Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Why We Need a Guaranteed Annual Income.



It's been a little while since we last sat down and talked, so I'd like to take the opportunity now to correct that and try to move the conversation forward a little bit. As I mentioned when I posted that we would be re-engaging the blog, there's a lot of issues going on in our world right now and all of them are worthy of talking about.
 
From the situation in Ukraine, the escalation of conflict between Israel and Gaza, or even latest poll numbers federally here for our own parties, there is certainly no shortage of things to talk about.
 
But, as is my want, I find myself gravitating towards an abstract big picture post rather than the current event one. And so with that in mind, I'd like to talk about an issue that has been creeping up on social media and other areas that hasn't received a lot of mainstream media coverage. And that is the issue of the guaranteed annual income.
 
There's been a lot of talk, mostly revolving around the social determinants of health, about the need to establish a guaranteed annual income (GAI). There's also been references to the 1970s sample trial in Dauphin, Manitoba and the successes that came out of that social experiment.
 
We've talked a bit about work before on the blog, and not all of this is going to be new ideas. In fact, some of this may very well be repeating myself. However, I feel that in order to fully expand on this idea we need to recover ground that we may have already tread.
 
I would first like to start by calling attention to the asbestos mines of Quebec. Several summers ago there was mass panic in some Quebec communities over the worry that the federal government was about to sign on to deal that would basically kill off asbestos mining in the province. Naturally, there were photo ops for the Prime Minister and relevant ministers to visit Asbestos and declare their support for the workers in the community.
 
It's a photo opportunity as old as time: coming out in support of established jobs, condemning (to a degree) the modernization of the trade market and its necessity to put products to bed after a period of time; which is always surprising coming from conservatives, given their attitudes towards free-market competition and the free hand of the marketplace determine what is and is no longer necessary product, but that's a conversation for another time.
 
You may ask, I thought we were talking about a guaranteed annual income why you ranting about asbestos mines? The purpose of that is to highlight a very real truth about the capitalist marketplace economy: as we move forward both industrially and technologically, established jobs often are lost in the process.
 
So a community, like Asbestos, may go through turbulent changes due to the ever-changing nature of the market economy. No one likes to talk about jobs disappearing; in fact as a politician it's political suicide to even go to a community and say that 20 years from now the jobs that your fathers and grandfathers had no will longer exist.
 
People like safe, they like familiar. Which is why when the market fluctuates and creates these changes there's always demand do something about. Communities are always hit hard because despite the world moving forward, many of these places have remained in an economic time bubble. They commit to jobs that are disappearing, and at the same time they're pushing younger workers to take over these jobs. Sooner or later they find these younger workers are now competing for fewer and fewer jobs as the market shrinks in that industry.
 
Compounding this issue, and making it subsequently worse, is the fact that many of these jobs that are disappearing due to changing economic market circumstances are high-paying, have benefits and will establish a young person's life. It is not just a job, it is a career and many of these are disappearing.
 
In return, what we're seeing every time one of these jobs disappear, is that their replacement is not a career but a job. I'm talking part time, I'm talking precarious employment situations, contract work with no guarantee of extension. I'm talking no health benefits, no savings towards retirement. We are pushing an entire generation out of well-paying jobs and into the complete and other mercy of an economic market that has already proven over several decades that it is anything but merciful.
 
And to make matters worse we are pushing them into an unstable service economy. Now, I suppose some of you are asking what is an unstable service economy? Let me provide you with a clear example: I want to think about the last time you went to the grocery store. Now, when you're standing in line when you reach the end of that line is there a person standing behind the till or are you in line at the self-checkout machines?
 
I'm not attacking self-checkout machines, I actually quite like them as I find that they reduce the wait time in line substantially. What I am doing with this is illustrating a point: our marketplace is changing substantially, even something as simple and as reliable as our service economy is changing the methods in which service is provided to the consumer.
 
Fifteen or twenty years from now, the grocery stores of tomorrow are going to look a lot different. Instead of only three or four self-checkout machines they will be the vast majority with maybe only one or two lanes of actual human cashiers (and even I think that's optimistic as I believe the number of actual honest-to-goodness human beings will be working in a cashier capacity will be closer to zero). One need only look to markets like Japan where automation and technology are rapidly replacing human beings in the service economy, these are jobs that we are forcing generation to accept and that in the generation's time will cease to exist.
 
Which brings me to the first argument for guaranteed annual income: the marketplace will always change. There are economists who summarize the market as "it goes up, it goes down and nobody really knows why". Which means, quite frankly, that we can never truly predict what the market will do. But the one constant we can always bet on is that the world is moving forward; it does not stay stagnant as time marches on and what that means is that our market changes with it which means the jobs that are here today will cease to exist tomorrow.
 
Which ultimately means that we can't bank on the jobs of today to be here tomorrow. The marketplace is changing and will always change; we can't say that 20 years from or now 30 years from now, high school students will be working in your local burger joint flipping burgers and working the till. Those jobs may not exist for human beings anymore, as we build machines that flip the burgers machines will take your order.
 
