Friday, January 24, 2014

Self-Interest Versus The Public Good

We Canadians talk a good game. We want our unemployed to be able to find jobs, we want those with the need to be able to readily access the social safety net, and we think the plight of the working poor is pitiable. But a question that we must confront is this: Are we willing to put our money where our mouth is?

My question is prompted by two topics: the decline of the Canadian dollar and the push to increase the minimum wage to $14 (in Ontario).

First, the decline of the loonie. Even though its decreasing value is likely being encouraged by the Harper government to boost employment numbers going into the 2015 election, the fact is that a lower dollar is good for job creation, increasing as it does exports of our products and tourism from abroad.

Yet what seems uppermost on the minds of many? - the fact that imported goods will cost more, trips to sun destinations so popular with chilled Canadians are getting more expensive, and cross-border shopping trips will no longer be such a source of delight for so many.

This is just a thought experiment, but I can't help but wonder what choice people would make if they had the power to affect the trajectory of the Canadian dollar. Would they see the larger good that will be served by its current decline, or would they say that's none of their concern, and that their priority is to get the most value for their hard-earned dollars?

On a similar note, we profess our enthusiasm for a significant increase in the minimum wage, a subject upon which I have written many times. Indeed, there is some good news on that front from the United States, where, for example, Seattle's new mayor, Ed Murray, has boosted the wages of municipal workers to $15 per hour, and Seattle's suburb of Sea Tac has done the same for the 1,500 hotel and rental car agency workers.

Putting aside the usual objections raised by the usual suspects that wage increases are job-killers, there are compelling reasons for increasing the minimum wage, not the least of which is the boost to the economy that ensues when more money is put in the hands of more people. As an entrepreneur in the documentary Inequality for All says, "Just because I make $10 million a year doesn't mean I spend $10 million a year on goods and services. It's better that money should be put in the hands of many people so they spend." He went on to explain that his money is invested to earn more money, not necessarily to create jobs.

Add to that the fact that, for example, raising the minimum wage in Ontario to $14 per hour would put raise the working poor 10% above the poverty line, assuming, of course, that they are working 35-40 hours per week. Economic stimulus effects aside, that is a pretty compelling reason to support an increase.

But returning to our thought experiment, what choice would people make if they knew that any such increase means we would all pay a little more for our groceries, our fast foods, our services, etc.? Would we turn our collective backs on the greater good, or would we embrace the fact that everyone has to make some sacrifices, both business in the form of slightly lower profits and consumers in the form of slightly reduced purchasing power, if we want a more equitable society and a slightly lower disparity in incomes?

We all like to get the best value possible for our money, and I am no exception. Yet, even though I am hardly a paragon of virtue, the logic of increasing the minimum wage is compelling, one to which I readily accede.


  1. For thirty years we have been sold the notion that self interest is in the public interest. It's a tautology, Lorne. But you have to think a bit to see the contradiction..

    1. Sadly, Owen, in some quarters even modest critical thinking skills are shockingly scarce.

  2. Lorne, I think part of our problem is that we're not having an essential political discussion of these issues. There was a time when debate would rage about these things in the House of Commons. The public conscience would be informed. That all seems to have gone, perhaps evidencing a Parliament now populated by technocrats.

    Our opposition leaders don't want to discuss inequality or how it's created. They steer clear of matters like our democratic deficit. They're all petro-pols on both sides of the aisle. Tommy Douglas and David Lewis must be spinning in their graves at the leadership of Mulcair. I can't imagine that Trudeau would be proud of his own son's lack of spine.

    1. Good point, Mound. When leadership lacks vision and a moral compass, everyone suffers, including the average citizen who is encouraged only to worry about him/herself