New Generation of Thinkers Link Inequality, Innovation and Prosperity

(This guest blog was written by Mike Marin and Anouk Dey. It originally appeared in the Toronto Star on February 24. The authors are part of a team that produced the report Prospering Together (in English  and in French

What do the Occupy Movement and Canadian software giant OpenText have in common? Most people, including the campers and coders themselves, would probably say very little. But, while the message coming out of Robson Square and St. James Park last fall was about economic justice, it is highly relevant to economic growth as well.

Canada’s high levels of inequality and poverty don’t just erode social cohesion, but also jeopardize our ability to succeed in the knowledge-based economy.

Last week, the Drummond report correctly observed that, in the 21st century, “education and innovation will be the key for Ontarians to be prosperous.” But it is important to recognize that “education and innovation” aren’t just the product of classrooms and laboratories; they are nurtured through favourable social conditions that are incompatible with elevated levels of inequality and poverty.

There is substantial evidence that “human capital” — the knowledge and skills that make people innovative — is socially determined. For example, children in less equal countries have lower math and literacy scores than their peers in more equal countries. In addition, the crucial period for human capital development is early childhood, and making the most of it depends largely on family circumstances.

But human capital isn’t just about intellectual ability. A person’s health is also an important factor, both in terms of educational outcomes and productivity. Thus inequality and poverty, which are both associated with poor health outcomes, are worrying from an innovation standpoint as well. Likewise, studies show that a person’s social relationships — which are a source of mentorship, employment, and investment — are negatively affected by inequality and poverty.<!–more–>

For these reasons, Canada’s record is particularly disturbing. It ranks 17th out of 20 peer countries in terms of income inequality. While perfect equality is both impossible and undesirable, there’s clearly plenty of room for improvement.

With respect to overall poverty, Canada ranks 15th out of 20, and drops to 16th spot in terms of child poverty. Indeed, every year since 1990, at least 1 million Canadian children have lived in poverty. These are our future knowledge workers.

And it’s not just the gap between the richest and the poorest that’s widening. In fact, 60 per cent of Canadians experienced a drop in their market incomes between 1976 and 2009.

These trends are the result of massive changes in the global economy, brought on by the internationalization of markets and advancements in technology. In this new economy, people with the right mix of human capital get ahead, and everyone else gets left behind.

But countries like Canada can’t afford to let huge swaths of their populations get sidelined by the twin forces of globalization and technology. Complacency in the face of these challenges will only exacerbate inequality and poverty, further undermining human capital outcomes, our capacity to innovate, and our long-term prosperity.

For far too long, Canadian policy-makers have failed to appreciate the economic significance of issues like the ones the Occupy Movement brought to the fore. While they’ve long understood the importance of innovation, they’ve misunderstood where innovation actually comes from.

Instead of investing people, Canadian governments have given huge tax breaks to businesses in the hopes of spurring innovation. But, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledged in Davos a few weeks ago, this strategy has produced “less than optimal results”.

To make matters worse, governments have shifted the burden of human capital investment to individuals, while simultaneously neglecting income security programs, such as employment insurance and social assistance. As a result, millions of Canadian workers are struggling to adjust to the new economy, even though that adjustment is critical to our collective prosperity.

Clearly, a major shift in thinking is needed. First, “education and innovation” are socially determined. Investments in these areas won’t pay off unless underlying issues like inequality and poverty are addressed. Second, innovation comes from people, not lifeless institutions. Thus public funds are better spent helping people cope with structural economic changes.

Third, and most importantly, in the knowledge-based economy, inequality and poverty are obstacles to, rather than consequences of, economic growth. As a result, growing our way out of these problems isn’t a viable solution. In the long term, Canadians must find ways of prospering together.

These are the lost messages of the Occupy Movement. The campers and the coders have more in common than they think.

Anouk Dey and Michael Marin are members of the Action Canada Task Force on Poverty, Inequality and the Knowledge-Based Economy


  • ‘knowledge-based economy’ as opposed to an ignorance based economy?