To summarize this point to absolute clarity, there is an idea in the free-market that anyone who wants work can find it. Anyone who wants to be productive has the opportunity to do. It's the sort of idea that grew out of the 1950s fear of communism; it suggest opportunities are available for anyone who has the courage to seek them and praises those with the ingenuity to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But as the market shrinks, opportunities shrink with it. Ultimately, we are going to reach a point where we aren't going to have jobs for every able-bodied citizen in our country, in our province, or even in our cities, regardless of how much they may want to work.

So, here’s the truth as we have it thus far: the market changes, and with it, jobs change. We can’t stem this any more than we can command the tides to ebb and flow at will. Which means that our economic policy should focus on creating new jobs, and preparing communities for the day when established market conditions cease to be established. This can be done through direct investment in training for future jobs, or transition programs, or even just pushing for greater diversification of the local market economy.

But, the market is unpredictable. Up until a few years ago, service industry jobs were more or less one of those kinds of jobs that was always going to be there. As noted earlier, these jobs are no more secure than others thanks to technological advancements. Technology is also only moving forward; how long until we have functional, capable robots? In a service economy, in an industry like wait staff, I imagine a robot would be appealing to a busy restaurant owner looking for someone to bus or serve tables. Granted, we may be decades away from this happening, but eventually we will reach a point where it becomes possible and affordable.

Allow me to explain the affordable part. Even if there is a huge forward cost for purchasing one of these robots, the business no longer has wages to pay to an employee. There’s no lost time for illness or training, though there may be the occasional short circuit. Eventually, we will reach a point where these types of specialized machines will be cheaper to purchase and use than an actual employee. Take again, the example of the self-checkout. We are moving towards a massive technological future, which isn’t a bad thing, but we need to start preparing for it now.

Which brings me to the second point I want to discuss, and it’s still a little removed from the overall topic of a GAI but provides another part of the argument in favour of it. And it’s a bit of an examination of the work that we ask people to do today.

In many cases, there is the notion of ‘busy work’. For those unfamiliar, busy work refers to work which is meant to keep a worker busy yet doesn’t overly achieve anything. I’ll give you an example. Let’s say that you’re a secretary in an office building. Your boss is having a slow day, no meetings or trips out of the office, and asks you do some filing.

Before you can file anything, however, you must go through all the boxes of reports and remove perforations from both sides of the paper. It’s well known in the office that once these reports are filed, they are never taken out of records and almost never called upon for review or use again.

It’s not exactly inspiring work. In all reality, the boss is asking you to do it to keep you busy and have the appearance of the staff doing something…You know, just in case their boss should wonder by and see idle staff.

It doesn’t really achieve anything, and will likely make most workers feel like their day was a waste, but it’s designed to keep a worker busy. I could throw in some Marxian line here about busy work, but I’ll leave that alone for now. I think most people are happy to do work that they feel is contributing to their organization, but even the most happy-go-lucky can-do worker is going to spiritually die a little bit when made to do work that exists solely to keep them busy.
And this brings me back to another point, a lot of people are working in a job or career that wasn’t exactly their plan. I don’t know many people who are 12 or 14, decided that they wanted to be a wait staff person or a cashier their entire life. I would like to point out that I’m not attacking those jobs, just in case someone thinks I am, but rather highlighting that most people end up in jobs that weren’t necessarily their first choice.

There’s quite a few phrases about this; primarily, the notion of “Live to work, not work to live.” The problem is, we’ve created an economy where the opposite is true. Most Canadians, I would argue, are working to live and get by. The economic record of the number of part-time jobs being created would seem to support this argument. Jim Carrey, yes the actor, gave a commencement speech about this very issue. He related how his father was uproariously funny, and how he could have been successful as a comedian. Yet, he took a safe path and worked as an accountant; which even though was a safe choice, led to a career where he was eventually laid off and led to tough times for the family.

I mention this to show prove the point; people tend to envision themselves doing some they love to do. Whether that’s as an actor, a veterinarian, a mechanic, or what-have-you; people want to spend their lives doing something they enjoy doing, which is yet another reason why busy work is such an insipid presence in life. Let’s take the wait staff, for a moment. While I don’t know anyone who wanted to spend their life as a wait staff person, I do know people who wanted own their own restaurant. And they approached it through the bottom up mind-set, they worked as waiters and waitresses so that they would have the knowledge of being front-line staff later on.

Whether or not they will succeed in eventually owning their own restaurants, and whether those businesses will be successful, remain to be seen. But there was still ambition. They took a job to make a career out of it by gaining knowledge they thought would be useful in the future. They didn’t expect to be a wait staff member ten years from now. The sad truth is, however, that some of them likely still will be.

As I mentioned when talking about disappearing jobs from the economy, people like familiar. Sometimes it’s easier to put those loftier ambitions aside and stick with what they know. This is hardly a fault, as I think all of us are guilty of doing this at some point in our life, but it certainly locks as person into the ‘work to live’ trap.

Which brings me to the argument that all of this section has been building up to: our current economic model is something of a jobs trap.

I want you to think a bit about the service economy again, and I swear I’m honestly not picking on these jobs. The service economy, for the most part, is set up as an introduction to work. These are jobs in stores, restaurants, and the like. For want of a better word, they exist as experience jobs. These are jobs that are typically filled by people looking to gain experience in the job market. Essentially, these are jobs that seem to be filled by part-time employees; primarily, high school students.

