How Well-meaning Politicians Hurt the Country’s Economy

I am not cynical enough to believe that all of our government officials are “on the take”. I like to think that the cases of corruption we hear are examples of a few bad apples spoiling the basket. I like to believe that most politicians have the best interests of the people at heart, and that if their initiative fails, failures are the result of well-intentioned ignorance and adherence to a flawed ideology, rather than a cynical machiavellianism.

Whatever the motivation behind politicians, those on the political right are unified in their ideology, an ideology that their detractors call “neoliberalism”. The overarching goal of neoliberalism is “smaller government” which means, lower taxes, less government regulation of industry and particularly,  lower spending on social programs which are seen as inherently inefficient and wasteful.

I have to admit, I’m about fed up with neoliberalism. Embedded in this ideology lies a moralization about who deserves what. There is an underlying belief that by bolstering support for the poor through special programs and welfare, we take away people’s initiative to work. The poor are seen as lazy malingerers who take advantage of the good hard-working tax payer. It’s an arrogant assumption – a cynical belief that the privileged class has a higher moral standard than the poorer class, and of course, it’s erroneous.

Reality is starkly different. The truth is that poverty and addiction form a vicious circle, and in order to empower people to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” you have to provide them with the bootstraps. Those bootstraps are free education and free health care.

Accompanying the  moralistic stand of neoliberal purists, is the irritating fact that they’re also WRONG in their assessment of how economies work. They believe that economic growth can only be gained by reducing taxes to individuals and corporations in order to stimulate investment. To accomplish this, they cut back on the funds to public service, notably, public health care and education.

In reality, what this policy does is leave health authorities and school districts without enough revenue to provide full service. In such situations, it is the poor and middle class who lose out on service, as they can’t afford private options. Cutting these services has two net results for the economy: first, unemployment increases as the number of public sector workers shrinks; and second, costly social problems result, as there is less infrastructure available to keep small problems from developing into big problems.

In their book, The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills, David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu discuss how austerity budgets, which have been prescribed by the International Monetary Fund for countries in financial crises, are very harmful to the people and economies of those countries. Consider their summary of the situation in Iceland after its economic collapse in 2008 due to the mortgage backed securities crisis:

Not only did the IMF underestimate austerity’s economic harms, but it overlooked the even greater damage that resulted from cutting public health. Health and education had the largest fiscal multipliers, typically greater than 3. In contrast, defense multipliers were significantly less than 1, and so were bailout packages for banks. There figures made sense, because much of the money spent on defense doesn’t actually build jobs in manufacturing and technology domestically anymore, unlike in previous years. Much of it actually leaves the economy, going to foreign contractors and to pay for non-recoverable costs like fuel for fighter jets. Nor do banker bailouts tend to stimulate the economy, as funds are more likely to end up stashed in offshore bank accounts and less likely to get reinvested into providing jobs or technology. Health and education programs, by contrast, conferred both short- and long-term economic payoffs. In the short term, these sectors were able to better absorb funding and turn it into productive work for teachers and nurses and technology firms. IN the long term, the products of investments in education and health services were smarter and healthier workforces.

The neoliberal ideology has advised policy world-wide over the past three decades. It is only recently that economists have begun debunking it, and countries have begun embracing more progressive ideals. Leaders need to start listening to more progressive voices, and not to large corporations, who are ideologically driven, and just plain wrong. For the sake of decency if nothing else, this needs to happen. It’s not acceptable that the middle class is eroding, that the poor are getting poorer. We have more wealth in the world than any other time in history. It’s about time we started to distribute that wealth.

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Balancing the individual and society in a vision of education

If we need any evidence to suggest how education in Canada is failing, we need look no further than the rates of voter turnout in our elections.The Conference Board of Canada cites a few reasons non-voters give for non-participation in elections. Most of them are reasons of inconvenience. These reasons suggest that non-voters put their immediate individual needs before the needs of the overall society. Voting simply wasn’t seen as important enough for them to disrupt their schedules. Somehow, their education has failed to impress upon them the importance of participating in the democratic process.

I have cause to believe that this sense of individualism, and lack of societal obligation has its roots in our vision for schools. There seems to be a misunderstanding about the purpose of education in general, and about what is meant by “individualization” of education, to the point where people believe that the goal of education is solely to benefit the individual, or worse, to simply engage the individual.

This morning I read through a bunch of Grade 8 journals in which students told me about their hopes for the school year. A very interesting theme emerges from their writing. They would like education to be more fun, and more targeted at what they “want” – not at what they need in order to become vibrant members of society – but at what they “want”. To be fair, they’re 12 and 13 years old. They have neither the experience nor the intellectual capacity to have a more global perspective for their learning. This is why they come to school. But they certainly subscribe to the idea that their personal preferences are important in their education.

They talk about their individual preferences. They don’t like teacher lecturing. They would like to learn at their own pace. They prefer watching videos. They claim to be “hands on” learners, whatever that means. (We all think we know what that means, but defining the term in all of the various subject areas is not easy to do).

Where do they get these ideas? The answer is: they get them from us – from teachers. We rightly strive to address the learning needs of individuals. And we rightly attend workshop after workshop about how to best reach as many students as possible – how to access prior knowledge and pique students’ interests, and in doing so, we have taught them either explicitly or implicitly, that individualization is what they should expect. We have somehow become pedlars of the notion of individuality, and forgotten the more universal purpose of education, which has to do with citizenry and the social good.

We have done this with all good intentions. We want to be inclusive. We want to allow for full participation of all kinds of people. We want to prevent “learning disabled” people from giving up out of frustration. We want to recognize the little Einsteins who don’t fit into a traditional student role. We want students to build on their individual talents. These are all laudable desires. Good teachers know how to reach kids, and we do whatever we can to improve our efficacy in this.

But the expectation that we will actually be able to completely individualize education is absurd from a logistics perspective, and worse, it’s antithetical to the vision of a nation. From the very smallest tribal societies to the largest nations, people work together toward  common vision – literally, a “university”.- in order for their society to succeed. Schools’ mandate is to impart the knowledge, skills and attitudes that society deems to be important. Schools are the means by which individuals learn to contribute meaningfully to their society, not the other way around. And for the sake of efficiency, students come to school en masse to learn these things. We don’t send teachers out to individuals.

It is absurd to think that we can tailor school programs to fit the personal preferences of everyone. And it is equally absurd to think that the material we teach should always be engaging. It doesn’t work this way. If individualization were what we are after, we would be spending many times more money on a model of education in which students could have hours of one-to-one time with teachers, and we would not have any global curriculum at all – but rather, a menu of topics for students to choose from, disregarding the collective needs and vision of the overall society, and risking the future happiness of children who can’t possibly know at a young age what they will need in order to be productive and happy their whole lives.

An example of the problem with this model is in the teaching of composition in English class. It is difficult for most people to learn to write well.  They need to learn to write in subjects and styles that they may not find particularly interesting, and they have to learn through mistakes, making corrections and revisions. We try to make the the content and the method as engaging as possible, but this is really a courtesy. The students need to do it whether it’s engaging or not. Really, they need to take initiative themselves –  to engage themselves. And let’s face it, most kids would rather do other things than work on writing skills – no matter how engaging the material is.

In  English class, as in so many other aspects of life, the grind of day-to-day exercises is unavoidable, and the work is not always particularly exciting. Students simply have to do it. We are doing our students a disservice if we allow them to blame the teacher or the system for their lack of engagement.

In a nation that envisions a participatory democracy, the ability of all citizens to understand, interpret and contextualize the communications of their government, and the ability respond articulately, are critical. Furthermore, students’ ability to look beyond the self – to develop an attitude of altruism, and a sense of positive activism for the good of the whole society, is critical. Otherwise they will not be able to engage in the political process. Ultimately, the success of democracy depends on their learning of these things. And these thing need to be taught in schools.

Cleveland Indians: What’s in a name?

Recently, I heard a pundit on CKNW radio in Vancouver, BC play down the racist concern about Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team name, “The Indians”. He brought up how Vancouver’s hockey team name, “the Canucks”, is derogatory as well, and that no one seems to mind. Why then are we making such a big deal about “The Indians”.

There is a big difference here.

When a team of Canadian players decides to call themselves “the Canucks”, they are doing so because they are proud of their nationality, and they are using the term ironically, laughing in the face of whatever stereotype is implied in the term. The name is a bit of a self-effacing humor, a bit of gritty underdog sentiment, and IT IS CHOSEN BY THE MEMBERS OF THE CULTURE THEMSELVES. Furthermore, “Canucks” are members of the same dominant European culture that their detractors are. For this reason it is hard for Canadians to be too upset by such a name, derogatory as it is. The term “Yankees” is similar in this sense. Although there is likely no small amount of guile toward “Yankees” by some factions, to be called a Yankee is not particularly shameful.

On the other hand, “Indians” is a term that connotes some egregious stereotypes. One need only look at the grotesque logo of the Cleveland team to confirm this fact. Such stereotypes allowed the dominant European immigrant culture to objectify the many First Nations, and to conduct a systematic genocide of them. This fact is nothing to laugh off. The remaining “Indians” have been stripped of their land and their dignity, and still suffer grievously from this history.

The team did not choose this name in a spirit of comaraderie in a group of First Nations people who were employing the irony in identifying themselves; rather, the name was chosen insensitively for the objective appeal of the stereotypes themselves. They’re a team of wild warriors – unpredictable savages. And there is no point in clinging to the notion that the stereotypes have been neutralized by history when modern sportscasters continuously refer to the team as “The Tribe”. The perpetuation of these stereotypes through the perpetuation of the team name and logo is harmful. That stupid grinning image of an “Indian” serves to educate us in a subtle way. It is an image we can not un-imagine.

