The Kindness of… Rich People

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Twice, I’ve stood outside Notre Dame Cathedral without going inside, daunted by the long line-ups and the admission fee. After all, I’m an atheist who has already visited his share of impressive churches. This one was a youngster compared to some I’ve been to in Italy and Spain. Still, I now wish I had gone inside so I could see the not-quite-original interior. The present-day church was largely refurbished in the mid-19th Century largely at the urging of Victor Hugo – art intimidating life, as it were. And, I expect, despite the outcry of some folks, the church will be refurbished again. And that’s a good thing–the preservation of human history and art everywhere is part of what makes us human. I hope I live long enough to see it (they think it will take 10-15 years).

People have been shocked and surprised to see how quickly a billion dollars was raised from donations for the project—a lot of it coming from 2 French billionaires. It was quickly pointed out that there were lots of problems in France already, poverty and illness and so on, that a billion dollars could be used to fix. In Canada, the favorite has been the lack of clean water on First Nations. It reminds me of the similar outcry against spending money on the space program. But where would social media be without globe-circling satellites?

I get it. We see all these social issues and think something should be done (well, something other than supporting progressive politicians and paying our fair share of taxes) and, well, those guys have a lot of money, so shouldn’t they do it?

No.

The last thing any one should want is to live on the largess of the rich. Noblesse oblige was the basis of feudalism not of modern democracies. If the rich are going to pay for things, it should not because they are feeling generous to the poor little serfs beneath them but because we live in a system that reduces rather than exacerbates income inequality.

Because the root of the problem is not that billionaires exist but rather that, in late stage capitalism, where monopolies and oligopolies are the rule not the exception, our economy is designed to concentrate wealth and manufacture poverty. Even if you took a billion or a hundred billion or a trillion away from the mega-rich and gave it to the poor (the latter figure would give them each a thousand dollars), it wouldn’t change that system. The cash, sooner or later, would wind up in the same place.

And right now, it seems there is no alternative. (And don’t point to China or Russia either—whatever they call their system it is still a variation of the capitalist means of production). If we really want to make things better for the masses of humanity, we need fundamental changes in how we operate.

There are hints of what a post capitalist society might look like – you can occasionally find them in the talks of futurists or, even, in science fiction. It won’t be anything like the past, that much I’m sure of. With the end of regular employment caused mostly by automation (another thing people decry but seem powerless to stop), we will need a radical reordering both of social priorities and reward systems as well as the redistribution of wealth through guaranteed basic incomes and carefully designed tax regimes that get at international money transfers and hidden wealth stored in crypto-currencies. We will also likely need more free trade and more open borders, rather than less, so that the wealth of the world—there is no shortage of that—can be monitored and shared more equally.

Meanwhile, the people who would benefit the most fall for the old con, that the rich are somehow better than us and should care for their weaker cousins. And we vote for populists who distract us with fear of the other while their masters laugh all the way to the bank. Or the cathedral.

And that’s ten minutes.

It’s the Stupid Economy

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In the late 1800s, income inequality had reached an all time high in most of the western world. What followed was fifty years of war and revolution. Did the first cause the second? It’s not certain but the evidence certainly points in that direction. The accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of the few was so great that America’s first populist President championed legislation to break up the largest corporations, notably in the oil industry but also in the beef and railroad industries. Perhaps that’s one reason the USA avoided many of the internal disruptions faced by many other countries in the 20th Century. In any case, for many countries, violence became the great leveler.

Income inequality began to fall in western nations from World War I until the 1980s when it began to rise again, slowly in much of Europe, more rapidly in the English-speaking countries and the developing world. While the USA has returned to economic divisions similar to what existed in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, countries in Latin America and parts of Africa and southeast Asia have even greater income disparities.

While at the extremes, inequality is almost unimaginable. The hundred richest people in the world have more wealth than the poorest billion. An “eat the rich” ideology now runs rampant among certain segments of the population. Personally, I suspect they’re not that tasty.

But income inequality runs deeper than that. If you are in the top 20% of the population, you have seen your wealth and income increase steadily if modestly over the last 40 years. You may not feel like Rockefeller and you may be worried about your kids’ future, but for the most part you feel secure and happy. As it turns out, money does buy happiness up to a point and beyond that point it mostly seems to buy you detachment from the real world.

For the rest of the population, things are not so rosy. Incomes have stagnated or even fell in real terms and the perceived gap between you and those ahead of you in the economic race has become magnified. And, once, we get to the bottom 20%, poverty levels have risen as incomes fall.

