The Price Of Austerity

Austerity, we have been told repeatedly by pundits and political leaders, is the defining issue in these uncertain times, the solution to our economic challenges.

We have been given fair warning that the next federal budget will be first about cuts – cuts to government even as we continue to cut taxes. We can expect the same from most provincial budgets.

This, we are told, is what must be done. Austerity is not simply the best way, the argument goes, but the only way, and not just for us but for our friends and allies. Canada has become the champion of austerity.

Politically, it is a pretty potent argument to make. It builds on our internationally recognized success in the 90s in balancing the budget and reducing debt (which unquestionably made us more resilient during the tough times that followed, though with equally undeniable costs to health and social programs, among other things). It draws on a powerful thread that runs through our history – one of pragmatism and frugality. It feeds off our growing disenchantment with government, but also the serious troubles we are seeing elsewhere, in Greece for example. And in this uncertain time, we are told that we have no choice. Austerity is the answer.

Opposition voices are reluctant to offer alternatives for fear of being seen as fiscally imprudent or as stuck in the past, defending “big government”.  And so, presented with no options, we come to believe that in fact there are none.

A good rule of thumb for public policy is that when we are told that there is no alternative, that usually means the opposite: that not only is there an alternative but it is probably one that we would prefer if it were offered.

We do indeed have choices – better choices. Of course we have to be prudent as we dig out of current deficits, partly a result of wise government action to mitigate the worst consequences of the global recession. But this is not the 1990s. Our situation is not dire. Canada is not Greece.

1) This is not the 90s and we are not Greece

Before the 1990s assault on the deficit, about one-third of every tax dollar was going to service the federal debt and dire warnings were circulating that Canada was at risk of hitting a debt wall and falling into 3rd world status with respect to global capital. So we cut.  But the thing is, the global economy was pretty strong and getting stronger. We were contracting; others were spending. As it turns out, economic growth – along with real sacrifice – was crucial in balancing the budget and exceeding all reduction targets. And it didn’t hurt that taxes then were higher.  So deficits turned to surpluses – more quickly than anyone expected – and those tax-fueled surpluses were quickly bringing down our debt.

Today, our level of debt is still the envy of others. But now the global economy is slowing and the future is less certain, less promising than in the 1990s; the recession lingers like a bad cold. Even here in Canada, and we have been pretty lucky, we continue to shed good jobs and, like everywhere else, our markets can expect to be battered by continued volatility. This is not the 1990s. Neither the fiscal urgency nor the economic conditions are the same.

And most important, we ought to understand how we got back into deficit and increasing debt in the first place, at least at the federal level. It was just a few years ago that we were running surpluses year after year. In the year that the current federal government took the reins, the surplus was at $16 billion. Clearly program spending was not putting us at risk. That surplus meant that we would have great resilience in the face of economic downturns – times when we inevitably spend more and lose revenue. It also meant that the federal government would be able to help the provinces, especially those hardest hit and that we would have fiscal room to manage the stresses of an aging population in a way that would be intergenerationally fair.

So what happened? Certainly part of the answer is that we are paying off the costs of stimulus spending made necessary during the recession. But that spending stopped – earlier than some would have hoped –  and so, even with moderate growth, we should be able to return to balance with a bit of prudence and without draconian measures.  If we want to.

But recession spending is not really the culprit. Our big problem is that our revenues as a percentage of GDP are far lower than they were in the 1990s, not just because of recession and slow recovery. In many respects our current and future fiscal challenges at the federal level are self-induced, the result of a succession of unaffordable tax cuts. Just think of the tens of billions annually taken out of our budgets since 2000 – and particularly more recently – in reduced income taxes, capital gains taxes, corporate taxes, and the GST, not to mention the long list of boutique tax “benefits” that amount to little more than tax cuts disproportionately benefiting those who need help least.

So our fiscal situation is not dire, at least not at the federal level.   We are still reaping the benefits from the 1990s decade of sacrifice, and the challenges we do have are largely self-inflicted.   And if we chose to get here, we can choose to get out.

2) Austerity is not fiscally prudent

Let me be clear that I share in the broad consensus that we must be fiscally prudent.   But let’s pause on what fiscal prudence really means: It means spending wisely, reducing waste, collecting sufficient taxes to pay for the public goods and services we want, and keeping debt coming down, at least during reasonably good times.

Of course there is always room to cut and we have important choices to make on our priorities.   I, for one, believe that we probably and understandably overbuilt our security apparatus after 9/11 and that in particular deserves a close look.

And make no mistake, the costly plan to build more prisons and penitentiaries – unjustified by the evidence – either increases our debt or diverts money from priority services such as health and education.