Think about your local grocery store, or fast food place over the last twenty years. When I was younger, these places were more or less staffed by a contingent from the local high schools. They worked there until they graduated, and then they mostly moved on. Supplementing the staff, were senior citizens. Generally, retirees looking to supplement their income a little.

On the face of it, when I was younger and in my mind now, the service economy existed as a stop gap. It was meant to provide youth with experience, and to provide experienced and now retired workers with a supplemental income.

Of course, there have been a lot of changes in recent years. The economic downturn has made the service economy less of a stop gap, and more of a necessity for many. Take again those wait staff people I’m fond of mentioning. Even the ones who were working to gain experience, to eventually open their own restaurant, may find themselves unable to move on thanks to the weaker market. A job which was supposed to have been temporary, now risks becoming permanent.

Add to that the increased pressure from temporary foreign workers (which is a blog post in and of itself, but we’ll talk a little about it here), and you can begin to see how many people may very well feel trapped by their current circumstances. Which, in turn, leads to stress. And stress, as we all know, can lead to a lot of bad things; from medical conditions to that small flash of absent-mindedness that leads to a work place accident.

So, here’s what to take away from the second argument. The service economy has created a class of worker in this country where people are no longer subject to their own ambitions. It’s almost a tad reminiscent of the days of serfdom; in that people aren’t able to really make their own decisions due to excessive limitations. We’ve condemned entire groups of people to take jobs that were meant to be experiencing building and temporary into life-long careers. And to make matters worse, often times these jobs create ‘busy work’ for their employees. It’s bad enough doing a job you don’t want to do, but it’s even worse when the job consistently involves days of not contributing in any meaningful way.

Let’s review both arguments briefly. Firstly, the job market is changing as new technological advances spur it on. Careers that existed for decades are disappearing, and right now most governments seem hell-bent on trying to preserve disappearing jobs rather than focus on retraining and creating new employment opportunities. Secondly, the service economy has moved from being a stepping stone of experience for young workers and instead become a life-support raft for those caught in the stream of a torrential marketplace. Temporary jobs are becoming permanent careers, but as evidenced by the first point, we are going to reach an epoch where these service industry jobs are going to be hard to come by.

The marketplace for so-called ‘unskilled’ workers is shrinking. There’s no denying that. And once businesses have the opportunity to invest in a means of cutting wages and lost time, they will do it. We cannot rely on lower paying service industry jobs as we move towards a technological future. And it is with that in mind that we finally come to the meat and potatoes of this post: the need for a Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI).

As noted earlier, Dauphin tried an experiment in GAI during the 1970s. The program lasted less than a decade, and reports on the project have only been assembled in the last couple of years. The primary source of reference on the successes of the Mincome project, as it’s called, is Dr. Evelyn Forget whose final report was published in 2011. [Source Material]

Dr. Forget’s findings are pretty astonishing, which is why they deserve to be talked about more than they have been.

We’ll start with the reduction in labour. One criticism of GAI is that it provides incentive for people to not seek employment; but firstly, let’s examine that criticism. Is that really a bad thing? We’ve already talked about how we’ve created an economy where people ‘work to live’, instead of ‘live to work’. We have a perception that to be a productive and valued member of society, you must contribute to the economy by working.

But I don’t think that perception is correct. As noted, a lot of jobs employee people to engage in busy work. How does doing something that exists solely to be done contribute to society or the economy? If you must contribute, then clearly only our finest academic minds and those who directly produce goods live up to that standard. And then, that means, a lot of us are already excluded from being productive and valued in today’s economy.

Effectively, as the market changes, we need to change with it. And that means we need to re-examine our perspective and what it means to be a productive member of society. If subscribe to a pure view of capitalism, for example, you’d be productive simply by working and purchasing goods to keep the economy moving. If you subscribed to a pure view of communism, you’d be productive by working and sharing the fruits of that labour with your fellow citizens. There are different definitions and perspectives at play, and I don’t agree for one moment that choosing to work less due to a GAI is an effective criticism of the whole program.

Furthermore, the nature of labour shortages have changed. The temporary foreign worker program is a good present example of this. And as we’ve talked about already, technological advances are going to have a major impact on present jobs and labour shortages in the near future. To pretend otherwise is to more or less reject the current premise of reality, so we need to discuss and prepare for the future that lies ahead of us.

The other place where this criticism fails, is that a well-designed GAI can provide incentive for people to remain in the workplace. For example, if the GAI was $20,000 a year; provide a tax based incentive for people who continue to work and make more than that. Perhaps allow those who are working to receive a reduced tax rate, or completely negate all taxes, on the first $20,000 earned in a fiscal year. A tax free $20,000 (or at least a lower taxed amount), would allow those who did work and earn more in a year to at benefit and give some incentive to work in order to supplement the GAI with no tax penalty.

Furthermore, a GAI is not completely meant to replace employment. At $20,000, a family of two adults would only be making $40,000 a year. A GAI wouldn’t allow someone to lounge about all day and live a life of luxury, it would just provide a basic amount which would ensure that they could afford food, housing and other necessities. If they want three vehicles and a summer cottage at the lake, they’re likely going to need to find employment that would allow them to enhance their GAI to let them do so.

But back to Dr. Forget’s findings. She noted that the two groups that tended to work less with Mincome in place were new mothers and teenagers. Unsurprisingly, new mothers opted to work less in order to spend time with their children; while teenagers to focus on school instead of working to support their family.

The biggest impact of this specific was the fact that more teenagers graduated from high school during the Mincome project. So, there’s the first big piece of information to take from this. Students were able to focus on their studies, not on helping to put food on the table, and it had a correlation with the number of students graduating while the program was in place.

Furthermore, there was a real benefit from people who removed themselves from the marketplace. Right now, though it varies from region to region in our large nation, the average right now is about 3 or 4 job seekers per job opening. So, for every job posting there are 3 or 4 unemployed people to fill that job. But with people able to selectively remove themselves from the job seeking market, that number changes drastically.

Under Mincome, people who did continue to work were given more opportunities to choose the type of work and field they worked in. There’s complaints nowadays from my generation about ‘the Boomers’ who refuse to retire and create career openings for the next generation; even though most Boomers are staying working because after 2009, a lot of retirement plans went right out the window for many. But a GAI would allow these people to retire, comfortably, and ensure that people who wanted to work could find a career in the field they want to be working in, not the field they’re stuck with.

Which brings us to the next point, and the one of importance for those arguing a GAI has a major impact on the social determinates of health. In addition to increasing opportunities for those who wanted to work, Mincome had a profound impact on the health of those in Dauphin. Forget’s findings show that hospital visits dropped 8.5% during the period that Mincome was active. Furthermore, there were fewer incidents of work-related injury, car accidents, domestic abuse, and a reduction in psychiatric hospitalization and mental-illness related doctor’s visits.

Let me highlight some of those a little more.

We’ll start with the work-related injury. As I noted above, someone working in a job they don’t enjoy is more likely to experience stress. Stress is one of those things all of us have experienced, and we all know that when we’re stressed, it’s quite taxing on the body and mind. And its periods of stress that tend to lead to us performing at less than our best, increasing the odds and chances for accidents.

This is especially true in the workplace; even for someone who isn’t working in a regularly dangerous occupation. Whether you work with power tools, or even something as innocuous as a damp floor, the possibility for injury exists everywhere. And when we’re stressed, the odds of getting involved in an injury only increase. So, obviously, the offer of GAI helped to alleviate some of the stress involved with work.

Next car accidents. Commuting is now a way of life for many, regardless of whether they want it to be or not. Current transit problems in Saskatoon only highlight that when you need transportation to get to work, and be cost effective, there aren’t always a lot of options. That’s led to traffic congestion in a lot of our city centres and an increase in rush-hour gridlock in cities across Canada. Patience is a virtue that is often lost when you’ve only traveled a metre in ten minutes.

So, this leads to an increase in aggressive driving. You’ll take a risk you wouldn’t normally take because you’re running late; or, it is just stress rearing its head again. This, in turn, leads to a potential increase in traffic accidents.

Add to this the case of Andy Ferguson, the student intern who worked an unpaid internship for a local radio station. Andy had an hour commute between his internship and home, and after putting in a morning shift and an overnight shift, he was killed in a traffic accident on his way home after his car veered into another lane and struck a gravel truck head on. [Source Material]

I mention this specific example for a few reasons. Firstly, the intern thing is again further proof of how we are pushing people into a ‘work to live’ situation. Ferguson was not paid for his internship, he would instead receive college credit, which left him in a position where he could not object to his working conditions due to putting that credit and his degree at risk.

Secondly, it highlights what the commute has become for those who work. Changes to the EI program are also a good example of this; we are creating an economic system where there is a belief that an hour or more commute each way is no big deal. However, that is adding to the stress related to the market conditions that we are creating. An hour commute, at the best of times barring traffic, is actually going to equal more time than that. If you work at 9am, you’re probably up before 7am to get your day started. If you have a family, especially one that includes school-aged kids, chances are you have a lot to do before you can hit the road for the day. So, maybe, staying in bed until just before 7 is especially optimistic.

The chances for sleep deprivation in this situation is pretty high. Add stress, our famous Canadian winter weather, and a sleepy driver and it is a recipe for disaster. Commuting is now a part of the work experience, whether it’s an hour away or twenty minutes. Unless you live in a very small community, you are likely driving at least ten minutes from home to work, and then back.

More people working means more people commuting, which means more people on the road and the greater a chance of accident. It’s a pretty simple idea. As such, with a GAI that allows people to actively remove themselves from the marketplace, there is a chance of reducing the number of commuters during a given day.

Which brings us to the domestic abuse issue. I’m not an expert on this field at all, and there are a lot of myths and conjecture about the root causes of domestic abuse. There are those who say that stress impacts a person’s decision to become physically or emotionally abusive against a spouse or other family member; at the same time, there are those who reject that domestic abuse can be explained so easily.

After all, there are hundreds of individuals under tremendous stress that do not become abusive to others. Much in the same way that there are individuals with substance abuse problems that also do not engage in domestic abuse. At the same time, studies have been done that show that domestic violence is higher in couples who are experience financial strain and stress. [Source Material] In fact, domestic violence rates in couples experience financial burden is around 9.5%, compared to 2.7% of couples who are financially secure.

But ultimately, it varies from individual to individual. Some people under stress will resort to physical or emotional violence against their families; others will not. As such, I’m not entirely sure what to think of Dr. Forget’s findings with regards to domestic violence. There’s a chance a GAI could decrease domestic violence by easing financial burdens; but I wouldn’t presume to think that it would be a solution to stopping the problem entirely within Canada.

We’ll look at the mental health issues now. Again, it comes back to stress. Depression and anxiety are issues that spiraling in this country, and in the world in general, now. That’s not to say that these conditions didn’t exist decades ago, they did, but we’re becoming more aware of individuals who are suffering through them. Mental health advocacy still has a long way to go, considering there is still a stigma surrounding those who suffer from mental health issues, but it would seem that the GAI had a benefit in this regard.

If you asked people what stressed them out the most, or provided the most anxiety in their life, most of them would answer money. Again, we’re back at working to live. As previously stated, individuals are putting their ambitions on long-term hold in a perilous economy by staying put in service economy jobs that are slowly becoming their careers. People don’t do this because they enjoy the work, some might but the majority likely not so much, they do it because at the end of the day they have to pay the bills. Some people deal with it, and work through it, others have a harder time of it. 

Whether they end up crying themselves to sleep at night, or end up breaking down in the middle of the shift, working in a job where you feel stuck and trapped provides a tremendous amount of mental stress.

Add to that the state of precarious employment; or working on a contract and not knowing whether or not you’ll have a job when that contract is up, and people do have a lot to worry their minds. As such, a GAI removes a lot of that doubt and also allows an individual to make a choice in their career. They don’t have to suffer through a job that they do only to pay the bills, they can take the time to get into a career that they will love to do day in and day out.

That brings me to the educational advantages.

As stated earlier, teenagers during Mincome were more likely to graduate. On top of that, the stay-at home parents had a noticeable impact on their children during this time period. Children who came from families who had parents staying at home were scoring higher on tests and were less likely to drop out prior to graduation. There was also a marked increase in adults seeking continued education during the Mincome experiment.

That means that the educational impact of a GAI was very significant. I’ve always been a proponent of better education; in order to function as democracy, you need an educated citizenry. And in that regard, it would seem that Mincome worked fantastically as a means of allowing people to become better educated. From a view of the social determinants of health, a GAI is a boon that we should be exploring. Everything that’s been explored, by Mincome and by academic review, suggest that this is a social program that could have tremendous social impact. And for the sake of being absolutely clear, I think we need to explore that social impact.

Think of the health care benefits. Forget showed that there was an 8.5% drop in hospital visits during Mincome; imagine what that number could be on a national scale. Our health care system is going to undergo changes in the coming decade, and part of that is going to be figuring out how to decrease the strain on our emergency rooms. From what we’ve seen in Mincome, we have the potential to do that through a GAI.

We can lower the potential for work-place injury. We can lessen the potential for commuter related traffic accidents. We can diminish the mental health issues caused by stress, particularly financial stress. And in the long run, we can have a positive impact on overall health. Preventative health care is becoming more and more important, and guaranteeing an equal access to healthier foods and living conditions only helps us be proactive in preventing health issues rather than reactive.
I think that alone is worth the establishment of a GAI in Canada.

But, now we come to the big part of it all: The cost.

A lot of opponents of a GAI, once they lose the social argument side, always retreat to the safety of the cost argument. As I stated during the criticism of a GAI encouraging people not to work at all, a well-designed GAI can provide a tax-based financial incentive to keep people working. Furthermore, one needs to think of all the programs that are currently administered by the federal and provincial governments within our social safety net.

Things like EI, regional income assistance programs, Canada Pension Plan (CPP), Old Age Security (OAS), Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), and numerous other financial support programs would be shut down and folded into the GAI. That means the dozens of smaller, situational payments would be replaced by a single system that covered all Canadians. And as stated before, this would be a bare minimum pay to ensure that an individual could provide the necessities of life to them and their families.

Will it cost us more than the programs we are running now? It’s possible. At the same time, though, given the positive impacts on health that a GAI would have, it could save us money in other areas and help to offset the entire thing. Ultimately, a GAI has a lot of benefits for both the country and for the people who are living in it.

Every couple of years, Canada reaffirms its commitment to eliminate poverty. We’ve done abysmally on this issue, for a variety of reasons, but we have an option before us that could actually do something about it. We could be the generation that eliminates poverty in Canada and begin to lay the groundwork of establishing a healthier society by eliminating the problems that poverty causes.

We have a chance to do something phenomenal and make Canada a better place for all Canadians. It will not be simple, and I’m sure we’ll have our challenges along the way, but the important things in life are always the ones that take the courage to see through. And to use a quote I probably use too often, from Tommy Douglas: “Courage, my friends; ‘tis not too late to build a better world.” his hallenges along the way, but the important things in life are always the ones that take the conviction to see throu

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Back on the Horse

It has been awhile.

