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From Politics to Poetry
Updated: 54 min 23 sec ago

Minimum Wage and the Laughable National Post. . .

Thu, 07/02/2015 - 06:50
The National Post Editorial of June 30th which argues that the performance of Rachel Notley in Alberta is a good reason not to vote for the NDP in October is a excellent performative demonstration of just how thin the arguments of the rightwing are when it comes to attacking the centre left. I only offer the link because it reminds me of how overwhelmingly weak the right's talking points have become and how dramatically the neo-liberal discourse has broken down. Let's put aside for the moment the fact that NDP governments actually have the best record of balancing budgets in Canada. Let's put aside too the fact the federal NDP has moved so far into the centre that they can't, by any significant standards, be called a "leftwing" party. The National Post editorial is so risible because, with nothing to grasp at but straws, the Post has staked its significant national resources on arguing that the effort to raise the minimum wage in Alberta is some kind of ominous move toward fiscal irresponsibility and (though they obviously don't use the word) socialism. Perhaps the most laughable part of the Post's argument is the hackneyed one that raising the minimum wage simultaneously raises unemployment (their beautiful, rightwing, journalistic phrase is "suppresses hiring.) The fact that this is simply straightforwardly false, does nothing to dissuade the Post from using an age old lie. Despite generations of effort on the part of rightwing ideologists to lie with statistics, there is not a single credible piece of evidence that a higher minimum wage drives overall unemployment. Nothing, nada, zilch, zippo…you get the picture. And, ironically, there is a growing body of evidence that raising the minimum wage has directly the opposite effect. However, as embarrassing as it is for a national newspaper to rest its argument against the NDP on this age old untruth, there is something more interesting for us here, and this is the claim that raising the minimum wage will do nothing to alleviate poverty. There is an important sense, though not at all the way the Post intends, that this is true. Raising minimum wage WILL, in fact, alleviate poverty, if we understand by that expression that it will make people's poverty a little less painful and difficult. A slightly higher wage might make it a little easier to make rent or allow a low-wage worker to eat a little bit healthier, but unfortunately it won't raise them out of poverty. The logic here is hardly complicated, and even the rationally-challenged National Post editors can understand it. If you raise the minimum wage from, say 12$ and hour to 15 or even 20, it is still a poverty wage. Thus, raising the minimum wage will do little to alleviate the numbers of people living in poverty. There can, however, be a knock-on effect, because if you have a family of two wage earners with one making a decent wage and the other at minimum wage, the small raise, may actually bring the family from just below the so-called poverty line to just above it.

Ironically, however, this is not the reason that the Post attacks the minimum wage. The Post doesn't really want to remind us that people are living in poverty and that raising the minimum wage won't address this problem, because any proposals for a rise in the minimum wage wouldn't be enough on their own to take workers out of a poverty level wage. In this sense the National Post is right for entirely the wrong reasons. The reason that raising the minimum wage won't solve the problem of poverty is not because raising the wage is a bad idea that will lead to an economic slowdown, but because minimum wage earners will still be living in poverty even after you raise their wages! Because of this basic fact, there is a second irony here; it is the fact that voting for a left of centre party like the NDP does nothing to threaten the basic structure of corporate power or the intentional maintenance of a low-wage labour pool. The ironically-challenged National Post editors don't get a very basic fact about capitalism, social-democratic efforts like those of the NDP are not meant to be a serious challenge to the capitalist economic system, rather they are meant to make that system a little more tolerable. When you think about this seriously it is quite hilarious because social democrats are much better for the long-term survival of the capitalist order than the rightwing. In the long run the rightwing agenda will increase poverty and inequality and thereby make it more unstable and will grow a basic dissatisfaction with the underlying economic relations. The social-democratic strategy will make the system more livable in the long run and people will be much less likely to rebel or challenge the economic relations.

Here's the thing that neither the editors of the Post nor much of the mainstream NDP supporters want to think about - the cause of poverty is, more than anything, about the overall inequality in an economy, and raising the minimum wage will only address that inequality in the most superficial sense. Even many poorer countries have enough overall resources to end poverty, the problem is that the resources are amassed in few hands. It really is as simple as that, despite what the National Post or rightwing economists want us to believe. If 95% of the wealth of a nation continues to be held by 5% (or even less) of the population, there will be ABSOLUTELY NO WAY to seriously alleviate poverty in that nation. If you lived in a family of five, say, with an income of 250 thousand dollars you would expect everyone in the family to be living well. However, if that wage was only earned by one of the family members and he or she lived in a huge mansion, eating caviar everyday, and he or she made the rest of the family live in a small concrete room in the basement eating Kraft Dinner, then the 250 thousand would make little difference to the other four members of the family. Here is the simple proscription - you have to share the money to ensure that everyone is living well!

The minimum wage is a very small effort to alleviate poverty and by itself it will do almost nothing. Contrary to what the National Post (and the rest of the rightwing) would have us believe, raising the minimum wage will do nothing to hurt an economy, but they are unintentionally correct in saying that such a move will do little to alleviate poverty. Much to the Post's chagrin, to actually address poverty we have to do a hell of a lot more than raise the minimum wage! We actually have to take a significant amount of wealth out of the hands of a few ultra-rich families and spread it though society if we actually want to alleviate poverty,

Here's the kicker - no political party has any kind of serious plan to do this.

On Hope and Fear in the run up to the Elections. . .

Mon, 06/29/2015 - 09:42
Despite wanting to turn off recent political events, an urge that is motivated by a depressed feeling of helplessness and hopelessness, I have kept a careful watch on things over the past few months, almost like a addict who willingly engages in dangerous activity. Like someone addicted to gambling, I think many of us on the left watch political events because we are continually nagged by the hope that things will get better, that the big win is just around the corner, that people are going to wake up to the shocking evil that has become our government and that in the not too distant future we will watch Harper, like Del Mastro, led away in chains the way he really should be. After all, it is not hyperbole to contend that a man who has so consistently and blatantly disregarded the law (and the Constitution is, after all, the highest law that we have) should pay the price for that disregard. And so, despite my instinct to avoid depression and frustration, I watch the news, read the papers, and scour the blogs.

And I admit that I have been plagued by a tantalizing hope. There is, unquestionably, a growing fatigue with Harper's toxicity, his secretive pathological manner, and his continual attacks on everything and everyone that dares question his supreme authority. Even the MSM, which has been so shockingly remiss for so long, seems to be getting weary of a leader that not only refuses to answer any unvetted questions, but who seems to spend all his waking hours attacking everyone even while he seems hopelessly incompetent on every file and his front bench looks like a whose who of lightweight, mealy mouthed, parrots. Even former allies of Harper in the media now openly admit the remarkable weakness of his cabinet and their seeming inability to take on even the simplest issues without sounding misinformed and comically partizan. In the past few months Harper has looked increasingly Nixonian in his isolation and strangely vitriolic pathology. And it is a condition that has not gone unnoticed by almost everyone except the saddest of the hopeless partizans. Under any normal conditions, these realizations would be leading to a overwhelming defeat at the polls, a genuine condemnation of everything into which Harper has transformed our government and our nation.

However, optimism in this regard is still in fairly short supply because commentators are increasingly warning of the danger in events to come as a result of Harper's perceived desperation at his growing unpopularity. Given that the Conservatives have become serial cheaters in elections, and that they very consciously weakened Elections Canada, there is a growing fear that election fraud on a much larger scale is coming, to say nothing of a new level of vitriolic attacks on opponents. The fact that people even in the MSM are anticipating this turn of events speaks volumes about how low our democracy has sunk. We have now gotten to the point at which even Conservative commentators take it as plausible and even likely that our next election might be mired in fraud and will most certainly be awash with intentional misrepresentations that will try to scare and cajole the voters into voting out of fear. This is, in itself, ominous and depressing.

There are, however, some green sprouts of hope here and there. Despite his foolish (perhaps even fatal) support of Bill C-51, Trudeau is offering up a number of progressive possibilities. Although I find it difficult to have much faith in these given the Liberal Party's rather dismal record of keeping certain progressive promises, I think that Trudeau's reforms are serious and could be far reaching. At the very least, if either the Liberals or the NDP win the next election (even with a minority) this will probably be the last Federal election in Canada with a First Past the Post structure. This is not only good news for democracy in general because any significant reforms will widen political discourse, but it de facto means that another Conservative majority is difficult to conceive of in this country. I think any serious electoral reform from full on PR to just weighted voting will mean more progressive government because in the three major nations that doggedly hold on to First Past the Post, the population in general is considerably more progressive than the government on many issues.