As for waste, it is probably time to look at the layers of bureaucratic control and oversight that make government less innovative and efficient – and arguably less accountable and transparent.   But as our Parliamentary Budget Officer repeatedly reminds us, the numbers here don’t add up; we will not balance the books on efficiencies and cuts to operating budgets.

Yes, government has become too central, authoritarian and remote from our everyday lives. We have a big job to do to close the gap between citizens and their governments. And there are no doubt savings to be had here.  But these are not primarily fiscal issues nor will austerity be the answer to our fiscal challenges.

Today’s austerity, however, is not primarily about fiscal prudence. If it were it wouldn’t be proceeding in tandem with large, unaffordable and unnecessary tax cuts for the most affluent among us.  These tax cuts make deeper program cuts inevitable.

The persistent emphasis on low taxes and cuts to services and public goods  looks more like ideology masquerading as fiscal common sense. In this light, austerity seems rather to be about cutting back the state and rolling out the free market agenda. Less public, more private; less collective, more individual.  It is, in other words, the fulfillment of the neoliberal counter-revolution rather than an economic plan for the future.

We know that some pretty smart economists, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz for two, have taken on the austerity agenda and tax-cutting neoliberal ideology that underpins it. They argue that this is in fact the time for spending, the time for investments in education and infrastructure and for putting money in the hands of those in greatest need. They argue that the consequences of premature austerity could match what we saw in the 1930s, that in any case, this strategy will not yield the growth and opportunities we need. And, they add, it is also about time to stop the tax cuts and to start increasing taxes on those who can afford it. (And in the U.S., a growing number of rich Americans are calling on their government to raise their taxes.)

Frankly we don’t have to try to weave our way through the debates among economists to be worried about the consequences of austerity. A recent report from the (not-left-leaning) IMF has surveyed the international evidence and has concluded that government spending cuts do not, at least in the short-term, create jobs and growth but do create very significant costs to society, the economy and quality of life for the majority.

3) The consequences will fall most heavily on those who can bear them least

What does the IMF report tell us? The benefits of austerity cannot be seen but its negative consequences can, and these fall most heavily on the people who can bear them least. Specifically, the authors show that austerity, especially when it cannot be offset by significant lowering of interest, brings with it increases in unemployment  – particularly enduring unemployment –  suppression of wages for the majority, and deepening income inequality.

So, as we dig out, we ought to make sure that we are not stripping away the very tools necessary to withstand future shocks and to create jobs and opportunities now and for the future.  We ought to make sure that we are not hollowing out the country, allowing the erosion of those things that give meaning to our shared citizenship and that should be a source of comparative advantage going forward. And we ought to make sure that we are not undermining our ability to invest in those things that will make us stronger and greener for the future.

Austerity will take us down the wrong track.  It is not fiscally prudent.  It is not an economic plan so much as a surrender to the market.  And its costs will be heavy for the most vulnerable certainly, but for us all. So let’s reject the politics of inevitability and look at the choices we have and what the evidence tells us about what works best for the majority, not just for the few, and for the future, not just for now.

We need to have the debate – and the starting point cannot be some assumption about the inevitability of austerity. In fact, it ought not to be about big government versus small government. It ought to be focused on what will work to enhance the quality of life for most Canadians and what will make Canada more resilient for future generations.  It ought to be a debate about what challenges, what problems, most urgently cry out for our collective attention and action.  The preoccupation with austerity should not blind us to what really matters for our collective well-being.

I, for one, would propose that inequality, not austerity, be the defining issue for us now. Income inequality is growing fast in Canada and even the traditional deniers are coming on board. The gap is simply too big, the risks too high to ignore. Indeed, extreme inequality will continue to grow in an agenda dominated by austerity and tax cuts, an agenda that reduces our capacity for mutual aid and for collective solutions to our major challenges – our low productivity, climate change and environmental deterioration, and declining political participation.

Of course we ought to be fiscally prudent and that means asking of each cut and each expenditure, including every tax cut:  will this help reduce inequality or will it make things worse?

Let’s make inequality in all of its manifestations – child poverty, the reemergence of elderly poverty, the squeeze on working Canadians and students, and the excessive incomes at the top – a national priority.

We can afford the investments. We cannot afford to ignore the threat.

57 Responses to “The Price Of Austerity”
  1. Toby Stewart says:


    A rational, very cogent and bang-on critique of the CRAP’s (Conservative Reform Alliance Party) ideological game plan — to make all but the top 10% of Canadians poorer in body, mind and spirit!

    The next question is “Who is pulling the CRAP’s strings” from behind the curtain?
    The answer: “FOLLOW THE MONEY!”

    One minor edit to suggest — missing a couple of words near the end:
    “Most important, it will take ??? So let’s reject the politics of inevitability”



  2. Lorna Marsden says:

    I agree with you entirely, Alex, but what is the plan for reducing the inequality in the appropriate way? For me, this should be the #1 priority at present. Reduce the wages/income gap step-by-step; folks will spend; and ramp up the production in manufacturing, etc. Without this, all the problems will become much worse. What I don’t know is what the first, second and third steps should be in the short term (besides changing the ideology at the top, of course).

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Lorna. Of course you are right. There are loads of ideas out thereabout how we might change how we tax, modernize our income supports, close holes in labour policy, fix our universal programs, for starters. Stay tuned for the next posts – and join me and others in coming up with a plan of action.

  3. Mark Hammer says:

    I wish I could say that solutions lay entirely in wise fiscal and social policy. Unfortunately, governments float like a canoe atop the ocean that is culture, paddling madly to go in a direction…atop 20-foot waves. Policy can attempt to shape culture and behaviour, but the momentum of culture and the historical buildup just makes the timelines that policy seeks to achieve childishly impatient.

    I have this debate regularly with those who argue vehemently for market forces. I hasten to remind them that perhaps market-forces ARE self-correcting in the long run, precisely as the economists proclaim, but self-correction over the next 50 years does not pay my rent next month, or put food on my table tomorrow. Reactive approaches to policy with short time-horizons are also doomed to failure, but that does not stop the reality of the huge gap between what appears to be needed at the nation-building level, and what is needed at the human level. And it is the human level that injects very loud noise into our thinking.

    But let me be clear; I’m certainly NOT arguing for austerity. BUt I do know that even the wisest of spending depends very heavily on the impact of the zeitgeist on human behaviour. What do people spend and on what? How do they save? How do they use health care? What do they assume about social programs, based on their vague understanding of history, and how do they incorporate assumptions about those social programs into their life-planning? How do markets respond? How will it all impact on immigration? And so on. Much like a job is imposed on a life, already in progress, government policy is imposed on a culture, already in progress.

    I’m with you all the way that cuts and blind austerity are no panacea. But the pendulum seems to swing back and forth between blind austerity and well-intentioned, but ultimately self-injurious, spending. It’s not enough to simply reject the ends of the spectrum. There needs to be a guiding vision for prudence. There’s gotta be something in the middle, and we seem to lack the sort of thinking that allows us to find what that is. I wish I knew. I wish I knew. Not just to be right, but because so many depend on it.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Mark and as always there is significant merit in what you say but it seems all too pessimistic. First, previous generations of Canadians found a way, a way that fit the times. Why not us. And don’t underestimate the impact that an enriched child benefit, better ei coverage, a respectable minimum wage, income supplements, help with tuition – to name a few – can have on the real lives of real people. Lets have a look at negative income taxes and fair and progressive taxes and public works. We are not looking for a magic bullet – just a few concrete steps to start reversing the unsupportable levels of inequality – we are not so far gone that this is some distant or impossible dream. We will find your “middle way” if we engage both right and left in a real commitment to reduce inequality and mitigate its consequences – and this is an issue that should join right and left.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        It’s a different sort of pessimism, I guess. I’m not pessimistic about interventions per se. I just find the whole “economy thing” is too much like doing the dishes. Just when you think you’re done, and everything is dried, put away, and the counter wiped clean, somebody plunks more dirty dishes down. It’s the relentlessness of having to keep fixing things that is so draining. Are all of the things you note, as much as I am behind them, “final solutions”? Are they the sort of strategy one can pursue for generations, and just keep making very minor tweaks to? Or like the canoe-paddler I alluded to earlier, do they all get wiped out by a big wave?

        I agree that strategies that are rational, humane, equitable and short-term *can* be found if you put your mind and heart to it. In places where inequities are the product of longstanding stable forces, it IS possible to apply strategies that can have long-lasting impact. I think of simple things like Muhammed Yunus’ and his advocacy of microloans, or efforts by Watercan and others to simply bring sustainably potable water to communities. But the search for a lasting strategy that is rational, humane, equitable, and **sustainable**, in the face of the near-chaotic influences on the contemporary industrialized world, continues to elude us. THAT’S the part that disappoints me. It’s exhausting to have to keep fighting.

        Almost as disappointing is the seeming attitude on the part of governments (or at least as coaxed and coached by their communications advisors) that they HAVE come up with a strategy that will last. Nobody ever seems to say “This is what we feel we need to do for now, or at least until circumstances change. We’d rather do otherwise, if we had our druthers, but we’ll sit down for a rethink if and when the smoke clears.”. I don’t think many mind austerity if it is short-term and there is some sort of dim light at the end of the tunnel. But austerity measures are pitched as if they are the way things have to be for the forseeable future. That pesky future keeps changing on us.

