Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Thought Police and Post-Secondary Education

The argument I have been trying to make so far is that the equation of "political correctness" with thought policing is misplaced. This can be qualified. There are people on every point on the political spectrum who are not particularly interested in open mindedness. But, that can be taken for granted. What I am interested in is demonstrating that the idea that asking people to think again about something is not wrong. I tried to argue that most of do this all the time. It is a normal part of conversation because we often talk to others about things about which we disagree. There is nothing wrong with saying to someone, you know, I thought X and here is why. Far from being thought policing, it is a normal part of discourse. It is the way we carry on conversations. Likewise with politics. Democracy requires people changing their mind. No mind changing ... no democracy.  Suggesting to someone, then, that they can and should look at an issue (the economy, health care, the environment, it does not matter what) in a different way is hardly thought policing. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with suggestion to someone that bigotry or insulting someone is wrong.

Post-secondary education is one ares where people are often accused of being PC. If you follow the logic of my argument, this will not come as a surprise because post-secondary education is about thinking differently. If it was not ... would it be education? I periodically hear this from critics of PC: "Professor So-and-So said that something I fundamentally believe was wrong and wants me to change my mind. That is so PC." If you are one of those people who has said that, can I ask: what were you paying for when you paid your tuition? Imagine a situation where you paid your tuition and spent the entire year being told only things you already knew. How would you feel. At the end of the year, you knew precisely and exactly and only the things you already knew at the start of the year. No one had challenged your thinking. No one presented data that refocused your attention. No one suggested a different methodology that might yield different results. Would you believe that your tuition was money well spent?

Education can and should be about many things. It should be about skill acquisition. It should be about some measure of cultural literacy. It should be about empirical knowledge. There is, in other words, not a single thing that higher education -- or any form of education -- is about. In my view, for instance, it should be about something we've called in the past "habits of mind": how you look at and think about how you will think about issue and interact with others and knowledge. But, if you completed your university degree and your views on anything that is important were never challenged, regardless of your political perspective, would you say that your education was complete?

Post-secondary education places a premium on critical thinking. To be sure, that can be -- and is -- defined in different ways. To be sure, what that means is approached through different research methods. And, to be sure, faculty hold different political perspectives. On my floor (which houses three different academic units), at Mount A, for instance, just about every perspective on the political spectrum (with the exception of the extreme ends) is represented.  [BTW: It might surprise people to know what we professors, in fact, spend shockingly little time talking about politics. We talk about it, perhaps more than other people in other jobs (I've never held a job where politics was not a subject of discussion at some point in the working day), but we spend the vast majority of our time talking about other things ... like our jobs (teaching strategies that worked or did not work, attendance issues, students who are struggling, departmental budgets, professional development, research) or .... ordinary life things like kids and household repairs and movies we like.] This is my point: despite these differences, we all get along. No one accuses someone else of being the thought police because we share a commitment to an ideal of post-secondary education that does many things: builds knowledge, conveys facts, promotes skills, and sustains different perspectives on the events or issues in question.

I want to be clear on this point: different faculty take different approaches to challenging student thinking. I had a colleague years ago who played devil's advocate, intentionally adopting the opposite perspective of his students. Most of us don't do that and can't really do that, say if you are lecturing to 100 students. What you can do is explain certain perspectives and challenge conventional thinking as a way to spur thought. In my classes, for instance, I ask students to think about what the mistreatment of First Peoples tells us about Canada or what we should think of contradictory tendencies in foreign policy or why we take wilderness icons for emblems of nationhood but produce so much pollution. Sometimes, I will confess, I don't have answers to these problems. I have my own views -- and this blog is a place where I articulate them -- but I don't have the answer to every issue or every problem that perplexes national public life.

But ... what if I did have answers? Well, it turns out that there are some things on which I do have some things that I think I can contribute to the general discussion. Most faculty are this way.  There are issues about which I have been teaching, or which I have been researching, for some time. I'm getting close to twenty years at Mount Allison, which means that some of my current students were not alive when I started here. I've done more reading on some subjects than my students and, in some cases, a great deal more reading. Where one of my students might have spent, say, hours reading about a subject they find interesting, I might now have spent 100 times that. I'm not bragging, just doing math. I've seen the evolution of scholarship over time (where students are often coming in half way through a story; not their fault, this is simply a product of age). I've see policies that have begun with much promise but resulted in failure. In other words, it is possible that I know more about something than one of my students and I might have ways of thinking about some matters that can help them. I do lecture in some of my courses and I lecture because I can use that forum to get students "up to speed" on an issue quicker than sending them away to read the dozen or several dozen books (let alone scholarly papers) that I have read on the same subject.

So, knowing that, what should be my approach as an instructor? As a faculty member, I am paid for many reasons. I am paid to teach classes, to administer an academic program, to provide effective collegial governance, to research, to edit, to advise. But, surely one of the reasons students pay to sit in my class is that they have something that they think they can learn from everything I've just wrote in the previous paragraph.

This is not arrogance. To be sure: some faculty are arrogant but arrogance has no single political home. It is not the sole provenance of the politically correct. And, in my view, the issue is not arrogance. We all agree that it is not a good mix with teaching. There is, though, a difference between arrogance and knowing something or having certain skills. My plumber knows a lot more about plumbing than I do. Is that arrogance on his part? My mechanic knows a great deal more about car engines than I do ... is he arrogant when he fixes my car? You see the point and the oddity of some of the accusations of thought policing or PC. When a faculty member corrects a mistake a student makes ... are they arrogant? Some people -- particularly but not exclusively, I suspect -- those in the anti-PC camp come very close to arguing that this is the case. But, imagine a different situation. What if I spotted a mistake and did not correct it? Would I be doing my job?

These are something more than rhetorical questions. What I am saying is that a reasonable conception of education involves thinking, changing your mind, learning new things and we expect instructors to guide us in that process. We don't expect them to sit on the sidelines while errors are made and ignore those so as to avoid becoming "thought police." The fact that someone who knows more about a subject than I do corrects me is not a horrible thing. It is not an insult to me, or a challenge to my moral worth or identity, as a human being. It is simple that: a correction.

