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One benefit of getting older…

12 May

…is that you age your way out of the generational gaze. You know the one. The one that fixes on everything younger than 30 or 40, and can’t see anything but narcissism, entitlement, deviance and degrading values.

I wrote this blog many months back, and a much shorter and slightly different version of it was published over on the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Centre’s blog. What didn’t make it into that version was a lengthy critique of some of the empirical evidence that today’s young people are more narcissistic / less community-minded than previous so-called generations of young people. I’ve been spurred to publish the longer blog by a recent flurry of articles (are we seriously doing this again?beginning with Joel Stein’s TIME magazine piece, ‘The Me Me Me Generation’.

Many others have already taken on Stein’s argument – my favourite is entitled ‘Every Every Every Generation has been the Me Me Me Generation’ by Elspeth Reeve – but I figure this is a pretty good opportunity to dust off a draft and save it from the trash folder. I confess I haven’t even read Stein’s piece. It’s behind a paywall so that only rich old Boomers can access it. I’ll read it next time I go to an airport and pretend I’m really going to by a magazine at the newsstand.

*If you want more of this, I have a whole book for you! Check out Generation, Discourse and Social Change (2013). Hit me up for a free copy, or check it out of a university library if you just can’t wait for the paperback version.

Le Blog:

“They want more. They always want more… they just expect more… they’re gratitude-less. They’re not grateful… you can never satisfy [them]. You offer something up and it becomes an expectation. There’s a real sense of—well, an entitlement.”

That was 50-something Penny, speaking to me in a research interview two years ago, about “the younger generation”. She had some first-hand experience with them, working at a software company where there had recently been a bit of an influx of twenty-something hires. I had asked her if she noticed any age-related differences among the people she worked with. She didn’t hesitate for a moment.

A quick survey of recent media opinion pieces, and especially the comments section of online newspapers, suggests that Penny’s take on Generation Y is the hegemonic view of today’s twenty- and early thirty-somethings.

When it comes to work, this view generally paints Generation Y as lazy and non-committal, yet with an overblown sense of “entitlement” about salary, time off, and career progression.

As recent graduates, they’re said to bring a sense of “credential arrogance” to the workforce, as one of my interviewees put it, believing that their post-secondary degrees, and not their performance, will confer seniority on them.

This same sense of entitlement is said to rear its ugly head in school, first, as exemplified by the student who claims to “deserve” a certain mark, regardless of effort.

In politics, too, Generation Y appears to be going about things all wrong. Low youth voter turnout numbers have led many pundits and ordinary people to declare this generation “apathetic” or “politically disengaged.”

These characterizations go hand-in-hand with the argument that previous generations had it worse. It usually goes something like this, mined from the actual comments section of a Huffington Post article:

“It was much harder in my day. We had to deal with things your lazy generation can’t imagine. We had the Cold War going on and were worried about nuclear weapons exploding any day. You read about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Well I lived through it and you have no idea how it feels to have a bunch of nuclear weapons aimed at you. You have to go to University to get a job big deal. You didn’t have World War 2 going on like my father. He was dodging bullets and mortars in Europe while you worry about Black Friday or what the latest gizmo is. I lived through 18% mortgage rates. People declaring bankruptcy by the thousands. Families leaving the keys in the house because of banks foreclosing. Every generation has its own unique set of circumstances. Quit complaining and grow up.”

“Who had it tougher? Those who fought and died to give you the rights you take for granted, and worked to create an economy you feel a false entitlement to enter from the top.”

“The Boomers, of which I am one, worked for things and over the years upgraded to get where they wanted to be. What I see now are Gen Xs wanting/having everything right from the get-go. They want BIG houses, brand new cars (and 2 or 3 of them), big boats, designer clothes, etc. My parents didn’t buy anything they couldn’t pay cash for, my generation were willing to go in the hole; however, not to the depths that you see now. Quite frankly, I couldn’t sleep at night with that kind of debt load. These days you don’t see a high-schooler driving ‘a beater’ like we did.”

It doesn’t take much to recognize these rants for what they are: the old “uphill, barefoot, both ways to school” adage, just in a different form.

Yet, they continue to crop up everywhere, their authors apparently unaware of their unoriginality.

When Generation Y speaks back to these rants, as they often do, they point to stagnating wages, the expansion of non-permanent employment, abominable student debt, soaring house prices, the difficulties of making a dual-earner relationship work, post-secondary institutions that are bursting at the seams, the inflation of post-secondary degrees, and the overall uncertainty of our economies and labour markets, even in once-reliable sectors.

They are compelled to justify their expenses – ‘you need a smart phone in this day and age’; ‘I hardly spend anything at all on clothes and entertainment’ – and tally up their commitments, working hours, sacrifices and delayed gratification.

They explain the reality of temp work and unpaid internships, and the worry that these stations are not passing-points on the way to good careers, but whirlpools on a vast sea of crap jobs and unpredictable markets.

Even when they protest in the streets, as hundreds of thousands of young people did last year in Quebec’s “Maple Spring”, they’re told they should wait for an election, go to the polls, and change the world through democratic suffrage. When they say the choices on the ballot don’t reflect their values, they’re told to “start their own political party.” When they don’t, the prophecy is fulfilled: Millennials are apathetic and lazy.

The saddest part of these conversations, over and above the question of who’s right or wrong, is that they always descend into petty fights over who had it worse, and who is more virtuous for having survived and possibly thrived in their particular historical moment.

Also sad, for a sociologist who studies generations carefully and critically, is how the concept of generation becomes a tool for individualistic division and competition instead of an indicator of the importance of social, political economic, and historical context. Generation becomes a catch-all for every apparent (and usually anecdotal) schism, a way of setting “people your age” apart from “people my age”, without much attention at all to the contexts that make generation more than just age.

The “Science” of Generations?

Of course, not every apparently “generational” difference is purely anecdotal. Some of them are backed up by the scientific authority that comes along with “factor analysis” and “p values” and “regression models”.

Yet there’s a problem with the scientific “evidence” of generational difference: it’s wildly divergent. Over the last two decades, numerous quantitative studies have attempted to measure and compare the attitudes, beliefs, values, behaviours and personality traits of different generations. Some have found that the younger generation – X or Y, depending on the study date – is more environmentally and socially conscious, less materialistic, more community-minded and less cynical than the Boomers, while others have found the opposite.

Psychologist Jean Twenge has tried to settle the dispute once and for all, drawing on annual surveys of high school students and university entrants from the 1960s to the present.[1] Looking specifically at the surveys’ sections on “life goals, concern for others, and civic orientation”, Twenge and her colleagues attempted to compare levels of “community feeling”, “narcissism”, “empathy” and “civic engagement”, as well as the presence of “intrinsic” and “extrinsic life goals” across three generations: The Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y.

