Category Archives: Society

Putting the true profit motive back into government

 

At some point during their long campaign to regain the relevance they once enjoyed in western society, progressive liberals of the social-democratic mien finally wised-up to the fact that filthy lucre, not moral suasion, makes the world go round.

Specifically, unless they can link improvements in living standards, literacy and child care to actual wealth creation, they might as well go home and write folk songs for all the influence they’ll wield.

The money principle has been the genius of the counter-counter-culture that began with the reign of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, continued under the “everything goes” administration of Bill Clinton, persisted during the corporatist eras of the daddy-son Bush tag-team of George and Georgie W. It now languishes in Barack Obama’s uncertain hands. 

The fundamental idea was, and is, that Government is, at best, a necessary evil. Most of the time it’s just evil by nature – wasteful, tyrannical, ineffective. 

The “market” was, and is, mankind’s true salvation. Individuals, properly motivated through low taxation, will solve their own problems.

In this conception of reality, welfare is for weaklings, schools are for learnin’ the three Rs and, higher education is for snooty elites unless it leads to a job at a billion-dollar tech firm in Silicon Valley.

Or, as the late Margaret Thatcher once opined, “We want a society where people are free to make choices, to make mistakes, to be generous and compassionate. This is what we mean by a moral society; not a society where the state is responsible for everything, and no one is responsible for the state.”

Lately, though, that notion has been turning on its head.

Andre Picard, the Globe and Mail’s award-winning public health reporter, recently quoted from a study underwritten by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. The findings were startling.

“For every $1 spent providing housing and support for a homeless person with sever mental illness, $2.17 in savings are reaped because they spend less time in hospital, in prison and in shelters,” Mr. Picard reported earlier this month.

“People who are severely mentally ill and chronically homeless use a lot of services – an average of $225,000 a year, according to research. Providing housing and support is costly too – an average of $19,582 per person. But the avoided costs are much greater, $42,536 on average, because those who are housed are put in hospital less often, make fewer ER visits and do not use shelters as often. . .For people with less severe mental illness and lesser needs, 96 cents is saves for every additional $1 spent on housing.”

The results suggest that, contrary to the opinions of nanny-state decriers, Government’s obligations to provide safe, reliable housing to the erstwhile homeless is not only moral – it’s also financial, as the investment yields an enviable return for all taxpayers.

Apparently, that’s something even a Harperite can get behind. 

“We can do more – not just manage homelessness, but eliminate it altogether,” Candice Bergen, federal minister of social development, said at the study’s unveiling in Ottawa on April 8. “I’m realistic. I know there will always be people who will be homeless and who will need help. But most people can recover, they can get back on their feet.”

Lately, the same line of reasoning has been leaking from commentaries by the unlikeliest sources: economists. 

When TD Bank Group’s Craig Alexander is not talking about the dollars-and-cents benefits of structured, universally accessible early childhood education, he’s pointing out the enormous costs to society of structural, endemic illiteracy.

Halting it, he recently told a business crowd in Saint John, “raises your income, which ends up creating a better standard of living. You invest in people. You improve their skills. You give them the ability to be much more productive. It’s good for business.”

It’s also good for the state – which, for all practical purposes, means all of us.

 

 

Tagged , , , , , ,

The risky business of economies planning for the future

 

A credible line of thinking among economists who are not enamored of their political reputations holds that governments bent on producing surpluses, come what may, are misguided, even morally bankrupt.

The argument goes something like this: Publicly elected officials and their bureaucratic minions produce nothing fungible; therefore, they should produce no returns. Rather, their function is to collect taxes responsibly and distribute the funds for the general good – to the rich, the poor and the rest of us. 

The general good comprises the schools we attend, the clinics we need, the roads we use, the parks we frequent, and the safe streets and gathering places we expect as dues-paying members of just and enlightened societies. 

In other words, there should plenty of work to occupy the minds of those we pay through the ballot box and those who serve the periodic democratic lotteries we call general elections. And, in this line of argument, ideally there should be nothing left in the kitty at the end of the political day. All money is absorbed, all money is spent. No deficit, no debt and, crucially, no surplus.

Except, of course, the system doesn’t work this way, anywhere.

But what if it did? Sort of. 

A reader writes, “I have been to Norway several times. By the way, Norway has some of the highest retail gas prices going and don’t even think about buying booze over there. Hard stuff was $50 per 750 ml 15 years ago and God help you if you did not bring in your duty-free limited when visiting.”