Let me conclude: if you wondered why so much politically correct discourse (pro and con) is on campus, at universities, it is not an accident. It is not some sort of left wing academia. It is a product of the nature of the higher educational enterprise. Challenging people's thinking, correcting mistakes, asking people to look again at an issue, and recognizing that there are people who know more because that is their job, is not horrible. Yet, in hoopla that surrounds PC on campus, I think we have lost sight of those simple facts. The goal of education is *not* to remain the same. That is why we go to school: to develop, to change, to become better. If we assume that anyone who seeks to change us is involved in some sort of nefarious conspiracy or is some agent of the thought police, we are, in fact, condemning the very idea and purpose of education.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Democracy is PC? Seriously?

In my last post, I tried to argue that there was nothing nefarious in asking questions, suggesting alternatives, and engaging in a conversation with others, even when the aim of that discussion was to change someone's mind. Everyone does it and calling it PC and dismissing it, is really missing the point, particularly since the anti-PC crowd has itself been pretty vocal in trying to convince people that there are things wrong with feminism, gay and lesbian equality, and other like matters. I argued that they either need to concede the point -- that there is nothing wrong with discussion -- or accept their own hypocrisy, which is, then, reason to disregard everything they say. Would you listen to a rank hypocrite? How would you know that they actually believed what they were saying and weren't just stringing you on for some other reason?

Let's take this argument one step further and move it into the realm of politics. Politics is about many things. It can be about power, common visions of the nation or the future, ways to run the economy or respond to problems, like unemployment or the environment. But, one of the things it is about is getting people to change their minds. Getting people to change their minds is so far from being "thought police" as to be the opposite: it is a precondition of democracy. If people did not change their minds ... we would never have a competitive party system or a competitive election. One person would just stay in office until they died or left of their own accord to be replaced by another person who stayed in until they died or left of their own accord. Since no one's mind ever changed, there would, in fact, be no reason for voting.

Said differently, trying to get people to change their minds might or might not be PC, but one thing we can say for sure: it is democratic. In fact, it  is a precondition of democracy. Thus, every political party behaves pretty much like a PC activist: they try to convince you to alter what you were going to do. They try to get you to see their issues as the most important issues, to trust them as opposed to someone, to vote for them, to donate to them, to like their posts on Facebook or retweet their tweets. To criticize PC for asking people to think again about X or Y, then, is not simply to criticize a particular perspective you dislike, it is to criticize the foundation of democracy.

At this point, someone might argue: PC is about limiting *my* expression and *I* want to say things a certain way and anyone who tries to limit what *I* can say is limiting my freedom.

In some existential way this might be true. But, I would argue, we are actually talking about a very limited conception of freedom.  For instance, PC does not actually try to change the way you or I or anyone else thinks. Let us accept one of the critiques of it: you can't police people's thoughts. Or, rather, let us accept it for now because saying that no one ever changes them mind is the equivalent of saying that education is completely useless and no one ever learns anything, so I want to come back to this. For now, however,  and for the sake of argument, let's accept this critique.

What PC says is not that you cannot think X or Y. It says that there are some things that should not be expressed. We will get into why this might be the case in a future blog. Instead, think about freedom. Freedom of expression is vitally important but is measuring our freedom by our ability to, say, insult someone else really a worthwhile measure of freedom? Even when we accept the idea that expression is important, and I do, one should ask what else do we need to think about in terms of freedom.

This is one of those big question and people who say "expression is most important" are trying to create a hierarchy of values.  Again, I am not disagreeing with the anti-PC crowd by trying to engage their arguments because, frankly, I find them limited. In my job as an educator, challenging limited conceptions of something is what we do. It is a process of learning and I'll get back to that as well.

The point I want to make here is that approaching freedom in this way is approaching it through what strikes me as its lowest common denominator.  I am interested in suggesting to you that we can and should have a more robust definition of freedom. After all, the ability to call someone names is either (a) irrelevant if the anti-PC people are right in their claim that calling people names does nothing bad or (b) is relevant, in which case we need to assess it.

Obviously one cannot have it both ways. The right to call someone a name as part of an argument for freedom of expression, however, actually does try to have it both ways. It tries to argue that calling someone a racist epitaph or saying something homophobic or anti-Semitic, etc., is irrelevant because it hurts no one and then tries to argue that limiting someone's ability to insult others will cause democracy to collapse because it is thought police. If it is irrelevant -- why do it? Why spend your days and night defending something that is irrelevant. I don't and I know few people who do. If it is relevant ... well ... OK, fair enough, we can look at it. But, you can't say it is both irrelevant (harms n one, concerns are overblown) and vital (to expression and self-identification) and these very relevant.

If it is relevant, it can only be relevant in relation to other things. Food is, for instance, more relevant if you don't have it. Anti-PC arguments, then, start to have a problem that is twofold: (1) they try to argue that expression both is vitally important and irrelevant since it does nothing and (2) they ask us to accept a very limited definition of freedom (the ability to call others names) in place of more robust conceptions of freedom that advance society and sustain democracy.

What might these be? What might a more robust definition of freedom include. I can think of several things: the ability to change governments, alter public policy, enjoy a safe environment, learn, meet people with whom you share bonds of loyalty and friendship, worship, work meaningfully, and I am sure there are a bunch of others. Said differently, if you had the right (which you might) to call someone racist names but lived in utter squalor with no chance for your kids to go to school, no friends to whom you could really turn, and a job that just taxed you while you lived next to a dump ... how much would that freedom of expression (in that you can indeed insult someone of a different colour, say) really mean?

