Tag Archives: austerity

The Ivany Report: An Environmental Analysis

This post is (very loosely) based on my notes for a roundtable presentation on the Report of the Nova Scotia Commission on Building Our New Economy (aka the Ivany Report): “Now or Never: An Urgent Call to Actions for Nova Scotians.” The roundtable was part of a conference put together by students in Acadia’s graduate program in Social and Political Thought, and was also recorded by the NS office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. (video of the roundtable discussion here)

The Report is explicitly directed at “building our new economy” in Nova Scotia. For those unfamiliar with the region, Nova Scotia is a province where (according to the 2009 State of Nova Scotia’s Coast report) some 70% of the population lives in coastal communities. Many of those communities, not surprisingly, are close to sea level. It’s not quite Florida, but there are clear climate change vulnerabilities associated with sea level rise and increased storm frequency and intensity (see for example this report on Halifax Regional Municipality; an elevation map of the province is here). On the other hand, what makes us vulnerable to climate change is also an asset: Nova Scotia’s licence plate motto is “Canada’s Ocean Playground.” This can be recognized iconographically in the report, which features seven full-page photos, three of which are of beaches. Put another way: something we recognize as an important asset, and defining part of our identity, is what is vulnerable to climate change.

To anyone aware of these vulnerabilities, the fact that this report appears to take no account of the “new climate” on which the “new economy” will have to be built, is striking. I think the way to explain this silence is through the Report’s committed refusal to engage in politics. I’ll describe the silence in a bit more detail before discussing what I think is its significance.

First, a quick content analysis of the Report with respect to global warming/ climate change:

  • The term “global warming” does not appear anywhere in the report’s 87 pages.
  • The word “climate” appears a total of six times, as follows:
    • three times, it is used to refer to the “macroeconomic climate” (pp. vii,48,70);
    • it is used once to refer to the “climate for risk taking and business development” (p. 28);
    • it is used once to refer to the “attitudinal climate” (p. 46);
    • the one time it is used in a weather-related context is in a boxed quotation, which discusses how the province’s “cooler climate” is conducive to growing premium varieties of apples (p. 40).

That’s it.

To be sure, the report does mention environmental issues beyond climate change, although for the most part these are vague references to “environmental protection” or “sustainability,” rather than specific issues. To the extent that environmental issues do appear in the report, they appear to emerge from the public engagement sessions that were conducted as part of the report’s fact-finding. Thus one of the nine “broad themes” that emerged from the public engagement was “sustainability and growth” (pp. 6-7) (I’ll come back to the significance of this by way of conclusion). Of the 19 “New Goals for Nova Scotia,” only one is directed at environmental sustainability (or two, if you count goal #15, which is to double agriculture and fisheries exports “on a sustainable basis”). Goal #17, “A province-wide plan to achieve Nova Scotia’s new goals for sustainable economic growth and population renewal,” includes the point that such a plan “must recognize that progressive land development can both strengthen our economy and reduce our negative impact on the environment” (p. 49). Here, and consistently throughout the report, environmental sustainability, or the reduction of environmental impacts, is hedged within a growth imperative.

Indeed, the growth imperative, and the need for an “attitude change” to accept that imperative – is the document’s overarching message. In their foreword, the commissioners helpfully lay out the “three core messages” of the report, which work as a sequence: 1) “there is a crisis”, 2) change is possible, and 3) “… the single most significant impediment to change and renewal is the lack of a shared vision and commitment to economic growth and renewal…” (p. vii, my emphasis).

The connection of the lack of “commitment to economic growth” with a “lack of a shared vision” is what I mean by a refusal to engage in politics: dissensus or disagreement is seen as a problem (to be solved), rather than a condition that we have to live with.

From the public engagement sessions, the authors have gleaned a couple of “fault lines” that inhibit a shared vision (pp. 9-10). One was about “public versus private sector roles in economic development,” with a somewhat related lack of agreement on whether or how much “private sector leadership” should be “recognize[d] and celebrate[d].” If we want to apply political economy labels (the Report doesn’t use these terms), the “fault line” is one between Keynesians and neoliberals, who disagree on the appropriate means to achieve more economic growth.

A second constellation of issues is around the rural-urban divide, and the trade-off between natural resource extraction and environmental protection. Rural Nova Scotia here is characterized more or less exclusively as a site for resource extraction (“pulp and paper and lumber mills, mines and quarries, fish plants and aquaculture operations”), and the questions are whether these “sectors” or “rural economies” can or should be modernized, and if so, how.

