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CCE in brief

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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Saturday 3 May 2014

Political Gardening: The End of War, The Death of the Selfie

Today, between bouts of rain, I was out in the garden, overturning soil and clearing out weeds.  While I was doing this my eldest son was playing a make-believe game about keeping an eye out for manufactured bad guys.  

As I dug and churned, I quizzed him about his strategy for dealing with these bad guys, what he knew about them; their objectives, strength, location, and so on.  Then we gamed out strategies to gain intel, disrupt their internal operations and build coalitions with third-party groups to help outflank our foe.

Play time gets pretty involved at the C-E household.

I told all of this jokingly to my wife, later, who rolled her eyes and tsked her disapproval.  "Can't a game just be a game", she asked?

It made me wonder - could a democracy ever just be a democracy, or is politics invariably a competitive sport?  Will it always draw and reward the bare-knuckle brawlers, sociopaths and narcissists?  Can good people not get drawn in to the petty, pseudo-war qualities of partisanship?

Politics has always been a game of dominance, borrowing tools from other sectors for success.  Politicians get media training, like a weak-tea actor's class; much of the pomp and circumstance around political campaigns and announcements borrows heavily from the entertainment sector.

On the war room side, well - the name tells you everything.  Listen to a political speech or even better, a rally speech to a loyal audience.  It's all about us vs them, with them being out to destroy everything we hold dear.  The strategies and tactics pull heavily from military thinking; spies, offensives, counter-attacks, messaging superiority, so on and so forth.

The Art of Politics has become the science of dehumanization.  After all, you couldn't do to someone you saw as like you what you do to an opponent in war.

It's a fascinating question, this - are partisans fundamentally different from each other, down the neurological hard-wiring?  Are political people made of a different fibre than everyone else?

Of course not.  People are people and, as we know, individuals are capable of some extreme behaviour both positive and negative under adverse conditions.

What makes politics so fascinating is that it serves as its own cause and effect.  It's the series of small choices that nudge the overarching tone in one narrative.  

Wars, after all, are borne out of choices made by individuals, but when new individuals are brought into an already tense environment and are taught by those who've caused the friction in the first place, what happens then?  

You might say that tribal warfare is inevitable and that competitive relationships always, always evolve into zero-sum games.

If you thought that, though, you'd be wrong.

History is replete with second chances, honour in the heat of battle and friendships forged on the battleground.  My personal favourite story is about how a German Airforce officer took a risk and pulled rank to free some Allied Airmen from Buchenwald.  These lucky ones may have been enemies of war, but they were colleagues in arms as well.

If anything, the history of humanity is away from small, simple tribes in perpetual competition to larger, more complex systems with greater latitude for specialization, collaboration and quality of life.

So I find it all too telling when political people muse about the differences they feel must exist between themselves and someone else.  I'm sure Rob Ford has had similar moments of self-pity as he's considered what he's done with his life.

As Ford (hopefully) begins his long, hard journey towards self-recovery, he's going to be learning a lesson that many who've positioned themselves as "different" and therefore, subjected to a different set of standards have learned.

yin yang
Within each of us is the potential for both rage and serenity, great deeds and great horrors.  When we think competitively, strive to get ahead by all means, we try to make ourselves into something that we aren't.  

By so doing, we internally limit our choices.  Our underlying ethics, however, remain the same.

When we justify doing things we know to be unkind, it's a choice that has consequences - but always, a choice.

Ultimately, it's a choice to die alone, cut off from others both physically and emotionally.

When we wash ourselves clean of the manufactured identities we create for ourselves - especially in politics - we recognize what part of us has grappled with all along; that we aren't made of different stuff, aren't subject to different moral codes and have simply made a choice to dehumanize ourselves so that we may do the same to others.  

It was convenient at the time - and in politics, timing is everything.  