This is the point I am trying to make: I don't doubt the importance of freedom of expression but in reducing it to the ability to insult others -- to call a Jew a "Kike" or a use the N word -- have we really built a robust and meaningful definition of freedom? Have we really actually established the basis upon which it could be built. (I'd argue no ... but that, too, is a story for another day.)  In this way, anti-PC provides a very limited perspective on life. It is not that the PC argument is right. I can -- and has -- had its own problems. It is that the anti side is looking for meaning and importance and significance in the wrong place.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Telling People What to Think, PC, ... or, is this really thought police?

Among the various criticisms of PC and SJW is that they try to police thought and, the story goes, this is (a) offensive to basic conceptions of individualism, (b)not needed because what bad has thinking ever done anyone, (c) arrogant, and (d) just plane dumb because it cannot really be done. One cannot, so this saying goes, legislate morality. Worse, it stifles the free speech and thought needed for progress and democracy.

This is a tall indictment and I would like to take the time to engage it. I won't get to it all today so I'll come back to this issue over the next several blogs. I want to be clear: my point is not to argue against it, to provide some sort of point by point refutation. It is to engage this issue from the point of view of modern post-secondary education. In making my case (or, cases), I want to do my best to depoliticize this discussion because, in my view, it has become too politicized.  The critique of PC and SJW by the new right is an interesting cultural development but my aim is not to engage their thinking. It is, instead, to take a number of the points that come out of this discourse as a starting point and construct an argument that, I think, is important to higher education and, I will argue, human development. In short, I am not arguing for thought police but I do want to suggest that effective education engages what people are thinking and forces them to reconsider and potentially change their minds. If we ditch this idea, or try to catch up any effort to alter how people think, in one blanket "big no no" umbrella we are missing the reasons why we teach, campaign, and talk to other people (or, one of the reasons) in the first place.

Let me begin with that point. Suggesting to someone else that they change the way they are thinking is nothing new and its nothing radical. Most of us do it all the time. A few nights ago my son spent ten minutes trying -- effectively as it turned out -- to convince that a particular basketball team is better than another one. There is nothing horrendously wrong in this. In fact, he was acting on his beliefs. The issue at hand is inconsequential but the point is of value.

Imagine a different scenario. I am raising money for the local hospital and I call on you to donate. You say no. I might -- most charities have rules against pestering people to donate -- then try to convince you that this is a good thing to do. Or, you might have decided to stop seeing a particular series of movies. I've seen the latest instalment and think it is good. I talk to you about it and say "you really should go see it."

In all of these instances, I am not trying to police your thoughts. I'm trying to suggest that you can and should see things a bit differently and, with more information, you might make a different decision. Or, if you look at the matter from a different angle, your mind will change. I suspect, in fact, that most of us do this or something like this all the time. It might not be every day but it is likely every week: should we make bread pudding for Easter? Is it time to get a new chair? Is there anyway your aunt could visit in August instead of July?  These are, in fact, so far from thought police that we have a different name for them: discussions.  I might call them engagements, whereby someone challenges your thinking or asks you to reconsider a point you have decided. And, to the best of my knowledge, no one thinks this is wrong. No one gets upset and accuses you or I or the neighbour raising money for the United Way of being in league with thought police.

I'd go further: I'd guess -- I cannot say for sure but I'd guess -- that the better we know people, the more of these types of discussions we have with them. We have more opportunities to have them, for sure, but we also have a higher level of mutual trust and caring. I, frankly, make more suggestions to people and institutions with whom I have positive relationships that people or institutions I don't know, don't trust, or don't care about it. I'd guess you do things in pretty much the same way.

One needs to be careful about this and one cannot go to far or make a blanket statement but I actually feel an obligation to point out to family, friends, loved ones, mistakes if I am pretty convinced that they are about to make a mistake. Back when I was a student my friend and I used to have parties and we took people's keys when they arrived.  Want to come to our party, the price of admission is surrendering your car keys.  When you go to leave, someone who is sober will determine whether you get your keys back or we call a cab. Was that thought police? I don't think the fact that I see things a different way gives me license to control someone's life but I do think that friendship imposes of burden on me. If I ignore my friends when they are in trouble ... how good a friend am I? Am I a good friend if I let another friend drive home if they are intoxicated?

If this logic is sound, and the burden of my argument is that it is, then how much more true must it ring for important issues. If I am willing to talk to someone about movies or basketball teams, should I then, shift ground, and completely ignore significant issues? If I am willing to point out the merits of Star Trek to a friend or neighbour or family members, should I then neglect the significance of a healthy environment or a good public health care system or a safe educational environment? Said differently, on those big issues, on this issues that fundamentally affect a person's life (in a way that watching a movie or selecting a snack do not), should I sit there in silence?

If you answered yes, well, that is an interesting position because, of course, that is the point of political campaigns. One of the great ironies about those who reject PC as thought police is that they are doing exactly the same thing they shoot down PC for, just in reverse. If the politically correct are trying to convince you and I of something, those who oppose them are also trying to. The PC people are trying to convince me that they are right; the anti-PC people are trying to convince me that they are wrong. If PC is thought police ... surely those who are trying to do exactly the same thing -- convince me of something -- must also be involved in the same enterprise. That is why they argue with them: they are trying to change minds. After all, if one really believed that every person should be left to their own and any engagement with another were "thought police," the only sensible thing to do is remain silent on all issues. The fact that the anti-PC people don't illustrates two things: (1) that they are trying to change your mind (or, my mind or someone's mind) because otherwise they would not make the argument or post the video or tweet the tweet, etc. There is absolutely no point in making a video or tweeting or writing a blog or engaging in a debate other than trying to affect how people think. (2) They must feel that there is nothing wrong with what they are doing because, otherwise, they are simply acting like hypocrites and that -- hypocrisy -- would undercut their own argument.