None of this should be surprising. The market system is specifically designed to produce winners and losers and its primary goal is the accumulation of wealth. While apologists for capitalism claim that a rising tide lifts all boats, most of them don’t seem to understand that a lot of people don’t own boats and many who do, have leaky dinghies always on the verge of capsizing and sinking.

And what does all this income inequality mean for us? Bad news for the most part. A definitive study of 23 countries suggested that increased income inequality leads to higher incarceration rates. That may seem unsurprising but it may also lead to higher rates of family breakdown, worse medical outcomes, shorter life spans, higher child mortality rates, greater social disruption and breakdown of governance systems. I suspect, since it apparently leads to more consumption, it also leads to greater environmental degradation including climate change. Just anecdotally, a single large yacht of the type owned by the super rich produces more greenhouse gases than 400 average-sized African villages. And the drive to accumulate wealth and then keep it almost certainly takes you directly through oil fields and rain forests.

It also explains the growing dislocation of most voters in western democracies. Faced with abundant evidence that the economy is failing them in both real and relative terms, they begin to distrust the politicians who lead their state—even when such distrust is clearly misplaced. The rise of populism on the left and right as well as the constant churn of single term governments comes from that distrust. Eventually, when no party seems able to solve their problems RIGHT NOW, they turn their back on democracy altogether. Which suits authoritarians (who ultimately prove to be supportive of the rich) just fine. Are there alternatives? I think so but that will have to wait because…

That’s ten minutes from Hayden Trenholm.

Photo by Raden Prasetya on Unsplash

The (waning) power of incumbency

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The last twelve months have not been a good year politically for incumbents. In the USA, mid-term elections, when all the votes were counted, delivered a stinging rebuke to House Republicans and, indirectly to President Trump. At the state level, eight governorships changed hands. In Europe, Italy and Spain swept previous governments from power while in Sweden, the former ruling party now clings to power as a minority coalition which could topple on any given day. Even in Turkey, the President’s party lost its majority in Parliament. Considering that Edrogan had been seeking a super majority to change the constitution, this counts as a major setback. In Brazil, a fringe former army officer came out of nowhere to win the Presidency from the socialist front runner on a platform largely indistinguishable from fascism.

Meanwhile in Canada, five consecutive provincial elections have ousted the sitting government. A sixth might fall tomorrow and, federally, the Liberal government is trailing the main opposition party, either by a little or a lot depending on which polls you believe. While campaigns matter, it looks grim for one-term PM, Justin Trudeau.

This is clearly not a left-right thing. Where progressives were in power, conservatives and right populists won. Where conservatives ruled, they lost out to left-wing or left populist parties. Meanwhile in Ukraine, a TV comedian with no apparent policies at all defeated the sitting president.

So, what’s going on? I suspect there are many factors at play. Let’s for a moment, leave the ugly stuff aside (the sexist attacks on women politicians and the demonization of immigrants or, if you like, the rich) though they certainly played a factor in some of the races. But in the USA, women and minorities did very well in mid-term elections, and these tactics were failures in Spain and Turkey.

I suspect what is really going on is a deep disappointment and anger at whoever happens to be holding power. People in western democracies no longer feel that they are being served, that their interests are paramount, that they can trust their own governments to protect them. Those governments, they think, are not working for them – time to try something new, maybe even, radically new. Why not, some have said, elect people who have no history in government or politics. They couldn’t be worse, could they?

Well, let me put it this way—I wouldn’t let someone operate on me because they had played a doctor on TV.

Whereas the power of incumbency used to be golden, now it has turned to dross. Politicians have suddenly realized they can win by running against their own history. In Newfoundland, the Conservative leader is running on a campaign that essentially says, I’m not like the conservatives you threw out 4 years ago—even though he comes from the most powerful conservative family in the province. If this kind of thing catches on, maybe we’ll see Trump run for re-election as an independent democrat.

Of course, sitting governments may have to share in the blame for all this. Most governments get elected on the promise to do things differently and often on specific policy proposals they come to find distasteful (election reform, Mr. Trudeau?). Inevitably they disappoint those who had voted for them. Those who had fallen in love with them—well, there is nothing more bitter than a failed romantic relationship.

So, what do we do? Give up on democracy? I hope not. As Churchill put it democracy is a lousy system, until you compare it with all the rest. Besides, politics is not really the problem; economics is. But you’re going to have to wait for that because that’s ten minutes from Hayden Trenholm.

