Reflections on The Trouble with Billionaires

I’m really not good at remembering facts. With increasing access to internet information, that’s become less and less of an issue, but it does mean that as I seek to understand issues I have a preference for getting the ‘big picture.’ It is only through finding a structure that I can hope to remember important details so that facts fit together and make sense to me. It is perhaps for this reason that I especially appreciated Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks’s book The Trouble with Billionaires.

Simply put, The Trouble with Billionaires makes the case that income inequality is bad for society and bad for democracy.

“In unequal societies,[…] [t]he very rich tend to withdraw into their own rarified world, traveling by limousines and private planes, entertaining themselves at exclusive clubs and resorts, and living physically apart form the rest of the population, often behind gates or even walls. They come to see themselves as essentially independent of society, purchasing their own health care and education and relying on their own security systems. This leads to resentment that their tax dollars are paying for costly public services that they don’t use, leaving them determined to reduce these costs to keep their taxes from rising. Given their political clout, they’re able to maintain enormous pressure on politicians to keep taxes low, thereby starving the public system of the funds needed to maintain shared services and programs that are basic to the well-being of the broader community. The deterioration of key public services and programs increases the vulnerability of most members of society, as well as exacerbating social divisions and stress levels.” (Chapter 9)

McQuaig & Brooks develop their argument throughout the book first by methodically outlining the historical similarities of the crash of 1929 and the travesty of the financial collapse in 2009. John Kenneth Galbraith, in his book The Great Crash of 1929, the authors point out, identified five reasons for the crash, the first and most important being the bad distribution of income. McQuaig and Brooks’s accounting of the economic policies and players is informative and easy to follow. They takes care to carefully explain the terms which we’ve all read about in the paper but may not have fully understood, terms such as credit default swap (CDS), insurance bundled mortgages, hedge funds, and subprime mortgages. They includes thriller-story like details of how they all played out to culminate, with a number key players such as Joseph Cassano, Angelo Mozilo, Gary Shilling, Stanford Wiell, John Paulson, Bernie Madoff, and Alan Greenspan, in the final fiasco in which the real losers were inevitably always the state, the taxpayers and the working poor.

Holding Bill Gates up as the poster boy billionaire, McQuaig and Brooks move on from an historical account to not only effectively make the case that Gates is not entitled to his billions, particularly given that Gary Kildall was the real inventor of the PC operating system, but also to argue that Gates’ role as internationally renowned philanthropist is misguided. As per the January 2013 article in the Guardian paper, “Philanthropy is the Enemy of Justice,” McQuaig and Brooks strongly support the belief that philanthropy works against democracy. The real philanthropists it can be said, are the millions of people around the world indentured to Corporations providing the funds to the world’s wealthy. The loss of democracy in the current philanthropy process stems from allowing billionaires to vote with their money, taking choice, access to resources, and power away from the people and governments where it belongs.

“Philanthropy provided the rich with some very significant benefits that they would be reluctant to relinquish. The benefits to the public are less clear, once the lost tax revenues are factored into the equation.” (Chapter 10)

The authors detail a very Canadian example of the downside of philanthropy with the story of Barrick Gold CEO and founder, Peter Munk’s donation to the Munk School of Global Affairs at University of Toronto. The way it works is that Munk’s $35 million donated dollars receive a $16 million tax reduction, so amounts to a donation $19 million in real cost to Munk. Taxpayers make up the $16 million through lost taxes while Munk in turn gets to make the decision as to what Canadian taxpayers are donating to. Additionally in the “deal” government is required to added $25 million from each of the Provincial and Federal governments, all so that the School of Global Affairs program and building gets named after Munk rather than the taxpayers who footed an equal if not greater amount.

“The capacity of the rich to undermine democracy–so obvious and yet so strangely invisible– is surely the most serious negative effect of extreme inequality. Even if we were somehow able to deal with all the other negative consequences, such as the myriad of ill effects on health and social well-being, we would still be left with the impact of extreme inequality on the very functioning of democracy.” (Chapter 10)

Perhaps even more blatant in this use of money for influence is the flow of money from wealthy power brokers to political parties, here and around the world. McQuaig and Brooks’s thesis fits nicely in this regard with the Academy Award winning 2010 documentary Inside Job, directed by Charles H Ferguson. While the movie goes beyond the scope of The Trouble with Billionaires in demonstrating the incestuous connections amongst the wealthy and the elected officials, McQuaig helps us understand how the circles of influence of our own western creation of oligarchs are clearly operating at the  global level.

