Sunday, February 27, 2011

Relative Poverty or Consumerism: Choose your evil.

I recently spent a day in a room with public school teachers, education experts, and humanities types. I was the only one there with any experience in empirical data or the kind of formal logic commonly used in empirical disciplines. My time with this group (I get to do it again for 2 days in May) will form the basis of a number of posts, but here’s the first.

One of the things that gets this group worked is consumerism (they often use the label capitalism but consumerism is more accurate). “Consumerism is the capitalist system trying to keep the worker down.” “Consumerism is destroying the planet.” “Consumerism is nothing but lies designed to keep us all unhappy.” If you’re reading this I’m sure you are familiar with this type of statement. I’m not going to discuss the veracity of these statements here (there is some truth here). I want to focus on a glaring hypocrisy.

Shortly after the outpourings affirmation of anti-consumerist ideology the discussion moved onto relative poverty, specifically decrying the unequal distribution of income for people identified as indigenous. (To be honest there was some actual discussion education related topics in between, but nobody want to hear about that).

I want to be clear – there are some people in this country living in deplorable conditions, many of them on reserves. In many cases, these living conditions count as absolute poverty and need to be addressed. Not tomorrow, but now! (Yes, I do have a suggestion, but it definitely isn’t politically correct and would likely piss off a number of people who were in that room to no end). Absolute poverty isn’t what they were talking about so I won’t either.

The concern was that some people are getting richer faster than others, as it always is with relative poverty. It isn’t about the fact that some people don’t have enough to meet a standard of living we would consider basic in this country (living high off the hog in most of the world).

So what does an increase in relative poverty without an increase in absolute poverty mean? It means that some are getting richer faster than others. So what does becoming richer really mean? It means you have more consumption opportunities than before. Consider your stereotypical working class joe. They are in no danger of starving to death, generally have a decent roof over their head, and can even afford some luxuries. So why would anyone be worried that other people are becoming relatively richer? The only possible reason is that consumption and *gasp* consumerism yields benefits. For the argument to make any sense it must be that the group getting richer is gaining happiness and those not getting richer are not. Remember that the only meaningful difference is consumption opportunities. If consumer is so “bad” we should be celebrating any reduction in consumption opportunities of any group. The worry about relative poverty is the worst form of keeping up with the Joneses.

So which is it, is consumerism bad or is relative poverty bad?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Happy Shiny People (for academics)

I recently visited a number of universities in the Maritimes. For those not in the know there are a lot of very small universities in the region. These universities tend to have small student bodies and a similarly small faculty compliment. In talking to these people something became very clear.

The happiest and most productive of departments I visited was at the smallest of the universities I visited. This of course got me thinking. What makes university faculty most likely to be productive? (BTW this is an issue I’m personally concerned about.)

The university in question has had a stable student population for decades (about between 2250 and 2500) and does have a fairly large endowment. On the down side it does have something of a history of labour unrest, with a potential for faculty strikes every few years.

What has always amazed me about this group is how much pleasure they take from their work and how much research they actually get done despite an onerous teaching load. Thinking about it for the last couple of weeks, I’ve spotted a few things to consider.

1) Few layers of administration. This is a small university with relatively few AVP’s DAVP’s, ADAVP’s, associate dean’s, coordinators, etc. This means there is a hope of influencing the outcome of administrative decisions. Despite this it is possible for a department head to devote comparatively little time to admin busy work. Unlike larger schools in which most faculty members don’t know who is making administrative decisions this week and don’t feel they have any meaningful say in the direction the university takes or have to spent countless hours in meetings that accomplish nothing.

2) The group legitimately respects each other and gets along. When hiring, attention was paid to how different people appeared to “fit”. In a small group this is exceptionally important. You need someone who is going to be of a complimentary temperament. Many academic units ignore this to their detriment. Ideally, you need someone who agrees with just enough not to make you insane. I’ve seen this group subject their own (and my work when I visit) to intense thoughtful scrutiny. It isn’t always the velvet glove sort either, but it is always done in a way that lets you know it’s about making it “right”.

