Category Archives: Government

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

Movement Building and Collective Impact

In an article written for Fast Company, Kaihan Krisppendorff, identifies four steps to building an effective social movement, which I have adapted below:

1. A community forms around a common goal or aspiration.
2. The community mobilizes its resources to act on the goal/aspiration.
3. The community crafts solutions and acts to deliver them.
4. The movement is accepted by (or actually replaces) the establishment or established regime of laws and policies (Source).

If you are involved in a collective impact initiative, these steps should resonate with you, in particular with the five conditions of collective impact.  Krisppendorff doesn’t address shared measurement in his post about social movements, but successful movements are always about moving the needle and bringing about systems change to do so.

Consider the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. in 1964; the Civil Rights Act rendered discrimination/segregation illegal, especially with respect to jobs and workplace advancement, and termination because of colour. States that did nothing to address discrimination lost federal funding. There were other impacts but you get the gist. Big change for sure.

As is often the case, the big changes that get made fuel additional change. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act, addressed the legal obstacles (e.g. literacy tests and poll taxes) that state and local governments had set up to stop African Americans from exercising their constitutional right to vote.

Passed in August of 1965, by the end of the year 250,000 African Americans had registered to vote. The impact of such systemic and legal change was likely felt the most in the hearts and minds of African Americans, but from strictly a numbers perspective, here is one stat that exemplifies the impact: “In Mississippi alone, voter turnout among blacks increased from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent in 1969” (Source). Continue reading Movement Building and Collective Impact

Signals of Coming Disruption

Big change doesn’t just click on. It occurs over time, starting out often as weak signals of the change to come. Sometimes it’s like the old frog in the boiling water story. Put the frog in when the water is cool and turn up the flame and eventually the frog realizes its plight, just too late to adjust, to escape.

For years, donor giving has been changing. Charities have become increasingly dependent on larger gifts from fewer donors. As the economy has served to increase the income and wealth gap between the small numbers of wealthy and the rest of everyone else, we have seen food bank use escalate and a growing number of workers living pay check to pay check. Job security is no longer a reasonable expectation for a growing number of people, much less the chance for advancement. Employee supported pensions are no longer the norm and health and dental benefits are harder to come by for low income workers and many who do not yet qualify as “low income” workforce members.

imagenoise_signalmlab2The adaptations charities have taken have been focused on how to grow revenues through different sources of revenues. Funders are looking at alternatives too, given their inability to fund all the good things that come their way. Crowdfunding, social enterprise, impact investing, social purpose businesses are among the more recent options in financing social good.

GDP growth has been slowing, 80% of Canadian incomes are not increasing or if they are, at far less a rate, the restructuring of the job market is creating more insecure and benefit-less employment. the ratio of workers to seniors is dramatically decreasing. Key drivers like oil prices are in turmoil. Consumer debt keeps increasing. The numbers of people making $15 or less are growing as businesses work harder to cut back on expenses in order to feed more profits to investors. Continue reading Signals of Coming Disruption

What’s wrong? People are suffering.

I never understood “don’t shoot the messenger” as the stereotypical retort the messenger must use to defend her delivery of a message. Maybe we need a new cultural utterance like “You know how the messenger shoots those who don’t listen.”

Sometimes the message is actually a question, albeit unsettling in that the inquiry is unanticipated or more often, unwanted. We tend to prefer questions we can answer from our current inventory of answers. It allows us comfort and stability.

Even when we craft something new or design an innovation, all too often we end up creating newly painted replicas of what we say we are changing.

Nevertheless, the human condition is not a singular reality. It is rife with influences and contradictions and the unexpected.  This is why our affinity for comfort often rules the day. Truly changing what we do invariable means changing how we think and how we behave.

Remember that old story about the frog and the boiling pot of water. If you throw the frog in he will jump out, but if you put the frog in cold water and then turn on the flame, he won’t realize his fate until it is too late. To maintain our stasis, our comfort, we have the ability to adjust our comfort zone to small changes, but if we wait too long, we may face a challenge we can no longer meet.

In that story, we are the frog and the water is the environment we have created and that, if we are honest, we want to simultaneously change and sustain. Change is good until it enters our room, enters our space and says, “Your turn.”

There are thousands of people devoted to ending poverty and homelessness. As much as has been accomplished, each day more people show up in need of — and deserving of — a better life than they are living.

Too many people live in poverty. And there are many more living pay day to pay day, existing on the edges of poverty and homelessness. Living on the edge of disaster and the spiral down to despair that tends to grab hold of the vulnerable.

Too many jobs are insecure, pay less than a person requires to live on, and offer no benefits, nothing for the health and wellness of their employees. I know. Some businesses can’t afford benefits or living wages, but there are many who can afford it, but choose not to.

There are so many social programs in our communities taking care of poverty for the rest of us. They feed the hungry, give away clothes, and let the homeless hangout in drop in centres. We need them. There are so many people who need these programs. It’s sad, don’t you think?

It makes me mad sometimes.

Not just about all the bad things we have done in the past to the disenfranchised. But also about right now and how we – I mean all of us – choose to not do enough to end the suffering.

I am not saying we don’t do a lot. I am saying we don’t do enough. You see, the problem looms so much larger than our current efforts can address. This vast divide between problems and their solutions is not going to be addressed by funding reform, logic models, more collaborations, or even world class innovations.

Collective Impact initiatives (i.e. large scale community collaborations) may have promise, but not if we bring the same old  mindset to the common table.

I believe we have to turn the tables when it comes to addressing the deprivation and suffering experienced by so many people in our communities. We tend to refer to such things as “social problems” and then we use terms like that so frequently, they become generic representations of something vague and elusive. Now what exactly what was it anyway we were trying to fix?

People are suffering.

They are next door, around the block, standing behind you at the pharmacy. They go to school with your kids. They wear the clothes you gave away. They are co-workers. They sit on park benches. Everywhere.

People are suffering, everywhere.

I know it sounds melodramatic to use words like “suffering.” We prefer words that are not so provocative, and of course easier to accept. It’s much easier to talk about issues and problems and gather around terms like “social inclusion,” “best practice,” and “developmental evaluation.”

People are suffering.

The hungry girl in school trying to stay awake is suffering.

The old man having delusions on the street corner is suffering.

The mother with two young children beaten by her husband is suffering.

Being unable to buy your child medications causes suffering.

The drunk man begging for quarters outside the 7-11 is suffering.

The teen-age girl raped by her father is suffering.

Those who live daily with racism and discrimination are suffering.

This is not just about poverty as defined as a lack of money or as a social problem  costing society billions of dollars. It’s not just that the homeless guy flying on crack is a pain when he swears a blue streak at us as we walk by. It’s not just about the unpleasant aesthetics of ragged clothes, grocery carts full of cans and bottles, and vomit in the middle of the sidewalk.

It’s about human beings being deprived of their humanity.

And that’s wrong.

It’s wrong that so many people in our community are suffering.

It’s not just wrong for them; it is wrong for all of us.

Before we label all of this as a complex social problem, let’s start with it’s wrong.

It’s wrong.

And we are all a part of why it’s wrong.

Until we accept that, all of our plans and programs, all of our collaborative designs, all of our policy reforms, all of our actions, no matter how deeply we believe in them, will keep us from fixing what is wrong.

 

 

What does “living” mean in a Living Wage?

The Edmonton Social Planning Council just published research that indicates the living wage in Edmonton should be $17.36 per hour for a two-parent family with young children and both parents working 35 hours per week. The monthly budget prepared for this sample family assumes both workers are making $17.36 per hour.

Before going further, setting a living wage is a complex undertaking. No matter what number the Council came up with, people can quibble. It’s easier to pick at the budget the Council did for the family or point at suppositions that unduly biased the formation of a recommended number.

There are two major qualifiers to the recommended living wage. First, the monthoneofthekeyly budget for this family is a “conservative estimate,” according the Council. I agree but add that sometimes there are budget lines that seem to be more barebones than conservative (e.g. health and dental costs, school fees, to name two). Also, as the report notes, certain expenses were not included in the development of the family’s budget: debt payments, savings for the children’s education, retirement savings, any type of vacation (no matter how frugal), and it seems very little to support family recreational activities.