      • himelfarb says:

        Interesting Mark – at the best of times I think of every new policy as the equivalent of a beta version ie we know that it will be imperfect and will need tio be fixed and continually adjusted to changing circumstances – and frankly I think most citizens would get that and would prefer that we stop pretending the we have the magic bullet.

  4. Sol says:

    Can’t really improve upon your argument, Alex.

    By way of context, I’d submit that the “austerity” agenda is based less on fiscal ideology than on a fundamental contempt for the public sphere per se. Fighting back effectively, in that regard, means defending government and the public sector as having intrinsic value.

    I’d also recommend Trish Hennessy’s argument at Framed in Canada

  5. Matt Fodor says:

    “A good rule of thumb for public policy is that when we are told that there is no alternative, that usually means the opposite: that not only is there an alternative but it is probably one that we would prefer if it were offered.”

    That is very true, and needs to be repeated as much as possible.

  6. Peter O'Malley says:


    I just want to take an overdue moment to thank you for this blog post and others. I truly appreciate the refuge you provide to the dreary world of ideological and/or thoughtless commentary that afflicts so much Canadian political punditry these days. My sincere thanks to you.

    – Peter O’Malley

    • himelfarb says:

      What a lovely comment Peter. Much appreciated.

      • Susan Riley says:

        I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I plan to lift the ideas presented here _ “steal” is such an ugly word _ for a column today aimed at provoking something more useful than outraged sputtering at Harper’s evil plan from the opposition.
        With full attribution, of course, and my personal gratitude that this kind of thinking is happening –

      • himelfarb says:

        What a lovely comment. Thank you Susan. And it’s not stealing when I want you to have it.

  7. Ian says:

    “The persistent emphasis on low taxes and cuts to services and public goods looks more like ideology masquerading as fiscal common sense. ”

    It not only looks like ideology, but it walks and quacks like ideology. And that is the root of the current Canadian problem. We are governed by extreme ideologues who are convinced that their superior moral and intellectual compass gives them the ‘right’ to shape Canada into their peculiar vision of an anti-Canadian dystopia.

    The extremists in charge will not listen to reasonable ideas presented by reasonable people. It is not even clear that they are interested in keeping the country united. But what do we have to do to ensure that the extremists listen to the majority of Canadians? I’m not sure – maybe something like ‘occupy’?

    One thing seems clear to me, though. If we don’t get up off of our normally complacent Canadian butts sometime soon and insist on being heard, then a Canada worth fighting for may not exist anymore.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Ian. I suppose it is worth repeating that, at least to some extent, we get the government we demand and the future we are willing to make and pay for.

    • Mark Hammer says:

      Personally, I don’t have a problem with ideologues. Indeed, I would hope most people have something akin to an ideology to bravely cling to amidst all this confusion. Ideology is partly what gives people their moral compass. I suppose some might say that Alex’ frequent focus on inequality in this blog makes *him* an ideologue.

      But let us not confuse ideology and stubbornness. Stubborn is stubborn, no matter what ideology it is attached to. Ideologues can compromise,and exercise practical judgment; *stubborn* ideologues…not so much.

      • himelfarb says:

        I cannot tell you how much I enjoy your contributions to this modest blog – you never cease to surprise me. As for the question at hand, I am committed to certain values/priciples which I suppose could be termed “ideology” but I have no pretense that there is a single and sure-fire way of making pursuing them. Evidence about the problems we have and what works is our best protection from raw power and blind ideology.

      • Brad says:

        I have to jump in here without having read the rest (below). I too really appreciate the scholarly analysis from you Mark.

        With respect to this particular Comment, it seems to me that we all have biases, which more often than not control our perception of reality, but that there are some that also have ideologies, which define their reality.

        I think those are different things.

        Dan Gardner, in his book “Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear”, presents a compelling analysis of how politicians such as the Harper and the Republicans in the U.S. prey on the way the human mind works – especially within the context of how biases over-rule rational thought.

        I have biases, and I hope that the most dominant bias that I have is that of asking, “What does the evidence tell us?”.

        Ideology on the other hand is about “faith” – “this is what I believe, and I’m not interested in evidence.” It goes beyond a way of thinking to a template (if you will) that has to be applied to all incoming information.

        It also appears that much of what Alex is talking about in this Blog is in line with the book, “The Spirit Level”, by Wilkinson and Pickett. It presents a pretty compelling evidence-based argument, for “Why Equality is Better for Everyone”.