The Art of the Con

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Is any one really surprised that Donald Trump conned a journalist into including him on the Forbes 400 list of the nation’s wealthiest people? There were always nagging questions about how much money Trump really had—the bankruptcies, the unpaid contractors, and so on—and, as it turns out his companies and personal wealth were hemorrhaging money at the time. You might think you could tell the difference between someone with several billion dollars and someone with several hundred million (no one said he was broke) and the ability to generate debt, but you can’t. Even the most conspicuous consumers can’t spend it fast enough when you are in that league.

But why would he bother? Super rich or mega rich is still beyond most people’s dreams of avarice. But to a con man, reality is the real dream and appearance is everything. Appearing rich has always been more important to Trump than actually being rich. Which explains the gold (or at least gold-plated) tub fixtures and the obsession with having the biggest this or the largest that. You can draw your own conclusions about that.

But what is the appeal of a liar, a cheat and a phony—because there is no question that the man remains appealing to a significant portion of the American public? On a side note, the second favorite American President in Africa is Donald Trump. Maybe 70 years of being ruled by Big Men authoritarians who spent fortunes on appearances while their people starved has something to do with that. The devil you know and all that…

They say you can’t con an honest person. The con works because the one being taken is a little bit greedy, a little bit shady, a little bit criminal. I don’t suppose that America is any more dishonest than most countries but combine a modicum of corruption with the intense stigma of being poor, it might explain a lot about what’s going on in the USA (and Canada) these days. When most chronically indebted or outright impoverished Americans think of themselves as “disappointed millionaires” and are sure that, even after a lifetime of contrary experiences, that tax cuts for the rich will someday apply to them, you have to wonder if they too have slipped from reality into a dream-like state.

Capitalism is about everyone pursuing their own best interests. That’s how markets are supposed to work—maximizing utility through personal choice. But when the evidence shows that white Americans are willing to sacrifice their own health to ensure that black Americans can’t get decent medical care, you have to start to wonder if there is a single scrap of truth in any mainstream economic theory.

If capitalism is a giant con—as most of my left-wing friends would readily agree—what is the alternative? Collectivism sounds good in theory but in practice it hasn’t always worked out for those who value even a minimum of personal liberty. And the egalitarianism of Marxist-Leninist theory has almost always led to the empowerment (and enrichment) of the elite in the vanguard of the revolution. Human perfectibility is as much of a con under communism as it ever was under any religious system that believed in saints and holy men.

So what are poor flawed humans to do? I remember being told by a Swede that the reason they have chosen democratic market-based socialism so often is not because they believe in the goodness of their fellowman but because they don’t trust anyone at all. Democratic socialism is less about making people better than about keeping the worst of us out of power. Something to ponder.

And that’s ten minutes from Hayden Trenholm

 

Party Time!

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Most countries that claim to be democracies do not do so because they allow people to vote. In most countries and smaller jurisdictions, it means you have a real a choice between representatives of different parties with different philosophies or policy platforms. The multi-party democracy was, at one time, the gold standard of political freedom. In almost all cases, that meant a voting system that actually reflected the choices that voters made, in other words, proportional representation.

There are exceptions. The UK, the United States and Canada still cling to a system called first-past-the-post (FPTP) where the candidate who gets the most votes wins the district, A product of historical chance rather than design. America twists that slightly by placing the electoral college between the voters and the president so that a candidate can become president while finishing second in popular vote.

The distinguishing feature FPTP is the two-party system. Hence for the last 100 years or so, all three of the countries mentioned above have alternated governments between just two parties—one slightly to the right of centre and one slightly to the left. While third parties have occasionally won seats and even held the balance in power in minority governments, they rarely achieve much prominence unless they succeed in replacing one of the other parties.

PR systems have much more fluidity in governments. While some parties have more support than others, a single party or two seldom dominates for long and parties, once they establish a solid, if small, caucus in parliament, seldom disappear. This is troubling in some European countries where far-right and far-left parties, or those established by clowns, now have a permanent legitimized place in the national dialogue (though the recent election in Spain holds out some hope for the future)..

Still, that may be preferable to what is currently happening in the United Kingdom and Canada. The proliferation of small parties has gradually led to parties able to form majority governments without the support of significant sections of the public. Since 1997 only once has the winning party had more than 40% of the vote, yet we have had 4 majority governments and three minorities where the leading party was grossly over represented in seat count. It is quite likely that the result of the next election will return a majority with less than 36% of the vote.

