Category Archives: Complexity

Democracy is dying. Time to get to work.

I came across an article by George Monbiot (www.monbiot.com) that appeared in the Guardian this July. In this article, Monbiot writes about James McGill Buchanan, an economist influenced by neoliberalism and deeply funded by billionaire Charles Koch, the 7th wealthiest person in the world.

According to Monbiot, Buchanan was an advocate for what he called the public choice theory. The general gist is that “society could not be considered free unless every citizen has the right to veto its decisions. What he meant by this was that no one should be taxed against their will. But the rich were being exploited by people who use their votes to demand money that others have earned, through involuntary taxes to support public spending and welfare. Allowing workers to form trade unions and imposing graduated income taxes are forms of “differential or discriminatory legislation” against the owners of capital.

“Any clash between what he called ‘freedom’ (allowing the rich to do as they wished) and democracy should be resolved in favour of freedom. In his book The Limits of Liberty, he noted that “despotism may be the only organisational alternative to the political structure that we observe.” Despotism in defence of freedom.

His prescription was what he called a “constitutional revolution: creating irrevocable restraints to limit democratic choice. Sponsored throughout his working life by wealthy foundations, billionaires and corporations, he develop both a theoretical account of what this constitutional revolution would look like and a strategy for implementing it” (Source).

Buchanan’s influence extends beyond the United States. In 1980, he assisted the Pinochet dictatorship to write a new constitution. “Amid the torture and killings, he advised the government to extend its programmes of privatisation, austerity, monetary restraint, deregulation and the destruction of trade unions: a package that helped trigger economic collapse in 1982” (Source).

GIFSec.comNevertheless, believe it or not, in 1986 Buchanan was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize for economics. This was the man who was against desegregating schools in the American South. He advocated for the privatization of just about everything: universities (at which all students would be required to pay full tuition). He was a proponent of privatized health care which is so costly what is spent in the United States by governments to mitigate its impact on those who can’t pay exceeds the costs of universal health care in Canada. He also thought it would be a good idea to privatize Social Security. Ask yourself when privatization materially improved the lives of everyday people.
According to Monbiot, Buchanan set out to “demolish trust in public institutions. He aimed, in short, to save capitalism from democracy” (Source).

While you may not have heard of Buchanan, his economic theories and political ideology appear to have served as the backbone for how things work in America.
One has to wonder if his form of “radical capitalism” influenced the financial crisis in 2007, when millions lost their homes due to banking and loaning practices that were driven by greed by those with money in pursuit of more. Remarkably, despite legal activity up the yin-yang, those who caused the disaster were bailed out, made sure they got big bonuses, and no one went to jail. Those who lost their homes received no help to speak of.

the_rich_fewAs income inequality prospers in the United States (and to a lessor extent in Canada), we see the Trump administration making decisions that benefit the super wealthy and punish those struggling to survive. His new health care act will kill people, harm those who are just surviving, and create more profits for mega-health providers. He is a savvy businessman if nothing else. He knows that a single payer system would work better and cost less. By the way, despite their advertisements to the contrary, these health care corporations hire people who can earn bonuses by denying claims (based on an interview I did with a claims officer at one of the largest health providers in the US.).

It all comes down to money. Not humanity. Not any smidgen of moral obligation to the marginalized. No one would vote to give up more of what little they have in order to increase profits for the wealthy – well, at least not knowingly. Oddly enough the poorest of the poor tend to vote Republican. This has been true for year and years, and yet they are no better off for their loyalty to the party.

There is a distasteful mythology that has been nurtured by those who are not poor about those who are. The poor are lazy, defective. They don’t have a work ethic. They prefer to lay about and live off of others. Given the obsession that successful people often have about their own success as a model for others, it makes sense, twisted sense I grant you, that one who purports the bootstrap theory of success would in turn rile against the unsuccessful as deserving of their failures. Blaming the poor by defining them as lesser beings than those who have money is a major reason why poverty continues to exist.

rich-vs-poor

Monbiot concludes his article this way: “In one respect, Buchanan was right: there is an inherent conflict between what he called ‘economic freedom’ and political liberty. Complete freedom for billionaires means poverty, insecurity, pollution and collapsing public services for everyone else. Because we will not vote for this, it can be delivered only through deception and authoritarian control. The choice we face is between unfettered capitalism and democracy. You cannot have both” (Source).

President Franklin Roosevelt once warned Congress: “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.”

