Bloody well right, we need to tax and spend | #TOpoli #ThePublicGood

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“You’re bloody well right, we need to tax and spend. We’re living with the results of decades of NOT taxing and spending, and what have we got? Buses that don’t arrive. Chunks of the Gardiner falling on our heads. Crumbling infrastructure. Poisonous inequality. Epidemic levels of child poverty. It’s way past time we fixed this, instead of embracing the failed policies advanced by the austerity advocates and other mouthpieces for the far right.”

What I’d love to hear from progressive candidates, not just in the municipal arena, but almost any other context. Stop letting the flimflam artists of the Right use “tax and spend” as a smear. Things cost money. Taxes pay for things. Socialist, left-wing, progressive, whatever. Morans and poo-flingers can call it whatever names they want. A fella can dream.

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Reviving #ThePublicGood, part 6: Government is not a business | #TOpoli #onpoli #cdnpoli

adam smith

One of the most persistent memes in the project of governance is the suggestion that government should be run like a business. Market and private-sector fetishists are nothing new, of course, and they’ve got big bucks behind them. I’ve cited the Fraser Institute previously, of course, so no need to focus on them any longer than absolutely necessary, but they’re hardly alone. There’s the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, and a whole suppurating cesspool of yargle-barglers dedicated to advancing the decomposing meme about Letting the Market Decide. (You’ll note I’m not providing links. Let ’em get their own clicks.)

Once again, let’s go back to first principles. What is A Market? Pardon me for recycling my own wankery, but:

A market is one of the many varieties of systems, institutions, procedures, social relations and infrastructures whereby parties engage in exchange. While parties may exchange goods and services by barter, most markets rely on sellers offering their goods or services (including labor) in exchange for money from buyers. It can be said that a market is the process by which the prices of goods and services are established.

We’ll just set aside, for now, the artificiality of the market as a social construct, never mind the hypocrisy displayed by so many market fundamentalists, and just focus on — yes, that’s right — the public good.

Markets may be good at some things. But, it says here, they’re not so shit-hot at meeting human needs, ensuring living wages and decent benefits, or functioning as the underpinnings of healthy communities. This shouldn’t be a surprise, really, when you consider some of the underlying assumptions — specifically those about rational self-interest, maximizing one’s own benefit, etc. Not to mention the assumption that private actors indulging their greed will inevitably produce the greatest good for the greatest number.

Again, let’s make our own biases clear.

When people place self-interest above all, ignore the rules of civilized behaviour, and don’t give a shit about anyone else, we call them sociopathic. When international investment vehicles and corporations act that way, they’re just maximizing shareholder value and reacting to “The Market.”

Not enough time or space to list here all the dislocations, upheaval, damage, and human cost of our inexplicable decades of deference to “The Market,” so let’s move on and ask why it is that its adherents seem to have such a chubby for The Private Sector.

Perhaps it can start with one of my favourite piles of Zombie Bullshit: the private sector is inherently more efficient because of the profit motive. Forget about evidence for a moment; let’s just unpack some of the assumptions in here: what do the market fundamentalists mean by efficiency? Is it a question of generating greater returns with fewer inputs? Or does it perhaps mean arbitrarily devaluing some of those inputs for ideological reasons? Human labour, for example?

Sure, you can max out your profit margin if you can get away with paying people next to nothing and treating them like shit. Make union organizers disappear the way they’ve been doing in Colombia. Use the TFW program to create a permanent disadvantaged and terrified underclass of people too frightened to assert their rights or stand up for themselves, and then piss all over Canadian citizens for lacking a proper work ethic.

Let’s be clear: the continuing private-sector fetish makes it easier to rationalize the reduction of human beings to mere economic inputs, easier to throw away like used kleenex when they’re no longer useful or profitable. Not that that has anything to do with certain special-interest groups’ (cough, CFIB, cough) hard-on for temporary foreign workers and hatred for unions. Or the so-called Right to Work legislation that Tim Hudak may or may not introduce in Ontario, depending on the breaks. Or the decades-long race to the bottom via so-called “free trade” and the voluntary surrender of myriad policy tools for the sake of “investor confidence.” The agenda is obvious — progressive enfeeblement and eventual destruction of the public sector, and the public sphere as such.

Once again, let’s exercise our critical-thinking skills. Who benefits from this? Let’s just set aside, for the moment, all the market-fundamentalist, private-sector-fetishizing cant, and ask ourselves: who’s profiting from all this? The people whose jobs are disappearing? The public sphere that’s increasingly stripped of resources? The communities left without the means to see to the needs of their citizens? The public infrastructure that’s being privatized and/or left to fall apart?

What if, ultimately, meeting human and community needs isn’t profitable? Should they just be blown off?

Again, back to basics. The function of government is not to make a profit, but to Cultivate the Public Good. It is there precisely because doing so is not profitable.

And this, more than anything, is why we must get the language of the business school out of the project of governance — it’s perversion. Infection, even. Remember the lesson about discourse and winning back the words? When we allow others to force us to think and talk in their terms, when we let them define the discursive turf, we’ve allowed them to capture and colonize the whole public sphere. We’re working with their alien ideas, their values, and their assumptions. It’s no wonder we’re at a disadvantage.

Well, fuck that. This is not the private sector. The language of business is utterly inappropriate for governance. Government is there to provide for human and community needs, not to make a profit or enhance the brand or service customers or generate shareholder value. The requirement that public agencies and offices should have to have a fucking “business plan” is an obscenity. If you like the private sector so much, then go back there and leave government to people who understand and are committed to its role in advancing the public good.

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Nuance, complexity, and why progressives are frequently at a disadvantage | #TOpoli #onpoli #cdnpoli

Couple of quick thoughts about efforts to reform the voting system, spurred, as is often the case, by another thoughtful and well-crafted post from Daren.

I’ll confess at the outset that I haven’t really given that much thought to the various options, be they ranked ballots, single transferable votes, pure proportional representation, or whatever. The debate’s been carried by smarter and better-informed people than me. I’ll also disclose that I consider Dave Meslin, one of the guys working on RaBIT, a friend and a civic hero, even if I haven’t always agreed with him.

But that’s not my purpose today. As Daren observes,

those speaking under the banner (if not official endorsement) of Fair Vote Canada – the side of proportional representation and against ranked ballots – did themselves no favours.

I’m not taking sides in that particular debate because, as I’ve admitted, it’s complicated and I haven’t given it as much thought as I should. That the dysfunctions of our current First Past The Post system don’t really serve the needs of democratic governance ought to be self-evident by now; it underlines the need for serious and well-considered electoral reform, at every level from the municipal to the federal.

No, what concerns us today is the challenge posed by complexity itself. Daren’s not the first observer to note the internecine warfare among various progressive factions, whether they’re championing electoral reform, a particular set of social or economic measures, or even discursive change. It’s never especially easy to analyze arguments, to evaluate evidence, and to follow chains of reasoning — hence this little corner’s continuing fascination with the notion of critical thought and its importance to the demands of engaged citizenship.

It’s difficult to approach this without sounding all preachy (really? we hadn’t noticed — ed.), but that’s inherent in any worthwhile public-policy discussion. Anything that involves multiple objectives, multiple stakeholders, conflicting priorities, and finite resources is going to require a difficult process of analysis and evaluation. It takes time, concentration, and a willingness to embrace complexity, as well as an acknowledgement that such things rarely boil down to simple answers. In short, it’s about seeing nuance, making tradeoffs, recognizing shades of grey.

And that, I’d submit, is why those willing to engage that way are so often at a disadvantage. Not only are they asking more of their fellow citizens than the purveyors of simplistic catchphrases and lapel-button slogans — they’re also more prone to thrashing out their differences in public. The term “message discipline” isn’t an accident. When you can reduce complex issues of governance to bumper-sticker memes like “gravy train” or “strong stable majority,” you demand far less of people, and you give them an excuse to turn off their critical faculties.

It’s effective, but it’s also wrong, and it betrays not respect for people, but contempt. We needn’t delude ourselves that engaging our fellow citizens critically is an easy thing, but ultimately it suggests a great deal more respect for them.

To nuance, then, and to raising the conversation.

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