To recap: I am not trying to refute any particular political perspective. I am, instead, trying to establish that people discuss things and part of discussions is that we try to get other people to change their minds. There is nothing nefarious in this. It depends on what you do with it. Most of the time, it is a product of the normal operation of life, our caring for others, our commitment to positive relationship and, in the university, our commitment to education.  We might not be telling someone what to think. I don't think we are. But we are trying to say: can I ask if you've considered other alternatives? Not only is this not thought police, it might, in fact, be an element of simple common humanity.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Life after NAFTA

The Financial Times ran a couple of stories recently about free trade. One was about a new White House economic report -- issued under the name of Donald Trump -- that contradicted much of what Trump had been saying about free trade in general and free trade with Canada in particular. It has some interesting things to say, even if FT reporting on it quickly gets caught up in a numbers game that is, well, neither convincing nor important.  The other piece was about "life after NAFTA" and it is more important. It is important because it suggests that there is life after NAFTA. This make sense, of course, and it is a bit of clarity in otherwise fairly bad public reportage on this issue. What is more, there always was life after NAFTA and that is important to recognize for Canadians because Canada needs to be willing to explore what that life means and where it might lead the country. Some of the tenor of the discussion on free trade can be found here. As I have tried to indicate before, there is a bigger picture here and it is that bigger picture I would like to address.

The Ideology of Trade and Anti-Trade

The first bits of reporting about the US post-Trump trade policy were nothing short of alarming and some still are. They were presented in a stark binary way that was, in fact, conducive to different political agendas. Trump's arguments against free trade (which had always been part of a isolationist sub-set of Republicanism in the US dating back at least to Pat Buchanan), provided rust-belt Americans and Americans in other regions suffering from de-industrialization, with an argument that checked a number of political boxes at the same time. The anti-free trade argument explained American long-term economic stagnation through a conspiracy. It was nothing Americans had done. They were, in effect, sold out by greedy foreigners pretending to be the allies and weak governments at home who off-loaded American largesse.

There was, of course, little truth to this argument. Free trade is part of a broader neoliberal policy orientation that, almost certainly, had hampered growth in family income in the US and Canada (and Mexico and a bunch of other places) but neoliberalism, for Canadians and Americans, is a self-inflicted wound. Or, rather, self-inflicted in this sense: the economic problems that neoliberalism created were the product of largely Canadian- and American-based multinational corporations. Mexicans did not "steal" American jobs, for example. American companies decided to lay off their American workers and move their plants to Mexico because, they reasoned, they could make larger profits. The decision was not taken in Mexico but in American and Canadian boardrooms by American and Canadian chief executives. Mexicans, we know, overall did not benefit from this, at least there is no evidence of any economic benefit for the average Mexican (rates of poverty, for instance, and rates of extreme poverty remain shockingly high).

The political side of the anti-trade argument, however, was that it allowed a critique of trade without a critique of neoliberalism or at least of the substance of it. The anti-trade argument, for instance, ignores a series of other disconcerting trends in the American (and, Canadian) economy and society, including: widening income gaps, persistent and potentially worsening poverty, stagnating average incomes, increased imbalances in political power based on income. It ignored concentrations of ownership and uneasy questions about the role of American capital and the profit motive in shifting jobs to other countries, avoiding taxes, failing public infrastructure, and the like. The critique of trade was not a critique of capitalism or, it turns out, a critique of the lifestyles of the wealthy.

The other side of the coin was Canada which was painted, in this picture, as a pro-free trade country and there have been some polls lately that suggest that Canadians are in favour of free trade. But, exactly how Canada got to be in favour of free trade is not clear. The idea that Canadians embrace free trade and that this embrace is somehow progressive paints Canadians as at ease with neoliberal reforms when, in fact, they are anything but. Canada has attempted to build its neoliberalism differently than has the United States or, rather, what we might say is that Canadian Liberals have attempted to build a different type of neoliberalism than American Republicans (which is almost self-evidently true). Even acknowledging this, Canadians are somehow cast as defenders of neoliberalism and globalized neoliberal trade. Once more, this casting is self-inflicted.

Why mention all of this? Because it shows that the free trade debate ushered in by the Trump administration is actually about things other than free trade. It creates binaries that limit alternatives and which paint unidimensional pictures that are partial approximations of reality and which elide a consideration with the broader historical processes shaping American and Canadian life.

From Canada with Trade

What the discourse ushered in by Trump elided -- and what we now know is that the Trump administration assumed that free trade was the problem and, literally, made up data to confirm their perspective -- was a consideration of the nature of Canadian/American trade. From the Canadian perspective, however, what we have been treated to is a long drawn out quest to find a way to off-set the supposed implosion of the Canadian economy *if* free trade went down the tubes. In other words, a large measure of public discourse on the subject has focused, in Canada, on how Canada cannot economically survive without neoliberalism.

In my view, this is another ideological position and one about which we should be wary because I don't think it has much truth to it. No one is arguing, btw, that trade is bad. The question is how should it be regulated, what should be its objectives, how do we ensure fairness and proper ecological protection?

What is interesting is that we have heard this storyline before: lose neoliberal trade and your economy will go down like a tonne of bricks. We heard it, for instance, about Brexit. Those people who argued for the EU often used this argument: the British economy will suffer serious and deep damage if Brexit goes through. There were a few days of a down stock market but the truth of the matter is that the much predicted big hit did not come. Likewise, the election of Trump, we were told, and an anti-free trade agenda, could send the US economy into a tailspin. It has not. I'm not convinced this lack of a tailspin has anything to do with Trump's policies, but for now the simple and important fact is that trade has not collapsed.

More recently, the Trump government announced a tariff on steel and aluminum. Disaster in the brewing in Canada and, the Cato Institute warned on TV, in the US as well. Yet, Canada -- and Mexico -- has been exempted from the duty. There was an air of last minute reprieve to the announcement and some posturing that a better deal on NAFTA should be forthcoming ... or, else ....! But, catastrophe was adverted.

Reconsidering Trade

Trade is important and that is precisely why I would suggest that a refashioned NAFTA, or even no NAFTA, is not going to have the effect its promoters think it will. I might say "for good or ill" but I want to be clear that I am trying to avoid the simplistic trade = good binary.

