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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Reviving #ThePublicGood, part 5: Taxes and the role of government | #TOpoli #onpoli #cdnpoli

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With today’s lesson, we focus on one of the most loaded topics in public conversation: taxation. Strap in, it’s going to get a little bumpy.

It’s easy to hate the idea of taxation, I know. And god knows, there’s a lot invested in cranking up that hatred. We’ll examine the reasons for that investment in due course, but for now, let’s just focus on first principles: taxes are the price of civilized society. We don’t live in Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, wherein all are at war with one another; in return for a measure of security and as a step up from anarchy, barbarism, and incessant war, we agree to surrender a degree of our autonomy to this larger thing called “society.” It goes back a ways — farther than Rob Ford, David Miller, or Mel Lastman, in fact. Farther back than Agnes MacPhail, Nellie McClung, John A. MacDonald, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, John Locke, the Magna Carta, Jesus Christ, and maybe even to the point where humankind started to record history. It’s a robust and resilient thing, civilization is, but it’s not unbreakable.

And what is the fundamental characteristic of civil society? It is a collective commitment to pool our efforts, to live by common norms and rules (more on that later), and to combine our efforts to accomplish, as a group, that which we cannot accomplish on our own. You know — roads, hospitals, civic infrastructure, collective defence, electricity, running water, clean air, and other things conducive to the public good. We act together to do things for the collective benefit.

And how do we accomplish those things? By pooling our resources. By paying taxes. That, in its most basic terms, is what taxation is. We determine collectively, through the democratic process and our elected representatives, what our social priorities are, we pool our resources, and then we allocate our pooled resources in accordance with those priorities. In other words, we “tax” and “spend.” It’s not right or left. It’s not socialism. It’s not capitalism. It’s not liberal or conservative. It’s not evil, it’s not confiscation, it’s not theft, and it’s not dictatorship. It’s government. It’s what government does. All the frippery and bullshit that’s been thrown at it just clouds the issue.

So now that we’ve established what taxes are and what they’re supposed to do, let’s talk about their role in democratic governance. Healthy, livable and functional communities, I’d respectfully submit, are not built by people who focus on keeping taxes low. Let’s make our biases clear straight off. Emphasizing low taxes at the expense of everything else isn’t just shallow thinking any more. Given the failures of far-right governance and the damage inflicted by years of devotion to so-called “austerity,” I’d submit that it verges on sociopathic.

Make no mistake, dear friends. When you cut taxes, you kneecap government’s ability to act in The Public Good. And that’s its role.  Government is there to enhance the public good by working to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s not there to make a profit, it’s not there to strengthen the brand, it’s not there to generate returns for shareholders. There will be more about the fetishizing of The Market and The Private Sector later, but for now, let’s just focus on government’s core function.

And it’s here that we must re-emphasize the non-partisan nature of this little project. It’s not as if I’ve made my feelings about the Toronto mayoral shitstorm a secret, although I’ve been trying to dial it back for a while, but let’s be clear: this is not about Rob Ford. It’s easy to get caught up in the crack, the coarse boorishness, the racism, the sexism, the homophobia, and the other non-stop embarrassments, and lose sight of the fact that it’s the whole small-government, private-sector-market-fetishizing, low-taxing, union-hating mindset that’s toxic. It’s a mindset that rejects the whole notion of the public sphere as such. That’s what’s captured the mantle of “conservatism,” and that’s what needs to be pushed back.

The pushback starts with the shallow and destructive fixation on “respect for taxpayers.” Forget about the current administration’s spectacular failures and hypocrisy in that regard for a moment, and let’s focus on the misdirected emphasis and the attendant enfeeblement of any collective commitment to The Public Good. When you reduce the relationship between people and government to one of taxpayer and tax collector, you’re inevitably setting up a dynamic of resentment, hostility, smallness of mind, and meanness of spirit. It’s a very sad, angry and limiting view of citizenship, of our collective well-being, and of public life. This isn’t conservatism. It’s destructive, atavistic bullshit.

You want evidence? Well, let’s work those critical-thinking skills, shall we? Just ask yourselves whose interests are served by such a poisonous agenda. From this, healthy communities, committed citizens, and well-appointed public spheres do not spring. It’s fine if you’ve got the resources to buy your own infrastructure and retreat behind the walls of your private enclave, but I’d submit it’s not too healthy for the rest of us.

We are citizens, not just taxpayers. Not residents, not customers, not voters, not consumers. We are more than that. It is with the idea of citizenship that we express our sense of community and our aspiration to  work together for the greater good. As citizens, we have obligations to one another, and to something bigger than our individual interests — and it is through our collective action and our contribution to public resources that we fulfill those obligations.

I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious (strangled derisive laughter — ed.), but I haven’t got much time for people who bitch about “goddamn government wasting my tax money.” News flash, folks: it’s not your money. It’s society’s money, to be spent in accordance with duly determined public priorities. You get to have a say in that determination through your elected representatives and the democratic process, but you don’t get to take your ball and go home if you don’t get the results you want.

