Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Words for framing either real action or bookkeeping...Canada must choose!

Recently, while visiting Quebec city, my wife and I had breakfast with two students, one on exchange at Radio Canada from Belgium, the other from Toulouse, France, studying aboriginal tourism in the Province of Quebec, about to write her thesis for defence in September, at the University of Toulouse.
During the animated conversation, the journalist, covering "society" for her network in Belgium, was assigned to do a story on "asbestos" in Quebec. The reason her network had filed the story under "society" is, according to the young woman, because people are dying from the asbestos.
In Canada, the story of the re-opening of the asbestos mine in, of all places, Asbestos QC, is considered an economic story, for the simple reason that the mine will provide jobs, and thereby resuscitate the economy of the town through the creation of some 500 new jobs.
Never mind that hundreds, perhaps thousands and potentially millions have died, are dying or will die from exposure to the deadly material now being shipping to Asian countries, especially India, so long as those jobs are producing income for the residents of the town of Asbestos, and, of course, votes for both Charest (Premier of Quebec) and Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, both of whose governments have thrown some needed cash into the re-opening of the mine.
How we frame a subject is extremely important to how that subject is portrayed by an audience.
Here is a brief quote from John Ralston Saul's book, A Fair Country, that might help to illustrate:
If you examine the way the state organizes itself, you find that utilitarianism has reduced creative economics down to instrumental economics and even further down to classic bookkeeping. In this mindset, every action is a cost. The concept of investment is merely another cost. It is a non-conceptual approach that would have made every historic Canadian breakthrough in public policy appear to be an impossible extravagance.
It is this corner-store approach to cost that prevents us from dealing with poverty or health care or education. This is what shapes our narrow and short-term view of the environment. What is presented as being careful with the public's money, is more often than not a simple failure of imagination. That means those in charge are frightened to act because real action can only be presented as a cost. That is not really an economic theory. It is well below theory. But if it were a theory, it could be described as a linear approach to cost based on the assumption that society is driven by self-interest.
We built our society in quite a different way. Our ideas of fairness and inclusion have been based on an economic theory of investment, in which you create new possibilities of wealth by changing the conditions in which our society operates. To do this takes courage, consciousness, imagination, a taste for risk and an ethical sense of purpose. It is about conduct not contract. It is a way of thinking and acting. (p.319)
Corner-store cost accounting will not a nation build, let alone an economic theory.
We have small-minded, frightened leaders, both elected and appointed to the civil service, whose worlds revolve around the next "investigative" report on their over-spending, while the country's needs continue unaddressed, or even undebated, in a silence of complicity in which the public, the media and the opposition voices are passively aggressive, and nothing is being accomplished. Some nation-building, and what would MacDonald and Cartier and the rest have to say about our fears, and our "bookkeeping" as an inadequate substitute for national policy.

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