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”.

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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.

About the BICN congress in Winnipeg; setting the scene

red river

It is now a week since I got back from Windypeg from the NABIG conference. It is about time I got busy writing about it and preparing some followup. I have already scheduled a meeting at Ralph Thornton on June 5 to deliver a talk on the event.

bitch, bitch, bitch

There is an awful lot to write about. I filled up a notebook with it and there were so many sessions I missed. I would like to have gone to them all but we had split sessions. There were so many people with presentations of one kind or another that we would have to have either excluded many of them or had an unmanageably long conference.

Four days is getting to be too much. Even the 2014 congress, with people from all over the world, was only three days. Jurgen, who organized that one, had some criticisms of this one. He suggested not starting at 8 am in the morning, in respect of us who “do not have roosters in our ancestry”.

The venue was much criticized. They always hold these events on university campuses, McGill in Montreal and U of T in Toronto in 2012. These two were sidewalk universities downtown. There are plenty of cheap food and accommodations options. They are accessible to transportation hubs.

The University of Manitoba is way out in the south of the city in a bend of the good old Red River. It took an hour and a half to get there by Winnipeg transit from the airport. There was a total lack of food options after hours and on the weekends. Even during business hours, all we had was the food court at the student center.

They had to pull some money from a reserve fund and bring us in some donuts on Saturday and Sunday morning. At least we got some chow at lunch, unlike the Montreal event where I had to resort to the Subways© next door.

The weather was not great. I hear it was not so good in Toronto while I was gone, either. But we had some snow and we learned why they call it Windypeg. Yet they told us that it had been quite toasty in the Peg until we showed up.

Unlike U of Toronto, which goes all year round, U of Manitoba seems to partly shut down in the summer. The campus was a somber place and we had to hike all the way across it from the dorms they put us it. The geese seemed to rule there and we had to watch out for the goose shit.

The interior climate was not great, either. This was held in the Law faculty building, which seems to have the kind of heating/air conditioning system which does not adjust well to changes in weather. It got hot and humid in the lecture halls. We had conflicts between those who wanted to prop the doors open to get some air, and who did not want the noise from the hallways. “Air! Air!”

what I did there

I did my own presentation, on what needs to be done to get a serious movement going for a BI in Canada. I said several things that I knew would be controversial to many people, but my shtick was well received.

A bit later I suggested that it was not a good idea to try to sell Basic Income as a way to get people to accept “climate change” measures. I suggested that the premise of climate change was not as universally accepted as many “left” oriented people seem to think, even among left/progressive people, and there is no reason to offend these people while promoting the BI. For that reason, I said, I wanted people to get my point and not make me have to get into a refutation of “climate change”.

So I did not get lynched by any climate fanatics. Later a few people came up and agreed with me not just about not getting into needless arguments, but about climate change being a hooey!

Another suggestion for holding the next one of these was more time for people to talk and circulate. A lot of information exchange, not to mention real organizing, got done out in the hallway.

This is how I finally managed to run into a few people from the Toronto area who have been working on BI as well. Maybe now we can all get together and get something to happen at home. There are active groups in Waterloo, Hamilton, and Kingston. But big T.O. is a big dead zone for BI activities. So is Ottawa, it seems.

Another example of snack table organizing is when I cornered Senator Art Eggleton. I originally wanted to chide him about his refusal to come to an event I wanted to get going. He had written back snarking that we should stop talking to the believers and start organizing.

I suggested that before organizing anything we had to actually get some people together, and an event with a ‘big name’ in Basic Income circles, like Eggie, could do that. Or Evelyn Forget, by the way, but she has now moved back to Winnipeg. She said she did not like the house prices in Toronto.

But Jurgen walked by. I got another idea. “Hello Jurg. Come here and meet Art Eggleton. He’s a senator. Isn’t that cool?”

“Well, Senator sir, this is Jurgen De Wispaleare. He is originally from Belgium. He is on the board of BICN. He’s got a job designing the Finnish BI pilot project.”

