to create jobs, but the old, disabled, and other ‘welfarians’ are treated with exceptional contempt, even by Canadian standards. We cannot put all this revenue into a sovereign wealth fund for when all this oil runs out; that would be socialism. Instead, we must use it to subsidize totally nonviable industries which ‘create jobs’, especially the tar sands plants.

Political scientists will talk about the ‘resource curse’. An economy based on extracting resources makes people stupid. It is too easy. It creates currency exchange and labor market problems which ruin more valuable industries. This explains a lot of Canada’s problem, especially in the age of ‘neo-liberalism’.

But if resource based economies make people stupid, the oil economy has made Albertans absolutely retarded. They have a one industry economy, an industry which totally dominates their society, and they have thought of themselves as a bastion of ‘free enterprise’. They bought into ‘neoliberalism’ well before it became fashionable everywhere else.

undeserving of pity

I grew up in Alberta. I have not lived there for awhile. Now that this hallucination has partly receded, to a point they have voted in the NDP, I plan to go back for a visit soon.

But imagine how I feel when I see people in Toronto out collecting money for disaster relief in Fort MacMurray. Next to the usual bin for food bank donations at the supermarket, is one collecting donations for the stricken residents of Fort Mac, Alberta. This in Toronto, which the Alberta ideology demonizes as Sodom by lake Ontario; as the cause of almost everything that goes wrong in Alberta.

I lived in Fort Mac for a few months forty years ago now. Then and now, the city as a whole is worthy of no special consideration. The old economy of river transport and traditional livelihoods was vanishing then, when the city had a quarter of the population. I am sure it is now utterly extinguished by the resource complex economy and all that goes with it.

I could tell some tales of the summer of 1976 that I spend in Fort Mac, experiencing 23 hour days in a city where the woods came right up to the edge of carburbs just like those of Calgary or the ‘905’ belt around Toronto. Unlike most people who wandered in and out of Fort Mac, I was not there looking for high paid work which was actually in short supply there. I ended up there purely by chance.

I was living in Edmonton. I was frustrated with getting the social services system and Manpower Canada to understand my problem with finding employment; what is now called a ‘hidden disability’. This was back when government actually tried to find you a job. Someone had the bright idea that I should go up to Fort Mac and take a course in heavy equipment operation.

So I spent a few weeks rolling massive bulldozers around on a patch of shattered forest. The instructors admitted I was very good at controlling the machines and using them to move huge amounts of dirt around. It was lots of fun. However, I had a lot of trouble understanding just where they wanted me to move the dirt to. Eventually I got dropped from the course but they had to let me stay in the dormitory for a little while.

After a stretch of washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant, I fell back into my old standby, driving cabs. This was something I was physically and mentally able to do. I pushed a hack in several cities when I was young, but Fort Mac was a unique experience.

They did not even use meters, just a zone system. The run up Muffler alley to the Great Canadian Oil Sands (GCOS) Plant was $30 even in those days. I was told right off never to take a fare out to the nearby town of Anzac, which at the time had the highest murder rate in the country, and only a few hundred people.

I became involved in a kind of war between two Metis clans who were fighting for control of the taxi business in Fort Mac at the time. But there was a deeper conflict between the old timers and the new comers. My sympathies were with the old town. I soon came to detest the camp laborers who came up there for the booze and whores, and the skilled operators, there for the money and contemptuous of anyone not just like them.

I took the guided tour of the GCOS plant, the pilot for all the other oil sands plants which were being built then. A huge amount of energy went into getting one barrel of rather low quality “synthetic crude” out of several tons of this gooey sand. The guide was so proud of the cleverness of the process.

But he admitted there was no way the process could be profitable any time in the near future. It depended on constant government subsidy. So what was the point? Did someone expect the supply of regular oil to run out anytime soon? He assumed that someone thought it would become profitable in the future.

This was the time when the ‘oil shock’ was still being felt, when the Petroleum pumping countries decided to jack up the price. But also, though it did not get into the media much, students of energy economics knew that the oil supply had peaked and was in permanent decline, and new energy sources would eventually be required.

Even then, there were more efficient ways of producing motor fuels than the oil sands. I talked to the guide briefly about coal gasification, which had been around for awhile and was quite cheap where used. He knew nothing about that, or biofuels, or hydrogen fuel, all of which were under development at the time. He was just a pitch man for tar sands.