Still, as this reader points out, that Nordic country of just over five million souls has just now demonstrated (on paper, at least) that, thanks to its public sector’s perspicacity, attention and drive, each of its citizens is a millionaire, and will likely remain in that vaunted economic status for some time, as New Brunswick’s and Greece’s economies meet on the slide to perdition.

That doesn’t mean Norwegians get to cash in, individually; it means that Norwegians, collectively, get to enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world, the chance that their children will be among the most highly educated in the world, the certainty that their health care will cost less for the benefits they receive than almost any other place in the world and that old-age peace of mind is actually, well, fungible. 

Here’s what the U.K.’s Daily Mail online edition had to say about the development in early January:

“Norway’s sovereign wealth fund has ballooned so much due to high oil and gas prices that every person in the country became a theoretical millionaire this week. The nation is proving to be an exception as others struggle under a mountain of debts. Set up in 1990, the fund owns around one per cent of the world’s stocks, as well as bonds and real estate from London to Boston. The surplus revenue is collected in the Government Pension Fund Global.”

Said Finance Minister Siv Jensen in an email to reporters: “Many countries have found that temporary large revenues from natural resource exploitation produce relatively short-lived booms that are followed by difficult adjustments.” Added Oeystein Doerum, chief economist at DNB Markets: “The fund is a success in the sense that parliament has managed to put aside money for the future. There are many examples of countries that have not managed that.”

Indeed, there are. 

Canada’s legislators drone on endlessly about this nation’s enormous natural resource potential. New Brunswick Premier David Alward almost begs citizens of this province to embrace the opportunities (as yet, unrealized) in shale gas development.

But what, exactly, is he and his confreres elsewhere in this country doing about securing the long-term efficacy such massive developments might contribute to social development: education, skills training, economic diversification, even (and most paradoxically) strategies to employ the windfalls from oil and gas to wean us off oil and gas with brave, interesting, new, renewable energy technologies?

So far, the genius of our political leaders seems confined to balancing the books, perhaps achieving small surpluses at some indeterminate point in the extenuated future. 

The risk of bankruptcy in this endeavor is not merely fiscal; it’s moral.

 

Tagged , ,

What’s wrong with Gen Y? Their parents

 

photo

Wrapped in caution tape and kept far away from even the least consequential threats mankind invents on a quotidian basis, our children are forever doomed to lives of neurotic self-absorption. Forget saving the planet from the depredations their parents and grandparents have bequeathed.

At least, that’s the thinking, these days, among certain leftish-leaning editors, writers and, presumably, readers who bemoan the softening of youthful spines across these vast and trust-fund-encumbered lands.

Funny that – the thinking, I mean; as it seems so down-to-earth, not at all like the vaulted prose the bloody-minded right wing assumes progressives embrace with relish (and sometimes dijon). 

But there it was, in all its small-l liberal glory: An article brimming with genuinely fretful observations about lost childhood in sea of otherwise confident, consumer-driven print journalism for upwardly mobile adults.

“Hey parents, leave those kids alone” demands the display copy in Hanna Rosin’s cover story in April edition of The Atlantic. “In the past generation, the rising preoccupation with children’s safety has transformed childhood, stripping it of independence, risk-taking, and discovery. What’s been gained is unclear: rates of injury have remained fairly stead since the 1970s, and abduction by strangers was as rare then as it is now. What’s been lost is creativity, passion and courage. Now a countermovement is arising, based on mounting evidence that today’s parenting norms do children more harm than good.”

So, let me get this straight. The generation of parents who think that offering youngsters metal-spiked lawn darts and the opportunity to play helmut-less hockey is tantamount to child abuse is, nevertheless, reconsidering its position on the subject of juvenile risk-taking – as in, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to let junior remove the training wheels from his trike. 

In other words, this generation of parents is suddenly worrying too much about worrying too much. Does anything say “baby-boomer” better than that?

“It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation,” Ms. Rosin writes. “Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ‘70s walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap – are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting. One very thorough study of ‘children’s independent mobility,’ conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 per cent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to nine per cent, and now it’s even lower.” 

Another piece in the same issue of the magazine quotes from a “ground-breaking study” that recently found parents to be responsible for their kids’ lousy performance in school: “Most measurable forms of parental involvement seem to yield few academic dividends for kids, or even to backfire – regardless of a parent’s race, class, or level of education. . .Once kids enter middle school, parental help with homework can actually bring test scores down, an effect Robinson says could be caused by the fact that many parents may have forgotten, or never truly understood, the material their children learn in school.”