The blog is still active, despite the appearance to the contrary. Yet another time period of feeling a bit uninspired struck, though it does seem to be on the way out. There is definitely no shortage of things to talk about, given the state of the world and our country, and we will get to them in due course.

For now, just know that I'll eventually have something up here in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Continuing the Thought

In the last blog post, I talked a bit about how the financial system in our democracy is ultimately harming our ability to vote effectively. If you didn't read it, the long and short of it is we need publicly funded elections in order to really hand power back to the electors of this country.

However, smaller details were also starting to nag at me a little. After all, once I stopped to think about it, its not just big money that is ruining the ability of electors to make an informed choice when they vote: It's also political parties in general.

Gather round children, cause it's story time with Uncle Scott.

I've worked on a number of political campaigns in my lifetime. I've gotten a few good funny stories about of a couple of them, but I've gotten a lot more frustrations and complaints. During the 2011 Provincial Election, I was something of an 'provincial helper person' for the NDP. I travelled a lot throughout the province and had a chance to spend a week or two on a couple different campaigns. It was pretty good experience to see how different, but similar, campaigns were run throughout the province.

It was in my last posting, which for the sake of being diplomatic I will not name, where I saw the bulk of the things that frustrated me with our political system.

The first was the common occurrence of damaged lawn signs. A good amount of time in our campaign was spent going around and repairing signs that had 'magically' fallen down. Nevermind the fact that the metal frame that held them in the ground was clearly bent in cases; or that in the case of larger signs, the wooden beams were clearly kicked to the point of snapping. Nope, no one was responsible for that.

Of course, I know the common answer here: It was just stupid teenagers out for a laugh. It's the common answer that is usually given whenever a sign disappears or is left behind but clearly damaged. Even with the benefit of the doubt, the amount of signs we ended up replacing over the course of a just a week suggests that there was a little more to it than just 'boys being boys'.

Even if a few of the signs were just mischievous kids; the regular occurrence, coupled with it often being in high traffic locations, suggest just the tiniest possibility of foul play.

And that brings me to the second common occurrence: The magically disappearing campaign literature.

Now, as I learned as a young campaign worker: It's basically mail fraud if you remove campaign literature from a mailbox or a person's home after it has been delivered. As such, since you're more or less committing a felony it's a good idea not to do it. However, our campaign at the time experienced a lot of oddities when it came to dropping our flyers.

A fellow campaign worker and I were out dropping flyers in a neighbourhood, and after awhile we started to notice that the flyers we had tucked into mailboxes (hanging so that they were visible, but secure from the wind) couldn't be seen. It was the middle of the day, on a weekday, so it seemed unlikely that all of them were already pulled in by the home owners.

Cue a rival team of canvassers.

Now, were they taking our flyers? I can't say 100% for sure, since I never physically saw it. But after we saw them, finished what we could, we went back to headquarters and asked what we should do. Our campaign manager suggested a simple approach: Go to a block of houses we know we went to, door knock and ask if they received the campaign literature.

So, we did. And low and behold, not a single house had seen the flyer.

Finally, and this is the one that annoyed me the most because it exists in a so-called 'gray area'.

Elections Canada, and Elections Saskatchewan for that matter, have clear rules about what is and is not appropriate on Elections Day. One of those rules regards the placement of campaign signs near the polling station.

Elections Saskatchewan states that campaigning cannot take place within 50 feet of a polling station. So, no signs, no posters, no meet-and-greets, etc, etc, etc. So, you can imagine how upset our entire campaign was when our opponent had a giant sign, in the back of truck, parked right across the street from the polling station.

Here's the caveat, the truck was parked in the private driveway of a campaign volunteer. So, while we did ask the Chief Electoral Officer for a ruling or some kind of guidance, we were more or less told that the private property fact meant we couldn't do anything.

After all, every Canadian citizen has the right to put up an election sign. So, we ran into an issue of a campaign clearly using this other rule to supercede another. As such, there was nothing we could do. Despite this clear attempt at what's known as 'electioneering', we couldn't do anything about.

Now, you may be asking yourselves: Why am I mentioning all of this?

Part of it is to serve as an counterpoint to the electoral stories we've heard from Brad Butt, Laurie Hawn, and Paul Calandra. But the bulk of it is to prove a point: As I said in the last post, every party has skirted the rules on financial matters. Just as every party, whether condoned by the party or not, has campaign workers who don't always follow the rules either.

Can I prove that any of the examples above were authorized by the party, or by the candidate themselves? Nope.

Can I prove that any of it was more than just a few overzealous campaign volunteers, especially with regards to the destruction of signs and removal of campaign literature?
Nope.

The sign across the polling place, while certainly seeming organized or at least done with the candidate in the know, is also something that I don't have proof for.

But, what it does provide is a narrative that we need to keep in mind. An election, in the minds of many political parties, is nothing more than a battle of opposing sides. And above all else, you want your side to win. It doesn't matter how you win, so long as you win.

And that is the mentality that has been creeping into our political system. Hell, the entire democratic process is practically based on this mentality right from the moment we allowed people to cast a ballot. Parties want to win, sometimes more than they want to govern. (See: Stephen Harper and his neverending career dream of destroying the Liberal Party.)

