Blockchain could revolutionize global banking

The era of globalization is drawing to a close. Evidence of that has been made clear by President Trump’s withdrawal from global affairs, his attempt to build an economic and physical wall around the United States. It’s a clumsy attempt to express the genuine concerns of Americans who have been left out of the prosperity reaped by a few.

     image: Urban Forex

Two billion people around the world have no access banking. They are unable to make loans to start small businesses; they have no credit, and no means of sending or receiving money.

And the rest of us have is rigged banking system. We are nickeled and dimed in every banking transaction and pay exorbitant interest rates on credit cards.

We are told that a healthy banking system is fundamental to a healthy economy. Yeah, right. Banking funnels money into the pockets of the rich who have so much that it just lays around in piles, uninvested, while worthwhile social programs and enterprises go threadbare.

When U.S. banks failed during the Great Recession of 2008 -because of bad business practices- they were bailed out with taxpayer’s dollars. They were rewarded for bad investments while homeowners who couldn’t pay bank-approved mortgages were thrown out on the street.

Not only is there an asymmetrical relationship between banks and clients in terms of wealth distribution, there is also an imbalance of transparency. While banks know exquisite details about us, we know practically nothing about them. Social scientist Shoshana Zuboff calls this one-sided, extractive interaction “surveillance capitalism.”

The technology of blockchain holds promise to restore balance and eliminate excessive fees through use of a universal digital currency, or cryptocurrency.

The first digital currency, Bitcoin, leaves people wondering. It has a reputation of being highly speculative.  But there are many versions of cryptocurrencies that would work and many possible versions of blockchains –the digital ledger which records transactions.

The advantages of cryptocurrencies over banking are that your money is held in a digital wallet and easily accessed; credit card payments are quicker and less expensive; you remain relatively anonymous (pseudonymous) with minimal information shared; you are the master of your money, there are no banks or boundaries to the flow of money.

If it all seems to be too good to be true, there are hurdles. One is just who controls access to your digital money. If banks control applications that access cryptocurrency wallets, we can expect business as usual. Cultural anthropologist Natalie Smolenski explains:

“This is the crux of blockchain’s catch-22: the public won’t use blockchains without user-friendly applications. But user-friendly applications often achieve that ease through centralization, which replicates the conditions of control that blockchains sought to circumvent (Scientific American, January, 2018)”

A new era would bring public control of cryptocurrencies. As Bitcoins have demonstrated, we already have a blockchain that is open-source and maintained by a global network of volunteer core developers. We have a network of individually-owned computers that process the indelible transactions –a process called “bitcoin mining.”

“Creating digital identities whose existence is independent from governments and corporations is the next grand challenge that blockchains both pose and could help solve,” says Smolenski.

With the dawn of the era of a “Universal New Deal,” cryptocurrencies could redistribute wealth and put money in the hands of those who will spend it.


Continental divide with U.S. widens

We used to think we were becoming more like our American cousins. In 2002 58 per cent of Canadians thought we were; now it’s only 27 per cent.

    “Weirdo” image: CBC

There’s more to the shift than the election of President Trump. We are maturing and are more confident. And it has to do with the realization that we are fundamentally different.

Those differences are revealed in response to a relatively simple statement: “The father of the family must be master in his own house.”

Because values are clustered together, response to that statement reveals other values says pollster Michael Adams: “Patriarchy is only one of more than 50 values we track, but it is clearly among the most meaningful. It is also a value that is highly correlated with other values such as religiosity, parochialism and xenophobia, and views on issues such as abortion, guns and the death penalty.”

American response to the statement cycles up and down. When asked in 1992, 42 per cent agreed. Support for patriarchy went up during the Bush presidencies and back down to 1992 levels during the Obama years. The election of President Trump has restored patriarchy to record highs.

Canadian response has been relatively constant for decades -in the low twenties.

It’s a versatile analysis. It also reveals the degree that immigrants adopt Canadian values. Thirty-five per cent of Canadian immigrants agreed with statement; not surprising when most immigrants come from male-dominated countries. In the U.S., substantially more immigrants agree with patriarchy at 56 per cent, even though they are from the same countries as in Canada.

I’m impressed with the way that Adams has of cutting through the clutter of public opinion. I wrote about his research in 2004 in my column for the Kamloops Daily News . Back then he was examining the connection between patriarchy and religiosity. “Canadians have more confidence in their ability to make moral decisions without deferring to religious authority,” said Adams.  As a percentage, twice as many Americans go to church weekly as Canadians, twice as many believe the Bible is literally true, and twice as many say religion is important to them.

In the same column, I argued that the continental divide is marked by something other than just the U.S./Canada border. Progressives on both sides of the border share the same “country.” I find that when I talk to people in the U.S. states of the Pacific Rim, they sound remarkably Canadian. Adams recent research confirms that progressive/populist divide in the U.S. Support for patriarchy is less strong in the coastal states than the Deep South.

Swings in U.S. support for patriarchy reveal a national insecurity. Psychoanalyst Robert Young has studied the psychology of populist movements. “When people feel under threat,” says Young, “they simplify; in a reduced state people cannot bear uncertainty.”

This siege mentality that currently grips the U.S. under Trump indicates just how insecure some Americans feel. Before 9/11, fundamentalist saw modernity and pop culture as a threat to core values. After September 11, the threat became global with the loss of jobs overseas.