The Trump government backed away from a tariff on Canadian steel not out of the goodness of its heart but because it needs Canadian steel, or rather American industry did. According to the Cato Institute the ratio of workers in steel production to workers using steel in other products is something like 1:47. What that means is that for every worker making steel, there are forty-seven workers making things out of steel. The US does not produce enough steel for its needs. Hence, it imports Canadian steel. Moreover, increasing steel production is not something that can be done overnight. If one assumes that the US is not artificially lowering its own steel production (a pretty straightforward assumption), then adding new capacity means mining more ore, building new plants, making new bids, and networking new suppliers. Said differently, it is not an easy thing to do and it cannot be done in the short term. Tariffs can and should be used for a variety of things. I am not, as a matter of faith, opposed to tariffs in all circumstances and for any reason. But, their short term ability to increase production of heavy industrial products that rely on new capital goods is limited owing to the high cost of market entry. Think about it like this, it is easy to create new ice cream stands. You need a freezer, some cones, a scooper, and a cash float. It is a lot more difficult and more expensive to build new steel production facilities. Cato suggested it could take years.

Thus, despite the threat of the tariff, there was no real threat to Canada. Hurting Canada through a tariff (which would limit Canadian exports to the US), would simultaneously hurt Americans and it would be done in the name of helping a small group of workers by harming much much larger (almost 50 times larger) number of workers (by increasing the costs of the key raw material in their product).

There can, and likely should, be a vigorous debate about international trade, its merits, who benefits, how and why. In having this discussion, we should not make the simplistic assumption that everyone necessarily benefits from trade. A rising tide, it turns out, does not float all boats. But, we can also start to ask about why certain nations look to solidify trading relationships with others. Here, there is likely a diverse range of views. One can argue whether or not Canada or the US has benefitted more from NAFTA (I actually think this is a silly debate, but I'll save my thinking on that for another day. I'm just saying here that one can allow that debate.) The point is that the benefits of trade, on a national level, are not all one way. As the Politifacts piece I cited earlier shows, Canada accounts for over 18% of US exports in good by itself. Limiting trade with Canada, then, creates problems because one cannot or should not assume that such exports will continue at the same level. In the absence of trade with the US, Canada would have to put its market (which is a lucrative market) on the block in deals with other countries.

This is not a threat. It is simply a fact.

It also means that even if we don't have NAFTA -- and we might want to change it -- Canada/ US trade will likely continue. The truth is that Canada is, overall, not ripping the US off on trade. In fact, the man who claimed we were now concedes that he has not checked the facts. We might find individual products where Canada has a surplus but that is really getting deep down in the weeds. The point of a trade agreement is not that one country has a surplus in every good. In fact, under capitalist economics, the opposite is true. I won't get into the details on this but the point of capitalist trade is that it is supposed to make use of comparative advantage. I can make shirts cheaper than you can; you can make pants cheaper than I can, so I focus on making shirts; you focus on making pants and we then trade so we all actually have more of products that we both need. Comparative advantage suggests, in this model, that I am supposed to have a deficit with regard to you in pants and you are supposed to have a deficit with regard to me in shirts. That is the point of the trade.

A capitalist breaking down trade into individual products and then claiming that a deficit in one product is an example of trade gone wrong is, in fact, making a statement that runs deeply against the grain of capitalism.

And, this is the reason America companies trade with Canada. They don't do it to be nice. They do it because we buy their products. Likewise, Americans buy Canadians products not to be nice but because they need them. Much is made of the Canadian energy sale surplus with the US, something I think will draw to a close for its own reasons, but it is a case in point. Americans buy Canadian energy because they need more energy than they produce. Ipso facto, hey, those Canadians have a lot!

Trade After NAFTA

So ... what happens if NAFTA goes down the tube. Well, not nothin', but perhaps a lot less than people think. If NAFTA goes down the tubes, it will be a clear sign that the US government has become a lot more interventionist and protectionist and is willing to, in effect, harm itself and its allies. This is not a new trajectory.  America's allies have been wondering about its governments for a long time. That might surprise Americans (or, I guess it might not) and there is more to say on that, but not here. That being the case, allies like Canada will have little choice but to search for economic opportunities elsewhere. Canada might, for instance, need to seriously consider (or, reconsider) a northern gateway for oil shipments to East Asia. But, let us not over-estimate this. It may happen but let's not assume we are going to suddenly see China as Canada's number one trade partner.

I also expect that the collapse of NAFTA would be felt unevenly across Canada.  Some provinces will be harder hit than others.

But, I also expect that, in other circumstances, not a lot will change. In the shorter run, the US will still need to buy Canadian steel and energy. Multinational corporations have integrated cross border production facilities. I read somewhere that the part in the average car cross the border multiple times (something like 10 or more) before the car is finished. That will not change. Nor will American companies stop seeing Canada as a market for their products. It is doubtful, for instance, that the US will want take a pass on almost 20% of its goods exports.

What this means is that the US and American companies have good, built in reasons, for keeping up positive trading relations with Canada.

Other things won't change either. I don't expect Canadians to stop vacationing in the US and vice versa. I don't expect educational exchanges to stop (the US is the number one destination for foreign schooling for Canadians). I don't expect Canadians to stop watching American TV or Americans to stop seeing a peaceful Canadian border as a real plus in their national life. I don't expect American comics to stop making fun of Canada.

NAFTA may not be here to stay. I honestly don't know. Canadian-American trade, however, is. Why? Because both Canada and the US, Canadians and Americans benefit from it. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Doubling Down on a Losing Hand: The Economy of Threats Yet Again

The American president is threatening North Korea again. You can find out some of the details here. I expect this threat to work just about as well as the last bunch. The problem with threats, I've tried to argue, is that they have limited effectiveness and that limited effectiveness, eventually, comes home to roost. I don't think, by any measure, that we are near the end of the line on threats. I don't think the US is anywhere near a serious confrontation in Korea. The heightened tension that both the US and North Korea created was, as it were, intentionally, as part of its own economy of threat. The North Korean government uses threats to try to accomplish its objectives because, frankly, it has precious few other resources. The US government is using them because (a) its power and influence *are* waning and (b) its government has seriously misjudged how foreign policy works (or, at least some in its government have).  The fact that threats have been uttered, however, does not mean that you, I, or anyone else can, should, or even will pay attention to them -- other than talking heads whose job depends on paying attention to them. What is interesting about this latest set of threats is not that they have been made, but what they illustrate about the economy of threats as part of IR. That is the matter I'd like to look at. What I want to argue is that the current US government does not make good use of threats as a tool of foreign policy.

