Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Today’s Swell Op Ed Page

The Globe and Mail has gone downhill, over the years. But today, October 17, its comments page is full of excellent, stimulating articles.

tells us that is becoming a regular, pragmatic political party in Lebanon.

and tell us that Stronach’s company and Hargrove’s union, the , are going to start cooperating instead of regarding each other as adversaries. Instead of strikes they will have conflict resolution processes and, if it comes to that, arbitration. Very nice. As someone brought up in the dust bowl instead of a city, I’ve never had a particular fondness for strikes. Surely there has to be a better way, and I hope Stronach and Hargrove have found it.

offers an interesting analysis of the differences between the Liberals and Conservatives with regard to . The Liberals used to be the bridge between the Quebecois and the federal government, but they are terribly out of favor these days. Simpson shows them a place to stand in what may be an imminent federal election.

They cannot out-national the nationalists in Quebec, says Simpson. Besides, Mr. Harper has stepped over the line, occupying some of the middle ground that the Liberals used to hold; the Conservatives now basically accept the nationalist’s view that Ottawa do nothing in provincial areas or, if it does, just hand the cash for the program over to Quebec.

How can the , therefore, find an attractive way of opposing the position? Simpson advices them to pick a social program — say national — and

“stand on the other side of Mr. Harper’s line by insisting Ottawa use its constitutionally affirmed spending power to negotiate a federal-provincial deal in an area of direct concern to all citizens.
“It would be a fine national debate. On one side would stand the Conservatives opposing pharmacare as (a) an expensive, unnecessary program, ªb) an intrusion into the sacred provincial jurisdiction over health, ªc) a further expansion of government into the lives of Canadians, and (d) an insult to Quebec.
“On the other would stand the Liberals proposing pharmacare as (a) a necessary extension of medicare, (b) a program once supported by at least five premiers during Mr. Martin’s time as prime minister, (c) an affirmation of the federal government’s relevance to citizens, and (d) the best way to restrain soaring drug costs.”

Brilliant, Mr. Simpson. I hope Mr. Dion send you roses or a box of chocolates – or whatever men send each other in gratitude. A bottle of cognac? A box of cigars? I don’t know.

Finally, the best column on today’s Globe and Mail op ed page is ’s. Surprisingly, I don’t much care for his conservative perspective, nor do I read either of the two writers whose books he compares in this fascinating column: (see photo) and . Greenspan lost me when I heard him declare his admiration for Ayn Rand and Donald Rumsfeld. Klein never attracted me from the outset, since I regard globalization as more beneficial than harmful, and wouldn’t know what to replace capitalism with – or why to try.

But as Ibbitson points out, Klein and Greenspan’s new books have some points in common. Both agree that moving manufacturing offshore to low-wage countries has depressed wages at home. (Okay. That much is probably true, I’ll admit.) But Greenspan goes further, arguing (as I believe) that “globalized trade is good for the planet because living standards are steadily rising in the developing world, and equilibrium will be reached in a few decades.”

Still, Greenspan apparently does worry about the prospects for the United States (and by extension, I’d include Canada). His answer is a remarkable theoretical account depending entirely on structural factors. The basic answer: mathematics! The argument goes like this, as Simpson puts it:

“The solution to the wage gap, Mr. Greenspan asserts, is not to increase taxes on the rich and raise tariffs, as Ms. Klein and her allies favor, because that would damage the economy and lead to greater long-term misery. Instead, the US needs to increase the pool of skilled workers, which would reduce demand for their services and depress their wages, even as the wages of those entering the pool increased.”

(I believe this because he says so, and as ex-Chairman of the Fed, he should know, but I wish I had a real feel for this kind of economic causality.) But he goes on to explain why this is not happening.

“America’s public schools are failing to properly teach math and science. No math, no skills. Simple as that.
“Why are they failing? Because teachers’ unions depress math teachers’ salaries. Forty per cent of math teachers in American high schools did not major or minor in math while at university. That makes most of them unfit to teach math. But schools can’t recruit qualified math teachers, because the unions insist that teachers be paid according to seniority rather than skill.
“Since the financial opportunities for experts in math or science outside teaching are vast, and for English literature teachers outside of teaching limited, math teachers are likely to be a cut below the average teaching professional at the same pay grade. ...
“The solution is obvious: Allow market forces to dictate the wages of teachers. Math and science teachers will make six figures; English and history teachers will have to take weekend jobs to make ends meet. Students will get a better education, the labor pool’s quality will rise, the wage gap will shrink, and the expanded base of knowledge workers will stimulate growth.
“But politics being politics, and unions being unions, this is unlikely to happen overnight. As a quicker fix, Mr. Greenspan advocates dropping the tariff on labor.
“If the market demands shoes but government bans shoe imports, shoe manufacturers get rich, but everyone has to pay more for shoes. If Microsoft needs software engineers but the federal government limits immigration, then software engineers earn fabulous salaries, but we all pay more for software, less software gets developed, and productivity and the economy suffer.
“That’s why immigration policies should be open to skilled labor...”

That chain of reasoning must be impeccable. I don’t follow it 100 per cent, but I am impressed. Those causal relationships would never have occurred to me, but they illustrates a point that I consider important. A change such as these two proposed amendments (open to skilled labor, and allow market forces to dictate the wages of teachers) are institutional changes. They do not involve preaching to individuals and getting them to change their ways. Personal changes are actually irrelevant to the solution of this problem.

I know this is true because I, personally, could not simply decide to pull up my socks and study the that I evaded in school. I could not learn calculus if my life depended on it. I couldn’t even understand basic algebra – nor high school physics nor high school chemistry, nor elementary geology at university. I am not talented along those lines so don’t waste your time preaching to me about it. Personality or commitment cannot be adjusted, except very marginally.

But there are lots of people who do have uncultivated math and science aptitudes. They are the ones who would benefit from better math instruction. And to get better math instruction, using a market system to set wages is a very good idea. And changing the immigration system could be done with very little political controversy. A stroke of the pen will handle it. are easier to change than individuals.

Next challenge: How can we get the Globe and Mail to offer an op ed page every day that’s as good as this one? There should be a Nobel prize in economics for the person who comes up with a market system that will give us all the best that human beings can produce.



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