The reasons why Canadians don’t want to become more like Americans is becoming ever clearer, as are the reasons why some Americans appreciate Canadian values.

TPP rises from the ashes

Rumours of the death of the TPP are greatly exaggerated. After President Trump announced U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, I congratulated him: “Thank you, Mr. Trump, for killing the TPP.”

 image: WMAL radio

I now realize that Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP was not an indicator of leadership, but a sign of retreat from the international community. It’s just another indication of the degree of U.S. marginalization. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is yet another indicator that we must carry on without him.

Where the original TPP had a number of flaws, the new TPP can be negotiated to Canada’s advantage. Canada was disadvantaged in the first round because we were latecomers: we had to accept what had already been negotiated.

Canada is a trading nation and as such, we depend on fair trade agreements. As politicians like to do, I’ll list my five conditions for acceptance of the new TPP -dubbed TPP11 after the number of countries left to pick up the pieces.

Investor-state dispute settlement provisions (ISDS) should not be part of TPP11. This allows companies to seek damages from governments when local regulations interfere with profit-making.

When disputes arise, as they are bound to do, they should be settled in a transparent manner by judges, similar to the International Court, not in private between arbitrators as is now done with NAFTA.

Environmental standards should not be part of TPP11. Environmental damage is seen by industry as a cost of doing business -a price which indigenous peoples and future generations will pay. Environmental standards need to be negotiated by separate accords like the Paris Agreement.

Intellectual property and should be excluded as well. Artists and small software companies need protection, but too often concern for intellectual property masks large corporate interests such as Disney.

Exclude health regulations as well. They are an excuse for Big Pharma to extend the patent life of drugs that could be made cheaper with generics.

TPP11 will be a meeting of middle powers now that the U.S. is out, and China and Europe were never in. Canada can then negotiate from a position of strength when it comes to superpowers. Trump favours individual bilateral deals because he imagines an advantage over smaller countries. But if those smaller countries can form a block where there is an alternative to the bully-tactics of Trump.

The TTP11 would give Canada access to markets not previously available, says Hugh Stephens of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. It will jump-start bilateral talks that were going nowhere, like those between Japan and Canada. With Japan in the TTP11, negotiations can proceed. And trade agreements under the umbrella of TPP11 can take place with other countries where Canada has no bilateral agreements such as Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Vietnam and Malaysia.

And in countries where Canada does have bilateral agreements, such as Mexico, Chile and Peru, the TTP11 can tie up loose ends.

Whereas Canada was a follower in the original TTP, we can be a leader in fair trade under TTP11. With the U.S. retreating into a fog of befuddlement, Canada needs to step up on the world stage.



Canada’s internet remains flat, despite challenges

Canada remains a world-leader in keeping our internet equal for all. Challenges to tilt the internet in favour of special interests come from at home and abroad. Last month, Canada’s telecomm regulator ruled that all online data be treated equally.

The ruling comes after Videotron, a music streaming company, offered their wireless service to subscribers at no charge for data used. This practice, called “zero-rating,” is violation of net neutrality because content would be biased in favour of their service. Subscribers to other music streaming services would pay more. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ruled the practice illegal.

In his ruling, the CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais suggested a less disingenuous tactic for Videotron:

“Rather than offering its subscribers selected content at different data-usage prices, Internet-service providers should be offering more data at lower prices,”

The ruling is a victory for the little-lobby-group-that-could, (which I support financially).

“We just won again!,” they crowed in an email to me, “The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) just decided in favour of historic Net Neutrality rules that prevent Big Telecom from unfairly manipulating data caps to discriminate against certain apps and services.”

Michael Geist, professor of Internet and E-commerce Law, was equally enthused but more muted in his response:

Most notably, Canadian consumers and creators will benefit in the long term from the Net-neutrality policies.”

Canada’s firm support of net neutrality extends beyond a level playing field. Without it, giant telcomms could start to collect browsing habits of unsuspecting customers and sell them to advertisers for the purpose of targeting specific demographics.

The concept of a flat internet is vital to free expression and innovation. In an earlier column, I argued that net neutrality is fundamental to democracy:

Canadians must stand on guard for a free and democratic internet.”

Net neutrality in the U.S. has been tilting back and forth. In 2014, the U.S. appeals court ruled that the internet was not a “common carrier.” A common carrier is like a telephone line, simply a conduit to carry information. If telephones weren’t a common carrier, telephone companies could make it easier for businesses to access your phone than your friends and family.

The designation of common carrier is vital to net neutrality. Without that designation, internet service providers could effectively suppress content by making it more costly to view.

Sensibly, President Obama restored the designation of common carrier in 2015.

Now President Trump’s appointees to the U.S. telecomm regulator, called the FCC, intend to overturn net-neutrality in the U.S.

Canada faces a mixture of faux worry and resistance from the U.S.  A Trump-appointed advisor to the FCC, Roslyn Layton, said “My biggest concern for Canada is that you continue to add regulation that deters the incentive to invest,” Her fake concern for Canada not believable. Many big U.S. giants such as Netflix oppose the Trump initiatives because they don’t want their subscribers paying more than competitive video-streaming. They fear that U.S. telcomms will do what Videotron tried to do and tilt the internet in favour of their own services.

I have a feeling that Layton’s real concern is that U.S. tech start-ups will move to Canada where innovative technologies still have unbiased access to the internet.