Monday, November 3, 2014

Clearing the Air

Well, I think we need to talk about a few things.

In truth, I struggled with quite a while on how to write this post. Yes, we need to address the elephant in the room that is the shooting in Ottawa; and I did try to on the day, but everything I attempted to write down just seemed contrived at the time. With the days that have passed, we have learned a bit more here and there, and I feel that I can actually talk about it now without sounding like I'm making it all up as I go along.

I do plan on talking more about this; and the fallout that has arisen from it, from the definition of terrorism to new security laws on the horizon.

But, that post will come at a later date. For now, just know that I'm still here and that post is coming soon.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

War Is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.

I am a great admirer of George Orwell, the man whose quote has provided the title of this post. The first and last part of it are, sadly, greatly applicable to the situation we now find ourselves facing.

Since the 1950s, the Western World has found itself clenched in the jaws of the Military-Industrial Complex; an idea so insipid that former General, and outgoing President, Dwight D. Eisenhower found it necessity to condemn it to Americans in his final televised address. Learned men who fought wars, from Eisenhower to Confederate General Robert E. Lee, often found it necessary to condemn the very nature of war after experiencing it.

And yet, time and time again, nations find themselves at the eventual mercy of the 'war hawks'. Men and women who believe, one way or another, that their nation must face the task of inevitable war. That eventually an enemy arises that must be faced with extreme prejudice; one that cannot be allowed to fester, regardless of their proximity, and one that will pose an unquantified but undeniable threat to the safety and security of another nation.

In the past, this sort of distinction was much easier. It was nation states who posed the threat; from territorial annexation and empire expansion (as seen in WWI by the movement of Austria-Hungary to secure Serbia), to the unspeakable acts of genocide and mass extermination (as seen in WWII and the events of the Holocaust), it used to be a much clearer distinction of who the 'bad guys' were.

But now, everything exists in a shade of grey.

Since September 11, 2001 a new sort of mentality has taken over the approach to war. It is no longer a nation fighting a nation, but rather a nation fighting groups within another nation. The lasting effects of 9/11 is the surviving mentality that "we must fight them over there, so we do not have to fight them over here."

And so, when we find ourselves looking at a potential threat, the same old platitudes that rose from the birth of this new form of warfare are trotted out again by those who are all too eager to commit us to war. I speak, of course, about the current situation in Iraq. As of the time of writing this, it had been announced that Canada would hold a debate about a combat mission to be undertaken in Iraq come Monday, October 6.

Much like Thomas Mulcair, I'm find myself thinking that this debate and vote will be nothing more than a farce. It has been clear for quite sometime that Prime Minister Harper is more than ready to commit Canada to combat operations in Iraq, and nothing that will be said or done in the next few days will change that. One need only look to the 'he said, she said' debate of whether the US approached us or we approached the US to offer further assistance to see where the Prime Minister stands. Harper has gone as far as to say that action in Iraq is "noble and necessary." 

Buying further into the mindset that 9/11 helped to foster, we are already seeing the arguments form that to have peace we must engage in war; hence the first part of the Orwell quote of the title. ISIS has made the monumental mistake of vowing to engage in acts of terrorism, even specifically naming Canada as a target, hence perhaps the reason why the Prime Minister believes Canadians are more than willing to take up arms.

And yet, it comes off as more grandiose bravado than an actual threat. It is at this time that I would remind the world to look at several nations, some of which no longer exist: North Korea, Saddam Hussien's Iraq, Ahmadinejad's Iran, and Kruschev's Soviet Union.

Looking at this list, do you know what they all have in common? At one point or another, they all threatened North America or the United States. Their leadership would stand up and proudly announce that they would 'destroy', 'obliterate', 'crush', or any other synonym thereof the western nations that they saw as 'decedent', 'godless', 'Satanic', and so on and so forth.

Furthermore, the number of assaults that these 'great leaders' actually carried out were pretty much zero. The Soviets get partial credit for spy rings and things of the sort, but they weren't actively carrying out attacks on infrastructure and people. The point of mentioning this is to remind us all that posturing and bravado is part of the 'appearance' of strongmen.

It's one thing to claim you will attack and assault a country, it's quite another thing to actually do it. In the days of digital surveillance, we are indeed capable of being very well informed of credible threats. And as far as we've been told, which granted is not a lot, there's been no indication that ISIS is even capable of following through on their threat and attacking on an international level.