Their study concludes that today’s generation of young people is more “narcissistic” and less “empathetic” than previous generations, as evidenced in “lower levels of community feeling,”  “less intrinsic and more extrinsic life goals, less concern for others, and lower civic engagement.”[2]

Twenge has trumpeted these findings loudly and confidently in popular media. She has even produced a whole book called Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before. On its cover, a bare, tattooed midriff sits atop low-slung jeans, the physical manifestation of entitled narcissism, every parent’s – and a whole culture’s – worst fear.

But peppered throughout her otherwise authoritative writings are quiet warnings about the validity of her research findings. She admits, for example, that they must be “interpreted with caution” because many of them refer only to young people who enroll in a 4-year college degree. Moreover, the study design cannot differentiate between time period effects and generational effects – in other words, there is no way to tell whether the young Boomers surveyed in the 1960s actually held on to the same values as they aged. When one considers the dismantling of the welfare state in the US, Canada and the UK over the lifetimes of most so-called Boomers – the individualistic legacies of the popular Reagan, Mulroney and Thatcher governments – one might doubt the staying power of their communitarian, youthful values.

Another limitation is that the survey questions on which Twenge’s study is based were designed in, and mostly unchanged since, the 1960s. The meanings of many of the central concepts in those surveys – concepts like community, environment, society, and politics – are by no means static. They are historically contingent, shifting with our knowledge of the world around us, our reference points, and our ways of knowing, all of which have been transformed through processes of globalization, de-industrialization, and technological developments. The idea that we can measure “levels” of things like “community feeling” is questionable, especially when the very concept of community itself is socially constructed, or as Benedict Anderson put it, “imagined,” and imagined differently in different times and places.

But there is an additional problem. Twenge’s study does what nearly every other quantitative study (and many qualitative studies) of generation does: it begins from the unproven – and perhaps unprovable – assumption that generations are discrete, definitive categories of people, whose boundaries can be determined in advance based on birthdate alone.

It thus commits what we might call an a priori fallacy: it starts with an answer, not a question. It starts, confidently and un-reflexively, with the boxes – Boomers in Box Number 1, Generation X in Box 2, Generation Y in Box 3, and then sets out to organize data into these pre-fabricated containers.

The thing is, the meaning of generation can’t be taken for granted. As I explored in my own research, its meaning has stumped philosophers, theologians, psychologists, sociologists and historians for centuries. Its general definition is an unanswered philosophical question; the boundary of each individual generation is an under-studied empirical question.

Too often, studies of generational differences simply adopt the categorizations of previous studies, or they draw arbitrary boundaries around nice, round numbers and evenly spaced categories. One has to wonder what would happen if the boundaries were bumped five or six years in either direction. Would the generational differences be the muted, amplified, or the same?

This is all the more problematic because when generation is based on arbitrary ranges of birthdates alone, it is reduced to just age. The idea that political economic and historical context matters is there, to some extent – and in some cases more than others[3] – but it is generally pushed to the background.

Generational differences are rendered instead as psychological, individualistic differences, as though they develop spontaneously and instantaneously, at the level of the individual. It’s as if a switch is flipped every fifteen years: this year it’s the narcissism switch; fifteen years ago it was the slacker switch. The opportunity for cultural critique – and a sociological imagination – is wasted too often. Instead, the research simply feeds the hungry fires of intergenerational conflict.

This, apparently, is the state of the “science” of generations: divergent, deductive, and built on questionable foundations. If we take seriously the criticisms and contributions of the reflexive turn – the emphasis on examining and assessing our ontological and epistemological assumptions rather than leaving them unquestioned, calling into question the “objectivity” and “neutrality” of science – we might argue that it is hardly science at all.[4]

At the very least, we must question how social scientific research on generations shapes social life, informs people’s understandings of the world around them, and rationalizes the judgments we cast upon one another. Is it possible that in reifying the boundaries between this and that generation, social scientists have helped cultivate feelings of enmity between older and younger people?

In any case, the more we iterate generation as an axis along which people should align, the more we legitimate it and rationalize it as a category and an order. We might be okay with that, but we cannot be oblivious to it.

In my qualitative research on generations and work, I drew on interviews with 52 Canadians of various ages to argue that attempts to define or characterize different generations – whether as part of a scientific project or a conversation around the water cooler – constitute a politics of representation.[5]

The basic premise of the politics of representation is that by representing things with language, we imbue those things with meaning. Because language is always ongoing in various forms of discourse, and because it never comes from a single source or develops in isolation in a single context, the meanings of words (like the things they represent) are never “fixed” and rarely “unitary.”

Therefore, there is always the possibility that meanings will be contested, and that certain interests will be served more by some meanings than by others. Hugh Mehan summarizes the implications of this possibility as follows, pointing out the political dimension of contestation and alerting us to the fact that language and meaning are objects and tools of power:

Language has power. The language we use in public political discourse and the way we talk about events and people in everyday life makes a difference in the way we think and the way we act about them. This sentiment is captured by Tom Stoppard in his play, The Reality: ‘If you can get the right words in the right order, you can nudge the world a little’  [ . . . ] Words have constitutive power: they make meaning of things. And when we make meaning, the world is changed as a consequence.[6]

In my research, I found that the battle to make meaning of generation was waged on all sides. The key battleground I explored was work, and it was there that I found the language of social science unleashed in the everyday lives of ordinary people. Generation Y’s orientation toward the task of making a living – whether they eschewed comfortable jobs for creative ones they found fulfilling, or found themselves unwittingly hopping between short-term contracts – was framed as “entitlement”, the connections between their working lives and the major political economic shifts of the last forty years downplayed. The Boomers’ commitment to work, meanwhile, was framed as a function of “materialism” and “workaholism” rather than a legacy of Protestantism or a sense of loyalty to The Company.

The sense-making strategies of ordinary people and the “science” of generations seem to feed back on each other, offering both sources the authority they need to continue doing what they do. It is in the wake of this feedback loop that the management science of generations – the “generations management” literature and consulting boom – continues to flourish, supplying coworkers, managers, recruiters and analysts with the easy conceptual categories they can use to get a handle on diverse workplaces without having to deal with the idiosyncracies and contingencies – the mess – of real life.

Moreover, the uneven scrutiny hefted on Generation Y begs us to ask about whose interests are at stake in defining them as petulant, selfish brats who don’t know how the real world works.

Indeed, the more interesting social scientific questions, to my mind, revolve not around the qualities of different generations, but rather around the construction of generation as a category, and the related attempts to criticize or reform the generational subjectivities we find unpalatable – the narcissism, the individualism, the apathy. In looking at who is trying to describe a generation and how, we can learn a lot about power, and this, as Bent Flyvbjerg puts it, is how social science can truly matter.[7]


[1] Twenge, J., Campbell, K. and Freeman, E. (2012). ‘Generational Differences in Young Adults’ Life Goals, Concern for Others, and Civic Orientation, 1966 –2009’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102(5): 1045–1062.