And much like 'floppers' in soccer, occasionally the teams use some pretty dodgy tactics to give themselves an unfair advantage.

Almost all of the political parties in today's system seem to be more concerned with winning an election than with improving our country. It's the reason why in every leadership race, almost every candidate is always introduced as the "Next Prime Minister/Premier/whatever." Yes, if you win you get to implement your policies. But at the same time, for many, it seems like winning is enough.

And when we become so focused on just winning for the sake of winning, or worse winning for the sake of making sure the other team doesn't, we put our blinders on. We can see this in the culture of corruption that has basically claimed the backrooms of the Conservative Party. From robocalls from the CIMS database, to robocalls about Irwin Cotler, to robocalls in Saskatchewan, to Eve Adams using her position to campaign for a nomination in a new riding; we see people making dodgy, and in many cases illegal, decisions for the sake of winning.

If we want to tackle election fraud and fair elections, the first place to look isn't to the voter: It's to the parties. We need to ensure that parties are following the laws that are written down for them; and that even a single rogue campaign worker is punished for daring to step outside those bounds. We need to stop letting parties find 'gray zones' in the laws, and instead insist that all parties remain on the fair footing that we're supposed to offer.

Who cares if it's not technically illegal or only against the spirit, but not the word, of the law? Parties, it seems, will take the shortcuts and moral lowroad to achieve the victory of winning it would seem. Democracy is supposed to foster policy discussion and alternative visions for our country; that is not what we've been getting.

We've been getting petty squabbles, bruised egos, and the spewing of vitriol on such a level that you'd think every single political opponent of everyone else is the Antichrist come to Earth. This is what happens when parties focus on winning for the sake of winning, rather than winning for the sake of improving your country. And frankly, it's time that we as electors demanded better.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hey, Must Be the Money

So, a lot has happened. Two Premiers down, a Federal Finance Minister out, and numerous other political developments. As interesting as some of those would be to talk about, it's also a tad old news at this point. Besides, there's not much that hasn't been said and that I feel I need to contribute to that conversation.

Where I do want to contribute, so a degree, is to talk about the Fair Elections Act. The bill that no one seems to like, but that we're likely going to have to live with. I don't think a single professional, by which I mean an academic not hired by the government, has spoken in favour of this bill. In fact, it has gained national and even some international scorn over the potential it has for vote suppressing.

As a contributor to the Canadian Politics sub-reddit pointed out in a brilliantly simple argument, and I'm paraphrasing: "The Fair Elections Act wants to remove vouching, a process which allowed legal voters to legally cast their ballots. No evidence has come forward of voting fraud through vouching, so this bill wants to prevent previously legal electors from being able to vote."

Despite Conservatives coming forward, like Brad Butt or Laurie Hawn, to talk about the misuse of voter ID cards that they had personally witnessed. (Butt, for the record, recanted his tale and found protection in his caucus from being found in contempt of Parliament for lying in the house; while Hawn has had his claim refuted by former Elections Canada Chief Jean-Pierre Kingsley, who notes that voter cards were not able to be used as a substitution for ID in the 2006 election).

One can't help but draw some parallels to one of the more recent tactics used by the Conservatives against Thomas Mulcair. Conservatives, Paul Calandra in particular, were fond of asking why it took Mulcair years to come forward about an attempted bribe he was offered while he was a MNA; since Mulcair only provided his account once the Charbonneau Commission had started.

Well, chalk this one up to the pot and the kettle. Since now, Conservatives are doing the exact same thing. If they saw voter fraud, they didn't report it. They can hem and haw, as Hawn has done about maybe doing it differently and reporting the fellow back when he had the chance, but it's more or less the same thing. At the very least, it should put an end to the attack against Mulcair lest the NDP respond with questions about Conservatives not reporting voter fraud.

Which brings me to what I wanted to talk about with this post. The universal consensus, unless you're a Conservative caucus member, is that this bill is just bad policy. It doesn't give Elections Canada teeth, and in effect does more to neuter the organization instead. Both Kingsley and current EC Chief Marc Mayrand have called for more provisions to ensure that the Fair Elections Act lives up to its name.

Yet there is one solution that would ultimately ensure that Fair Elections were exactly that: 100% public funded elections.

Democracy is a nice idea in theory, a sentiment that is usually applied to communism, but in practice it doesn't always work. This is especially true when you consider the big money that goes into politics.

Take, for example, the latest statistic that shows a little over half of US Congresspeople are millionaires. To get elected, you need money. To get money, you have two options:

First, you can stump like hell and make a mountain out of  mole hill; by which I mean, you have a massive donor base that contributes small amounts.

Second, you can get support at massive levels from fewer donors. Canada's laws are a bit better than America's on this front, at least in restricting who can and cannot donate to a party, but they aren't perfect.

Let's be perfectly honest. Every party, EVERY PARTY, skirts the rules as best they can when it comes to election financing. After all, there's tons of ways to do it. That plane I used for the campaign? That was a gift, not an expense. That donation of the maximum allowed amount from the wealthy couple, who only has one working spouse? Well, it may be the one spouse's money, but it's listed under both their names...and don't look too closely at our adult children's donations either.

And those are just the outrageous examples.

