Is This Progress? This Is Progress.

What Is Kaputall?

Oxford defines Kaput as "broken and useless; no longer working or effective" - similar to our unbalanced economic system. This is a page dedicated to the intersection of capitalism and social, political, and environmental problems.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

On the Culture of Consumer Debt

It's no secret that western societies are becoming ever the more crippled with debt. In Canada we have an interesting television show about debt, and I imagine there are numerous more in the United States. Til Debt Do Us Part is a spectacle of how out of control debt can become for average middle class people. Hosted by Gail Vaz-Oxlade, it explores the downward spiral into debt that families often find seemingly insurmountable. With budgeting, lifestyle changes, and re-education about money, the families find their way back to financial security. If only it were that easy.

Instead of looking at individuals and blaming them for making poor decisions about spending, I believe it makes more sense to take a wider sociological angle at why we engage in the economy. A culture that's built on status symbols is a massive problem. People's idea of self is connected to what they own: the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the music they listen to, the decor in their kitchens. In highly individualistic societies, like in Canada and the United States, there is a massive pressure on people to fit in by finding their own identity. This identity is less tied into beliefs than into the materialistic property that surrounds them. This leads people to make purchases, spending more than they can afford, largely because credit is available. This is something that I like to call "spending beyond reason".

But while the previous paragraphs really expose the degree to which people are spending in order to fit in, this actually makes up the minority of those who are in debt. The lower middle class and the working poor are generally in debt because they simply cannot afford the necessities of life. It comes down to many between choosing to pay for a tank of gas or groceries, and the only way to afford both is credit. Thus begins a cycle from which tens of millions of North Americans simply do not emerge intact. There are, infrequently, television shows about this because it's not glamourous and of course because it would really get people thinking that maybe personal choice isn't such a powerful component of one's financial standing. Effectively, it all boils down to the same principle, and that's that money is all around us but seldom understood.

So who, then, is at fault for this system of poor education around money, a climbing debt load, and a generally unsustainable economy? The consumer? The lenders? Government? I'd argue that they all play a significant role in creating a society that is consumed with the idea of consuming. How the system evolved to its particular manifestation is, well, anyone's guess, but I'd argue that maintaining it is a vestige of the elite: lawmakers and large financial institutions. Government is pressured by lenders, more so in the United States, to create favourable legislation around what banks and credit card companies can do. Individuals and groups in society, particularly those who are economically and otherwise marginalised, have such a limited voice against such powerful blocs of power.

Often the assertion is made, as in the documentary Maxed Out, that this is in fact leading to the destruction of the middle class. In almost occupy-esque language, the increased saturation of credit has deeply widened the gap between the rich and poor. In all fairness, it absolutely is the collapse of the American middle class. However, to frame the argument that way is inherently classist. It's effectively saying that nobody really cares that everyone is becoming poor, but only that the middle class is eroding. America, more than virtually any other developed country, has minimal sympathy for its working poor, namely because the American Dream is widely believed. The logic is such that those who have something got there through hard work and determination, while those who are in dire straits got there as a result of their poor choices.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Scandal in the Senate

Surprise surprise: the Senate is embroiled in a rather delicate situation, with several members being investigated for various offences. The three offenders that stand out most right now are Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau, and Mike Duffy, all appointed as Conservative Senators in 2008 and 2009. The scandal involves expense claims, perhaps most outrageously with Wallin's $350 000 travel budget during a two-year period.

However, as much as people would like to focus on the fact that this is a problem with the Conservative Party, it's distinctly non-partisan. Liberal Senators are in the same position, most notably with Mac Harb, who is accused of claiming residency outside of Ottawa in order to claim living expenses for work in Ottawa. It's evident that the problem is not necessarily with the Senators themselves, but with a system of appointments, where someone is handpicked to join the Senate and may remain there for, in some cases, decades.

Although the problem (even upon a quick glance) is very much a systemic one, political parties and the media are attacking individual Senators and claiming that they are the problem. While they may be emblematic of the abuse and unaccountability, these Senators are behaving in a certain way because there is minimal transparency and they are not held to account by the Canadian public through, for instance, voting. Justin Trudeau recently remarked that the problem could be fixed by picking "higher-calibre Senators". What that means, for one, is unclear, and it further contributes to an institution that is simply designed for people to not be responsible and open.