Using the latest threat as an example, there are at least two things that this latest development illustrates about the economy of threats.

First, doubling down on a weak strategy -- upon threats that have little purchase -- is likely not going to get the results you want, particularly if you've already used hyperbole in previous rounds of threats. According to New York Magazine, President Trump has tried to up the ante, as it were. After imposing the latest round of sanctions he apparently said: “If the sanctions don’t work, we’ll have to go to Phase 2,” Trump replied. “Phase 2 may be a very rough thing. May be very, very unfortunate for the world.”  This is intended to increase the tension and to draw other governments in, ideally spurring action where previous US efforts have failed, because they are worried about some unnamed -- but ominous sounding -- threat.

Here is where the problems begin. The US has already unleashed the supposed toughest sanctions ever. So, if those were the toughest sanctions ever ... sanctions that would supposedly cripple North Korea ... what happened? How did we get a new round of tougher toughest ever sanctions? Was the US holding something back? Did it not make quite the toughest sanctions it could have made? In fact, North Korea has no serious international economic activity except, I read, for China and, truth is, China just ain't gonna pay attention to this. Thus a threat like this carries a twofold risk: (a) it makes previous statements look ... well ... bad. Frankly, it makes the US President sound a bit like the North Korea dictator ... and that ain't good. And (b) it will be ignored and then what do you do?

You see the point: if you are trying to use threats as a foreign policy tool, you need to be sure that the threat has a reasonable chance of working. If it has failed in the past, doubling down likely means only that it won't work a second time and, in the process, you end up harming yourself because you make yourself look blustering as opposed to threatening.

Second, there is nothing new in threats. Governments have been making them, I bet, for as long as there have been governments. In talking about an "economy of threat," what I am trying to do is draw attention to the fact that threats are a tool. I may not like them; you may not like them but that does not mean that governments will not use them.  As a tool, they can have more than one use. For instance, the target audience of a threat against a foreign country could actually be a domestic audience. By "talking tough" a political leader might be looking to solidify their positions as a tough leader in a way that appeals to voters (or, more likely, a specific subset of voters).

I suspect that some of this is what is going on with the Trump administration. After all, no one can seriously think -- any more -- that threats will have any effect on China or North Korea and so simply stating them is little more than a waste of time. They thus might, possibly be directed to a domestic audience and this makes sense. After all, Republicans faulted Democrats (well, they faulted just about everyone but especially Democrats) for the supposedly bad position of the US on the international stage. The US government was just, in their view, not acting tough enough and letting other countries get away with things. It was time to get tough and get others towing the American line. It is possible that these threats are intended to maintain that image of toughness, which was an important element of the Republican campaign and self image.

The problem is that this is where the economy of threats also breaks down. The US has duly and fully threatened North Korea already and has not accomplished its aims. Its tried upping the ante -- remember "my button is bigger" -- and it ended up looking silly, at least in the eyes of the international community. At least in the eyes of ... well ... a thousand comics, the US president looked a clown. If the goal, then, was to look tough, precisely the opposite happened. It is still possible that the Trump base found his stand and discourse convincing but ... even if that were true (and, it might be) ... then the building up of empty threats must (sooner or later) lead them to see matters differently. In other words, they must realize, after a time, that the hardline discourse they were sold as the route to power and influence is ... well ... not working. Far from having more power and influence ... it is actually having the opposite effect: few people on the international stage or, again other than those who are paid to take it seriously or at least talk about it in the media, even in the media, are offering much commentary on it.

I do not mean to say anything good about the North Korean regime but you can see how they are far more experienced players of the threat game than Trump. After making a threat, they are busy de-escalating and doing things with South Korea for the Olympics. In other words, they recognized that their credibility was gone and they needed to adopt a different tactic. Recognizing that the people of South Korea would prefer cooperation or even just live and let live (not their ideal solution to be sure) to the discourse of war, they played a different card. Rather than threatening, they look cooperative, held "high level" meetings (from which the US is excluded) and put together at least one joint Olympics team. I have no doubt that they will return to bluster because, well, they have little else but the distinction is important. Internationally, the US now looks like the aggressor.

Threats have a certain economics. They cannot just be used over and over again. After a year of Trump government one thing we have learnt -- among the others -- is that they don't really realize this. Adverse to soft power options (talks, joint projects, culture) by virtue of their very discourse but unable to really use hard power they way they promised (because, well, they just ain't gonna start a war), they are debasing their own currency: threat. In the process, rather than gaining influence, they are losing it but because their ideology is based on hard power and threat, they cannot recognize what the problem actually is and so have doubled down on a losing hand.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Anti-Santa Claus: Transitions in American Power

US President Donald Trump has styled himself as the anti-Santa Claus. When the UN voted on a resolution with regard to Jerusalem, he and the US Ambassador to the US said that they will pay close attention to who votes for them and who votes against them. There will be fallout, we were told. Said differently, Trump was threatening to take away people's presents and, among his supporters, I suspect this really played well. After all, they tend to view foreign aid through the ideologically-inspired eyes. They see it as a give-away to people who have no gratitude and who spend their days and nights bad-mouthing the US despite its largess. Something like 68$ million has been pulled from Palestinian aid, for instance.

This might upset people, but there is something else to which we should pay attention here and that is the transitions that have undertaken American international power. In other words, rather than becoming angry at this development -- the transition of the US government to an anti-Santa Claus -- we should explore its meanings and implications.  There are two significant implications.

