Bill Hulet Editor


Here's the thing. A lot of important Guelph issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Karen Farbridge Interview: Part Three

After talking a bit about housing and development in the last part of the interview, I tried to start some "blue sky" thinking. One of the things that I rarely get a handle on with community leaders is some general sense of how they view the world and the big issues that we face as a culture. Instead, if you follow the news you only get to see how they deal with "one damn thing after another". But how they deal with the here-and-now is often based on how they see the big picture.

The same photo I've used in the other posts.
From a University website, used under the "Fair Use" provision.

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Hulet: Just to expand on the wealth stratification thing---.  Just to set this up. I worked with a lot of young people at the university and it's like they live in a totally different country than I do. The thought of just getting a full time, permanent job with benefits just by applying is just not possible.  At the university to even get hired as a housekeeper you have to go through a temporary contract. For other jobs, people stitch together a bunch of part time jobs and then they have to use their cell phone to keep track of their schedule from one job to another. We call that "precarious work" and the "gig economy". Where's that heading? Can any of these people ever buy a house? Start a family?

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I did some research and found out that my experience at the university is not the same as in the rest of the economy. While temporary work is expanding everywhere, it appears that it is worst in the educational sector---which is where I used to work. Here's a graph from a report by the Parliamentary Library that breaks down temporary versus permanent employment by sector. If you look the sixth bar graph from the top, you'll see "Educational services", which obviously have the highest percentage of temporary positions.

"Permanent and Temporary Employees by Industry in 2017"
From the Parliamentary report Precarious Employment in Canada: An Overview.
Used under the "fair use" provision of Canadian copyright law.

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Farbridge: That income inequality is only getting worse. It's not going the other way. The accelerant is going to be automation. 

Hulet: I'm just asking because I was approached by a politician---several elections ago---to write up some "wedge issues" to differentiate that party from others. I focused on trying to come up with a variety of things that would help these young people in the "precariat". Zero interest in any of them. But I did see that the Liberals under Kathleen Wynne took on one of them---the Canada Pension Plan expansion---and eventually it was expanded to the entire country. She also created the Guaranteed Annual Income experiment.

Farbridge: I think that's the solution. It's a structural solution. I'm sure that there will be some unintended consequences, but there are unintended consequences with our current system.  But I do think that's getting at the core of the issue. 

If you give people---I think it was Mike Schreiner who really hi-lighted this for me. If it is going to be the gig economy, it it is going to depend on people's entrepreneurialism. To be an entrepreneur is fine if you are in a fairly privileged position because you've got to be able to feed yourself while this business, right? If people have that sort of basic income taken care of it frees up their creative capacity to start a new business and that business doesn't have to feed an entire family. It can supplement a family, right? But still add significantly to the local economy and meet a need and deliver good service or whatever it is, right? 

To me the flip-side of the guaranteed income is that it will be more supportive of people being more creative and entrepreneurial. The musician will be able to "make it", right? 

Hulet: I was talking to a tree surgeon who mentioned the Canada Child Benefit---the one that Harper created and Trudeau changed so it was aimed at lower income people. He said that it was tremendously important to him when he was starting his business. It allowed him to keep in business when he was just starting up and he was wondering if he would make a go of it or not. And that is considered a "guaranteed income" too.

Farbridge:  Yeah. A bit of one. As is the Old Age Security, right? It's not as if we don't have some elements of it. 

The other side of it is just the administration that's behind so many of our social programs.

Hulet: The problem is that we will have to increase taxation.

Farbridge: Not necessarily. That's not what the research that Hugh Segal and some senators did on Guaranteed Annual Income. And a number of years ago the reform party was a big advocate of a Guranteed Annual Income because it got rid of the administrative costs. For them they thought it was going to be less costly. It would remove a lot of costs---so it's not necessarily more expensive. 

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It's important to understand a significant distinction between two things that often get lumped together: guaranteed minimum income, and, universal basic income. People routinely lump the two together, but from what I've seen the two things support very different public police objectives. 

The key difference between the two is that a universal basic income goes to every citizen in the nation, whereas a guaranteed minimum income is given out based on a means test. It might seem odd that anyone would suggest that Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and, Warren Buffet should be paid money from the government, but that proponents are trying to do two things by making the project universal. First, they are trying to build broad-range support among the entire community. Second, they tend to be people who focus on the issue of dismantling the entire edifice of the welfare state. That is, if everyone is getting a cheque from the government, why do we need employment insurance, welfare, disability pensions, etc?