How much of this actually rings true for most people, and how much is actually phantasmagoria fueled by an increasingly rarified combination of generational guilt and healthy disposable incomes is hard to say. 

But we of the chattering classes do like to see perils and trends (indeed, perilous trends are among our favorite preoccupations) where none actually exist, or, at least, manifest themselves much in the general population.

Looking out my office window onto my residential neighbourhood, heavily peopled with rug rats of various shapes and sizes, I see games of tag, war, hide and seek; occasional punching, slapping and kicking. I see scraped elbows, skinned knees and bruised foreheads.

     I don’t see pampered darlings under escort to various play-dates. I don’t see adult authority figures brokering cease fires on the battlefields of childhood dreams. 

All of which is to say that “the overprotected kid” might be more myth than reality. On the other hand, “the anxiety-riddled adult” is all too common, indeed.

 

Tagged ,

Will an apple a day keep the doctor away?

 

DSC_0026

Just so there’s no confusion: In our processed, fast-food, anxiety-riddled society, life without sugar is not an option.

Yes, the World Health Organization (WHO) says otherwise, but. . .well, come on. . .its new recommended limit of 12 level teaspoons a day? That would get the average person through lunch.

We might as well face it, one month after Valentines Day, we’re all addicted to the kind of love that comes in a box. Hello chocolate; come to daddy.

Of course, in my case, it’s not just any chocolate. It’s this absurdly tasty, milky variety by Lindt. No other branding is necessary. I buy it by the gross. I smell it through its paper and foil packaging. I fondle its brown, yielding edges just before I pop it into my mouth. I completely surrender to the orgasmic adventure of. . .

Hey, did I mention that I quit smoking once and for all (again), just the other day? Maybe, just maybe, there’s a connection. The WHO certainly thinks there is, if only a terminal one.

“The guideline amount has been slashed dramatically amid fears that sugar poses the same threat to health as tobacco. . .Experts blame it for millions of premature deaths across the world every year. . . Graham MacGregor, a London cardiologist and health campaigner, said: ‘Added sugar is a completely unnecessary part of our diets, contributing to obesity, type II diabetes and tooth decay. . .We have known about the health risks of sugar for years and yet nothing substantial has been done. . .The new recommendations will be a wakeup call to the Department of Health and the Government to take action by forcing the food industry to slowly reduce the huge amount of sugar added across the board.’”

Meanwhile, Britain’s chief medical officer Sally Davies “has already said a tax may be put on calorie-laden food and drink to curb soaring levels of obesity. Labour suggested last night it would impose a maximum limit on sugar, fat and salt in products marketed at children.”

All that was from London’s Daily Mail last week. Here’s something else from the desks of science reporters: Contrary to everything we’ve been told since June Cleaver made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for Beaver and the boys back in the 1950s, low-fat diets do not prevent heart attacks.

“There is no conclusive proof that a low-fat diet has any positive effects on health,” The Mail quoted James DiNicolantonio, a New York-based cardiovascular research scientist. “Indeed, the literature indicates a general lack of any effect (good or bad) from a reduction in fat intake. The public fear that saturated fat raises cholesterol is completely unfounded. . .We need a public health campaign as strong as the one we had in the 70s and 80s demonizing saturated fats, to say that we got it wrong.”

So what is the culprit (apart from sugar, obviously)? Take it away, Dr. DiNicolantoni:

“From these data, it is easy to comprehend that the global epidemic of atherosclerosis, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and the metabolic syndrome is being driven by a diet high in carbohydrate/sugar as opposed to fat, a revelation that we are just starting to accept.”

Naturally, these revelations might be easier to accept if we could actually keep track of them.

If it’s not sugar that’s killing us, it’s salt. And what’s up with eggs? One week, they’re nature’s perfect protein. The next, experts are insisting we’d be better off sipping hemlock.

“Researchers found that eating one or more eggs a day did not increase the risk of heart disease or stroke among healthy people,” the Globe and Mail reported last year. “It did, however, increase the odds of developing type 2 diabetes, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.”

And don’t imagine, for a minute, that downing a handful of vitamin D supplements will save you. It turns out we were wrong about that, too.