On the first level, one of the things that actually surprised me was how little money the US contributed to the Palestinians. $68 mil may seem like a big number but how little it was. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip are large receivers of US at least according to this quick guide on Wikipedia and I think we can and should give the US all due credit for that. But, there are some other things we that we might pause to notice about US government aid.  First, according to ABC News, the leading receivers of US aid are encapsulated in this chart for two recent years:



This is a bit out of date but what you can see is that this aid is going to a limited number of countries, there appear to be overt political connections, and friends of the US, as it were, already top the charts.

I don't want to get into a big discussion of the purpose of aid. It might be worth noting that something like 20-25% of all US government aid is military aid. The rest appears to be supporting friendly regimes that have problems with state stability and terrorism or in maintaining a western standard of living. The US taxpayer, for instance, is heavily subsidizing Israel. Other countries like Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Iraq, Kenya, Nigeria, are on the front lines of the long "war on terror." One would have to be naive to believe that the heavy level of US support to these countries is accidental.

Said in other words, the first thing that we learn from the President and US Ambassador's threat is that it misses the mark. It threatens countries that it does not need to threaten and it is stated as if all aid were humanitarian aid, rather than politically tied. It does not tell people about the politics of aid, its purpose, who gets it and why. It works with ignorance and is, in this way, for domestic consumption.  After all, the governments that are getting US government aid are well aware of the fact that they are getting US government aid. It sounds tough but actually has no point.

The artificiality of this threat goes further. Has anyone noticed that aside from a minor cut in aid to Palestine, this story disappeared? Why? Because even if the threat were meaningful for some governments, it misses another key point: the US President and Ambassador threaten paper tigers. Does anyone seriously believe that the US is going to stop its aid of Israel? Or Afghanistan, or Egypt or Nigeria? Is the US going to risk a return to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (or, what would be more likely, to see Egypt degenerate into civil war) or to see Boko Haram gain ground in Nigeria? This aid, in other words, is intended to prop up regimes for American political reasons not out of the kindness of one's heart. For that reason, it is not likely to end, regardless of how country X or Y votes on a UN measure.

The threat sounds like a threat -- it has a certain economy to it, as I tried to point out in earlier posts related to threats -- but that economy is artificial and domestic. It is intended to sound tough and win domestic support for the regime -- to claim that the regime is tough and is exercising its power -- but in reality it does not actually do anything at all on the international scale. The first transition of power to which this threat points is its utter meaninglessness as a matter of foreign policy but its deep importance, based on ignorance, for domestic politics. It works domestically -- solidifying support among the GOP base -- because the GOP base does not know what the US actually does with its foreign aid and assumes, for ideological reasons, that it is a give away.

The second transition might, however, be more significant. The current American regime is not unique in spinning international issues for domestic consumption, even if they are, in my view, more brazen about it. (I'll get to why that brazenness "works" in another blog.) The more significant feature of this threat is the perceived need to make it in the first place.

You might have read somewhere the old line "only the weak rule by force," which I think comes from Gramsci. He was referring to the state. What these Trumpian threats highlight is a transition in American power that is based on an increasingly narrow range of capacities. Following WWII -- and, indeed, even before it -- American power was based on a range of factors: economics, culture, politics, ideology, philosophy, science, among others. There was a lie to this power because, for instance, it ignored the deeply embedded racist violence in American society. The point, however, was that the US government and American society was powerful across the board. Its culture was appealing, its economics were alluring, its philosophy (of everyone being created equal, even while honoured in the breach) drew international acclaim and willing copycats, its social science and science were second to none and attracted international attention and, indeed, migration. In the arts, in lifestyle, in education, people wanted to be Americans, wanted to copy what America was doing and wanted to make connections with the US. In international affairs, this is evident in all the different demands for the US to "do something" about international problem X or Y. Without the US, there was, in effect, little in the way of international capacity.

There are important historical reasons for this but that is not the point. The point is that America was the top dog, as it were, and in a range of things. Canadians, for instance, if we go back to my childhood or even before that, say, the 1950s or 1960s, excepting a few old Tories, had no problems with the US. Canadians did not want to be Americans, but they felt quite OK about being Americans friends.

How much has changed. I might paraphrase Gramsci like this: "only the none great have to scream that they are." Trump is the product, among his base, of a long, generational international shift in American power. Where once, it was difficult to conceive of an international action without the US, now the US is often "odd man out" and the international community, whatever this precisely is,  decides to go on without it. The US is not interested in signing onto a treaty, OK, drag but that is their choice. It does not mean that the treaty-making process has stopped. The US wants out of NAFTA ... hmm .... drag but does anyone think trade will stop? Will 3/4ths of US states give up their leading export market in Canada? TPP -- I will confess not my kettle of fish -- but we *can* do it without the US. It won't be the same thing, but the US is not needed. It has no veto over other states' foreign policies.

There are still many people who want to move to the US because they live in poverty elsewhere or the US represents a step up and the US still has great schools and science and athletics and arts, etc. But, is is no longer the centre of international attention. In fact, it is beset on all sides by its own irrelevance. The Trump government threatens because that is the Trump government's discourse but it is also becoming the American discourse. Trump threatens to take away people's toys -- to be the anti-Santa Claus -- because he has no other mechanism of power to use. His government, the American government, cannot convince people of the merits of their perspective and so are reduced to threatening to get their way. The threats, however, expose their own weakness. They are not a sign of strength or power, but a sign of its absence.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Whither the Jays ... Thoughts on a Season about to Begin

Each new season opens with promise ... sometimes that promise is enjoyed by the other teams because, let's be honest, the Jays are *not* a favourite in the AL this year. The fans I've been talking to don't hold out much hope. The feeling is a lot different than last year, where we began the season thinking that if everything went right, the Jays would be in the playoffs again. It didn't happen for a range of reasons, but two stand out: injuries and the decline of some players (most particularly Bautista's decline to a negative WAR player and Pillar's increasingly shaky play both at the plate and in the field).  The Jays management did attempt to address these problems over the winter. In the talent-deep AL East, however, it is likely not enough. To be clear: I don't expect the Jays to be out of it. I don't think the season will be a right off. Instead, I think it will be one of those seasons that fans find so frustrating. The Jays will be on the margins of the race: never fully in it, never fully out of it. Enough to keep you watching but also enough to give you blood pressure problems.  Overall, however, I think there is actually a great deal to be upbeat about if you are a Jays fan.  Why say that?