The bottom line, as per Louis Brandeis‘s observation, “we can have democracy… or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. We cannot have both.”(Chapter 10)

In reading The Trouble with Billionaires I particularly appreciated that McQuaig is a Canadian journalist and so telling an international story but from our own Canadian perspective. McQuaig currently writes as a columnist for the Toronto Star. With at least two journalism awards, including the Atkinson Fellowship for Journalism in Public Policy and the National Newspaper Award, and nine books, six of which have become national bestsellers, she comes to this topic with a strong journalism background of high calibre. Neil Brooks taught tax law and policy at Osgoode Hall Law School for over 35 years. He has researched and written extensively on tax, tax planning and policy, corporate and international tax, and financing the welfare state including a number of pieces for the CCPA. For me this was all important background information in considering the more optimistic and hopeful stance at the close of the book which includes policy changes as a move towards a more democratic and socially just society. As a start their recommendations include the following:

  • A more progressive income tax system with a rate of 60 percent applied to income above $500,000, and a new top rate of 70 percent for income above $2.5 million.
  • Loopholes closed and the tax preferences that now riddle the income tax system and almost exclusively benefit the rich removed completely.
  • Examples of this include the tax on only 50% of capital gains and business deductions for business related meals, entertainment, and travel.
  • Support for the international implementation of a financial transaction tax which is sometimes referred to as the “Tobin Tax.
  • Support for international measures for a clampdown on tax avoiders and evaders.
  • Education and effort towards effecting a change in social attitudes toward taxation and its essential role in a democracy.
  • An inheritance tax, and use the proceeds to introduce a new education trust for every Canadian child. McQuaig suggests a lifetime tax free inheritance allowance per person of up to $1.5 million with progressive taxation on fortunes after that rising up to 70% for over $50 million and then a $16,000 trust for children at age 16 for post secondary schooling or training.

The book is an easy and informative read, overall excellent background for a better understanding of the misguided thinking behind the neo classical economic theories of Milton Friedman and his followers. It is well researched and an excellent starting point for anyone seriously wanting to help us stand up for real democracy.

Other Resources and Related sites:


We Just Need 100 Monkeys

It is definitely time to start writing again.

While it has been an easy transition to make, moving from teacher to retired person, it hasn’t been a quick one. As a teenager I always loved to ride on buses by myself. Perhaps it had something to do with growing up in an upper-middle class community where so often people knew who I was where ever I went. Being on a bus became one of the few places where for some reason I had a sense of being anonymous. Whether I truly was or not I couldn’t say, but in that context I could step outside of who I knew I had to be and reinvent myself, if only for a few minutes, and if only on the inside. Unlike those in the famous Vancouver Stanley Cup riot pictures, my moments of anonymity never lead  to any outrageous, crazed or thoughtless actions on my part. That’s not who I am. For me it was always a good experience simply in terms of being able to recount the qualities about myself that I liked or didn’t like.  In the same way retiring has given me yet another pause of anonymity, time perhaps to reconsider who it is that I am, who it is that I want to be. I’ve had a chance to strip away the label “teacher” and examine what is left? Like cleaning out the closet, I have had time to try everything on and keep what I like, throw out what I’ve outgrown or no longer choose to wear.

Re-evaluating one’s strengths and qualities is a great exercise at any point in one’s life but perhaps easier to do when the constraints of work, time, schedules and family demands have been quieted. For me retiring has coincided with my youngest child being ready to launch herself, my son moving off to San Francisco and my oldest child and her husband starting their own family. Now that they are no longer underfoot I’m conscious of my desire to work with my husband to stay connected to our children in more adult ways. I’m enjoying more time too for my husband and I to be with friends. I’ve joined a book club and even a senior’s center. I have time as well to consider my own interests such as relearning to play bridge, still-learning to speak Spanish, and even beginning to cook and garden, beyond the survival stuff which I’ve done for so many years. Those have all become chosen high-priority activities. But what has been missing, what I’ve had to soul search for, is what I will commit myself to beyond that.

I have so many concerns about the state of our world, our environment, our democracy, our public school system and even our public infra-structure in general. I worry about children in poverty, seniors in poverty, our growing sense of helplessness, corporate power and overall, the need to improve the state of social justice world wide. There is so much work to be done and mostly I just haven’t known where to begin, where to focus my effort. Oddly, perhaps, I’ve been trying to choose a single issue only to realize as I’ve been reading and trying to get a handle on what/where to start, that all of my concerns are so very connected, that there really is no beginning place to start or single strand to follow. It doesn’t matter where I put my efforts so long as I put them out there. So long as I contribute my voice and my energy to a larger group, to our democracy. After all, the idea is that when the 100th monkey gets on board, change starts to occur. And that’s what we need, to create some change.


It has been over a year since my last post on this blog largely because the QMMACC blog took over my writing/posting time.  I had a fabulous year teaching the Queen Mary Multi-Age Cluster Class with a delightful, talented group of grade 6/7 students. The year, the school, the students and the parents were so amazing that I decided to end the formal teaching part of my life on a high note. In August I retired from the Vancouver School Board.

Now is a new and exciting chapter of my life and once again this blog is going to switch gears as I emerge from the cocoon of the treadmill that is middle life: the job, the family/”soccer mom” role, and all that keeps on our on-track-blinders. I was particularly struck last week by Christy Clark’s comment about BC having a thriving middle class that wouldn’t be too interested in the occupy movement. (See “Occupy Vancouver protest won’t be a big deal says BC Premier, CKNW News Talk 980) and have decided that it is definitely time to make sure that my actions are in step with my thinking and my beliefs. Please join me in this.


Striving for it all

My last post to this blog may have oversimplified what is to come.

This afternoon I was updating my Linked-In profile, forgetting that my status there also gets posted to my Facebook account via Plaxo. This isn’t normally a problem as I don’t update my status on Linked-In very often. For me Linked-In is more of a professional network, whereas my Facebook account tends to be a more friendly mix of family, former students, former parents and teacher friends from over the years.

Imagine then my surprise when moments later I started getting those Facebook emails saying that comments had been posted in response to my status update.


And there they were, a number of comments from teacher friends and former students cheering me on and saying how lucky the students were.

Truth be told, I am going back to the classroom.  I’m going back to a Multi-Age Cluster Class, a very specialized program for academically gifted students.  I’ve taught in it before and I know that I’ll love the work.  And yes, I’ll have a Smartboard in my classroom, and I’m very excited about that. After working with so much technology, especially with access to Smartboards during my stint at SFU, I can’t imagine not having tech tools to teach with.

The real issue here though is that over my last few years while I’ve been out of the classroom, I’ve moved the bar for what I expect from myself to a very high level because of all that I have learned from the really amazing teachers with whom I’ve had the privilege of working.

To name a few:

First there is Jen, a grade 4/5 teacher who writes so thoughtfully in her blog In Pursuit of Purpose.  Here is a teacher who thinks so deeply about what she is doing. She engages with children in the most honestly authentic, meaningful ways. For example,  her latest blog post, Imparting Values: Is it our job as Educators? states “I never would have guessed that any teachers could think that their teaching is disconnected with their values.  How is this possible?”   The depth and thoughtfulness of Jen’s writing is mindboggling and from her I’m learning a lot about how to enhance and deepen the classroom experience. Jen brings a global focus into her grade 4/5 classroom through her global thinking approach, bringing in statistics about literacy from around the world to work with in math, having her students learn about microlending through Kiva, and involving them in collaborative projects through My Hero and iEarn. Jen writes too about Problem based learning and how she struggles to help her students make connections from the exploring and playing stages, to really being able to articulate their discovery of concepts.

Then there is Sonya, a new young teacher whom I was introduced to initially through her rather brilliant electronic portfolio, something she’d made specifically for her Teacher Education program even though she barely knew how to use computers at the time. Even as a new teacher she was already being asked to present workshops for other, more seasoned teachers. What Sonya had to offer was a complete openness and willingness to find ways to use the technology that the students were coming to school with to enhance student learning in the classroom. While experienced teachers were busy banning cell phones and confiscating stray ipods, Sonya was inventing ways to get the same POD (personally owned devices) out of the students’ pockets and into the lessons. Dave Truss  has posted a series of YouTube  interview with Sonya. Here is the first:

And then there is Susan, a more experienced teacher-librarian in PoCo who lives and breathes peace education. From my time with Susan I’ve learned to listen to my own language. Do I encourage students to “take a shot at it” when encouraging them to give something a try, or  to “blow them away” with whatever leadership activity they are about to take on?   I’ve been amazed at how much the language of war is embedded in so much of even my own speech, let alone those around me.  Susan teaches full-time, is a mother and still has time to be the President of the British Columbia Peace and Global Educators (PAGE BC) and of War-Toys-To-Peace-Art. This summer she has been away in Africa with Teachers without Borders.

Cindy is another outstanding teacher who really lives by the environmental stance that she brings with her into the classroom. Her own interest in sustainable community gardening inspired her to have her grade 4 students get involved in a neighbourhood garden project. At the same time she was exploring the Mindfulness Education Program and specific forms of problem solving and collaboration which come out of the restorative justice work. Like Susan, Cindy lives by what she brings into the classroom.

I could go on and on, highlighting the teachers who are inspiring me to go back into the classroom with a renewed interest in educating for compassion, peace, justice, and sustainability.  I have watched so many such dedicated teachers pour their energy into making their classrooms be vibrant, fun, caring centers where the children are doing amazing things. I’ve seen creative and unique uses of technology that have sparked creativity and problem solving even in kindergarten children. Betty had her 5 year old students developing oral language skills as they performed and filmed their puppet shows.  Sharon had me invite one of her grade 7 students in to  demonstrate to 40 teachers in our “summer school” how he’d created an interactive white board out of a highlighter pen!  Later that fall this same 12 year old organized a workshop for 6 of the adults so we could each try making our own.  Yes, I’ve had the privilege of working with, Karen, Greg, Laura, Jen, Natalie, Kathleen, Demetra, Elaan, Clark, Rick, Carol, Phil, Eric, Sarah, Tim, Shannon, and many, many more (I’m sorry I’m leaving so many of you out!)  Each has their own stories of strengths that bring quality to the profession. I’ve learned so much from each one of the them. So my real dilemma now going back into the classroom is how to consolidate all that I’ve learned  both from my travels and from my work.

In the end my response to the comments on Facebook lays out the challenge I face:FB

Time Out Review

I’m back from a year away with no plans to change back the name of my blog.  I’ve decided that I like the idea of keeping it as a Time Out space, a chance to step away and review what is happening around me as I head back into the classroom. I’ve had a three and a half year hiatus, a chance to learned so much about technology, learning, teaching and myself.  I’ve been traveling extensively, volunteering abroad, learning a new language and just prior to that, working in the teacher education arena for three years.  My goal now is to really put what I’ve been learning and “preaching”  into practice, particularly the reflective practice part here on this Time Out blog.    I’m truly pumped about the chance to gently remodel my own teaching in ways that I’ve watched so many brilliant, fascinating, energetic teachers do over the past few years.

From Kathy Cassidy at

From Kathy Cassidy at

To start, I’ve accepted a position in a classroom with a mounted Smartboard.  Today I received an email from one of my former adult students about his upcoming research into the pedagogy behind the use of such technology.  He wonders if they all about bells and whistles or is there really a benefit to pedagogic practice?  From my conversation with him I’ve taken on a challenge to myself:  How can I effectively use the Smartboard in a way that is learner-centered, in a manner that isn’t simply about the teacher transmitting information?

Personally I believe that there is a huge value to the use of the interactive white board. Initially the motivation and engagement of the students alone is worthwhile, but clearly the novelty wears off quickly, particularly if students are simply watching the teacher “play” with the “toy.” To be useful over any length of time, the tool needs to be a tool for the students to use.  To this point, working always with adult learners, I’ve almost never touched the Smartboard myself.  When I would visit classrooms where I offered to demonstrate the IWB’s use for the teacher, I always attempted to do the whole lesson without ever touching the board myself. Usually, other than sorting out initial glitches in the connection I could manage.  However, on one-off situations such as that, always a novelty, my hand’s off approach was easy to do. So the question will be, can I really teach with a Smartboard as a tool for the students over the course of the school year?

I’ll keep you posted.