[2] Twenge, ‘Generational Differences’, p. 1060.

[3] James Cote’s work, for example, pays a little more attention to political economic context, although it still makes sweeping generalizations about “young people.”

[4] See, for example, Bourdieu, P. (2004) The Science of Science and Reflexivity. London, UK: Polity Press.

[5] My book (Generation, Discourse and Social Change) is forthcoming with Routledge in early 2013.

[6] Mehan, H. (1997) “The discourse of the illegal immigration debate: a case study in the politics of representation.” Discourse & Society 8(2):249–270.

[7] Flyvbjerg, B. (2001) Making Social Science Matter. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

How to Eliminate Tuition Fees (and do it right)

9 Jun

Quebec student group CLASSE has come forward with an offer of what it would take to end their almost four-month strike: the elimination of tuition fees by 2016. The plan is based on taxing banks, starting at 0.14 per cent per cent this year, and rising to 0.7 per cent over the next four.

According to CLASSE’s calculations, the tax would net $400M per year – enough to fund a tuition-fee-free post-secondary system.

Of course, this proposal has media outlets like The Sun and the National Post ‘setting their hair on fire’, as my friend Erika Shaker would say. Already, we have the usual erudite reactions from internet trolls and their startling real-life manifestations. Over the next few days, we will surely (?) begin to see more semi-researched arguments that come within ten feet of a fact.

Despite what we’ve heard and will continue to hear from the knotted-knickers crowd, eliminating tuition fees is not a pie-in-the-sky idea. It’s radical, yes – radical is context-dependent – but it’s not unachievable. It’s utopian, and idealist, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also practical and pragmatic. These things sometimes, indeed often, go together. We urge our children and each other, ‘follow your dreams,’ ‘be the change you want to see in the world,’ and to grab life by whatever of its body parts are within grasp. But when it comes to collective dreams, we’re a little more reserved.

Here I want to propose that eliminating tuition fees is a viable option, and it’s worth going for – but it isn’t, in itself, a panacea. It has to be combined with other policy changes and considerations in order for it to truly contribute to the leveling aims universal higher education is meant to achieve.

First, on the viable option bit. There are now twenty OECD countries that charge zero or only nominal tuition fees to citizens. Some of these countries, like Greece, are struggling – but so is the US, and so is Canada, and so is the UK, and many other places that have begun to eat themselves alive now that neoliberal economic policies have failed to deliver on their promises of booming, invisible-hand-driven markets. None of these places got where they are by offering too much to their citizens.

Other countries that fund university through taxes boast thriving economies: Argentina and Sri Lanka, for example, were among the top ten fastest growing economies in 2011. The GDP of Sweden, Mauritius, Morocco, Kenya and Peru grew faster than the world average that year, while Brazil, Malta, Germany and Finland beat Canada, the UK and the US handily. There may not be a hard and fast relationship between how university is funded and a country’s economic performance, but that just adds to the argument for the elimination of tuition fees.

In Canada, we have numerous ways to collectivize and subsidize the costs for post-secondary education for everyone. CLASSE’s proposal is interesting because it places the burden on banks (perhaps they watched this tiny person’s presentation) – you know, the same banks whose representatives circle like vultures, in the subway stations students tend to pass through on their commutes, or in the Student Union Buildings of nearly every major university, offering free swag to any broke chump who’ll sign on the dotted line (a practice which, for the record, should be banned).

If taxing the banks is rejected in our wealth-sycophant public forum – which it will be, because banks will, oh, I don’t know, pick up and move operations, restrict spending, raise interest rates and user fees, or whatever else we allow major economic players to get away with in the name of ‘fairness’ and the free market – there are alternative ways to fund an education system.

Some of the countries listed earlier just take university funding out of their considerable tax coffers. In Canada, we’d have to raise taxes (or redirect money away from the F-35s and other pet projects of the overgrown schoolboys we call Conservative Government Ministers) to be able to earmark the necessary funds for a publicly-funded university system. But not by much: for example, a 2011 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calculated that if every family in Ontario paid a tax of $170 per year, we could fund the university education of every aspirant student in the province.

But while the publicly-funded university is economically viable, it does present some real problems for those of us who see it as a democratizing, leveling social good. For one, ‘free’ university (and it isn’t free, it’s collectivized, and there’s a difference, and we KNOW THIS ALREADY, GEORGE JONAS!) tends to benefit mainly the middle class who would find some way to afford it anyway. There are cultural, historical reasons for the demographic makeup of universities, and eliminating fees won’t open the floodgates to poor, rural, or minority students in any huge or immediate way. There need to be policies in place to ensure that students who are underrepresented in universities and colleges are able to take advantage of tuition-free post-secondary education, and we need to ensure that, to the extent possible, our pedagogical instruments, course content and cultures are welcoming to diverse students, and not just the best and the brightest middle class students from other countries.

Related to this is the downside of funding universities through individual income taxes: if it is predominantly the middle and upper classes who benefit from tuition-free post-secondary education, and yet the tax is applied universally in an only somewhat progressive tax scheme, the funding model amounts to redistributing income from the lowest economic quintiles to the highest – and we already have enough of that going on, thank-you-very-much. A shift in tax policy could mitigate these effects, but so could the CLASSE model.

The latter is especially compelling because it sidesteps the problem of some of ‘us’ subsidizing the ‘others’ individually – something we seem to be really uncomfortable with, judging by our (apparent, unproven) contempt for taxes.

But it doesn’t evade another, somewhat justified point of resistance to the elimination of tuition fees: that of the loafers who will surely take advantage of a tuition-free spot in a university classroom without putting in the work necessary to succeed, without learning anything, without ever giving society a return on its investment. On the one hand, this critique smacks of similar ones made of public healthcare – that ‘we’ shouldn’t have to subsidize the medical treatment of people who eat junk, smoke cigarettes, drink too much alcohol, take risks in their leisure pursuits, etc. It’s similar also to the anti-union rhetoric that comes from grudging union members and former members – that seniority systems allow people with no work ethic to languish at the top while hardworking folks hit the seniority ceiling early. To these arguments, I usually say ‘one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl.’

But here, I’ll admit that, particularly in a society where there is so much pressure for high-school students to apply to and enroll in university, there’s a real risk of deadweight. It’s already happening in cases where well-intentioned parents support their kids in university when the kids aren’t ready, or don’t want to go, or don’t know why they’re there. It’s definitely an issue with varsity athletes on sports scholarships – I can’t tell you how often I hear of the student who “has to” maintain a certain average (i.e., as a professor, you “have to” give them this average) in order to keep his or her athletic scholarship.

