Seeing the world from another perspective

I’m baaccck. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks at various academic conferences. And as usual, most of my learning occurred outside the conference sessions. My first lesson came from a non-conformist accounting professor who opened my eyes to the fact that I hold onto my beliefs too much, and reject information that contradicts my opinions. Boy did he call me on it.

We were in downtown Montreal this week at a conference on teaching and learning. Which is kind of ironic, as higher education students have been protesting the provincial government’s decision to significantly increase tuition. I thought the students were idealistic, unrealistic and spoiled.  After all they only paid $2,200 per year tuition, as compared to the $6,800 that Ontario students pay. Their nightly protests were causing traffic jams, violence and vandalism of small businesses.

After talking to the students it appears that the issues are much broader, and are not well represented in the press. The students are concerned about issues of democracy, transparency, due process, accessibility of all to higher education, of the right to maintain the unique Quebec culture. They are concerned about the corporatization of education and growing disparity of income. They see the government’s move to raise tuition as the beginning salvo that will destroy a culture that values social mobility and community more than money.

I come from the WASPy part of Ontario, where capitalism is good and aspiring to work harder is the norm. The big towers of Bay Street in Toronto signify prosperity, and prosperity is good.

So I brought a lens of lower middle class Ontario values to a culture that I just didn’t get. And yet, it is clear that accessibility to higher education is a key predictor of prosperity and of class mobility. As we apply the capitalist models of supply and demand to education and other social goods, we lower taxes, but we increase income disparity and reduce the hope of people to achieve more. Last summer’s riots in the U.K. are symptoms of this hopelessness.

The success of capitalism relies on the belief by of individuals that they can share increased prosperity. According to Adam Davidson in the NY Times Magazine, when people lose hope is when they lose productivity:

“…when a nation’s institutions prevent the poor from profiting from their work, no amount of disease eradication, good economic advice or foreign aid seems to help. I observed this firsthand when I visited a group of Haitian mango farmers a few years ago. Each farmer had no more than one or two mango trees, even though their land lay along a river that could irrigate their fields and support hundreds of trees. So why didn’t they install irrigation pipes? Were they ignorant, indifferent? In fact they were quite savvy and lived in a region teeming with well-intentioned foreign-aid programs. But these farmers also knew that nobody in their village had clear title to the land they farmed. If they suddenly grew a few hundred mango trees, it was likely that a well-connected member of the elite would show up and claim their land and its spoils. What was the point?”

Americans have less upward mobility than Canadians and most Europeans, and greater income disparity. These factors lead to more social instability, and lower productivity which is not good for capitalism.

Sometimes what looks obvious on the surface isn’t obvious at all. In an era of tough decisions, we can choose short-term solutions, but pay a significant price in the long-term.  So my friend the accountant was right. I need to listen more and talk less.

Source: Davidson, Adam. “Why Some Countries Go Bust”. New York Times. March 13, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/magazine/why-countries-go-bust.html?ref=haiti Retrieved April 18, 2012

Source:De Parle, Jason. “Harder for Americans to Rise from Lower Rungs”. January 4, 2012.  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/05/us/harder-for-americans-to-rise-from-lower-rungs.html?pagewanted=1&hp Retrieved June 23, 2012.


Categories: Uncategorized

5 replies »

  1. Ultimately, capitalism and democracy are the only sustainable models for a civilized society. Both should be encouraged. But, as your post points out, capitalism and democracy can only survive when they cast a broad net and engage the imagination and hopes of the majority of people. Neither will thrive when their benefits are limited to a few.

  2. And capitalism only works when its worst excesses are controlled (can you say pollution?). But as Churchill once said, “democracy is the worst form of government, except all of the others”.

  3. Capitalism and Democracy are the only sustainable models for a civilized society. They both has a lot of advantage and disadvantages but we should try to design our society according to their main principles in order to have a secure living.

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