Sure enough, they got talking and I faded out, mightily pleased with myself. I knew what Jurgen would tell him about setting up pilot projects.

the fun parts

One worthwhile feature of the congress was that we all got a bus trip to the Winnipeg Aboriginal Community Center for a lecture on the problems of discrimination against aboriginals, poverty on reserves, and BI as a possible solution to some of this. The Crees, Ojibways, Ojicrees, Lakotas, Ashinabes and etc., so they claim, all had a form of Basic Income before white people came along and messed their world up so thoroughly.

We got some demonstrations of aboriginal arts and culture. I was impressed by the dance school. As with most folk forms of dance, there is more to it that just hopping around. The hoop dances especially require some impressive coordination. As for those who think aboriginal drumming and singing all sounds the same, they do not listen closely.

On the last day, we got invited to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, which happens to be in Winnipeg. Oh, yes, everybody is talking about BI now as primarily a human rights issue. I decided I was getting short of money anyway and I did not want to risk missing my flight.

I might rather have gone because Sheila Regehr was effusive about her visit to the human rights center when I chatted her a bit at the airport departures salon. I ended up spending a lot of time there because I booked a late flight, worried about the precedent from Montreal, when the final meeting went way over time.

the inadequacy of BICN

And once again, the thing which impressed me the least about the event was the business meeting, the Annual General Meeting, at the end. A few of the attendees I ended up sitting with at the departures lounge agreed with me. The meeting was “technically inadequate”.

I know what the real problem is. Within the BICN movement, nationally and internationally, there is a strong substrate of people with a “left Libertarian” mentality. In addition, you have a kind of founder effect similar to what I saw with Fair Vote Canada.

The executive committee is dominated by people who do not want any kind of formal structure. They also tend to be academics. They want only a metaphysical debate on whether various modes of BI violate Rawlesian equality theories. They are focussed totally on these congresses every two years, so they can read their papers at each other.

Many activist types of BI people are getting fed up with this and are demanding some structure and transparency. They did not get it. About all that happened was the new board for the next two years was announced. It was not even explained how they were elected. This is even worse than the early Fair Vote Canada of even the TCHC representative council.

In the limited chances I got to talk with Shiela Regehr and Jenna Van Drannen, they seem frustrated by this. These two do most of the real work of the organization as chair and secretary and get a small stipend. I joked with Sheila about being in the army of Oz; twenty generals and one private. She chuckled and admitted to being much overworked.

Sheila and Jenna are trying to develop this advisory council of people involved with local organizing to act as some kind of alternative or auxiliary to the executive council. I indicated I want to be part of this council. I sent in the form. Jenna says she never got it and was dismayed.

possible solutions

At least they have more or less the right idea about reforming BICN from within. That is, to use the old FVC model, which finally moved the ivory tower faction out of the way, at least a bit. They hated the idea of local organizations but these developed anyway and eventually forced FVC to open up. The message was, “come on, if we are going to promote democratic reform we have to be open and democratic ourselves.”

I think there is plenty of time to build up a nation wide network of BI/GLI groups and develop a clear idea of what we are really after. Right now there is excitement about BI but people are not really understanding it. Local governments are adopting it so as not to have to talk about minimum wages. Ontario is talking about a pilot in order to freeze anti poverty discussion.

I notice that there are cycles of about 15 years in guaranteed income interest. This interest always fades away because there is no effective organization from below to create real push for it. As a famous sociologist said, there has never been a social advance without a social movement to bring it about.

We need a strong organization, and what we have now are left libertarian types who are opposed to any kind of structure. This is what anarchism and libertarianism are really about; keeping it secret about who is really in control and what they think is best for everybody.

So, this is what the job is; building a powerful movement. In fact, building a new political party. This is going to take a long struggle because the biggest talkers about an income guarantee do not want this; they are the big enemies of achieving an income guarantee.

In my subsequent bloggings about all the wind from Windypeg I will have much to say about the internal debates and conflicts around this.