You can bitch and moan and begrudge every nickel you pay in taxes, or you can have a healthy society. I know which way I’d go.

ETA: I’d be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the guidance of my wise friend Alex Himelfarb here. He’s more eloquent in his sleep than I’ll ever be wide awake.

ETA: Trish Hennessy also. She and Alex are the finest civic and moral guides a fella could ask for.

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Cycling in Toronto and the toxic effect of consistent anti-bike rhetoric | #TOpoli #BikeTO

https://twitter.com/kiwinerd/status/349540526325903360

Bit of a change-up here, folks.

Usually it’s Daren who gets into the specifics and applies his wonderful witty blend of deconstruction, observation and analysis, while yours truly drops in every now and then with the windy, sententious “let’s all take a step back and put this into a bit of historical context,” yada yada yada.

Bit different today. I had some friends over yesterday, and one of them, a far more committed cyclist than I, was describing a confrontation she recently had with a motorist. She brought video. Because the matter’s still before the legal system, I won’t name names or get into specifics.

In brief, she had words with a guy in a van who yelled at her to get off the road, arguing that “roads are for cars.” Now where have we heard that before? She retorted, quite correctly, that as a cyclist she had just as much right to be on the road as him. Next thing you know, the son of a bitch literally ran her off the road with his truck. On purpose. She had to be hospitalized. She needed stitches. Thank god she didn’t break any bones.

But there’s a lesson here, and it goes beyond the specific circumstances of this one incident. Anyone who rides a bike in Toronto’s more than likely to have had words with a hostile motorist or gotten the door prize or any of a number of hazards that cyclists have to face on a regular basis.

Now, recall one of Daren’s recent posts about some of the people who drive private automobiles and their sense of entitlement:

There’s no war on the car going on. It’s the exact opposite. This is all about the over-weening sense of entitlement and primacy in the minds of those using their private vehicles as their sole source of getting around the city. … a car driver’s sense of their right to the road is boundless.

That’s part of the context. Add to that the consistent drumbeat of hostility and vindictiveness toward cyclists from certain sectors of Toronto’s political sphere and it’s not too hard to draw the connection to my friend’s experience. In brief, as I’ve argued previously,

it’s become more socially acceptable, among a certain segment of the population, to abuse, threaten and even assault cyclists and other users of the road.

Now, maybe it’s just me and my white male privilege talking, and / or my middle-class upbringing, and / or my fetish for principled conservatism, and / or maybe even just my bourgeois nostalgia for civility, but how is this making our city better? Isn’t it in all our interests to push back against this? We’re all in this together.

Happy Canada Day, y’all.

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Maturity, citizenship, @jerryagar1010 and more on the "all taxes are evil" theme | #onpoli

At first glance, this might seem at odds with my resolve not to engage with trolls. But in fairness, I haven’t really paid that much attention to him, so it’s not really fair to assume that this guy’s a troll. Benefit of the doubt and all that.

So, first principles, Jerry. Let’s unpack some of your assumptions. Please — explain to us exactly what’s wrong with using “taxes and tolls in order to pay for government,” and how embracing the idea demonstrates a lack of creativity? And just what is it “not an answer” to?

Y’see, I’ve always viewed community and society as a means for people to pool their resources and work together to do things they can’t do individually. That’s how we manage to have nice things like roads, hospitals, fire departments, libraries, schools, police services, water treatment, public sanitation, electricity, public health, recreation centres, transit systems, and public spaces. Maybe you think of it as the “nanny state.” I’ve always thought of it as “infrastructure.” (I dunno, maybe it just sounds better.)

And maybe I’m just naive, but isn’t that supposed to be the natural function of government? It raises revenues and gathers resources via various forms of taxation, and then it allocates those resources in accordance with publicly determined priorities. We get a say in that determination by voting and by talking to our democratically elected representatives and public officials. Am I missing something here? You make it sound as if there’s something inherently wrong with that.

Now, not to dump all this on Jerry, but isn’t that the problem at the heart of all the “tax-and-spend” rhetoric? And in a larger sense, with a one-dimensional viewpoint that sees people only as “taxpayers” rather than as “citizens?” Isn’t there something a little suspect about a worldview which reduces our relationship with society (and by extension, with each other) to robbery? If you consistently view government as an inefficient and malevolent force that just steals your hard-earned money, then aren’t you just setting yourself up for a lifetime of resentment and victimization?

It’s OK, you don’t have to answer right away. Let’s move on. You were talking about creativity, I think. So tell me, since you don’t like taxes and tolls, what’s your creative solution to paying for public infrastructure?

Lotteries?

Casinos?

Private investors?

PPPs?

Geez, I’m ready to smack myself in the forehead. How come nobody’s ever thought of those things before?

Back to the “adult conversation” theme. I’m all for creative solutions, and reasonable discussions about what government should be doing, and how it should go about it. But simplistic repetition of slogans like “taxing us to death” and “nanny state” and “government monopolies” strikes me as … childish.

(h/t @cityslikr, @kvonbling, @trishhennessy and @VassB)

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