Tuesday, July 22, 2014

compte-rendu: Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Naissance de l'histoire du climat

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Corruption - who pays??

        The Charbonneau commission recently revealed the degree to which the Québec construction industry is infiltrated by organized crime (mafia).

- Cartels to fix prices and determine whose "turn" it is to get a city contract apparently are common in some large municipalities like Montréal. 

- Kick backs to corrupt civic officials inflate the cost of municipal contracts to taxpayers (who already complain about being overtaxed). Thus, exorbitant - and unnecessary - cost overruns are overlooked by those payed to monitor civic expenditures (in return for a chunk of the overrun or lavish gifts or cheap house renovations, etc). 

- Commentators estimate that taxpayers are getting dinged to the tune of 30% of the real cost of municipal contracts. 

          Outrageous! This is the stuff revolutions are made of..

highway closed by debris falling from overpass

            If it only ended there it would be bad enough - but it doesn't just end at the public being cheated. Property is being damaged or destroyed, people have actually died. Saturday, September 30, 2006 near Montréal, Québec, a section of overpass falls onto the highway below, crushing two vehicles. Toll: 5 dead, 6 seriously injured. The resulting inquiry produced a litany of faulty design features, missed inspections, sloppy work and maintenance.


            And if a mafia polluted construction industry in cahoots with corrupt municipal officials were not bad enough we also have to contend with the logical inanity and moral depravity of neo-conservative inspired cuts to regulatory agencies.

". Accused of consistently putting off repairs to pass balanced budgets, the Quebec government has since increased spending on highways and projects and has increased infrastructure spending for future budgets."

          Right! The public pays less taxes for less services to obtain those sacrosanct balanced budgets and people have to die for it - right? The irony, of course, is that some of the good bourgeoisie dying probably voted for the neo-con budget cutters whose policies killed them. Instant Karma..

         On a deeper level what, if anything, does the Charbonneau Commission teach us? The message is actually a pretty mixed one, from my reading. The positive side is that we live in a society in which - at least in principle and, from time to time in reality - public officials are held accountable for their management of the commonwealth or common good. Apparently the process is cyclic. Corruption builds up over time. The public becomes scandalized due to the action of a few muckraker journalists and other do gooders (footnote 1). A big stink follows - like the Charbonneau Commission and its potential sequels. The old bums - the masters of the Old Political System - are thrown out. They are replaced by younger - or in times of rapid transition - young idealists. The system is reformed and runs cleanly for a few decades. Then, the rot of cronyism inevitably sets in. Corruption spreads and in about 40 years, you are back where you began again. This cyclic nature of corruption / collective cleansing might provide a minimalist functional definition of democracy: democracy is a means of keeping the political, economic and social systems on a relatively even keel by periodically purging them of corrupting influences. Like a good purge or sauna every couple of weeks..

          I suspect that another reading might be that democracy has to be "returned" to the people (if ever it was taken away in the first place..) This is a problem raised by French sociologist Jean Claude Guillebaud in his work. At the beginning of the Revolutionary Era - the American and French Revolutions, latter part of the 18th century - things seemed pretty straight forward. The Three Revolutionary Principles of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity appeared non-contradictory. But, over time, the very success of the revolutionary bourgeoisie revealed contradictions between the three revolutionary principles. Freedom, unfettered, allowed some individuals to accumulate "excessive" amounts of wealth which in turn, gave them more power over others with less wealth. Thus freedom was found to be, partly, opposed to equality. Fraternity has also proven elusive when inequalities of wealth pass certain, hard to define, limits.

           It is likely that the coming ecological / demographic / economic / social crises will force us to re-evaluate the Three Revolutionary Principles and their value in modern technical societies. We will be forced to assess the possibility of achieving some form of them in the post cheap energy era we are now entering. We are already seeing some of these re-evaluations taking place in North America over the question of security. Since the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Americans have come to prioritize "security" over "freedom": "if you are not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear" is an argument used to rationalize increased surveillance by the state or private corporations payed by the state to enact such surveillance. This is one possible choice..

