Corporate Citizens

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What is the proper level of corporate taxation? According to those on the left, a lot higher than they currently are, while those on the right can’t imagine they could ever be low enough. They can’t both be right, can they? Of course not, but it is possible they could both be wrong.

In order to understand the debate, one first has to consider what a corporation is and why it exists. In the early 19th century, the industrial revolution almost came to a shuddering halt because most rich people were not entrepreneurs (they still aren’t but that’s another issue). The idea of capitalism is that you risk your money in hopes of a large return in the future. Rich people liked the idea of large returns; risk, not so much. Especially when that risk meant not just potential loss of money, but, if things went badly wrong (say, if a bridge collapsed or a well got poisoned) with a business venture, the risk of personal responsibility and, even, jail time. Why chance it when you can buy a nice country estate?

The idea of the corporation was an old one, arising out of the model of business partnerships. But, still, a dozen backers might lower the financial risk to any one of them but not necessarily the criminal risk. Limited liability only could take you so far. But suppose we were to treat the corporation as “an artificial person,” that is as an entity separate from the people who own it, the criminal and civil risk now falls on it rather than its owners (as long as they acted in good faith and didn’t actually direct the company managers to break the law). Whew—the capitalist class collectively sighed and the rest is history.

In fact, it is so embedded in history, corporations are allowed to mess in elections as if they were people (at least in the USA) and boards are able to claim no knowledge of the wrong doing (say, illegal bribes in Libya) of their employees. But, of course, corporations can’t go to jail or be executed—though they can be fined or forced into bankruptcy. And, the managers who broke the law can be imprisoned and, of course, fired and excoriated by the board and stockholders.

Even the left have completely bought into this pleasant fiction of the personhood of corporations, forgetting that every single corporation in the world is owned by somebody. Now, I’m not saying we should throw rich people in jail every time a corporation goes astray (though I’m not averse to the idea) but I do think, for the purposes of taxation, we shouldn’t let them hide behind the protective walls of corporate tax laws.

Because here’s the thing: in almost every jurisdiction, corporate and business taxes are effectively lower than personal income taxes (even if they are similar on paper). I’m not just talking about the tax rates of the rich—most middle-class people pay taxes at or above that charged to corporations.

So instead of racing to the bottom to try to attract corporations to move from one province or one country to another, maybe we should reduce the corporate tax rate to zero—and assign their profits (and losses) to the people that own them. This would require much simpler tax laws and closer auditing to ensure creative accounting didn’t make profits magically disappear and maybe stricter penalties for tax evasion (both for the evaders and the accountants who help them).

And here’s the thing, it should also make markets more efficient as risk and reward became more transparent and people make choices in their own best interests, instead of going along for the corporate ride.

And that’s ten minutes

The Great Divide

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Years ago, Hugh McClellan coined the phrase “The Two Solitudes” to describe the lack or perceived lack of communication between English and French Canada. A long history of separate political and social evolution made it seem to many that the divide might never be bridged. Times change and people and societies change with them and though independence was a real draw for many Quebecois, that tide has receded somewhat. Both Canada and Quebec are better places for the rich exchange of culture and of political ideas between the former separate camps. Tensions continue to exist – after all we spent twenty years building them to their peak in 1995—but still the idea of the two solitudes no longer has the same resonance that it once did.

Except new divisions have arisen in our country. “The Great Divide” is not, as the name suggests, a division that cleaves between east and west but rather a much different partition, that between urban and rural.

Little communication or understanding exists anymore between urbanites and their country cousins. Not only in Canada but throughout much of the world, the values, economies, cultures and politics of many countries have split along urban/rural lines.

Cities tend to embrace more progressive ideas (and parties) while rural areas fight to preserve traditional and conservative values. You can see this in places as diverse as PEI and Alberta. In the former, the Greens swept the urban centres while the Conservatives held sway in the more rural villages and counties. Even normally right-wing Calgary elected three NDP members in the face of the Conservative wave and they were close in several other ridings. UCP majorities were much thinner there, too, compared to the overwhelming support they gained in the countryside.