What's perhaps most interesting about this story is how it fits into the public image of Stephen Harper as harmless, practical, and looking after Canada's best interests. Widely viewed as a reformer (in the grassroots Reform Party vein), he was elected partially on a promise to democratise the Senate. Upon assuming office he has since (conveniently) forgotten about this promise. Of course it is reasonable enough to say that he hasn't done anything because it's a difficult system to change, but he has actively, not just tacitly, maintained the status quo with respect to the Senate. Since becoming Prime Minister he has appointed numerous new Senators, Wallin, Brazeau, and Duffy among them.

If that's not evidence enough that Harper has only limited desire to reform the Senate, consider this: Stephen Harper has been one of Canada's most undemocratic leaders. Two prorogations, allegations of electoral fraud, and a charge of contempt of parliament. Beyond this, he's muzzled scientists, labelled activists as terrorists, and changed the rules on who may ask him questions at press meetings. How serious can he be about promoting greater democracy?

Like many Canadians, I'm saddened by the degeneration of Canada's democratic institutions and I'm nervous about their ability to rebound. I have hope that there is a critical mass out there who is concerned about reviving accountability and transparency in our system.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

And Remember, It's Not Sexism: It's Science

I was in Montréal last weekend and one of the local radio stations, 92.5 "The Beat" Montréal, was played an add several times that I thought was worth sharing. Unfortunately, I'm neither able to find the add itself or a transcript of it, and I have tried (unsuccessfully) to get anything helpful from the radio station.

The add is a conversation between a male and a female:

Female: "I should only have two drinks per day"
Male: "And I should only have three drinks per day"
Female: "I should only have ten drinks per week"
Male: "And I should only have fifteen drinks per week"
Together: "It's not sexism; it's science"

I was honestly rather confused in listening to this commercial, or more accurately, this strange public service announcement. It's unclear who sponsored this add, though it's clearly about moderation. While I do agree with the message that people should carefully watch their alcohol consumption (which is certainly a problem) I do not appreciate the message that we can essentialise based on gender.

While it is, in general, true that men can drink more than women, it is a false conclusion that all men can drink more than women can. This is true whether you're talking about sustained daily consumption or one night of excessive consumption. 

In fact, other factors are probably more significant than gender. Age, weight, metabolism, tolerance, food consumption, medication, and many other considerations are all entirely relevant. Gender is obviously a factor, but it's one of many factors, and it is valuable for how it interacts with other factors, not just for its own sake. This might explain, for example, why most women can drink more than I can. It also explains why my ability to consume alcohol has not remained static or constant despite the fact that my sex has. The reality is, as unfortunate as this may seem for most people, that the effects of alcohol on an individual are very idiosyncratic and often unpredictable. For me, it's something like this, though it's certainly not constant.

And this is where science comes in. My claim about my own idiosyncratic and inconsistent drinking realities are, unsurprisingly, unscientific. But I don't claim it to be an objective scientific reality. In fact, science is all about contradictions, anomalies, and unpredictability. As such, claims about difference attributed to science are, at best, just sketchy. At worst, however, they play on our cultural ideas about the differences between men and women. As a result, it's both science and sexism: scientific sexism. This sort of values-driven science is best evidenced in evolutionary psychology, and is very similar to eugenics and scientific racism. Men and women are biologically different or socially different and thus act differently. This public service announcement is nothing different: women and men are just different and thus should behave differently. I intend to talk more about objectivity and science in the near future, so I'll leave it at that for now.

While the whole advertisement is problematic, what's more problematic is that it's a woman saying that it's not sexism. This is effectively co-optation and also the same as incorporating any marginalised person to speak on behalf of that group. It's disconcerting to say the least, giving the impression that sexism can be, and often is, just a harmless reality, not a purposeful product of a patriarchal system.

I have to say that, fundamentally, we should all be concerned about how much we drink. But let's not delude ourselves into thinking that it has to do with our gender: we're smart people and we should understand that it's simply more complicated than that.