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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Pay It Forward: Civic Debt, Public Investment

-          Margaret Atwood

Silo Entrepreneurship

I had just sat down on a subway car in Spadina Station when a woman walked through the open door, holding a piece of cardboard that read “I need money, please help me.”  In a loud, rambling voice, she announced to the train passengers that she was poor, had three children she didn’t know how she was going to feed and wasn’t sure she could go on living, could we please give her some money.  This woman, somewhere in her 20s, proceeded to walk the length of the train and solicit donations from every passenger individually. 

Many were shocked; this is not the kind of behaviour one sees on a regular basis on the TTC.  It was all familiar to me – I’d experienced full-time beggars in third-world countries the world over.  There’s a certain cold professionalism, almost a workman’s pride in the way these beggars present themselves.  When the woman came to me, I told her she didn’t have to beg; we have a great social support network in Ontario that can make sure her kids get fed and help her train for the workforce.  She smiled vacuously, said “thank you, sir” and then moved on to ply the next person in line.

To me, this woman is the embodiment of the competitive, entrepreneurial spirit. 

Say what now?

Some people shill treatments and health supplements that aren’t evidence-based.  Others sell insurance on things that you can’t really ensure (which is, essentially, what indulgences were).  This woman’s particular product offering was guilt.  She writes her signs, she works day long plying her craft and, if she’s hit the right notes (or landed the right mark), she gets paid.  How well and hard she works, with a bit of luck on the side, determines her income.  She knows there are always those out there willing to fork over cash without question, because guilt remains, for some, a powerful motivator.

Remember – this woman wasn’t looking for a social hand-out, nor was she interested in living high off of the public teat.  Was she contributing in any meaningful way to our economy?  People were giving her cash, so that proves there is a market for guilt.  If you truly believe in the free-market, supply-and-demand modality, then yeah, she was doing exactly what capitalist purists would want her to.

Yet, she contributes nothing to the fiscal well-being of the province whatsoever.  At the same time, she doesn’t take anything away from the fiscal well-being of the province, either.  In essence, she lives off of the grid.  Until something goes wrong.

“Money is like blood in that it has to circulate, otherwise it’s meaningless.” 

I would suggest that the hyper-rich live off the grid in exactly the same way.  Yes, there’s an argument to be made that the 1% owe society nothing; they worked hard, broke a few heads where necessary but were successful on their own merits.  To the victors go the spoils, etc.  If the elite want to vacation overseas, buy lavish imports and spend money on expensive trappings that don’t necessarily benefit local economies, that’s their choice.  But what are the consequences of that choice?  If the rich don’t invest locally, what does their wealth contribute to social functioning? 

We don’t have to speculate; history has lots of examples of what happens when economic blood doesn’t circulate.

Civic Debt

Back to the beggar.  I had just started to read an article on debt as this woman entered the subway car.  The POV piece, written by Sarah Keenlyside, is a discussion about Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary film Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, inspired by Margaret Atwood’s 2008 Massey Lecture and book of the same name.  It explores the concept of debt, not just fiscal, but social.  Keenlyside’s article starts with a retelling of a debt of honour faced by an Albanian family in light of a murder by the family’s father, ostensibly in defense of his property.  The family, including the blameless children, are now trapped at home because of the cultural debt racked up by their father. 

This story made me think of a Globe and Mail piece on the tussle between teachers and the Ontario government:

Positioning aside, the basic message here is a different angle on the same debt theme; it is suggested that teachers are fostering a contractual debt that will get paid through alternative means.  The teachers can argue that government has a debt with them, not just for campaign assistance in the past but because something they see as necessary for the conduct of their work (a sufficient number of sick days and manageable class sizes) is being deducted from their social payment.    Who will that cost trickle down to? 

Both sides will argue they are in the right; that they have, in essence, paid their dues.  They can both make compelling arguments to that effect in the court of public opinion.  Those arguments will do nothing to alter the terms being handed down to students. 

Does this process make sense in terms of payment and payback?  Maybe.  Does it make sense in terms of social development?  Not really.

You can look at Canadian politics through the same lens.  The Harper government is adding heavily to our democratic deficit by disregarding Parliament, the law and the truth.  They might think they’re getting away with it, but history tells us they’re really just adding to the public trust debt.  That’s a debt the public will eventually seek payment for, one way or another.  The same holds true with our ecological deficit.  You can make a mint off of natural resources, if you have them, but when you focus on that you neglect the need to diversify your economic ability (remember pulp and paper?).  Oh, yeah – then there’s this word “aquifer” that doesn’t get as much attention as it should.  Plus hewing wood doesn’t pay as well as selling finished products.  But I digress.

Public Investment

There’s the accumulation and trading off of debt; essentially, borrowing from tomorrow to pay for today.  Then, there’s investing in the future – the busker model of interaction, also known as strategic thinking.  When you bring an umbrella in case it might rain, that’s investing in the future; you have to carry the thing and might not use it, but you know you won’t end up getting wet.  There’s public health care; you pay for services when you don’t need them so they’re there when you do.  At the same time, you ensure that other people aren’t getting sick, leaving you with reduced risk in suffering from exposure to epidemics.

Continuing with the health care example, there’s another benefit – when health care professionals can focus on working rather than how to earn money, they can proactively refine their craft rather than waste time building in cosmetic frills that contribute little but pay well. 

Public education works this way too – we train kids today so that they’ll be able to find or generate work later, rather than be unemployed, disengaged and potentially criminal.  Even people without kids benefit, when they look at the big picture – investing in someone else’s children means those kids will offer the services you need when you need them down the road.

This, in a nutshell, is what society is all about – planning ahead, giving a bit to gain more down the road.  This isn’t a uniquely human thing to do – altruism is proven to give an evolutionary advantage in other species as well.

The Public Good

I recently heard Gerard Kennedy chat about the concept of the public good.  Kennedy talked about things I believe in strongly – not trying to skirt the rules to see what you can get away with or disenfranchising others; pushing boundaries and challenging people to do more pro-socially to see what we can achieve, collectively.  It’s this mutual challenge – to do better, not be better than – which results in greater success, better outcomes and innovation. 

Competition is about doing better than the other guy, which means at least some of your energy is going to be wasted on bringing the other guy down.  It’s challenge – not competition – that propels us forward and results in stronger individuals for a stronger society.

What's really cool is that organizations like Lawyers for Fair Taxation and Doctors for Fair Taxation understand this as well.  They're willing to put their long-term interests ahead of short-term gain, to the benefit of all of us.   
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty gets the idea, too.  When he created the Ministry of Infrastructure Renewal, he told then-Minister David Caplan “you’re job is to play the very long game” by looking at tomorrow’s needs and paying for them incrementally, starting today.  The HST was another example of this, as is Full Day Kindergarten.  There can be challenges with the implementation (challenges that deserved to be recognized and discussed) but again, it’s better to pay a smaller price today for benefit tomorrow.
This is exactly the opposite approach of what the Harper Government is doing.  They are drying up sources of information, reducing pension benefits for tomorrow’s seniors, atrophying public services and public trust, putting all their eggs in the natural resources basket.  They are piling on to the public deficit while theoretically managing the financial deficit.
Putting off until tomorrow is easy, but it’s not leadership.  The reason we, as the public, invest in government in the first place is so that they can strategically invest in tomorrow.
When government refuses to pay forward, it’s each one of us who is left holding the debt.

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