3) Really bright, engaged, students. I’m not even talking about graduate students, though they offer fill this role. The students I have encountered there are genuinely engaged, willing to challenge, and capable of putting up a really good intellectual fight. There is accordingly a great atmosphere of academic debate and thought.

Considering all these factors, it really makes me wonder if Universities in Western Canada have taken a wrong turn in pursuing size. Would a larger number of smaller universities better achieve the stated objectives?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Paying for "IT"

There is an ongoing debate about prostitution in many countries around the world. The question is whether or not it should be legal. An interesting quirk of Canadian law is that prostitution isn’t illegal but solicitation is. You can pay for sex, but cannot talk about paying for sex and mean it.

On the legalization side there are a lot of positive arguments. Places from Amsterdam to New Zealand have legalized prostitution. There hasn’t been an explosion of drugs, violence, family break up, or any of the expected maladies that you might think would go along with legalization.

On the plus side, many places with legal regulated prostitution have less trouble with violence toward sex workers (police are now actually called), fewer sex workers addicted to drugs, and a better chance of controlling STD’s through regular health checks.

So why not just accept it legalize the open and honest exchange of sex for money? There are the usual moral objections and I can wrap my head around some of those.

But let’s put on our cynic hats for a moment. Let’s say we legalize prostitution. Who loses? In general it would mean a transfer of relationship power from people who withhold or limit sex. Think about this; you’re in a bar trying to woo someone and aren’t getting anywhere. If prostitutes are legal, safe, and not entirely shunned you aren’t going to put that much effort in at the bar. You likely won’t be buying drinks for somebody else all night, you’ll give up and go for the open exchange.

You likely won’t put up with a partner withholding sex to get what they want either – again you’ll just opt out. This means a significant reduction in power for anybody who holds out the possibility of sex as leverage. Makes you wonder about the true motives of some who object to legalization.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The unfairness of fair trade

I’m intrigued by the idea of so called fair trade as a development mechanism. Two of the most developed countries in the world (Canada and the U.S.) were initially heavily exploited and saddled with “unfair” terms of trade and yet here we are, near the top of the list in term of standard of living. Thus it can’t be a simple fact that unfair trade prevents development.

Let’s take a closer look at “fair” trade. In many cases fair trade involves the purchase of a product at a premium, if there were no premium it wouldn’t have to be marketed differently from plain old trade (I’m always amused when people tell me having to pay more is a good thing). The basis for the premium is that the trade is fair and the consumer gets to feel good about giving extra money to someone deserving (read less well off than they are themselves). So you’re really buying two goods, the coffee, knick knack, or what have you, and the belief you’re a good person. A large part of what you’re purchasing when you buy fair trade coffee is the warm feeling of doing good while getting your daily caffeination. So far no harm, no foul.

Here’s the catch, you only get the good feeling of helping someone who’s worse off. This means you’ll only be willing to pay the premium so long as the people on the other side of the exchange are poorer than you are. Think about it, have you ever seen anything promoting “fair trade” with the U.S. or France?

What’s the result? The people producing the good generally make just enough to keep them producing but not much more. With coffee you keep people working small plots using expensive (inefficient) techniques with little or no hope of improving their lot in life beyond what it is now.

Lots of people who promote fair trade argue that it improves the lives of the people actually producing the good compared to the opportunities offered by the heartless multinational corporations. And in general they’re right, in the short run. In the long run the people producing the fair trade good will remain stuck at a low level of absolute and relative income – they can’t change their techniques or increase the size of their operation to capture more of the value of their good – they won’t qualify for fair trade any more. Further they will always be dependent on the good will of those of us in the rich world. So keep buying your “fair” trade goods if you like the idea of making sure there’s somebody in the world less well off in the long run than you are.

But hey, in the long run we’re all dead anyways, right?