How long does advocacy take? The only haul is the ‘long haul’ and there is no such thing as ‘drive-by’ advocacy  


 SOURCE:                                                     STATION: n/a

PROGRAM: n/a                                                                    TIME: 3:00 p.m.

REFERENCE: Speech Toronto Housing Network          DATE: July 18, 2009

LENGTH: 00:09:35


  1. Stapleton Speech Toronto Housing Network Forum


Margaret Hancock: John Stapleton from the Metcalf Foundation and St. Christopher House.

JOHN STAPLETON: What I’d like to do is have you think of yourself going into a time machine, and you’re going to go back 77 years to 1932. And if you could go in that time machine and think of what Toronto looked like in 1932, about five blocks from here, right at this time of year – there was during the month of July of 1932 a Royal Commission on Direct Relief run by Ontario’s top businessman.

At that time, it was a fellow by the name of Wallace Campbell who ran – now called the CEO of – the Ford Motor Company of Canada, and in that review, he devised what in fact was what we might call the first social assistance rates. This report went back to Premier Henry, who believed that it was much too radical to actually pay people ‘actual cash money’.  One of the recommendations that Campbell had put in his report was the idea of that housing costs should be 40 percent of the social assistance (relief) rates that he recommended. He had different rates for singles and couples and families with children.

But it was David Croll, the 34-year-old minister under Mitch Hepburn in 1934, who dusted off this Campbell report and actually put in the first relief rates in Ontario, and paid out cash money to people for the first time in 1935. So it is interesting that Ontario conducted that review of social assistance and poverty reduction in 1932, and that report gained traction through 1934 and 1935. In fact, the forerunner to the social planning council in Toronto was asked by the Ontario government whether we should have cash assistance rates and they actually came back saying “no” – that it was too radical an idea. This is very interesting.

But right about the same time, a Housing commission was also doing its work, and this work was done by Herbert Bruce, who in fact was the person who started the Wellesley Hospital that later became the Wellesley Institute. Bruce was Lieutenant Governor at that time, and he came up with the idea of having what would now be considered urban renewal or a form of public housing. It was done entirely separately from the Campbell Report, which would now be considered poverty reduction or a social assistance review.

It seems that now we’re somewhat doing the same thing; that is, we are having a review of public housing. And for those of you who are interested, it’s all in this book. I always try to come with one book and say: “Here’s something that everybody should read” but this (holds book up) is the Historical Atlas of Toronto, and it has a picture of this green (coloured) report, the report of the Lieutenant Governor’s Committee on Housing Conditions in Toronto.

I’ll just read from it:

“… In 1936 because of this report, a by-law was passed regulating standards for housing …a Canadian first…. and a new federal Loans Guarantee Act was also passed in 1936, partly in response to Toronto’s leadership.”

So we have a housing report, and a Housing Commission by the Lieutenant Governor, and we had a report basically on relief just before that time. So we seem to be repeating that in the same way now with reports being off on separate tracks.

Then in 1946 as part of post war reconstruction, CMHC was formed.

And in Ontario, something we called the Ontario Housing Corporation somewhat later– Who can forget Stanley Randall talking about how Karl Marx got it wrong?

I would try to make the case that since the government has announced a social assistance review, a social policy institute ( which morphed into the Mowat Centre (who knew?)) , and a citizen-centred approach to services – which is all in the report by Deb Matthews, Breaking the Cycle -which is where  we could start looking at some of these things together. The way I think it should come together – and I’m going to talk about one thing that came out of some of those earlier reports – where finally in the 1970s, some provinces started, and some nations started to implement  – something called a ‘housing benefit’.

Just to ‘short form’ it, the only housing benefit that we actually have in Ontario, or the only significant one, is within social assistance itself, and that’s called the Shelter Component. And what happened in the mid-1990s, when social assistance was being cut back by 21.6 percent, the same cuts actually cut back the Shelter Component by 21.6 percent.

So you had a very large housing benefit at that time being cut by that amount. But in 1997, that same Shelter Component was cut to homeless people and was disallowed to them. Then in 1998, that same Shelter Component affected the   working poor population was also cut when Supplementary Aid and Special Assistance programs in the General Welfare Assistance program (GWA) – if some of us even remember that – were also cut.

Here we have a social assistance Shelter Component that was cut down, and at the same time, only those who are receiving social assistance actually receive it. That is, the very poor don’t get it – the homeless – and those people who are working poor don’t get it. So one of the things that a number of us have been looking at is the idea of a renewed shelter benefit that would again go to all groups of people who are low income and living in poverty. It would go to people who are homeless. It would go to people who are in the working poor population.

And the way we would do that is to simply take the social assistance benefit that we have right now that is divided into basic needs and shelter, which was first divided by basic needs and shelter going back to the 1930s, a matter that was enforced by a program, a major program called the Canada Assistance Plan.

(Sound of phone)…

STAPLETON: Now if that’s that’s for me, tell them I’m out.

(Crowd laughter)…

STAPLETON: The Canada Assistance Plan was actually ended by the federal government in 1996, but we still kept this structure of having basic needs and shelter. But we really don’t need that anymore. We could declare the amounts that are paid now – that basic needs and shelter – we could simply declare that to be ‘basic’ because the amount paid for shelter is very low. We would say that the overall amount paid is one indivisible rate.

Then on top of that we would pay a shelter benefit or a ‘housing benefit’ as we have called it, to all low-income people who need help with housing costs –

  • Those on social assistance,
  • Those who are financially eligible for social assistance but cannot collect it, and
  • To homeless people,

And we would say “Here is a shelter benefit that we will pay starting at the base rent that is already computed in social assistance (the shelter component), and then pay that on top of the amounts that are now paid for overall benefits.

In other words, it would be a model that wouldn’t have in it the idea of a clawback. When the national child benefit was implemented, you all know that it had this clawback component to it. So we’re suggesting a benefit that would go on top of social assistance, and would pay starting from the Shelter Component amounts – right now, which are very, very low. (You’ve heard people already say they’re very low). We would then pay an amount up to the median rent in a particular community so that the benefit would be able to actually recognize that shelter costs, in some remote communities may be very low, and yet may be very high in a community like Toronto or Ottawa.

You would actually be paying more in shelter benefits in those places. We would do it not at 100 percent, but at a very high percent, such as 75 percent, so that it wouldn’t have the effect that people often say that it would inflate the cost of housing because the rental market (landlords) would take that into account and therefore start charging higher rent.

This new housing benefit is just one arrow in the quiver. It’s just one idea that could be used that would help pay benefits outside of social assistance, and yet at the same time would pay benefits to those people who were originally cut out of those benefits back in 1995, 1997 and 1998.

It’s a way of taking the shelter benefit that was paid and bringing it back, redesigning it, taking it outside of social assistance like the OCB, the Ontario Child Benefit, and then adding it to a basic living component.

I have a number of things that I could say at this point but I’ll wait until question period. Thank you.


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Ontario Roadmap for Income Security Reform proposes redress in first 3 years

Just 29 years ago, the Social Assistance Review Committee delivered its 674 page report called Transitions on September 6, 1988. It was groundbreaking as it devised other programs that would replace the role of welfare.