“Previous research has shown that vitamin D deficiency is associated with poor health and early death,” according to a HealthDay report earlier this year. “But recent evidence suggests that low levels of vitamin D are a result, not a cause, of poor health.”

We can be reasonably certain that cutting back on sugar is the sensible thing to do. But, amid the epidemic of shifting medical consensus about virtually everything these days, we’ll just have to trust our guts on that one.

Tagged , , , , ,

Going down the road with Jules and Jim: A cautionary tale *

DSC_0018

Jules ran a hand through his thinning, grey hair, glancing occasionally at the clock on the wall of the departure lounge. “Looks like we’re running out of time,” he mumbled. “What else is new?”

The storms of late December 2033 had minced the schedules of the one airline that still bothered to call on New Brunswick. Normally, any delay en route to the oil and gas fields of northern Alberta meant long lineups for itinerant Maritimers arriving late to Fort Mac’s weekly job lottery.

But, today, Jules didn’t mind so much. His traveling companion was late. Might as well sit tight, he told himself. A pipe-fitter by trade, 25ß years of going down the road and back had taught him how to wait. He was good at it; waiting and thinking.

He was just old enough to remember a different New Brunswick, when his native home was not just a regional staging ground in the brisk business of exporting human capital. That was before the Wall Street money lenders had called the loans, effectively throwing the province into receivership.

Really, he thought, what other choice did they have?

In 2024, the NDP government had failed to make the minimum payment on its long-term debt of $42 billion. Sporting an operating budget deficit, in that fiscal year, of $7 billion, it had needed a miracle to cover its financial obligations. And there hadn’t been one of those in this benighted corner of Canada for some time.

Still, Jules could recollect the word “miracle” being used when he was a boy and Greater Moncton, for one, was an authentic economic nexus of the Maritimes.

Back then, in the 1990s and early aughts of the 21st Century, the “Hub City” had hosted a musical group called “The Rolling Stones”. Everyone had made out like bandits and it seemed the party would never end.

Of course, as all parties end, this one did too.

To be fair, Jules thought, Moncton had fared reasonably well, as had the other metropolitan areas of the province. Sure, now wasn’t their finest hour; still, they had hung on, perpetually “punching above their weight” as the boosters were fond of reminding everyone else.

Elsewhere, in the rural reaches, it had been an entirely different story.

The schools were the first to close, one after another. English, french; it didn’t matter. There was no money to keep any of them open, as hordes of New Brunswickers left for the money-green pastures out west, their kids in tow. In less than 10 years, the population of the province fell from 748,000 to 325,000.

The hospitals were next. General care facilities were retrofitted into emergency and geriatric wards. When they were open (and that became increasingly unpredictable), they served only the gravely ill, the catastrophically injured and those who, frankly, had nowhere else to go – no family to care for them – in their end days.

On the other hand, the soup kitchens (and there were many of these) did a blistering business serving processed pasta and packaged sweet tarts rescued from the dumpster bins of vanishing supermarket chains.

Now, in the setting sun of 2033, only a few farms lingered along the edges of the rural service districts to supply real food to the structurally rich from all over the world – the well-endowed refugees from the planet’s polluted megalopolises – who had craved and founded bucolic reservations in the New Brunswick countryside.

Their air strips and helipads, their private highways and roads, their Montessori missionaries, and their cloud computers were all they needed to keep themselves comfortable, serene and apart.

Jules checked the clock on the wall again.

“Where is that whelp?” he muttered to no one in particular. “The boy is 45 minutes late, and the plane is here, finally.”

As his 16-year-old nephew Jim’s bonded master, Jules was almost looking forward to showing his young apprentice the ropes in Alberta.

On the tarmac, the old man looked back once more.

No sign.

No sign of youth – his youth – herding into the air.

“Well,” he said aloud, “may the winner take all. . .What else is new?”

* Originally written and published for Atlantic Business Magazine, Mar/April 2014

Fat and poor: What’s not to love about the East Coast?

Evidence of Atlantic Canadian exceptionalism mounts with each day that passes. Judging from the headlines, our position within Confederation has never been more secure, our role never more crucial.

Do we serve the rest of Canada as both the butt of their jokes and the source of their ire? Of course we do, and with brio, mister.

Merely consider the following from the Globe and Mail, Canada’s self-assured, self-identifying “national” newspaper, the other day:

“The number of obese Canadians has tripled since the mid-1980s, a phenomenon driven by a sharp rise in the number of extremely overweight adults whose health complications are expected to place a heavy burden on the health-care system.”