And this is where the third part of the Orwell quote comes in. As of now, Harper and his government have done very little to explain to Canadians why we need to become involved in what will evolve into another Middle Eastern ground war.

There's been no credible threat presented. No smoking gun that shows we need to act immediately. They point to several Canadians who have 'defected' to ISIS and left the country to be trained and wage war on their side...But this is not a new occurrence. After 9/11, numerous Americans and Canadians left North America to join to Al-Qaeda. In the 1950s and onward, numerous Americans and Canadians defected to the Soviet Union. Effectively, disturbed citizens of any nation are always going to find an outlet/group that fits in their world view and rush off to join it.

So, if ISIS poses no immediate and direct threat to Canada, why are we in such a rush to declare war?

That brings us to the so-called 'feel good' argument.

ISIS is being presented to us as cold-blooded, genocidal, women-hating, children killing, serial rapist monsters. Not that it isn't true, ISIS' reputation and actions indeed prove all of these points. They have committed genocide against the Yazidi people. They have a long record of crimes against women, including sexual slavery and forced marriages. They have murdered children.

With a history like that, even the most peace loving amongst us would be quick to say that something must be done about a group like that. The problem, however, is that these features are not unique to ISIS. Fighting in the South Sudan, which has gone on since 2013, has seen many of the same problems: abusive crimes towards women, murder/execution of civilians (including children), and a genocidal bent between different ethnic-linguistic groups.

Yet, there has been no 'noble and necessary' call to action in South Sudan.

The same can be said of the Central African Republic; where UNICEF noted that attacks against children were becoming more brutalized, and that New Republic has declared it 'Africa's bloodiest fight'.

Yet there has been no 'noble and necessary' call to action in the Central African Republic.

This is always the oddest of arguments to have when confronting those whose minds are made up towards war. There is always a reason why this battlefield is different from the others; some misaligned morality that justifies intervention in one place but not in a similar other place. From declarations of "it's not our fight" or "not our business" or so forth, war hawks manage to evade taking action in a place as bad or worse than the one they actively seek to target.

We cannot call a war 'noble and necessary' when we look the other way at situations elsewhere in the world that mirror another. 

And that brings me to the second part of our Orwell quote.

It is a long standing convention, through observation, that democracy cannot be forced upon another country. In every single historical case where it has ever been tried, any attempt to establish a democracy from without has always ended the same:

The fledgling democracy set up by the conquering heroes is immediately wiped away by a rising strongman who centralizes power; or numerous regional strongmen rise to power and fracture the country, usually along ethnic-religious lines.

Democracy is only achieved when the people of a nation, not the will of another nation, rise to the challenge and demand it. Of course, this also has a chance to fail massively. One need only look to Egypt and the problems of the Muslim Brotherhood and the eventual rise of President al-Sisi, whose commitment to maintaining democracy remains to be seen.

But getting back to Orwell, this quote is actually quite paramount in understanding how organizations like ISIS and Al-Qaeda have been successful at recruiting and growing. ISIS managed to capture several important oil refineries and fields on their march to power. In fact, it is being argued that ISIS is likely the world's richest terrorist organization.

And in addition to using that money to purchase weapons and pay soldiers, they've also set up a very comprehensive social service system that is designed to win civilians to their side. Propaganda, for sure, but it seems to be effective propaganda. After all, we need to keep in mind the conditions that existed in Syria and Iraq prior to the rise of ISIS.

They would hardly be called ideal, that's for sure. And after all, in the eyes of some Sunni Muslims, isn't it worth sacrificing conventional freedom (also known as not living according to Sharia Law) in exchange for infrastructure investment, jobs, food and numerous other improvements to daily life?

It's not that the people of Iraq actually like the extremist views that ISIS is espousing, it's more so that ISIS is improving the quality of life in these areas. I want to be clear here, however: ISIS is not improving life for all. They are certainly committing genocide against ethnic and religious minorities and committing numerous other crimes against humanity.

But to the average, Sunni citizen of Iraq they are offering improvement at the sacrifice of personal freedoms. And that, perhaps, is what we need to keep in mind when we consider military action against such an organization. It is not just those diehards who are already members of ISIS that are part of the problem, it is also those who are accepting them as a better alternative to the current situation.

And this is where the war hawks really begin to fail.

It is not enough to simply bomb ISIS into oblivion, or march troops into Iraq to take them out. That in and of itself is not an ends, nor should it be the only objective of any military operation. It is not enough to simply knock something down, you must build something in its place.

