For those attending the Munk Debate livestream on May 30th:
David Miller responded:
For those attending the Munk Debate livestream on May 30th:
David Miller responded:
It is easy to complain about public employees: are they not a privileged, elite, sheltered group? It seems that public employees and the cost of public payrolls are, yet again, in the sights of critics from the right. In particular, attacking the ‘burden’ on taxpayers of ‘excessive’ pensions, benefits, and salaries is an easy and simple way to short-circuit a serious political discussion. In Canada, such attacks do not tend to have the racist overtones they have in the US, where a growing segment of public employees come from black, Latino or other racial and ethnic minority groups. Nevertheless, such attacks can be scathing.
One thing about these criticisms is that they essentially miss the point. The purpose of government is not the same as that of business, nor would taxpayers truly want their government to be run like a private for-profit enterprise. Imagine peoples’ reaction if the prices of government services truly followed the laws of supply and demand: the price of healthcare, prescriptions, surgeries, education, road and infrastructure construction, and a whole host of other high-demand items and services would be so high that it would quickly render many private businesses uneconomic. Imagine if every individual had to pay directly for their own education, health care, road use, sewers, personal protection, water, etc.?
The whole idea of having government deliver these services is the general recognition that these common goods are most efficiently (and cheaply!) delivered at collective cost, and by extension, that their operation and administration should be overseen by publicly-appointed administrators who are accountable for the expenses that are taxpayer-funded. You only need to spend a short amount of time in a country with a broken or absent public service to realize the importance of it.
While there is room for debating the extent and scope of public administration, there should also be acknowledgement within the debate that public service is not only legitimate and necessary, but beneficial. In the interests of shifting the discussion and possibly even changing the paradigm for public service, here are some ideas for thinking differently about public service:
When patients get better, when special needs adults are able to live independently, and when kids master a new skill, real social goods have been accomplished that save taxpayers money in the long run. Such a calculation simply cannot be reduced to a yardstick that trades off today’s revenues and expenditures. When these outcomes are compromised by budget cuts, not only do individuals pay a price, but the social costs are borne by everyone in society.
Talk of ‘rewarding excellence’ and ‘reducing the redundant’ does NOT improve performance. Competition is not the point of public service. Trying to incentivize outcomes increases stress and makes people resistant to change. Companies are discovering this on their own in recent years, but they are also discovering that a decent level of compensation is a prerequisite to a motivated, creative, and productive employee in any enterprise.
This may be a hard sell, but next time you’re waiting in line for a drivers’ license or filling out a passport application, consider the effort and expense required to ensure that all of those who use public services are treated consistently and fairly. Then consider what happens when those services are cut or reduced. How much is fairness worth to you?
In the open market, fraud and deceit flourish because businesses lack the ability to police themselves and are highly motivated to abuse their power and superior knowledge. The cost to legitimate businesses in restoring confidence when violations occur is significant. A large part of what government provides is trust and confidence when the market fails, which allows businesses to be profitable. If business is less profitable, economic activity slows and tax revenue falls. Beyond the purely instrumental argument that austerity directly reduces economic growth, austerity is self-defeating because it increases the hidden costs of doing business in hard times.
Public servants create wealth, and create the conditions that enable private businesses to create wealth. Of course governments should be accountable for costs, especially since the disciplining competition of the market is less sharp and the high demand for public goods and services can tend to push prices up. However, the solution is not to heighten competition but to recognize and account for the benefits that public service provides, and not just to focus on its costs. A truly balanced account would show that taxpayers are investing their resources very efficiently indeed.
The news this year on the climate front continued to be alarming, especially the record low extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic. The anthropocentric case for doing more to combat climate change seems self-evident. A changing climate is very likely to be less hospitable to human needs than a stable one. Arguments solely from self-interest therefore appear fairly quickly in the discussion of what to do.
But what of arguments not based on self-interest? What place is there in the environmental discussion for a non-self-serving ethic, based on the idea that the natural world has intrinsic value, independent of human needs or human culture? In fact, these ideas have been elaborated since the early days of the movement by Arne Naess and many others. The notion of intrinsic value has seen its most prominent political expression in the discourses around parks and protected areas. Groups like the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society continue to be influential in establishing that ecological integrity should be a guiding principle of parks governance. Protected areas symbolize many things, but one of the impetuses for protection is the awareness and recognition of a natural world with its own logic, its own measures, and its own ethical integrity, independent of the human.
Arguments that go beyond human self-interest, however, have not made a huge impact in the climate debate. One problem is that an ecocentric ethic has been too closely associated with wilderness preservation. Wilderness preservation is a legitimate basis for political action, however, wildernesses today are too physically remote, too closely managed, and too narrowly defined to be a solid basis for elaborating a larger argument about intrinsic value. Biodiversity holds more promise, since natural biodiversity can be understood to operate from non-human principles.
But what if the biosphere changes radically in response to climate change, what then becomes of an ethic of static preservation and intrinsic value?
In fact, I would argue that the best way and most effective way to integrate an ethic of intrinsic value in political decision making is to use an expansive and embedded approach. Such an approach would first of all recognize that intrinsic value and use value are not mutually exclusive ideas, and that something can be valued both for its usefulness to humans, and for itself. Aristotle used the example of eyesight. We value our eyesight both for its usefulness (we can see things and interact with the world more effectively with sight) and for its intrinsic value (we can appreciate sunsets and see the faces of loved ones). The key test is not whether it would benefit humans to protect it, but would we miss it if it were suddenly taken away? We can all imagine the sense of loss we would feel if our eyesight were suddenly removed, and we can all imagine the sense of loss as species disappear from the tree of life and the biosphere becomes irrevocably changed and even degraded.
This is a basis for building political action because of its universality. Cultures may not agree on the value of any individual species but they can agree on the big picture of loss. Practically speaking, the notion of intrinsic value for Canadians can be easily compared to the language of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Just as rights require entrenchment and defence by government and ordinary citizens, so, too, does nature.
Let’s not be afraid of the language of intrinsic value. It is already all around us in political discourse. Arguing that nature should be protected for its own sake makes a more robust position in favour of protection possible. For example, it puts the onus on oil pipeline companies and developers to prove the worth of their activities, rather than on nature to prove its worth in human terms.
In his book The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity will Remake American Politics Thomas Byrne Edsall argues that shrinking public and private resources will make politics leaner, meaner and less civil. It’s not just that right and left disagree on how to distribute resources, it is a fundamental rift in the understanding of the purpose of the state itself. It’s also not just a fight over ideas: it is a battle for survival. The supporters of the right, to paraphrase Edsall, are ageing, embattled, middle to upper class whites living in decimated and depopulated suburbs who are increasingly bitter about the direction of the redistributive state. In the past, the right’s call to arms was a kind of negative freedom (‘Don’t Tread on Me’) which fought to preserve the individual’s ability to choose their own forms of happiness unimpeded by state regulations. The premise of this, we know now, was the expectation that everyone could gain from a growing pie. No more. Programs for which supporters of the right are the primary recipients (including Medicare and social security) are considered sacrosanct. Programs from which others benefit (read black, immigrants, poor or public sector workers) like Medicaid, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or income supports, are untenable ‘entitlements’. On the left, there is a counter-move to protect the public sphere from erosion while simultaneously trying to remain coherent in the face of a fiscal crisis and an unrelenting personal attack on Obama during an election year. The left is increasingly turning to middle class minorities, immigrant and young voters who are far less steady in their support and are on the whole less well-established and more vulnerable both economically and politically.
These kinds of politics reveal rifts that have historically deep-seated roots but which linger below the surface until austerity and crisis reveal them. What rifts lie below the surface of Canadian society that have been eroding the social consensus gradually and unrelentingly? Could Canada go down a similar route? Recent battles paint a picture of the possibilities. With vitriolic flourishes the Harper government and environmentalists are fighting an increasingly pitched battle over oil resources. The push for a pipeline to expand foreign markets for oil, whether through a Northern route or Keystone, has as its root a long-standing fear that overproduction of oil will drive the price down and shrink profits. This is a real fear, since the flattening of oil prices will make the billions of dollars already invested uneconomic, and capital will flee. On the one hand, it seems more like an embarrassment of riches than a problem of austerity: oil consumption is maintaining a steady stiff pace overseas and is set to grow, along with its negative climate impacts. On the other hand, it has all of the set piece features of a zero-sum fight over a shrinking resource. As anti-fossil fuel efforts grow, and as more bitumen-type oil production facilities are being developed in Latin America and more unconventional oil is prospected in the Arctic and other areas, the chances of oil revenues becoming restricted in the future is higher and higher. If this happens, look for politics here to follow a similar path to those in the US, with the centre of the storm being the role of the state as a (re)distributor of resources. With potentially shrinking state revenues due to tax reductions and few other signs of growth outside the resource sector, the temptation to retrench at the expense of the poor, immigrants, the disabled and other marginalized groups may well be irresistible. On the other hand, another fight between regions in true Canadian fashion may be brewing. I want to end on a positive note here. Everything I’ve learned in teaching young people about politics in the last 15 years has taught me that if anything, youth are more accepting, welcoming, compromising and diverse than ever. I can only hope that these qualities will enable the cultivation of a middle ground in the future in Canada that seems increasingly elusive in the divisive and paralyzing politics down south in the US. If we are to believe Edsall, however, austerity could bring out the worst in all of us.
Governments operate on two distinct tracks. In one track, they make decisions according to an ideological architecture. This is developed by the party elite, elaborated during the election campaign, and either refined or even jettisoned upon taking power. Governments also operate on another track, which involves making decisions ‘on the fly’ in response to rapidly-changing circumstances or urgent problems that require solutions. Governments that follow the first track but ignore the second track, risk being derailed by emergent or unexpected circumstances and problems that refuse to fade away. Governments that follow the second track exclusively, risk losing coherence and becoming bogged down in compromises that prevent bold action when needed on deep-seated and longer-term issues.
Whatever one might think of their ideological architecture, the Harper government’s program of action since achieving a majority has been rigidly and ideologically focused on the first track. Conservative governments often tout their superior fiscal management and efficient governance, but when problems are ignored because of ideological short-sightedness, then this sacrifices the ability to be functional, efficient and fair.
The government’s single-minded pursuit of the purchase of F35s for the military is a good example. In the face of disappointing progress on its development, buyers like Turkey, Australia and Britain have delayed or reduced their orders. Not Canada, at least not yet. Where is the urgent need to spend millions of dollars on military hardware? What pressing requirement is driving this purchase? With Canada standing down in Afghanistan and few urgent threats to national security looming on the horizon, the only explanation is ideological.
With a continuing budgetary deficit and the economy showing signs of weakness, the government is forging ahead as well with its tough on crime bill, which involves building more prisons, without releasing any information about its impact on the budget. This is despite the fact that violent crime in Canada has been on the decline for the last thirty years, and the American experience has proven that increasing incarceration rates have actually increased the crime rate in that country.
The elimination of the gun registry similarly exhibits a puzzling and almost obsessive focus on problems that don’t need fixing. All the evidence points to a decline in gun homicides since the introduction of stricter gun control in 1995. Whatever information has been gained will be lost as the records are destroyed, to what end? Given the willingness to spend on defence and in other areas, it does not seem that the savings (which are relatively minor) justify the loss.
Meanwhile, it took a housing emergency in Attawapiskat, only one of several Northern communities facing serious problems this winter, for the government to take remedial, and (as it turns out) heavily delayed, action. This is despite the fact that Auditor General Sheila Fraser identified serious problems in May 2011. In her report, Fraser described the ‘unacceptable’ discrepancy in government funding of education, housing, and services for First Nations. These structural problems remain persistent and call for more than band-aid solutions.
Electoral politics do not explain these decisions particularly well, given that the Conservatives have a secure majority in Parliament and the Opposition parties are in disarray. The first track (the ideological one) tends to dominate when other problems do not make headlines or intrude in unpleasant ways on the government’s radar. Deflection and diffusion can work to a point, but the underlying problems of poverty, discrimination, and environmental destruction continue. These problems are not usually spectacular, but they are urgent. Ignoring them has costs. These costs will continue to mount up, in increased health care spending, crime problems, pollution, and other social ills, until such time as the government is unable to ignore them. This neglect is ultimately self-defeating.