“Some participants emphasized the need to renew, modernize and in some cases expand these traditional sectors… Others asserted that maintaining a pristine environment may be more economically beneficial over the longer term that (sic) pursuing growth in the mining, forestry or energy fields.” (pp.9-10)

One thing to notice is that the Report frames these “fault lines” as disagreements about means, not about ends. Whether we prefer high levels of public sector spending or cutting corporate taxes, and whether we think lumber mills should be developed to the highest efficiency standards or shuttered to make way for eco-tourism, we are agreed on the end of trying to do what is most “economically beneficial.”

The presumed goal is sacrosanct. There is presumed agreement, first, that “Nova Scotians” are a monolithic community, even a “nation” unto ourselves. The idea that “Nova Scotians” includes multiple, sometimes antagonistic communities, is characterized as problematic “politics”: petty squabbling, a distraction from the serious tasks at hand, and precisely the bad attitude that needs to be left in the past. “The first [change] area identified is political leadership” (p. ix) – defined by refraining from “politics as usual” and “putting aside partisan interests.” “Political leadership” for the authors means getting away from those messy disagreements that divide rather than unite us. It is for this reason that the Report resorts so casually and consistently to the language of “crisis”: the emergency that will get us to see that we are all in this together, so that we can all engage in the serious work needed to reach our common goal.

But what is that serious business, that common goal? “Crisis” literally means “turning point.” But where are we to turn, other than away from the bad attitudes of the past? The second point of agreement presumed by the Report is that we should turn inexorably to more economic growth. Because of its ideological commitments, the idea that communities might have goals that aren’t measurable in positive economic terms (or maybe aren’t measurable at all) can hardly be registered.

This refusal to engage in thinking about ends, to ask, in an open and serious fashion, “what is more growth for?” is what I mean by the Report’s refusal to engage in politics. And it is the watermark that seeps through every page of the Report, starting from it’s first words: “Now or Never.”

As noted above, one time where engagement with substantive ends is forced onto the agenda is in discussing the public engagement findings, and more particularly the theme of sustainability and growth. This shouldn’t be surprising, because there is perhaps no issue that more clearly forces us to confront these differences than our desires for economic growth and the recognition of environmental limits – particularly in a community whose historic identity and prosperity literally sits on ground that is in danger of being washed away by climate change.

So it is not surprising that public discussions of “sustainability and growth” lead to:

“Success and growth can be measured in many ways beyond simply looking at GDP or other conventional indicators, and more consideration needs to be given to how communities envision their own success.” (6; my emphasis)

But no more consideration can happen, within the frame imposed by the Report. Communities can’t take the time to deliberate and determine their own vision(s) of success, because we’ve all got to pull together for greater growth, now or never.

In its recognition of limits, environmentalism should force us to confront anew the questions: What do we want? How should we live? Who are we? From an environmental perspective, what is even more significant than its silence on climate change, is the Report’s attempt to banish these profound, and irreducibly political, questions, or to presume that we have settled or can settle these questions once and for all, now or never.

 

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What if we are always on the job?

It has been less than a month since reporter Shauna Hunt’s famous confrontation with a group of sexist jerks outside of a Toronto FC soccer game. (In case you missed it, see the fairly extensive CBC report, including a link to the video here.) The bros were banned from the games of all MLSE (owner of TFC) franchises for one year. (Whether missing a Leafs season counts as “punishment” is another story.) There was speculation about the filing of criminal charges (e.g. Causing a disturbance) although I haven’t seen any reports that charges were actually filed. But at least one – the one who tried to defend the initial incident by saying it was “f__ing hilarious” and “you’re lucky there isn’t a f__ing vibrator here” – was identified via social media and as a result fired from his job at Hydro One.