And that is something we haven't heard from our government or any of the other nations ready to march on ISIS. The Iraqi Government has clearly shown that it cannot control its country, or secure it's borders. Our solution cannot be to wipe out ISIS and hand the area back, since it would likely just lead to ISIS 2.0 taking over the territory.

Yet, no leader wants to admit that 'mission creep' will occur. No one wants to commit to long term, boots on the ground. But if we knock out ISIS, we can't just declare mission accomplished and leave. Terrorism has always proven itself to be a hydra, when you cut off one head two more grow in its place. Stopping ISIS will not stop whatever organization rises from its ashes, nor the organization that will rise from their ashes, and onwards and so forth until the end of time.

Air strikes are just the beginning. And any sane, rational world leader should recognize this.

And troops on the ground means a long, prolonged conflict. But, of course, the war hawks do their best to avoid this unavoidable truth. After all, in 1914 the Great Powers were convinced 'the boys' would be home by Christmas.

There has been no talk, none, of how to defeat ISIS and what is to replace them when they're gone. The parts of Syria they control can't be handed over to anti-Assad rebels without committing to arming them long term and risking a repeat of the Mujahidin aftermath that was seen in Afghanistan. And as mentioned, I'm sure no one will rush to immediately return control of the area to an Iraqi Government that has proven ineffective at securing its borders thus far.

I can only repeat: no sane, rational, intelligent world leader can have overlooked this fact. If we strike ISIS, it will not be enough to simply rain down an air war upon them. We will reach a point, if only in the name of stability for the region, when troops must be on the ground. And if we are not able to provide a better standard of living, while occupying this area, then we are going to be there for a very long time.

And seeing the 'bang-up job' America did in the aftermath of the Second Gulf War, there's absolutely no reason to believe that we will improve upon the results of last time. Democracy will not come if the average citizen in the street doesn't embrace it. It will not come if we allow 'democratically elected' governments to live in unparalleled corruption, all while siphoning as much money and power as they can for themselves. The truth is, stopping ISIS is our only current objective, but it is not an ends to this situation at all. 

For those reasons alone, war is not a great option to this situation.

This war may begin with air strikes, but it certainly won't end there. And until we know what we're asking Canadians to put their lives on the line to achieve, knowing that by itself the defeat of ISIS is not an objective, then we need to take a step back and not be so ready to rush in head first.

ISIS is, without a doubt, an evil organization. But ISIS grew out of the aftermath of the Second Gulf War because the United States did not fully have a plan or answers to the question of what comes after. That should give anyone pause to think what may follow ISIS if we commit to a half-baked, short sighted idea.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

To Hell With Tradition

Source: CBC News: Speaker Andrew Scheer Warns Mulcair and Others over Bias Claims
Source: Library of Parliament: Standing Orders, Chapter One, Section 11.2

Anyone who has bothered to turn on the news during Question Period over the last, oh I'd say nine years, probably finds themselves in a continuing series of disbelief when the whole spectacle is over. This wasn't a trend that was started by the Harper Conservatives, but it was certainly perfected by them. Especially when one views the actions of one Paul Calandra.

Calandra rose out of the fall of Dean Del Mastro taking Dean's place as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister; or more aptly, the PM's mouthpiece when the PM isn't in the House of Commons. Calandra made name, and a reputation, for himself when he served as Harper's 'deflector shield' with regards to questions surrounding Mike Duffy and the Senate Expenses Scandal.

Calandra's non-answers, outright dodges, and ridiculous non-sequiturs involving his family and pizza shops set a new low for decorum within the House of Commons. When it was all said and done, I think most Canadians thought the bar could not get any lower. It seems we all completed underestimated Paul Calandra.

Last Tuesday, Tom Mulcair rose to ask questions on Canada's involvement in fighting ISIS/ISIL in Iraq. Enter Paul Calandra, who rejected the premise of the question put to him and instead went off on a tangent about Israel and whether or not Mulcair agreed with a position posted by a reported party fundraiser on Facebook.

Mulcair appropriately laughed off Calandra's first response; even putting in a jibe about understanding Calandra's confusion with I countries in the Middle East, but the question was about Iraq not Israel. Mulcair repeated the question, and again Calandra rose and provided more or less the same response.