One can look south of the border where, even in dead red states, patches of blue blossom wherever population densities rise. In England it was the urban centres like London that voted to stay in Europe while rural regions largely voted to leave.

There are a lot of reasons why such hard divisions have arisen and seem to be solidifying. Urban areas are more diverse – people who don’t fit in their rural or small-town communities gravitate to the cities where they can find others who share their views and values or, at least, they can submerge into the greater anonymity that urban life provides. Cities tend to be net generators of economic activity and wealth and are better able to adapt as new industries rise and older ones fail—problems that one industry towns or single commodity rural areas have a harder time doing. Immigrants are naturally attracted to areas of greater economic opportunity and it often takes government subsidies and supports for them to consider more remote parts of any country. Cities also tend to host the major universities, museums and arts centres, as well as being the locus of government.

Yet, there are dire consequences for democracy if these divisions persist and expand, especially since most countries continue to grant rural areas more representation and therefore power (Nebraska, for example, has the same number of Senators as California and, in Canada, the courts have agreed that a 25% variation—more in sparsely populated districts—in seat size is reasonable, giving rural areas five seats when urban populations of the same size only get four). Yet the urban-rural conversation seems almost never to be pursued except by accident.

Maybe it’s time we found a way to change that.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Body

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An interesting discussion arose recently over a boy’s reluctance to be hugged by an older female relative. The hug came as a surprise and the boy jerked back and pushed the hugger away. Some felt this was rude and a sign of him not being comfortable in social situations.

But why should anyone have to accept social touching even by a close relative or friend? Certainly, we know that casual touching is increasingly looked on with suspicion. Which is not necessarily always a good thing—something I may explore in a subsequent ten minutes.

But the real issue is the matter of body autonomy. The right to security of the person—as it is described in some constitutions—is one of the underpinnings of all human rights.  Even as far back as 1776, there was some understanding of this in provisions against unlawful confinement and protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Though it took another century for America to realize that security of the person—in a land where all men are created equal—should also include the right not to be enslaved.

My body, my choice has long been a mantra of the feminist movement. The right to own one’s own body underlies the right to reproductive control including the right to an abortion. Despite efforts by mostly male legislators to argue differently, there is no competing right between mother and fetus, since the fetus without the mother’s body, cannot exist on its own until very late in the pregnancy, and, even then in most of the Western world, the woman’s autonomy is paramount. To force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term is no different than forcing a person into slavery.

Body autonomy is also critical to other gender issues. No-one should have the ability to control or limit who people love or have sex with (provided the other person is capable, legally and psychologically, of giving consent) or even how they define their sexuality to be. The right to modify your body to fit your definition of self is critical to the essential freedom of the body that cuts through all our most basic rights.

Which brings us back to the boy who didn’t want to be hugged without consent. Later, that same day as the family was leaving, the situation of hugging came up again. Grandma asked permission to hug and when granted gave a small squeeze, careful not to go too far. Grandson replied by seeking a second more generous embrace. Consent given, freedom expressed, love displayed.

And that’s ten minutes.

The 90%

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So, a lot of my genre writing friends are upset at Ian McEwan’s casual dismissal of science fiction in an interview about his new novel, Machines Like Me, which, by all measures of the term, is definitely science fiction, entailing alternate history and artificial intelligence. I haven’t read the book but a copy is winging its way to me as I type. I expect I will read it soon and will either love it or hate it. That’s how I feel about all of McEwan’s books.

I suppose the dissing of SF by McEwen is particularly galling, especially since we only recently got Margaret Atwood to acknowledge that maybe she has been writing SF all along. McEwen is not exactly nobody, winner of both the Whitbread and Booker prizes, with several of his novels made into films.