That only partially came to pass with child benefits and the small Working Income Tax Benefit.

In the years from 1988 and 2012, there were five other significant reports to provincial governments concerning social assistance reform concentrating on the 40% of the poor living on social assistance:

  • Back on Track: 1991
  • Time for Action: 1992
  • Turning Point: 1993
  • Deb Matthews Report: 2004
  • Brighter Prospects: 2012

On November 2, 2017, the Income Security Reform Working Group released its 188 page report named A Roadmap for Income Security Reform.

We propose social assistance rate increases that will exceed 23% in the next 3 years and cost over $3 billion dollars but we are also offering profound recommendations to transform welfare into a set of programs that offer hope rather than continued despair. We also see a generally available Housing Benefit as an important next step in a reform agenda.

Some will see a new beginning and I hope they are right.

Others will say “Here we go again” and I hope that their cynicism is misplaced.

But a significant portion of Ontario’s population may worry that the Roadmap for Reform that we tabled on November 2, 2017 goes too far. They are wrong.

Our Roadmap must be understood in the context of how far we have fallen behind, especially in the period from 1994 to 2005. That’s when we fell off a cliff. We tend to forget about those times.

The 21.6% Harris cuts of 1995 were never restored.

And over the 11 years from 1994 to 2005, there were no social assistance increases even though  inflation over that period was 26.2%.

We have treaded water since 2005.

Many do not realize   that had the single social assistance rate been increased with inflation from 1993, the rate would now be $1,012 a month. It is now $721.  And our suggested early increases over the next three years only get it to $894 per month.

In 1973, Premier Bill Davis announced the GAINS program for people with disabilities and seniors.  At that time, low income seniors and people with disabilities received the same levels of income, guaranteed by the Province of Ontario.  Fast forward to 2017 and the poorest senior (who is a long terms resident of Ontario) now receives at least $1,525 a month.

If ODSP had been increased with inflation since 1993, it would now stand at $1,419, not the $1,151 where it currently stands, almost $400 a month behind what our poorest seniors receive.

Our Roadmap recommends that people with disabilities receive 3 five percent increases over the next three years. That will get their allowances to $1,332 a month.  If implemented, low income people with disabilities will continue to receive $200 less a month than our poorest seniors.

Would Bill Davis say that our recommendations are still too modest?

We should all understand how measured and sober our first three years of recommendations really are.
To those who don’t believe that our stages of reform move fast enough, I would point them to the second half of the ten year plan which moves programs much closer to true adequacy. By almost any set of metrics, our approach is measured. It needs to be attractive to governments of any stripe to take it seriously.

And finally to those who worry that we are creating disincentives, I would note that minimum wage employment will remain colossally more attractive than social assistance.

Bob Rae raised minimum wages to $6.85 an hour in 1995 and had the minimum wage been increased with inflation since 1995 (when he raised them from $5.85), minimum wages would now stand at $10.20 an hour.  They now stand at $11.60 and will go to $15.00 an hour in 2019.

Even now, the single OW rate stands at 38.2% of the minimum wage. This percentage will actually drop as higher minimum wages kick in, even after our proposed increases to social assistance.

In the early 1990’s, when the incentives debate was a real one and was at its apex, the social assistance single rate stood at approximately 70% of the minimum wage. We are now in a very different world where disincentives are low and incentives to leave social assistance are much higher than they were decades ago.

In 1935, the first cash welfare payments were brought in under by then Liberal Public Welfare Minister David Croll in the Depression era government of Premier Mitch Hepburn. Eighty two years later, we still have welfare as we know it. Let’s hope we are not saying that in 2035.



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New social assistance asset test welcome news

The 50 year experiment forcing welfare recipients and low income persons with disabilities into financial destitution finally appears to be over.

In Charles Sousa’s Budget 2017, asset limits for single welfare recipients will be raised from $2,500 to $10,000 for a single person and to $11,000 for a lone parent with two children. Persons with disabilities will have their asset limits raised from $5,000 to $40,000 for singles and from $7,500 to $50,000 for couples.

The amount families will be able to donate to family members receiving assistance will go from $6,000 a year to $10,000.

This is welcome news after the initial moves in 2013 that quadrupled asset limits for single welfare recipients from the equivalent of one month’s assistance (about $650) and allowed families to donate money to welfare recipients without penalty for the first time. In the four years since 2013, policy analysts learned what the province of Quebec and Alberta and the states of Ohio, Illinois and Virginia had known for some time – that keeping recipients of social assistance in complete destitution does not save money.

It is all well and good to rationalize welfare programs by saying that they provide a floor below which no recipient should fall. It is quite another thing to say that the floor should be a ceiling above which no one should be allowed to climb.

Many people will think that these new and welcome asset limits raise social assistance generosity to unprecedented heights – but they would be wrong.

There was a long period before the era of destitution when recipients of public assistance were able to keep a cushion of assets that allowed them to save the required resources to climb out of poverty. For example, the Mothers Allowances Act   of 1948 allowed a lone parent mother with two children to have liquid assets of $1,000. In today’s terms, that $1,000 would be $11,400, an amount that is actually $400 higher than the $11,000 proposed in the Budget.

Similarly, the asset limits in the Blind and Disabled Persons’ Allowances Act of 1951 were $50,000 in 1951 dollars or an amount of almost $500,000 in today’s terms, far above the proposed limits proposed for low income people with disabilities.

Those generous asset limits of yesteryear were abolished with the advent of the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP), the federal cost sharing vehicle that shared social assistance costs with provinces and territories from 1966 to 1996. During that period, the federal government and provinces alike were seized with the idea that social assistance and destitution should go hand in hand.

And even after CAP was decommissioned, provinces moved in the mid-1990’s to reduce limits far below the levels that CAP allowed. In 1995 in Ontario, the Harris government reduced the asset limit for a single welfare recipient to an unheard of amount of $520. Anyone who had more than $520 in liquid assets to their name became categorically ineligible for social assistance.

It has taken 20 years of progressive thinking to finally take the blinders off and see that enforced destitution does nothing to help anyone get back on their feet. All it does is artificially prolong the period of time the poorest among us must endure periods of poverty.

When asked in focus groups how poor Ontarians can dig themselves out of poverty, two of the most frequent answers from ordinary Ontarians are to build a cash cushion for a rainy day and to get help from family. It sounds like the Ontario government is finally listening.

But the surprisingly generous post war period in which social assistance asset limitations provides a cautionary tale for the future of social assistance in Ontario.  We have come a long way since 2013 but we can do a lot better in the future. Let’s hope that government continues to listen.

js- 4-17- rev 16-6/17

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A better way to save 2.6%

Late last year, some colleagues and I released a report on called ‘The Cost of Poverty in Toronto’. We found that poverty costs the Toronto economy between $4.4 and $5.5 billion per year. For this discussion, I will use a figure of $5 billion.

