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 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 blowhard, 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 Fob 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.

[1] http://angusreid.org/canadians-want-government-expand-services-provides-dont-want-to-pay/

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

[3] http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/mday/files/day_fiske_downing_trail_inpress_shifting_attitudes_using_moral_foundations_0.pdf

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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: http://openpolicyontario.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Scarborough-Wants-In-slide-deck-oct-28r.pdf

[2] https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2016/06/02/no-good-case-for-scarborough-subway-editorial.html

[3] https://www.google.ca/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=pandering%20meaning

[4] https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2016/06/20/soaring-costs-should-kill-scarborough-subway-editorial.html

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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



[1] http://openpolicyontario.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/MCS_NEWSLETTER_FALL_20071.pdf

[2] http://www.mcss.gov.on.ca/documents/en/mcss/community/OntariosSoldiersAidCommission.pdf 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

[2] http://www.wisdom-of-astrology.com/thewisdomofastrology%3Ayourlife’sblueprint

[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] http://www.budget.gc.ca/2016/docs/plan/budget2016-en.pdf p.171

[5] https://www.google.ca/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=archaeology%20definition

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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] https://www.fraserinstitute.org/sites/default/files/practical-challenges-of-creating-a-guaranteed-annual-income-in-canada.pdf p.59

[2] http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/laziness

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/06/books/review/2-00-a-day-by-kathryn-j-edin-and-h-luke-shaefer.html

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A ‘Robin Hood’ Budget for 2016 in Ontario

“Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men
Feared by the bad, loved by the good
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood.”

In the Budget lockup yesterday, I started to silently sing the Robin Hood song that I learned back in the 1950’s as a kid. Robin Hood was the mediaeval archer who took from the rich and gave to the poor. Robin Hood was brave and Kathleen Wynne may be even braver.

There are lots of new sin taxes and levies on the better off that became the fodder for 680 News over the evening and morning hours. There were some great interviews with ‘objective’ listeners who were “unhappy” or who thought the Budget was “ridiculous”.

Cigarettes up by three bucks a carton, wine weighed down by a rollout of additional levies. New higher drug dispensing fees and a new higher deductible for seniors who can afford it. This is not going to be a popular Budget for most people. But on balance, it is going a good Budget for low income people. And that’s a good thing when you think of an Ontario society besieged by an ever growing and yawning gap between the Saks 5th Avenue shopping sunshine listers and the downtrodden in food bank lineups.

One of the standing jokes I share with housing advocate Michael Shapcott is that the best way to read a Budget in a lockup is to read it from back to front. This is because governments tend to put the goodies up front and pepper the back pages with the clinkers. No different this time out.

So here goes: my idiosyncratic top ten observations on Ontario’s Robin Hood Budget of 2016 read from back to front but delivered in no particular order:

  1. A Basic Income experiment

Wow! You have to go back to Dauphin Manitoba in the 1970’s   – over 40 years ago – to find a basic income experiment in Canada. I support it and especially the wording of “… more consistent and predictable support in the context of today’s dynamic labour market”. But here’s the rub. There is a large ‘ethics’ machine in Canada that is not going to like the idea of giving one set of  low income people more money than others in the context of an experiment. That’s why a 40+ year old experiment has not been replicated. My advice is to bring the ethicists in early and find out what type of experiment they are prepared to accept.

  1. The ORPP

Well, it seems to be a ‘go’ and it will be so visible and ‘out there’ that the government will likely stand or fall on it in the next election. Of course if the CPP cannot be moved, it’s a great idea and particularly gratifying that lower income workers will be able to fully participate.

But for gosh sakes, when is the government going to do something about the GAINS-A program? Here is a program that remains completely untouched for 31 years since Treasurer Larry Grossman tinkered with some of the rules. It is offside totally with the ORPP; it is offside with ODSP and OW and is designed to inflict some of the highest marginal effective rates in Canada (if not the highest) on the most destitute of a growing cadre of poor seniors. I will do another blog on this later this year but ‘enough already’.

  1. Child Activity Tax Credit demolition

Here’s one of the items that came on page 330 of a 346 page Budget meaning that the lock-up reader starting from the back would happen upon it in less than a minute of backward speed reading.

It’s one of the real Robin Hood items. Here’s a tax credit that they describe as helping the better off. So they are canning it next year and replacing it with more focused programming to promote physical activity and healthy eating that they say will ‘include’ low income children. Well let’s hope so since they are taking it away from 30,000+ low income families according to their own calculation.

  1. A Portable Housing Benefit

Like the Basic income experiment, here is an initiative that we have awaited for a long time. It’s a first and it appears that it will be subject to experimentation for those fleeing domestic violence. I do have a concern here: I don’t know how much you learn about the efficacy of a portable housing benefit through an experiment such as this. I think the experiment will tell us a lot about how a portable benefit might work in an emergency where someone is forced to move but it won’t tell us much about the vast majority of situations where a portable housing benefit would apply. Let’s watch this one closely.

  1. Re-announcing the municipal upload

There is lots of self-congratulation here about the upload that takes municipalities out of their 225 year participation in the funding of basic social assistance to the poor. But one would have thought that the province would have been much more active in telling municipalities to direct their windfall to the same areas in which they are saving. In a recent blog, I pointed out that the City of Toronto undertook a $6 million anti-poverty strategy while saving $25M in upload dollars and using the remaining $18 million to keep taxes low.

Here’s what they could do. They could start by pointing out that municipalities have at least some responsibility to redirect the upload windfall to the areas from where the savings are coming. They could also start thinking about the unintended consequences of the upload. By 2018, there will be no financial incentive for municipalities to be active in referring OW clients to ODSP. Left alone, I think most municipalities will give up this important role precisely because sharp-eyed municipal CFO’s will see that there is no remaining financial incentive to keep this crucial function.

  1. The ominous sounding ‘Digital by Default’ policy

The whole idea is to make on-line services so easy that Ontarians will prefer them. For low income Ontarians, access to online services is still a challenge and I don’t put it past the Ontario government’s tech community to implement online structures where their impact on low income people has not been thought through. ‘Digital by default’ means that if you don’t hear contrary voices, you just go full speed ahead. Low income people do not always have contrary voices that are heard.

Digital by default will need to be watched closely by the advocacy community.

  1. OSAP changes to help low income students

What can I say? This is the Robin Hood surprise of Budget 2016. It’s a huge change for the better. It’s fairer and increases access for low income students. You have to feel sorry for their predecessors but this is a move in the right direction.

  1. Social Assistance Reform

This is a reform effort – not unlike housing reform – that is a long time coming and always seems to be emerging but never born. It’s interesting that there are no more references to Brighter Prospects so we will also have to see what that means.

In the meantime social assistance rates continue to go in the same direction as the last three years with special increases for singles and increases centred on basic needs rather than shelter benefits. Gone are the days when a percentage increase of any amount applied to everyone. Now certain benefits are being eroded to inflation while others are rising higher than inflation. In some ways this is reform of the benefit structure by stealth and let’s hopes not too much more of it goes on without consultation.

  1. A child support exemption on social assistance

This is one of the time tested hot button issues in social assistance over the last 40 years. The knock against it is that those with better-off estranged partners do better than widows and those whose ‘ex’ is paying nothing or less than he should. The biggest problem on the other side is that women have no incentive to apply for child support. My vote is to provide a flat dollar exemption so that you don’t foster two classes of lone parents – those with high child support and those with little or none. A percentage exemption would result in higher overall incomes for lone parents with high awards; a flat dollar exemption would tend to provide a similar benefit to all.

  1. Employment programs for adults with disabilities

Great idea in that service would be provided to adults with disabilities. The only caution is to make sure that there are no losses in service for people receiving ODSP. When programs ‘go generic’ that is always the worry. Let’s be vigilant and make sure that the ODSP employment supports that work well are not lost in the shuffle.

So that’s it – my own top ten observations on Budget 2016. There’s a lot to like in what has been said but let’s hope that what has been announced will actually come to pass. And let’s hope that the Robin Hood Budget succeeds.

Oh – and you won’t hear me being interviewed on 680 news.

Js/February 26, 2016




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A young person’s guide to a guaranteed annual or basic income –Part 4

Differences in contributions, services and need

Now it’s time to talk about rights and human dignity – but I want to set the table first. I’m also not going to repeat too much from the first three entries. I am going to assume you have read them if you are now reading entry #4.

In the previous three parts of this series, I talked about unicorns, contribution vs. needs based programs and the role of emotion and values in the design of our income security system.

In this entry, I want to start by talking about the essential character of our existing income security programs. They basically divide into three categories:

  1. Monetary contribution based programs: CPP, Worker’s Compensation, EI and workplace programs
  2. Service based programs: OAS and Veterans’ benefits; and
  3. Income or need based programs: GIS, Refundable credits, social or income assistance, child benefits, and the WITB

Monetary contribution based programs are not payable to Canadian residents unless they contribute money into them on their own or payments are made into them on their behalf. As these programs are not income tested, millionaires with fabulous paychecks get the same amounts as paupers when they apply and are eligible for benefits.

Service-based programs are based on notional or real service to Canada. You can’t get full OAS without living in Canada for 40 years between ages 18 and 65. Partial OAS has residency requirements that range from one to 39 years residence. OAS payments are based on notional service to Canada and are only subject to clawbacks at high income levels. In other words, you lived here, paid taxes, worked and contributed to Canada. You get OAS when you turn 65 (or 67).

Veterans’’ programs are based on real military service to Canada and can be reduced based on need but most programs are not income tested. Some are based on need.

Income or needs based program all have one characteristic in common and that is that they fade out with increased income. Every income and needs based income security program can be reduced to zero if income is sufficiently high. The exception is the UCCB and it is about to go the way of the dodo.

So there you have it: a three part system based on three organizing principles: monetary contribution, service and income/need.

Target Groups: Disability, Age, Children and Unemployed

This is where it gets interesting for different target groups. For example, persons with disabilities can get income security benefits from all three sets of programs based on their personal history. Some will get benefits through contribution (CPP, EI sickness, Worker’s compensation), others will get benefits through service (Veterans’ benefits) while others will obtain benefits based on need (social assistance). Only one program, the Disability Tax credit, does not fit easily into these categories.

Like the programs for person with disabilities, programs for the aged are available in all three categories. Some will get benefits through contribution (CPP); others will get benefits through service (OAS) while others will obtain benefits based on need (GIS and provincial supplements).

Unemployed people receive benefits from two categories: Contribution based programs (EI) and income or need (social assistance and the WITB). It’s only when you get to target groups like children that all the available benefits are based on income or need (social assistance, CCTB, NCBS, UCCB and provincial programs).

The whole point of talking about target group and program category is to show first that there is no uniformity according to program category among target populations. I also want to dramatize that various self-organizing groups within society now benefit from very different sets of programs across conceptual categories. No one is going to be able to appeal to a particular target group to arrange a guaranteed annual or basic income that only takes income and need into account. There are just too many allegiances to monetary contribution and service to Canada.

Canada’s income security history

Canada’s history of income security also doesn’t help us much. We started out with a contribution based program over 100 years ago with workers compensation and then moved into a variety of programs in the 1920’s based on need (Old Age pensions, mothers’ allowances, Relief etc.). Then we went on a quarter century tear with contribution based programs that included payroll taxes for Unemployment Insurance (1940), pensions (1951 and 1964), and CPP in 1966.

Not until 1966 with the establishment of the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) did Canada start seriously down the road of providing benefits by income and need. This was followed by the sweeping reforms in OAS in 1977 to develop a service to Canada model with full benefits based on 40 year residency in Canada. Veterans’ benefits were usually supplied in non-monetary form through the provision of jobs, education, training and land grants. But cash payments to veterans based on service now comprise an important aspect of these payment especially as it relates to various iterations of the Veterans’ Charter and Canada’s increased reverence for its men and women in uniform.

This is all to say that there is no Lamarckian inheritance or manifest destiny in our income security programs. We don’t seem to be headed in any particular direction in our program category types. In fact, the Harper government implemented a big savings program (TFSA) along with the UCCB and the WITB. There may be a certain tendency to move towards income and need with refundable credits in the tax system but there has been equally lots of talk recently about CPP reform and Ontario going it alone with its ORPP.

Endless Tinkering but no conversation about rights

When I think of what Canada has been doing for years in the arena of income security, all I can think of is that we endlessly tinker with our programs; and now we are going to have more of it. A sprinkle of pension reform here and refundable child credits there – welfare reform here and a bit of EI reform there – but there is no real appetite to take on the whole system either by category or by target population. It is very Canadian of us. (Apologies to Dennis Guest).

But let’s go back and think about my father and Linda Chamberlain for a minute. My father will continue to get 74% more from our income security system even though he doesn’t need it. Linda will live in poverty and continues to be unable to make ends meet.

This means that we are really not thinking about need and it also means that we are not thinking straight about rights, contributions and service.

I don’t have to explain my father’s service to his country and his contributions. These are well known and the type of service and contributions he represents are equally celebrated.

Yet a simple search of Linda Chamberlain’s name online demonstrates that she is a human rights hero. She saves pets; she speaks up for people with mental health issues and she has personally and selflessly won numerous battles that don’t result in contributions that get paid into unemployment or pension benefits. Decades of volunteering doesn’t translate into a defined benefit pension. In fact, it doesn’t get you any kind of pension at all.

It does tell you a lot about what we value as a society. Most of all we value monetary contribution and economic activity. Make money on a stock and we tax you less and allow you to put the proceeds into a tax free instrument. Contribute money into a company pension plan and we will provide you with a subsidized pension and give you a tax credit on your income tax return.

But if you are poor and haven’t made monetary contributions to a pension plan and you have been kept from saving money because welfare based income support asset rules make you choose between eating and saving, any money you are able to make is neither supported nor sheltered. As I pointed out earlier, if Linda makes any money through speaking engagements, it is 100% confiscated from her income support programs. If she works, any money she makes after St. Patrick’s Day is reduced by 50 cents on the dollar while her rent goes up.

So perhaps the endless tinkering that we do could be better informed by a conversation of Linda’s rights as a senior citizen. It could centre on the denial of rights that comes about through 100% confiscation of benefits while the rest of our system goes through contortions to ensure that people who already have loads of money are provided incentives to save and then keep their gains tax free.

Perhaps we could also think about the living standard poverty that is ever present on Canada’s reserves.

There are different kinds of contributions. There are different types of service and there are different types of need. Perhaps that’s a better starting point for our conversations about guaranteed or basic incomes.


Js Feb 21/2016




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A young person’s guide to a guaranteed annual or basic income – Part 3

What to do with our emotionally charged income security system

To many, a GAI or basic income looks like a bauble or a confection. It’s up there with solving gridlock,  reducing global warming and curing cancer. Easy to want and easy to say – wicked hard to do!

The problem with a GAI is not unlike the problem of unicorns – they are beautiful but don’t exist. Bringing a GAI or BI into existence would be extremely difficult as a horrendous load of problems face designers within the first minute of study.

Growing a horn on a horse might well be easier.

More than anything, the GAI suffers the same problem as ‘world peace’ in that it is an absolutely pure idea that would, in one fell swoop, make us all better off. A GAI sounds like it should be very easy to do in lay terms just as ‘world peace’ seems eminently implementable to many ( lay down your arms).

To me, this is why the GAI gains momentum in the same way as ideas to establish world peace, end gridlock or to cure cancer.

That said, the concept of a GAI is very useful because it gives us all a goal to strive for – an outcome and an ‘end state’ for income security in a poverty free world. Without goals and without aspirations, reform falls flat because we don’t know where we are going.

But for heaven’s sake, we have been positing the idea of a GAI on and off for the last 50 years and we haven’t even started to take the baby steps to get us there.

The huge importance of emotion, morality and biography in benefit design

One of those important first steps will be to deal with the issue of emotion, our moral palette[1] and the personal biographies of Canadians.

In A young person’s guide to a guaranteed annual or basic income – Part 2[2], I drew a sharp distinction between the public benefits paid to my father and those paid to a low income senior named Linda Chamberlain. My father  is not poor by virtue of his defined benefit pension and would not be poor even if he received nothing from Canada’s income security system. Linda receives five income security payments and still lives below the poverty line.

My father can easily meet his expenses out of his pension because his pension is adequate and he lives in a mortgage free home. Linda lives in a subsidized apartment but because she has sky-high utility bills and has unsubsidized medical bills, she lives in constant poverty.

The dilemma remains that my Father receives 83% more in income security payments (on top of his pension) than Linda receives from hers. No one is looking to take any of my father’s benefits away from him and although there are reasons to believe that the single Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) may be raised[3] by $1,000 a year, this would result in my father still receiving 74% more than Linda.

So let’s look at what’s going on; and what’s going on is all about emotion, morality, and personal biography.

First of all, my father gets his $33,000 from our retirement income security system: OAS, CPP and Veterans’ Affairs benefits. He gets full OAS because he lived in Canada for 40 years beyond his 18th birthday. He gets CPP because he worked full time for 36 years between 1946 and 1982 and contributed part of his salary into the CPP. His pension benefits were reduced at age 65 because he became eligible for OAS and CPP.

He served in World War II and as a result, he receives benefits from the Veterans Independence Program (VIP) as he still lives in his own home.

Few Canadians would agree that his $33,000 in total benefits should be cut. They would agree that he should get his OAS because he met the OAS residency requirements.  They would concur that he should be able to get CPP benefits because he contributed to the plan during his working years. I also believe that Canadians would agree that he should remain eligible for Veterans’ benefits because of his sacrifices as a teenager and as a young man.

Linda Chamberlain gets OAS on the same basis as my father and in this area, they are equals. But Linda has a very low CPP entitlement that is not worth applying for because it would be confiscated through the rules in place in the GIS and GAINS-A programs. Besides, she did not work for most of her life as she had severe mental health issues that kept her from holding down a paid job. For a considerable portion of her working years, she was homeless.

Linda also receives refundable tax credits (money that you get from governments even when you don’t pay taxes) that my father is ineligible to receive. In this case, as with GIS, the principle of need as it relates to low income prevails.

Few Canadians would see Linda’s income as adequate to meet her necessary medical expenses and utility costs along with basic needs just as most Canadians – I believe – would see my father’s pension income as adequate to meet his needs.

What is staring us in the face is that our income security system is not about adequacy or providing a floor income – it’s about emotions, morality, and personal biography.

My father is paid veterans’ affairs benefits because he served his country. This is about duty and sacrifice and placing oneself in harm’s way for God and country. He gets CPP because he paid into it. He gets full OAS because he lived his long life in Canada. None of this is about need or adequacy at all. If it was, he would get nothing from any of these sources.

Linda receives OAS because she lives in Canada. She gets the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) and GAINS because she has no other outside income. And she also gets refundable tax credits because her income is low.

Linda receives most of the benefits she gets because she is poor and my father receives most of his because of his contributions. These are entirely different bedrocks.

A  GAI could change all that. If a GAI observes the first principles of keeping people out of poverty and maintaining a floor income, the values of fairness, duty, sacrifice, liberty, loyalty and service to country may not figure at all into Canada’s income security equation.  Similarly, it may not lift Linda out of poverty because her utilities and non-covered medical bills are so high.

Even the human values of fairness and caring would be founded on different bedrocks. Is it not fair that my Father receives money from a pensions plan (CPP) to which he contributed? Is it not a caring society that provides benefits to its aging veterans?

In contrast, is it not a caring society that provides Linda with a near poverty line income even though she had very little paid employment, contributed nothing to a workplace pension plan and little into the CPP?

A lot of emotion will be tied up in the design of a Guaranteed Annual or Basic Income: sanctity, loyalty, duty, sacrifice, personal contribution, liberty, caring, fairness, and service to country. They cannot be overlooked as they relentlessly permeate the design of our present system.

That’s why I favour a basic income that adds to the present system as opposed to any form of GAI that will dismantle it. It’s just too hard to say loyalty, duty, sacrifice, service etc. do not matter. They do matter.

But a Basic Income is not out of the woods just because it avoids dismantling an emotionally charged income security system. Its main problem is evident in what happens with my father’s benefits vs Linda’s benefits other than OAS.

If Linda’s income rises in the present system, that income is deducted at 100% from her income security benefits, her rent starts to go up and her refundable credits, depending on how much money comes in, start to be reduced.

If my father’s income rises, he keeps his CPP, he keeps his veterans’ benefits, he keeps his pension and he keeps most if not all of his OAS[4].

Under most versions of a basic income (BI), outside income would reduce after a beneficiary moves out of poverty. This means that Linda’s benefits would be somewhat like they are today.  (Let’s hope they are less harsh.) If she realizes income from an outside source, a BI would reduce her income if she realized other resources.

But since many versions of a BI leave the rest of the income security system alone, my father’s income security benefits  won’t be reduced and they are likely still to be 74% higher than Linda’s as she is close to the poverty line.

The bottom line is that the  contribution-based income security benefits in Canada remain unreduced based on a variety of emotional values contained in our moral palettes  (loyalty, duty, sacrifice service etc.). Yet the same system is quick to reduce benefits when caring and fairness are the only elements of the moral palette under consideration.

The emotions put in play like loyalty, duty, sacrifice, service and contribution lead to unreduced benefits when income rises. They become a matter of rights regardless of income. But the logic of need leads to swift reductions in benefits as income rises. When my father speaks to young people, his honorarium is untouched. When Linda speaks to young people, her honorarium is taxed back in its entirety.

In conclusion, most people think that income benefit design is about arithmetic, money, and adequacy. But that’s just a part of it. Benefit design is also all about fairness, liberty, caring, loyalty, duty and sacrifice, sanctity, service to country, contribution, and biography.

The arithmetic is not hard.

The money is just what we choose to afford.

And adequacy is already defined.

It’s the emotions, morality and personal biography parts that are the hardest of all to include in benefit design.


[1] http://moralfoundations.org/

[2] http://openpolicyontario.com/a-young-persons-guide-to-a-guaranteed-annual-or-basic-income-part-2/

[3] http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/rob-commentary/what-the-liberal-victory-could-mean-for-your-pension-plan/article26954584/

[4] http://www.taxplanningguide.ca/tax-planning-guide/section-2-individuals/old-age-security-oas-clawback/

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A young person’s guide to a guaranteed annual or basic income –part 2

A Valentine’s Day gift for benefit designers – a tale of two GAI’s

Last week, I self-published: A young person’s guide to a guaranteed annual or basic income[1].

In the Toronto Star on Saturday February 12, there was a lead editorial[2] on Guaranteed and basic incomes that set out the usual cautions about beautiful unicorns that don’t exist. I won’t go into the details here.

Instead, I want to build on my essay of one week ago and talk about two real people – two seniors – that already have guaranteed annual incomes. One is comfortable and the other is poor. The first is my father and the second is a woman for whom I have advocated. Her name is Linda Chamberlain.

Let’s start with my father. He is 96 and in comparatively good health. He lives in his roomy family home which is bought and paid for. He has a defined benefit pension which on its own, keeps him out of poverty. No form of guaranteed annual income (GAI) would ever give him more money than he already receives in his pension. He also has savings.

But here’s the thing: he also gets Old Age Security (OAS), Canada Pension (CPP) and a nice stipend from Veterans’ Affairs Canada. All in all – three public sources of income – all part of the $160 billion or so Canada spends in income security – pays him additional funds.

My father is a veteran of World War II. He enlisted in September 1939 and came back home in August 1945. He was in harm’s way on many occasions. He worked on the encryption machines code-named ENIGMA popularized in the movie The Imitation Game.

All of this is important because my father receives considerably more money from public sources than does Linda Chamberlain. They both receive Old Age Security in the same amount. She also gets the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) and payments from the Guaranteed Annual Income System for Aged (GAINS-A) in Ontario. She also receives GST credits and money from Ontario’s Trillium program along with electricity rebates. Linda rents in subsidized housing and pays about $400 a month. She has no savings and a small amount of debt.

The amount of money Linda gets from her five public sources is less than what my father receives from OAS, CPP and Veterans’ Affairs. My father gets about $33,000 a year from OAS, CPP and Veterans’ Affairs. Linda receives about $18,000 from 5 sources of income. My father is not living in poverty. Linda is poor.

But that’s not where the comparison ends.  It’s where it begins.

My father has medical bills that are largely paid for through his former employer and Veterans’ Affairs. Linda has medical expenses that are not covered at all. Most have been delisted from health insurance in Ontario. Living in an older public building with expensive heating, Linda’s utility bills are in the stratosphere.

If Linda goes to the bank to get a loan to pay off her debts, the quoted interest rate is approximately 10% (and that’s after I offered to guarantee payment just to get a quote). My father can secure a line of credit loan with an interest rate of just over 3%.

Linda did not apply for CPP because the recovery rate on her GIS and GAINS-A would be exactly 100%[3]. Linda can’t make money by making speeches because her honorariums are recovered[4] at 100% off of her ‘guaranteed annual income’. If Linda were to get a job at age 66, her rent would go up by 30 cents on the dollar and her GIS (after $3,500 in earnings) would go down by 50 cents on the dollar. As a result, Linda has no savings and realistically cannot save anything.

In contrast, if my father gets more money, his housing costs do not go up and his income from the federal government does not go down[5]. My father can put his savings into a Tax Free Savings Account (TFSA) and pay no tax on it at all. When he invests, his tax rate on capital gains is half of what he pays on his income. If he has dividends, he gets a dividend tax credit.

This is a tale of two guaranteed annual incomes. One comes in just below the poverty line and would be higher than the poverty line if Linda’s $2,000 in yearly honorariums were not confiscated at 100%.

My father’s guaranteed annual income is considerably above the poverty line but he can save tens of thousands of dollars with no tax implications and the highest rate of taxation he theoretically could pay on his capital gains is about 24%.

The political realities are that Linda may get some more GIS money from the new government in Ottawa and her income may go above the poverty line. That’s a tick mark for a basic income – maybe even a GAI. But what Linda faces in recovery rates on her benefits added to the new expenses she has to pay for along with her higher seniors’ rent, there is no comparison to what she confronts compared to what my father faces.

Yet the more important reality for supporters of a GAI or a basic income is that no one is going to take benefits away from a World War II veteran who served overseas in harm’s way for the entire duration of the war. No one is going to reduce his CPP or OAS payments. No one is going to touch his pension. No one is going to get rid of the TFSA or tax capital gains at the normal rate of personal taxation. So GAI proponents who think they are going to reduce existing benefits to modest earners: guess again.

Similarly, even if GIS goes up for a single senior with no other income, there is no discussion of reform of GAINS-A, no one is talking about higher GST credits or increased Trillium payments. No one is talking about lower rents in rent geared to income (RGI) housing and no one is talking about paying higher OAS to poor seniors.

This means is that there is a massive chasm between the dream of a GAI and its ultimate design.

Design is important.

It is the fine print.

And it is the difference between two very different guaranteed or basic incomes: the GAI or basic income for a low income person versus the guaranteed income for the comfortable.

We have a lot of work to do on design. Shall we begin?


Js/February 14 -2016



[1] http://openpolicyontario.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/A-young-person.pdf

[2] http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2016/02/12/basic-income-is-tempting-but-it-could-backfire-editorial.html

[3] http://openpolicyontario.com/a-story-of-two-poor-seniors-linda-and-doris-are-the-highest-taxed-people-in-ontario/


[4] http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2015/03/29/should-poor-seniors-have-to-pay-to-volunteer-porter.html

[5] His income would only go down if his OAS is clawed back.

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The Open Policy Aptitude Test

The following policy aptitude test is administered on occasion to policy classes I attend at various levels. Many classes have scored 0 out of 20 and then missed all the tiebreakers. I don’t get asked to address many classes.


  1. Spell Westminster (question issued orally)


Common reply puts in an extra ‘i’


  1. What is the symbol on a government member’s business card?


A coat of arms (if they can get that, I award a point) – ‘some type of crown’ gets no points


  1. What is the symbol on a public servant’s business card?


– Ontario – Trillium (or)

– Canada – stylized flag of Canada in red


  1. Do cities have a distinction between political folk and public servants in terms of the symbols on their business cards?