Mulcair appealed to the Speaker at this point, noting that there are rules regarding relevance and asked that they be enforced. Again, Calandra spouted non-sense with response to the question put to him.

Of course, this led to Mulcair making a comment with regards to the Speaker's impartiality (or lack thereof), which led to the Speaker finally taking action but against Mulcair and not Calandra. Mulcair was stripped of his remaining questions for the day, and Question Period moved on.

What followed was quite the media firestorm.

Numerous political reporters called it an unbelievable display, unheard of before in Canadian Parliamentary history. And then came the chorus of talking heads: some of the side of Mulcair, and others on the side of Speaker Andrew Scheer. (Unsurprisingly, no one really rushed to Calandra's side.)

And so began a question of who was in the right and who was in the wrong.

Many condemned Mulcair for challenging the Speaker's impartiality; while others agreed that Mulcair was right to challenge Scheer on the issue. So, how is it possible that so many of Canada's best informed political minds could have such differing views? Surely, the laws of the land that govern the role of the Speaker and the House of Commons would prevent any sort of casual interpretation?

Well, written meet tradition.

Mulcair's defenders were quick to point to House Standing Order 11.2,which states:

"The Speaker or the Chair of Committees of the Whole, after having called the attention of the House, or of the Committee, to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance, or repetition, may direct the Member to discontinue his or her speech, and if then the Member still continues to speak, the Speaker shall name the Member or, if in Committee of the Whole, the Chair shall report the Member to the House."

Defenders of Scheer, however, were quick to point out that this Standing Order applies only to debate and not to the content of answers in Question Period. However, this definition seems to be at odds with Parliament's own summary of Standing Order 11.2; the historical summary section is of particular interest.

No where does it mention that 11.2 doesn't apply to Question Period. In fact, it seems to be convention based on past precedent that leads people to argue that 11.2 doesn't apply to QP. 

Which brings me to a few fundamental questions we must explore.

Firstly, what do we make of claims towards Scheer's impartiality?

Secondly, just how much of our government expectation revolves around convention and tradition over the written word?

Finally, what do we do about it?

Since his election as Speaker, Andrew Scheer has faced some criticisms towards his ability to remain impartial in the House of Commons. 

The first major strike was with regards to Shelly Glover and James Bezan. Elections Canada sent a letter to the Speaker, informing him that both MPs had failed to submit corrected statements on their election returns to Elections Canada. Furthermore, it reminded the Speaker that the Canada Elections Act allows an MP to not be allowed to take their seat or vote until such returns are provided for.

Scheer sat on the letters, refusing to table them in the House of Commons or even release them for public viewing. A lot of people saw this as Scheer protecting two of his fellow party members; and it was indeed one of the first instances that caused people to wonder just where Scheer's loyalty stood at the end of the day. (Glover and Bezan have since 'settled' with Elections Canada.)

Then came the matter of the NDP's satellite offices and mailings. Under a little used procedural motion, the Conservatives forced a motion that compelled Tom Mulcair to appear before committee to testify. At the time, Scheer said nothing and allowed the motion to pass. A month later, after Mulcair had testified, Scheer retroactively ruled the motion out of order. He also took the time to chide the NDP for waiting a month to file an objection.

However, enter Standing Order 13.  

For those who don't want the link, here's what it says:

"Whenever the Speaker is of the opinion that a motion offered to the House is contrary to the rules and privileges of Parliament, the Speaker shall apprise the House thereof immediately, before putting the question thereon, and quote the Standing Order or authority applicable to the case."

In short hand, the Speaker has the ability (and responsibility) to inform the House whether or not a motion that is put forward could be considered out of order. Furthermore, the Speaker has the ability to do this without a Member of the House calling a point of order. 

Alright, you might say, well perhaps Scheer had some time to think and look into it afterward and decided that the motion was out of order. But there is one major stumbling block to that line of thinking: this article where Scheer eventually ruled the motion out of order.

"In fact, Scheer advised the House, he very likely would have ruled the motion out of order at the time — had he been asked to do so, that is, which he was not."

So, how do we read this? Well, it gives us one of two possibilities. 

Firstly; Scheer knew the motion was out of order, and that he had the authority to inform the House of that, yet he chose to do nothing.

Secondly; Scheer didn't know at the time that it was out of order, and retroactively claims he did in order to ensure the House, and Canadians, that he is informed in his job when he apparently isn't.