Thus I feel at once full of hope and uneasy about our immediate future. I put absolutely NOTHING past Harper and his minions in their desperate desire to stay in power. But if people are weary enough, and angry enough with the ten years of destruction that Harper has wrought, genuine malfeasance or a coup might be something that Canadians are now not willing tolerate. Even if I am rather pessimistic about people, history is so full of surprises that a coup or widespread fraud on the part of Harper might even be met with a genuine popular uprising.

I wait with bated breath.

Del Mastro and the Milgram Experiment. . .

Fri, 06/26/2015 - 05:30
Former Liberal MP Glen Pearson had an article on the Huffington Post yesterday entitled "Del Mastro isn't the Problem, Politics Is," in which he argues that Del Mastro is essentially a good man who has been led astray by a toxic political system. Pearson doesn't actually know Mr. Del Masto and his only real evidence for his contention is that the now disgraced politician is really a nice, compassionate guy is that Del Mastro once 'teared up' when he heard that Pearson's adoption of Sudanese orphans had just been completed. How could a guy who was 'fighting back tears' in such a 'touchingly human' way be a shrill, nasty, partisan hack? The answer for Pearson is that those good parts of Del Mastro's spirit were "transcended by an overriding desire to serve the Prime Minster and his Party."

I call this the "Milgram Experiement" approach to politics. The Milgram Experiment was undertaken at Yale University as a reaction to the Eichmann Trial. Psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to understand how apparently normal people cold be compelled to do bad things and he later expanded the results of his experiment into the book Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. In the experiment people were instructed to give a series of increasingly painful electric shocks to another subject (who was shielded from view) for giving incorrect answers to essentially impossible problems. A shocking (no pun intended) number of people were willing to give what they thought were dangerously painful shocks to someone simply because they were instructed (and if reluctant, prodded) to do so. The prevailing assumption of those that buy into the Milgram experiment is that most people, regardless of their ethical foundation, can be easily compelled to do bad things by a figure of authority.

Over the years many people have raised serious objections to Milgram's methodology and results. Obviously I can't go here into these clinical debates, but let me suffice to say that I don't really buy the prevailing wisdom of the Milgram experiment. For one thing, the reason the experiment worked was because it was done in an educational context. The situation of school or university is, arguably, the most compelling context of obedience that our society has outside of raw physical force. This basic issue irretrievably skews the experiment. The importance of this problem was highlighted by recreations of the experiment that were performed in less binding contexts. But my most important objection to the Milgram Experiment is that is utilizes people who are a priori likely to tend toward obedience. My instinct about the Milgram Experiment was confirmed for me when a more recent version, the results of which were published in the Journal of Personality suggested that the more left-wing someone is, the less likely they are to be obedient in the context of the experiment. And the group least likely to be willing to inflict harm were "women who had previously participated in rebellious political activity such as strikes or occupying a factory." I didn't really need an experiment to know this would be true because, and I will just say this straight up, leftwing ideology is, at heart, about compassion, while rightwing ideology is about fear, obedience, and greed. There is increasing clinical evidence that rightwing people don't process fear adequately (they have a heightened sense of fear and distrust of others). Couple this with an inordinate number of people who are self-serving, greedy, a-type personalities and you get some pretty dangerous political ideology.

However, I am digressing. The problem with assigning any sort of Milgram assumptions to a guy like Del Mastro should be obvious. For one thing, he is not some lowly undergraduate student engaged in an experiment conducted by his primary authority figures - he is a sovereign adult being paid a very large salary who was himself in a position of authority. I have no doubt that Harper can be Nazi-like in his threatening drive for obedience, and the weak-willed will be more likely to follow his dictates than others. I also have no doubt that the party political system recreates some problematic structures of power. However, that doesn't in anyway suggest to me that any truly good person would willingly do the bidding of a power-crazed, anti-democratic, monster like Harper. These MPs are not disadvantaged, uneducated, vulnerable folks whose difficult lives makes them prone to poor ethical choices. Harper's minions have, for the most part, been prosperous, white, (mostly male), individuals with all the advantages our society has to offer. If they are propping up an evil oligarch who is hell bent on victimizing everyone he can get his hands on and destroying our democracy while he's at it, let's not feel bad for them.

There is no doubt that spin-offs of the Milgram Experiment will continue to be conducted and, hopefully, offer more subtle and compelling results. There is also little doubt in my mind that the evidence will continue to grow that rightwing people are driven by an inordinate degree of distrust and fear. And I am all for giving the people the benefit of the doubt concerning their poor ethical choices when they are made in a context of genuine disadvantage or when they are vulnerable and at the whim of genuinely threatening power. In other words, I am not going to blame and condemn every line soldier for "obeying orders." But int the same context I am not going to be so willing to overlook or forgive the educated, officers who were part of the very hierarchy that was giving those orders.

Del Mastro - Poster Boy of Harper Corruption. . .

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 13:24
Before today I think that my very favourite moment in the ten years of the Harper disaster was the moment that Dean Del Mastro commented on his conviction for electoral fraud. As we all remember, Del Mastro didn't just reassert his innocence as so many convicted criminals do. Rather, Del Mastro did something I have never actually seen before, he claimed that his guilt was simply a matter of the judge's "opinion." You have to give the HarperCons high marks for pure gall! This remark by Del Mastro is deeply symbolic because it sums up the Harper regime's attitude toward judges, the courts, and the law in general. Many convicted criminals proclaim their innocence, but they usually do so by speaking about incorrect or unreported evidence, police malfeasance or incompetence, or a poor defence. However, by choosing to refer to his conviction as simply a matter of the judge's opinion, Del Mastro did something different; he was symbolically suggesting that he, in a very important sense, above the law, that the law (even in a case such as his where attorneys commonly suggested that his was a blatant and clear violation) is really just whim of individual judges.

Here's the thing - I am as skeptical and cautious as anyone out there concerning the justice system. I understand that it is designed in such a way that prejudice and bias are systemically unavoidable. The working-class, racialized people, women, the poor; all of these groups are at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to the courts. Not only do laws themselves favour the rich and powerful, but the process (which is infused with money) makes it difficult for the vulnerable to get a fair hearing. However, Del Mastro had won the lottery of life before he ever stepped inside a courtroom. He's a prosperous, white, male with significant political ties to the most powerful people in the nation. He came to the justice system with every possible advantage. Thus, when the hammer of the justice system comes down on a man like Del Mastro, I am as sure as I can be as a skeptic that he is guilty.

But Del Mastro says it is a matter of "opinion" for the simple reason that for Harper and his barking seals, the law isn't something to be respected and judges are not there to adjudicate it. Rather, the entire legal system is just another pawn of their political goals, that is to say convenient when it can be used to thwart and pervert democracy or victimize the vulnerable, but a simple impediment when it gets in the way of their political agenda. The Harper regime is the most perverse and sinister kind of political body - one that cares nothing for law, for due process, for separation of powers, for respect of difference, or even basic human rights. They are pure criminality, a group of megalomaniacs who, in a different historical context would joyfully send their opponents to death-camps, and routinely "disappear" activists, all the while proclaiming righteousness and honesty, just like a tin-pot dictator of the Cold-War era.

My new favourite moment of the Harper era is the one we saw today - Dean Del Mastro, once a mindless harping bulldog of Harper himself, being lead off to jail in hand-cuffs and leg-irons. A man who rudely and ruthlessly attempted to dishonour and discredit anyone who disagreed with the Harperites and stood up in Parliament day after day proclaiming the lily-white purity of the Harper regime, being lead to jail like the petty criminal that he is for consciously attempting to undermine democracy itself. What more appropriate symbol could we have of the entire Harper Era of government?? Only, I suppose, one of Harper himself being taken to prison in much the same way.

Running on Fumes and the Problems of Leadership. . .

Tue, 06/23/2015 - 13:20
As the Harper government sputters toward the fall election, a political machine that seems to be running on fumes alone, the issue of leadership is continually arising amongst the MSM as well bloggers at large.

All political and activist organizations must struggle with the the fundamental problem of balancing centralized leadership on the one hand and grassroots input on the other. A political party can often withstand greater centralization than an activist organization because an activist body relies so significantly on the time and input of its members to define it and push its agenda forward. Martin Luther King for example, as far as I know, only ever held a technical leadership role in the SCLC. His leadership for the Civil Rights Movement was largely derived from his popularity and perceived moral authority. Gandhi was, for a time, the leader of the Indian National Conference but most of his real leadership existed outside of any official organization or institution.

