Saturday, January 19, 2013

We Should ALL be Idle No more

{The following column was  originally written for the February Anahim-Nimpo Lake Messenger--MC}

Are "Idle No More" protestors complaining too much?   Cariboo-Prince George  Conservative MP Dick Harris certainly seem to think so,  calling the movement a "cash cow" for the aboriginal industry and lacking in gratitude for all of the wonderful things the Conservatives have done for First Nations since taking office.

Could Harris be right?  No, it seems to me that he could not be.   Idle No More, as its name suggests, is not about demanding more hand-outs, or dragging out the Treaty process forever, or perpetuating the status quo for the financial benefit of lawyers, consultants, or existing band chiefs. It is, in part, a protest  precisely against that state of affairs.   Deliberately or not, Harris seems to have confused a genuine grassroots movement that has spread like wildfire with a glacier-like Treaty process that has been occupied by special interests.  It is not hard to spot the difference, even if you have a government that doesn’t want you to.

Consider how the movement got started.  Last October, four women in Saskatchewan -- Jessica Gordon, Sheelah McLean, Sylvia McAdams and Nina Wilsonfeld – became concerned about Bill C-45,  the Conservative government’s  Omnibus Budget Bill, which had just been introduced in Ottawa.  They   began exchanging emails about how the bill might erode indigenous rights.  And they were right to be concerned: it was wrong to de-regulate the protection of all smaller navigable waterways without greater parliamentary and public debate and scrutiny, by simply sticking it in an ostensible budget implementation  bill.    
Furthermore, Freedom of Information requests have since revealed that corporate oil and gas interests got their requests to "streamline" environmental regulations fast-tracked.  Now, that might count as a special interest using the government as a “cash cow”!   And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Natives were already agitated by the way that the Federal government selected the Gateway pipeline route preferred by Enbridge and its Chinese clients and customers, and then hypocritically denigrated the groups opposed to it as being backed by "foreigners".   We should have had a far more wide-ranging discussion of at least half a dozen options for transporting tar sands oil, before holding hearings on Northern Gateway route to Kitimat. And without all of the ridiculous hypocrisy.

Nor can I agree with  Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo MP Cathy McLeod 's comment that Idle No More's opposition to C-45 is "misguided" because amendments are  merely about enabling economic development for bands, not eroding their control over land.  In the first place, the amendment that makes it easier to lease reserve land to private interests on the basis of a single majority vote at a meeting (and not with permission of a majoirty of band members as was the case previously) is intensely controversial; much of the literature suggests that band democracy should move towards consensus, not away from it, or that education levels and voting procedures should be improved before moving in the direction of greater alienation or development of land. In the second place, the amendments to the Navigable Waters Act  and the Environmental Assessment Act to make it easier to build pipelines and power lines across all but the largest rivers and lakes remove an important source of political leverage for First Nations people and environmentalists, who also recognize that large bodies of water ultimately depend upon many smaller bodies of water for their existence.  In the third place, the federal government has historically had both an important role as an environmental counterweight to provincial and corporate interests and as the level of government which has a special fiduciary obligation to First Nations. As a political scientist who studies and teaches about some of these subjects for a living, I have to conclude that these moves are deeply problematic, and merit much more detailed discussion in separate bills with their own separate parliamentary committees and studies.  They are fundamentally not about implementing last year's budget!

It is great that Harper government issued an historic apology to First Nations for the residential schools in 2008.  But that does not excuse the cavalier fashion in which native interests have been treated whenever they conflict with the government’s economic priorities.  Like the  F-35 fiasco, the determination to close the Onsite clinic and build more prisons regardless of either expert or public opinion; the breath-taking “any treaty is a good treaty” rush to sign trade deals, the Prorogation crisis, the unilateral cap on health spending, and the omnibus budgets themselves, the C-45 amendments are an example of Stephen Harper’s  general downgrading of  democracy and proceduralism  in policy-making.  I for one find the prime minister’s whole approach to be a step in the wrong direction.  The First Nations do not protest too much; the rest of us protest too little.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

REVIEW: What Money Can't Buy by Michael J. Sandel

Robert Fulford's  year-end musing in The National Post, "2012, the year when money somehow became unpopular" contains a predictably jaundiced view of two recent scholarly works about contemporary capitalism, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Harvard Political Theorist Michael J. Sandel, and How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life, by Robert and Edward Skidelsky. (Since I have not read the latter work,  I shall not comment upon it.)

But I have read Sandel's book and have found it to be eminently readable, illuminating, and persuasive. It has helped me to clarify my views on several subjects. I heartily recommend it to every educated lay person who wonders about the limits of economic imperialism in social science and philosophy and about the limitations of market-based institutions or policies. I shall start with a  summary of Sandel's arguments and then briefly address Fulford's objections.

Sandel begins with a survey of practices that have become commonly accepted in the era of market triumphalism: "[t]he reach of markets, and market-oriented thinking, into aspects of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms is one of the most significant developments of our time...the uses of markets to allocate health, education, public safety, national security, criminal justice, environmental  protection, recreation, procreation, and other social goods  were for the most part unheard of thirty years ago" (p.7-8). Examples abound: prisoners paying for cell upgrades; solo drivers pay to drive in car pool lanes; wealthy foreigners are eligible for green cards; line-standing companies queue on behalf of busy (or wealthy concert-goers); the right to emit carbon can be purchased on the open market; and the burgeoning market in viaticals and corporate-owned life insurance policies.

So why should we worry? Sandel adduces two general reasons. The first is inequality. "[A]s money comes to buy more and more --political influence, good medical care, a home in a safe neighbourhood rather than a crime-ridden one, access to elite schools rather than failing ones--the distribution of income and wealth looms larger and larger. Where all good things are bought and sold, having money makes all the difference in the world." This is an important insight: it may not be inequality per se that is harmful, but rather the way in which the commodification of everything makes those inequalities matter more.

The second reason is more subtle and insidious: "the morally corrosive tendency of markets"(p.9). Markets don't just allocate goods: they also express and promote certain attitudes towards those goods in ways that change them. And in certain cases, this can largely corrupt the goods in question. This latter point is probably the most important one in the book. For Sandel is not simply reporting his own attitude towards the "cash nexus" (this is what conservatives like Fulford too often assume is going on). Instead, he persuasively argues that it is the goods themselves that are being transformed.  And this exposes the Achilles Heel of economic theory whenever it is applied outside the realm of ordinary material goods.  For the power and prestige of economic thinking relies to a great degree on the assumption that markets do not affect the goods they exchange. True enough, when the goods are household products, manufactures or widgets; even ordinary commercial services. But other goods--education, health, even access to cultural goods--involve values that can be corrupted or crowded out by market values whenever they are freely bought and sold on the open market.

Sandel shows how some of the most influential economists of recent times have overlooked this danger in their zeal to extend the reach and power of economic theory and method.  Gary Becker, whose book The Economic Approach to Human Behaviour (1976)  was  a clarion call to provide all of social science with a "sturdier foundation" focused on income and price effects, blamed all resistance to this notion on either sentimentality (as when he applied economic analysis to marriage and divorce)  or ignorance (about the pervasiveness of  cost and benefit calculations in every area of activity).  No doubt Becker had a point. But so too does Sandel: for rendering the 'implicit' prices associated with sex, marriage, education environmental protection , political participation and human health explicit may not always improve the way we reason about these non-material or quasi-material goods. It may also narrow and degrade these conversations to the point that they are no longer conversations  at all.

This book persuasively argues that of the two kinds of objections to markets--the fairness objection that market choices reflect inequality, and the corruption objection that points to the degrading effect upon certain moral and civic goods and practices if they are bought and sold--the first objection is widely if not  quite sufficiently recognized in policy literature. But the second has been greatly under-appreciated, probably because these objections are assumed be merely  grounded in  moral preferences. This may not be true: "A growing body of research  confirms what common sense suggests: financial incentives and other market mechanisms can backfire by crowding out nonmarket norms. Sometimes, offering payment for certain behaviour gets you less of it, not more" (p.114). Sandel gives three great examples of this phenomenon: the support for nuclear waste sites that went down in Switzerland after communities started being paid for it  instead of being called upon to exercise their civic duty; the increase in late day-care pickups in Israel after fines were introduced, because parents reasoned that they were now paying teachings and daycare workers to work late; and the unpaid volunteers who were more successful in fund-raising than those who were paid commission (pp.114-120).

Two tenets of market faith need to be re-assessed. The first is that commercializing an activity doesn't change it. This allows for the straightforward application of pareto effciency: if a previously untradable good is made tradable, those who wish to buy and sell to their mutual advantage will do so, while everyone else is made no worse off--as Kenneth Arrow once said, "Why should the creation of a market for blood  decrease the altruism embodied in giving blood?" (p.126). Sandel's response: because "commercializing blood changes the meaning of it".  In a world where blood is routinely bought and sold , giving blood might even be considered an unfair labour practice, depriving a poor person of a source of income.

The second tenet of market faith that is too prominent  in economic theory according to Sandel is that ethical behaviour is a commodity that needs to be economized.  One example of this reasoning is Arrow's article on blood supply, in which he argues for markets on the grounds that markets  spare us from using up society's scarce resources of altruism, generosity, civic virtue, and solidarity. Other examples are Sir Dennis Robertson's address to Columbia's bicentennial in 1954, which defended economics on the ground that the economist can contribute mightily to society by saving it from squandering its scarce supply of virtue and economizing "that scarce resource Love"(128);  and Lawrence Summers offer of morning prayer in Harvard's Memorial Church.  Summers, a respected economist, offered a standard utilitarian account of the common good and argued, pace Arrow and Robertson, that reckless expenditures of altruism in economic and social life reduce the amount that we have left over for other public purposes, for our families and our friends.  Yet Sandel is surely right to argue--pace Aristotle and Rousseau--that, on the contrary,"altruism, generosity, solidarity  and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise. ...To renew our public life we need to exercise them more strenuously"(130).

The problem with Fulford's commentary on this book is that it does not fully confront either Sandel's most fundamental arguments or his evidence. Fulford does score a point in noting that Sandel happily serves at Harvard as “Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government,” (Bass being a Fort Worth oil billionaire who has a supersonic corporate jet in development). But Sandel is not arguing that naming rights shouldn't be sold; he is merely drawing attention to how much more frequent it has become in the last three decades and asks whether it has become excessive. 

Fulford writes: "Sandel believes business has exceeded its “moral limits” but he avoids defining them and instead provides flagrant examples of wretched excess. ...Sandel doesn’t know how to limit capitalist excesses but hopes someone will think of something."  I think this is unfair. Sandel has contributed mightily to  clarifying arguments against vouchers, for example, since they speak to the inequality argument but not to the corruption argument.. "Both Sandel and the Skidelskys mention that capitalism greatly improves material conditions but they admit it grudgingly, as if under torture. In neither book does trade of any kind appear noble, like university teaching. It is a necessary evil if it is in fact necessary at all."  This is not only unfair; insofar as it applies to Sandel, it is absolutely untrue. He  understands and appreciates the value of capitalism and of the market economy. Capitalism is virtuous as well as effective within its sphere.  That we should strive to have a market economy, without completely marketizing all of society in the process, is what Sandel has clearly demonstrated. And along the way,  he has exposed the biggest ideological and intellectual roadblocks to that democratic project.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Chuck Hagel Should Be Confirmed

"The Defense Department is Bloated"

"There is a Jewish Lobby"

"The Iraq War was a Mistake"

Such straight talk is surely to be welcomed in American defense policy.  President Obama is to be congratulated for appointing someone who is so different from Rumsfeld, Perle, Cheney et. al--i.e. someone who is not an ideologue.

Both Hagel and Kerry are combat veterans, and as such they share an instinctive reticence about sending troops into harm's way--unlike the more bellicose compensatory swagger of de facto draft-dodgers like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

And, when Hagel retires, I hope and expect that my old classmate from Oxford, Michele Flouronoy, will be tapped as his successor!