And where, pray tell, will we find the highest rate of corpulence in Canada?

“(The) burden is not spread evenly, with the highest proportion of obese adults in the Atlantic provinces and the lowest in wealthy and healthy British Columbia, according to a new study that predicts the country’s weight problem is only going to get worse, especially in the fattest provinces.”

What’s worse, the piece goes on to say, “the study warns that, if the trend continues, more than one in five Canadians will be obese by 2019. In five provinces – Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Manitoba – there will be more adults who are overweight and obese than adults who tip the scales at a healthy weight that same year.”

Oddly, there’s no explanation for why Prince Edward Island, alone among East Coast provinces, is missing from the list. It’s conceivable that with a smaller population than Metro Moncton’s, the Island failed to impress itself as a province upon the study’s authors, one of whom is, herself, a resident of Atlantic Canada.

“We have a growing number of these people (overweight and obese) and we haven’t really sorted out the treatment. ” Laurie Twells, a prof in the faculty of medicine at Memorial University in St. John’s. “We’re not actually curing it (obesity). We haven’t managed to help people lose weight and keep it off, other than through something like bariatric surgery.”

Now, as other research links obesity with straightened socio-economic circumstances, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Atlantic Canada is not only home to the nation’s highest proportion of fat people; it’s also home to the highest proportion of poor ones.

According to Statistics Canada’s The Daily a year ago, “the income gap between the top one per cent and the rest of filers has widened over time. In 1982, the median income of the top one per cent of filers was $191,600. This was seven times higher than the median income of $28,000 for the other 99 per cent of filers. By 2010, the median income of the top one per cent of filers increased to $283,400, about 10 times higher than the median income of $28,400 for the rest. The income of top filers was increasingly dependent on their jobs, rather than on investments.”

Meanwhile, “in 2010, four provinces – Ontario, Alberta, Quebec and British Columbia – accounted for 92 per cent of the 254,700 people in the top 1 per cent.

Ontario had 110,300, followed by Alberta with 52,200, Quebec at 42,600 and British Columbia with 29,500. Between 1990 and 2010, Alberta’s share of the top 1 per cent of filers doubled from 10 per cent to 20 per cent, while Ontario’s proportion fell from 51 per cent to 43 per cent.”

The only reason why no Atlantic province gets a mention is that the incidence of conspicuous wealth in the region is so rare, it’s statistically insignificant.

On the other hand, reported the Globe last year, “new data shows the share of individual income that comes from government transfers is highest in the Atlantic provinces. Three of those provinces. . .receive slightly more transfers than the total taxes they pay. The main factors appear to be higher unemployment in Atlantic Canada – but also an older population.”

Uh, no kidding Sherlock.

To be sure, though, we along the seabound East Coast might yet salvage some dignity. A new Scotiabank poll finds that Atlantic Canadian small business owners are more inclined than their counterparts elsewhere in the country to work until they drop.

That, too, makes us special among our countrymen.

Still, who’s complaining? As long as it keeps our minds off the junk food.

Tagged , ,

Who’s your daddy, now?

Hello Big Daddy!

If we read our digital propaganda correctly, then we should all be over the moon after learning that a fresh day dawns on the global circuitry that tracks our every move, intentions and even aspirations.

Welcome, fellow plebes, to the era of big claims and big mouths – to the age of ‘Big Daddy’ (also known as Big Data), with all of its magnificent liens on our vanishing sense of privacy.

Mindless of any threat, existential or otherwise, Big Daddy’s acolytes were front and centre-stage this week in Saint John extolling the virtues of collecting, parsing, analyzing, and recruiting – in the service of capitalist enterprises and nosey governments – our personal information.

On the occasion of Big Data Congress II in New Brunswick’s port city, local show promoter Marc Fraser (executive vice-president of T4G) effused, “It’s about the phenomena that we have here in Atlantic Canada, which is being able to continually punch above our weight when it comes to technical capability and entrepreneurial capability.”

Not ready to be outmatched in the time-honoured craft of cliche production (reader note: no big data required for that particular exercise) T4G’s president Geoff Flood offered this bromide: “It’s all about understanding the opportunity to use Big Data to change the world, improve businesses and build opportunities right here.”

Not for nothing, but who are they kidding?

The phrase, ‘Big Data’, has been slinking around the edges of the Internet since before the George W. Bush administration declared war on the wrong Middle Eastern country in 2003 (thank you Big-Daddy CIA and NSA miners for completely missing the point of your 15 minutes of fame).

The fact is almost no one knows what to do with these petabytes of information on everything from my ridiculous love affair with slim jeans readily available at the Moncton outlet of The Gap to ex-spy-in-exile Edward Snowdon’s rather more substantial revelations about spooks, creeps and authorized assassins of world peace.

Still, the official, meaningless bafflegab spills from the mouths of the babes we elect to purportedly represent us with, at least, some modicum of intelligent reflection. Oh dear, what was that you were saying Premier David Alward to Big Daddy Congress Part Deux the other night? Something about “collaboration and co-ordination”, perhaps?

As it happens, that’s the last thing your audience wants. And unless you’ve figured out a way to use Big Data to rescue the province from its impending fiscal doom, it’s the last thing you should want either.

In fact, there is almost nothing about this phenomenon – this gargantuan belch of information collected and floating in the electronic stratosphere – that lends itself to fair, egalitarian or democratic purpose.

“Big data. It’s the latest IT buzzword, and it isn’t hard to see why,” writes John Jordan in an October 2013 edition of the Wall Street Journal. “The ability to parse more information, faster and deeper, is allowing companies, governments, researchers and others to understand the world in a way they could only dream about before.”

But, he says, (and it’s a big but), “Big data. . .introduces high stakes to the data-analytics game. There’s a greater potential for privacy invasion, greater financial exposure in fast-moving markets, greater potential for mistaking noise for true insight, and a greater risk of spending lots of money and time chasing poorly defined problems or opportunities. . .Unless we understand, and deal with, these challenges, we risk turning all that data from something that has the potential to enhance our organizations into a diversion, an illusion or a paralyzing turf battle.”

Or worse.

Consider Cindy Waxer’s reporting in Computer World a year ago. “Hip clothing retailer Urban Outfitters is facing a class-action lawsuit for allegedly violating consumer protection laws by telling shoppers who pay by credit card that they had to provide their ZIP codes – which is not true – and then using that information to obtain the shoppers’ addresses,” she wrote.

“Facebook is often at the center of a data privacy controversy, whether it’s defending its own enigmatic privacy policies or responding to reports that it gave private user data to the National Security Agency (NSA). And the story of how retail behemoth Target was able to deduce that a teenage shopper was pregnant before her father even knew is the stuff of marketing legend.”

Big Daddy, to satisfy your insatiable appetite, how creepy must our lives finally become?

Tagged , , ,

Cheaters, it seems, always prosper

DSC_0033

The scribe who penned the following line describes himself as a tenure-tracked academic: “I have not been successful in getting most cheaters I’ve caught removed from the university, only one, and it was their forth time being caught in three years.”

I must assume from the author’s grammatical misadventure (surely not his or her “forth” time at a keyboard), which appears in a letter posted beneath an online CBC report on rampant cheating in Canadian universities, that he or she is not on any tenure currently tracking in any academic department relating to the teaching of English.

Still, perhaps there is some brutal symmetry in the Ivory Tower, after all. Pedagogues, it appears, can’t write; their students, meanwhile, evince no interest in learning when easier and more efficient options are plentiful.

“A CBC survey of Canadian universities shows more than 7,000 students were disciplined for academic cheating in 2011-12, a finding experts say falls well short of the number of students who actually cheat,” the broadcaster reported this week.

According to the piece, Julia Christensen Hughes, dean of the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph in Ontario, says, “There’s a huge gap between what students are telling us they’re doing and the numbers of students that are being caught and sanctioned for those behaviours.”

The survey data – which indicates that cheating is certainly systematic at universities across Canada, but not yet prevalent – seems to bear out her claims. Indeed, apart from underreported incidences of dissimulation, pupils at Atlantic Canada’s fine institutions of higher learning appear, at least officially, pretty clean.

The University of New Brunswick reported 33 cases of student plagiarism, or 0.3 per cent of the 10,000-strong student body. The University of Moncton reported 56 cases of plagiarism, or just under one per cent of the 6,000 student population. Crandall University fared slightly worse with 12 cases of plagiarism, or 1.5 per cent of its 1,000 student population.

Dalhousie University, a much larger institution than any of New Brunswick’s colleges and institutes, reported a broader suite of infractions – everything from plagiarism to “unauthorized aid”. Still, such cases only amounted to 1.3 per cent of its 18,000 student population.