        But let’s be clear here – to the ideologue, everything is black and white – you have faith or you don’t; you believe or you don’t; or, from yesterday’s debate in the Commons, “you support the government’s efforts to fight crime or you support child pornographers.” Vic Toews, Minister of Public Safety). Is there a pretty significant amount of cynicism in this?

        Well, it seems to me that there is – but it is cynicism that is rooted in ideology, and not in bias.

        In any event Alex is, the evidence suggests, once again bang on in his analysis of the issues – would that he were still Clerk and there was someone there willing to listen to his sage advice.

      • himelfarb says:

        Thanks Dan, a very useful and important distinction. John Rawls writes a good deal about the importance of developing a comprehensive view of public life, always tested and retested in discourse, with explicit links to core values (freedom, equality), built through reason and evidence. So biases are inevitable and desirable – so long as we are guided by reason, evidence and civility. Of course some of our biases reflect our biographies and standing – but that is different from the corrosive, blinding certainty that ideology can give. In public life at least, certainty (and the incivility and intolerance that comes with it) is a very dangerous thing.

  8. Tony Dean says:

    This is wonderful stuff Alex. My favourite of your many terrific columns. I will certainly not be saying “we have no alternative” anytime soon! I do think that we need a public service transformation agenda – and would need one (perhaps even more so) with revenue-based approaches to filling fiscal shortfalls, We can’t keep funding fragemented services and especially those in the high cost health, community service and justice sectors. In our public service jobs, we did some good work together in this area. I now see the need for a much broader and deeper application of that sort of collaboration across organizational boundaries. It will provide for better policy and service delivery – and once it includes communities and citizens it will start to touch on your point about the loss of trust in government. All the best, Tony

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks for that Tony and I fully endorse your commitment to organizing our services around citizens rather than governments – and we can save money and serve better. You made real inroads on this and we should build on those efforts.

  9. Ian says:

    The current government are not really stubborn ideologues – they will yield when seats are at stake (potash). They are extreme in the sense that they will follow their neoliberal ideology to the edge of reason even if it will end in the deaths of innocents (asbestos).

    The adjective ‘stubborn’ is too weak for describing the current government – ‘extreme’ is more accurate and evocative.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Ian Maybe it comes down to how open we are to evidence abou whether we are right in our diagnosis and whether and how well our solutions are working.

      • Ian says:

        Thank you for your reply (and excellent blog).

        I am pretty sure the diagnosis is in. An extreme neoliberal government is in power, with heavy corporate connections (Preston Manning started the Reform party with oil company money) coupled with a religious flavour (see: Marci McDonald, The Armageddon Factor). They are essentially a western regional party who ultimately achieved electoral success by buying the ‘Progressive Conservative’ party name and removing ‘Progressive’ (an astute political move). They are, in essence, an American religious-right conservative party.

        The corporate/religious mix of this government promotes the values of unfettered capitalism and individualism, which is meant to lead to some kind of version of personal ‘spiritual fulfillment’. Thus, the idea of a humanistic secular Canada, concerned with protecting the weak among us and solving our problems collectively, is anathema to them. The destruction of social programs (‘starve the beast’) is a key element in their plan of transforming Canada into an unfettered capitalistic and individualistic ‘paradise’.

        I agree with you and Mr. Krugman that austerity for the sake of austerity during a recession is not necessarily a good idea economically. But given the core beliefs of the party in power, I am not sure how going down the austerity road can be avoided. The only way that the sensible economic and social policies you advocate could ever become a reality is when this particular government is gone.

        In the meantime, more Canadians have to be made aware of the situation and we have to work together to counter this doomed neoliberal agenda. We have to do the best we can to ensure that irreparable damage is not done to the country and the compassionate progressive values that most Canadians share.

      • Toby Stewart says:

        An interesting conundrum well (com)posed by Ian
        – our main options are:
        a more active and organized resistance to slow the dismantling and selling off of Canada’s former shared principles, values, programs and resources
        waiting another 5-10 years to ‘vote them out’ and then try to ‘repair’ their damage done…

        BUT could Canada recover from having the CRAP exercising their currently unfettered
        (via a false majority despite 80% of 2011 electors consciously choosing to NOT vote for them)
        parliamentary power — actualizing their “corporate/religious” ideology and their now no-longer-hidden agenda —
        — for the next 5-10 years?

        How long can Canada’s loyal patriots sit back and take no concrete action (except comment/blog) to stop this ruination of our formerly internally progressive and world-respected nation?

      • himelfarb says:

        I guess we also ought to be urging the other players to offer a clear progressive alternative.

      • Ian says:

        “I guess we also ought to be urging the other players to offer a clear progressive alternative.”

        I agree, we should be asking the ‘other players’ to offer progressive alternatives. But who are the ‘other players’, exactly? Are they red, green or brown? And what, specifically, do you think we should be asking them?