Meanwhile in the UK, the latest polls give the two largest parties considerably less than 70% of voter support—the lowest levels in more than 80 years. Because most of the smaller parties have strong regional support, the chances of the UK having a majority government in the near future seem dim. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing given the current leadership, the FPTP system will grant fringe or even fanatic parties disproportionate power while still shutting out much larger national parties like the Liberal-Democrats. Britain faces the prospect of become the new Italy.

In the USA, the two party system still seems alive and well but close examination shows how divided each of the two parties are with more than a dozen factions represented in the House of representatives.

Meanwhile in Canada, it is likely that we will see seats split between five or even six parties but with all or most of the power going to one. Hardly a formula for national unity or even, as Justin Trudeau argued in reneging on electoral reform, a more civil discourse in politics. That particular decision may be one we all live to regret.

And that’s 10 minutes from Hayden Trenholm

Klaatu, where are you?

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In the 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, an alien named Klaatu comes to earth and almost immediately is gunned down. Luckily for him, death is not an impediment, at least, not initially. He delivers a message to the world – stop fighting among yourselves and join a peaceful galactic civilization. It’s not a particularly original idea (except for the galactic part) but it falls on deaf ears. They shoot him again but rather than destroying the planet he saves it from destruction be all powerful robots by famously uttering: Klaatu barada nikto!

Say what? While no one really knows what those words meant (even the screenwriter) they did the trick and the earth was spared. The theme of bringing the world together to fight alien invaders has subsequently been a well-worn trope of science fiction movies, though generally in subsequent iterations, it actually worked.

Klatuu failed in his mission of world unity but that wasn’t the point. What the director and writer might have been getting at is that the world was doomed if it kept on its current road of nuclear proliferation. It would take more than the intervention of one man (or alien) to change that. It was a collective exercise requiring international collaboration. We signed a couple of treaties and the world didn’t burn (though a couple of guys seem determined to change that).

Sort of like what we are currently facing with climate change. Much like the arms race, the world has been in a competitive frenzy to have more, to make more, to control more. Economies have expanded—not a bad thing in itself—at the cost of the environment and, as well, as the end game plays out, at the price of greater social and economic inequality. It is not sustainable but, for most of us, present pleasure always out weighs inevitable pain. Anyone who has had more than one hangover can attest to that.

But nothing is inevitable. In 1980, most of the countries of Africa were in the hands of dictators who had clung to power—using violence, propaganda, patronage and corruption—for more than 20 years. Most had the support of one of the Great Powers at the time—the US and its allies on one side and the Soviet Union on the other.

Then Michel Gorbachev arrived on the scene with the idea of glasnost, which lead to the fall of communism and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, caused mostly by internal transformations rather than the exhortations of Ronald Reagan. The effect in Africa was dramatic. The iron grip of Marxist dictators was loosened and, in many countries, multi-party states began their shaky existence. Western powers, too, no longer saw the benefit of supporting “useful dictators” like Mobutu in Zaire. Without continuing CIA support many lost their positions (though not the billions they had stolen over the years). It was not the end of Africa’s problems but it set the stage so that, in some countries at least, real progress could be made, while in others, things became less bad.

So maybe we don’t need an alien invasion after all (though I’d love to hear Donald Trump say he was going to build a wall around the earth and make the Martians pay for it). What we need are a few brave leaders to transform the earth… No, that’s not it, we need the whole population to wake up and kick a few of our so-called leaders in the butt and then, get on with the job at hand.

Because we really can’t be saved by the actions of one person (look at Russia today) but only by the collective action of the many, even if we have to drag the rest kicking and screaming into the future. While we still have one.

And that’s ten minutes from Hayden Trenholm

With a Whimper

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The UN report on the state of biodiversity offers a bleak assessment of nature. Species are going extinct at a rate never before recorded in human history. And almost all of it is caused by human activity. Climate change is taking its toll, of course, but the destruction of forests, growing urban sprawl and poor land use practices are all adding significantly to the devastation.

Many scientists now call the current era the Anthropocene (when man dominates the environment) and predict it may end with an extinction event equivalent to the five major events that wiped out more than 75% of species at various times in the past. The last came when an asteroid came down in the Yucatan and tipped the scales against the dinosaurs but there were similar catastrophes in the past.

The difference, of course, were those were caused by random accidents – this one seems deliberate.

One might think that it is a silly animal that fouls its own nest but humans have been doing it for, well, forever. Tribes of humans were generally nomadic because they had wiped out the local wildlife or depleted the soil in slash and burn farming. But it didn’t matter. Until 10,000 years ago, there weren’t enough humans on the planet to do real damage (though ask the giant sloths about that). Then came large-scale agriculture and it’s all been downhill since then. Though those early cities were pikers compared to what we’ve accomplished in the last two hundred years.

