An Economy for Everyone

Opening remarks for a panel discussion on “making economies work for everyone” at the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Global Conference of Young Parliamentarians on Friday, November 17, 2017 in Ottawa by Atkinson’s Executive Director Colette Murphy.

Thank you for this opportunity to join you today. When Paddy Tornsey asked me to participate on this panel, I confess I was reluctant to accept. I doubted I had anything to contribute that you haven’t already heard from your constituents, your parliamentary colleagues, or the media commentators who fill our newsfeeds with their opinions each day.

But inclusion is a topic that I find irresistible. It’s at the centre — the very heart — of everything I believe and hope to achieve through my work. Every chance to reflect with people whose lives and worldviews are different from mine deepens my understanding and resolve. So, I accepted this invitation because I believe economies can work for everyone, and share your determination to prove it. I’m here to participate but to listen and learn with you as well.

I bring to this conversation the perspective of a 75-year old Canadian charitable foundation. The Atkinson Foundation is rooted in Ontario and in a mission to promote social and economic justice. We belong to the rapidly growing global movement of decent work advocates. Our role is to make principled and smart philanthropic investments at the intersection of community organizing and policy research where people are using their economic and democratic power to share Canada’s obvious prosperity more equitably. We’re also active shareholders who use our $85M endowment to move companies toward ESG goals such as decent work.

We do this work in collaboration with many young leaders including Mercedes Marcano and Scott McFatridge from the Smart Prosperity Institute, and Heather Marshall and Dusha Sritharan from the Toronto Environmental Alliance. The five of us met last week to discuss the three questions conference organizers put to this panel:

  • How can we empower young people to contribute to the transition toward the green economy?
  • How do we reconcile economic growth and trade expansion with the pressing need for environmental sustainability?
  • What can young parliamentarians do to make decision-making in all sectors of the economy, including trade, more accountable and transparent?

I’d like to briefly summarize what I learned from this conversation.

First, younger people are already empowered and challenging climate deniers in record numbers. But we need to hear more young voices challenging inequality deniers at the same time — especially in the world’s parliaments. A few years ago, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote that “inequality denial persists, for pretty much the same reasons that climate change denial persists: there are powerful groups with a strong interest in rejecting the facts, or at least creating a fog of doubt.”

Inequality denial creates massive policy walls that can seem insurmountable. Even when there is an acknowledgement of the connection between inequality and climate change, too often the issues are treated as separate or at odds. Legislators are going to have to traverse those high walls, if not break them down, to create an economy that works for everyone.

Second, economic growth, trade expansion, and environmental sustainability will not be reconciled unless people and their communities reconcile.  We have to work on closing the “empathy gap”.

I can get behind what former British parliamentarian Douglas Alexander wrote in the press recently about this gap. He quotes Danny Dorling, a professor from Oxford, who said “The two places where people meet are in the maternity ward … and in the mortuary – those are the two most socially mixed places … It’s a fantasy to think that we can pay each other vastly different amounts of money and will actually understand each other and work well together.”

Alexander goes on to say: “I’ve always believed that if we’re to come together we need to close that economic gap through political action. But in a world where economics, politics and technology are pulling us apart, we need interactions that bring us together, where we can establish trust and understanding across difference.”

If we want reconciliation across social, political, economic and environmental imperatives, we’ll need what Alexander calls a “culture of encounter.” Conferences like this one where leaders from the global south and north meet fit his definition. But he points to the need to facilitate similar encounters across fault lines in the cities, neighbourhoods, towns and villages where we live.

Third, for a successful transition to a green economy, younger people must insist that processes and outcomes are just. In our network, Canadian and American leaders have been talking about a “three-dimensional transition”:

  • Moving current industries into a green economy, not only new enterprises;
  • Paying attention to who can least afford rising energy costs, not only who is affected; and,
  • Bringing workers who were locked out of the old economy into the new one, not only those who are gainfully employed now.

I think of this 3-D approach as an “all-in” transition — no one left out, no exceptions.

Finally, younger parliamentarians must set a new standard for democratic decision-making. While accountability and transparency will always be important, we’re looking to the younger group of elected people to expect even more. Equity and inclusion should be the lens through which decisions are made — a cross-cutting obligation.

The relevance of democratic institutions to people’s lives and to the security of the planet depend on the consistent application of this lens to every decision. We’re counting on you to see a long time horizon for the decisions you make a horizon that stretches beyond the lifespans of older parliamentarians and your own too.

Put your hand up if you’re familiar with the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Annual Survey. As you may know, the 2017 results are in. Young people from 186 countries were asked the question: “What keeps you up at night?” No surprise here. Climate change, large-scale conflict, and inequality topped the list.

When they were asked “What are the most important things that are missing in your society that would make you feel more free?” Overwhelmingly more than 50 per cent said equal access to opportunities for all. In other words, making economies that work for everyone.

These young voters know that the economy is structured to work for too few. They also know the planet is getting hotter and more volatile in every way. Soon, there will be no denying the inescapable, brutal and rising costs of inequality and climate change even if the consequences will be delayed for some.

That’s if we don’t invest in the most basic infrastructure of decent work policies and programs for a green economy. And that’s exactly what a growing number of voters expect younger parliamentarians like you to invest in on their behalf.

There is no force more powerful than people who are organized to use their democratic power — and mandate their representatives — to lift all of us up as only democratically elected governments can.

If our organizing efforts are successful, you’ll be feeling some heat. And the next time someone asks you what’s keeping you awake at night, you’ll be able to say it’s not just the issues — it’s us. And we’ll be able to say you’re not standing in the way of a just transition, you’re with us. All of us.

I look forward to your questions and to the continuation of this important conversation.