In the past there have been other innovative policies that suggested that a lot of money could be saved by changing from one way of doing things to another. For example, in the 1960s there was a concerted effort to shut down mental hospitals and "deinstitutionalize" the mentally ill. On paper, this was a good idea as these complexes cost a lot of money and were dreadful places to live. The idea was that if the giant facilities were shut down the money saved could be used to set up more human-sized facilities like group homes and outreach programs that would be better at helping people with psychiatric issues. Unfortunately, what happened is that the politicians focused on "saving money" and ignored the bit about "redirecting resources to new facilities". The result is that guy "with issues" who begs on Wyndham Street and sleeps under the bushes along the river. It's tremendously important that the same thing doesn't happen again. 

In contrast, the guaranteed minimum income simply involves setting a financial "floor" below which no one is allowed to fall. If you make less than it, the government simply sends you the difference so you have money for rent, food, etc. 

We can understand these issues by looking at the history surrounding the "baby bonus". After World War Two the government decided that they didn't want a recreation of the Great Depression, so they designed social policies to help returning servicemen and to redistribute money through the economy. One of them was something like a universal basic income for children. This was the "baby bonus", which gave each parent a set amount of money for each child under a certain age. (When I was young, it was said to be enough to keep them in shoes.) 

It was done away with under Brian Mulroney, but something similar was brought in under Stephen Harper. In 2015 it gave parents $160/month for children under six years of age, and, $60/month for children between six and seventeen. The key point to remember is that this was a universal income program---if you were a billionaire, you still got the money.

After the Liberals assumed government in late 2015, they changed it into a guaranteed income program. That means that the amount you get is based on how much your family makes a year, and, how many children it has to support. For example, if your family income is less than $30,450/year you will get $541/month for a child under six, or, $457/month for a child between six and seventeen. (I won't get into the complexities of multi-child households.) 

As you can see, from the two different programs, if you stop giving money to middle-class and wealthy parents, it frees up a lot of money for people who are really struggling. This is why it's really important for people to understand the difference between these two types of programs!

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This whole post is dealing with complexities. The world is a really complex place and if we are going to have any hope of understanding what is going on around us, we need to get some grasp of what's going on. Businesses routinely subscribe to information digests---like the Back-Grounder---to cut through the fog that comes in when you get all your news from the daily press. But most people don't know about these things because subscriptions are generally really expensive and they hide behind solid pay walls. They aren't meant to be general interest publications, but they are a very successful part of a news media that is in free fall everywhere else. I'm trying to create an information digest for ordinary voters. 

The Back-Grounder isn't meant to be something that you consume like the nightly news or a daily newspaper. It's supposed to be like the old journals that were bound and saved for future reference. And as such, it can have a lot more influence than just a daily, ephemeral news source. But that sort of thing requires people who are willing to pony up money to support it. The Back-Grounder will never hide behind a pay wall, because what it is about is of importance to all voters. But we need to build a culture where people---and institutions, maybe your union, political party, or, other group would be willing to buy a subscription---financially support the sort of thing I'm doing here. So if you can afford it, please consider supporting the work I do through Patreon or toss something in the tip jar. Even small donations---if regularly supplied---can make a difference. 

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Hulet: I have a sneaking suspicion that what underlies a lot of the problems our society faces boils down to things just being too darn complicated.

What I'm doing with this blog would not be possible five years ago. There wasn't enough info that I could access on line to be able to do research that way, and I wouldn't be able to propagate it, and I wouldn't be able to advertise it before social media. I've got the this groovy second-hand phone that is better than the best tape recorder I could afford before---.

But every time you have something that magnifies your ability to do something the economy and society adapts to it. And it starts off as this wonderful force multiplier---to use a military term---then it quickly becomes a necessity and if it's not there you're screwed.

We have this gig economy now because we can and now the whole society has to have the gig economy or else everything would all fall apart.

Farbridge: As the technology is developed, so much more responsibility is off-loaded onto individuals, right? Just take banking. You used to go into your bank and you would go to your teller, and your teller would manage everything for you. Now you have to manage your on-line account, your passwords. It's become more complicated than what it used to be, right?

