Disruption we can get behind

To fight inequality and climate change, we must deconstruct the status quo
January 2, 2018

Disruption. It’s the catchphrase du jour, usually wielded by one presumptuous tech upstart or another to challenge the market power of an allegedly ossifying incumbent. Frequently, but not always, to justify the displacement of low- or middle-income workers with an even more precarious, low-cost, on-demand workforce.

Uber and Lyft (now in Toronto) are disrupting taxi and public transit systems, they say, by encouraging people to drive others around for relatively low pay and scant if any benefits. Uber’s ultimate plan is to relaunch with driverless cars (and buses), putting even its current freelance workforce (and, they hope, many of today’s public transit operators) out of a gig, let alone a job.

Airbnb, which takes a cut from home room and apartment rentals posted to its website, claims it is not just disrupting the power of the big hotel chains, but "empowering people and helping them combat wage stagnation and worsening economic inequality.” No doubt they are for many people filling a void created by stagnant incomes and rising household debt. But municipalities have found the company, and similar home-sharing apps, are also disrupting the housing stock, contributing to rental shortages and higher rents in some places.

Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube are the disruptors of our television watching habits, offering everything satisfyingly on demand, but without having to collect GST or HST in Canada—money that could be used to invest in popular Canadian content or (god forbid) just pay for more efficient transit systems, more affordable housing, and other social services where disruption is not a positive word.

The CCPA and many others have repeatedly pointed out that, conveniences aside, the life promoted by these upstarts is often nastier, more backward, more unequal than the one we are living now. The main innovation of most self-declared disruptors is that they’ve found a way to take an even bigger share of the wealth from the workers who produce it than was possible before we all carried around the internet in our pockets.

It’s not the disruptors who are the biggest problem, it’s the inequality—in incomes, in power and in access to scarce resources—which is worsening in Canada, to the benefit of a small number of established and disruptive elites alike.

In fact, disruption to this status quo would be a very good thing. (It’s been the CCPA’s mandate for more than 35 years.) Even minor adjustments are welcome on the pathway to social justice. In this respect, we can look back at 2017 for inspiring examples of positive change. Perhaps most importantly on gender equality.

Last February, software engineer Susan Fowler took Uber down about five rungs when she exposed endemic sexism and a fratboy culture at the company, earning her the title of Person of the Year from the Financial Times, beating out French President Emmanuel Macron, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Fowler’s intervention—she published a blog on the sexual harassment she experienced at the Silicon Valley firm, including being propositioned for sex by her boss on her first day and human resources turning a blind eye—“was one of the most important testimonies in what…has become an avalanche of allegations about sexual harassment and assault that have brought down some of the most important men in media, entertainment and business, and which hold the potential to improve the way women are treated at work permanently,” wrote Leslie Hook in FT.

We scored wins on the Airbnb file last year, too. In December, Vancouver and Toronto took steps to regulate the online service, based in part on research about its impacts on housing and rental stock from the CCPA. And as David Macdonald reports in our cover feature (page 22), Canada’s CEOs—richer than they’ve ever been since we started recording their compensation levels—have not been able to stop the $15 minimum wage hikes introduced in Ontario, Alberta and soon B.C. That measure has the potential to lift millions of people out of poverty with modest impacts on the revenues of only the largest Canadian companies.

There’s obviously much more work to do in a number of priority areas. “Real change” and a few green energy partnerships with Canadian tech start-ups and Chinese investors have not disrupted the hold that Canada's fossil fuel industry has on power in Ottawa and the provinces (see Jeremy Appel’s interview with Kevin Taft on page 58). On our Behind the Numbers blog in December, Marc Lee pointed out Canada is still a “rogue state” on climate under the Trudeau government.

“Industry, the largest source of emissions in Canada, largely gets a pass on direct regulations to reduce emissions,” he writes. “Special treatment for fossil fuels, chemical production and other carbon-intensive sectors is wrapped in vague calls for innovation and technology, which basically amount to wishful thinking.” Only a serious just transition plan (see Michael James on page 8) will be able to break Big Oil’s grip on policy levers in this country.

On trade (page 32), infrastructure spending (page 27), Canada’s national security practices (page 49), reconciliation with First Nations (page 56), pensions (page 4), and so many other areas, I’m hoping we’ll see much more positive disruption in 2018.

Stuart Trew is Senior Editor of the Monitor. Send feedback to [email protected].