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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Dog people: pick up your dog’s shit. FFS. | #TOpoli #dogs

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Koba and I are asking you nicely.

Really, people, it’s a no-brainer. We shouldn’t even have to ask. It’s part of living in the city and being a good neighbour.

I touched on this a few weeks ago in a post about my attempt to get part of a local green space declared an off-leash area. The upshot of that was that it’s not going to happen any time soon, but in terms of on-the-ground realities, local residents and users of the space — parents, kids, students, dogs and dog people — have established an informal modus vivendi whereby everyone lives and lets live. We look the other way, we keep our dogs under control, we pick up the empty booze bottles, and we try to keep it cool. It’s that old spirit of generosity and accommodation. To the extent that the no-dogs rules are enforced, it’s on a haphazard and occasional basis, and it’s complaint-driven.

So it stands to reason, then, that it’s in all of our interests not to generate reasons for complaints. Which brings me to the prosaic and yucky trigger for this little rant: people who don’t pick up after their dogs.

Seriously, people? Seriously? No, really. Seriously? Do I have to walk you through this?

If you leave dog shit where kids are playing, sooner or later someone’s going to get it on them. Angry parents complain, as they have every right to do, and before you know it the neighbourhood is up in arms and the by-law officers are handing out tickets and a nice neighbourly vibe is poisoned. All because some asshole couldn’t be bothered to assume the most basic responsibility of dog ownership / dog stewardship.

Come on, folks. A lot of life’s little aggravations can be avoided if you just follow one simple rule. Remember the old truism about how it only takes one asshole to ruin things for everyone? Don’t be that asshole.

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The lesson: it’s about Jack’s legacy of generosity, not about these tiny little people – posted by sol chrom

More repurposing.

Jack, I hope you’re on a dock somewhere enjoying a beautiful sunny day, a nice deck chair, and a full cooler.

Zay geszundt, dude.

The lesson: it’s about Jack’s legacy of generosity, not about these tiny little people – posted by sol chrom

Politics, the charitable sector, and the public sphere | #cdnpoli

There’s been some discussion recently about the role of charitable organizations, and by extension other NGOs, in social advocacy and the debate over public policy. In an essay for the Star this past weekend, Alan Broadbent calls for just that in arguing for more overt political activity from Canadian charities. 

It’s not hard to discern the context for Mr. Broadbent’s essay. Indeed, he makes it clear in his very first paragraph in citing the recent federal budget and characterizing it as a shot across the bows of Canadian registered charities, and in noting the rhetorical strategy employed by the Harper government and its acolytes in promoting accelerated exploitation of the Alberta tar sands.

HIs essay notes that the law allows charities to devote up to 10 per cent of their activity to politic, and encourages Canadian charities to become more active participants in policy discourse. (In fairness, he also notes that many charitable organizations don’t have the organizational resources to play too prominent a role in that regard, occupied as they are with programming and fundraising.) In describing the need for their participation, he notes that 

… since governments have shed much of their policy capacity in the last few decades, they need good ideas from outside, and particularly from those working close to the coal face of society’s problems.

Mr. Broadbent makes a useful argument, and it’s particularly timely in its evident defence of the fact that some of the money for Canadian charities and advocacy comes from sources outside Canada, if for no other reason than that it blunts the Harpublican strategy of demonizing opponents as foreign-funded radicals trying to hijack Canadian regulatory processes.

That’s one level, anyway. The discussion is valuable on that level, but let’s try to view it in a somewhat larger context — one which examines the role of charitable organizations not just as political actors, but as service providers and enhancers of community bonds and — one of my favourites — the public good.

It’s become fashionable, as governments embrace the “austerity” fetish and shed the capacity to act, to call for more reliance on private-sector actors and/or charities. Indeed, last December Hamutal Dotan described an incident wherein Doug Ford reached into his own pocket and wrote a personal cheque to help out a school nutrition program. 

God knows, I’m not here to kick Brother Doug around for that. But, as Hamutal argues, necessary social programs shouldn’t have to rely on charity or personal generosity. And that’s the larger context for both her argument and Alan Broadbent’s.

