On Jagmeet Singh’s social democratic credentials: a response to Rick Salutin

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In a column at Rabble, Rick Salutin has harsh words for the candidates in the NDP leadership race, and especially for Jagmeet Singh. In Salutin’s view, Singh does not even belong in the NDP and would be more at home among the Liberals, or the Mulroney-era Progressive Conservatives. Two claims are cited in support of this conclusion. First, Salutin claims that Singh favours income testing pensions, putting us on a slippery slope towards a two-tier health care system in which the poor are insured by the state while the rich are insured privately. Second, Singh is vocal about individual rights, whereas the NDP is traditionally supposed to be more concerned about what Salutin calls “collective rights”. In this post, I will explain why both of these complaints are without foundation.

As originally stated, the first of these claims is manifestly false. Singh’s proposed Canada Seniors Guarantee involves consolidating a number of seniors’ benefits, including the Old Age Security pension and the Guaranteed Income Supplement — both of which are already income tested. And it increases the progressivity of these programs, so that low and middle income seniors will receive larger benefits, while high income seniors receive less (or nothing at all). But the Canada Seniors Guarantee would not affect Canadian Pension Plan benefits. Salutin’s claim that Singh favours income testing pensions as such is not true.

But perhaps this is too nitpicky. Even if the specifics are off the mark, Salutin’s underlying concern still merits a reply. This is the charge that once we allow income testing in one program, we undermine the basis for universality in other programs. This works in two ways. First, Salutin claims, income testing undermines the society-wide solidarity that generates support for programs like the universal health care system. Second, once income testing is allowed in one program, progressives can no longer consistently mount principled objections to two-tier healthcare.

How does income testing undermine solidarity? “[B]y separating the benevolent haves from the needy, petitioning underclasses,” Salutin claims. The thought here seems to be that directing income support to the poor makes them dependent on the contingent, arbitrary attitudes of the well off; such dependency is incompatible with the underlying relationship of mutual recognition and respect between equals that distinguishes solidarity from other forms of assistance. But Salutin’s charge seems more apt as a complaint about charity — that “cold, grey, loveless thing”, as Clement Attlee put it. I don’t see how it applies to a state-run income support program funded from the public treasury and administered as an entitlement with simple, transparent, legally defined criteria. The latter, it seems to me, expresses rather than undermines solidarity. If Salutin wants to maintain his objection to targeted aid, he needs to do a good deal more work to make clear the connection between the kind of objectionably paternalistic relationship exemplified by private, discretionary, charitable assistance to the poor and a system based on a right to public social assistance, administered to the poor as a matter of social justice. Unless this connection can be established, the first of Salutin’s objections fails.

Salutin’s second objection fallaciously deploys the slippery slope argument against income testing any part of the welfare state. Salutin begins with the reasonable assumption that his readers are committed to universality in the health care system. He then claims that if income testing is permissible for some benefits, it must be permissible in the health care system. The basic form of this argument (what philosophers call modus tollens) is deductively valid, meaning that if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. So are the premises true?

I share Salutin’s commitment to a universal system of public health insurance, so I accept the first premise. But the second premise is false. Of course, there is good reason to think that universal social programs help build a supportive political climate for the welfare state as a whole (including those parts of the welfare state that are not universal). Perhaps this is a sufficient reason to preserve the universality of the public health care system. But as as anyone who has paid attention to the debate on two-tier health care should know, there are other equally (if not more) compelling reasons to preserve the current system.

In fact, the left’s defence of universal public health insurance has largely focused on the negative consequences of a two-tier system for those who would continue to depend on the public system. If the private sector is given a larger role in health care, the quality of care available available through the public system will suffer. Those who continue to use the public system will be those who cannot afford better insurance — people with low and middle incomes. The principle that justifies universality in the public health care system is the principle that we ought to give priority to the needs of the worst off — the same principle that justifies directing income assistance to those with low and middle incomes. Far from putting us on a slippery slope to the end of universal public health care, Singh’s proposal essentially involves the consistent application of the very same principle that justifies universal public health care.

Salutin’s second charge against Singh is that he has been especially vocal about individual rights rather than “collective rights”, the latter supposedly being a more a more appropriate object of concern for social democrats:

Singh’s lawyerly stress on individual rights is strongly Liberal too; if anything’s distinguished the NDP, it’s been backing collective rights, such as medicare, unions etc. With Singh, it’s really a question not of what differentiates the NDP, but: Why aren’t you a Liberal? Maybe he wound up at the wrong meeting, the night he decided to get involved.