One might quibble about recreational expenses being included, although one of the fundamental principles of setting a living wage is to factor in the costs of “belonging” or what jargon-heads like me call “social inclusion.”

That said, how realistic is it to assume people who need a living wage have no debt and why would saving for retirement or for the education of children be viewed as unessential to “living?”

My remarks are not criticisms of the Council’s research, which as usual, is very well done. The authors used respected sources and produced a living wage recommendation based on accepted methods of doing so. By being consistent with how other provinces and cities are determining their living wages, the Council is able to provide a local version of a living wage based on best practice.

However, I am questioning the presuppositions of the research that allow best practice to ignore debt, education for children, and retirement as legitimate “living” expenses. Sometimes I wonder if we actually see a living wage through a welfare lens. That lens would have us ensure that recipients of welfare type programs don’t live large off the public purse. Typically that sentiment results in income security benefits being too low and in some cases so low the benefit is more akin to punishment than resembling anything close to “security.”

A living wage is not a welfare program. It should be based on what it costs to live a reasonable quality of life. A living wage should allow parents to invest in the future of their children. If people don’t save for retirement, they will cost society more later on. Shouldn’t a living wage be about now and tomorrow?

The other big question we may wish to consider is this: the recommended $17.36 per hour living wage is actually a subsidized living wage for a family of four. That family would require $1,100 per month in government transfer payments and child care subsidies to break even each month. To pay their own way completely, these two parents would have to average roughly $21.00 per hour each to live without any subsidies or transfers.

Oh yes, the question: which is the real living wage? $17.36? Or $21.00?

The lower of the two wages results in the family costing the “system” $13,000 plus per year. At $21.00 they would be paying taxes of about $10,000. That’s quite the turn around.

I am a proponent of government transfer payments and subsidies for child care, but believing these are needed programs does not mean we shouldn’t wonder about when they should and should not be deployed. It can’t just be carte blanche and on the flip side the answer isn’t to abolish them. Also, we should look into who benefits from the transfers and subsidies. I suggest it is not only the two parents in the above example.

Let’s face it. The living wage “debate” is contentious. Businesses that pay low wages are generally against raising the minimum wage in Alberta to $15.00, much less consider paying a true living wage. One argument is that businesses will have to raise prices to maintain their operations and that consumers will have to pay for the increase anyway or that jobs will be lost.

Another argument is that low costs drive profits which fuel the economy and benefit everyone. It’s one of the most common arguments for maintaining poverty wages. I have to say the argument looks good on paper, but lacks sufficient proof to become an incontrovertible economic principle.

There is a host of data that indicates the economy is working far better for those already making good incomes and hardly at all for the majority of citizens. I think it is reasonable to expect the economy to work for the majority; that doesn’t mean we all make the same thing. But consider the following data from the report or other sources:

  • Just over 100,000 Edmontonians are considered to be living in poverty, based on 2012 data.
  • Three in five of Alberta children living in poverty are from families in which one or both parents are working. That’s the highest rate in at least 20 years.
  • 20% of employed Edmontonians (124,000) earned less than $15 per hour in 2011.
  • Various studies indicate that approximately half of wage earners in Canada are living pay day to pay day and are vulnerable to losing their home if a disaster hit their families (Source: Canadian Payroll Association). In Edmonton, that would be up to 350,000 workers.

These four data points indicate that the economy is not benefiting the majority of citizens, but there is one more piece of data that further drives this home. As noted on page four of the report, “income inequality in Edmonton Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) is growing in line with provincial and national trends. Between 1982 and 2012, the bottom 50% of tax filers saw a 3.3% increase in their real median incomes compared to a 50% increase for the top 1% and a 137% increase for the top 0.1% of the population (Statistics Canada, 2014a).”

profoitsbynatureThere are many obstacles in the way of ending poverty, which means there is no single solution that we can all rally behind. We are fond of saying poverty is a complex problem and it’s true, but complex problems ride on top of diverse perspectives, values, and biases. Agreeing that the problem is complex is fairly easy to do but agreeing on the complexity of solutions is quite another thing.