        Mr. Himelfarb, you are a student of sociology and you have been intimately involved with the levers of Canadian power. What specific ideas would you suggest to Canadians who have – at least – a simple emotional desire to see a return to the Canada of progressive values? Noblesse oblige 🙂

      • himelfarb says:

        Ian, there are a number of ways people try to influence the agenda and all of them are important. The Occupy movement certainly helped put inequality, fairness and environmental issues on the agenda in a way that hasn’t been the case for a long time. Organizations like Leadnow have been organizing campaigns around voting and progressive issues from the pipeline to the crime bill. Getting involved directly with our political institutions, joining a party for example is another route. And of course informed voting is yet another – had young Canadians voted more in the last elections, the results may well have been different. Of course there are no guarantees but despair or cynical disengagement are certainly not the way forward.

      • himelfarb says:

        And, I might add, a career in public service – municipal, provincial, federal or international – within or outside government through NGOs and journalism for example – many ways to get engaged and try to make a difference

      • Ian says:

        “And, I might add, a career in public service – municipal, provincial, federal or international – within or outside government through NGOs and journalism for example – many ways to get engaged and try to make a difference”

        I just resigned from a public service job because they began hiring extremist right-wing evangelics in lieu of competent professionals. Perhaps it’s better in the municipal/provincial/NGO world? I doubt it.

      • himelfarb says:

        Then from the outside…

      • Ian says:

        To be on the ‘outside’ is always a good place to be. Only a lackey of the establishment would suggest otherwise. And if they don’t change, the establishment will be, finally, looking in from the outside…..

      • himelfarb says:

        30 years of very fulfilling “lackiness” at this end Ian

      • Ian says:

        Alex, I think that as long as we work in bureaucracies, private or public, then we will always be lackeys to some extent. If you are happy with your stint, then far be it for me to suggest otherwise.

        I’ve worked for Canadian businesses designing products, manufacturing and exporting those products to foreign markets. We brought millions of dollars into this country, but I was still a lackey. And, in retrospect, I have ethical qualms about the legitimacy of the of the efforts I spent on the production of these things that promised efficiency and legitimacy to something that I knew, deep down, was hypocrisy.

        My public service effort is also one of the hypocrisy of the lackey. I thought I was working on something that would be meaningful, that would lead to the progression of my country, but ended up instead being an effort in the deification of hypocrisy.

      • himelfarb says:

        Ian, I understand entirely. You might want to read Mark’s comment which is very insightful. Beyond that, public service is probably not for everybody. While it gives you a chance to provide your best advice on issues that matter to you, advice that others may not want to hear, you end up implementing the decisions of others, including things you may not want to do (so long as they are legal and ethical). I believe it is hugely important that good people take this on notwithstanding the frustrations. But there are, as I said, many ways to serve the public good. Probably whatever one chooses means flipping back and forth between engagement and reflection, acting with others with all the compromise that entails and pausing episodically to make sure we haven’t totally lost our way.

  10. Mark Hammer says:

    I can heartily recommend a wonderful thinkpiece/paper by Adam Grant, in the Academy of Management Review, from 2007. Adam discusses the “relational” aspects of jobs, and the connection between that and motivation. The nub of it is this: people who are in a better position to see the pro-social consequences of their work-related efforts – in effect, the “gardeners” who not only get to plant the seeds, but get to harvest and consume what they have grown – are more motivated in their work. This would be true of both private and public sector. I imagine, however, that because the desire to have pro-social impact (what James Perry and Lois Wise [1990] call “public service motivation”) is a big part of what draws many to work within the public sector, its *absence* can be a much larger source of disappointment than it might be in the private sector. If you leap into public-interest work because you are motivated in serving the public interest, but find yourself either many many steps removed from having impact, or from seeing the imp-act, or find yourself diverted away from what feels like impact (e.g., cranking out reports that people don’t read, or only pay lip service to), one’s participation in the public sector starts to feel like that Grey-Cup-winning touchdown pass that grazed the tips of your fingers and went through your hands.

    The last 10 years have seen all governments move towards a culture of what I like to call “accountabilism”: the cult of measuring and tabulating anything and everything, regardless of whether the indices are valid or not, consume all your energy or not, under the belief that doing so provides “accountability”. The urge for accountability occurs in response to popular irritability over perceived government waste, within the context of both growing disparities, and increased consumer expectations. Stated another way, “I oughta have MY share, so those SOBs in Washington/Ottawa/Queen’s Park better not be wasting money that could otherwise be in my pocket”. The current government may not have been voted in by 100%, but they sure as heck didn’t get voted in by “the 1%”. There is a LOT of popular pressure on governments at all levels, even by those who may well have been “radicals” back in the day, to cut THAT corner there so that THIS corner here does not get short shrift.

    The push towards austerity, and the rampant bean-counting (and “reporting burden”) that serves that agenda, is not just the perogative of a few select individuals in power; it is the perogative of a great many. People everywhere declare “What the hell are you spending money on THAT for when you could be spending it on THIS?”. In recent weeks, as a partial consequence of the problems in Attiwapiskat, we have heard about the incredible reporting burden placed on First Nations communities. Why is the burden there? Because of a presumption that the money is limited and could be better spent on things that “matter” so there has to be “accountability”. Last May’s election was partly a result of one party saying “Why are we going to needlessly spend that much tax money (and maybe even a far more than we think) on prisons and fighter jets?” and many voters angrily responding with “Why are you wasting our time and money with this debate?”.

    As if I haven’t rambled enough, I draw your attention to one of the more reliable findings in the field of ethology – the science of animal behaviour. Dominance hierarchies, or “pecking orders”, emerge when there are limited resources. Provide enough for everyone, and the hierarchy-establishing behavour magically evaporates, because nobody has to compete for anything. Remarkable how well people get along when there is enough for everyone, or at least when people feel things are equitable (i.e., you’re in as lousy a situation as me and everyone else).

    To tie some of the loose threads here together, one of the consequences of both disparities and the austerity measures that accompany it, is that just like geese without enough bread crumbs for everybody, fierce competition arises so that those who want to be assured of their bread can assure it. One of the consequences of that is that we get obsessed with counting our crumbs, and one of the consequences of *that* is that we can lose sight of what we wanted the crumbs for in the first place.

    I entered public service partly as a fortuitous result of unemployment, but also because I thought I could have impact on people. As time went on, the stick with the carrot of “benefit on people’s lives” grew longer, and the carrot got smaller and more withered, as the promise of serving the public interest evolved into serving the corporate interest, and finally accounting interest. It’s tough maintaiing motivation under those circumstances. (You can see why I liked Grant’s paper so much.) I don’t chalk it all up to the current government, but they sure haven’t done anything to push back the tide. The challenge will be not just to attract highly motivated and capable people into work directed at the public interest, whether in the private or public sector, but in maintaining the contact between those people and the human and prosocial consequences of their efforts, so that they stay motivated.

    (And thanks for your earlier note of appreciation, Alex. It really does mean a lot.)

    • himelfarb says:

      As always Mark, a terrific comment from top to bottom. At the heart of what you say here is the notion of scarcity especially when combined with the fiercely unequal distribution of income that we are now seeing. I truly believe that if we don’t seriously address this issue cynicism about government, from inside and out, will grow and undermine our collective capacity for problem solving just when we most need it.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        “…and undermine our collective capacity for problem solving just when we most need it”

        You see, now THAT is what *I* consider to be “waste”. Nothing so wasteful as the squandering of good will, capability, and enthusiasm.

        I can’t begin to count the hours I’ve spent trying to dismantle the cynicism about government in others. Not as shill for any particular “side”, but as a booster for the institution itself. Unfortunately, part of the current zeitgeist is the sense that, in order to have faith restored, one’s “side” must dominate. It’s that perpetual confusion between partisan interest and public interest that infects not only those elected, but those who elect them as well.

        We see the dark side of that in our American cousins, many of whom voted for Barack Obama because he seemed to restore their faith in the institution. But as it gradually seemed to many that he was not necessarily on their “side” on some issues, they started to lose faith in the institution again, and now the man is going to have to fight that same battle all over again this fall, and maybe even twice as hard *because* of the sense of disappointment so many have.

        So the challenge is perhaps even bigger than you allude to. It consists not only of trying to dismantle the cynicism (which is fed high-protein diets daily!), but of figuring HOW to dismantle it, in light of the multiple sources of its entrenchment. It’s one of those “wicked problems”, like corruption in Africa, that responds unfavourably to the quick solutions we throw at it. For my part, I just resolve to tackle it, one angry citizen at a time.


      • himelfarb says:

        Cynicism sure does suck the energy out of any attempt to make things better.

    • Ian says:

      “I truly believe that if we don’t seriously address this issue cynicism about government, from inside and out, will grow and undermine our collective capacity for problem solving just when we most need it.”

      With all due respect, I think that you may be missing out on the bigger picture. You are worried about ‘cynicism about government’, when the conservative Canadian government has declared war on healthcare, employment insurance, labour rights, native peoples’ rights, womens’ rights, environment rights and the Canadian public service (amongst other things)? I mean, seriously?