It is not clear exactly what Salutin means by collective rights; he provides no definition, and judging by the examples he provides, he does not seem to have in mind the more familiar categories of group rights or social rights. Social rights, of which access to health care is a textbook example, are generally borne by individuals, not groups. And union rights are a straightforward consequence of the individual right to freedom of association — no doubt one of the reasons why it took so long for freedom of association to be recognized as one of the basic liberal rights! But no matter how idiosyncratically Salutin wants to draw the distinction between “individual” and “collective” rights, he appears to be profoundly ignorant of our movement’s history. In reality, social democrats have never been indifferent to individual rights of any kind. The earliest struggles of the labour movement — from which parties like the NDP developed — were about securing civil and political rights as often as they were about wages and working conditions. Under Tommy Douglas, the Saskatchewan CCF enacted the first Bill of Rights in the country — 35 years before the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Likewise, BC’s Human Rights Code was passed into law by BC’s first NDP government, led by Dave Barrett. Far from marking him as an outsider, Singh’s work defending people’s rights —as a lawyer, activist and elected representative — is in keeping with the best traditions of the party.

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Jagmeet Singh on poverty and inequality

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Today, the Toronto Star issued an endorsement of Jagmeet Singh. Obviously I agree that Singh is the best choice to lead the NDP, and I think the editorial board makes a number of interesting points in its endorsement. However, I found this part puzzling:

[Singh] doesn’t appear to have a deep interest in policy issues; during a meeting with the Star’s editorial board it wasn’t clear that he fully appreciates the differences between policies aimed at eradicating poverty and those designed to fight economic inequality. They are different problems that imply very different solutions.

Here is the exchange this passage is apparently referring to:
 
Q: Your platform is quite strong on anti-poverty measures but contains less specifically aimed at inequality, what would you do to address that?
 
A: There is policy we put forward towards poverty reduction focused around those who are the most unequal in society: seniors in poverty, the working poor and Canadians with disabilities. We also coupled that with the Better Work Agenda focusing on people who are in precarious work, as well as how we can build better work. We also want to end unpaid internships with no exceptions and to reinstate the Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act to ensure there are high standards of labour rights protections for workers at the federal level — which would encourage more equity and fairness for workers.

 

In response to the Star’s question, Singh points out that his antipoverty policies are also effective at reducing inequality. They reduce inequality by improving the position of the worst off. Unless specifically aiming at reducing inequality means aiming at reducing inequality while specifically aiming not to achieve any other worthwhile policy goals (an absurd definition, in my view), it strikes me as a mistake to say that Singh’s antipoverty policies are not aimed at reducing inequality.

Perhaps there is another way to interpret what the Star is concerned about. One way to reduce inequality is to improve the relative position of the worst off, and antipoverty policy is one way to achieve this kind of improvement. But inequality between the highest and lowest positions in the economic structure is not the only kind that matters; we are also concerned about how income and wealth are distributed across the range between the highest and lowest positions. Even if the lowest position has been raised as high as possible, we may still have reason to be concerned about inequality because everyone occupies either the highest position or the lowest. We should, I believe, give priority to the eradication of poverty. But we should also, to the furthest extent consistent with this priority, try to to fill out the ranks between the highest and lowest economic positions. And it is true that an exclusive focus on poverty reduction means neglecting this worthwhile goal.

But if this is what the Star means when it talks about inequality, its criticism of Singh still misses the mark. Right after mentioning his proposed poverty reduction measures, Singh mentions policy meant to fight precarious work. Precariousness affects workers beyond the bottom of the economic scale, and it presents an obstacle to those at the bottom trying to move up the scale. It follows that measures against precariousness are in fact measures intended to fight inequality in this second sense of the term. This is also true of ending unpaid internships, which are (if I’m not mistaken) mostly an issue for degree holders with relatively high expectations of future earnings, not the poorest of the poor. And it is true of improved labour rights protections, which secure the positions of workers across the income distribution. Moreover, Singh has also proposed a raft of tax reforms aimed at making the system more progressive, including higher income taxes on the top one percent of earners and a hefty new estate tax.

The Star’s complaint that Singh has not only ignored inequality, but does not even understand what it is, turns out to be completely baseless (not to mention condescending). In my view, Singh’s response to the board’s question demonstrates a stronger grasp of the issues than the board itself.

 

Free trade and “right to work” laws

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This weekend, the Globe and Mail reported that Canadian representatives are demanding an end to US “right to work” laws as part of a renegotiated NAFTA. Much of the reaction on Twitter was highly critical; I probably wouldn’t have seen the article at all without these mocking tweets.