Thus, there’s a good argument to be made for students needing to maintain a certain GPA, and maybe even some volunteer work or short placements in industries with labour shortages (or, for some folks, military service, which ain’t my thing), and even incentives to move to or stay in rural or Northern areas which struggle to attract recent graduates. In other words, there’s room to make students ‘pay’ for their tuition-free education in other ways – ways which may actually strengthen the social fabric and the economy rather than burdening students with exorbitant debt and stifling their much-needed spending for years to come.

Finally, the case for eliminating tuition fees often revolves around the university specifically, leaving out technical institutions, vocational schools, community colleges. This is especially a problem given the present mismatch between skilled labour supply and demand in Canada. In short, from the problematic but entrenched view of universities as strictly job-training apparatuses and not civic institutions that produce thoughtful, critical subjects, there are too many people enrolled in and graduating from them. This is evident, first, in unemployment rates of recent grads. In 2011, 7.4% of people aged 30 and under with a university undergraduate degree were unemployed, compared to just 3.8% of those over thirty with the same level of education. Only 48.1% of 30-and-unders with university degrees had full-time, permanent jobs, compared to 57% of older university graduates (and this includes the downward pull of retirement-age people in that category). For 30-and-unders with post-graduate degrees (PhD and professional schools, for example), the unemployment rate was 6%, only 41.5% had full-time, permanent gigs, a whopping 18% were working full-time, temporary or contract jobs (a 6% increase since 2001), and a further 16% had part-time jobs (8% of them short-term contracts). The picture for older post-graduate degree-holders was better, with only 4% unemployed, 56% in full-time, permanent jobs, 6% in full-time temporary jobs, and 7% in part-time jobs. (All of these figures are unpublished data from the 2011 LFS, author’s calculations.)

Meanwhile, we know we have skilled labour shortages in many areas. Anecdotal reports from employers suggest we need more professional truck drivers, more mining and geological professionals, and more engineering, science and technology graduates. Last year, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce predicted shortfalls of “163,000 in construction, 130,000 in oil and gas, 60,000 in nursing, 37,000 in trucking, 22,000 in the hotel industry and 10,000 in the steel trades” over the next decade.

While Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister, Margaret Wente, would prefer to simply chastise people who opt for English degrees when there are skills shortages in other areas, what we need is a national strategy that connects people with jobs while they are still at the point of choosing what to do with their lives, career-wise. We need incentives, not disincentives. We don’t need weird tweaks to EI that push out-of-work lobster fishermen to try their hands at telemarketing. We need to think long-term, not only about the spots that need filled, but the people who are going to need spots.

We can’t remove the financial barriers to university without also removing barriers, and perhaps increasing incentives, to the programs that will produce graduates with the skills we need for a booming economy. These aims can also foster a fairer, more leveling economy. But it can’t be a piecemeal approach.

Proposals for eliminating tuition aren’t simply idealistic or utopian; they are the definition of pragmatic and utilitarian. The latter terms are often used to ferry in austerity measures and justify harsh cuts to social programs – they’re often abused, particularly in the liberal media and conservative political rhetoric. But their philosophical meaning revolves around the good, and the greatest good for the greatest number of people. So let’s be pragmatic. Let’s be utilitarian. Let’s eliminate tuition fees, but let’s do it right.

Special thanks to Rollen Lee, Andrew Riddles and David Tough for the Facebook conversation that spurred and helped this post.

On Strike from Life as we Know it

17 May

The Quebec Government just announced a “special law” intended to bring an end to the 14-week student strike in that province. The law would postpone the rest of this semester and allow current students to finish it in August before starting school again in October.

The announcement came on the heels of a particularly contentious move by some strikers to “storm” Montreal classrooms in an attempt to disrupt classes where students had obtained a legal injunction to return to class. (The lesson might have been ‘Scabbing 101’.)

The questionable justness of this law aside, it reveals just how out of touch the Charest government is with the ‘nature’ of social movements as we know them. The messaging around the law, moreover, shows that governance, in Quebec as elsewhere, is so focused on the objective goal of hanging onto political power that it forgets how to work with subjective things like values.

The justification for the law – the public, official line anyway – is that “Access to education is a right. Nobody can pretend to defend access to education and then block the doors of a CEGEP or university.”

And yet, by raising tuition 82% over the next 7 years, the Charest government may as well be blocking the doors of every CEGEP or university in the province. Where the student strikers blocked access blindly and evenly, the government would filter it selectively, allowing those with the resources to enter freely and denying those without.

If education is a right, it can’t come with an exclusionary price tag. Charest can’t have it both ways.

This is what I mean by governance that forgets how to work with values. It’s clumsy. It contradicts itself. It survives on might, not right. It survives only because it has accumulated power by dispossessing others of it. But it only survives until the next election, and maybe, hopefully, not even that long.

Granted, Charest and the people surrounding and supporting him probably do not see the contradiction here, and would deny it if it was pointed out to them. The key word for them is “access”, and in the liberal and neoliberal view of things, access is something distributed evenly to every baby in utero. Right of access, therefore, is perfectly complementary to a user fee system.

Regardless of how the law is pitched and whether it’s eventually passed, it’s no panacea. It’s not going to “restore calm”, and if it does succeed in technically ending the strike (by removing that which the students are striking from), it can’t put an end to a social movement. That’s not how this stuff works.

As the students have pointed out for months, CLASSE and the movement around it are about far more than fighting a tuition hike. This thing is bigger than the strike. Students and supporters are no longer just refusing to go to class. They’re refusing to live as they’ve been accustomed to. They’re on strike from life as we know it.

Why work?

11 May

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

[…]

If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m raw
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore
And you would wait tables and soon run the store

Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues’ (2011)

Why work?

It’s a stupid question, isn’t it? If nobody worked, we’d all die. Even in the simplest imaginable society – a deserted island, where there was no need for shelter or any other type of infrastructure – we’d still need nourishment, and that takes work. In our complex, advanced capitalist, post-industrial world, there’s no getting around it either.

But ‘why work so hard?’ – that’s a reasonable question. ‘Why work in this way and not that way?’ – also worth asking. And there are many different answers to each of these questions, depending on who you ask, and how hard you press for answers.

I found this out doing interviews for my dissertation, but you can find it too if you just ask your mom, your dad, your neighbour, the guy who sells you coffee, the woman whose kid you take care of. Or try asking yourself.

You will find that some people just ‘fall into’ particular jobs, and subsequently particular ways of doing those jobs. Sometimes their work just keeps ramping up, taking up more time and energy and concentration, until it’s just about all they have. Sometimes the rewards – psychological, material, even spiritual – are enough to make a work-dominated life appealing, and maybe justifiably so. In some cases, a person’s relationship to work has all the markings of an addiction.

When you ask these people why they work so hard, they can offer personal, idiosyncratic reasons – ‘I derive satisfaction from my role in the organization’ – but they can also draw on dominant discourses about the virtue of work and, conversely, the moral bankruptcy of idleness. Doing a job – and doing it to excess – is framed in this discourse as one of the only obligations anyone really has to the rest of society. Not doing it is irresponsible, deplorable even.