I actually expect that in both Atwood’s case and McEwen’s, the dismissal of SF was genuine and heartfelt but came from a place of ignorance and stand as a direct corollary of Sturgeon’s Law.

Theodore Sturgeon once opened his Guest of Honour speech at the World Science Fiction Convention with the words “90% of science fiction is crap” before relieving the stunned audience by adding “90% of everything is crap.”

Given that literary writers either don’t read much SF but get it from movies (where 90% is more like 94% IMHO) or, if they do, only occasionally or in their teen years. Chances are, if Sturgeon is correct, that all they were ever exposed to was, in fact, crap. I mean, imagine if your primary exposure to SF was the John Norman Gor novels, you, too, might have a low opinion of SF.

The whole war between literary and genre fiction is a bit of a phony one any way. Some say it began when literary writers got jealous of how much money genre writers seemed to be making while they were struggling in garrets, but, given McEwen’s success, that can hardly be a factor there. Another one may be that it is fashionable for literary writers to look down on genre writers as somewhat less capable or educated or as pandering to the masses. None of that was ever true, in particular. Most golden age writers were either experienced journalists or, more likely, people with science or engineering degrees (rather than English majors). Autodidacts were no more or less common in SF than they were in the literary book shelves. And as for pandering to the masses, it was remarkable how hard some writers tried to do exactly that. Hemingway and Tennessee Williams constantly worried about how to increase their popular exposure.

Besides, the disdain goes both ways. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard genre writers of all stripes dismiss the quality of literary books and the character of their authors. And I’m sure with McEwen there has to be a little of: Damn it, he’s pouching in my forest when I’m barely making a living.

Personally, I think the line between genre and literary is a one with blurred edges and significant gaps, no matter how vigorously both sides try to defend the ramparts. And that is all for the good. One of the ways to ensure you fall in the 90% bracket is to narrow your focus and exclude exceptional works of whatever style. Maybe that’s what changed Atwood’s mind—someone exposed her to the 10% of SF that isn’t crap.

And that’s 10 minutes.

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 Not You

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Are you the you you were when you first began to wonder who you were?

It has been claimed that every cell in the body is replaced each seven years. Like most dramatic claims, this one is false (or, at best, only partly true). While some cells of the body have a fast turn around (colon cells for example last about four days before they are replaced by new ones), others pretty much stay with you from birth to death. For example, you get to keep most of your brain cells – although your personal mileage may very on that one.

However, even the brain does get partly replaced. There is good evidence to suggest that new neurons are generated in the hippocampus, especially when you are under pressure to learn new things. These new cells—generated from the body’s stem cells—start out fairly undifferentiated as they move out of the hippocampus to where they are needed, usually the frontal cortex. Then, hopefully, they turn into the specific type of cell needed for the task.

Of course, even if most of your cells are replaced, you are still you, right? Each new cell (these produced by cell division rather than stem cell differentiation) has the same DNA and general structure as the parent cell that they replace. Up to a point, this is true. But cell replication errors do occur as well as cellular degradation over time. Skin cells produced later in life do not have the elasticity of those when you are young (hence wrinkles) and mutations can lead to discoloration and deformation (brown spots, moles, skin tags are all the result).

But aren’t we more than a cluster of cells working cooperatively (and not only with other of our own cells but with the multitudes of bacteria that live in happy symbiosis inside of us)? Presumably what we really mean when we talk about our identity is the accumulation of memories, thoughts, emotions that we are in the continuous process of adding.

But there’s the rub. The net loss of brain cells, which goes on from childhood, does impact how and with what degree of clarity we remember things. Moreover, whenever we learn a new skill, we reprogram existing neurons and neural connections (in addition to those new cells mentioned above) often at the price of old pathways. Take, for example, the typical way many people learn tennis. Most simply pick up a racket and start to play—or, at most, have a few lessons before thinking they know enough. In the process they learn lots of bad ways to serve, back hand, etc. The day comes when they want to get better. Now, lessons are not enough—they need coaching and supervised practice because only then do the old pathways get destroyed and new ones constructed. They literally become a different tennis player.