I guarantee that every party has outdone themselves in small funds fundraising. It's not often you go to a constituency meeting, a nomination meeting, or any kind of party event where the old kitty isn't passed around and you're free to throw in $10 or $20. Even if you've already contributed the maximum amount allowed under Canadian law, these smaller donations are not well tracked (if tracked at all) which allows anyone to continue to contribute in small amounts and go unnoticed.

The basic fact to take away from this is: our election financing rules are broken, and they will remain broken as long as private money is allowed to enter into the political system.

A US Congressman fell into hot water when he suggested that a millionaire should be entitled to 'a million votes' based on their wealth; and while we all balked at the suggestion, the truth is our system is almost at that point already. While they may not physically get a million votes, they do get things that the rest of us electors do not...Just look to the Senate if you want to see what happens to people who either raise or donate a lot of money to their party.

Democracy cannot work when money plays a more important role than the actual voice of the people. That is not a democracy, it is an oligarchy.

Which is why if we ever want a fair election, we must support 100% public funded elections.

There is a question as to whether or not we should even allow parties to raise money at all; though, I do realize that parties do rely on paid employees as well as volunteers. It's a tricky balance, but not impossible to achieve. So, while I'm not saying we should completely stop parties from fundraising, we should explore avenues to restrict what they can use raised funds for. Office and staff expenses, yes. Running a multi-million dollar ad campaign, no.

Public funded elections, I think, would also help us end a bit of the negativity we've seen develop in Canadian politics since 2004.

Imagine that each party is only given X amount of dollars for the entire campaign (or perhaps each riding association is given X amount, rather than any grand schemes allowed by the federal party mechanisms). With a set budget that can't be replenished, you would weigh your options pretty carefully on what you spend money on.

Do we take out a negative ad? Or do we run that ad that highlights our policies?

It restricts the ability of parties to spend frivolously, which I would think would stop negative ads (at least to a degree) because parties need to focus more on their message. Granted, I imagine at least one camp would run negative ads in spite of limited resources, but I think overtime the system would reach a point where parties would place more value on ensuring their policies and ideas were heard over their vitriol.

Granted, there are a lot of questions to be answered.

How do we determine which parties receive funding? Do we do this at a complete payout to the federal party and allow them to trickle money down, or do we directly fund riding associations of eligible parties?

That is a topic for another day, and quite frankly perhaps a better mind than my own. But the common truth of this remains clear: Privately funded elections do not empower citizens. If anything, they actually decrease the power we hold as electors. All parties, regardless of their political stripes, bend the rules when it comes to fundraising and financing. After all, if one party is doing it, then the others have to follow suit lest they fall behind.

Open single-sourced funding is the only way to ensure Canada actually has fair elections and ensure that it's the will of the people that is followed before and after an election, not the will of the almighty dollar.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Quebec as Scorched Earth

The devil is in the details. For the longest time, the Conservatives have identified a resurgent Liberals as their go-to target. Pollsters confirm that the Liberals have indeed enjoyed a bump in their support thanks to the new Trudeau Era. Even the media has placed greater emphasis on the Liberals, over the NDP as official opposition.

As such, many have concluded that this is a two horse race; and the Cons will focus their ammunition on the Liberals and forego the NDP. But a recent development suggests that may not be entirely accurate. 

I have held a long standing view that the Conservatives are not serious about winning in Quebec. They can make a show of it, and Harper can learn French, but ultimately I don't think their goal is to win seats as a sweep in the province. Rather, the party has focused on maximizing the odds of anyone but the Liberals winning.

It seems the Conservatives, since taking power have done everything they could to prop up the Bloc Québécois. Not actively, but indirectly by pursuing policy that Québécois would object to. Even their move to recognize Quebec as a nation, as part of a united Canada, has smacks of nationalism ideals that serve to embolden the Bloc and the Parti Quebecois. 

Now, with the Canada Jobs Grant going ahead without Quebec on board, they have created another issue. Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair warned that this could have an impact on the likely coming provincial election; and that it will give the PQ fodder to use during the campaign. 

Mulcair is quite right, but I don't know if he's seen the gears turning behind the scenes. The BQ is an organized shambles, but a PQ majority or enhanced minority will embolden the separatist movement in Quebec. And I think, that's precisely what the Conservatives are hoping to achieve.

By surging the Bloc forward, they hope to cut into NDP gains in the province and at the very least try to ensure any change overs avoid going Liberal. The Liberals lack the support base the Conservatives currently have, and no doubt preventing gains for them in Quebec is a major part of the strategy for the next Conservative victory plan.

It also has the double effect of neutralizing the NDP, by forcing them to focus resources on holding their Quebec gains against an emboldened Bloc Québécois. 

Of course, this is all speculation and conjecture on my part. But I've seen this same kind of push from the Conservatives for "scorched earth" in Quebec before. It seems to me they are more than happy to push voters away from themselves, provided it also pushes them away from the Liberals in the process. 

Perhaps I'm being overly suspicious, but it certainly seems like there is extra motivation beyond just getting the Jobs Grant program up and running. Mulcair is right that this will be an issue in a future provincial campaign; I just hope his team is preparing for the impact it may have federally.