Look at what is happening in the United States. Fascism is something we think is done over there, across the water, by despicable people. Now, it’s emerging at a rapid rate just south of our border. It’s frightening, isn’t it? A president who holds himself above the law, who threatens to fire people if they don’t toe the line, who utters outlandish diatribes at anyone who would hint at opposing him. He won’t be transparent about his taxes. He makes decisions that are rooted in his own passion for self-benefit. Although I have to doubt President Trump ever read a word of Buchanan’s, he appears to be an ardent advocate for the super-rich, while unable to hide his distaste for the poor.

capitalismquoteWe can see this thinking and the divisiveness it perpetuates elsewhere of course. Even here in Canada, where we see the emergence of a far right political party in Alberta. Its leader, Jason Kenney, a student of Ralph Klein, who believe some pretty scary stuff, such as (Source).

“We shouldn’t indoctrinate students into the most extreme view about [climate change], I don’t think we should be teaching in our schools that whatever David Suzuki says is gospel truth.”

“Carbon dioxide is no biggie because trees like CO2.”

“I think it’s the first generation [Millennials] to come through a schooling system where many of them have been hard-wired with collectivist ideas, with watching Michael Moore documentaries, with identity politics from their primary and secondary schools to universities. That’s kind of a cultural challenge for any conservative party, any party of the centre-right, and we’ve got to figure out how to break that nut.”

He is anti-choice, against gay marriage, does not support assisting the severely ill with ending their lives. And he believes that the supremacy of God trumps the authority of Parliament. I assume he means the right and true Christian God. All the others no doubt do not matter.

When Trump ran for president, I still had my head in the sand. I thought no way he will become president — and voila. I have urges to discount Kenney as a quack that no sane Albertan would vote for, but I know those urges are wrong. Acting like an ostrich will not protect ourselves from the dangers in the wild.

We are on a journey, have been for a long time, to a time when life is ruled by dark money by old, wealthy men in closed-door meetings.

I have often wondered if despicable people have a good side. Did Hitler open doors for elderly women? Did Pinochet ever say a kind word to a homeless person on the street? Did George Bush Sr. ever regret introducing HMOs into the US healthcare arena? Does Trump ever for a moment stop to truly think about how many people will die because of his ego and shabby, hurtful design of a new health care system?

I don’t really know the answer to such questions, though I have my suspicions. But I do know that it will take courageous political leaders to turn our journey into a better direction. I wonder who will do that, who will turn away from corporate donations that come with clear expectations, if not demands?

Who will rise up to claim democracy once again as the way we should and must live, where people are equal under the law, have human rights that are enforced, and where governments make decisions that benefit the majority, if not everyone.

If you think improving socio-economic conditions requires systems change, this is what we are facing: A Noble prize winner, funded by billionaires, who has set a course  for a place where the rights of the few trump the rights of the many. Ironic that the US president is named, “Trump.”

Who will lead a new journey? We know who won’t. But we can’t do it without leadership at all levels of government.

Thanks to Monbiot and others like him, we can see the twisted agenda of the super powerful and wealthy.

In the context of Collective Impact, which is a practice area for me, we do not just need to agree on what the problems are. We need to understand that the old maxim, “Know thy enemy” rings true here as well.

Time to get to work.

 

Further reading:

James M. Buchanan,The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy[1962]

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America By Nancy MacLean

Missing Link, George Monbiot

LIVING POOR: KAREN’S STORY

Note:  In addition to writing about community change and penning commentary, I am a story teller. I write fiction and spoken word. This piece is a mix of fact and fiction, often called “faction.”

One of my small luxuries in life is having someone come to my house weekly and clean it. I tell myself I need this service because I am so busy, but truth is it’s a luxury for me. I can afford it and to be honest I have the time to take care of my own mess; I just hate doing it.

Karen is the one who takes care of this for me. She is 24 and nearly always cheerful. She does an excellent job and in good time as well.  She is a friend of a friend and when I heard she was interested in providing this service, I decided to give her a go.

When I asked her what she charged, she asked if $15 per hour would be okay. I had two reactions to her question. One had to do with her proposal representing a great deal. If I were a business I might have equated her wage request as a way of minimizing the cost of her labour on my bottom line.

But I am not a business. I am just a guy who dislikes doing his own housework. My second reaction was the stronger of the two. I told her I would pay her $25 per hour. In my mind, anything less seemed, not enough. I was asking her to clean up after me, wash floors and tackle the mess of bathrooms.

Karen wasn’t yet 21 when she gave birth to her daughter, Millie. Neither she nor her boyfriend, the father, wanted to get married. In fact, I got the impression Karen was close to breaking things off when she found out she was pregnant. He was a decent enough guy, she told me, but they really didn’t click enough to see a future together.

Shortly after Millie was born, Karen applied for an apartment through the city’s Subsidized Housing Program, which bases rent on income. She wasn’t making much money and couldn’t afford a place on her own.  Despite having a high school education, she couldn’t find a decent paying full time job. So, she ended up working retail or at fast food places, none of which provided full-time hours, much less a living wage. And, to boot, none of the jobs she found offered benefits.