I grew tired of Fort Mac and returned to Calgary. I occasionally read news clips about it, usually about another forest fire threatening the town. This is Fort Mac’s perpetual problem, as it is located in the bush with no farming belt around it. I think the town has been partially evacuated a couple of times before. When I was there a brush fire was put out quickly before it could spread.

This latest fire was a disaster waiting to happen and has nothing to do with ‘climate warming ‘ or whatever they are calling it now. It seems to have been caused by a badly maintained power line shorting out. The city was again saved from being burned down. But what if it hadn’t?

the resource curse

The town and the industrial complex around it are symbols of the distortions and misallocations brought about by high capitalism. I cannot even pity someone who thinks capitalism is a logical or efficient system. It is about generating profits by creating capital flows, even if the flows produce nothing except waste and harm.

Megacorporations have long known how to maneuver governments at all levels into blackmail deals in which public money subsidizes industries which are not otherwise viable, in order to create ‘jobs’. The tar sands, oh, pardon me, PR department, the OIL sands, create a lot of jobs and profits for ancillary businesses.

The problem with this is the classic case of ‘Dutch Disease’, in which these activities create inflation and other market distortions which pushes out other industries which would be more socially beneficial in the long run. Even other resource industries like coal and logging get second call on available high quality labor and services, in deference to the petroleum complex.

The truth about Alberta’s economy is that it is overdeveloped due to unstable resource businesses. It has always had the problem of being isolated from any potential markets. Its real strong points are ranching and farming, and to an extent tourism and logging, but governments in Alberta seem obsessed with driving these down.

So the Alberta economy has been made totally dependent on the oil industry. There is not much the Alberta NDP can do about it. It is trapped, or thinks it is trapped. They accept without question, as does almost everyone in Alberta, the neoliberal economic dogma that if they raised taxes on the wealth being pumped out of the province for peanuts, the oil companies will simply shut in production and the economy will collapse.

This is actually not likely because the oil companies need that gas. And it is mostly gas; there is not really that much oil in Alberta. The oil and gas cartels especially need it since the collapse of the fracking boom in the United States, another boondoggle which was never viable in the long term. Much of the United States remains totally dependent on Alberta gas.

Logically, Alberta could charge a fair price for its gas, but ideologically that is impossible. It will be a big enough fight to establish a progressive income tax system which could actually raise the revenues needed to run public services. But it is alright to subsidize industries in order to create ‘jobs’.

A problem with the oil and gas industry is that it really does not need many people. So the great wealth created by it has to go into creating make-work to keep enough people busy and able to spend to keep the retail economy going. The tar sands need more people to run it, and build all the infrastructure, and it is partly a make work-project. The province cannot just shut it down without dire economic consequences.

Now, some nimbusses on the rightward side of the Basic Income movement might see the solution as using oil and gas revenues to provide a Basic Income to all Albertans. This would stabilize the situation in the short term, but does not solve the underlying problem of an economy totally dependent on an unstable and depreciating asset.

The oil and gas is not going to run out. It is said that the stone age did not end because they ran out of stone. The petroleum age will not end because we will run out of petroleum. There is still plenty of it around and long before it starts to become really hard to get, we will have all switched to something else. The process is already underway, if not fast enough to suit the ‘carbon emissions’ dingbats.

Basic Income as a solution

A Basic Income, better called a Guaranteed Livable Income, could make it much less complicated to switch away from the tar sands to something more viable. There is not going to be any economy in Alberta without some government planning and incubation of new industries. This will arouse intense opposition from neoliberal screwheads, funded and egged on by the oil and gas biz who like things as they are.

It would be interesting to see how the kind of ‘work, make money, buy house’ krunks so common in Alberta, and especially obdurate in Fort Mac when I was there, will react to an income guarantee. Some discussions at the Winnipeg conference noted how Basic Income programs are much less stigmatizing than ‘welfare ‘ programs, and people are much more willing to avail themselves of them.

So an income guarantee could give Alberta a way out. The gooey grit steaming business could be shut down and the whole city of Fort MacMurray boarded up, with home owners compensated so they can find housing elsewhere.

The proud homeowners of the north side of Fort Mac will be sitting on worthless real estate in twenty years anyway, just like residents of dozens of ‘boom towns’ in Alberta once the oil and gas industry moves on. Ask an Albertan about boom towns, and boom bust cycles.