      • himelfarb says:

        Ian. Ian, Ian, There is a big difference between Government (as in the state) and the government of the day as in whoever happened to win the last election. Surely the right wins when we despair of the possibility of collective solutions and give up on “government”- though of course we must always be vigilant in holding governments to account. BTW have you ever noticed that the phrase “with all due respect” has become, at best, an instance of irony.

      • himelfarb says:

        On the other and to your main point, I do have to admit that the Occupy folk have had and are having a profound and beneficial impact in changing the conversation and getting inequality and climate change back on the agenda, particularly the former – in a way and to a degree that my more conventional avenues have not. So maybe we also agree on a lot.

      • Ian says:

        Alex, Alex, Alex, let me be perfectly clear (irony). You seem to think that it is ‘business as usual’ in Canada with the current conservative government. In my opinion, they want to destroy government, they want to destroy the public service and, through design or stupidity (I’m guessing the latter), they could end up destroying the country. Destruction is what they do. To deny this possibility is to betray future Canadian generations.

        Conventional ideas of ‘collective solutions’ will not work. The idea of Canada is under attack. You must look beyond the conventional and find something new..

      • himelfarb says:

        Sorry Ian, but I don’t see the point of this any more – if we do not resurrect the possibility of collective action then we are left “with you are on your own” politics or, worse, “nothing works” politics – you will not be the first or last to disagree with or criticize my view that in the choice between hope and despair, hope is always the better answer, so I guess we can agree (on a lot) to disagree on this

      • Ian says:

        Alex, thanks for responding to my comments – this will be the last one.

        I did not mean that we should not act collectively, just that it should be done in a more unconventional fashion, such as occupy. The old structures are broken, new structures have to be built. There is no point in debating about how the deck chairs should be arranged when the ship is heading full steam towards an iceberg.

        Anyhow, I will end this exchange with a story. When I was in high school, my father brought home a colleague who was in Canada, on a professional knowledge exchange, from Chile, During dinner, my mother asked him about his children in Chile. At that, the man broke down and began crying. He was worried that his children, university students, would be ‘disappeared’. After he left Canada, despite my father’s efforts, we never heard from him again.

      • himelfarb says:

        Thanks for engaging and pushing me and the conversation out of our comfort zone.

  11. Mark Hammer says:

    I listened to, and quite enjoyed, the recent CBC Ideas feature entitled “Left Behind”, in which you were one of those interviewed, along with many others.

    Excellent provocative 3-part series, not just because it contained viewpoints I agree with, but because of the depth it went into and the many ways it delineates the consequences of inequality. Particularly enjoyed the contributions of Robert Reich and Richard Wilkinson.

    I don’t think Ian is *entirely* incorrect to be as angry as he is (and anyone who enjoys and remembers the late Gil Scott-Heron is someone I can appreciate), but the sort of concrete action needed to rectify things can only come from a more detailed and particular understanding of precisely how inequality works – you can’t fix it if you don’t know exactly where it’s broke. Discontent is certainly more relevant to the current context than apathy, but as I learned so many years ago in my undergrad course on Thinking and Reasoning, the first step to effectively solving a problem lies in detailing the properties and mechanics of the problem so that it is translatable into concrete actions that the problem-solver knows how to carry out.

    • himelfarb says:

      Maybe so Mark – and that has certainly been my instinct – but anger has been a big mover of social change if only by getting issues onto the agenda – but, as Bill Moyer has written, “cool anger” – informed by reason and evidence – is where the enduring changes come from

  12. SRV says:

    Thank you Alex,

    Just found the site, so a late comment… couldn’t agree more but would like to suggest a focus on the Root Cause here. Harper’s group is part of a larger Neocon corporate agenda and he is following the blueprint to the letter… this is a link to “the Powel Memo” produced for the US Chamber of Commerce before they became the powerful force they are today. IMHO we must promote a better understanding of the forces we are up against… as you read through it, you will understand the events of the last 40 yrs were not a natural evolution, but a planned takeover by the most powerful in society… and Harper’s rise to power is much easier to understand.

  13. Kristina d says:

    As history progresses, it sure feels like we’re regressing back into a caste system. It’s so unfortunate. Great post!

    I wanted to share a video with you, I think you’ll appreciate where it’s coming from as much as I do.

    Here it is:

  14. Robert White says:

    Central banksters are still trying to make the poor eat the day-old bread, Dr. Himelfarb. The demise of Lehman Bros. in 2008 will make certain that they will eventually beg for the crumbs
    themselves. Occupy merely highlights their future prospects on the road to hell. Academics
    are naive if they think otherwise and the last five years have made this progression obvious.
    QE infinity has now become the new ‘yellow brick road’ to the Emerald Palace and the ‘little man
    behind the curtain.


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