First, the Jays did make what might be considered important strategic moves. They didn't fall for the pressure to go out and offer $140+ mil to a big name or throw money at an aging vet that might cripple their payroll for years to come. I have some serious problems with the nickel and dime game they played with Stroman but I like a bunch of other decisions ... at least I like them now before the start of the season. What ones?

I like the decision to *not* try to go after Hosmer or Cain or Darvish. They could all have great seasons but the Padres just signed Hosmer to a contract that will keep him with the team until he's 35 -- so this must have been the length he wanted -- and while it is front loaded (which is a good thing), the Padres will be paying Hosmer $13 million per year when he is 34 and 35, and, quite frankly, likely not their starting first baseman. So, they'll either have to find a way to unload him (which will involve eating part of the contract) or they will be paying a backup 1B/PH 13$ mil. Moreover, 144$ mil is a lot of loot for a guy whose primary value is defensive at the easiest to play defensive position in the baseball.  I also worry about players who have their best year in contract years. His age means that last year might not be a fluke but I'd have no desire to pay 144 $ million to find out and it appears the Jays did not either.

Likewise Darvish is a good pitcher. He had a good year and much has been made of his better play with LA, but for me that is a warning sign. LA has one of the best pitcher's parks in baseball. His numbers were inflated playing in that sandbox in Texas, to be sure, but he's 30 years old with a serious injury history and has pitched more than 200 innings once his career. The Cubs we willing to give him 126$ million and I honestly hope he has a good season because I like him and the Cubs, but the Jays are already have a couple of aging pitchers with injury histories. Is paying 126$ mil for another a good way to address starter depth?

So, the first thing I like is the moves the Jays did *not* make. They were sound financial and prudent baseball transactions. They continue a pattern of dramatically reducing the Jays long-term financial commitments, particularly to players who may not be playing (or, may not be playing well). The chart below, I borrow from Matt W's column at Blue Bird Banter:



As Matt W points out, the Jays post current season financial commitments are lower than they have been in ages. And, are lower than their current salary for the first time in something like 15 years.

The second thing I like is the transactions they did make. Bringing in Diaz, Grichuk, and Solarte addresses at least some problems and these were inexpensive players with a potential upside. I have a rule, never trade for a player that the Cards want to get rid of because the Cards are a good baseball organization and don't make mistakes. If they are giving up on someone ... there is a reason for that. Yet, for the Jays, each instance is a step up. Both players they got from the Cards have problems. But, the truth is that our middle infield and backup and right field (overall) last year was not good.

With regard to middle infield, I hate to say that because I like both Goins and Barney and I hope they land on their feet. Goins had a great RBI rate but has a 640ish OPS. Barney had a 600 OPS. Since there is a good chance that backup middle infielders for the Jays are going play a lot, those are just not offensive numbers with which one can live. There is also a problem with defense. Goins, in particular, more than passes the eyeball test, but his dWAR (his defensive value above a replacement player) actually works out to 0.2. That means he is 1/5 of one win better defensively than a player who would replace him, and that is not good enough to compensate for his overall bad offensive numbers, leaving him with a negative overall WAR (wins above replacement).  Goins WAR was close to zero -0.2 overall; what that means is that he did not contribute to the team and cost them oh so slightly it the wins column.

Barney was slightly worse, with Baseball Reference reporting a -0.7 war. Dias clearly had a bad year last year but his potential upside is, simply, a lot more than Goins or Barney. We don't know whether his 2016 numbers (.879 OPS) are accurate but we know that Barney and Goins are not going to get any better. Likewise Solarte's 1.3 war is an upgrade. I don't know if Grichuck is going to be good or bad but I know that Bautista had become a bad player by the end of the last season. Taking a chance on a low cost guy who has some tools is, in this situation, not a bad chance to take.

I don't have the reference with me but various mathematical projections for the upcoming season suggest that the Jays will win somewhere between 78 and 86 games. That is a wide range, likely because it is difficult to project who will actually be playing for the Jays come mid-season noting the injury history of some of their players. If Devon Travis can play a full seasons, if Smoak repeats what he did last year, if Donaldson does not get injured, if Pillar could finally take a step forward instead of another step back, if ... if ... if. There are a lot of ifs. And, generally, one should avoid a team with a lot of ifs. The projections suggestion, however, that there is talent on the team and the higher end projections suggest that the Jays could remain in the hunt for a playoff spot until late in the season.  From what I see, I agree with that.

There are players who are on the bump and the depth the Jays are developing will make those decisions easier. Last year, for instance, the Jays had little choice but to send Bautista out into right field (a position he could no longer really play) and bat him lead off, despite a negative offensive war. This year, I suspect several things:


  • The Jays will be a surprisingly good team. Look for them to win more than 80 games and be on the margins of the race the entire season. 
  • Pillar will lose his job and will, perhaps, be traded if he does not take a step forward
  • Travis will lose his job with one more long-term injury
  • Tulo is harder to ditch because of his big salary (accounting for over 40% of the Jays post-2018 salary commitment by himself) but the Jays might be willing to eat salary to deal him and clear at least some payroll if there is a suitor
  • Donaldson will be trade bait if the Jays are not in the race since he seems ready to go free agent at the end of the season
Those are worst-case scenarios. I don't actually think they will happen. Instead, the Jays will go through the season surprising us with their competitiveness but frustrating us by never getting over the hump. 

Did anyone think that Gibbons would outlast Farrell? 

Thought Police and Post-Secondary Education

The argument I have been trying to make so far is that the equation of "political correctness" with thought policing is misplaced....