Flash forward to a case, made public by CBC News yesterday, where an employee of Northern Pulp in New Glasgow, NS, was fired for complaining to the mayor about racism in the community. There are some differences in the two cases. Arguably, a statement like “[a particular rural Nova Scotia community] is the Mississippi of the north,” said to a mayor, is more obviously a political claim than “[a particular statement] is f__ing hilarious” (let alone the vibrator comment). There also may be more truth to it. Still, I can’t help but feel that the two are connected. Perhaps not in a causal sense, but rather in revealing something about contemporary society, and the dangerousness of its mix of ubiquitous surveillance, precarious employment, and pervasive branding.The point of ubiquitous surveillance, assumed at least since Jeremy Bentham dreamed up the panopticon, is that it tends to make people engage in more self-policing. But as he expresses in CitizenFour, Edward Snowden’s exposure of the NSA’s mass surveillance programs was motivated by the concern that “self-policing” would also mean the stifling of political dissent. In this context, it is important to remember how many political changes, that are now widely accepted as sensible, were driven by movements that were at the time seen as dangerously subversive – the US civil rights movement being just one obvious example.
The desire to break the law – for an individual not to fully internalize social authority as vested in the law – is hardly pathological. But being able to act on the desire to break the law requires a certain degree of security. In some cases, it is security grounded in privilege: you know that you are unlikely to be caught, or that the consequences will not be too severe. Given what many reporters subsequently said about the pervasiveness of such harassment, it seems plausible that the ex-Hydro One employee wrongly judged that he had just this kind of security. In other cases, there is a kind of moral security that comes with knowing that you are doing the right thing, whatever punishments may be inflicted on you.At least with respect to the former, a generalized condition of precarious employment is important (with some obviously being in more precarious situations than others). Most obviously “precarious employment” as a general descriptor means an increased reliance on short-term contract work in the economy as a whole. But it also means the dismantling of various protections, built into labour law, that apply even to workers in non-“precarious” jobs. And it means employment contracts are settled in a context where opting out of the labour market is increasingly difficult (tightened eligibility requirements for (un)employment insurance, for disability benefits or other forms of social assistance, increasingly expensive education, etc.) And, perhaps least obviously, the context includes an economy and socially accepted “standard of living” that is increasingly financed by personal debt, so that the vast majority of workers are only one or a few missed paycheques away from financial ruin and its associated perceived social costs.

The third dimension is the phenomenon of pervasive branding. On the one hand, this refers to developments in the contemporary economy where a company’s “brand” is increasingly important. The company’s name and logo represents a financial asset that has a measurable value, one that is backed by the company’s public reputation. Like all capital assets, these are built up by labour. Just as corporate marketers and spokespersons can build up the company’s reputation, and thus add to the brand asset, so too can an employee who publicly does something disreputable be seen to creating a real financial liability (hence the morals clauses that are frequently explicit in the employment contracts of public figures). And while “brands” are often thought of as a distinctively late-modern phenomenon, as in this article which describes the 1960s as the “Cambrian explosion” of brands, they have a longer history, which begins with the physical marking (burning and scarring) of flesh to make bodies legible as property.

Social activity today is highly individualized, and it is increasingly common to see the phenomenon of branding thought about and practiced at the individual, not just corporate, level. Precarious workers, who once had nothing to sell but their labour power (or “nothing to lose but [their] chains,”) now have their “personal brand.” And make no mistake: (personal) brand management is a constant task. (For more on this, see Alison Hearn’s excellent “Meat, Mask, Burden: Probing the Contours of the Branded Self” (unfortunately paywalled)) The constant refrain, especially to youth, to be more reflexive (self-policing) in their social media activity is a reflection of this. A kind of scrutiny applied to current or past indiscretions, that used to be reserved for politicians seeking high office, is now presumed to apply to anyone seeking anything like a middle-class career, or even just a tolerable social life. Thus the old-fashioned separation of “personal” from “work” activities no longer obtains, because anything that you do, on the job or off, may diminish the value of your, and your present or potential future employer’s, brand.

Personal branding as a kind of self-commodification seems troublesome enough, particularly if we recall the mutilation that is required to make living bodies legible as property. Ubiquitous surveillance and a precarious employment economy just seem to make it all the more necessary to engage in it, and to engage in it constantly. And if we are constantly providing an outward performance of a particular brand of ourselves, well, Vonnegut’s Mother Night puts it well:

‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.’

All this seems to undermine the possibility for a kind of moral security, dependent on an inner resolve that King called “self-purification,” that makes principled resistance to authority (aka political dissent) possible.

Compared to Hydro One, the Northern Pulp case seems to give these questions a more explicitly political twist. Here the damage is not to the cultural capital that is built up in the company’s brand, but to the company’s political capital. The dismissal letter posted on the CBC story states in part: “you have tarnished the image [of the company] and undone a lot of work that the company has been doing to build relations with our local officials.” The implications that this has for the expression of political dissent (about concentrations of economic as well as state power) seem rather ominous.