Despite the name, “right to work” laws have literally nothing to do with the right to work. They simply exempt employees at unionized firms from having to pay for representation. Because employees exempted under RTW are still represented by a union and covered by a collective agreement, they reap almost all the benefits of membership without sharing the burdens. Unions need money to function, and RTW deprives unions of their major source of funding. As a result, union density (the proportion of eligible labour market participants who are members of a union) in RTW states is extremely low.

The case for including the demand to repeal RTW as part of NAFTA negotiations is as follows:

1. RTW laws are designed to suppress unions — they illegitimately infringe union rights.
2. Union rights, as the saying goes, are human rights.
3. RTW laws illegitimately infringe human rights. (from 1 & 2)
4. If unions are suppressed in a given territory, firms in that territory have lower labour costs, all things being equal.
5. American firms have lower labour costs because of laws that illegitimately infringe human rights. (from 3 & 4)
6. Firms with lower labour costs have a competitive advantage over firms with higher labour costs, all things being equal.
7. RTW laws give American firms a competitive advantage by illegitimately infringing human rights. (from 3, 5 & 6)
8. Free trade agreements should prohibit governments from illegitimately securing competitive advantages for firms in their territory.
9. A free trade agreement with the US should prohibit RTW laws. (from 7 & 8)

To be clear, this is not the only basis on which one could justify the demand to repeal RTW. One might also argue that it ought to be included in the agreement as a social protection measure, for example. But I think it is the argument that’s hardest to refute for people who support free trade (if only because the category free trade supporters has more members than the category free trade supporters who also demand social protection clauses).

The argument is deductively valid, so the conclusion can only be false if one of the premises is false. The vulnerable points, I think, are premises 1 and 8. RTW laws have many supporters, including Coyne. These supporters will obviously deny premise 1, the claim that RTW illegitimately infringes union rights. Premise 8, on the other hand, may be challenged on purely pragmatic grounds, as Emmett Macfarlane does here:

The pragmatic objection is not very successful, as it turns out. Macfarlane’s claim seems to be that we don’t include human rights conditions in trade agreements because this would rule out trade with too many countries. But every part of this claim is false. The NAFTA regime already includes measures intended to secure labour rights. Obviously this has not prevented Canada from trading with countries with much worse human rights standards.

What about Macfarlane’s claim that the goal of trade negotiations shouldn’t be to increase costs? As the argument I provided above makes clear, Canadian negotiators are not aiming to increase costs. Still, it is true that increased costs are a foreseeable consequence of the negotiators’ demands. With this in mind, Macfarlane’s claim can be restated as follows: “Trade negotiations should not pursue goals that are expected to increase costs.” As a normative claim, that might be true. But as a descriptive claim about free trade negotiations, it is certainly false.

Free trade negotiations are aimed at lowering trade barriers. Consider state subsidies, one kind of barrier often targeted in free trade negotiations. If a foreign government subsidises its country’s steel industry, for example, this presents a barrier to Canadian steel producers trying to do business in that country. Canadian negotiators will probably demand an end to the steel subsidy, even though this means higher costs for Canadian firms currently benefiting from cheap, subsidised foreign steel. RTW is a similar kind of non-tariff barrier. The goal of free trade negotiations is fulfilled if repealing RTW eliminates a barrier to international trade, whether or not the costs to some firms or consumers are increased as a result.

What’s the point of lowering trade barriers, then? The answer is that trade barriers are bad for competition, and competition leads to lower costs and more innovation overall. If our hypothetical foreign steel producers lose their state subsidy, for example, they face greater competition from Canadian producers. To stay profitable, they will need to find a way to compensate for the lost subsidy. Perhaps they will invest in new production techniques or find new suppliers so they can continue to sell cheap steel and still turn a profit. Or they might choose investments aimed at improving the quality of their products so as to justify higher prices. Or they might get out of the steel business altogether and enter some other industry instead.

The same logic applies to the elimination of RTW. Some portion of the competitive advantage American firms currently enjoy is attributable to the suppression of union rights. If union rights were protected in the United States, American firms would face greater pressure to develop new products and production techniques because they could no longer count on artificially low labour costs to sustain profitability. According to conventional wisdom, this pressure should keep costs lower over the long run. And the applicability of the conventional wisdom to this particular case can only be denied if one denies that American firms are capable of developing new products and production techniques. Such a denial would entail that new depths of poverty are the only kind of innovations we have left to look forward to under capitalism. And this conclusion would call far more into question than just the “right to work”.