            An epoch like the one we are entering may, if we play our hands well, actually serve to re-invigorate the revolutionary principles. This would happen if, for example, reduced per capital energy consumption led to the decentralization of economic activity coupled with concurrent democratization of ownership of the means of production (worker coops, worker / consumer coops, creative schemes of social enterprise..)

           Whatever the long term outcome of the Charbonneau Commission it has served a necessary reminder - to be administered periodically! In matters of corruption, it is always the public who pays in the long run.

internal blog links: keywords: Charbonneau (7 entries)


1- muckraker: a militant, investigative journalist fighting for social justice or other Common Good causes


Friday, July 4, 2014

Is the good life so good?

          Social psychologist Paul Piff of the University of California at Berkeley, has studied the relationship of wealth to traits like empathy, honesty and generosity. The results may not be surprising but it is, at least, good to know that your personal prejudices stand on solid ground, statistically and scientifically speaking. (Piff's work confirms what at least a half century of studies have suggested..)

          Thus, the rich show less empathy and compassion towards others, they tend to be less honest and (curiously), in some situations, more likely to break laws. They tend to feel entitled by their own perceived superiority. This superiority is attributed mainly to hard work and personal values rather than to luck or starting life from a privileged position. The rich are more likely to rationalize, even moralize, greed: the wealthy should not be taxed claim American neoconservatives because their efforts generate wealth which, through job creation, "trickles down" to the masses. (The Golden Shower Theory of Wealth Generation..). The rich are more narcissistic and feel more entitled than the poor do. People seem less important to them than is the case for the less well off.

          In California it is required that motorists yield the right of way to pedestrians at marked crossings:


           So Prof Piff came up with an ingeniously simple experiment. Observe how many motorists obey the law according to the price range of the car they are driving. Neat, eh? So what did he find? There was a humongous variability in courteous behavior. In several studies, he found that 100% of people driving the cheapest cars obeyed the law and yielded the right of way to pedestrians at marked crossings. Compliance fell to a paltry 50% - !sic! - for drivers of high end autos. One usually would not expect such a strong "experimental manipulation" effect in the social sciences. One can only conclude that the entitlement effect is really STRONG!! (especially since the experiments have been repeated)

          Another interesting effect. Rich folks should be able to give more to charity but, in relative terms, on the whole, they don't. Wealthy households give less, relative to their wealth, than less wealthy households.

         But the one that really got to me: if people view videos which are chosen to elicit compassion in viewers, the physiological indicators of "compassionate arousal" (slowed cardiac rhythm, for example) are significantly weaker in the wealthier viewers. Even their physiology - which one might think would not be so easily affected by social factors - is shifted by the mere possession of wealth and the status if confers. This, of course, shows that status is as important for humans as it is for other vertebrates. For example, the brightness or degree of iridescence in birds is often linked to status in the social hierarchy: more color or more iridescence, the higher you are in the hierarchy. If you manage to rise in status by fighting your way to the top, hormone changes associated with dominance cause iridescences to brighten. Become sick or old or get beaten up too much and you dull out as you fall in social dominance.

            Echoing earlier researchers, Prof Piff concludes that there is little real satisfaction in the possession of wealth. Wealth does though provide greater opportunities, better long term health outcomes, etc. Like Aristotle more than 20 centuries ago, he finds the real values of life in the social network, the quality of our relations with others, and the meaning or purposes we find - or create - in life.

             We now know that social status is about as important for humans as for chimpanzees or starlings. But to what degree, and how, are we different from these creatures? Perhaps the real difference is that our more complex brains allow us a "look down" perspective that they do not possess. Humans can, I believe, judge the global effects of a given level of social inequality and adjust our behavior accordingly. It is this capacity which makes wo/man "The Moral Animal".


            Audio of an interview with Prof Piff by Anna Maria Tremonti on CBC radio, July 4, 2014: