Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy new year?

It is traditional to wish everyone a happy new year on new years eve. It is also traditional to discuss the good and bad things from the past year, and our hopes for the future. As the year ends I find I'm thinking about some disturbing things.

On December 4'th we saw the federal House of Commons prorogue. This was a sneaky procedural trick used by the prime minister in order to avoid (or delay) a coalition replacing his government. This event was the period in my mind to a sentence of events I had been observing. The fact that a massive number of Canadians thought that this procedural trick was appropriate reminded me of just how messed up we are as Canadians. Beyond Canada, similar trends around the world demonstrate how our lack of understanding of our current situation appears to make us incapable of making positive changes towards the future.

While there are many issues I wish to discuss, our governments are a critical decision making body. We need to understand how we make decisions before we can encourage good decisions on other issues to be made.

Political Crisis

Canada uses the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy. Unlike the United States where US citizens elect (indirectly through an Electoral College) a President , Canadians do not elect a prime minister. Canadians do not even directly elect a government. What they do is vote for candidates in their own electoral district (or riding) which are then elected to represent them in the parliament. These parliamentarians then come together to form a government and the opposition. Candidates are most often nominated by parties, and run under a party banner, which indicates to voters which group of fellow parliamentarians they will support to form the government.

I'll state this another way. A total of 13,832,972 votes were cast nationally of the 23,401,064 registered electors, Elections Canada figures showed as of 9 a.m. ET Wednesday October 15, 2008 . Of these, 38,548 were cast for Steven Harper. That is 0.28% of votes cast, or 0.16% of registered voters. Steven Harper became Prime Minister after the election this year not because he personally received the majority of votes in some election between Prime Ministers candidates, but because it was believed that as the leader of the party that won the most number of seats that his party would enjoy the confidence of the majority of elected representatives to the house of commons.

As of the moment, there are 143 members of the Conservative caucus, 77 Liberals, 49 Bloc, 37 NDP and 2 independents. I say "as of this moment" because our elected representatives are able to switch party affiliations, be kicked out of their caucus, or other such things. We elect representatives of constituencies to the house of commons, not people who are mandatory members of any party.

The above means that the conservatives have 46% of the 308 seats in the house of commons. This does not make them a majority, and they need 154 (or 11 more) votes to pass any legislation. In order for another configuration to form the government they would need to get the support of all 3 parties, given the Conservatives seemed unlikely to form a majority coalition with any one of the other parties.

A cautious government, recognizing this fact of their being a minority government and only needing the support of one additional party to pass legislation, could very easily maintain this confidence. All they need to do is work together with another party to get legislation passed. It didn't need to be the same party every time, they only needed to avoid issues that would somehow get all 3 opposition parties together to form a majority against the minority Conservatives.

This is why the Economic Statement was so baffling for those of us who understood how the Canadian parliamentary system works. It took aim at a few key policy areas which the Conservatives knew could not be supported by the opposition parties. By giving what needs to be recognized as an aggressive ideological partisan economic update, they ensured what should have been seen as a long-shot: the bringing together of the opposition parties to propose an alternative configuration of the house of commons that would enjoy the confidence of the house.

It doesn't matter what you personally believe about the specific controversial issues they brought forward. On some of these issues I agree with the Conservatives, and some with the majority opposition. The only thing that matters is that it was trivial to know that all opposition parties would be strongly opposed to these measures.

  • Economic Stimulus: The Conservatives spoke about their existing tax cuts, including the GST cut and cuts in government spending, as an economic stimulus. While this is an honest belief of some conservative policy makers, less ideological/partisan economists disagree with this characterization. With most people recognizing we were heading into an economic crisis that was being compared to the great depression, it would be impossible for the opposition parties to let this level of disagreement slide by. In fact, many economists believe that governments fallowing this type of thinking is what allowed a stock market crash that would have been a recession in the real economy into the great depression. (Note: I'm currently listening to The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 by Paul Krugman)
  • Campaign finance reform: The economic update announced that "our Government is eliminating the $1.95-per-vote taxpayer subsidy for politicians and their parties, effective April 1, 2009." Canadians need to know where this subsidy came from, which is as a replacement of donations from corporations and unions. Most democracies have been fighting trying to get the influence of money out of politics, with Canada's move being seen as a critically important one. The alternative being the corruption that comes from politicians bought from well financed special interest groups.

    This is also an issue seen as clearly partisan, with the Conservatives being the party most successful in replacing corporate/union donations with individual donations. This was seen to be a fiscal form of Gerrymandering.

  • Right to strike: The speech announced, "The legislation would also temporarily suspend the right to strike through 2010–11". Again, no matter how we may feel about public sector strikes being different than private sector strikes, this is a statement that is trivial to realize the opposition majority would reject.
  • Pay Equity: The speech announced, "Another issue we intend to address is the litigious, adversarial, and complaints-based approach to pay equity." ... "We are introducing legislation to make pay equity an integral part of collective bargaining." Ditto above: we may agree or disagree, but the opposition parties clearly could not agree.

What offended me the most is what happened next. Instead of acknowledging their mistake, Conservative partisans started to abuse Canadians lack of understanding of our parliamentary representative democracy.

They claimed that the coalition of opposition parties lacked legitimacy, even though it had more legitimacy at that moment than the Conservative government did. They claimed that the Liberals and NDP were making some sort of "deal with the devil", even though it was clear that the only way that the Bloc would have influence in a Liberal/NDP government is when they were voting with the Conservatives (IE: only when the Conservatives and Bloc were in agreement would they together out-vote the Liberal/NDP coalition). Like the Conservatives, the Liberal/NDP coalition only needed the support of one other party, in this case the Conservatives or Bloc, to pass legislation.

This appeared to me to indicate the Conservatives had become so focused on retaining power that they were willing to risk everything to keep it. They were instigating a Canadian unity crisis far greater than anything threatened by Quebec separatists.

Housing Crisis

I find it telling that the 2008 crisis was first called the housing crisis. This was in reference to the sub-prime mortgage issue where people were being convinced to purchase homes that they could not afford, and where this bad debt was being deliberately hidden through derivatives. There is also a deeper meaning.

The root word 'eco' is derived from the Greek word "oikos", meaning house. Ecology is the study or the relationship between organisms and the environment (study of our home), and economy is the management of that home.

We do have a housing crisis, but while so many people are focused on trying to protect legacy and harmful management practises from change (the "economy"), they are forgetting the far more important crisis in the health of our relationship to the home itself (ecology, environment).

I say harmful management practises because I reject the validity of the current management style that dominates western economies, and that are being aggressively exported by these economies worldwide. Any economic system that pushes the most important questions into "externalities" can not be considered a valid system for managing these important questions. When the long-term or even short-term health and sustainability of the household is not a factor in the management style, then that management style must be replaced. It is long past time that we internalized critical externalities.

It was frustrating to watch the debate during the last election on the carbon tax. The Green Tax Shift is a well understood method of internalizing critical externalities into day-to-day economic decisions: by ensuring that the price of some goods include more of the actual costs. It was frustrating to watch people who claim to support free market economics to be willing to provide that "invisible hand" adequate information to make the decisions such a system would otherwise be able to make. Taking their lead from a big-government managed economy mindset, the Conservatives actively opposed markets having this information and instead proposed big-government solutions over market solutions.

In this important question, the Liberals don't fair much better. Governing by the polls rather than by good decision making practises, they ignore everything until such time as the general public noticed the issue again. They did nothing of substance between the years when Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was in office when they were replaced by Harper. In April 2006, Mulroney was recognized by the Sierra Club as Canada’s Greenest Prime Minister. Where the Harper Conservatives actively oppose modernization of our economy, the Chretien and Martin Liberals didn't bother to do anything.

I agree with David Suzuki on the basic questions around the importance of the economy compared to ecology. He gave a great speech on October 30th, 2008, in Ottawa at the 20th anniversary of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE). We invented the "economy", which I translate to devising a specific management style. Modernizing the economy to properly manage our relationship with our home (ecology) is as simple as changing management style, and yet politics have somehow elevated a narrow management style to being considered more important than everything: including the very thing we are managing.

Gaylord Nelson said it in another way: "The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around."

And yet, our politicians are "bailing out" specific management styles in a way that will increase both our fiscal debt (to be paid by future generations of taxpayers) and our ecological debt (to be paid by our children, assuming many will live at all). In an article penned by David Suzuki and Faisal Moola (widely republished) they indicated that we could solve our real housing crisis (the ecological one) with that money, and yet we seem to be headed the opposite direction.

Environmental issues often come down to a political division between "Industrialized" nations (representing the most industrialized) and "majority world" nations (representing the majority of the worlds population who are predominantly poor under our current economic/management style). The key issues come down to over-consumption, a problem largely in industrialized nations, and over-population, a problem largely in "majority world" nations. At global environmental conferences you have rich industrialized nations not wanting to have the consumer society on the agenda, and poor majority world countries not wanting population on the agenda. What ends up happening is that both end up off the agenda, making it nearly impossible for us to work towards solutions.

Like many things when you get out of the labs or classrooms and into the real world, these issues are linked. Studies have indicated that poor people tend to have more children. In many cultures it is believed that having children is the only way to ensure ones own survival when there is no safety nets outside of family. This leads many studies to suggest that ending poverty is a critical tool in reducing population growth. The obvious problem is that if new-found wealth is used to join the consumer society, it will only exasperate the hyper-consumption problem.

On the flip side is a simple moral question: why should poor people reduce their population (IE: have fewer children, etc) in order to leave more planetary resources for rich people to own more "things"? Are those of us in rich nations really that selfish as to believe that being able to own our own car and travel large distances in order to live in the suburbs is a valid tradeoff to the birth and health of children?

The reality is that most people don't make these connections. They think of their own lives in isolation of the impact their choices may make on other people. We need to somehow move out of this tunnel-vision thinking and think more worldly, as our survival as a species depends on us being able to be smart enough to change our management style soon enough to save our home.

Climate Change?

It was clear to me from political discussions around the Green Tax Shift during the previous election that there are still many climate change skeptics and deniers. There was a time when I was curious about their way of thinking, but I've become a bit bored of it and want to move onward.

The basic problem with the debate is that these people wish to promote as science what is actually a political debate around different decision making methods and who has the burden of proof.

They want there to be irrefutable scientific evidence before any decision is made, knowing full well that science can't produce irrefutable evidence. In the case of climate science there isn't the possibility of observing a global phenomena on some other globe and then writing down observations and conclusions. We only have access to this single globe at the moment, and do not have the ability to follow a few different hypothesis to observe the different possible outcomes. We have to rely on models which can never be perfect, but are the best that we have.

I will be honest and state that my own thinking took the available science and then made a logical political decision. I won't bore people with going through my entire thinking process, but I will use a "worst case scenario" as an illustration (Recognizing the flaws in this as a rhetorical device)

Suppose the current understanding of climate by the majority of climate science is wrong, and we over-compensate for this potential problem. The worst case scenario is that we move to quickly to different management styles (economic models) which are more efficient and thus more sustainable. Most of the changes we would make to compensate for climate change would benefit society in other areas having nothing to do with climate change.

Suppose the current understanding is correct and we under-compensate for this potential problem. It could result in the extinction of our species, and much of the other life on this planet.

While there will always be climate change deniers, engaging in a debate with them seems as exciting and useful to me as a global conference of bureaucrats debating how many angels we could fit on the head of a pin. I may be politically correct and pretend I care in polite company at a social event, or I might just be honest and tell them how worthwhile their words are to me.

In my mind we need to modernize our economic systems. When we are making good management decisions we can take the leisure time to pursue through models the theories of a minority of climate scientists about what the outcome could have been had we continued with a bad management style.

Public Transit in Ottawa

To move from the global to the local for the moment, I have been thinking about the current transit strike. It has an impact on me personally, but I think more about the larger impacts it has.