– No (e.g. Toronto – stylized city hall symbol for all)


  1. Is Cabinet secrecy/confidentiality the law or just a convention?


– Convention – expected to resign if breeched


  1. Is Cabinet solidarity legislated or just a practice?


– Convention – expected to resign if breeched


  1. Open book question (Yes! Open book) – list (in hand writing) the prime ministers of Canada in order


(Students routinely miss Kim Campbell and John Turner and get Abbott Bowell, Tupper and Thomson out of order as I just did. All they have to do is copy from the page but they routinely fail to do so (or don’t realize some lists ARE out of sequence).


  1. To whom does a Deputy Minister report?


Secretary of Cabinet/Clerk/ PM’s Deputy Minister – I will accept any of the three (One student who adamantly  thought a Deputy reported to the Minister  stayed after class to warn me that I could get into trouble for misleading  students)


  1.  Does the Premier or PM have a Deputy Minister? Can a deputy minister and a deputy prime minister hold both jobs at the same time? 


Yes and no


  1. Name any two Clerks at any level over the last few years in Ontario or federally


I accept Mel Cappe, Shelley Jamieson, Tony Dean, Peter Wallace, Wayne Wouters, Steve Orsini, Kevin Lynch, Janice Charrette, Alec Himmelfarb and any others correctly named (one student who read Alec’s recent bio with the CCPA thought he had done well to have risen from a clerk’s position later in life.)


  1. Nortel falls by 50% from $100 to $50. – By what percent must it climb to get back to 100$




  1. I go to the US and just before coming back, I need gas. The US gas price is $2.00 a gallon and the Canadian price is 92 cents a liter. On which side of the border do I fill up if I wish to save $$ – again – open book with 15 minute time limit with internet access. 


– Answer must discuss exchange rate, # of liters to the American gallon and also be correct

– Liter = .264172 US gallon so 3.7854 liters to American gallon … 92 cent a liter = $3.48 Canadian divided by US dollar of 1.41 exchange = $2.46 US an American gallon in Canada priced in US —– so you’d buy gas on the US side.


  1. Name the Prime Ministers of Canada who are still living:

(No one gets this one)


Trudeau, Harper, Martin, Chretien, Mulroney, Turner, Campbell, and Joe Clark


  1. In the US, what is the GOP?


-Grand Ol’ or Old Party – I will also accept “Republican” – no one ever gets either…..



  1. What were Premiers called before they were called Premiers?

– Prime Ministers


  1. Within 10 cents, and since Confederation, what is the highest and lowest the Canadian Dollar has been vis. the US dollar? 


Low 61 cents – High $1.08. I will accept for one point any range between 71 cents and $1.04 – every so often someone gets this so I need to toughen up! In 1864, a Canadian dollar was worth more than $2.50 American but that was when the Confederate army was marching on Washington with many thinking they would topple the union.


  1. In the US, is an undersecretary usually a member of a political party?




  1. Obama was directly elected in the US, Are Prime Ministers, premiers and mayors directly elected?


PM – No – Premier – No – Mayor – Yes (all 3 correct for one point)


  1.  If an MP crosses the floor, what does this mean?

– joins and sits with another party – I will accept sit as an independent just because I am tolerant


  1. What does a whip do?

– I’ll accept anything remotely related to getting party members to votes in the House.




Was a Constitutional amendment required to allow the fixed link to the mainland (bridge from PEI to New Brunswick) to be built? 


Yes! (Some guess right, thinking the answer would have to be yes to such an outlandish question)

S.43 in 1993


What is an OIC and is a deputy minister an OIC appointment?

Order in Council and yes


Does the United States have a parliament? 




Name the punchline to the 1993 joke: What does the Conservative party say when it goes into a restaurant and is greeted by a hostess?


Answer: Party of Two please!


Who were the two MP’s? 


Jean Charest and Elsie Wayne


Has a clerk ever had a twitter account from which he or she tweeted while in the job of the clerk? 


Yes – Wayne Wouters.


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