Because of the way Party politics work, I think we expect (or at least tolerate) a higher level of centralization, and leadership is often less a matter of moral authority and more a matter of perceived strength and strategic victory. However, even here where we accept a high degree of centralization, when a political organization goes out of balance there are grave consequences. Even within the highly charged atmosphere of capitalist democracy, and in the inherently centralized Westminster System of Government, a party out of balance is a deeply problematic thing. The reason for this is obvious, a political party relies on generational turnover to thrive. Anyone familiar with basic institutional process, let alone the specifics of party politics, understands that unless a party can continually train new crops of leaders, it will face serious problems. Thus a good political leader balances her own power with a good group of supporters to whom she can delegate responsibilities, people who can not only keep the leader fresh by asking the right questions and challenging the leadership, but can learn on the job to get better at what they do. Over centralized leadership, therefore suffers from two basic problems in political parties. The first problem is the tendency for an iron-fisted leader to lose touch not only with the party's supporters but to lose touch with reality in general. It would be like writing a complex book and having no one on whom you can rely to read it and speak up for any potential problems or mistakes. The result would be a text riddled with errors and conceptual pitfalls. The second, and perhaps more fundamental problem with extreme leadership is the tendency for such a leader to close out intelligent leaders in waiting. If a political leader choses to surround himself with yes-men and dull-witted peons, a basic power vacuum forms around the leader and the party's options for the future begin to close up.

It is should be obvious to even the most partizan conservative in Canada that the party of right has suffered from both of these basic problems. If Harper is unable to cheat his way to a victory in October and he actually willingly gives up power in the event of a loss, the Party is going to find itself in real trouble. Not only will it be unable to field credible and intelligent candidates for new leadership, but it will have a seriously difficult time distancing itself from the internal rot that has plagued it since its inception. In addition to this it will have handicapped itself in a serious way by setting all sorts of precedents allowing any ruling party from undermining the strength and potential of opposition parties. If a leader like Mulcair were to become the next PM, a leader whose centralizing style is frighteningly close to that of Harper himself, we could easily see the continuation of opportunistic prorogations, omnibus bills, the extreme stacking of government agencies with party friendly hacks, and even worse, the possible use of powers like we see in Bill C-51 to actually arrest and detain activists who oppose the government's agenda. Conservatives salivate at the thought of environmental activists being harassed by Revenue Canada or arrested for "Anti-Canadian" positions, but how will those same Conservatives feel if the Fraser Institute is harassed, of if climate-change deniers are arrested and held without charge, etc? Obviously I am not saying such a thing will happen, but the Conservative government has established the conditions by which it could.

Lenin worked for much of his career to establish a centralized power within the Bolshevik movement. As he became increasingly incapacitated by a series of strokes, he became the victim of the very thing he had worked for as Stalin took control of the Party and used the very mechanisms that Lenin had created to sideline him and silence his opposition to Stalin. The result of this very simple political mistake was seventy years of genuine dictatorship which then degenerated into a country run by organized crime.

Almost all of the scandals plaguing the current government in Canada are rooted in an extreme top-heavy structure which has allowed a leader to do literally almost anything (including in many cases ignoring the will of the Commons and increasingly ignoring the will of the SCofC) unchecked. Harper has appointed hopelessly incompetent people because he has no one around him who is willing to say "wait a minute." And even if he did, he wouldn't listen to them anyway. When the drive for power overtakes the drive for everything else, disaster can't be far behind. Most of Harper's scandals could have been avoided or easily overcome by appointing better people, delegating more skillfully, being more conciliatory, and admitting mistakes. Thus despite policies that I think have been absolutely disastrous for the country now and well into the future, I think Harper could have sailed to another four years in power by simply taking a better approach.

In the end, this fact makes me wonder - has Harper's intention all along really just been to cripple and destroy as much as possible the smooth functioning of Canada's democracy, to rob the capacity of the government of being a proper government? Not because of some perverse hatred of Canada (although, somewhere deep inside him this surely plays a part) but because the basic goal of the right over the last forty years has been to create a de facto dictatorship of the rich and powerful and reduce government to a body that cannot properly deliver services (one of the very things that a government is meant to do) but to can only operate as a kind of shell for corporations to run roughshod over society's larger interest.

It is not clear to me that we can overcome the damage that Harper has done to this nation. Fixing democracy in Canada will take several generations of committed political leaders, very active civil society, and a much more responsible media. The only way I see this happening is if the millennials begin to take up more active roles in society's problems and start committing themselves to collective solutions. I can only hope that the observant millennials have seen the dangers now of extreme, centralized, oligarchical leadership.