Frankly, even if these numbers only scratch the surface, what’s truly shocking are some of the perpetrators’ attitudes.

The CBC quotes one student, speaking on condition of anonymity, thusly: “The professor left the room. I reached into my bag and I looked at some keywords to help me. I’d challenge anyone who can say that they haven’t broken the law. So for me to have cheated on an exam to get ahead in life, I think it’s wrong, but I don’t think it’s the worst thing that could be done.”

Another was even more cold-eyed about his crime: “We just had to get it done. I had to get these assignments done and they had to be right.”

Like just about everything else in this cash-and-carry society, the university experience has been illegitimately commodified, packaged and gamed for any who can afford to pay for it on the down low.

Take, for example, essay writing services. These are not illegal, per se. But are they ethical?

That’s the question Richard Gunderman, an M.D. and PhD. at Indiana University, posed in the Atlantic magazine a hear ago. In his piece, “Write my essay, please!” he observed that “essay writing has become a cottage industry premised on systematic flaunting of the most basic aims of higher education. The very fact that such services exist reflects a deep and widespread misunderstanding of why colleges and universities ask students to write essays in the first place.”

He morosely concludes that “some students may question the very value of writing term papers. After all, they may ask, how many contemporary jobs really require such archaic forms of writing? And what is the point of doing research and formulating an argument when reams of information on virtually any topic are available at the click of a button on the Internet? Some may even doubt the relevance of the whole college experience.”

Of course, when teacher, himself, can’t string a few words together to save his academic bacon, you have to wonder whether the little cheaters are on to something.

Tagged , , , ,

Training the literate mind: the younger the better

DSC_0011

As two New Brunswick political leaders duke it out over the wisdom of a school policy that neither seems to fully comprehend, at least one educator is fixing her gaze on the only issue that truly matters in the pedagogical careers of this province’s young and malleable: Literacy or, more precisely, the lack of it.

NDP Leader Dominic Cardy threw down the gauntlet last week when he blamed low proficiency rates of reading and writing in New Brunswick on the provincial system of fast-forwarding effectively failed students through high school graduation and into colleges and universities.

Vowing to change this perfidious policy in the unlikely event that he should one day form a government, he declared at an editorial board meeting of Brunswick News, “If you’re a good teacher you’re going to do everything you can to make sure that your kids are doing well and you are going to pass them on to the next level.

“But if you’re not as good or the kid is that much more difficult, it takes a lot of the incentives out of the system if there is no social consequence for the child not doing well and there is no professional reason for the teacher to work harder,” adding, “You can’t fail right now.”

To which the Progressive Conservative Premier David Alward predictably harumphed in disdain to reporters: “There is no ‘no-failure policy’ in New Brunswick,’ . . .there are children who do, for various reasons, spend more than one year in a grade level  – that is done in a collaborative process in co-operation with parents, with a teacher, to identify what’s best for the child.”

Indeed, he boasted, “We have an inclusive education system in our province, which we are leaders globally in helping ensure that every child is able to meet their fullest potential.”

That, of course, is solely a matter of opinion as there is nothing empirically testable about the claim.

On the other hand, Mr. Cardy’s approach – holding kids back a grade or two until they learn how to read in a system that couldn’t manage to teach them the first time around – seems almost mad.

Meanwhile, Marilyn Luscombe, president of New Brunswick Community College wisely avoids the blame-game altogether and suggests that low literacy is a far more complex problem than the province’s politicos – who adore their policy footballs – care to concede. “We have to come together in New Brunswick in partnership with the secondary system and with community literacy organizations,” she told the Telegraph-Journal recently.

“(We have to) figure out more clearly who does what and how we can ensure that more people enter the post-secondary education system and have the skills to be successful. It’s much more than the no-fail policy. It’s a lot of elements.”

In fact, teaching kids how to read is not essentially the function of primary – certainly not secondary – school educators. Expecting them to take the lead misses the point of graduated learning and baldly ignores every gradient in human development.

Learning first words, and learning them well, happens in early childhood education programs, pre-school and, ultimately, the home, where mum and dad and older brother and sister help junior practice until perfect. That’s because nature has programmed our species to learn best before age five. These are the optimal years for acquiring languages, developing math skills and recognizing spatial relationships.

It stands to reason that if we want literate, critical, thinkers populating our universities and trade schools, we should spend most of our energies and resources on the early years.