Nor do I minimize the seriousness of changing the name of a big-league team. Millions of fans get behind this team. Their brand is big money. Maybe the name will never be changed, but can we at least admit that we have a problem? Right is right.

Solar – the designer label of power.

Years ago, when I was in high school, a teacher posed the question: if there were two pairs of jeans in your size on a rack: one with an elite label, and an identical pair without the label at half the price, which would you buy? The more progressive thinkers admitted that the label should not be important, that a fool and his money were soon parted and that the label-less jeans would be preferable.

But there were skeptics. These were usually the people who’d spent a lot of money buying the label. They bravely argued for the desirability of jeans with designer labels, and suffered the mild derision of the teacher and us nerds who didn’t understand their allure. What the skeptics knew, but didn’t know how to express, was that the the existence of a rack of the exact replicas of label jeans sans label didn’t exist; it was a straw man (And anyhow, why was he being such a jerk by making us feel stupid for buying nice jeans?). There was value in designer jeans in the sense that they were better than the non-label jeans that you could buy at the time,

So here’s a related scenario to consider. If you were building a warehouse, and you had a choice between powering it with solar power or far more cost-efficient hydro/gas, which would you choose? In this scenario, solar power is the designer label. It’s far more costly, and can’t produce any more power than the cheaper alternative of hydro/gas. Using the logic of the jeans scenario, most of us choose the cheaper hydro/gas alternative. But as in the jeans scenario, there are skeptics who see value in paying more.

Of course this scenario is a bit of a logical stretch, but our reasoning tends to be consistent. There seems to be a moral imperative in our society to get the cheaper product if it does the job as well as the other. Solar panels are very expensive and they would take about 15 years to provide enough off-grid power to pay for themselves. Therefore solar-powered buildings don’t get produced.

This decision would be common-sensical if it weren’t for the fact that solar power is much cleaner (I’m assuming that the environmental benefit of the manufacturing of solar panels does not outweigh their impact.) Unfortunately, environmental impact is not a factor that plays into the decision of builders to install solar power or not.

I suggest that we have become too dogmatic about efficiency. If our first question is “How much does it cost?”, we’re focussed on the wrong issue. Our future as a species on this earth depends on our answers to other questions. “What is the long term effect on climate change” should be a more important priority than “How much does it cost?”

We need to start including environmental impact as a factor in our decision making. We need to stop thinking of clean energy as “alternative sources”.  There is real value in clean energy, and we can afford it.

I’m not a feminist, but…

Getting shared around social media is Matt Walsh’s hugely popular blog post response to the Miley Cyrus twerking incident.

The article brings up a good point. It is what feminists have been saying for years – that we need to stop victim-blaming women who are raped, and start educating young men and boys, as well as girls.

But what interests me as much as the whole cultural phenomenon of the 20 year-old Miley Cyrus grinding her ass against Robin Thicke’s genitals, is one sentence in Matt Walsh’s post. He feels the need to preface his remark by saying “I’m no feminist.” His article denounces a culture that continues to victimize women, and yet he feels he must divorce himself from feminism, whose whole essence is the study of this phenomenon. Such a pity that Walsh doesn’t want to be called a feminist even though he is one. One of my grade 11 students wrote. “Feminism is the radical notion that all people are equal.” She’s right, of course.

I’ve seen Walsh’s feminist denial before, many times, and it worries me that society is so prejudiced against feminism that writers feel the need to divorce themselves from it to be credible. Having read more than a few feminist publications, I can only conclude that feminism is so greatly feared because it threatens our belief in a tidy white bread Disney world. It recognizes the ugly underbelly of a society that has hushed up rape and domestic abuse – a society that expects women to shut up and put out (and while you’re at it, do the dishes and laundry).

It’s strange to me that while all of the intellectual studies, including psychology, philosophy, biology and economics, challenge our cultural notions, feminism is the one that is most opposed. No one is ever ashamed to be called an economist or a psychologist, but even someone as progressive as Matt Walsh divorces himself from feminism.

And as for Miley Cyrus, I actually feel pity for her – that she felt compelled to debase herself on stage. It’s not just the sexual gyrations (Sex-as-art, though controversial is only controversial in the context of a culture that heavily moralizes sexuality.), but Cyrus’ stunt seemed poorly choreographed and, well… pathetic. Remember that Cyrus was a Disney Virgin – a kid that was groomed by Disney to be a pop-star role model for little girls in a silly world where good girls are dangled as sexual objects, but don’t actually have sex. I imagine that she sees raunchy antics as a way out. Well, she certainly feels the whole weight of her culture’s expectations on her now. I don’t envy her.