We end up in polarizing arguments across sectors that disallow sufficient transformational thinking while deepening the ideological divide among sectors, political parties, and community leaders.

Not all social problems are connected to economics, but most are. One of the basic economic principles I think we should talk about is that the economy should work for the majority. If it doesn’t – and admittedly that’s my assessment – then don’t we need to look at how our economy is structured, how workers are treated, and how we can also grow profits to fuel growth and equitable benefits for everyone?

As mentioned before, the proposed living wage of $17.36 is actually a subsidized living wage. It’s easy to identify how the government transfer payments and child care subsidies help families make ends meet. But don’t the subsidy/transfer arrangements also benefit employers and in particular businesses that earn big profits?

I saw a tweet a bit ago from a business leader who said something like “businesses set prices to achieve the highest ROI.” If that’s a fundamental position of business leaders, then wages become a cost centre more than an investment in people and the general feeling about costs is to keep them as low as possible.

And if the desire for the highest ROI means that wages are kept so low to help produce higher and higher profits, don’t the subsidies received by our two parent family also subsidize the costs of business operations?

I understand that many businesses cannot pay a $21 per hour living wage. No doubt some would go out of business; others would scrape by instead of producing a reasonable profit. Special interest groups like Chambers of Commerce will say it isn’t fair to do that to businesses.

But… is it fair that tax payers pick up the difference?

Again, many of the same special interest groups decry raising taxes, especially corporate taxes.

These two positions seem incongruent to me. In an economy that is growing wealth for the wealthy and relying on subsidies and transfer payments to top up wages that are inadequate for workers to live on, who is supposed to pay for that?

One of the key questions in the living wage debate should be at what point are tax payers subsidizing insufficient wages paid by profitable businesses? And once we understand what that point is, how do we feel about that?

There is a lot of data that indicates a strong correlation between social and health problems and the growing income gap across the world and in our country. Generally speaking the greater the divide the more we see persons of low income imprisoned. Health problems, including mental health issues, increase as does social isolation. None of these things are good for the economy, are they?

If our community is serious about ending poverty – and I do believe a growing number of people across all sectors are serious about it — we won’t accomplish this noble goal without questioning and changing our perceptions and values around terms like “healthy economy,” “profits,” and “return on investment.”

The challenge is not to create equal income across the population. There will always be those who benefit more from the economy than others. In fact, we need income variances in order to fuel economic growth. The more risk one takes, the higher the rewards should be. The question is how far is too far in terms of the growing income gap in our country and across the globe?

What do we believe an economy should look like that has equitable benefits to all citizens?

I have worked for years in the human services sector and my primary focus has been on serving the poor and the homeless. On occasion over the course of my career I have experienced people who point to food bank users driving away with their hamper in a late model vehicle. Some tell stories of people on welfare driving the proverbial Cadillac. These stories are invariably used to demonstrate that the poor are not really poor and worse, they are something akin to a gold digger.

The inference is tax payers shouldn’t have to subsidize that kind of expenditure. And to be honest I agree with them, though their outrage is sourced in a very, very small minority of “poor” people.

whatdowebelieveThere is a flip side to such simplistic analysis. Why is it we don’t wonder why tax payers should subsidize workers so that CEOs and business owners can pay workers the minimum possible while driving their Mercedes to their mountain cabin?

Please understand I am not pitching that the for-profit sector is nefarious or driven primarily by greed or a lack of concern for employees. But I am trying to offer some balance to many voices that cite gloom and doom at a $15 per hour minimum wage, which I assume will only resound much louder at the living wage proposal of $17.36.

Poverty is not just a social problem or the result of personal defects. It is very much an economic problem and if we don’t address that in significant ways, let’s stop thinking we can end poverty through more collaboration and collective impact initiatives and leave the economy as it is.

But also let’s stop thinking that an economy that increasingly benefits a few will be sustainable. There is a tipping point and I think we all would be better served to avoid it.