Then there are people who consciously resist paid work’s tendency to colonize other corners of life. I’ve written before on how these folks appear to confront their desire for resistance as a choice between two options: doing a job – any job – just until their basic needs are met, or finding a job that is so inherently satisfying it doesn’t feel like work. The goal, to paraphrase Andre Gorz, is either to liberate oneself from work, by not doing it, or keeping it confined to short hours and ‘easy’ tasks, or to liberate oneself in work, by finding some life-affirming vocation that just happens to come with a paycheque. The only thing to be avoided is imprisonment in a shitty job.

These were the people, in my interviews, who drank their coffee on the front porch during rush hour, watching, with a mixture of pity, empathy, and a touch of disdain, as the rest of the world inched toward its offices in the same traffic, day in and day out.

The rest of the world, for these people, was trapped: in cars, in cubicles, in careers, and in the unconscious and unquestioned pursuit of money and material things.

Sure, they admitted, many people threw themselves into jobs without any of the money or material rewards in mind. But such people were the exception, and we didn’t need to worry about them. The ‘liberated’ interviewees worried instead about friends and family members who had simply gotten caught in a current of unrewarding and in certain respects unnecessary labour, and were going to drift along that way until sweet, sacred retirement. Floating along like that, they were going to miss ‘what’s really important’.

***

The two extremes – embracing work unquestioningly and resisting it consciously – are ideal types, straw men who don’t exist in such starkness in real life. And there are plenty of different and equally nuanced points on the spectrum between them.

But in talking to younger people especially, it’s clear that these extremes are poles that exert considerable pull on those who are trying to figure out what to ‘be’. Many of my youngest interviewees (mainly the ones who didn’t have children yet – not to be confused with being financially stable) articulated two conflicting desires: first, the desire for a job they could happily work until they were sore, like the orchard in the song that opens this post, and second, the desire for paid work that stayed put, between the hours of 9 and 5, leaving them plenty of ‘off the clock’ time.

‘Conflicting’ might not be the right word – really these options are just different. The people struggling with them were either willing to take whichever came first or easiest, or they set their sights on one or the other and just went for it, because both led to the same end: some kind of liberation. What they wouldn’t do – couldn’t do – was settle for imprisonment in paid work.

***

Perhaps the foregoing seems trivial at a time when so many people are unemployed, or underemployed, struggling just to get by. Waxing about the ideal relationship to work at a time like this is sort of indulgent, isn’t it? And being picky about jobs – what a privilege!

But I want to argue that how we think about the purpose of work has everything to do with the unemployment rate, the economic system, the relative power of workers and employers, what and how we produce and consume, and the (re)distribution of wealth and other resources. Any change in the way we, individually and culturally, imagine the place of work in life, can have severe and noticeable political and economic ramifications.

To write such concerns off as impertinent is to confuse ‘the way things are’ with ‘the way things will be’, or worse, to confuse the ‘is’ with the ‘ought’. It is to assume that there are stable, ahistorical and therefore inarguable answers to the questions ‘why work so hard?’ and ‘why work in this way?’ I propose that there aren’t.

It turns out I’m not alone. Almost, though.

I’ve written before about Bertrand Russell’s observation about ‘modern’ life – namely, that its ‘methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all’ and yet ‘we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others.’ This ‘insane’ arrangement seems to flow out of some equally insane insistence we have that only full-time workers should be able to afford to live full lives.

Historian James Livingston has been pounding away at a similar point for several years now. His slogan, which he’s been encouraging ‘the Left’ to adopt, is ‘FUCK WORK.’ He argues that the Left ‘is still too deeply, even emotionally attached to the idea and the agenda of productive labor,’ such that when it tries to reach for social change – to minimize inequity, to ‘level’ society – it focuses obsessively on ‘correcting the relation between effort and reward, between work and income.’ It always looks back, as Richard Sennett does in The Craftsman, or Bellah et. al. do in Habits of the Heart, for a time when work was soul-nourishing stuff you did with your hands. It wants everyone to have a calling.

When I first started researching for my thesis, I wanted that too. The whole thing was going to be organized around the idea of the calling. My assumption, going in, was that bettering the world of work meant linking every person up with the work they were meant to do.

But then one of my advisors issued a critique that was as devastating as it was short:

Not everyone wants a calling. Some people just want a job.

Some people, espousing what Max Weber called the ‘Traditional Economic Ethic’, view work as ‘necessary drudgery,’ ‘to be avoided as soon as customary and constant economic needs [are] met.’ And they’re fine with that. They don’t thirst for a calling, nor do they view work as ‘indispensable to life.’ If they could get away with not working, or working less, they would. And that’s okay.

This is what Livingston’s getting at, too. For these people, ‘true freedom lies beyond the realm of necessity, in the aftermath of hard labor—off the clock, as it were, and after hours.’ They know, as Livingston puts it, that

‘We don’t need work to fashion our genuine selves, to produce character and authenticity.  There’s not enough real work to go around, anyway, so we might as well get on with a discussion of why the relation between the production of value and the receipt of income can never again be understood as a transparently cause-effect relation. We might as well get on with a discussion of how to detach one from the other—income from work—and entertain, accordingly, the practical applications of the criterion of need, “from each according to her abilities, to each according to his needs.”  We’re already involved in this discussion when we debate so-called transfer payments and entitlements.’

***

From the stories I’ve heard in interviews and casual conversations, as well as from poetry, lyrics and prose written by people in my general age group, I’ve developed the rather unscientific sense that more people are toying with the question, ‘Why work?’ and maybe even adopting the slogan, ‘FUCK WORK.’

It conflicts with everything we were told, growing up, at least those of us in middle-class households where our customary needs were always met (and handily).

We were told that to ‘be’ something one had to choose a vocation, or be chosen by one on the basis of talent or fate or divine intervention. We were told we could ‘be’ anything we wanted, so long as it involved work.

Even now that we’re older, every introductory conversation begins with ‘so what do you do?’, and by ‘do’, we always mean ‘for a living.’

But in my personal orbit at least, there are signs that this is changing.

For instance, today I discovered the word ‘funemployment.’ It’s a term that emphasizes the joy of being free of work, but it’s ironic; everyone knows that unemployment usually means just barely squeaking by, and there’s nothing fun about that. (It has also been used, notably by the Globe & Mail, to chastise young people who are apparently out hamming it up instead of working a job – as though it’s entirely voluntary.)

Yet funemployment is arguably a good term, a necessary term, for a loose ‘generation’ of people who are more likely than ever to work short-term contracts with spells of unemployment in between. It allows us to laugh at ourselves when we should probably be distressed.

It could also be one tiny step toward acknowledging that unemployment is a chronic problem, one that doesn’t just happen to people selectively, when they mess up and lose their way. Like a disease, it’s not very discriminating. It isn’t, however, inevitable – only in our present system, where ‘the market’ ostensibly decides who works and who doesn’t, what we produce and consume,  and how many productive bodies are needed in order to meet our basic needs and our luxuries.

And really, let’s not kid ourselves – there is no apolitical market, chugging along on its own steam. As an exasperated Bertold Brecht put it, ‘the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions.’

In this way, the market, and the jobs it offers us (or doesn’t), is our market. It can be within our control. Just as we can be ‘functioning cogs in some great machine’, we can throw ourselves on the gears.

Heck, more of us have nothing but time. What are we waiting for?

Making Sense of Youth Voter Apathy OR Why Youth Voter Apathy Makes Sense

27 Mar

I’m 28, and I’ve voted in every federal election since I was old enough to do so. Yet I understand why the majority of people my age didn’t, and won’t, and why those who turned voting age after me were less and less likely to cast a ballot. In fact, it’s easier to comprehend why most don’t vote than to explain why some do.

I am sure that some of the decline is because we’ve simply absorbed the apathy and disenchantment we likely grew up with at home. Where many older people in and outside the public eye have lamented the degradation of politics – harkening back to some golden age when politics was more civil, when kids knew the Prime Minister’s name – there was no golden age for us. Just as we stepped into our fast food uniforms long after the golden age of employment, we turned 18 long after the (possibly imaginary) golden age of politics.

We don’t remember the peak, or even some higher ground. We opened our eyes for the first time and all we saw was the ditch.

Public discourse about politics, in my lifetime, has always been rather negative. I learned as a teen that one shouldn’t bring up politics at a dinner party, because it’s divisive. When I was even younger, I learned by watching Air Farce and This Hour that politicians are stuffy old people we make fun of, not our representatives, nor even our oppressors. I didn’t conclude that politicians were good or bad; rather, I concluded that they’re irrelevant except when you need something to joke about. I still remember running around the schoolyard yelling “REFOOOOOOOOORM” after the old Air Farce Preston Manning skit.

But there’s something else, besides the negativity, in the way politics is constructed in public discourse. In the news media, and in TV and film, the political sphere is presented as an arena of warring tactics, competition, and winning, rather than a space where we hash out the values and ideals that define us. The parties are made out to look like teams one belongs to, once and for all, rather than vehicles for advancing different visions of what we, the people, want society to be.

Image

Given that there’s no space for actual people in this rendering, except as spectators, it’s no wonder why turnout among the youngest Canadian voters (aged 18-25), just like overall voter turnout, has been on the decline since the 1970s. With each successive cohort of new voters less likely to vote than the one before it, and because young non-voters tend to become old non-voters, Canada now boasts the 16th lowest voter turnout out of 17th comparable countries.

For a brief moment during the last federal election, things looked promising, as ‘vote mobs’ sprang up across the country, aiming to translate electoral politics into a language the so-called Youtube generation could understand and feel inspired by. Rick Mercer dedicated a whole rant to the same goal. But despite the imaginative videos, the flag-waving, the pumping music and the dancing, youth voter turnout didn’t really budge.

This might stem from the fact that social media is just one of the places we turn to for cues about how to be in the world. And unfortunately, it’s awfully hard to be enchanted by the political sphere as it is interpreted and presented to us by the sum total of these other information sources. It is hard to see why a person should care.

Take, for example, the coverage of Thomas Mulcair’s election as the NDP’s new leader on March 24th. I watched the convention and voted in real time. I listened, trying to imagine the different directions each candidate wanted to take the party. I tried to decide, as did my fellow voters, which candidate would stay truest to the values that brought us to buy a membership in the NDP.

But the next day, the first headline I saw was something like this: “NDP Vote Marred by Technical Difficulties; Lacklustre Speeches.”

Sure, it’s just a headline. And as I’m frequently reminded by journalists, “deskers” write the headlines, and the headlines often make journalists cringe too. But the headline is meant to encapsulate the main point of an article, and for this article, the main point was that online voting was a bit slow and the speeches were boring. The direction of a political party, and its capacity to fight for and create the Canada its supporters want to see, was somehow marginalized by strategic and tactical shortcomings.

The day Mulcair served as Leader of the Official Opposition in the House of Commons for the first time, the story on CBC radio was this: Mulcair read his questions off of a piece of paper. The other leaders didn’t need notes.

What Mulcair and the others said, and the significance of their words against our particular political economic backdrop, were evidently not as important as putting the politicians’ performances to the Toastmasters test. Similar errors in focus occur whenever there is a protest to report on. The size of the crowd gets more attention than what the signs said, what the political-economic backdrop is, and what might have precipitated the protestors’ unrest.

I can only wager that journalists employed by mainstream news organizations shy away from “the issues” because they are afraid – indeed they are trained to be afraid – to even tread near them lest they appear to be taking a side. So, instead, they focus on the hard, objective ‘facts’ that seem apolitical because they can’t be challenged because they’re sensory. But this focus ends up feeding the status quo, because it effectively says ‘keep calm, carry on’ – there’s nothing but the nuts and bolts to see here, folks.

If we’re not easily captivated or entertained by the rhetorical and performative and numbers-based ‘game’ of politics – and that’s all it is, if you view it through the narrow lens provided by mainstream media – why would we give it another thought? Unless we are swept up into it by an inspiring political candidate or leader, or thrust into it via an issue near and dear to us, there don’t appear to be any good reasons to dwell on it any further.

What if the mainstream media bracketed concerns about whose voice shook, who tripped over their words, or who stumbled heading up the stairs, and focused instead on the critical social and economic issues at stake? What if they saw their role as defenders of the public interest, as the ones who could distil the bits of governing and politics that have real consequences for how we live our lives, make a living, and take care of ourselves and each other? My guess is that politics would change. Restoring the relevance of the political sphere would inevitably restore accountability to the political sphere. People would be watching, because they would see themselves and their concerns reflected back.

What do Bruce Springsteen, KONY2012 and Occupy have to do with one another?

10 Mar

This is a guest blog, courtesy of Brian Foster.

Now, no shells ripped the evening sky
No cities burning down
No army stormed the shores for which we’d die
No dictators were crowned
I awoke on a quiet night; I never heard a sound
The marauders raided in the dark
And they brought death to my hometown…

Send the robber barons straight to hell
The greedy thieves who came around
And ate the flesh of everything the found
Whose crimes have gone unpunished now
Who walk the street as free men now

They brought death to our hometown

—Bruce Springsteen

This week, a video about Ugandan warlord and indicted war criminal Joseph Kony gained worldwide attention. The video, known as “Kony 2012,” went viral, spreading like wildfire over Twitter and Facebook, racking up almost 70 million views on Youtube – a considerable accomplishment, normally achieved by videos of cats reluctantly playing pianos or projectiles connecting with unfortunate groins.

I finally caved midweek and watched the mini-documentary, and like many other viewers, the film left me more uncomfortable than inspired. Having taught African history to undergrads, I was uneasy with what I recognized to be a rather dangerously simplistic interpretation of the Ugandan conflict in the 2000s. I was especially irked by the documentary’s focus on a single warlord and its proposed solution—bringing Kony to justice and helping the Ugandan army.

Legions of thoughtful and considered commentators have since emerged to point out the weaknesses of Jason Russell’s Kony 2012, as well as to draw attention to some disturbing practices of “Invisible Children,” the American NGO Russell founded and did the documentary for.

Russell has begun to fire back. Responding to the criticism of oversimplifying a complex issue, he has maintained that he is “proud” to “tell a really powerful story.” The oversimplification, he says, was a deliberate attempt at effective messaging. The video aimed to tell the story of the Ugandan conflict, child-soldiers, wide scale rape, and sectarian warfare in a tightly packaged narrative, one that revolved around Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The point was to make the story digestible – easily consumed by those unfamiliar with the complexities of Ugandan history and society.

Importantly, Russell has told a number of publications that he decided to prioritize simplicity and digestibility after seeing the “vague” messaging coming out of, and apparently crippling, the Occupy movement.

Occupy, he told the Toronto Star, lacked branding and focus, and it suffered because of it. Invisible Children learned from this mistake, and decided to whittle its story and its message down to “one bad guy and a solution.”

As Russell put it, Kony 2012 is “really about branding the International Criminal Court as the place to bring people that act like Darth Vader or Lord Voldermort”. The simplicity of the story was an aesthetic decision, a way of promoting The Hague by portraying the story of Uganda’s civil-conflict as a story of Good-Versus-Evil that was easily recognizable to Westerners with Hollywood sensibilities.

 

Others have already made some crucial and sensible objections to Kony 2012’s approach. Here, I want to make just two.

First, while it may be tempting to portray the world in such a neatly packaged narrative, Lord Voldemort and Darth Vader were not real. (Let’s also not forget that Vader turned good at the last minute, proving that the Dark Side was not absolute… duh.) Reducing the Ugandan conflict to the actions of one horrible man ignores the even more nefarious structural forces that drove a nation into civil war. Plenty has been said on this simplicity, by many who are more qualified than I, so lets leave that criticism at that.

Another, and perhaps more immediate problem with this assessment was the criticism—bordering on dismissal—of the Occupy movement as vague, unfocused and lacking “branding.” To say this of the movement that literally mainstreamed the idea of the 99% vs. the 1%, and which has vaunted the issue of income inequality into the legislative and popular discourse of post-industrial nations across the West, is objectively wrong.

To be sure, this same criticism emerged throughout the early Occupations, as established media outlets and politicians grasped for – guess what – a simple message based on a list of central demands.

Following on the heels of the Arab Spring, which was focused on the highly familiar and age-old liberal cause célèbre of overthrowing dictators, expanding and securing the franchise and opening up nations to global trade, the Occupy movement seemed relatively unfocused. This is perhaps why most media were dismissive of the tight activist networks that developed between Occupy organizers and the Arab Spring, and why so many seemed to celebrate the success of the Arab Spring while bemoaning the lack of a clear message of Occupy.

The thing is, it’s easy to recognize injustice in far-away lands, especially when movements emulsify around the familiar goal of overthrowing a dictator, or putting a despot on trial.

Much more difficult is seeing those struggles, often close to home, that are aimed at dispersed and diffuse social and political systems, and appreciating that they are no less focused and no less legitimate than the ones that aim at a single terrible person.

Yet it is imperative that we do come to recognize and appreciate the legitimacy and urgency of these struggles. The enemy of this “generation” of newly awakened and incensed Western citizens is not a dictator or a despot. Western societies have so internalized the ideals of liberalism that the possibility of sinking into despotism or absolutist rule, at least as we know them, seems distant and unlikely. That is, perhaps, why we are so attracted to the story of Kony 2012. It gives us something recognizable to rail against – a despotic warlord held in the same category of evil as Osama Bin Laden or Hitler. We are attuned to feel and react to that form of power; we know what its abuse looks like, we are plainly aware of the threat it poses, and we are more resistant—though by no means impervious—to it.

But power, including the abuse of it, is no less present or catastrophic in our own society. As Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics make beautifully clear, death is brought to our hometowns silently, in the night, by quiet marauders who walk the streets in daylight.

The great trap of human intelligence is that we are particularly adept at figuring out how to make our own insidious abuses of power seem benign by holding them up against more absolute and recognizable examples.

This is the danger of Kony 2012. It helps us tell ourselves that evil and the abuse of power are things that exist “over there”, and that our own local abuses are much more nuanced and therefore less nefarious for it.

The challenge of our generation, and the challenge recognized by the Occupy movement, is coming to grips with the fact that what oppresses us, and so many others around the world, is not one thing or person. It is systemic, interconnected, driven by a mix of institutional momentum, political clout and the almighty dollar, and it demands broad social movements that are capable of addressing such slippery, quiet, dispersed and nuanced things. If only it were as simple as Kony 2012 makes it out to be – but alas, it’s not.

Questioning “The Prophet Drummond”

20 Feb

In the Commission report that bears his name, and in all of his media appearances since its release, Banker Don Drummond has ably played the disinterested expert, taking no pleasure in sharing the “gloomy message” he has for Ontario.

From the way most TV hosts and journalists have rushed forward to uncritically and sycophantically amplify not only Drummond’s report but the details of his professional and personal life – including his height, physical fitness and workout plan – it’s troublingly clear that most Ontarians in the fifth estate, and likely many in the general public, will accept at face value the predictions and prescriptions of a tall man in a suit no matter their impact on us, individually and collectively.

In fact, we’ll thank him for his “unflinching” and “innovative” recommendations. We’ll note his “impeccable qualifications and universal regard,” and then we’ll line up at the alter of deficit reduction to sacrifice whatever bits and pieces of our public services “the prophet Drummond” says we should. And we will do so knowing as much about deficit and government budgets as we know about metaphysics. We will take it all on faith.

Unless, of course, we decide not to.

It is in our power, as reporters and writers and ordinary people, to question the gospel coming from this government-finance cabal. When it comes to the Drummond report, there are two questions of primary importance: First, is the report based in sound economics? And second, in whose interests are its recommendations? Both questions dovetail into a larger, more fundamental one: is this really our best and only option?

It is my view, and one I share with many others, that it was falling for the Thatcher line at the dawn of the neoliberal era – “there is no alternative” – that all but guaranteed the world financial crisis of 2008. We would be wise not to fall for such rhetoric again.

Is the report based in sound economics?

While many journalists, political leaders and business folks have touted the report’s “solid, technocratic advice”, progressive economists have drawn attention to several serious flaws in Drummond’s analysis and reporting. Some of them amount to appalling sleights of hand. The following are some of the most troubling examples, brought to light by speakers and participants at the CCPA’s “Deconstructing Drummond” event, held last week in Toronto.

Accounting for inflation only when it’s convenient

The most egregiously simple trick in the report is its selective approach to accounting for inflation. When Drummond forecasts that government spending increases will outpace increases on the revenue side – thereby increasing the deficit – he accounts for inflation in growth but “forgets” to do so in spending. The result is that the money coming in looks dramatically smaller than the money going out. Economist Hugh MacKenzie corrected this, as an experiment, and found that in many cases the difference is enough to make a deficit into a surplus. Journalists and political leaders are obligated to ask how and why this sort of discrepancy made it into the report, and to let the public know the answer. We can handle a little number-crunching.

Predicting dramatically higher debt-servicing costs against the evidence

The Drummond Report projects that debt servicing charhes on government debt will increase 60-108% over the next five or six years – from $9.5B to as much as $19.7B, depending on which of the report’s three “scenarios” comes to fruition. As Hugh MacKenzie pointed out in his presentation, this implies a starting 4.4% interest rate, rising to 4.8% in 2017-18, when the current interest rate is only 3.5% – and portions of the government debt are slated to be refinanced at even lower rates over the next four years. Still, the Drummond report makes this prediction despite the US government’s promise to keep interest at present levels until at least 2014. It’s pure fantasy no right-minded economist would ever entertain seriously. And it makes billions of dollars of difference in the projected GDP-to-Debt ratio in 2018.

Including almost $2B in “contingency” funding

While it is probably fiscally prudent to have a bit of contingency money built into any economic plan, 6% of Drummond’s worst-case-scenario projected deficit ($30B in total) is a contingency fund.

Focusing on spending

In his public appearances, Drummond has taken pains to point out that the “mandate” given to his commission by the McGuinty government “precludes […] recommending new or increased taxes,” forcing him instead “to examine government spending as the primary source of a solution.” That an economist – well, a banker, to be precise – of “impeccable qualifications” would accept such a lopsided mandate, and then point a quivering finger at it to deflect criticism away from himself, should spur us to seriously question his abilities and his integrity – not to mention his guts.

Imagine that a respiratory specialist is given a patient with lung disease. The patient smokes a pack of cigarettes a day. The patient’s advocate asks the specialist to ignore the smoking and find solutions in every other aspect of the patient’s habits, environment and physiology. There is no way the public, other experts, and those on the front lines of health service delivery would accept his recommendations. But that is exactly what we are doing, if we accept Drummond’s recommendations without taking a good, long look at the revenue side of the deficit equation.

Overemphasizing spending as a cause of the deficit

The introductory chapter to the Drummond Report, helpfully reproduced, with no critical commentary, on the front page of the Toronto Star this past weekend, states that “the roots of Ontario’s current fix lie in both the economy and in the province’s record of failing to keep growth in government spending in line with revenue growth.” This might be music to Tim Hudak’s ears, but like most of the things in and around the PC leader’s brain, it’s more “truthiness” than “truth.”

The fact is that Ontario’s government spending, relative to GDP (which is the main manner in which government spending really matters), has actually been dropping fairly steadily since the early 1990s. It has, admittedly, spiked a bit recently, but it did so in response to the global recession.

Interpreting it the other way around is irresponsible economics, and just plain stupid. It confuses a cause with an effect. It would be like blaming your eating habits on your weight. It would be like trying to turn off the element by getting the water to stop boiling.

The recession got us into this manufactured “fix”. Before that, we were not hurtling toward financial ruin. And we are still not headed there in a handbasket.

Who benefits?

The foregoing are not oversights. They might not amount to a full-fledged conspiracy, but they are part of a larger discursive frame designed to scare Ontarians, including the elected officials that represent the province and the journalists whose function it is to hold the latter accountable to the former, into submission.

I should make clear that I do not disagree with the idea of maximizing the efficiency of public services. I’ve been caught in the Kafka novel of provincial bureaucracy. I’ve been on the waiting list for a GP for over four years. I don’t know how much money the program has spent “looking” for a doctor in a doctor shortage and sending me periodic letters instructing me to keep looking too.

There are also some decent specific recommendations. In health care, there’s a good suggestion to move away from a model that pays docs for every patient they treat toward one that pays a salary. There’s also an emphasis on the expansion and targeted growth of community care – a recommendation health practitioners and policy makers seem to agree with, although they are disappointed with the lack of attention to a glaring problem with our health system: inequity of access and outcomes. People who work in family services delivery and social assistance have also tepidly welcomed some of Drummond’s “efficiencies”. Ontario post-secondary students seem to have been spared the really harsh medicine too.  The report’s chapter on “Revenue Integrity” appears to be the best way Drummond could fit a discussion of taxation into the commission’s limited mandate, and it’s good.

But the overall framing of the issue, especially as it’s trickled out through the mainstream media, serves those who can afford the increasing individualization of once-collectivized expenses, and who are free to rake in the rewards of historically low taxes while the rest of us have our backs turned to ponder the merit and value of a litany of public services.

There is an alternative, or at least a wise compliment, to slicing up the fabric of our social safety net and public, collectivized programs: increasing revenue.

How to increase revenue and why

As Jim Stanford underscored in his “Deconstructing Drummond” talk, the debt-to-GDP ratio, because it is a fraction (Net Debt/GDP), is inherently responsive to adjustments above and below the division line. We can try to shrink the numerator – debt – as Drummond’s report has done, or we can try to grow the denominator. We certainly don’t want to do the opposite.

The thing is, the examples of Greece and other European polities show us that one clear way to demolish GDP is by implementing austerity measures. Even the IMF has started to warn of the dire consequences of “moving too fast” in this regard. That is, when governments clamp down too hard on spending, growth slows considerably, which means job losses, stagnating capital investments and a shrinking tax base.

Moreover, on the opposite side of the coin, we know that government spending on public services has a “multiplier effect” in the wider economy – with each dollar invested in public programs generating as much as an additional 50 cents through, for example, increased consumer spending and capital investments.

Government spending on business tax cuts, and even personal taxes at the higher end of the wealth scale, have comparatively piddly multipliers. (Our federal government says these cuts translate into more benefits in the long run, but they don’t back that claim up.) Reversing those tax cuts, in Ontario, would bring us up to a balanced budget.

Taxation is how we fund the things we want and need as a collective. Even the motley crew of citizens that we are, we have a shared interest in funding institutions like schools and hospitals, in investments in public transit infrastructure, renewable energy, research and development, and burgeoning industries, latent job-creators just waiting for an injection of capital (with strings attached – we don’t need another Caterpillar). Beyond taxes, there is no shortage of innovative options for governments looking to build revenue in other ways.

Don Drummond may have been instructed not to “go there”, but we weren’t.

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