Hulet: As I turn into my grandparents---I ramble, I forget things, words---I miss the teller who would say "Oh don't worry Mr. Hulet, we'll take care of that".

Farbridge: I think there'll be a new service of people who help you manage your on-line activity. 

There's so many layers to all this. For example, I have to stay at hotels, I have this Starwood Rewards Card, right? So I get a notice---and I'm just one of a lot of people who use this in the Marriott chain---that there'd been a major hack and data breach. And they didn't just get phones and emails; they got credit cards and passport numbers---they got it all. For identity theft. So then the company gives you---I'm sure they're trying to be helpful---a half a dozen things that you can do to protect yourself. I thought "Hang-on, it was your data breach, right?"  I've got to do all these things now? I've got to sign up for a service that will track my info on the "dark web" and let me know if my data is being sold to anybody. 

And I've got to do this, and I have to do that---??? That's complicated---for a stupid little rewards card that maybe gave me some points---so maybe I got bumped to a bigger room?

[Karen laughs in exasperation.]

And that become normalized. Maybe that's what you're saying. And we don't even recognize the increase in complexity. 

Hulet: You're a very smart person---you've got a Phd, you've "turned the wheels of governance" for a city. I have a master's degree. What about people who aren't intellectuals, who just do some mindless job and want to watch the Leafs on tv after a tiring day's work? I can hear them thinking when they see something like this "What? What am I supposed to do?" "Dark web---what the Hell is that?"

Farbridge: Well, I'm not going to do it. I just deleted the email and I'm just going to have to take my chances on this one because I'm not going to add that extra layer onto my life. It'll probably lead to something else, right? 

Have you read Sapiens? [Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind, by Yuval Noah Harari] It's the first part of a trilogy, a history of intelligence in humans, "sapiens", from it's dawn to today. The other two books are Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

Yuval Noah Harari. Photo by  עץבעיר.
Public domain image c/o Wiki Commons. 

In Sapiens he has a very compelling line where he says---ge
tting to your point about complexity---that we keep layering on these things thinking that they are going to make life easier but they just end up making life more complicated. 

He starts with agriculture. Moving from being a hunter-gatherer was supposed to be so positive, but it had all sorts of negative consequences. That's one of several examples. 

He says we're not very good---once we are in "It"---at being able to step out and say "Is this really working for us?"

[Karen chuckles.]

We're just on a path---a trajectory, right? 

Hulet:  I don't know if you heard the interview between Michael Enright and Gwynne Dyer on populism. [It's here, at 1:02:03.] He said we're going through a transitional stage. Part of that is this populism that's popped up like leprosy all over the body politiic. The more I look at the world the less I see any conscious activity. As you say, no one's asking "What's going on here?" Everyone is just running in their own little hamster wheel---. It's a headless monster being created by all our own individual drives. 

The hamster wheels go faster all the time and I wonder that even if we lived in a socialist utopia we'd still all be living wretched lives just because of the complexity. 

I'm just wondering if this manifests itself in a city's inability to deal with housing, transit, and, all these other problems that manifest themselves. Environmental issues too. Dyer thinks we're just going through a phase. 

Farbridge: Definitely we're in a transition. Jeremy Rifkin  talks a lot about us being in a third industrial age, and that there are three parts to it: transportation, energy, and, communications

Jeremy Rifken, photo by Stephan Röhl.
Public Domain image c/o the Wiki Commons. 

The first industrial revolution was steam power---the locomotive and the printing press. The next one was centralized electricity, cheap oil and gas, the television, the telephone. That sort of thing. Now we're into renewable, localized energy, autonomous vehicles, and, the Internet. 

The industrial age was very disruptive for people at the time. The next one was disruptive to certain people. And this one is too. 

So I agree that there is this sort of thing going on---it's just that the speed and the size of the population accelerate the potential risks:  climate change. 

I do think that we're in the energy transition regardless of climate change. The main thing is that this energy transition will lead to a lower carbon future. The question is "Can it be accelerated fast enough to make a difference?"

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Hulet: I was encourage to hear one of the speakers on today's CBC Current talking about mobilizing to a "war economy" to deal with climate change. I though "Hallelujah---that actually made it onto the CBC!" I can remember giving that talk to Guelph Council 20 or 30 years ago.

Farbridge: My first talk to Council on climate change was in 1994. You might have been one of the other delegations. I know I wasn't the only one. I know Maggie Laidlaw was there too. 

Anyway. I still have the text of that talk and I could give it today and it wouldn't be dated or embarrassing. That's a sad thing.

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Hulet: What are you doing now? 

Farbridge: I chair the Meridian Credit Union Board, and I chair a subsidiary of the Meridian. So that's a big chunk of my time.

Hulet: So the Meridian is a big deal---it's not just a local credit union?

Farbridge: Yes, it's across the province. It's the 3rd largest credit union in Canada, with $20 billion in assets. We have a leasing company and a national digital bank. I'm doing stuff for Meridian every week. It's not just me dropping in every once in a while for a board meeting.

Another thing that I do is consulting work. I'm in five communities right now. I develop and deliver the engagement program in Oakville and Brampton for them to develop a community energy plan. And then in New market---do you remember GEERS
[Guelph Energy Efficiency Retrofit Strategy]---they're still talking about it here. But New Market's doing their version of it. I do the engagement for that process.

The engagement part is just translating the data and analytical work into something people can actually adapt to it.


Hulet: You mean staff? Or the general public?

Farbridge: Staff, public, various stakeholder groups, yup.

And that sort of work will go into Windsor as well. And then I work in Vaughn doing a project. I work with a number of collaborators in the community energy planning space. At universities---York university in particular, Guelph, and then some organizations as well---some not-for-profit organizations too. So I identify barriers to the energy transition and community energy planning and where we need to address those barriers.

The project in Vaughn is looking at financing tools and doing a risk assessment for municipalities. Municipalities are concerned about risk---that's been a barrier moving forward. So we go in and engage in a workshop around identifying what the real risks are and how do we mitigate them.


Hulet: So it sounds like the community energy initiative has become a real movement.

Farbridge: Oh, totally. There's 300 of them across the country. We were one of the first in 2007---now there's 300 community energy plans. I would say right now we're getting into the second wave of sophistication---both on the engagment side and on the analytical side.

Hulet: Another thing that was started in Guelph---

Farbridge: And is dead here.

[Farbridge laughs.]

Hulet: Dead here, but taken up everywhere else.

Farbridge: We're still widely recognized for leading it. Those are examples of projects I'm working on.

I'm part of a group that's developing a three day professional development course for land use planners around community energy planning. That will be offered through York University as a class, but part of it will also be offered on-line.

It's interesting where we got our funding for that, it was the IESO (the Independent Electricity Supply Operators) gave us most of the money to develop that course. Then the electricity distributors associations and, then the Federation of Canadian Municipalities has given us extra money to put more of it on line and make it more accessible across Canada. 

As you said, it's a movement, it's a wave. A lot of stuff going on and then I'm the vice chair of QUEST (Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow.) That's a national organization promoting community energy planning across the country. 

Hulet: That's encouraging. I was kinda depressed when I did my story about the district energy hubs

Farbridge: I get to do a lot more about community energy now than I did when I was mayor. I was just a champion for it here---I wasn't working on it. Eventually all this stuff will come back here---but we will have missed a lot of opportunities. 

Hulet: The district energy systems. Is anyone building those?

Farbridge: Yes.

Hulet: So there is a chance that they will come back in Guelph?

Farbridge: The assets are still there. There were people who wanted to buy them. But the city wouldn't even take their calls. Because this didn't fit the narrative, right? If they were such a terrible idea, why is the private sector wanting to buy them, right?

Windmill [the company that the city is partnering with to develop the Baker Street lot for the new library]---the density is high enough to connect the district energy hub to what they're proposing. So maybe there's an opportunity for them to buy the assets that are downtown and broaden the system for their project. 

At some point someone will come in with a plan. It's just harder to retrofit---we've missed all the Metal Works condos. Once the heating and cooling is in place it's at least 20-30 years before it's time to replace existing plants. 

Will it include a hook-up to the downtown district energy system?
An artists's impression of what the Baker Street project might look like.
Photo from the Windmill site, used under the Fair Use provision of the copyright Act.

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Furthermore, I say to you---climate change must be dealt with!