Entitlements in an Age of Austerity

“I am entitled to my entitlements.” So said outgoing Liberal cabinet minister David Dingwall as he defended his generous severance package in December 2005. The line was used to great effect in the 2006 election campaign that the Liberals lost, commencing the reign of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Post-economic crisis, and in what is often called an “Age of Austerity,” the fury directed at lavish spending by public servants has only intensified. The trope of public employees living large on the taxpayers’ dime tends to be used more frequently by conservatives who favour small government anyway. But of course individual conservative politicians – Bev Oda, Mike Duffy, and Alison Redford to cite a few recent examples – can also be caught up in its wake.

Thus there is a sense in which this critique of the “culture of entitlement” among the political class might be seen as non-partisan. Certainly that seems to be the thrust of Gary Mason’s article in today’s Globe & Mail, “The days of entitlement in office are ending.” On the other hand, getting people to see themselves first and foremost as “taxpayers” may feed into a critique of public sector spending more generally. In this sense, the view that there is a culture of entitlement among political elites feeds into the view that government is inherently wasteful, put most straightforwardly by US conservative activist Grover Norquist, who once claimed his ambition was to “shrink government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

Mason’s article cites Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation (a group often sighted lurking around the bathtub), who says that “Public pressure is changing the rules for political perks.” One of the reasons cited – maybe because it is used to explain everything else in the world, so why not this? – is the rise of social media. The other, though, is more interesting.

Mr. Bateman believes that more people today have what would be considered white-collar jobs. They understand how executives and business leaders should be conducting themselves and don’t see politicians as being any different or more entitled. “They understand that world and what’s appropriate, perhaps more than a 1950s blue-collar worker did,” said Mr. Bateman.

And in the information economy of today, most workers don’t get to fly business class, take their spouses to South Africa, stay in $1,000-a-night hotel rooms or sip $16 glasses of orange juice, he said. Their working lives are much more austere.

Much could be said about the way that “austerity” is seen (or argued) to be internalized, particularly among a class of people (white collar, information workers) who were once supposed to be immune from the economic insecurity that was foretold for blue collar manufacturing workers. The ideological sleight of hand in the move from elites (“executives and business leaders”) in the first paragraph to “most workers” in the second is certainly revealing: if there really is the same standard applied across the board, then we would have to say “executives and business leaders don’t get to fly business class…” But if business leaders shouldn’t fly business class, who should?

More interesting, though, is the narrow way that “entitlements” are defined. It is a mark of the triumph of neoliberalism’s economic mode of thinking that when talking about “entitlements” we seem to only end up talking about spending perks: a second home, luxury hotels, overpriced orange juice, and outright financial transfers like severance agreements and “gold-plated” pensions.

Less commonly discussed, but arguably far more common and dangerous, is a culture of political entitlement. If we think about entitlement to wield power without meaningful accountability, then we are in the heyday of entitlement in office. The mayor of Toronto’s case is known well enough to be summarized succinctly: despite everything that he has done, he feels entitled to continue in office. His sense of entitlement seems based only on his professed love of the job and the city, and his belief that only he can stop the gravy train. The case of our Prime Minister: here it is a matter of complete disdain for even the idea that anyone outside of his inner circle (said circle perhaps extending no further than his own head) could have a valid point of view. His government recently dismissed the unprecedented number and diversity of dissenting views on the so-called Fair Elections Act as the opinions of “self-styled experts.” More generally, the use of omnibus legislation, the prorogation of Parliament, the canceling of the long-form census and other measures typically used to inform evidence-based policy-making, the muzzling of government scientists, all of this has been in the service of more efficiently driving through Stephen Harper’s agenda. He knows what he wants to do. He thinks it is right. Therefore, whatever anyone else might do or say, he thinks he can, he should, and he will do it. He is the Prime Minister, and is entitled to wield power. He feels entitled to his entitlements.

To return to what was said by Jordan Bateman, above, the problem with the current era of austerity is not just that white-collar workers in the information economy were denied the promise of a better material life, or that “their working lives are more austere.” It is that in the current information economy, the veneration of “leaders” (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, etc.) extends well beyond our working lives. Our political lives have become more austere. One way to describe authoritarianism might be an exaggerated sense of entitlement among political leaders: authoritarian leaders feel entitled to wield power without the checks that are present in a more democratic system. In Canada today, that culture of entitlement, unfortunately, is alive and well.