Once again, it’s useful to unpack some of the underlying assumptions and go back to first principles. Part of that involves making my own biases explicit, but that shouldn’t take long.

Why do we have government? Why do we have a public sector? Why, for that matter, do we have communities and social structures? I’d argue that a large part of the reason is collective empowerment: we pool our efforts and our resources in pursuit of the common good. By working together, we accomplish things we can’t accomplish on our own. Regardless of whether you want to call yourself a conservative, a socialist, a liberal, or whatever, that’s the basis for community. 

And that’s the organizational underpinning for whatever sector of public policy you want to cite: education, national defence, municipal infrastructure, public transit, health care, food inspection, energy, environmental protection, and so on. That’s why political priorities are set, resources allocated, timelines established, and structures established to ensure democratic oversight and administrative accountability. It’s not a simple process, but it can and does work when it’s properly resourced and managed. As with most complex undertakings, it depends on consistency, predictability and transparency, and an overarching commitment to the public good.

It’s for that reason that I find the increased emphasis on charities disquieting. I’m not questioning the value of the work they do, and I’m not saying they aren’t worthy of all the support they get and more. But I am taking issue with the idea that we should rely on them to step into the vacuum left by diminished and kneecapped public institutions.

Where is it written that we must reconcile ourselves to the enfeeblement of government, of the public sphere, of our collective capacity to act for the common good? Just because “austerity” has become the flavour of the month doesn’t mean we’ve suddenly been relieved of our obligations to ourselves, to our communities and to our fellow citizens. 

Regardless of the political context or the issues of the day, those obligations are constants. They are necessary incidents of citizenship, and of membership in civil society. As such, they need to be resourced and supported consistently. They shouldn’t have to depend on charitable donations. They’re unpredictable, they’re hard to budget for, and they’re too dependent on the personal preferences of donors, commendable though those might be. Frankly, I don’t want the social fabric and essential community programs dependent on the Jim Doaks of the world.

And, as the warning shots Mr. Broadbent cites illustrate, charities are vulnerable to politically motivated attacks. 

We can argue about the legalities and the definition of political activity and whether any given initiative comes close to the 10 per cent threshold, but the chilling effect of those warning shots is perfectly obvious. The Harper regime’s strategy for dealing with people and organizations it doesn’t like is a matter of record. Bracing as Mr. Broadbent’s call to action is, it’s that much riskier for any small organization to stick its head up under the circumstances.

(Do I have to point out that I’d be delighted to be wrong about this?) 

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From @mtaibbi, a Christmas message from Wall Street | #classwarfare #uspoli

Apparently, we’d all be in much better shape if the poor were as motivated as Steven Schwarzman is to make America a better place.

But it seems to me that if you’re broke enough that you’re not paying any income tax, you’ve got nothing but skin in the game. You’ve got it all riding on how well America works.

You can’t afford private security: you need to depend on the police. You can’t afford private health care: Medicare is all you have. You get arrested, you’re not hiring Davis, Polk to get you out of jail: you rely on a public defender to negotiate a court system you’d better pray deals with everyone from the same deck. And you can’t hire landscapers to manicure your lawn and trim your trees: you need the garbage man to come on time and you need the city to patch the potholes in your street.

And in the bigger picture, of course, you need the state and the private sector both to be functioning well enough to provide you with regular work, and a safe place to raise your children, and clean water and clean air.

The entire ethos of modern Wall Street, on the other hand, is complete indifference to all of these matters. The very rich on today’s Wall Street are now so rich that they buy their own social infrastructure. They hire private security, they live on gated mansions on islands and other tax havens, and most notably, they buy their own justice and their own government.

Matt Taibbi plays his violin for the poor, victimized, super-rich of America. The sociopathic ways they behave, their parasitic and corrupting effect on civil society, and their open contempt for everyone else … of course, there aren’t any lessons for Canada in any of this.

Nor could we possibly see any of this in terms of class, because of course, this is America, where anyone can make it to the top if you just work hard enough. Bootstraps and all that.

(Say the C word, Matt. Come on. You can do it.)

(h/t Edstock at The Galloping Beaver)

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