Tag Archives: current-events

Disruptive Innovation in Higher Ed (Talk)

This is a talk I gave for Okanagan College’s employee get-together Connections on August 23rd, 2016. In this session the group learned how to identify and think about potential disruptive innovations in higher education and what we can do about it in both the short term and the long term. The session also outlined the work of OC’s Disruptors Group.

Disruptive Innovation Prezi
Go to Disruptive Innovation Prezi by Ros.

When States Fail Humanity: Distance, Strangers, and The Home Analogy

Middle East

The hearbreaking image of a drowned toddler on the shores of Europe reminded us all of the responsibilities towards others on this planet.  Human ties towards distant ‘others’, however, have historically been loose and fickle. Only rarely do people feel closely committed to the needs and troubles of others beyond their immediate family. Distance usually decreases empathy.  One of the reasons that states appeared was to deliberately overcome this innate human tendency to prioritize close relatives over strangers.  If human settlements were going to work, large communal groupings required closer ties among people who did not interact daily on a face-to-face basis.  To accomplish this, national groupings took on the trappings of families (the ‘motherland’, ‘fatherland’, ‘homeland’) and encouraged people to imagine the state as their proxy family writ large.

However, creating states to bond national groups together had a counter-effect, it created a new category of humans: outsiders and ‘others’ who were encountered only when travel (either by explorers sent out from the homeland or migrants coming in) brought them together.  Today, states have created an elaborate edifice of laws, institutions, informal rules and practices to help them classify and categorize how ‘strangers’ are treated. Partly, these rules have emerged from historical experience and are particular to individual societies.  For example, the European memory of the mass starvation and refugee crises following World War II has shaped the image of what a refugee is today.  Ultimately, because European states had an inordinate influence on the creation of global order in the post-War era, European ideas have heavily influenced international laws. A ‘refugee’ is a classification of people distinct from a ‘migrant’ in two main ways:  1. a refugee has rights to legal process, material support, and protection in the country they are seeking asylum; and 2. a refugee has the right to not be forcibly returned to their country of origin.

Today, states have created an elaborate edifice of laws, institutions, informal rules and practices that help them to classify and categorize how ‘strangers’ are treated.

However, states have jealously guarded their own rights to define someone as a citizen or to keep them out of the national family.  In doing so, states have created legal categories that make no sense when applied to real humans, because states’ rights and human rights conflict.

BarbariansThis background helps us to understand more clearly the landscape of political arguments going on now around migrants, as well as the ways in which the rules are being interpreted and applied.  It also allows us to recognize the limitations of these rules, in particular the ways in which these rules have arbitrarily divided humanity into categories that systematically de-humanize them and construct them as ‘strangers’, outside of the ‘families’ created by states.  The insistence on the application of these rules by state leaders reveals their emptiness.  Insisting that migrants register in the first country of arrival, that they be registered in order to apply for further transit, and that they somehow demonstrate and document that their movements are involuntary, are levers designed to ensure that they remain outside of the national family, not that they be embraced by the protections of refugee law.  Insisting that the solution to the problem is to ‘solve the Syrian conflict’ or ‘eliminate ISIS’ is similarly meant to distract from the fact that migrants have already waited 4 years or longer for the world to do something to help them, and that many thousands of refugees remain in countries closer to their countries of origin in the hope that they may be able to eventually return.  Some of these host countries, including Turkey, have been unwelcoming and hostile to their presence, driving them further afield to find sanctuary.  The insistence that migrants be prevented from ever settling in their countries of refuge ignores the legal invocation that they not be refouled back to danger.  The legal distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees’ is increasingly nonsensical, and the insistence on respecting it only reveals the arbitrariness of the categories.

In light of these realities, it is amazing that some have now decided to re-invoke humanity and the home/family analogy, and have even opened up their homes and lives to help strangers.  The defeat of the

The legal distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees’ is increasingly nonsensical, and the insistence on respecting it only reveals the arbitrariness of the categories.