You would think we might be prepared to learn from history and some of us have. There is certainly plenty of evidence about what happens when humans think only in the present tense, ignoring history while pretending the future will take care of itself.

But do we listen? Sometimes. Do we change? Less often. When even the slightest effort to encourage better behavior (a modest carbon tax for example) is met with howls of rage from both left and right, you know there is not much hope for the human race.

It doesn’t help that a significant portion of the population are eagerly awaiting the end of the world and their (but not your) resurrection into the kingdom of heaven—no matter what version of the heaven they happen to hold dear. If you believe the end days are coming—as fundamentalists of various sects seem to hold true—what difference if the world burns and the birds fall from the sky? God’s plan and all that self congratulatory nonsense.

Then there is the “I’m alright, Jack” crowd who seem to believe that if they accumulate enough wealth, they and their descendants will somehow thrive in a devastated world. These are the same jackasses that believed that if they dug their bunkers deep enough, they would survive an all-out nuclear war. Sometimes I’d like to flash forward a couple hundred years and ask the dregs of the superrich how that worked out for them—if they haven’t already been eaten by their poorer cousins.

The worst are those who read these pronouncements of doom and acknowledge their truth, then throw up their hands and admit defeat. Nothing I can do personally so eat, drink and be merry… I’ve got nothing against any of those activities but I’m quite capable of multi-tasking. I can personally reduce my carbon (and equally important plastic and toxic waste) footprint while paying others to do more and voting in governments with the will to make all of us do better.

In any case it’s not the end of the world. Life has been almost wiped out on 5 previous occasions but here we are, in a world (still) filled with life. A million years from now there will still be life—different perhaps, but here nonetheless—while all the works of man from our cathedrals to our SUVs, from our arts to our imaginary friends in heaven will be reduced to a thin layer of plastic infused sediment for future intelligent beings, if new ones should arise, to ponder over.

On that hopeful note, this has been slightly more than ten minutes by Hayden Trenholm.

Photo by Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash

The Alberta Solution

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In the months leading up to the recent Alberta election, there were renewed calls from the fringes for Alberta to separate. Now Premier Jason Kennedy acknowledged they were extreme views but said (nudge, nudge) they reflected the real anger and alienation of Albertans and shouldn’t be disregarded out of hand (wink, wink). I’m sure now that their favorite Harperite is ensconced in the legislature ready at willing to tilt at windmills (I mean, literally given his wishy-washy position on climate change) and take on Ottawa – the fall-back approach for provincial leaders wanting power at any cost.

But I have to say, I was intrigued. To be frank, I thought of offering to help them pack.

Don’t get me wrong, I lived there for 11 years and have lots of friends and even family in Alberta. I encourage them to move to more civilized parts of the country. If they can find one after the results of recent elections.

Still, the logistics of it all are fascinating. If Alberta separated, where would they go? The USA wouldn’t take them – they already have Montana, Utah and the Dakotas, plus plenty of fracked oil and gas. What’s the added benefit of taking on a bunch of Yahoos from Canada?

And going it on their own where they are is hardly a solution. They would still have to try to ship their oil through BC and put up with folks from Saskatchewan dropping across the border to avoid the sales tax. And, as a separate country, they would get even less attention to their whining from central Canada (though it’s hard to imagine how Torontonians could care less about Alberta than they already do). Of course, the NWT would be happy—all that construction money to build a highway north of 60 to connect to BC would certainly make life easier, though winter driving might be unpleasant.

But we have the technology!

If we used all that heavy equipment sitting idle up in the tar sands (sorry, if I’m going to be brutal, I may as well call them what they are), we could dig down a mile or so and just airlift the whole province right out of there. Maybe Putin would loan us some of those heavy lift helicopters they’ve been developing. Finding a place to drop it off might be tricky—I mean we couldn’t just drop it in the ocean. Think of the mess.

But maybe we could balance it on a few of those empty islands way south in the Pacific. The climate there is lousy but Albertans are used to that and, besides, once they were free to unleash that bitumen on the world, it might heat up nicely.

As for the rest of Canada, we could get our inland sea back—even though the dinosaurs would now be living in the south Pacific. BC could expand their ferry service and Saskatchewan would get all that seafront property. It would almost be worth making a trip there.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a project manager, I’m easy enough to find.

And that’s 10 minutes in a light-hearted sort of way.