Dr David Dick is fascinated by money.
Ms Soapbox isn’t…or wasn’t until she tried to understand why Albertans kept telling pollsters they’re okay with the NDP’s plans for greening the environment, funding education and healthcare and protecting paid farm workers as long as it doesn’t cost the taxpayers any more money. (Some Albertans swear they’ll slash their charitable contributions to zero if the NDP asks for another dime.)
Ms Soapbox knows that the keep-your-hands-off-my-money mantra is popular with the conservatives but she’s never quite understood the rationale. Is it that more money equals greater happiness? More security? Higher status? What?
This is where Dr Dick comes in.
David Dick is a professor at the University of Calgary with a joint appointment in philosophy and the Haskayne School of Business. He’s also a very nice guy, who’s just as comfortable delivering a speech to Calgary businessmen as he is roaring down the highway on a Harley.
Framing the issue
Dr Dick examined the relationship between money and altruism. He says altruistic and financial motivations are not opposites, but simply different ways of thinking about the same thing.
Dr Dick illustrates this point with the seminal research of Richard Titmuss. Titmuss examined Britain’s voluntary blood donation program to see whether paying for blood donations would increase the blood supply. He concluded that payment would have the opposite effect. It would drive down the number of donors, not increase it.
The reason for this counter-intuitive result is that paying a donor to donate blood changed the donation from an altruistic act (“I’m saving a life”) to a financial transaction (“I make $25/hour. Getting jabbed by a needle and hanging around a blood donor clinic for an hour and a half simply isn’t worth my time”).
That got Ms Soapbox thinking. Perhaps conservatives (or at least some of them) aren’t just greedy people taking care of their own bank accounts at the expense of the greater good. Perhaps they’re simply looking at public goods as a financial transaction.
Re-framing the public good
Ms Soapbox is not an expert in the economics of altruism or public goods so she’ll stick with the following simple definitions (thank God for google). Altruism is the unselfish concern for the welfare of others. A public good is a commodity or service paid for with tax dollars and provided without profit to all members of society. The two concepts come together in that they both depend on one’s willingness to share with others.
Over the last few decades the progressive conservative government conditioned Albertans to think of the environment, healthcare, education, in fact all public goods, as a financial transaction. The value of the public good was determined by Albertans’ willingness to fund it under Alberta’s low tax and low royalty regime. This low tax/low royalty regime was The Holy Grail because Albertans became convinced that it would make them fabulously wealthy (some might call it the progressive conservative version of The American Dream).
When we consider the public good in financial terms, then environmental regulations could not impede the pace of oilsands development, healthcare became a cost reduction exercise which increased privatization and shaping educational programs was nothing more than an exercise to churn out students who were attractive to Alberta employers.
The new NDP government has taken a different tack.
It’s asking Albertans to consider the environment, quality education, top tier healthcare and other public goods as values to be cherished. Values that are driven by an unselfish concern for the welfare of all Albertans and not simply a financial calculation intended to maximize the wealth of the lucky few.
Rachel Notley is asking Albertans to consider what’s the right thing to do; not what’s the cheapest thing to do.
It’s not going to be easy.
Over 60,000 Albertans lost their jobs this year when Alberta’s one-trick-pony economy went bust. More lay-offs are coming in 2016.
It’s hard to be unselfish in these circumstances, but we need to remember another thing Dr Dick said: Money is simply a tool to achieve the things you value, it is not a value in and of itself.
If we value the environment and the well-being of our fellow Albertans, those with more will help those with less. And none would threaten to cut their charitable contributions when the government asks those with means to share a little bit of their wealth for the common good.
Money is a tool to achieve the things you value, it’s not a value in and of itself no matter how much you’ve got stashed in your bank account.