Both options are frightening for different reasons. Either he knew, and he did nothing; or he didn't know, but now wants us all to believe that he did. I can understand the second, if only because I'm sure all of us want to believe the Speaker knows the workings of the House and the procedures like the back of their hands. As Tom Mulcair said, "you are our arbiter", and a Speaker who is ignorant of the rules can hardly be expected to maintain them.

If it's the first, then it's only further proof that Scheer is definitely not leaving his 'blue jersey' in the locker room when he takes to the Speaker's Chair. If it's the latter, then at the very least we need to encourage Scheer to read up again on the rules and make sure he is ready to enforce them. 

Secondly, that brings us to our second question; just how much of our government is based around convention?

The answer is actually a little worrisome, given that it's more than the average Canadian would think. The best way to think about this is to go back and look at Reserve Powers. This refers to the legal powers of the Governor General. The last time a GG flexed their reserve powers, we ended up with the King-Byng Affair.

A brief summary of that: After an election, Mackenzie King had fewer seats than the Conservative Party under Arthur Meighen. Despite this, King asked to be recognized as PM since he was counting on the Progressive Party to shore up his numbers and give him more seats in the Commons. The Governor General, Lord Julian Byng, agreed on a condition that if the government fell Meighen's Conservatives would form government.

Well, King's alliance with the Progressives was short lived due to scandal and King asked Byng to dissolve the government and call an election. Byng refused, citing the previous agreement. He in turn asked Meighen to form government, forcing King to resign as PM.

History still argues over who was right and wrong; some favour King, others favour Byng, but it shows the fine line between constitutionally based power and convention. Governor Generals to this day enjoy Reserve Power; which would allow them to dismiss a Prime Minister or refuse Royal Assent to a bill, but conventionally they don't use this power.

The Speaker of the House finds themselves in a similar quagmire. 

Standing Orders, as referenced earlier, grant the Speaker powers and responsibilities. Yet, convention and tradition state that those powers aren't used regularly. Take the question over whether or not 11.2 applies to Question Period.

The rule of the law states that the Speaker has the authority to rule on relevance, yet convention somehow states that those rules do not apply to Question Period. Like the Governor General, we've endowed the Speaker with authority that apparently we conventionally expect them not to use.

It's not uncommon, and Scheer has done it often, for Speakers to reference past Speakers and their decisions when they make a judgement on something. That creates a lot of precedent that often flies in the face of the written rules and powers for the Speaker. Just because a Speaker in 1976 chose to read a rule a certain way, or ignore it, doesn't exactly mean the same interpretation holds in 2014 for a similar, yet different, situation.

That brings us to the final question: What do we do about it?

Well, the NDP is trying to bring change forward, with a motion introduced this week to give the Speaker explicit authority to act during Question Period. However, the Conservatives have attacked the motion.

House Leader Peter Van Loan has argued about the motion turning Question Period into a "one way street" that would tie the hands of the government.

Well, here's the good for the goose and gander argument. If the Conservatives defend Scheer's inaction based on convention and tradition, then they need to look back to the Speaker James Jerome. In 1974, Jerome ended the practice of allowing Parliamentary Secretaries (like Paul Calandra) to pose questions to the opposition.

Furthermore, if we want to stick to convention, Ministers are conventionally not allowed to ask questions since they often provide answers on behalf of the government; the rules do not forbid Ministers asking questions, but convention says that only Private Members should do so. 

So, conventionally speaking, the government side of the House shouldn't be asking questions from the front bench (Cabinet) at least. 

Van Loan, and his party it seems, want to have their cake and eat it too in this regard. Let us keep this part of the conventional tradition, but disregard this other. Either they have to commit wholeheartedly to whole bundled mess that is Parliamentary Tradition, or they have to work with the Opposition Parties to codify new and clear rules.

The NDP motion is looking doomed to fail thanks to no support from the Conservative bench. So for now, we're stuck with the notion of conventional tradition as the guiding principle for how our Parliamentary system is administered.

The bigger problem, as I think we've illustrated, is not that the Speaker actually needs more powers (they already have them), they just need the will to exercise them.

People have already drawn comparisons to our Speaker and the Speaker of the House in the UK Parliament. Many have linked to the Speaker shutting down speakers from the floor, including the Prime Minister. Yes, Parliamentary systems evolve and we should be looking to other Parliaments to see what sort of improvements have been made and should be adapted here.

But until we accept that written rule and authority has more credence than past 'convention', all the reform in the world won't do a thing.

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