But a series of bitterly-fought victories that simply lead to the next battle isn't a life.  The world doesn't flow by the four-year cycle, the Legislative calendar or even the business calendar.  Births, deaths, losses, challenges and opportunities come at any moment, in unscheduled ways.  

Our lives are framed by the choices we make about what happens around us - not just to us, or what we do to others, but between us.  Life isn't meant to be convenient, but it is a journey of discovery.

Over these weeks, if he is like others who have walked this road, he will come - as the ancient oracle at Delphi instructs - to know himself, perhaps for the first time.

When we choose to live our lives this way - as an experience we engage in together rather than a battle to be won - we truly live.

Life isn't a game, but it can be a dream.

The rain has stopped - it's back to the garden for my boy and I.

Friday 2 May 2014

X Marks the Spot: Open Hand vs Closed Fist

Election season has fallen on Ontario.  Sides are being taken and the yin that accompanies every yang is being ignored as lines get drawn.

Does it matter if one policy or other appeals?  Those who sell it are my foe, and that's what matters.  

Politics is a blood sport - it's about winning or losing.  Power, that is - power over the Legislative agenda.  At least for a time.  The pendulum always swings, until the wear from the constant shifts breaks the system entirely.

There's this thing that happens, though, when you don't generalize, when you look to harness the good that goes along with every bad.  Opportunity knocks, community gets built and resiliency, not elimination, prevails.

The way forward is never found at the extremes.  It's always nurtured from the centre.

Those Who Fail to Learn From History...

More opportunity for foreign youth than Canadian youth - and at lower wages than are accepted for Canadians?

Less funding for programming for Canadian youth?

Changes to voting rules that make it harder for youth and various groups of marginalized Canadians to vote?

The Harper clever think of they're clever.  Too clever for their own good, I'd say.

Which is an obligation no government can make and keep, unless they want to hire everyone, which in itself is unsustainable.

There are, of course, other ways forward.  It may just be that our political system isn't capable of realizing them.  

I end by quoting words I was asked to bring forward by a group of young, frustrated, emboldened youth:

Thursday 1 May 2014

The Ends Mirror

Lemme see here:

- Constantly telling the people to be scared of impending seas of trouble?
- Favouring lap-dog media, starving all others?
- Loving the troops, criticizing commanders and offering advice where you have zero experience?
- a stifling level of micro-management?
- xenophobia?
- resource-starving the people who should be competitive anyway?

Yup.  Totally gotta watch out for that political left.

I'd agree with this.

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Open Government: A New Hope

I do love me some metaphor, but this, I think, is an apt one.

Of late, politics has become a bit of a revisionist game, with the people pulling the strings thinking that what they create is what people want, rather than the reverse.  All the latest toys are employed - micro-targeting, social media campaigns, so on and so forth.

But it's all an exercise that comes across as hollow.  As each Party tries to claim ownership of our democratic narrative, we're being messaged rather than engaged.  No community of experience - no community, period.  It's tribes and coalitions.

There's a new hope out there, though, that does reclaim the spirit of what made our various forms of democracy special; a belief in what we contribute to, a desire to engage, to consider, to build for rather than expect from.

This new hope is the Open Government movement.  

It's nascent, still; I don't think the powers that be quite sense the threat it poses to the status quo.  Maybe when they do they'll cry to close their fist even tighter, but by then it'll be too late.

That is, after all, how it goes - first they ignore, then they mock, then they attack.

We know what happens next, don't we?

Driving Mayor Ford

I'd disagree with that.  Yeah, he offers a ton of scandal, but the longer he's in the spotlight, the more opportunity we have to explore our relationship with authority, our priorities and our willingness to solve problems and at what cost.

Rob Ford is a sick man; I'd argue his position has made him sicker.  But we've let that happen.  In particular, his closest enablers have let that happen.

If Rob Ford is a bad man, then we're bad people for letting the Ford Show continue.  If we had justification for choosing to ignore what we didn't like in favour of what we did or using him as a punching bag instead of trying to help him, then Ford's entitled to some justification, too.

The lesson in this, to me, is that none of us can claim moral superiority over the other - stones, glass houses, etc.  And we'll never get out of our rut so long as we continue to view ourselves as individuals in silos rather than partners in a system.

I'm pretty sure that's a message we've heard before, too.

You're Damned Right, Olivia!

Absolutely.  I couldn't agree with Olivia Chow more.

Petty, confrontational politics has been the norm for too long.  I don't know about you, but I'm getting pretty frustrated with political operatives referring to each other as "dumb" and investing in cheap stunts to belittle or even mock their opponents.

I'd expected better from John Tory, but he seems to be allowing his team to walk him away from some of the values he has been discussing.  Same, I have to say, holds true of Chow herself.  She's been going out of her way to poke opponents in the eye for the sake of bringing them down.

Real leaders don't need to put others down.  They have the strength, perseverance and communication skills to raise everyone up.

Chow hasn't done that yet, but it sounds like she's committing to doing so from here on in.  Her wording in the statement quoted above gives me hope she can.  If she can truly walk that walk, people like me might be interested.

But we'll see, won't we?

What Do Political Staff have in common with Foreign Workers?

Jason is a stand-up guy.  Like most political staff, he believes in what he does, does it well and cares about the future of his province.  He's a human being, though, with a life outside of politics.  He probably won't work in government forever, but while he's there, he's doing a good job.

He does not deserve to have his name and reputation tarnished in the big power-struggle games that politics inevitably engenders.  The same holds true for most political staff.

Judge 'em by the company they keep, you say?  Well, that company is government - that entity tasked with establishing and promoting public policy.  If that's bad company to keep, we're all in trouble.

The same thing is happening with hard-working foreign labourers who come here for an opportunity.  The door was opened to them, they've walked through and are doing as expected.  That they become subjects of scorn by other Canadians unable or unwilling to take on the jobs Temporary Foreign Workers are filling is not their fault.

We've got a skewed sense of judgement and justice in this country.  It's fueled by a narrow and exclusive definition of success.

It's not the people, but the system that's the problem.  To address structural fixes, though, we have to revist our exepctations of our system.

Open Government, Responsible Society.  You can't have one without the other.

The Wolf of Toronto and Margaret Wente: Look Closer

What does the TFW program have to do with Rob Ford's substance abuse problems?

Quite a lot, when you get down to it.  

Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) are the path to least resistance; between a choice of a more demanding, higher-costing employee who might feel working for you is a necessary burden versus a cheaper foreign worker who sees working for you as a ticket to a better life, it's really not a hard choice to make.

Spend less, get more for it.  Have lower responsibility costs.  What's not to like?  That way, you have more money for other things.  That surplus cash could go to strengthening your business through R&D, or expanding your operations.  At the same time, it could go to a nicer car or a more expensive Scotch.  

Does it make a difference whether your interest is growing your company or raising your own profile?  

Absolutely it does.

If you're goal is to maximize your contribution to something larger than yourself, like your company, you're activating a differing set of priorities than if you're seeing company growth as a way to aggrandize yourself.  It's the difference between, say, having a trophy wife vs investing in a family.

In the first case, you want that which makes you look and feel good; in the second, you want to empower something that carries on after you.

As it stands right now, capitalism is designed around mathematical economics; it assumes that all players in the game are rational actors with a suitable level of self-interest, yet interested in achieving balance.  Markets are supposed to find balance between supply and demand, promote dynamism and the rest of it.

But that's not how it works, does it?

Some people are more aggressive than others.  Some are more likely to make impulsive choices than others.  None of us are truly rational, whatever we like to tell ourselves, and as such aren't good at balancing our own short-term interests vs our long-term interests, which are largely invested in the societal whole.

This brings us to the FTW program.  What was a good idea on paper has actually resulted in a variant on the Tragedy of the Commons (also a book by the amazing Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan). 

Employers looking to maximize their gain and minimize their expense are abusing the system, because why not?  After all, potential Canadian employees are looking at the low-wage, low-respect jobs available in sectors like Fast Food and deciding that the effort and embarrassment potential of working such jobs isn't worth the pay it brings, especially if there's a welfare-state floor beneath them to ensure they avoid poverty.

So the solution, you might say, is to scrap the welfare state entirely - take that floor out from under a laissez-faire labour market and force them to choose between poverty and working undesirable jobs.  I mean, what's the alternative?  Either the welfare state bankrupts us or imported poverty leads to all kinds of social decay.  Close the doors to foreign labour, force Canadians to embrace their Right to Work.

But that's only part of the problem.  The reason why employers are importing lower-cost FTW in the first place is that they don't want to invest any more in labour costs than they have to.  If you take away unions and labour regulations, these same employers will look for ways to reduce their labour costs further - less breaks and benefits, amalgamating positions without increasing wages, etc.

That's fine, you might say - this forces employees to become more desirable as labour, more competitive in how they sell themselves and demand more from their employers.  Except not everyone is capable of being competitive, any more than everyone is capable of winning a marathon or curing cancer.

The people that tend to get ahead in competitive markets are the ones who are good at being competitive, to the exclusion of all else.  That means elbows-up, step-on-throat tactics and a functionally fixed approach to problems.   

People like Rob Ford or Jordan Belfort are the embodiment of this approach.  These are two guys who aren't afraid to get what they want.  They are the epitome of laissez-faire capitalism; they live life to the fullest, spend freely and have no qualms about doing what it takes to win.  

Even if it means breaking some rules to get there.

What else do these two gents have in common?  They've both made terribly short-sighted choices that have worked well for them in the short term, but been negative to many of those around them.  They've both suffered in the long term, too.  

Oh yeah - and both have addictive personalities.

It's telling that Belfort, as portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street refers to money as a drug.  That's exactly what it is.  

This isn't me saying that money is the root of all evil - that's mythic crap that over-values money as a concept.  Money is power - if you have it, you can accumulate stuff, build brand, make yourself feel and look big.  It's hardly unique in these traits - lots of drugs make people feel more powerful than nature has made them.  Cocaine does the same thing, as does its low-brow derivative, crack cocaine.

These addictive drugs increase the flow of a neurotransmitter called dopamine in your brain. 

Dopamine makes you feel powerful, in control, "high" - as in higher than everyone else.  It's a good feeling, one that's awfully hard to come down from.  Which is where the addictive factor comes in.

Rob Ford denies his problems, lives life like he's king of the world, feels that only he can help the poor black kids on his football teams, thinks only he gets how simple the solutions to our problems are (Subways, people!  Subways, subways, subways!) and gets annoyed by this notion that you have to weigh consequences before you act.

He's an extreme case, as is Jordan Belfort, but they are fairly representative of all dopamaniacs; want more, want to spend less, self-interested and as a result, socially irresponsible.  Having money, owning a team or owning a gun are all dopamine-inducers.  They make you feel like you're king of the world, or at least your own castle.

Let's go back to the words of Margaret Wente - we're hooked on foreign workers.  Hooked, as in addicted to.  Why would that be?  

Foreign workers are the labour equivalent to crack cocaine - they get the job done quicker, cost less and still give you that dopamine fix.  Whether they're temporary or end up sticking around, though, what they don't encourage you to do is invest more time and effort in your labour, building out your company in a sustainable way.

Maybe if you're working in a strictly transactional service industry, that's fine, though even then a focus on doing things cheap tends to result in shoddy infrastructure across the board.  If sustainable growth is your goal, though, you really have no choice but to invest more in your labour.

This reality was brought home to North America during the Labour Revolution and is slowly coming to light as countries like Bangladesh, who've swallowed up much of our old Traditional Manufacturing industry, suffer their own consequences of inadequate labour and infrastructure investment.

They're going through the same physical labour pangs we did a century ago as we try and re-position ourselves, through foreign labour, to go through the same turbulence a second time.

This fundamentally isn't about mathematical economics or the pros and cons of capitalism vs communism; as we have seen throughout history, both systems still lead to dopamaniacs seizing power at the expense of the majority.

What these series of interlocking challenges, like a Seldon Crisis, are fundamentally about is behavioural economics - the science behind why people behave the way we do.  

A system like Capitalism promotes addiction - to money and the power it brings.  A system like Communism promotes addiction - to power and information and the power they bring.  Both are self-serving, not by design, but by a lack of design-thinking.

Adam Smith and Karl Marx both meant well; the problem was that neither of them understood neurochemistry.

We've seen how communism falters and we're both hearing and seeing how capitalism isn't up to the challenges of our modern context, either.  Any system that promotes and rewards dopamine fixes, by its very nature, is doomed to result in structural challenges.

So where does this leave us?

Fortunately, there's another neurotransmitter out there that provides a better foundation for sustainable socio-economic infrastructure.  It's called oxytocin (not to be confused with oxycodone) and in many ways, it is the anti-dopamine.

Oxytocin does wonders for the body - it reduces emotional stress, negates fear, improves health and most importantly, it also provides a positive feeling - not power, as is the case with dopamine, but of personal value.  

When you score a point or make a buck, you get a dopamine hit - feels good, helps you focus on getting the next one, whatever the cost.  It leads to competition, which produces winners and losers.

When you donate to charity or give up your seat on the subway, your system floods with oxytocin - you feel good, your environment comes into clarity and you feel even more inclined to help others.  Best of all, when you get an oxytocin hit, so does everyone around you.

Let's break that down a bit further - competition promotes individual wins, which promotes competition, which cataylzes fear, antagonism and a sense of urgency to not fall behind.  It results in short-term thinking and leads to tragedy-of-the-commons scenarios.

Oxytocin promotes engagement, empathy, collaboration and the ability to think further ahead, without the crippling fear often associated with risk-taking.  It results in shared solutions and people moving forward together.

Yes, there are sociopaths, psychopaths and narcissists out there; we do need to be cautious of con artists and terrorists and all those who are hard-wired to prey on the weak.  But to have a system that is entirely designed to encourage predatory, dopamine-fueled behaviour isn't the way to minimize those risks.

Instead, we need to rethink how and why we structure our society so as to optimize our collective opportunities by maximizing individual potentials.

Fortunatley for us, we're already well along this path.  We just don't know it yet.

After all, what is healthcare, if not a way to support the weak?  What is specialization, if not an effort to integrate individuals into a collective whole?  Can a nation or a community survive without shared infrastructure and a genearlly agreed-upon code of conduct?

Society isn't and never has been about trickle down or individual competition, it's been  about developing into a collective organism, a networked intelligence.

We're seeing, at the periphery, the next phase of our social evolution away from individual competition towards collective success right now.  It's coming in the form of Open Government and Open Data, through the connective tissue of social media and a whole new focus on empowerment.

Especially when it comes to labour.  In the post-transactional, knowledge-based economy, customers want experiences, not just products.  They want to feel good about the choices they make, which means they want to know that the people they're interacting with - your front line employers - are happy with their lot in life, too.

How fast we move through this transitional period depends on how quickly we come over our collective addiction to money and status and start valuing what we give and how we contribute more.  

As contribution isn't addictive, it doesn't result in the same functional fixedness we see in people like Rob Ford, or the devaluation of others we see playing out through the TFW program.

Political Parties, individual politicians and corporate entities can win big by embracing the concept of the responsible society and investing in corporate social responsibility.  In fact, we see that happening already.

The question for these power-seekers is this: do they have enough self-control to overcome their addiction and start leading by example?

If we look closely enough, we can already see the answer emerging.