Please don’t slide over the obvious here. Let’s remind ourselves that businesses do this on purpose and with purpose. The structure their workforce to avoid providing benefits to their employees. One of these employees is Karen. She is smart enough to know what was really going on. She told me once, “I am just a commodity.”

Five words that offer a simple yet brilliant analysis of how the power of wealth and the addiction to wanting more has stripped away workers’ humanity. I wanted to tell her I was going to quote her in a story or a blog posting, but I checked myself. Continue reading LIVING POOR: KAREN’S STORY

Simplicity and Complexity

The top drawing suggests there is complexity to the journey from A to B. That journey requires numerous loop backs before moving forward and takes the traveler up and down and back and forth along the way until the destination is reached. Who knows the reasons why the journey was somewhat unpredictable or if there were side trips that were either necessary or just taken out of curiosity.

I have taken journeys like that one and some were enjoyable. (I was once drove half way from Edmonton to Vancouver taking dirt roads through farmland and forests and loved it.) But sometimes the complexity represented in a diagram like the one above is caused by necessary diversions, distractions, or even arguments about which way is the best way to go. In other words, sometimes complexity is a good thing. It factors in different view points and it allows us to see more scenery along the way, perhaps learn more as well.

But sometimes getting from A to B can be quite simple and straightforward. Could be we need to get there as soon as possible. Could be the straight path is the safest path to take or more economical. Maybe there is some correlation between having a sense of urgency and getting to where we want to be as completely and as quickly as possible.

The reasons abound if we really think about it – for both scenarios.

Complexity and simplicity are not at odds are they? They just offer us a different perspective, offer options that perhaps the other doesn’t.

 

Maybe there are simple solutions to complex problems.

There appears to be a common perception among some thought leaders that complex problems require complex solutions. I am not arguing against that perspective except to ask, if it is always true? In my early life as a consultant to non-profit organizations I was involved in developing software, databases primarily, that were purposed to help organizations collect, analyze, and report on their work. Without exception the work these organizations were doing was addressing complex problems like exclusion, poverty, mental illness, and so on.

I remember one time when we were coding the database, we discovered that the entire database did not work. Not just parts of it but all of it. I tried every which way to identify why this was happening. An earlier version worked fine, but now after adding copious amounts of code, nada.

Code is complex in and of itself but even more so when code must work with other code. In other words, a good coder has to understand how to use the development language but also needs to understand how that language interacts with itself across patterns or clusters of code.

After literally days of trying to figure out what was wrong, I finally identified the problem. I had forgotten a period in one line of code and that small mistake stopped everything. The solution was laborious to locate but it was a simple one. Add the period and voila, all was as we intended.

Maybe there is a lesson here for us in terms of our design of programs and services or collaborative ventures. Maybe our policies or systems that exist to solve complex challenges do not always need to be scrapped or undergo a major rethink. Maybe sometimes, within what we currently have before us, there is a small, simple change that will in turn change everything.

What do you think?

Thinking about the Charity Model and Systems Change Debate

There has been a movement afoot for the past 15 to 20 years that evolved out of a growing dissatisfaction with the charitable sector or more to the point, the Charity Model. Critics of the sector are nothing new, of course. And these criticisms are often based on unproven perceptions (e.g. there are too many charities), biases people have toward “the needy” (e.g. I made it through hell, so can you), and some that still boggle my mind like, non-profits need to be more business-like.

But the conversations I am talking about have gone further than that and very often have been initiated and led by well-respected non-profit sector leaders tired of seeing good work (or what they saw as good work) not really moving the needle of big change. The impact, they say, just hasn’t been good enough, which has evolved into concluding that the so called Charity Model has failed us all.

What I find interesting and somewhat unnerving is that this thing we call the Charity Model is in effect a descriptor of organized helping; it is not and I suggest never has been an actual model in the manner that we tend to think of models or frameworks.  Usually a model has an author or set of authors and has an intended purpose, and governs or guides how you do something. I am not aware of anyone who authored the Charity Model. As a term it represents our attempt to put meaning to what the charitable sector does and why, though we tend to spend less time on the latter.

My sense is that the Charity Model is about our desire to capture and understand how the organized expression of love or kindness is implemented through institutions and systems. It is a term that offers differentiation from the private and government sectors. How that expression is organized is certainly worthy of review and adjustment, if not significant change, but my struggle with the direction many are taking is that charity has become something sector leaders want to move away from while replacing it with something better. Continue reading Thinking about the Charity Model and Systems Change Debate