  • There is undoubtedly a massive linkage between the social outcomes of the economic and its ability to generate a new economy based upon the knowledge, abilities and quality of life and opportunities of its workers. I hate calling it human capital development, because it is so much more than that. It is comprehensive, and innovation, education, living standards and several other factors are a prerequisite to its development.

    It is a micro based solution that needs a macro investment approach. And it is a whole lot more complicated and sophisticated than building universities and transforming them into some kind of cookie cutting knowledge worker factories. The liberals kind of got close to it in the late 90’s, but even they missed the ball as they somehow forget the social transformations and support mechanisms to foster and enable the micro as they cut the hell out of the macro to support the micro infrastructure. Again, it goes way beyond targeted investment to business and education. It is a holistic approach with a buy in from government, business, labour, families, communities and citizens.

    If you look closely at the economic plans of the NDP leaders now being considered, Peggy Nash gets real close with a plan that outlines her ability to see this and be a pathfinder out of this impasse that the crisis of neo-liberalism has created. And like I said it is a long pathway, that is comprehensive, but encompasses some of what is outlined in this paper nd more importantly in the plans that have been outlined by Peggy Nash’s economic plans. (for all the talk of economic plans today in the NDP leadership debate, the only one that actually has a well documented plan and concrete vision of the economy of Canada is Peggy, It was funny hearing the arguments between the leaders of how each stated they have this plan, but I have yet to see any formal plans except of course from Peggy. And guess what, it is precisely this vision, plan and pathway that the next leader of the NDP engages voters with that will enable the NDP to throw Harper and his band of thieves out of office. We all know it will not be the leader with the best plan for quebec that wins the next election from Harper- it will be the age old nemesis of the NDP, can voters trust the NDP with the reins of the economy, especially one that is seriously going badly wrong under Harper.)

    But the prevailing popular discourse on innovation has has been strangled by liberals. For example I had a debate with David Robinson, from CAUT that addressed innovation as some rather narrowly defined notion regarded as transforming universities into research labs for corporations, in fact it is the opposite. It is about empowering the universities to produce the workers and the ideas to enable the new economy that is innovative, sustainable and productive. Our future, at least one that is progressive, relies on building these dimensions into the fabric that defines the infrastructure of a quite productive, but socially and environmentally destructive output. Lets call it a “progressive innovation strategy”, somewhat outlined in this paper, gets to the heart of building this economy.

    It is the thesis that I have been working on for years and at its heart it is recognizes that innovation, productivity, social and environmental needs are all wrapped up in one package, that progressives can engage, that has at its center, empowered, highly productive, and socially aware workers. And it is achievable- here in Canada,given our smaller open economy we have the social capacity (albeit with the rounds of austerity coming that capacity is being threatened), the resources, and the workers. The key ingredient missing- political capacity.

    But more on this at some future interval.

  • that should be non-destructive output. Kind of a reversal of Ulrich Becks Risk Society. Instead of racing to allocate the bad in this new economy, we need to transform back to what powered the visions of the french revolution, and gave life to modernity.

  • Horatio Hornblower

    Err — what fueled the French Revolution and La Terreur was not enlightenment thinking but cynical manipulation of popular discontent by competing (and largely aristocratic) elites. A better historical archetype might be, say, Samuel Gompers, who dreamed of allowing workers the time (and supports for self-organization) on the shop-room floor to educate themselves. So, not the French Revolution, but the late 19th century labour movement and the better elements of the progressive movement.

    Two quotes from Gompers:

    “No lasting gain has ever come from compulsion. If we seek to force, we but tear apart that which united, is invincible. There is no way whereby our labor movement may be assured sustained progress in determining its policies and its plans other than sincere democratic deliberation until a unanimous decision is reached. This may seem a cumbrous, slow method to the impatient, but the impatient are more concerned for immediate triumph than for the education of constructive development.”

    “And what have our unions done? What do they aim to do? To improve the standard of life, to uproot ignorance and foster education, to instill character, manhood and independent spirit among our people; to bring about a recognition of the interdependence of man upon his fellow man. We aim to establish a normal work-day, to take the children from the factory and workshop and give them the opportunity of the school and the play-ground. In a word, our unions strive to lighten toil, educate their members, make their homes more cheerful, and in every way contribute an earnest effort toward making life the better worth living.”

