Now that I’m on Twitter, I realise that if I want to keep up with the daily polemics I have to be willing to masquerade knee-jerk reactions to some super-topical event as studied expert analysis. I was still unable to keep up, so here are my no-longer-relevant thoughts on Canada Post’s decision to eliminate door-to-door urban service.
One of the more pronounced voices in this “debate” has been the National Post‘s Andrew Coyne, who is pushing for privatization and liberalization (which he more or less conflates) of postal services. Prior to this recent announcement, Coyne already tried to make Canada Post’s “monopoly” a cause célèbre.
The following rhetorical question posed by Coyne reveals much about the assumptions he brings to his position: “By what principle of social justice are city residents, rich or poor, obliged to subsidize the correspondence of gentleman farmers?”
The answer to this question lies in the history of the state-building function of essentially all national postal services (obviously, Coyne has never seen Kevin Costner’s The Postman). The principle is one of social cohesion and political enfranchisement (or more cynically, state control). It is the same principle that guided the construction of a national railway in the early days of Canadian confederation. For there to be a coherent nation-state called Canada, its citizens need to be able to pay taxes, fill out censuses, and communicate with other Canadians. In order to ensure the political enfranchisement of all citizens, regardless of wealth or where they lived, access to communication needed to be ensured (indeed, those in the rural fringes were the most important to ensuring political coherency; just consider the government’s current interest in Arctic populations). Equal access to the post went hand-in-hand with democratic visions.
By the way, Coyne is actually wrong about his rhetorical assumption. City residents do not subsidize the mail of rural-dwellers; the most expensive postal codes to service are urban.
Coyne’s real question is, why is the government involved in the delivery of mail at all? To understand why this is so and whether it makes sense one needs to look at the nature of the service being provided. There are compelling arguments as to why things like transit systems, police forces, and sewer infrastructure are publically controlled. It’s hard to imagine how an open market for subways would work, or how a coherent connected public transportation system would come about in a free-market environment. So, is mail service like public transportation? Is it essentially a public service, or merely a commercial enterprise? Does it make sense for mail to be centrally controlled? Does it make more sense from an efficiency point of view to centralise mail distribution? Does it make sense from a logistical point of view to have only one kind of mail box on the streets of cities and towns? These are questions that Coyne and others who rally against the “monopoly” of Canada Post dismiss out-of-hand. Continue reading
Recently Andrew Sullivan offered an elegant and virtuous definition of conservatism:
For a conservative should not be implacably hostile to liberalism (let alone demonize it), but should be alert to its insights, and deeply aware of the need to change laws and government in response to unstoppable change in human society. Equally, a liberal can learn a lot from conservatism’s doubts about utopia, from the conservative concern with history, tradition and the centrality of culture in making human beings, and from conservatism’s love and enjoyment of the world as-it-is, even as it challenges the statesman or woman to nudge it toward the future. The goal should not be some new country or a new world order or even a return to a pristine past that never existed: but to adapt to necessary social and cultural change by trying as hard as one can to make it coherent with what the country has long been; to recognize, as Orwell did, that a country, even if it is to change quite markedly, should always be trying somehow to remain the same.
Obviously, this is an ideal and prescriptive account of conservatism; no such conservatism exists anywhere in practice, even approximately. It’s also idiosyncratic. Sullivan’s conservatism does not mesh with most popular or populist varieties. It is primarily a statement about social conservatism, leaving “fiscal conservatism” (which probably isn’t even a thing) aside, despite economic views forming a crucial aspect of contemporary definitions of conservatism.
The thing that immediately strikes me is that in much of what Sullivan says one could easily switch the terms “liberal” and “conservative” and have a perfectly plausible, though perhaps similarly idiosyncratic, version of liberalism, though it takes on a different meaning. Continue reading
Occasionally I meet people who really love capitalism. They proudly call themselves capitalists. They extol its virtues. They confidently explain to me how capitalism fairly distributes scarce resources and encourages productive competition. They prattle on about something they call “trickle-down economics.” Apparently capitalism is just the best. It makes everyone’s life better (this hyperlink might be a satire. It’s hard to tell with these capitalists). I’m told that if it wasn’t for capitalism, I wouldn’t have a computer or a smartphone and I would have polio. Continue reading
One night two summers ago, I was walking with my friends Dave and Nick when we encountered a group of about five or six men and one woman. The woman approached us and we chatted amicably for a bit, when one of the men became confrontational and cornered Nick, demanding his wallet. Nick replied that he didn’t have his wallet on him (which was true) to which the man scoffed and asked about the visibly outlined object in his front pocket. The man then reached towards Nick’s pocket, but Nick stepped back and replied it was just a (crappy) cellphone and reached into his pocket to show the man. The man then grabbed his arm unexpectedly and violently. Nick recoiled and the man went to grab him again, this time more aggressively. He then yelled out something to the effect of, “Whoa, what are you doing? Relax!” and put his arms up in the air in a surrendering manner. By this time the man, who was bigger than Nick, had fully placed him in an arm lock. Nick yelled something like, “Ok! Ok! Ok! You got me! Relax!”
Climate change is an endlessly useful example for examining issues of public science, and it was Jasanoff’s preferred case study in her talk that I discussed in my previous post. As I noted there, the notion of a constitution is an important aspect of Jasanoff’s views on public science, according to which the rights and responsibilities of expert institutions – in particular their accountability to the publics they serve – are clearly outlined. One of the broad problems Jasanoff identified in the public aspect of climate change is that scientific institutions, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (arguably the most important of all institutions regarding climate change – the largest in any case), do not have explicit standards of accountability. Continue reading
Yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure of hearing Sheila Jasanoff give a talk as part of York University’s STS Program’s Seminar Series, in which she spoke on the subject of “Science and Reason in the Public Sphere.” For good reason is she one of the more prominent scholars in STS. I have seen Jasanoff speak once before and have read a variety of her works, and overall, she strikes me as a careful, measured, and eminently reasonable scholar.
However, I find myself at odds with various aspects of her work, especially the broader ways she conceptualizes science, its public role, and “our” relationship to it as STS scholars, and a lot of these issues were prominent in her talk. What follows is not meant to be a rigorous critique, just a general reflection, or perhaps, that convenient way of deflecting criticism and meandering around ideas, a “provocation,” about some of the broader problems that I think surround these topics. Indeed, none of these issues are uniquely specific to Jasanoff, they are broad issues that permeate STS. Mostly, they are just things that I found myself thinking about while listening to her speak, which is testament to the fact that she gave an excellent talk.
I have had many people tell me that I should read more George Monbiot, because I would really like him. Apparently we have similar ideas. Regretfully, I’ve never actually read anything he’s written until I was sent this piece. And I do like it. (A little too punchy and not enough parenthetical asides for my taste, but still good.)
In it Monbiot reflects on the staggering amount of money that’s been poured into (mis)information campaigns aimed at fostering scepticism among politicians and the general public about human-caused climate change. What’s more unsettling, argues Monbiot, is where the money is coming from and how it is being transferred. Continue reading