Alberta still has a low production cost for conventional oil and gas, and if it started to manage its economy sensibly this industry could carry it over until it can get something else going. I do not think it is possible under the trade rules Canada has locked itself into, for them to make the industry public; the most sensible solution.

It is a bit late in the game to start a Norway style sovereign wealth fund with the oil and gas revenue. That was what the Heritage trust fund was supposed to be about back in Lougheed’s time, but that got shut down. Alberta has completely wasted every opportunity to use the present easy wealth to secure the future. But countries who find themselves with resource windfalls rarely do so.

This is why the idea of many income guarantee advocates, of funding such a program with resource revenues, is so stupid. Resources makes stupid. It really would be better, in most cases, to just leave it in the ground and focus on creating a stable economy with a base of import replacing manufacturing.

That is hard to do under the global system of capitalism. It requires intelligent planning. It requires an intelligent population, the antithesis of a resource exploiting society and economy. I do like to think that Albertans will be motivated to begin to regrow some brain wrinkles by the pain to be experienced when the petroleum age finally ends for them.

City without a future

Meanwhile, I do not think Fort MacMurrayans are worthy recipients of the charity of downtown Torontonians, or anyone else. For one thing, there has been a remarkable lack of emergency planning and other foresight. Why was an adequate fire barrier never built around the town, and proper construction mandated out of fire resistant materials. They seem to have never heard of brick.

Alberta should be well enough able to look after its own. Yet most of “The Fort’s” population has not returned. It cannot seem to get local services and a local economy going again. All the “transients”, in Fort Mac’s lovely expression for people who come there for work, went back to places like Newfoundland and Hamilton, Ontario. They are no longer there to work, spend money, and pay rent.

The local economy had been winding down along with the goo steaming business before the fire. If it had been in full roar when the fire happened, the economy would have come back quickly. The fire just disguised the underlying downturn, which may have been the purpose of all he hysterical coverage. Fort Mac is unlikely to come back, unless there is a major world upheaval that drives up the price of oil again.

It is interesting to think of how the Alberta government will unwind the whole mess over the next few years. The tar sands have been totally a make work, and make empty profits off useless economic activity, kind of deal. The opposition to just shutting it all down will be huge. But there is no longer the money to keep it pumped up.

Many rugged individualists will suddenly be whining for government support to keep themselves afloat until they can transition to something else. The money for such transitions will be very scarce as well. The government will finally have to scrap this “Alberta advantage” nonsense and start taxing surplus wealth.

Alberta Disadvantage

Becoming a tax haven never gave Alberta the slightest advantage. Like other tax haven countries, the money just passed through on its way elsewhere. Local businesses did not use the extra money and freedom given by a lack of taxes to expand or innovate or create anything. They never do.

Alberta would be a good place to have a start at what has been shown to really create initiative and innovation; good systems of economic and social support. Government has always been the big source of innovation start up capital, and support for initiating new industries. Capitalism never has been; it just moves in when something becomes worth grabbing up.

People become innovators when the basic support is there; when they know that if they fail they will not lose everything, they can start again. A stable economy and stable consumer demand is created when everybody has a basic security which can only be provided by government wealth redistribution.

So there is a good argument to start a Guaranteed Livable Income in Alberta, not funded by oil revenues, or a sales tax, or any other regressive tax, but on wealth. That is, income taxes, property taxes, financial transaction taxes, and so on. You might now see why it is wise for the Alberta NDP to not increase oil royalties right away.

It might be a good idea to not jack up wealth taxes right away, but give legitimate, real jobs and service providing businesses, a chance to adjust first. This would mean deficit financial, Keynesian countercyclical budgeting. Things that are downright socialist!

Starting a Guaranteed Livable Income at this time would be a very good move. But the province would have a very hard time doing that on its own. The federal government would have to be convinced to assist, or shamed into it. There are those in the Basic Income advocates universe who think a BI may be started in one province and then the others would be forced to go along. That is possible, but there are huge problems with it that are too much to discuss here.