  • HH, an inspiring comment. Thank you.

  • I should have made reference to the enlightenment period prior to the french revolution, and I do think the French revolution was more than just Aristocratic grievances, so much more and HH you need to understand that, as the enlightenment process played a large part in that transformation. Radical left groups from that period would be a bit shocked to hear you make that statement.

  • Actually HH, I think the split in my thinking and your Gompers quotes actually is a very important dichotomy hat needs an important discussion. What this article makes reference to, is a need for a broader coalition to incite a movement, like that which we see in the Occupy movement. Hence, a call to Gomper’s quotes for me, narrows the perspective in ways that I find quite problematic. Yes I would love for these quotes to be highly relevant for the modern situation we find ourselves in, aka, 30 years of a failed and destructive Neo conservative scorched earth tactics on the social protections afforded by the post war era. However, labour is not the force it once was in Canada. It is still relevant and can play a leading role, but until we see density rates a hell of a lot higher than we have right now we must broaden our thinking about movements and networks for change. And even amongst the labour movement there are a whole lot of business unionists that sit idly by and free ride off the backs off social unions that spend lots of time and resources fighting the fight. CAPE is an example of that in the public service. I think we need to put up a few quotes and battle slogans that are wider in message and more inclusive, and hence my call back to a time where a wide array of forces joined together and resulted in a massive movement for the great change.

    The very essence of this article is a recognition that times have changed and social and environmental sustainability have got to be organically linked to innovation, productivity, and productive capacity whether it be capitalist, communist or otherwise. And yes unions do play a role, but in many areas and locus of action we need leaders beyond the traditional actors and institutions, simply because they do not have a presence in that space. For example, communication and networking in the tech space , are surely not where you will see unions foraging these days. Or we will definitely not see some unions be the leading actors in the environmental movement. Yes we would like to see that but they have not been the leaders and in some cases they have destabilized the situation due to the decentralized state of labour in Canada. So unless we see stellar growth in labour organizing capacity and some huge qualitative changes in union leadership, we must expand our slogans and our understanding of the forces that are gathering during this storm, much like that which occurred during the french revolution,the great enlightenment and the renaissance periods that brought about massive social, cultural and economic change.

  • For all the talk about these emerging bourgeois, and those Parisian artisans, and the other nobles mad at other nobles, what fueled the French Revolution was largely starving peasants.
    No doubt there was some cynical manipulation of them, although largely not by aristocrats but by rising mercantile classes who, like the peasants, felt the aristos were treating them poorly. But there was real competition during the revolutionary process as to which sectors of the population would gain the most control; the most downtrodden sections of French society did gain quite a lot through much of the process, until the military coup which put Napoleon in power (apparently they only used him because their first candidate got sick–the odd contingencies of history, huh). That coup as I understand it was precisely motivated by the more moneyed sectors of the revolution feeling they didn’t have enough control.

  • Oh, yeah–and defenestrate Gompers. He’s the man more than any other who ruined the North American union movement, and you want us to be listening to him? To the Devil with that.

  • Horatio Hornblower

    Purple Library Guy: I was hoping for a response such as yours, and that is because I disagree precisely with your judgement of Gompers, with your understanding of the Revolution, and Mr. Tullloch’s near dismissal of the labour movement.

    First, one of the earliest casualties of the revolution was the independence and traditional privileges of the National Assembly. And there is a strong strain in French historiography, much of it Conservative but for all that not necessarily wrong, that suggests, by the time of the Revolution, as Chaussinand-Nogaret writes, that “a noble was nothing more than a successful bourgeois”. Ordinary people benefited little from the Revolution, and Napoleon was able to consolidate his power because of the disaffection of the French populace for the revolution.

    Y’say ya want a revolution, and you know, Gompers did some stuff most progressives would have a hard time condoning — flirtation with nativism, marginalization of socialists in the labour movement (I still consider myself socialist). But, I think that his achievements, in very difficult circumstances, far outstripped his mis-steps. Yes, the labour movement is under attack — but more so than in the late 1800s, more so, say, than during the Winnipeg general strike? Certainly not.