As an environmentalist (IE: someone who tries to understand our current relationship to the planet, and advocate for changes in our management style so we can survive and thrive as a species in the future) I have always been a strong advocate of more efficient public transit. Even with electric cars, which would be a massive improvement over the status-quo, I do not believe that privatized transportation will ever give us the efficiencies we need to move the large populations we have around in a sustainable way. One of the things I hear all the time from motorists who refuse to use public transit is the dependency question, and how there are transit strikes which they don't want to be harmed by.

Are the drivers or the city taking this impact into consideration? Do any of them care beyond their own selfish special interests?

Public sector strikes really are different than private sector strikes, in that the public sector is often offering a service that is a natural monopoly. This means that there is no competitor that people can switch to that is the threat that both management and labour have to deal with. With the public sector any strike is also inherently political, and has implications far beyond the comparatively minor labour issues.

I remember talking to a few Ottawa bus driver back in in 1997 when Ontario teachers were out of work to protest the education funding bill 160. These drivers believed that teachers should be legislated back to work, and they were complaining how they had to find "babysitting" services for their children. In this case the teachers were protesting a bill that would (and has) harmed public education in Ontario. On the other hand, I know of no instance of bus drivers in a work stopage in order to protest to protect public transit. Couple with that the fact that the impact to the city of transit work stopage is far greater than of teacher work stopage, and you can see why I've had a hard time having any sympathy for bus drivers for more than a decade.

While I don't back the current mayor and city government who generally don't seem to care about the impacts (some say they are "saving money" during this strike), I have even less support for the drivers. I've already written my Ontario MPP (Premier Dalton McGuinty) and Federal MP (David McGuinty) to ask that they step in and put this strike to an end. I believe that part of the settlement should be that a minimum of double the money "saved" by the city should be required as new investments in public transit. I think it is simply wrong for those politicians not all that supportive of public transit to begin with to receive a windfall from this strike.

Cognitive Surplus

People who know me in recent years will be surprised that I did this much writing without talking about copyright. It is the topic I've spent the most time reading, listening, thinking. talking and writing about in the past 7 years. As with everything else, I believe it is all connected. Whether it is changing management styles (economic models) to reduce consumption or poverty/population growth, how we treat knowledge itself in any future economy is critical.

While I have learned a lot in the last 7 years, I keep asking some of the same questions. In 2001 I asked whether knowledge represented A new economy, or a new product for the old economy? If we treat knowledge as a new product for the old economy, focusing on buying and selling knowledge as if it shared traits of tangible goods, then we can never harness the ways in which knowledge is fundamentally different. This new product will be added to the existing failing management style (economy), with unique ways in which this treatment will make the problems worse (See: C-61 Fails Green Copyright Test)

There is little improvement I could make on the nature of knowledge over what Thomas Jefferson said in 1813.

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it.

Where nature creates a natural rivalry for tangible goods, requiring some system to manage that rivalry with property being one option, it is only law that creates an artificial scarcity and rivalry for non-rivalrous knowledge. As well as the economic inefficiencies of treating knowledge as property, I believe there are obvious social implications: the only way to fully enforce such an artificial scarcity against nature itself will ultimately result in a totalitarian state.

If instead we provided just enough exclusivity to provide adequate incentives, and no more, we have the possibility of harnessing the unique nature of knowledge. The production and distribution of knowledge may happen in private sector firms, but unlike the required capital investment for manufacturing of tangible goods does not need to be limited to that organizational structure. I believe knowledge production and distribution will happen best when all sectors of the economy are able to be adequately harnessed.

As one example of the power of what can be done as part of the voluntary sector, listen to the full Interview of Clay Shirky on what he calls the "cognitive surplus" (rebroadcast December 24).

1 comment:

Leonard Poole said...

I enjoyed your New Year message. I agree completely with your dissection of the December parliamentary debate. Irrespective of one's view politically, the conservatives completely misrepresented (ie lied) to Canadians about how our system works. I plan to take more time to fully digest your essay and follow the links. Thanks again for taking the time to put these thoughts forward.