Alberta will have to break from its traditional “get out of here” treatment of economically surplus people. The idea that anything “social” is treasonous must be challenged. Enough wealth redistribution has to occur to prevent the near collapse of the local economy that occurred a the bottom end of previous bust cycles.

a future for Alberta

Alberta will have a long road to travel to repair the mistakes of the previous three generations. Resource industries have made them stupid and mean minded. But there has always been a substrate of people with a more progressive mindset. They are throwbacks from an earlier era in Alberta, the age of the progressive and cooperative movements.

And an advantage of drawing in so many well educated people from elsewhere is that they often bring more progressive attitudes with them. This is what put the NDP into office this time. In previous bust cycles the support for more progressive alternatives has grown, but has met with strong suppression. There is an elite in Alberta like anywhere else and the Alberta elite is especially noted for its determination not to let any opposition get a chance to get started. But opposition usually fades when a new boom cycle starts.

But this time the ruling elite of Alberta has become so stupid and extreme as to be totally incapable of governing. Some of them even think Preston Manning is a socialist. Thus, Ms. Notley’s government will likely be around for awhile. She will have the opportunity to put Alberta on a new path, after about eighty years of the Social Credit/hard “C” conservative regime. They were around longer than the Bolshevists were in command of Russia. They fell for similar reasons.

The Russians spent about a decade in confusion before finding a new path after the fall of an old regime and Alberta likely will too. Alberta should be able to rebuild itself on a more solid footing. However, I do not think Fort Mac is ever going to recover. At present it is not possible to start dismantling that whole complex way up in the bush, but in about another decade it will be.

The world is full of monuments standing in a wilderness, to the grandiosity of a previous age, and a commitment to a social model that had no future. Fort MacMurray and the oil sands complex will be another one.

Winnipeg Congress sessions Part two

piloting through tricky waters

While we were still up at the Neeganin center, we started to get to the big topic on people’s minds; the idea of pilot projects for a Basic Income. It was becoming clear that we have a pro pilot and an anti pilot tendency.

Karl Widerquist, always adamant against “cheap support”, pointed out that politicians are always looking for the cheapest way of telling people “yes”. However, a pilot will also give them a way to say no; ” come on, we already gave you a pilot!”

It is a way of holding off implementing a BI until interest wanes. A negative spin can also be built into the design of the pilot. There was some discussion of that, though there needs to be much more.

Most of the people present agreed with Karl that there was enough evidence now. Few supported the statement that it would be irresponsible to introduce a Basic Income without more study. However, I suspect that the minority who are infatuated with a pilot will not be easily dissuaded. It gives them a chance to play at being social engineers, getting mid level bureaucrats actually paying attention to them, massaging their egos a bit.

The data in the US studies was deliberately distorted to discredit a BI. News coverage of those old 1970s studies was also very negative-framing, as in “What if the government paid people to not work?”

John Mills from Hamilton in particular thought BI/GLI should be applied for now, and not waited around for until it becomes imperative.
Jurgen gets to actually help pilot a pilot

Jurgen De Wispelaere, who is Belgian but taught at MagiIl university in Montreal for some years, was on the board of BICN. He organized the 2014 meetup in Montreal. He has been involved with the international group, BIEN, for a long time.

Now he lives in England, but commutes to Finland to help the Finns organize their pilot BI project. The irony of this globe trotter is that he is worried that his home country of Belgium is going to disappear in the next few years. He has much to tell us about what he is learning in Finland. The of his video presentation will be especially valuable.

The first question to be asked, he says, is why should we do the pilot? This is because we need to roll out programs scientifically. There is a difference between a pilot project and a mere social experiment, as was the Dauphin/Manitoba mincome. With a pilot, you discover the problems and solve them, work out the procedures, and then expand the program. The pilot should be intended to be built up into a full scale program and this is a point which should be remembered.

Finland is presently under a center-right wing government. The Finns felt that a full BI would be too expensive and so decided to try a partial one, though still without conditions.

What they have discovered so far include the fact that a housing benefit will be impossible to integrate into a BI. As well, there a re huge legal issues, due to the Finnish constitution and European Union rules.

They are finding that the pilot is not so easy to do. They will need at least 10 000 study households for statistical significance, that is to make statistical analysis of results really reliable. Right now they do not have enough money to do the pilot/experiment properly. Jurgen says that if you are not committed to doing the experiment right, you are not going to get good results.

The guy who ran the original Mincome project

His name is Ron Hikel. He later went on to run a lot of projects for Canadian government and to teach university courses in public administration. He is still indignant about the five wasted years out of his life, and the waste of taxpayers money. which resulted when incompetent government never even analyzed the result of huge government spending.