    But I was not talking about labour pe se, but rather of the necessity of incrementalism. Incrementalism may not be desireable in itself (who does not dream of rapid change, especially in view of climate change), but sustained incrementalism is effective, and self-sustaining. Go read early editions of the Canadian Forum — you will see year after year of articles by CCF-ers calling for workers’ compensation. It took a couple of decades for governments to adopt it, but now we take it for granted. The occupy movement was fun, but change requires more sustained pressure, a snowballing movement. Whether this movement develops in the labour movement, in the co-operative sector, or in amongst the general public, Gompers’s example is a good one.

  • “Yes, the labour movement is under attack — but more so than in the late 1800s, more so, say, than during the Winnipeg general strike? Certainly not.”

    The attacks on the labour movement may be less violent then in the past, but they may be more effective.

  • I am a union supporter, very much so in fact, and I am not a nihilist. I worked volunteer for 3 years at Labourstart, did a weekly economic report for Radio Labour, and spent quite a few years studying labour in under grad/grad school and working with unions for the last 6 or so years and a union member for 15 years alneit with a pathetic business union. I am not writing unions off, or marginalizing them, I am just telling you like it is. We are weak in many areas and to mount a movement we need to realize we need to stop thinking everything has to be labour centric, as that just ostracizes labour from a wider movement. Similar to the Occupy movement filled with allies of all stripes I would think it is pretty obvious that they were calling for partnerships. Some unions helped, many did not. Just telling it like it is, we either need a whole pile more members as organized workers are not in all spaces , or we need a qualitative change in direction at the top towards networking and unification with non-labour centric allies and a whole lot more than what our history has allowed. It is the challenge that lay before us, or we may just face extinction in all but a few sectors, kind of like where we are right now, not to mention we have lost ourselves at the local level. I am a realist and if you are going to deal with the problem and fix it, you got to start with the reality of the situation. We are delusional thinking that we can just go to the past and pull out a quick fix, we are weakened and capital has usurped is former constraints and transformed. I am talking about a new direction, and belief that while history is our bread and butter, we need to take cultural aspects and its dynamism into consideration when charting a course forward.

    The movement has already started, and we need to catch up to it, or be left behind. We have no time to organize the unorganized at some exponential rate, we need to adjust, and evolve towards these challenges to survive and then gain the strength to remake a new history that a new empowered labour will have the capacity to reclaim it historical objectives. We cannot reclaim our history with the current power base, it is just not what it was.

    Of course if you interpret that as abandoning labour, well I guess we are cooked and change will not occur, at least the change that we need which I see in the offerings that pervade this document.


  • Oh great the debate between reformism and revolution.

    Perhaps if we thought more profoundly about the sufficient conditions for a sustained program of incremental reform we would realize that there is actually a dynamic positive relationship between revolution and reformism.

    If labour and its reformist parliamentary allies in the advanced capitalist zone were able to ride on the tailcoats of a menacing insurgent communism to wring concessions out of their national bourgeoisies in the past, no such existential threat today exists. Moreover, today, national bourgeoisies do not exist as such.

    If reformists think that capital can be coddled into a sense of fairness and enlightened self interest they have not been paying attention since the 1980s and in particular since 2007.

    Even Isaiah Berlin, the great anti-communist cold war warrior, knew that:

    “Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.”

    And further he accepted that if a compromise (reform) is to be struck it would entail the loss of liberty on the part of those from whom it was being taken:

    “But if I curtail or lose my freedom in order to lessen the shame of such inequality, and do not thereby materially increase the individual liberty of others, an absolute loss of liberty occurs. This may be compensated for by a gain in justice or in happiness or in peace, but the loss of freedom – ‘social’ or ‘economic’ – is increased. Yet it remains true that the freedom of some must at times be curtailed to secure the freedom of others.”

    Two Concepts of Liberty, Isaiah Berlin (1969).

