Category Archives: Politics

Limits to Common Sense

Today’s Hamilton Spectator (September 31, 2019) has an opinion piece by Matthew Lau in praise of economist Milton Friedman, founder of the “Chicago School” espousing the virtues of unrestrained free market capitalism. He cites two of Friedman’s ideas, which he treats as obvious:

  • “nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.”
  • “overwhelmingly, government is the source of problematic monopoly control “
Milton Friedman shaking hands with Ronald Reagan while Nancy Reagan looks on.
Milton Friedman and the Reagans. (Wikimedia)

The first he calls ” a statement that just about everyone accepts as true”, and the second is “nearly universally accepted”. In other words, common sense.

https://www.thespec.com/opinion-story/9572354-milton-friedman-s-ideas-still-resonate-we-should-listen/

Now, I have problems with both those statements. I suppose that puts me in some niche, some outlier category of people with weird ideas. Why don’t I think like everyone else?

“Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.” Speaking for myself, I am more inclined to be careful with someone else’s money than my own. I try to be scrupulous with money entrusted to me, but I reserve the right to spend my own money carelessly and indulgently. Most of the people who are my friends are like that. People who don’t care about harming other people are the people I don’t want in my own life. Fortunately, they aren’t hard to recognize, and easy to avoid.

My observation is that the characteristic most people share is fairness. Children generally have a strong sense of what is fair and what is not, from a very early age. Adults who believe in fairness would think that wasting someone else’s money would not be fair, but to waste ones own is “fair enough”.

“Overwhelmingly, government is the source of problematic monopoly control ” — oh, really? The source of monopoly control, surely, is the natural drive of corporations to capture as much of the market as they can. Governments have often used their legislative powers to fight against the restraint of trade through monopolies, and to instill fairness in the economic sphere. Of course, powerful economic entities try to corrupt governments to favour themselves and to deregulate the marketplace to their advantage.

When someone says that “everybody knows” something, I am inclined to be wary. Many things that were thought to be “common sense” have turned out to be false. “The earth is flat”, “the sun goes around the earth”, “immigrants steal our jobs”, “we can’t spend money we don’t have”, “we all have to live within our means.” (Of course, this last is nonsense. We all borrow from the future to pay for the present: mortgages, student loans, credit cards. If we didn’t, the economy would collapse.)

“Everybody knows” is the sign of the demagogue. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, common sense is probably the second-last. Common sense means not having to explain, research, analyze, demonstrate, prove. Everybody knows, don’t they?

The art of politics

Posted on August 2, 2019 by roncw

The NY Times columnists, a dozen or more,  rate the performances of the Democratic candidates as if they are auditioning for a theatrical performance. They answer questions that include ideas, but their responses are judged on body language and seeming sincerity. The ideas are selected from a list of alternatives, and the candidates are given 90 seconds to extemporize on their choice. They are not expected to sustain an argument, or to hear and respond to lines of reasoning from the other candidates.

John Turner, Ed Broadbent, Brian Mulroney debate free trade (NAFTA) in 1988

John Turner, Ed Broadbent, Brian Mulroney debate free trade (NAFTA) in 1988

I remember with fondness an election debate with Mulroney, Broadbent and Turner, the trio I satirized in my play The Beavers. I would have been happy to have had them at our dinner table, discussing with intelligence and insight the issues of the day—in two languages! I disagreed with some of what was said, agreed with some, but overall I was proud that our election was being conducted on that level.

That’s gone now, especially in the US. Some of the candidates are capable of that level of discussion, but they wisely eschew it. They know that only the soundbites matter, and that they deliver them without flinching.

So what? So what if all is fabricated? So what if there is no ground to stand on, no memory beyond yesterday? So what if everyone is entitled to an opinion, and we pick the ones we find most attractive?

Since most of us do not care to live in a real world (although we do), maybe the politician who offers the most attractive fantasy to the greatest number of people should be the one elected.

Reality is that shadowy, ungraspable world that will inevitable determine our fate, but we seem to have given up trying to approach it. Science and philosophy, both fundamentally driven by a commitment to consistency, are increasingly ignored. In their place we have inspiration and invention. In other words (heaven help us), art.

Why Hydro One should not be privatized

Hydro One Voltage Lines in Woodbridge Ontario, photo Tom Stefanac, from Wikipedia

Hydro One Voltage Lines in Woodbridge Ontario, photo Tom Stefanac, from Wikipedia

The privatization of Hydro One is a terrible idea, for many reasons. There is one argument that I have not seen in the press, and I’d like to present it now.

The idea that retaining the single largest portion of shares guarantees control is naive. The danger is not total loss of ownership. The danger (and inevitable effect) is that on an ongoing basis decisions will be weighed in terms of what the shareholders will think. Will they sell? Will the value go down? Up? The corruption is not in the gross effect, but in the innumerable details of policy driven by a financial system that is out of control.

When any company goes public and sells shares, a new element is introduced that often overrides everything else: shareholder value. When shareholders are added, the need to keep the value of the shares continually rising overrides everything else. The market is extremely sensitive, volatile and focused on the short term. This becomes the primary driver of policy.

A government should be making policy in the best interests of its citizens. It also has a responsibility to its suppliers, part of keeping the economy healthy. It should not be making policy to satisfy the needs of investors staring at their computer screens and deciding whether or buy or sell.

Neo-nazis on the tube

We had a chilling experience last night on the London Tube Circle Line. A noisy, drunken crowd of men, and one women, piled on the train, singing and shouting. They had extreme east-end accents, so that even my relatively well-tuned Canadian ear could hardly make out anything that they were saying. I assumed that they were rugby louts, and watched and listened, though everyone else in the car (an Indian family, a young man of colour) looked elsewhere.
Finally, Judith whispered in my ear “they’re white supremacists. They’re singing about raping Moslem women”. I listened even more closely. She was right.
The Indian family and the young man got off at the next stop. The louts looked in my direction in a friendly manner, having noticed my interest. I didn’t want them to think that I was sympathetic, so I nodded to Judith and we moved away down the train.
It felt like something from the 1930s, Nazis singing the Horst Wessel song. What was particularly upsetting was that these yahoos were not really bad people, just not terribly bright and without much going for them, who were out for a good time. Going home, some of them, to wives and children. They were having fun singing together and enjoying companionship. They could have been sing bawdy songs (offensive enough, but not racist). Instead, they were shouting out these virulent hate-filled songs and cheers.
They hadn’t made the songs up themselves. They weren’t songwriters. Someone else had written the songs and taught them to the louts. Got them drunk, got them singing, and sent them out to get on the tube to terrorize women and children. Who is writing these songs?
I learned today that the Harper government has just passed a bill removing hate speech from the Canadian Human Rights Act. I guess Canada’s hate-song writers will breathe a little easier.