Those who conducted the experiments were a bit naive and never expected the negative spin which could be put on them. They did not know which questions were politically important.

His advice to Ontario about a pilot? First, remember that a government commitment to a test is much different than a commitment to a program. Make sure you get objectives and means aligned. Get other governments involved. However, he also said that going it alone means fewer voices which must be pleased.

Here is a very important question to ask; will the pilot/ final program be on top of existing programs?

His advice to Basic Income activists; Publicly announce the aims so that it s hard for the government to wriggle out of them. Make clear that you expect the pilot to be widely understood, meaning widely publicized.

There will likely be a considerable effort to discredit the program. Civil servants will be concerned about having their own programs rolled up into the BI/GLI. Inevitably, someone will lose out and you need public policy decisions early on about who will lose.

It is important to avoid overselling the program. It is not a panacea for all social ills. However, if done soundly it will have a lasting and profound influence. But if it fails, Hikel says we will not see another chance in our lifetime.

Other things he spoke about were; the need to look into the U.S. experiments as well, making sure they are read. A problem in the Manitoba experiments were that it often led to harm or inconvenience to participants. They had to fill out over elaborate questionnaires. Also, interestingly, they were too much pestered by the press.

Two other odd bits of information about the mincome; the program was run entirely by contract workers, with no civil servants involved at all. Many people refused to participate because the income supplement was not high enough to bother with, and many dropped out for the above reasons.

Daniel Blaikie

Mr. Blaikie is a fairly young NDP member of parliament for the Winnipeg area. He talked about the NDP and a Guaranteed Annual Income, as the NDP seems to be calling the concept.

He also talked about his fight to keep the word socialist in the NDPs masthead, at their convention a few years ago. There seems to be a misconception that it has actually been dropped.

Blaikie also claims much responsibility for getting a commitment to study a GAI onto the party platform. He admits that party leadership in practice do not pay much attention to their party’s platforms.

He understands that we cannot just cut a cheque for everybody and the poverty problem is solved. For example, it will not substitute for a housing strategy. Thus, left parties need to get into the debate. Otherwise it is left to the right wing as an excuse to divest from everything ‘social’.

There is a need to strike while the iron is hot. But right now we are getting studies done everywhere. There is no need to keep proving that it works. Get it done and in place and deal with the imperfections later.

He is aware of of something called Marxism, and the Marxist objection to a BI. The super radical objection to a BI is that if the people get it, they will not become miserable enough to rise up. However, Blaikie notes that there is nothing in Marxism about a Basic Income, so there is no theory about what happens next.

If I had the chance, I would have pointed out that Marx would have approved of a BI/GLI. Further, I would have pointed out that Marx never said anything about violent revolution; that came from a later generation of communists.

However, I did not get in on question period. A lot of the limited time was taken up by the doofus who says he lived on the street three years by choice, just because he did not feel like working. He is as phony as all hell, and has a special bug about leftism and Marxism.

Worse, he is staying in the same dorm as me and I have to listen to his nonsense about how he lives on an island in Georgia strait and spends all his time doing community work. He has this very libertarian view of government.

Miles Corak

I spend too much time in front of the computer these days, because I subscribe to so many twitter and blog feeds. Periodically I prune them but end up adding more. After listening to Miles Corak ‘s spiel I subbed into his blog. Since I do not want my sitting time or gut to grow any more, I compensated by unsubbing from a blogger who had grown less interesting lately.

Corak is the kind of thinker I like, who gets right to the core of something. He is an economics teacher at the University of Ottawa. Some of his best points were;

The trouble with upward mobility, is that for someone to move up someone else must be bumped down, unless the economy is growing.

The general belief is that there is no glass floor for the wealthy, and so no need to deliberately bust up the top percentile. The focus is on raising the bottom.

But is there a contradiction here? If here is no growth, where does the bottom rise to? Will a BI need growth? Will it create its own growth? What if growth is not possible, there is an absolute limit to it?

I found that a very useful and disturbing way of looking at it. It is not about where the tax money will come from to raise everyone out of poverty, but the percentage of the total pie? Will it come from the wealthiest, or from the middle class?