Of course, one point on which all – feuding politicians and bemused educators, alike – can agree: Low literacy costs society in material and tangible ways. It taps the social welfare system, and drives up poverty and homelessness rates. Some studies have even suggested that it increases the incidence of crime, mental illness and drug addiction.

Is there, then, much sense in jawboning about rickety middle and high school matriculation policies – which don’t make an iota of difference to the structurally illiterate and innumerate – that distract us from the issue that truly matters?

Tagged , , , ,

Liberals are yawning into action

IMG_0129

For a dying breed, they sure put up a good squawk. Then again, they’ve had 35 years (give or take) to lick their many wounds.

Nineteen-Seventy-Nine is the year to which many political observers with long memories point when asked to trace the roots of the modern liberal’s terminal disease. That’s the year British politics took a sharp right with the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. It was the year the Iranian revolution changed the face of the Middle East and of western foreign policy. And it was the year the Moral Majority and other right-of-centre populist groups in the United States paved the way for Ronald Reagan and his neo-conservative notions of free enterprise and trickle-down economics.

Here, in Canada, of course, we were still pretty liberal – that is, we were, until we commenced our serious flirtation with Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives, which almost perfectly completed the  “North Atlantic Triangle” (Reagan-Mulroney-Thatcher) of staunch traditionalists in the 1980s.

But as one decade bled into another, it became clear that the very essence of liberalism had fundamentally changed. Bill Clinton was not FDR, after all. Tony Blair was in no way conceivable comparable to post-war labour leaders in the U.K. And nothing about Jean Chretien or Paul Martin resembled Lester Pearson or even Pierre Trudeau.

Now, the whole subject of what went wrong in the trenches of the just society – at least in the United States – is the subject of a extensive cris de coeur in the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine.

“Nothing Left: The long, slow surrender of American liberals” by University of Pennsylvania political science professor Adolph Reed Jr. chronicles in exquisite, often painful detail, how the wheels came off the truck, one by one. He targets all the usual suspects – political opportunists, true believers in limited government, libertarians, corporations and big businesses – but he also blames his once fellow travellers for allowing themselves to become corrupted and coerced.

“Today,” he writes, “the labour movement has been largely subdued, and social activists have made their peace with neoliberalism and adjusted their horizons accordingly. Within the women’s movement, goals have shifted from practical objectives  such as comparable worth and universal child care in the 1980s to celebrating appointments of individual women to public office and challenging the corporate glass ceiling.”

Meanwhile, he laments, “dominant figures in the antiwar movement have long since accepted the framework of American military interventionism. The movement for racial justice has shifted its focus from inequality to ‘disparity,’ while neatly evading any critique of the structures that produce inequality.”

Professor Reed’s arguments are not especially new. Others have observed the great and steady resignation of social principles to power and money over the past three decades.

But the degree to which points, such as his, are cropping up everywhere in the mainstream and alternative media is striking. As a result, perhaps, it’s almost as if a sizable chunk of the body politic is rousing itself from a long, fitful slumber.

That, at least, appears to be case in Canada. Notwithstanding a largely successful economic plan (reflected, most recently, in a broadly inoffensive budget) the federal Conservatives’s steadily eroding popular support suggests a deeper, more existential problem for them.

“A slim majority (54 per cent) of Canadians ‘disapprove’ (16 per cent strongly/37 per cent somewhat) of ‘the federal government’s overall management of the Canadian economy’, compared to 46 per cent who ‘approve’ (7 per cent strongly/40 per cent somewhat) of the government’s performance on the economy,” Ipsos reported last week. “By comparison, in late 2012, nearly equal proportions of Canadians approved (49 per cent) as disapproved (51 per cent).”

What’s more, Ipsos observed, “just one in three (34 per cent) ‘agree’ (10 per cent  strongly/24 per cent somewhat) that they ‘trust Stephen Harper and the Conservatives to make the right choices to ensure the next Federal Budget is fair and reasonable, and in the best interest of Canadians’. Two in three (66 per cent) Canadians ‘disagree’ (36 per cent strongly/30 per cent somewhat) that they trust the Prime Minister to do this.”

Whether any of this will produce a pendular swing in the political fortunes of the left remains to be seen in the run-up to the 2015 election – as do the progressive bone fides of those who populate its ranks.

Still, it’s clear, they’re not dead yet.

Tagged , , , , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 586 other followers

%d bloggers like this: