Sunday, November 24, 2013

Societal Dysfunction and Why We Need Food Banks

A friend made the following, very perceptive, comment the other day, and it serves as the inspiration for this post.
What is wrong with us/our governments that we either cannot or will not address the systemic issues that force so many people to rely on food banks? They were supposed to be temporary! Now they are a fixture and needed more than ever. That is a systemic societal failure.
On the whole, there is an underlying point to this comment that I want to address in the context of today's political environment, because it is our politics which I see as central to this issue.

How did we get to the place that we are in today?  It's a long story, and one that begins in the UK with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.  Thatcher was the first of the "Neo-Conservative" heads of state that swept the world during the 1980s and 1990s.

The emergence of the modern day food bank coincides with the rise of this new breed of right-wing conservatism in our political discourse and the global recession of the early 1980s.  Calgary's Interfaith Foodbank marks their beginnings as being in 1982 at the height of the recession.  This, in my opinion not just mere coincidence, but an important confluence of events.

Thatcher all but dismantled labour unions in the UK, and in the United States her close friend and ally Ronald Reagan went after social programs including education.
Further following his less-government intervention views, Reagan cut the budgets of non-military[153] programs[154] includingMedicaidfood stamps, federal education programs[153] and the EPA.[155] While he protected entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare,[156] his administration attempted to purge many people with disabilities from the Social Security disability rolls.

Under these two leaders in the 1980s, the process of dismantling the very infrastructure of a capable, informed population began.  The vision of a "Just Society" as so eloquently expressed by Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau:

Trudeau define a just society before becoming the Prime Minister of Canada as:[7]
The Just Society will be one in which the rights of minorities will be safe from the whims of intolerant majorities. The Just Society will be one in which those regions and groups which have not fully shared in the country's affluence will be given a better opportunity. The Just Society will be one where such urban problems as housing and pollution will be attacked through the application of new knowledge and new techniques. The Just Society will be one in which our Indian and Inuit populations will be encouraged to assume the full rights of citizenship through policies which will give them both greater responsibility for their own future and more meaningful equality of opportunity. The Just Society will be a united Canada, united because all of its citizens will be actively involved in the development of a country where equality of opportunity is ensured and individuals are permitted to fulfil themselves in the fashion they judge best.
While Trudeau's articulation of the concept was perhaps clearer and more sweeping than most, post-WWII democracies all made enormous strides towards actualizing a society were all members of it were valued.   The United States went through its Civil Rights Movement era, which started the process of breaking down the barriers of racial segregation in the United States - a process which has never been consciously completed.

The neoconservatives started what became a long process of undermining and dismantling the very programs which form the core of a social safety net.  The most tragic and blatant of these were Reagan's attacks on public education.  The echoes of his approach continue to reverberate today, with conservative politicians often portraying teachers as "over paid" or "lazy", and the school system as a whole as "failing".  They use this manufactured crisis to justify directing public funds to private schools and so-called "charter schools" by advocating a per-student "voucher-system" model of funding.  Undermining public education is a central problem in the damage that the NeoConservative politics have done to both Canada and the United States.  It has made it clear that they do not value an educated public - which is of course, no surprise.  The jingoism of their political slogans does not stand up well to reasoned scrutiny.

The jingoistic rhetoric that started in the late 1980s began the process of characterizing government as an evil in the minds of the public, and one particular campaign speech by George Bush in the 1989 presidential campaign virtually shackled future governments around the Western World in terms of their ability to use taxation as a means to raise funds for programs.   When he said "Read my lips:  No New Taxes", it instantly became a watch phrase quoted by conservative politicians whenever they were competing with more left-leaning opponents.

Taxation became a dirty word in a hurry.  Not only did taxes come to be seen as "a waste", but any politician who proposed using taxation to fund programs is almost immediately pilloried for making such a proposal to fund a program, no matter how noble the program's goals may be.

Deficits (and the longer term debt resulting from them) had to be addressed by cutting government spending.  Taxation was anathema.  Ironically, these same politicians would happily promote the introduction of user fees, or the creation of insurance-like "premiums" for various programs.  These are, of course, little different than a tax when it comes down to it, and yet the politicians will happily promote these options over even hinting at taxation as a legitimate tool.

In short, our governments at all levels have impoverished themselves at the hands of populist politics in which simplistic phrases are thrown about as absolute truths.  Unfortunately, because so much of public policy is so abstract to many voters, these simplifications sound utterly reasonable - but they overlook the often difficult to quantify good that is done with the policies and programs that they attack.

In particular, education and health care come under regular attack - often because the enormous amounts of money that need to be funnelled into them appear to be unreasonable.  The fiction that there is an "enormous amount of waste" in these budgets has long been used by politicians to get them elected.  Rob Ford was elected Mayor of Toronto based on a campaign to "stop the gravy train".    The idea that the government wastes taxpayer money is easy to sell when the amount of money being spent vastly exceeds the ability of most to understand.

The rise of economic globalization has created a second dimension in which things have gotten distorted within our governments.  In the United States, the country has all but hollowed out its manufacturing sector.  By far, the majority of the products consumed in the country are made overseas where the labour is "cheaper".  As a result, the economy has shifted, and is now split between "service sector" jobs which are frequently low paying, and an emerging corporate feudalism where employees are all but beholden to the multinational corporations that they work for.

More disturbing recently, has been the rise of multinational corporations.  These entities have become so large and pervasive that they exist almost as peers of the nation-state.  Because their activities span across nations, they are often able to circumvent the laws and taxation regimes of the individual nation-states with a relatively trivial bit of sleight of hand in their books.  Further, the multinational corporations have also managed to become peers to the nation-state through various "free trade" deals such as NAFTA.

The corporations live apart from and often beyond the reach of national governments, and they have begun to act as the puppet masters for the worst excesses of "smaller government" politics.  In the United States, the powerful Koch Brothers are widely understood to be backing the radical politics of the "Tea Party" movement, and corporate lobbying has been an ongoing issue in government politics for years now.   As a result corporate tax rates have plummeted, and the middle income earning classes have been gutted as well - leaving the government with a shrinking pool of revenue and an increasing set of demands.  The 2012 budget in Canada gutted this nation's environmental protection regime, largely at the behest of the oil patch.

Enter Corrupted Neoliberalism, especially as reflected in the policies of leaders like Canada's Stephen Harper.  Yes, I know he is a "Conservative", but his policies are consistent with  combination of Crony Capitalism and Corporatocracy, with Harper handing over more and more latitude to corporations.  There is much deeply troubling about this, especially when we recognize that a corporation has no real obligations to upholding the interests of those whose lives are affected by the activities of that corporation.

The multinational corporation is a curious beast.  It is run by people, and yet at the boardroom level, decisions often only consider the bottom line - money.  When you are making decisions that amount to billions of dollars, and your only driver is the next quarter's profit, the people affected by those decisions quickly become moot (consider the recent move of employees at a Wal Mart store to hold a food drive for the staff at the store! - the only way that a move like this makes any sense is when you recognize the social dysfunction that is taking place in corporate boardrooms)

What does all of this have to do with Food Banks?  It's quite simple, actually.  The hard right politics  of the last thirty years have forced governments out of the place where they can ensure that their citizens live in a Just Society.  Instead, they are subject to the whims and predations of those whose sole goal is to line their own pockets with a few more dollars, and are insulated by the abstractions of multi-national corporations.

Entities like food banks are a natural response of people whose sense of empathy for others is still a strong instinct.  They arise because people recognize that their peers in society are having a rough go and the support mechanisms are inadequate.  That is perhaps the one piece of good news in this whole picture.  Human beings are still social creatures at the end of the day, and inter-personal empathy is a core part of that social animal.  The food bank will only become a thing of the past when we once again insist that our governments focus on their citizens rather than solely on the economic interests of those who are not beholden to all citizens of a nation.

Until we bring the worst excesses of the last thirty years of politics which have disconnected governments from the people that they govern and their best interests, this will continue to be a very troubling and broken time, and the need for organizations like Food Banks will not abate.

Ideally, I would like to say that rebalancing the equation that is so out of kilter today that we would no longer need facilities like food banks.  I know this is unlikely.  The more likely view is that we will only be able to reduce the need for such organizations, for there will always be those whose fortunes land them in a difficult place.

There is more to this picture than I have laid out in this essay - it is but a start of what will become a longer analysis in the future.  

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