    Unfortunately, today progressives think they can obtain significant, meaningful, and lasting reform by concocting win-win programs in which those who control our socially produced resources need not concede any of their liberty. I think this is a dishonest, politically disarming, and ineffective ideological stance to take. As is the polar opposite revolutionary stance.

    Where have all the hard-minded left thinkers gone?

  • Horatio Hornblower

    Berlin was correct when he wrote that the freedom of some must at times be curtailed to secure the freedom of others. Yet there need not always be a trade-off between liberty and equality. Not always I grant you, but generally, they go hand in hand. Berlin sometimes almost equated liberty with material wealth, as if there were a Pareto frontier for trade-offs between the two — i.e. he generally came down on the side of the possessive individualists. But the quality of liberty is not strained.

    Is “control our socially produced resources” the same thing as positive Liberty in Berlin’s sense? I can see the argument, but I don’t think it is accurate to cast it that way. The point of incrementalism, I would say, is precisely to find sustainable ways to redistribute control of “our socially produced resources”, but I think doing so sets everyone free (perhaps especially those who once exercised control over the resources — false consciousness exists, otherwise there would be no commercials).

    I don’t think progressives think they can obtain significant, meaningful, and lasting reform by concocting win-win programs in which those who control our socially produced resources need not concede any of their liberty.

  • Horatio Hornblower

    Whoops — the last paragraph in the preceding post obviously ain’t mine, but Travis Fast’s (i.e. I posted it by mistake).

  • Horatio Hornblower

    RE-reading (sorry to clog stuff up) I see I have been unclear — by “trade-offs between the two” I meant between equality and liberty, not liberty and wealth (in Berlin’s conception).

  • Horatio, this is indeed your paragraph.

    “I don’t think progressives think they can obtain significant, meaningful, and lasting reform by concocting win-win programs in which those who control our socially produced resources need not concede any of their liberty.”


    Horatio, you missed the point. It is the content of a revolutionary or incremental program that matters. If you said to me that you had a package of incremental reforms that had as their goal to circumscribe the mobility of capital I would be for those policies. If you said to me you had a package of incremental reforms which increased public investment in productive activities I would be for those reforms. If you said to me that you had a package of reforms that would embed social and environmental dumping clauses in the international “free” trade regime (WTO) I would be for those reforms. Each of those packages has as its aim a change in the balance of negotiating power between the owners and managers of capital and labour.

    It is not incrementalism which annoys me, it is the lack of revolutionary content.

  • Horatio Hornblower

    Fine. I may not agree with every particular of your program, but I take your point. I’m all for content that is revolutionary, just unimpressed with the rhetoric of revolution as content. Again, I come back to the progressives, and, why not, the social gospel: what we need is a little “missionary” zeal. I hope the MMTers won’t mind me holding them up as a perfect example of the kind of “zealous educators” that we need.

  • I am not sure about revolution as content either, and that is not what I was meaning. I am saying we need substantive change, incremental, revolutionary, neither fits and I don’t particularly care what the discourse is, and I am sure those in Egypt or the occupy movement do not either. It is the content that matters and the forces that are needed to bring about change- any change! As we are quite far form anything revolutionary- just ask the Egyptians. However what I am speaking to is the content of the drivers of change, and the point of what these young thinkers are referring to. And my follow up point here is, if labour does not have the power to create the change needed, it must adapt to survive. Why does everything have to be labour centric, why do we have to have deep indoctrination of labour’s cultural history that was designed for the soldiers of change a hundred years ago within a cultural climate that is much different today. People and workers themselves have been commodfied so far away from the deep indoctrination of labour, the socialist discourse and communism, why do we continue to hold on to these banners. I am not saying sweep them into the dustbin, but we need to have a change process that can work right now, with the resources that labour can manage. Not everybody can go and complete labour college indoctrination, which I wish was the case. So we need to base change on realistic resources bases, but I just do not see that anywhere in labour. Just the same old content that has been around for a couple hundred years, that has been so flattened in the culture war by the right that, even the notion of a class war is lost on the masses, so that they have not the tools to even differentiate the legitimacy of what labour is preaching, they want to lock up the soldiers of labour rather than embrace them, that is how far the war has been over, yet many in labour just keep pushing the same buttons.

    We need change in the mechanisms of this class warfare, and given the weakness of labour they must chart a new course that is a whole lot more accommodating to other allies. Yet the only movements I see are token.

  • Thomas Bergbusch

    2012 is the International Year of Co-operatives!

  • “I am not sure about revolution as content either, and that is not what I was meaning. I am saying we need substantive change, incremental, revolutionary, neither fits and I don’t particularly care what the discourse is, and I am sure those in Egypt or the occupy movement do not either. It is the content that matters and the forces that are needed to bring about change- any change!”

    Reread. That was the conversation. And yes actually they do. The Egyptian trade unions were very concerned about the difference between reform and revolution. They were not concerned with a patch up of the existing structure they wanted the existing structure done in.

  • I am not an expert on Egyptian tarde unions but I am pretty sure they played a role last spring, but my point is, the change process myself, how much did the trade unions effect change, how much change was actually accomplished. Yes I understand this process is still playing out, but seemingly that is why more were killed in Greece recently because the change they sought is still some distance away. They went from a dictator in control of the army to handful of general calling the shots. The point for me is here in our own neck of the woods with our own 28% union density rate and the challenges of the new era of the neo cons and their crisis economics, expecting us to accept decline, and shut and be happy about what is left of social safety net. It is these voices I like to hear more. Like I said I could be wrong about Egypt, but my point is here, do you really think the content of revolution or reform matters given where we are at? I agree though it should be measured in terms of gains. My point is the change process and that is what I believe these new thinkers are focusing on.

    The more I think about it the more labour in Canada has spent way too much time worrying about the content and not the process. In fact that truly is a huge problem, because that is exactly what we are getting caught up within this discussion, debating the content is pointless, we are very far away from advancing change. So I don;t car if your long run aim is revolution or reform, the point is to survive and get to the next step which is labour must become a relevant stake holder for all workers. And that after sliding a long way back over the past 30 years, must be the focal point of the debate. Hold up a goal that can unify as much of the movement as possible. That was the successful formula of the Occupy movement, they did not even have demands, as all that would have done is divide. Eventually yes, demands, and goals become huge, but until you reclaim power and representation, labour, if it does nto take in these messages, like the one in this article will slide even further backwards.

    In fact if we tone done the labour centric approach with all its trappings that have been personified and concretized by the culture war one can bring in more from other movements and also reclaim some of these business unions that get scared and run for the hills at the mention of Karl Marx.

    I believe the whole economics and social of an innovation based approach is exactly this unifying umbrella that opens up a whole new language for labour to develop and define. And then strategically us this within a dynamic framework over time to reclaim its history, updated and refreshed with a new discourse.

    So my point is not about content, at least not right now, but about change and survival with an eye to growth. However I am not talking any kind of Andy Stern sell out based crap. All Andy Stern did was redefine unionism as reestablish unionism as company unionism in the USA. This is much different and much more deeper integrated into a traditional labour perspective.

  • sorry that should be more killed in Egypt. I was reading and article on Greece opps. Potentially that was a Freudian slip, I hope not but the way the troika is dealing with Greece we could be getting close to something where, oh yes, content very much matters! I think we are in the same camp, but a coffee talk would probably sort it better.

  • Ok last go at this for me. In my view inequality in income is a consequence of an inequality in bargaining power. A progressive redistribution of income is fine but it gets harder and harder to do if you do not manage a redistribution of bargaining power. It is my view, that is why we are, where we are.

    When I speak of the hard minded left and revolutionary content I am *not* speaking about a 40oz of vodka and a pistol, but, rather, an insistence on the need to fundamentally change the rules of the game.

    Why is it that it is only those on the right who understand structural reform?

  • Travis, i do understand structural reform, tell me how to get there and i will follow, but i am not sure too many others will.

    By the way, my ideas here are just that, exploratiion. Kind of weird but i just received an email from Gregor murray at crimt with poster to an upcoming conference on what is a union, innovation and change in union roles, etc. i have not been following this group but it looks like interesting. See www,

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