Toward that, Corak also had something to say about the design of pilot BI projects. They will be site specific. What will what is happening in that particular community being used as lab rats effect the results? He noticed that the economy in Manitoba, especially agriculture, was booming during the mincome experiment.

What if a BI was tried out in a core poverty community, or in a middle class community? He is another theorist who understands that a BI cannot be studied in isolation, so how useful would the results of the study really be?

The Texan

This guy was fairly interesting, and a bit exotic with a real Texas accent and a kind of preacherly tone. He was not a totally obnoxious libertarian redneck. He did get the concept of civilization.

He was aware of technological unemployment and had the idea of society as one big corporation of which we are all shareholders. So we should get a ‘dividend’. I’ve heard that before; social crediter speak.

He wants to put a $400 an acre tax on all land. It seems not to matter if it is in a desert or a downtown. This sounds much like the ‘Georgists’. Us Canadians were too polite to ask him how that would work.

But he rejected some of the usual flaky ideas about funding a BI. He recognized that resource prices are unstable. Their extraction is polluting. They are unevenly distributed. The aim should be to minimize the use of resources.

Wealth is the outcome of civilization, of people acting in unison. All must give so that all must receive. Amen, brother.

However, he feels people should not get a GLI until age 25. After that, they shuld get $16 000 a year, in U.S. money.

Someone suggested to him that financing a BI/GLI was not really a problem; there was plenty of untaxed wealth. He replied that if you created a BI based on taxing wealth, it won’t fly with Americans.

So that is where it stood and he flew back to America.

My session, with Elizabeth McGuire and Brandy Moore

Elizabeth McGuire is one of the organizers of the strong Hamilton BI group. She did an excellent presentation about how a BI should work. She was a tough act for me to follow. After me was a C&W singer from Saskatchewan called Brandy Moore who had a song about a guaranteed income for us.

We had a quite formidable argument for a more pro active BI/GLI movement, not quite in line with the executive committee. I think that is why we were lumped together and the session not filmed. I will recreate my participation in a subsequent installment of this series.

Elizabeth said that all these studies should be shelved. BICN should demand that there be no wastage of money by out of control bureaucracies. She echoed a lot of what Karl Widerquist and Ron Hikel said. These studies are an excuse to freeze discussion about BI and people are falling for it like chumps.

Other points Elizabeth made were; unions once campaigned for a forty hour work week. Why not campaign now for a 15 hour workweek? Someone shouted back that her figures about the hours needed to maintain present living standards, were optimistic. They may be but we can certainly use a shorter workweek. Start with thirty hours?

I love these front line social worker types, ones who are not working for a political network and are not administering contracted out welfare. They really tell it like it is.

Her model for Basic Income would make redundant about &165 billion in social costs and require another $30 billion a year in new revenue. What the amount of the grant is, she did not say.

Another of Elizabeth’s models I loved was her way of getting local government on side. You do not ask them for a pilot. You get them to endorse the concept and press higher government for it. The natural allies are the board of health, emergency and community services, the city’s general issues committee and the city council as a whole. She also added public housing organizations. It is important to have a large group of people who can make it out to events.

My own presentation was well enough received. I was worried that some people would not like what I had to say about the American BI people and the state of The States in general. I did not have a prepared speech, just notes, which was good because I did not know how much time I was going to get.

Everyone adored Brandy Moore. She said that she was originally from Vancouver, but went to Regina in 2001, on April fool’s day. She thinks that might have been prophetic. She may indeed have made a foolish move because it seems Vancouver has become a center of the music business. However, it is horribly expensive to live there.

But Brandy is one of those people struggling to make a living in the music business. She actually makes a living as a data entry clerk working through temp agencies. She does not like the way she is treated.

She is none too prosperous and is not even sure how she is going to get back to Regina. She put out a bowl to collect donations and it filled up. I put a fiver in. She promised to continue to make herself prominent as she lobbied or the money to book a studio to record the “Because I’m Alive” song.

They got her to sing again at the closing plenary and she got more applause. Some people had the idea of making the song BICN’s official anthem, which caused her to let out a whoop. I do not know how her idea of BICN funding a studio recording will work, given the politics of the organization. The core group tends to put the kibosh on anything except this cycle of congresses.
Brandy’s web site is at http://www.brandymoore.ca/ Her plenary performance of “Because I’m Alive” is at https://vimeo.com/168468430