Harper government in Canada is a rebuke of a legislative program designed to reinforce categories of separation and exclusion, to invoke tribalism in the legal guise of statehood. It is understandable, if not totally forgivable, that this welcoming comes late, and that it comes only with the ever-closer proximity of the suffering of others. Maybe that’s the best that humans can do.  However, states are another matter.  States are created by humans to encourage the compassembrace of strangers into a larger family. The next step is to build on the initiatives begun by states to encourage the expansion of the national family and to begin to challenge the arbitrary categories that divide humanity up.  The human willingness to challenge the separation created by distance has communicated empathy throughout the state system.  What remains is to communicate this to states in the future through new laws that strengthen human ties rather than state rights.

How Individualism Fails Young People

In contemplating the ‘crisis’ in youth voting and the abject failure of Canada’s political system to engage with young people, I’ve been drawn back to political philosophy and the ‘big questions’ of political life, freedom, and rights.  Remembering my own university days, I recall with fondness and even excitement the mass mobilization of workers, young people, and politicos against BC’s program of Restraint (we’d call it austerity today) in the 1980s. The Solidarity movement in the province took its cue from Polish workers’ unions’ resistance against communist domination, and the coalition formed in opposition to right-wing restructuring in BC culminated in a series of strikes and actions that potentially would have affected all sectors of the province.

Monuments in North Korea
Political debate in Western countries has been set up as an individual vs. group battle.

It’s hard to imagine such a movement today.  The causes that appeal to young people today, including diversity and identity acceptance, marijuana, GMOs, and a free and open internet, are not trivial or unimportant, but they don’t lend themselves to mass action, and maybe that’s on purpose.

In Western liberal culture, people tend to be predisposed to individualism. Individualism is an idea or approach to political life in which each person is deemed to be rational and free to make their own choices. In taking on board issues like marriage equality and GMO labeling, young people are following this individualistic script.

The idea of the rational and free ‘masterless man’ (and to the extent that rationality was associated with masculinity, a man it most likely was) emerged as an icon during the European Enlightenment, where it was a revolutionary idea. Medieval thinking drew upon an organic and hierarchical vision of social life, in which the focus was on individual responsibilities to the social order.  Identities and consummate freedoms, both of nobility and commoners, were always circumscribed by the demands of prescribed social roles.

Since the Enlightenment, almost all political debate in Western countries has been set up as an individual vs. group battle, with ‘freedom’ almost always associated with individual choices, and restrictions on freedom seen to emanate most centrally from the state.

The arguments of those on the side of the common or social good almost always had to concede that some (individual) freedoms had to be curtailed to be able to fulfill the larger social goals.  Rather than being able to make a positive case for the social good,claims for group rights had the onus of proving the necessity of deviating from the default of individualism.

Young woman sleeping on bed in student dorm, head resting on books
Group advocates have sounded like your Auntie’s voice chiding you to grow up and act responsibly.

Even worse has been the tendency to associate rationality with individuals, and irrationality, or emotion, with the mass and the group (or the mob).  People who follow groups, by extension, are irrational or driven by emotion. Our tendency is to re-imagine all social relationships in terms of the individual vs. group battle which shaped Western perceptions since the Enlightenment. But what if the individual vs. group tension is less of a battle of opposites and more of a continuum?

Today, young people emerge into Western culture with an elemental awareness of the importance of individualism in their lives. Parents prepare their children to be rational, self-governing individuals, conscious of their power and freedoms and willing to take on the group in the name of justice and individual freedom. It is necessary to equip young people with the words and ideas of individualism not just to protect them in an individualistic culture, but also to protect individualism as a value in and of itself.  Without the inculcation of individualism into young people, the fear is that freedom will be lost to future generations, and the oppression and irrationality of the group will win out. In Western culture, we believe that young people need individualism to understand themselves as free people.

But individualism fails to deliver the freedom it promises.  By understanding only the individual as the free unit, and not the group, we fail to protect and preserve freedoms for everyone.   Having been told all of their lives that their fates are their own, that responsible and committed people will be able to succeed, and that protecting one’s own freedom of choice is paramount, young people eventually discover that their lives are largely determined by hierarchies, that responsibility and commitment do not necessarily create success and may even be punished, and that exercising their own freedom of choice individually is a limited and essentially hollow way to find fulfillment.

Chairs and people seated
Individualism as a social norm and as a model for communities is empty.

Psychologically isolating and materially disempowering, individualism as a social norm and as a model for communities is empty.  It impoverishes democracy by discouraging social action, it reduces political life by disparaging the community, and it enables and empowers the abuses by the powerful by attributing success to individual rather than social factors. In addition to doing all of this, individualism also leaves young people vulnerable to attacks by the state.  The Harper government’s efforts to impose stricter penalties on young offenders, to impose mandatory minimums in criminal law, and provincial governments’ efforts to defund education have been met with almost no active resistance by the youth demographic.

The point is not to return to an organic and stable view of social order as the highest value, as it was practiced in the Medieval era, but to reject the false dichotomy of individuals vs. groups, and to recognize that communities are the source of both individual freedom and the pursuit of the common good.  To advance a notion of free societies, it is sometimes necessary to question the idea that individual choices are the only way in which freedom can be exercised.  Freedom is also exercised when communities choose together, deliberately, to pursue common goals and purposes. Indeed, similiar things have been said by many ancient philosophers to be the truest expression of freedom.

Unsettled Balance: Ethics Security and Canada’s International Relations

Book Cover 2015

New Website for Unsettled Balance Book here!

Since 9/11, the wars on terror, economic crises, climate change, and humanitarian emergencies have led decision makers to institute new measures to maintain security. Foreign policy analysts tend to view these decisions as being divorced from ethics, but Unsettled Balance shows that arguments about rights, obligations, norms, and values have played a profound role in Canadian foreign policy and international relations.

Examining a wide range of events in Canada and abroad, the contributors to this volume collectively explore three key questions. What is the meaning of ethics and security, and how are they linked? To what extent have considerations of ethics and security changed in the twenty-first century? And what are the implications of a shifting historical context for Canada’s international relations?

Whether probing how Canada handles the tension between ethics and security when hosting large-scale international events, engaging in humanitarian aid initiatives, or entering into military operations, each chapter provides insight into key decisions in recent Canadian history. In a time of rapid change, this book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how Canada responds to the challenges of an increasingly volatile world and why it responds the way it does.

How to Follow the News: 10 Rules of Thumb

After following the news for many years and thinking about world events, I’ve been able to observe some things about news gathering. I’m an advocate of reasoned and dispassionate analysis based on information, but it can be hard to be impartial when so much of the news today is biased one way or another.  However, I don’t believe that reasoned thinking about international events is incompatible with advocacy.   The strongest and most defensible points of view are those that are supported with evidence and with thoughtful and informed reasoning.  Sometimes, though, it’s hard to be informed when the media obscures the truth.  The rise of the internet has not made it any easier.  In fact, speculation and accusations are given even a wider audience when things go viral.  So, here is some advice, feel free to take it or leave it, and try to keep an open mind.

  1. There are angels and devils on both sides, but this doesn’t mean the claims and arguments of both sides are morally equivalent.

In the aftermath of rage over the killing of 3 Israeli teens, many Israelis protected Arabs attacked by crowds on public transit.  Many Palestinians have worked inside and outside Israel for peace and understanding between the two sides.   Ordinary people on both sides want the same things everyone wants:  a chance to live peacefully, make a living, and enjoy some freedom.  Nevertheless, the costs of the long conflict have not been borne by both sides equally, and this reflects the large power imbalance between the two sides. This imbalance should be a factor when deciding one’s view.   Here is an analysis that puts this conflict in context, and considers the ethical arguments.  Here is another.

2. Real life events are [almost] always more complicated than they seem.

Folly, lack of foresight, incompetence and brutality can produce unexpected outcomes for all sides.   Indeed, the last few months have seen an unprecedented array of crises emerging in a variety of global locales.  In a highly competitive market, so-called ‘hard reporting’ has been replaced with shallowness at best, and inflammatory styles of reporting at worst  One consequence is that there are few able to offer a strategic analysis of a event.   One must often wait, or dig deeper, to get a better understanding of the big picture.  Try to find out about what happened in the immediate weeks prior to the event, or read about the country and regions involved to get a sense of the context.

3. People and systems are distinct things.

Individuals, whether in a leadership position or not, develop cognitive frames over the course of their lives to understand the world and their position in it.  Both people and systems will actively protect those frames, but systems take much longer to change course, partly because they are supported by longer generational memories. Systems are more permanent, and every system demands allegiance, but be careful not to identify individuals as symbols for systems, they are not the same thing.  People behave differently in a group than they do as individuals.

4. Sometimes good people do bad things, and vice versa.

Beware of the ad hominem argument.  An examination of the actor is often insufficient to explain any given behaviour or action.  A given actor usually cannot be reduced to a single bad (or good) decision.

5. Opportunism is far more common than planned conspiracies.

It is almost never good strategy to organize and plan an attack on one’s own people in order to gain sympathy.   The risks of discovery are high, and the results can backfire.   For example,  some explanations of the Odessa event of May 2nd 2014, in which dozens were killed in street clashes between pro-federalist and nationalist forces in Ukraine, strain credulity by claiming ‘agent provocateurs’ were responsible.  Similarly, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu tried to paint a negative view of the opposition by stating that: “Hamas wants civilian casualties”.   Be skeptical of such oversimplified characterizations and convoluted theories. Recognize that different sides will opportunistically use images to elicit anger and sympathy for their cause.   Have anger, and have empathy.

6. People don’t like inconsistencies, but these are frequent and often deep in human events.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state that happensPhilosoraptor when information is contradictory. Individuals often go to great lengths to overcome  the discomfort, including ignoring contradictory information, oversimplifying the facts, and narrowing the frame of reference.  Try to recognize these strategies in yourself and others. Try to become comfortable with contradiction, blurriness, messiness, and complexity.

7. Every report becomes part of a track record, don’t forget the past.

Don’t base your decision on a single report, study, or bit of information.  Compare today’s headlines with those of the past. Don’t forget when today’s reports conflict with those of yesterday. Follow stories that are given less attention, so you will know more about them.

8. All sides will try to appeal to emotions.  Beware of manipulation.

The internet and television news are eminently malleable, with out-of-context quotes, selective information, and even photo manipulation. Watch for terms like “appears to be” and for leading questions that raise doubt or provoke.   Think about what the media is choosing to focus on when preparing a story. Consider the effect of the format and phases of revealing a story.

9. Look deeply, look widely, and compare reports from a variety of sources.  Look for hard evidence, not eye witness accounts.

Personal interviews are a mainstay of video reporting.  They are ALL edited, and eye witnesses, even when sincere, are unreliable.

10. Beware of appeals to authority.

Even those with inside knowledge, high levels of education, and recognized credentials can sometimes lie.   People can also be mistaken in their facts and biased by their education.   Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other UN agencies have long established track records and can generally be trusted when other sources are more questionable.  However, they are also not infallible.


The Psychology of Wealth and the Social Contract

Credit: Flickr User Philip Taylor
Credit: Flickr User Philip Taylor

Social science is telling us that morality and generosity decline among the most well-off.   Ever since I heard about this study at UC Berkeley I’ve been curious to imagine how these findings might apply to political systems.  It seems that material wealth, or even the feeling of wealth, has a greater impact on one’s attitudes towards others than previously believed; possibly even a greater impact than previous political ideology, upbringing, or education!   Studies have shown for some time already that generosity is more marked among those who have fewer resources compared to those with more, but now it seems we’re starting to get results that reveal even more about the nature of these differences.  There are intriguing hints at the sources of these really surprising findings.

Nick Powdthavee, an author of a study of the effect of lottery winnings, found that greater wins tend to make people more right-wing and inegalitarian.  He declared:

“We are not sure exactly what goes on inside people’s brains but it seems that having money causes people to favour conservative right-wing ideas. Humans are creatures of flexible ethics.”

Also in this study, the authors speculate about the effect on democracy, arguing that self-interest trumps morality in decision making.

This last point is where I depart a bit in interpreting the meaning of these studies.  Moving to the right may mean supporting an effort to protect one’s own ‘hoard’, but it is only ‘self-interested’ on an individual level, not necessarily on a social level.  Democracy is to some degree about keeping these tendencies in check and allowing a public good to emerge from the apparent conflict of interest created between the rich and the poor.   The paradox, of course, is that the wealthy MUST be on board the project of contributing to the social good at the very point when they are the least motivated to do so (due to their wealth, apparently).   As the wealthy opt out of the social contract that makes things better for everyone, they undermine themselves by eroding the means by which the social fabric is maintained.

 The paradox, of course, is that the wealthy MUST be on board the project of contributing to the social good at the very point when they are the least motivated to do so…

I assume, of course, that the wealthy are still in some way part of that social fabric.  Wealth seems to offer a way out of social obligations and norms [for example, by letting people think they can drive faster with a more expensive car, even if they end up paying a ticket].   But why do people choose to opt out, even if it becomes more expensive, and actually less rational, for them to do so? Why send your kids to private school, pay your taxes to another country, or get your healthcare from a boutique provider, when comparable services can be obtained much more cheaply by paying your fair share to the common pool?  It’s not exactly self-interested in the rational, economic sense, to do this.

I’m wondering if the answer has to do with the psychological need to control the environment, something that money provides unequivocally in a capitalist society.  What one loses in material cost [private school is more expensive than public, paying a ticket is more expensive than driving according to the rules, for example] is made up for in control over the process. If it is about control rather than about wealth, it has implications not only for what the rich do individually, but how they act toward the political system as a group.  For if the tendency to protect one’s own extends to the effort to control the society as a whole, it means the wealthy will make social laws and rules for everyone else that reflect their particular interests.

Fostering empathy in the minds of the wealthy may not be the way to go, as this article in the Atlantic suggests.  A considerable amount of energy is spent in encouraging charity among the wealthy, which has had little impact on the mindset.  Indeed, what is interesting is that most Americans have experienced poverty in their lives, if only temporarily, at one time or another.  This means a significant number of wealthy individuals, and yes, even members of Congress or Parliament, have also experienced poverty.  If the above studies are correct, it seems unlikely that this experience can trump the psychological effects of wealth, and the tendency to be less egalitarian or generous, that goes with wealth. It doesn’t seem likely that human nature will change.

Credit: Flickr User Brent Granby
Credit: Flickr User Brent Granby

Bridging the psychology of the individual with the need for a public good means bolstering institutions that supercede and limit the tendencies of the wealthy to opt out and to control the process. Unfortunately, many democratic institutions have been put in place to do exactly the opposite: to control and limit the worst excesses of the general public [see the Canadian Senate].

Public education, public health care, parental leave, elder care, social services, and even sewers and parks have often been thought of as contingent on ‘affordability’ (Yes I’m looking at you, BC Liberals!)  In fact, by highlighting the idea of the public good, these institutions remind us of the vulnerability of the social contract to the psychology of wealth. Now that we know more about the effects of wealth on our thinking  (and by that I mean everybody’s thinking) social planners should be better equipped to make the case for the defence of that social contract.  That defence should strongly state the need for everyone, but especially the wealthy, to be included in the social project from which we all benefit.

The True Meaning of Differentiated Citizenship

090913_0254_TheTrueMean1.pngSometimes the language that we use as political scientists is regrettable in its implications. For example, the definition of ‘differentiated citizenship’ according to a leading introductory text to Canadian politics reads as follows: “The granting of special group-based legal or constitutional rights to national minorities and ethnic groups” (Mintz, Tossutti and Dunn 89). While accurate, the use of the term ‘special’ has many unintended implications. Who is ‘special’ and who is entitled to ‘different’ treatment by government?
For one thing, to say that a group or individual receives ‘special’ treatment is to imply that every other group is not special. Or, to put it another way, it is to imply that a group is singled out from the otherwise equal treatment that they might be entitled to receive by virtue of being equal members of the community. It assumes that the community at large includes other groups which may be equally entitled to special treatment were it not for the unique qualities which set the ‘special’ group apart. Equality before the law is both an operational concept and an aspirational standard.Using the term ‘special’ to describe a group singled out for differentiated treatment suggests that everyone else is already treated equally under the law, that equal legal treatment is in fact a reality, and not also an aspiration yet to be achieved. Under the assumption of equality, special treatment is, by definition, discriminatory. Discriminatory treatment technically only means the same as ‘special’ treatment, except for the fact that it implies a harmful result for the group being singled out. When the result of special treatment is discrimination, it is rightfully condemned. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender or ethnicity, for example, is condemned in a democracy not primarily because it constitutes special or differential treatment, but rather because of the negative effects of the judgments that tend to be made, most often based on involuntary or ascribed characteristics. The response to ‘special treatment’ is to question the basis for unequal treatment rather than to condemn all forms of harmful discrimination. Why the knee-jerk reaction to ‘special treatment’? After all, governments identify groups for a variety of special programs and services all the time. Groups are defined by age, income levels, geography, occupation, health status, and marital status. Many of these categories are based on involuntary characteristics, or at least, characteristics that are extremely difficult to change. Northerners or people who live in rural areas are entitled to unique job training or assistance for moving expenses. Fishers in the Maritimes are treated distinctly from other occupations with respect to qualification for EI benefits, young people are targeted for special job training and employment programs, and government services like healthcare are often offered in languages other than the two official languages.
090913_0254_TheTrueMean2.jpgIn truth, as discussed in the last two blog posts, equal treatment is as elusive as the abstraction of ‘equality’ itself. One is tempted sometimes to ‘test’ equality by imagining a ‘reverse onus’. In other words, we might try to test the extent of equality by asking ourselves how a given situation might be if the positions were reversed. If a black woman and a white woman are ranked equally on a college entrance application, then ‘all else being equal’, the chances of success should be equally distributed (50/50). If this is indeed true, then the white woman and black woman are being equally treated. In reality, we can more effectively test the presumption of equality by looking at outcomes. If an equal chance of success really does exist, then the number of black successful women should be roughly proportional to the number of black women in the population as a whole, and the same with the number of white women. Success is clearly not distributed proportionally among these racial groups. Because the outcomes do not support the idea that such equal treatment exists, it is unfair to apply the ‘reverse racism’ test. Treatment that might be appropriate for one group would not be appropriate for the privileged group. The two situations are not comparable. Discrimination can still be shown to exist, as the story of Yolanda Spivey reveals. Spivey, a black woman, reportedly modified her online job profile to appear ‘white’, changing her name and racial identification, but keeping all of her other information the same, including qualifications,

experience, and work history. She received many more employment enquiries as a white woman than as a black woman. The experiences of black and white people are not comparable, and so these groups should not be considered as if they were treated equally. Of course, more study and data is needed to determine the extent, nature, and form of discrimination in society. Nevertheless, differential treatment, and even differentiated citizenship, is justifiable in order to move toward equality of opportunity for all. Until equality can be demonstrated in outcomes, it should be seen as an aspirational goal, and not assumed to be already in place.

What Kind of (In)Equality Do We Want?

Photo Credit: Jessica Tam Flickr

When analyzing any phenomena, it helps to have a good idea what we want to achieve. In political science as in life, equality has great significance. Analysts tend to think quite differently from the general public, however, about what constitutes equality and how we should use the term. Let’s consider a thought experiment to sort out the difference between ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘equality of condition’.

If we imagine that equality of opportunity and equality of condition are kinds of ideal types at opposite poles, with a spectrum of variations in between, then the picture might look something like this: under ‘equality of condition’ everyone would experience the same life outcomes: equal incomes, equal standards of living, and equal levels of education, health care, and work. How would things differ? Likely inequality would creep in through limited means: for example, some may work longer hours, have more or less education, spend more or less time skiing, etc.

What is wrong with this picture? The most common criticisms of this ‘absolute equality’ are:

It reduces the incentive to succeed, and 2. It distorts the value of things, leading to scarcities and gluts in supply.

Society involves differential treatment.

But these are practical criticisms, not questions of justice.   Would absolute equality actually be ‘just’?  Assuming for the moment that such a system could be workable (and I’m not saying it is) then an argument could be made that it actually creates injustice by failing to differentiate among people with ascribed or inherent differences who deserve differential outcomes.  Those who work harder or are more creative or who are disabled or ill should be treated differently.  Some may deserve preferential access to resources either as a result of their extra effort, their accomplishment or contributions, or by virtue of need.  Tellingly, the right more often argues for differential outcomes based on effort and accomplishment, while ‘need’ tends to take second place. It is sometimes said that such a system would be communistic.  However, under Marx’s vision of communism, the ideal form of equality actually allowed for differential rewards focusing on need rather than accomplishment or contribution. Contrary to popular belief, Marx did not advocate absolute equality of condition. Indeed, nobody has, in all seriousness, ever really proposed that large-scale industrial societies impose absolute equality of condition.  This is because serious thinkers would quickly realize that equality of condition, even in its ideal form, would inevitably raise both practical and fairness questions since there would still need to be some argument for different treatment of some people.  Nobody is average.

Now, what about equality of opportunity? That sounds like something we can all get behind: everybody can try or fail equally well, and those with the greatest accomplishments and talents will rise to the top. This is kind of what Paul Summerville argues when he says:

Equality of opportunity is a virtue when it is twinned with unequal outcomes. It is meaningless without it. What is the point of equality opportunity if success is discouraged by custom, law, or taxation?

But, to respond to this, how can we be sure that everyone actually has an equal opportunity to try, and to win? Inequality all by itself is not evidence of equality of opportunity. What if the winners try to ‘kick the ladder out’ from behind them, blocking the upward advance of others? What if they use their newfound positions to favour their heirs and families and friends rather than allow their loved ones to fail? Perhaps when we see that some are able to climb up to the top from the very bottom of the social ladder without artificial assistance from the state, then we can say that equality of opportunity exists. But how many of these examples are sufficient to prove it? One? One in ten? One in a thousand? The fact is there is no natural or inevitable level of inequality that can tell us when everyone truly has an equal chance. We can point to clues: perhaps when the top 1% is as diverse and representative of the entire society, or when every member of the top group can claim to have climbed out of the gutter, but that seems as unlikely as the ideally equal society discussed above. The question of fairness rises again: even in a society in which opportunities are purely equally distributed, there will be unfairness due to the same factors mentioned above: What about those disadvantaged by illness or age or poor upbringing? What about highly talented or accomplished individuals who don’t manage to make it through no fault of their own? why value some talents more than others?

Given differences, how can we be sure that equality of opportunity exists?
Given differences, how can we be sure that equality of opportunity exists?

Again, the argument to treat some people differently in order for equality of opportunity to be realized is present. But, the same question arises: what should be the basis for differential treatment? Here, the differences between the two poles start to disappear: the essential argument is not about equality at all, but about the basis and rationale for differences. Both sides work toward an ideal world that is impractical and unfair, yet both sides argue for ‘differential’ treatment on the basis of different individual characteristics. The right argues that differential treatment should be based on talents or contributions, while the left focuses on compensating for special needs and other (class) disadvantages.

The world we actually live in is of course far more complicated. Equality before the law, which is the dominant discourse of equality in Canada and other Western liberal democracies, is actually a fall-back position avoiding both of the options described above. It doesn’t guarantee equality of opportunity and it doesn’t mitigate inequalities of condition. At most, it provides a measure of our progress toward some compromise on fairness and practicality. It’s not irrelevant, far from it! The legal guarantees of the Voting Rights Act or protections for gay marriage or for equality between religious beliefs do matter, but not for the reasons we think. They matter less because they create equal opportunities, and more because they clarify the legitimate grounds for treating people differently. The fact that people are all, in some way, treated differently by society still needs to be acknowledged by all participants in the equality debate.

The next two blog posts will address the sources of present-day inequality in globalization, and the basis for differential treatment and its centrality to equality.

Can currency wars lead to real wars?

Are we in a potential inflationary moment?

Imagine the following:  China secretly buys up gold futures in the hopes of stockpiling a war fund to fight inflation caused by US ‘quantitative easing’.  If the US goes too far in trying to fund its stimulus by debasing the dollar, China triggers a crisis by buying up gold.  The ultimate statement of lack of confidence in the US dollar (which is the key currency for all international trade and capital reserves) leads to a catastrophic run on the dollar and a collapse of globalization as each country tries to ‘beggar’ its neighbour with cascading tit for tat devaluations.  In his book Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crisis, Jim Rickards presents several scenarios by which the world could come to the brink of collapse as a result of governments’ efforts to manipulate their currencies, thereby stimulating their economies at the expense of their trading partners.  Indeed, it is not hard to imagine how the monetary underpinnings of globalization could easily come crashing down given the wobbliness of the top currency, the high level of US debt, and the lackluster response of the US consumer, traditionally the world’s growth engine, in recovering from the 2007 recession.  Indeed, one could argue that even a much less complicated scenario might lead to crisis:  what if China simply decided to use it’s so-called ‘nuclear option’ and stop buying US treasuries, triggering a cascading dive of confidence in the world’s reserve currency?  What if politics really did take over economics?

The alarmism over a coming hyperinflationary crisis appears to be growing, and it’s not without some foundation.  Fiscal stimulus appears to have met its match in the global system of monetary exchange, where politics and economics do not just interact, but essentially meld.  However, at least some of the alarmism should be taken with a grain of salt.  The calls for curbing the US fiscal deficit (quite apart from the debt) are at least in part motivated by an ideological discomfort with government’s influence on the market as well as a moral panic over Americans’ dependency and perceived complacency.  This view tends to see the world as a dangerous, zero-sum place where countries await any and every opportunity to force an advantage over their competitors.  However, economic competition is not exactly the same as political rivalry, and should not be equated.  While it is not impossible for countries to mutually try to obliterate each other (see the Great Depression) it is not likely given the availability of much more palatable options.

Economic and political 'wars' should not be equated
Economic and political ‘wars’ should not be equated

It is important to remember that unlike real wars, currency wars that result in hyperinflation are not really deliberate—they result from governments’ fumbling and lack of effort to cooperate or lead rather than from single-minded plans to dominate the world.   They are tragedies (or tragicomedies) rather than evils.  They are not so much caused by politics as by a lack of politics.  Because of the uncertain results of currency manipulation, it is a very blunt and unpredictable instrument of policy indeed.   As with nuclear deterrence, mutual deterrence is more likely than not to push countries to cooperate and to head off crises before they get out of hand.  Indeed, this is exactly what has been happening for the last (almost) 42 years.   The players may change, but the game will remain: keep the poker face on and ensure the world continues to have a world reserve currency with some usefulness to everybody.   The alternative is just too awful to contemplate.