Since Toronto has never been poverty-free and there is no comparable city that has ever eradicated poverty, it is a difficult figure to calculate. In the absence of hard evidence, we looked at poverty-related costs incurred by the poorest 20 per cent of people in Toronto (the lowest quintile) compared to the cost profile of the next quintile of people (the second lowest quintile).

The second lowest quintile pays higher taxes while incurring far fewer costs related to healthcare, the courts and justice system. If the lowest quintile behaved in the same way as the second 20 per cent, their costs to the Toronto economy would be $5 billion lower.

The City of Toronto is proud to say that the local economy is responsible for 10 per cent of the nation’s GDP or approximately $184 billion take or leave a few billion.

Five billion dollars is 2.7 per cent of our $184 billion economy.

But what share of this $5 billion is ‘owned’ by the municipal government in Toronto?

The best way to answer that question is to look at the city government’s share of the economy. The city’s budget is $10.4 billion.

Therefore, the 2.7% cost of poverty attributable to the city’s budget runs to about $285 million.

In the context of the city’s budget debate, Mayor John Tory and Budget Chief Gary Crawford have floated proposals to save 2.6% through cuts. But we know these cuts would have a disproportionately negative effect on the poor which, in turn, would raise the costs of poverty.

We have therefore come to an important fork in the road.

Why? Because the city could count on saving 2.7% over time if it did its share to eliminate poverty starting now.

Toronto can pursue austerity and cuts or realize longer term savings through investment in poverty reduction.

This is the stark choice now before Council.

But since poverty has a cost to all sectors, Toronto can’t act alone to eliminate the problem. A coordinated approach is needed.

It is not up to the city government to create full employment but has an important role, as do the other levels of government, to create the policies that foster full employment.

And as Mark Carney used to tell us: the private sector has to play its part as well.

The city also has a role in promoting a living wage that would take people out of poverty and turn them into taxpayers and it can play a role in creating a safer and healthier city.

But the city of Toronto could lead the way and issue an important challenge to other levels of government and the private sector.

As our report says, the $5 billion cost of poverty is an unnecessary drag on Toronto’s economy and forms part of the reason we are in the fiscal difficulties we face today.

So perhaps rather than trying to reduce the city’s budget by 2.6% through cuts, the city government could more usefully apply itself to reducing its own share of the cost of poverty and in time, eventually save the same amount and perhaps a bit more.

And the Toronto we would create would be a much better place for all of us.

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Fentanyl in food? Why safe injection sites are the right thing for all of us

On January 10, 2017, Matt Galloway of CBC’s Metro morning interviewed Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins on the fentanyl opioid crisis and noted that:

“….if our food supply was threatened by a food poisoning, then all hell would break loose and that you would have all levels of government moving in the blink of an eye to react to this but the stigma that exists around overdose has led to a sluggish response….[1]

Galloway made this observation after Hoskins said that the issues surrounding fentanyl deaths related to respect, dignity, equity, the right to treatment, the urgency of the matter, the effectiveness of needle exchanges and the fact that the people who are dying are our brothers and sisters, our fathers and mothers.

So far so good.

But at no point in the conversation did Minister Hoskins answer the question that Galloway posed to him about the stigma of addiction. He only gave a myriad of reasons why safe injection sites are the right thing to do. ‘

Now don’t get me wrong. Hoskins gave all the right answers as they relate to persons with addictions and government’s role. But he did not answer why the crisis would be far different if the public was affected with a clear and present danger. He did not because governments and advocates alike tend not to answer those questions. The safe ground is to always talk about the people who are directly affected; the victims.

But the fact is that while Hoskins sidestepped the question of stigma for very legitimate reasons, Matt Galloway remained correct in his observation about government.

But perhaps he was wrong about food poisoning.

The food supply IS threatened.

*                                                                        *                                                                          *

When antibiotics were first discovered, they became the miracle cure scientists and doctors had been waiting for.

Fast forward 75 years and antibiotics found a way into our food supply and it turns out that that was a bad thing[2].

How did it happen? The easy explanation is that like people, animals get sick too and react to good medicine the same way we do. The problem is that when antibiotics get into the food chain through animals, humans start ingesting those antibiotics and the next thing you know, diseases become resistant to antibiotics.

“A key question is, can antibiotic use in animals promote the development of hard-to-treat antibiotic-resistant superbugs that make people sick?  And if it can, are the illnesses rare occurrences, and the risks theoretical, or could current usage in animals pose a serious threat to human health.

Numerous health organizations, including the American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, Infectious Disease Society of America, and the World Health Organization, agree and have called for significant reductions in the use of antibiotics for animal food production[3].”


Now A&W advertises that its chickens are raised without antibiotics. One assumes that we should be very impressed that we can buy chickens that have not been drugged. What once sounded horrible is now an advertising coup resulting in greater market share[4].

So what else gets into the food supply through animal medicine and other means? And are there other marketing ‘home runs’ to be hit by food outlets that can market their avoidance?

In his article called “Prescription drugs or arsenic in your drinking water? Should you be concerned?” consumer writer David Schardt explains:

“Traces of 51 drugs have been detected in the wastewater that Burlington, Vermont, residents flush or pour down their drains and that ends up in Lake Champlain. Researchers at the University of Vermont and the United States Geological Survey found that levels of caffeine and nicotine in the water drop as college students leave for summer break, followed by increases in the relative amounts of drugs used by older people, such as diabetes and heart medications….. Burlington is not unique[5].

How does this all relate to fentanyl being the leading cause of opioid death in Ontario[6]?

I think you know where I am heading. Fentanyl is easy to hide and to smuggle, extremely small doses can kill, and it is already an epidemic. It would not be hard for fentanyl to get into our food supply in a variety of ways.

One way to think about it is to examine the morality of the people who make it and sell it. They don’t appear to care about the people on the street who are dying so do you think for one moment that they care about you? The answer is that they don’t.

A second way to think about it is to ask yourself, as you look at yourself in the morning mirror: “Why should I care?

Progressives would want the public to care and share a concern for basic fairness as the motivation for a call to action. But in this case it is not necessary.

You don’t need to be thinking about the cost of a government safe injection site where a person with an addiction can get a safe and controlled drug.

And you don’t need to be worried about the rights of the person with an addiction who is totally unlike you and engages in behaviour that is far away from you.

And it’s not required that you be concerned about the tragic loss of life and the effects on the lives of their loved ones.

All that is required is for you to  think about yourself when you look in the mirror and think how everything else got into our food supply. Why would fentanyl be different?

Now think 20 years from now when a large food supplier advertises fentanyl-free water and food. It’s just as crazy as thinking about antibiotic free chickens in 1940.

And that’s why you should support safe injection sites and immediate government action on a scale reserved only for an outbreak of food poisoning.





[3] ibid




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A briefing note for progressive thinkers on the celebrity bombast of the political right

I’m often tempted to weigh in on the popular appeal of bombastic, right-wing celebrity politicians, yet I hesitate when smart commentators say exactly what I was thinking – people like the brilliant Rick Salutin of the Toronto Star, Marcus Gee in the Globe and Mail, or Charles Blow in the New York Times. They always nail it.

But recently, I started to have thoughts that may not have been covered in the relentless carpet-bombing of Donald Trump and before him, Toronto’s notorious mayor Rob Ford, not to mention Boris Johnston, the demagogue behind the ‘Brexit’ referendum. ROFO, BOJO, and Trump are the heralds of new kind of leadership in this millennium.

It’s become clear to progressive thinkers that we need to take the appeal of right wing buffoonery more seriously. To do that, we have to get inside the heads of people who respond to it and to that end, I would like to offer five diverse and idiosyncratic observations.

These five points are about markers in our daily life that illustrate how ordinary people come to see themselves as completely separate from politics and policy. I believe that it is only out of that void that people find themselves responding so passionately to a certain type of celebrity leading an aspirational charge toward solutions that go nowhere.

In this briefing note I will talk about:

  1. What I have learned from participating in opinion polls
  2. My take on a popular British soap opera and what it means to live a truly ‘personal’ life
  3. The narrative of ‘brokenness’ that pervades the media and political rhetoric
  4. The reaction against ‘political correctness’, or the weariness of carefulness
  5. The rebellion against facts and evidence in public discourse


  1. What polling taught me

For 32 years, I could not participate in a telephone poll. The telephone conversation would always start in a promising manner. “Yes, I am over 18, I live at the address you noted, I own my home, I don’t belong to a political party, and I am undecided in the next election.”

Then they asked whether anyone in the household worked in a job that had anything to do with the media. My answer was “yes” followed by a click.

When my spouse changed her job in 2009, I was suddenly free. I awaited the next call from a pollster in an ecstasy of anticipation. I finally qualified.

The first question the pollster asked was whether I favoured shorter wait times in hospital. The only possible answers were ‘yes’ or ‘no’ so I answered yes.

The second question asked whether I thought government solutions to gridlock were important. Again I answered yes.

The third question asked if governments should do more to address climate change. Once again, I said yes.

The fourth question asked if governments should do more to combat poverty and homelessness. “Yes,” I said emphatically.

Then the pollster asked a question that floored me: “Would I like my taxes to go down – yes or no?”

I started a brief argument with the interviewer, noting the absurdity of the question given my answers to the previous ones. I was informed that it was a standalone question unrelated to the other questions. I thought for a moment. “Well of course – in total isolation from anything – sure I would like to pay lower taxes.”

So this is how it happens that pollsters come to conclusions such as that in a recent Angus Reid poll on a guaranteed minimum income in Canada:

“Most Canadians want government to expand the services it provides, but they don’t want to pay for it.”[1]

After my first polling interview, I reflected on the sequence and the logic of the poll questions, the answers they elicit, and what they taught me. What polling teaches is that that government somehow represents a smorgasbord of goodies that you can choose not to pay for.

After 32 years in the polling wilderness, I was being welcomed into a frame of reference for public policy that is intensely personal: I should be able to get everything I want and the role of government is to provide it to me personally. We talk personally, one on one, with the pollster. The pollster frames the questions so that I agree my taxes should go towards the things I want. And I should be paying less for all of it.

Polling entices us to be part of a world that is aspirational. But polling results are preposterous in the extreme when they welcome us to an easy smorgasbord of free solutions.

Progressive thinkers operate in a frame of reference that is more like a focus group than a polling interview. There, a facilitator notes conflicting answers and gets people to think about and debate intended and unintended consequences. But focus groups don’t get reported in the papers. Polls do.

The world of the progressive thinker is characterized by the cut and thrust of debate, the marshalling of verifiable evidence, the discipline of relevance, and an abiding interest and belief in the importance of public policy.

The frame of the poll is the frame of unimpeded desire where there is no debate, where evidence has no role, relevance is unimportant, and public policy is a canard.

I watched a woman being interviewed in a small town in England that voted heavily in favour of Brexit. She warned the interviewer that she had no interest or understanding of government policy. When asked why she voted for Brexit, she simply said (and I paraphrase) “Well there are people here that shouldn’t be here, aren’t there?”

This is a woman who lives in an intensely personal world. The celebrity bombast of the right has unimpeded entry to her world, because it understands her frame of reference very well.


Coronation Street and the truly personal life

For years, I watched the CBC television news from 6:00 to 6:30 p.m. and then made the quick switch to Power and Politics, or turned off the TV to listen to CBC’s As it Happens. What else would a self-respecting policy wonk do over the dinner hour?

But every so often, I got distracted by other things and forgot to make the channel switch. That’s when a program that I would never consider watching called Coronation Street from Britain came on the television.

I began ever so slowly to get pulled into the lives on ‘Corrie Street’.

One night when there was a lot of political news from Britain on CBC, the switch to the intensity of personal emotion on Coronation Street suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks.

None of the characters on the show ever discuss policy or politics. They do not weigh in on climate change, gridlock, taxes, hospital wait times, or anything at all in the public sphere.

I said to myself: “This can’t be.” So I watched Corrie Street for months on end, ditching Power and Politics and its endless brokering of spin and sophistry.

I was fascinated with my voyage into the lives of fictional people who relentlessly lived completely personal lives. Not once was a topic of public concern raised. The curtain was completely opaque, a perfect firewall.

It occurred to me, that if you never discuss public policy, never weigh evidence, never debate your peers, never think about public policy, never raise an issue and never disagree or agree on a public matter, then you lead a completely personal life.

But leading a completely personal life has a curious default. Politics are therefore also personal.

Bingo! I want a mayor who returns my phone calls.

The narrative of public policy and public life is one of tradeoffs, of struggle, of bargaining, of debate, of discussion, of complexity and of compromise. The narrative of the exclusively personal life contains none of this. It receives its oxygen from a doctrine of liberty – not the liberty of nations or social groups – but our own personal liberty.

So, when Boris Johnson talked about “Independence Day,” progressives heard it as a lie. But on Corrie Street, Independence Day means personal independence. I can go on living my own life in my own way and government will give me everything I asked for in the polls.


The narrative of societal ‘brokenness’

“Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t win anymore. We can’t do anything right.”[2]

–Donald Trump


I have spent part of the last few years on a personal journey to understand political conservatives. Whenever I chance upon a Ford voter or a Trump supporter, I try to engage them. They are admittedly straw polls with no evidentiary rigour.

That said, to me it is interesting that most of their lives tend to be absorbed with personal things and events: family gatherings, children, in-laws, vacations, hobbies, and so on. Most do not debate politics or public policy. They debate the futures of their parents or children. They tend to view those involved in politics and government as unrepentant fraudsters.

They favour media programming that dishes a diet of crisis: fires, high gas prices, scandals, shootings, knifings, explosions, and accidents. They seldom if ever listen to programming that delves deeper into social issues. They feel helpless in shaping public discourse and are much attracted to press reports on ‘brokenness’.

The media often defaults to the ‘brokenness’ card: our ‘broken’ health care system, our ‘broken’ child welfare system, our ‘broken’ social assistance programs, our ‘broken’ transit and road systems.

This is too bad. The brokenness card has no shades of grey. There is no complexity. There is no redemption. Whatever we build again will be broken at birth.

The brokenness sets the bar low for celebrity bombast on the right. The argument goes like this:

  • Nothing gets done anyways.
  • All they do is waste our money.
  • It’s all broken.
  • They line their own pockets.

Bingo! I want a President who says everything is broken and our personal lives have been invaded. I want a President who will make things right and promises me a protected personal life replete with the walls and the isolation I crave. And by the way, others have to pay for it.

It does not matter that the celebrity blowhard of the right is not competent to do the job of a public servant. At least if you vote for celebrity blowhards, you are ‘shaking things up’. And no damage can be done to anything that is already irretrievably smashed so there is no prospect of things possibly getting worse.

And if you are lucky, the celebrity blowhard will call you personally – the only thing in political life that makes any difference.


The weariness of carefulness

Most of us are vigilantly careful of what we say. We strive not to be hurtful. We practise the golden rule in our public and private spheres. It comes almost as second nature to be careful and kind.

When we inhabit the world that is close to us – our personal world – we know how to be careful and it is not wearying. But for those who live personal lives most of the time, the public world is harder to navigate. They don’t know the right phrases, the bits and pieces of code, or the right thing to say: persons with disabilities as opposed to ‘the disabled’, for instance. Those who live mostly personal lives get caught more than those of us who frequent public spaces and gravitate toward public discourse.

What are we to make of the woman in Britain who said there are people here who were not supposed to be here? She was trying to be politically correct. She did not name names, nor races or nationalities. Yet to the progressive mind, she got it terribly wrong. She actually made it worse by not naming those who “should not be here.”

‘Political correctness’ can be extremely subtle and contextual. During the Olympics, we celebrate gender difference (separate events), nationalities (shirt colour), and skin colour (first black woman to win gold in the pool). But in slightly different contexts, pointing to gender, colour, and national differences is just dead wrong.

For a person who lives primarily a ‘personal’ life, this subtlety of context is difficult and frustrating. How am I supposed to get it right if I don’t know when I can make distinctions and when I can’t? There is no rulebook.

That’s why it is so liberating when a Donald Trump or a Rob Ford uses the forbidden phrases and thinks the forbidden thoughts. All of a sudden, all the proscribed ways of collecting people by race, gender, colour, nationality, religion, sexual preference, disability, and biography become fair game and a matter for celebration.

Celebrity bombast in the form of ROFO, BOJO, and Trump exploit this weariness of carefulness. They completely ignore the subtlety of context and thus become heroes to people who live intensely personal lives.


Away with the ‘tyranny of evidence’

The progressive thinker wants to live in a policy-led world, where decision making is based on evidence. Let’s think about this for a bit.

Progressives like to think in terms of policy-relevant evidence framed in value-free terms supported by scientific rigour. The problem, as behavioural economists have discovered, is that values frame evidence and not the other way around.[3] The data that we cite can be used for opposing purposes.

For example, a shooting incident with an assault weapon can be used by the progressive as evidence for the need for gun control, just as a libertarian can see the same incident as evidence for the need for more citizens to take up arms.

Donald Trump does not accept the tyranny of evidence. He welcomes you to a world where bad people are kept away, where everyone personally defends themselves and where everyone pays their own way.

There is no evidence that a wall between Mexico and the US will keep out rapists and drugs. There is no evidence that the vote for Brexit will lead to people leaving who “shouldn’t be here.” There was never any evidence that Rob Ford could raise the money for a subway. There definitely is evidence that more guns don’t lead to fewer shootings.

But all that evidence is completely neutralized if you live in an opinion poll world where aspirations are far more important than facts.

This befuddles progressives. Their evidentiary standards relate to something they call the real world, which they assume is inhabited by all of us. But celebrity bombast does not live in that world.

Celebrity bombast invites us to live in a world where welfare recipients will get jobs when they are cut off assistance. It is the world where people would stop committing crimes when punishments became harsher. It’s not the facts that matter – it is the appeal of being invited to an aspirational world where bad policies would actually work.

A world where easy choices prevail and contradiction and consequences don’t matter. A world where everyone lives a completely personal life, isolated from the vagaries of the public square. A world where you don’t have to watch what you say and the only people you meet are people who “should be here.”

A world where you get everything you told the pollster you wanted.


[2] Donald Trump in a television debate reported in The New Yorker, August 31, 2015


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Hit over the head and blamed for falling? The curious case of Scarborough and the Toronto media

When Canada first built its railways, forever remembered in the sepia photograph of the last spike, the idea was that railways spawn communities, commerce, and population growth. It was the undisputed economic model. It is precisely why, along with connecting communities, that both Canada and the United States built their railways in the first place.

But when it comes to the Scarborough subway 130 years later, we have thrown that model into reverse:  we won’t lay the rails down until the communities, commerce and population growth are already in place. Although we are looking at a similar mode of transport, we are treated to a 180 turn of the lens.

And if you agree with the premise that Scarborough doesn’t deserve the Subway because it is not a growth community, then fairer coverage of attractions and events by Toronto media would help Scarborough grow.

The reality is that Scarborough is treated like a foreign land, as some sort of outpost by Toronto’s media even though it comprises 30% of Toronto’s land area and over 22% of Toronto’s population.

In the Scarborough Mirror this week (God help us) there were 8 weekend attractions for the June 24-26 weekend in Toronto and in terms of events we got nada – a giant goose egg – 0 for 8.

Don’t believe me? Here is the link to Inside Toronto:

A similar section in the Toronto Star this week offered events and attractions during the summer. Guess what?  It turns out that Toronto Zoo is the only attraction in Scarborough. Who knew?

But while Toronto’s media ignore us along with the Official Tourist Guide to Toronto[1], the Toronto Star has mounted a full-on campaign against the Subway extension in Scarborough.

Now I personally don’t have strong feelings about the subway one way or the other (sorry!). If there is a better way to deal with Scarborough’s transit needs, then I am all ears. We also don’t have a 400 series north-south, limited access highway when every other district in the GTA has one. But I’d much rather have a ‘green’ north south corridor than I would another 400 series highway. So how we get to transit equity, I am open to listening to new options.

But it is not the Star’s opposition to the subway that bothers me – it’s the way in which they frame their opposition.

Let me take just two passages from recent editorials.

Here is the first:

“Unfortunately, new ridership numbers revealing the inadequacy of the Scarborough subway extension are unlikely to derail the project because it was never primarily about serving this city’s public transit needs. It’s about pandering to Scarborough voters who favour underground transit over a light rail line.[2]

Here we have an example of the populist Toronto Star saying that decision-makers should not listen to the voice of the people. No, we wouldn’t want to listen to voters, would we? Let’s listen to only those elected representatives who are against the Subway.

And just who are the voters in question? They are Scarborough voters. The Star has chosen to narrow the lens so that Scarborough voters form the denominator in question.

And what are the city’s representatives doing? They are pandering to Scarborough voters.

Here is how the dictionary defines ‘pandering’:

“Gratifying or indulging an immoral or distasteful desire, or need[3]

Interesting eh?

The Star sees Scarborough voters as having an immoral or distasteful desire and our politicians are indulging this group of ingrates.

So who comprises the audience for this type of journalism? Shall we speculate that it is the 78% of Torontonians that live on the other 70% of Toronto’s land area?

And just what defines that place. Let’s look at a second quote from another Star editorial to find out.

“Relief is sorely needed. But instead of focusing transit dollars where they would do the most good, Queen’s Park and Mayor John Tory remain wedded to an ill-conceived Scarborough subway extension that has more to do with political pandering than with getting riders where they need to go.[4]

That other area turns out to be that place where “…transit dollars would do the most good…”

The editorial goes on to say that the downtown relief line is that place. So the downtown is the place where the riders need to go or return from and they should be the focus.

Certainly, I should not be detecting a bias here. And I should not speculate where Toronto Star editorialists live themselves.

One can only assume that 22% of them live in Scarborough and are therefore truly representative of the city. No doubt the reference to ‘pandering’ is a bit of self-loathing on the part of a Scarborough editorialist.

And I guess I shouldn’t be thinking about the 22% of city residents (Scarborough) who long ago helped subsidize public transit in the downtown community of Rosedale.

Rosedale, with a population of 21,000 is only served by five subway stations (Castle Frank, Sherbourne, Yonge, Rosedale, and Summerhill) and a bus line that shuttles the ‘help’ from cheaper parts of the GTA to the stately mansions of the greenest parts of downtown. Certainly residents of Rosedale could do with a bit more transit equity.

Scarborough, with a population of over 625,000 and 30 times the population of Rosedale is now served by 3 stations and just may get a fourth.

Of course, the five stations that partly surround Rosedale have tens of thousands of riders heading elsewhere but the same observation does not seem to apply to Scarborough. The ‘downtown framing’ of Scarborough always seems to assume that anyone that would take the subway to Scarborough Town Centre is somehow a Scarborough voter. That’s part of the Star’s ‘outpost’ framing of Scarborough.

No one from Pickering or Markham or points north and east would ever take a subway from Scarborough Town Centre to points south and west. Presumably we would issue Scarborough Passports to ensure no one from elsewhere could benefit from the Scarborough extension

I don’t recall the Star ever talking about how unfair it was for Scarborough to share in the funding of the St Clair streetcar line (we don’t have any) or the Metrolinx train from Union to Pearson (nothing goes from Scarborough to Pearson, not a bus, not a train nor a shuttle) yet I go to Pearson at least 12 times a year.

If the metric for transit is where it will do the most good but only in terms of aggregate ridership, then nothing ever would be built outside of the old city boundaries since that is where the densest population is. So much for setting a metric that only downtown interests can win!

OK – so writing this is too much fun. What’s the point?

One point is that Scarborough starts as a poor cousin and an outpost at the end of the line, not an inner suburb with important connections to other parts of the GTA .

And we are voters with immoral and distasteful desires that we want ‘indulged”by decision-makers who are somehow mesmerized by an outpost bloc of rubes.

The second point is that we are not of much interest to either the Toronto Star or Inside Toronto that produces the Scarborough Mirror. We are the only place in the world that would not grow if we had more transit and more corridors because nothing interesting happens here.

The third point is that the disinterest in 30% of the city with 22% of its population on the part of the media  including the Scarborough Mirror itself ( now that’s self-loathing) is entirely related to the campaign to stop the Scarborough subway.

Why? Because ridership is the metric being used and we are the only place in the world where ridership won’t increase with better transit.

And why is that? Well isn’t it obvious? We are Scarborough and we have to leave our district to enjoy what Toronto has to offer. And would that require a subway or a relief line? Or is it time to have a Screxit referendum?

John Stapleton – June 25, 2016, revised June 27 & 28


[1] See:




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There will be a 75th reunion of Canadian veterans in Holland in 2020

On Sunday, March 19, 1961, my grandfather was one day away from death in the small town of St. Mary’s Ontario in his family home on the main street of town. He did not want to live on the terms on which he then understood his life.

Robert A Stapleton was 84 years old. He had suffered circulatory problems most of his adult life along with painful arthritis. One of his legs had been amputated above the knee a couple of years earlier and his remaining leg had been recommended for amputation by doctors. He had refused and life-ending gangrene had become a very real possibility in that early spring.

I was 10 years old at the time and I had been a part of many recent family gatherings on weekends in my father’s home town. I was the kid that my grandfather sent out for ‘smokes’ at the local variety store. We had a pact where he slipped me the cash and the store proprietor winked. He had been told not to sell cigarettes to my grandfather and especially to me. This caused the whole operation to go underground.

One of my grandfather’s simple pleasures in early 1961 was to wait until everyone had left the room and then to light up, striking an Eddy’s wooden match on the side of a metal lamp. When the smell of smoke made its way into the kitchen, my grandmother and assorted relatives would rush to the living room to find out how he had acquired his Black Cat corks in the blue and yellow packages. He made up a cock and bull story but I remained ‘suspect number one’ in the ongoing ruse. I thought that if he wasn’t going to tell, neither would I.

He died in hospital in the early hours of March 20, 1961.

Robert Stapleton was 37 years old when World War I broke out. He was too old to enlist but he put his hands on some very primitive dye and managed to turn his hair jet black. He lied about his age attesting to just under the age limit for service. He was off to war.

During his time in battle, he was fortunate enough to escape death but he was shot in both his legs and as a result, had shrapnel that could not be easily removed at the time. Despite medical attention, it was never removed. He lived with the pain for 45 years.

Mr. Stapleton met his future wife in England towards the end of the war and moved with her back to St. Mary’s where he started a second family in 1918. My father, Allan Stapleton was born on January 5, 1920. He served in World War II from 1939-1945 in England, Sicily, Italy, France, Belgium and Holland. He was not injured badly there. He is now 96 at the time of this writing.

Longevity is common in the Stapleton family when something does not go amiss. My great-great great grandmother, Dorothy Heard Stapleton passed away at age 94 in the 1880’s at a time when the average age of death was under age 50. Her husband Arther, born in 1790,  and who came to Canada in 1832, lived to age 83. A number of great uncles and aunts lived well into their 90’s.

*                                             *                                                        *                                                *                                                       *                                                            *                                                    *

Following the 70th anniversary of the Canadian campaign to liberate Holland in 1945, there was a microscopic snippet of speculation as to whether there would be a 75th anniversary with Canadian veterans riding ‘period’ jeeps through the streets of Apeldoorn in 2020. That speculation is now growing, one year after the 70th.

My take on the subject is that the 75th will take place and it will be well-attended by Canadian veterans. This is a complete reversal of my thinking after the 60th anniversary. Here is what I wrote in 2004 in southern Sicily:

“The final event at Ispica drew to a close and the veterans looked up, some doing so uneasily. For each veteran at a fortieth or fiftieth reunion knows that there is a possibility that there can be one more—but at the sixtieth, they know that the arithmetic of life expectancy and major events punctuated by a decade in between will mean that this may truly be their last. Not because some won’t be well enough to do it once more, but because they know that their numbers will dwindle so significantly that it cannot be the same.”[1]

After the 60th, the 70th seemed impossible but I was wrong. And now I know why I got it wrong.

First, WWII was a very popular war and WWI wasn’t. There are many tales of veterans returning home to Canada in 1918 to great hostility. Hearing that a man was a veteran, some landowners would not sell property to a veteran[2]. This takes a toll. We also know that from returning US vets from Vietnam.

Second, I reasoned that there were no large 75th reunions of Canadians who served in WWI.

But I did not understand how different the medical care my father received was compared to the care my grandfather received. For 45 long years, Robert lived with shrapnel that could not be removed without invasive surgery that had low success rates. Today, lasers would make that surgery a snap. Today, he wouldn’t even be admitted into hospital. It would be an outpatient procedure with few complications and a speedy and successful recovery.

I did not understand how important bypass surgery and two carotid artery surgeries could be for my father. Neither of these surgeries would have been available to my grandfather. But it is not just the fact that they were now available. It is also that these surgeries are minimally invasive compared to decades ago and are now routinely performed on older people. Bypass surgery for an octogenarian was unheard of 50 years ago.

I remember the doctor telling me not to be nervous when my father was having his bypass. He said that machines were performing all his bodily functions. He said “He couldn’t die if he wanted to”.

Then there’s the smoking. I did not realize until meeting the veterans in 2015 in Holland that there were virtually no smokers. And those that did smoke had all quit in the 1940’s.

And finally, there is a new appreciation for what our veterans accomplished. Self-esteem is very important to older people as they begin to fail both mentally and physically. Returning to Holland is just the tonic that the doctor ordered. There is not a visitor or veteran that could fail to understand the loyal and steadfast high regard in which Canadian veterans are held.

Many Canadian veterans of the liberation of Holland who have made it this far, lungs free of smoke, medically corrected and self-esteem intact, will make it to the 75th.

Forget that they all will be in their 90’s and 100’s.

Veterans’ Affairs should be starting to plan now.

John Stapleton accompanied his father as caregiver to the 60th and 70th anniversary celebrations in Sicily and Italy in 2004 and 2014 and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands in 2015




[2] p.22

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A young person’s guide to a guaranteed or basic income: part 7

Keeping what’s good from the past

“There is a fire burning over the earth, taking with it plants and animals, ancient skills and visionary wisdom. At risk is a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination, an oral and written language composed of the memories of countless elders and healers, warriors,  farmers, fishermen, midwives, poets and saints – in short , the artistic, intellectual, and spiritual expression of the full complexity and diversity of the human experience. Quelling this flame, this spreading inferno, and rediscovering a new appreciation for the diversity of the human spirit as expressed by culture, is among the central challenges of our time.”[1]

Wade Davis- The Wayfinders – 2009

In this seventh and final meditation on a guaranteed annual or basic income for young people, I will admit to hijacking Wade Davis’ exquisite prose to make a less monumental observation concerning Canada’s income security system.

Our income security system in Canada is inadequate as it relates to the poor and many parts of it are confusing, outmoded and unfair. But that does not make it a terrible system. In many ways, it reflects our culture and much that is good within it. We need to be very careful about what we dismantle or allow to disappear inadvertently.

Old Age Security, the Guaranteed Income Supplement, our new child benefit system, CPP and EI are very good programs that – with a little bit of redesign work – could take vast swaths of people out of poverty. There is no good reason to throw them out and every reason to build enhancements using them as key building blocks of a new system.

Carl Jung said in his famous defense of astrology:

“We are born at a given moment in a given place and like vintage years of wine we have the qualities of the year and of the season in which we are born. Astrology does not lay claim to anything else.”[2]

Our income security programs that pay out $160 billion a year all bear the earmarks of their vintages. The beginning era of modern social assistance spanned from 1916 to 1939. Social insurance’ beginnings in Canada span the 26 years from 1940 to 1966. Old Age and disability pensions began in 1927 and took their present form at the end of the 1960’s. The era of refundable tax credits began at the federal level in 1978 and continues to this day. Much of our system is now settled in place well beyond their eras of invention. This history is both remarkable and important.

Still, to many, our present income security system can look like 20 cats in a bag. To a young person it must look like a horrible hodge-podge of divergent efforts mummified by Band-Aids. But to repeat Wade Davis, our system, like our culture is:

“…a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination, an oral and written language composed of the memories of countless elders and healers…”

Throughout the history of man, there have been countless movements to fix the burden of an unsatisfactory present with a clean slate, a ‘tabula rasa’.  ‘Starting over’ appeals to an element within the human spirit – it is neither right nor wrong.

Tinkering and fixing things with ‘chicken wire and glue’ is equally an element of our humanity. Most of us admire the 1950’s cars in Cuba that still run with hundreds of reengineered parts and workarounds. The point is that they still work. ‘Clean slaters’ and ‘fixer/tinkerers’ each have their own place in the annals of reform and depending on the problem at hand, they are equally revered or reviled.

With a guaranteed annual income, our collective impulse to wipe the slate clean comes to the fore while a basic income – that adds another $30 billion into the system and greatly reduces the role of welfare – appeals to our collective impulse to tinker and fix.

Almost 30 years ago in 1987, Michael C. Wolfson raised these ideas in his landmark essay: The Arithmetic of Income Security Reform.[3] On page 47, he distinguishes between two options: “modest tinkering” and “profound demolition”.  These options remain relevant today but the interesting thing is that Wolfson set out in a great detail what these two options actually meant in terms of the programs that would be altered or replaced. He used real numbers and set out (at least on paper) what tinkering and demolition actually meant from a design perspective.

Fast forward 30 years later and these options are still relevant but as an interested public, we seem to be unencumbered of the most rudimentary design details even though our current income security system has changed in many important ways (EI cuts, welfare reform, growth in child benefits, CPP changes etc.). In this sense, modest tinkering continues apace while profound demolition becomes less and less feasible or relevant. Absent sweeping reform, modest tinkering continues by default.

But here’s the thing: 2016 is different than 1987 because we are now walking a tightrope without a net. There is no serious set of proposals to design a basic income and equally, almost nothing as to how a GAI would actually work.

Throughout this series, I have posed questions about what can and should be cut and what can and should be added. I raised the issue that programs representing over 70% of our present system are not income tested. I noted how programs for the very poor are extremely Draconian in their design and are set up to confiscate almost every resource that a low income person might realize.

In contrast, many of our programs are designed to supplement the income of the better off without any regard to their income and resources. I asked whether we were going to take these programs away from the better off and I concluded it would not be without a fight.

Speaking personally, I now receive CPP and OAS on top of a defined benefit pension that’s far higher than any guarantee will ever be. Should my OAS be taken away from me? Should the CPP benefit that I paid into for 46 years from 1966 to 2012 be cancelled and withdrawn?

If not, should we not consider how quick we are to confiscate income from poor people? For example, the new Trudeau government recently increased the Guaranteed Income Supplement[4] but without a single word in their own defense, designed a new clawback on poor seniors with incomes between $4,600 and $8,400 a year without touching the clawback of well to do seniors that begins at an income of $72,809 a year.

And all the while, the same government has agreed to study the idea of a basic income? Incredible!


“But be careful what you wish for ’cause
you just might get it, you just might get it, you just might get it
but be careful what you wish for ’cause
you just might get it, you just might get it, you just might get it.”

“When I Grow Up”
The Pussycat Dolls featuring Rodney Jerkins
(Track 1:) Doll Domination [2008]

Let’s think about the science of archaeology[5] as a way of concluding this essay and this series. The short definition on Google says archeology is:

“…the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains.”

One element of the archaeological enterprise is that modern societies often discover that their predecessors knew how to do things in ways that moderns neither understand nor are able to conceive.  Wade Davis’ The Wayfinders provides numerous examples of this phenomenon.

I believe that archaeology as I conceive it here has an important message for a Guaranteed Annual or Basic Income. That message is to quote the Pussycat Dolls and the famous expression– ‘…be careful what you wish for, you just may get it’.

When we neither understand nor are able to conceive of a past achievement, it means that in some way shape or form, a slate was wiped clean without an understanding of the design of the achievement. I fear that the present discussion of a guaranteed annual income (and to some extent a basic income), could suffer a similar fate. It need not be so.


[1] Wade Davis, The Wayfinders – Why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world – CBC Massey Lectures- 2009, House of Anansi Press, page 34


[3] Michael C. Wolfson, The Arithmetic of Income Security Reform., Approaches to Income Security Reform, Shirley Seward and Mario Iacobacci, Halifax: Institute for Research on Public Policy, pp. 41-85, 1987. Reproduced with the permission of the author. (Don’t worry about the virus warning when you click the above URL)

[4] p.171


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A young person’s guide to a guaranteed or basic income – Part 5

The problem of work for a guaranteed or basic income

“Although the practical implementation challenges make a GAI reform implausible in Canada, evidence from five North American experiments with a negative income tax style GAI provides some valuable insights. A negative income tax discourages recipients from working because it subsidizes leisure and reduces the marginal benefit of working. The results from the experiments generally point to a reduction in hours worked by recipients, reinforcing the concern about work disincentives.”[1]

–  The Fraser Institute: The Practical Challenges of Creating a
Guaranteed Annual Income in Canada; Jan 6, 2015


“Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.”

― Robert A. Heinlein[2]


Well there you have it!  Implement a guaranteed annual income and instead of mounting a platform on which work becomes more economically viable, you end up with guaranteed annual laziness.  Give people more money and they goof off.

Heinlein had a different view of things seeing laziness as channeling a will to invention.

The truth is that we are not going to solve this one unless we can de-couple work from income in the eyes of the public. And chances are we won’t be able to do that. It’s one of those emotional issues that hover over the design of any sort of basic guarantee.

We all know that there are multi-millionaires who work 14 hour days who seem to work hard even though they have money.  There is plenty of literature and testimonies on that. What’s wrong with them? Why don’t they stop working once they have lots of money?

Similarly, there are people who want to work who are unable to work because they do not have sufficient resources to sustain the life stability that even marginal work requires[3]. For example, it’s hard to keep a job if you’re homeless.

We know from the gossip pages that there are lazy millionaires just as there are low income people who have trouble staying in work even when they have the resources to do so.  But it’s this latter group that causes the policy problem for designers of a guaranteed or basic income.  They comprise the group that  the Fraser Institute fears – people who would reduce their work effort in favour of perceived leisure when they get a few bucks in their pockets.

It’s similar in some ways to the anecdote that bedevils the homelessness issue. If there is a large enough group discussing the issue of homelessness (or if we are to look into the views of the ‘commentariat’ in an online column on homelessness), there will invariably someone who says that there are some people ‘who want to be homeless’.

When asked for evidence of people who want to be homeless, they generally say that they have a friend who had a sister-in-law who knew a man who had an uncle who had a friend who met a homeless person who said he wanted to be homeless. In other words, the evidence is flimsy but is still important enough to them to recommend that nothing be done about homelessness because of the apocryphal ‘voluntary homeless’ population.

Let me translate: there are people who are homeless who at present do not have the capacity to deal with the issues that led to their homelessness such as addictions, disabilities, discrimination etc.

I want to do a similar translation for low income people who supposedly don’t want to work. They believe they do not have the capacity to deal with the issues that have led to their unemployment like lack of education, training, lack of jobs etc. These issues have little to do with having an income that would allow them to live in frugal comfort.

The reality is that we live in a society that worships paid work. It gives us self-esteem. It is a tonic for the soul. It heals mental illness. Kids want to work. People with disabilities want to work. A huge reversal in the work experience of Canada’s aging population tells us that older people want to work.

I still want to work and I have a public service pension that is easily double what any guarantee or basic income would ever pay me.

On the other had there are generally too few jobs. We have unused economic capacity. People are pounding the pavement for work.

But when we meet people, we ask what they do. By that, they mean “what is your work?” It is a common denominator in most initial conversations.

So why are we worried about low income people who supposedly don’t want to work? Why should that govern our incomes policy when we know that an income of double any guarantee would be insufficient to keep most of us from continuing to work?

The reason is that especially for low income people, there are huge barriers to work and huge disincentives in the form of high marginal effective tax rates. When we blame low income people for not working, it’s the same as hitting them over the head and blaming them for falling.  In fact, I will unveil a rule of low income that I have been hinting at in this blog series. The rule is: the poorer you are, the older you are and the more female you are, the greater will be your penalties for working.

The Fraser Institute is wrong in generalizing about reduced work effort through a negative income tax as any properly designed program would provide real incentives to work rather than inventing new barriers to work. In any event, only an economist could say that fewer hours increases leisure when we all know that less work in our society usually reduces leisure. Leisure costs money the last time I checked.

Reduced work lowers self-esteem, provides fewer dollars to subsidize leisure and generally creates more pain.

And in the end, pain and leisure are different.

My conclusion is that low income people who succumb to barriers to work present a design problem and not a problem of morality. We have had too many programs and policies that are based on moral values. That’s true of everything from residential schools to our policies on homelessness.

And the moral value at play can be put in the form of a maxim that states that people will not work unless motivated by deprivation. Yet that’s not true of millionaires and not true of you or me. It’s not true of people who receive their income from welfare-based programs, not true for lone parents,  not true for people with disabilities and not true now for seniors.

But for some of us, there is a belief  that there are people who are motivated to work by deprivation  – usually people we don’t know and who are forever suspect. And it only needs to be true for one person just as we need only one member of the ‘voluntary homeless’ to exist before we scuttle good programs that are five times less expensive than the programs in place to keep people on the streets.

And to the commentariat who is angered or upset by people who they feel will work less if they have enough money to live in frugal comfort, I would want to ask them how much they want to pay for their anger. The reason is that if we don’t implement a basic income, the default is welfare-based programs that will ensure that people don’t work – and those programs are wicked expensive.

Js/Feb 27/2016


[1] p.59



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