Then there is brain damage. Sometimes those travelling neurons wind up in the wrong place or don’t get properly integrated. Some scientists suggest that this is the root cause of Parkinson’s disease or, even schizophrenia. There is a well documented case of a brain tumour that caused a man to become a pedophile. When it was removed in prison, he lost the urge. When the urge came back, the doctor’s checked – a new tumour had grown.

All of this is more than idle scientific speculation. Our entire legal and social system is predicated on the idea of the continuity of human existence. Long-term contracts (like mortgages) are based on it, as are presumptions about people’s past behavior being something they have to be held to account for. If some made a racist (or xyz) remark, thirty years ago they need to be held to account today. While an actual crime remains a crime, is a thought or opinion or nasty remark also immutable? And if so, can no-one ever truly be rehabilitated or reformed? Because the possibility of moral redemption is also central to our social order. Just a few thoughts on a weekend dedicated to death and resurrection.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.

A Blow to the Head

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Yesterday, I was reading an article about the radical feminism of Andrea Dworkin and why it is relevant today. While I appreciate aspects of Dworkin’s ideas (though not her willingness to ally with right wing fundamentalists to achieve shared goals), the thing that really struck me about the article was the revelation that she continued to support and encourage feminists who, in fact, did not support her. She felt eternally grateful to them for rescuing her from a violent domestic relationship.

Violence. It permeates our world despite all major religions and moral philosophies calling on us to live in peace and love one another.

Some years ago, Anne Marie MacDonald wrote a novel, one of whose central premises was that the 1950s can only be understood in terms of the massive amount of PTSD suffered not only by returning soldiers, but by their families as well. It strikes me she was on to something but maybe didn’t go far enough.

We now know the PTSD is not necessarily linked directly to the physical harm that one suffers—though that is a major component. Witnessing violence and trauma can be as disruptive to the human psyche as experiencing it. In fact, doing violence also creates trauma in the perpetrator.

We can see the signs of PTSD in the suicide rates of first responders and in the dysfunction of much of the political system. The current rise of the right across the western world (and beyond) depends largely on triggering our flight-fight-freeze instincts, one of the less savory legacies of our evolutionary history. Triggering is not a snowflake reaction—it is the real experience of most human beings when they feel an irrational fear. The rage of old white men is a symptom of that fear and of PTSD.

And why shouldn’t it be? Most people of my generation grew up with the constant threat of violence both at home and in the social sphere, whether from schoolyard bullies, team-building hazing or abusive teachers or bosses. Add to that the damage caused by unacknowledged concussions from contact sports before the advent of safety equipment and you have a real epidemic.

I have always considered myself fortunate that I was almost never yelled at or struck by either of my parents. Maybe it was my natural saintliness but I suspect not. My dad had walked away from his own home at age 14 because his father definitely felt sparing the rod would spoil the child and he often had to fight with himself not to dole out physical punishment to his kids. I was spared perhaps because of his saintly nature.

This is an important thing. Evidence is now incontrovertible that children who are physically punished (and, to a lesser extent, psychologically and emotionally abused) are more likely to do poorly in school, have anger management and impulse control issues as adults and generally suffer more from depression and anxiety. All symptoms of PTSD.

All us old farts complain about the younger generation—the Millennials and others—but maybe what we’re seeing is the result of one of the few good things boomers did. The majority of kids born in the 40s and 50s and early 60s did not hit their own kids. Whether it was Dr. Spock or a response to the PTSD of the 50s, we did better (not that I was personally involved, having no kids).

Maybe what we are seeing in younger generations is the first signs of a post trauma society. The preference for quality of life over quantity of things, the genuine commitment to co-parenting, the greater acceptance of the other may all be related to the fact they faced less violence and threat of violence than we did. And that’s a good thing. And it gives me hope for the future.

And that’s ten minutes.