Price and value are not the same thing

(April 14, 2021)

ONE of the challenges of teaching, like many other professions, is keeping up to date with the latest scholarship. For me, that means a lot of reading.

At the top of my end-of-term pile is former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney’s recent book, Value(s): Building a Better World for All. A quick skim confirms what convinced me to buy it: lines such as “Climate change is the ultimate betrayal of intergenerational equity” jump out at me — could Carney actually be thinking beyond the usual poker-chip economics that only cares about winning the game?

It seems so. These days, too many politicians (and their economist sidekicks) illustrate Oscar Wilde’s quip about knowing “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” To use Carney’s words, they instead need to learn that our “values” should reflect what is truly important, what really matters, in our lives together. After all, values lead to reasons, and reasons lead to choices.

Unfortunately, we have been doing a spectacularly bad job of making wise choices. This is why the planetary ecological balance is at risk, as human activities threaten our children’s future, and our own, too.

So, we need to work backward from the choices people make, first to figure out their reasons, then to figure out the values behind those reasons — and then change them. I am worried, however, by what this process reveals about political leadership in Manitoba.

I don’t care how many kitchen-table props and homespun homilies Premier Brian Pallister offers up at press conferences. What matters is what he actually does, afterwards. It is increasingly clear that the values Pallister demonstrates in his actions are different from the values that most Manitobans think are important. This is why the approval ratings of Canada’s most unpopular premier are in free-fall.

You might expect I will now focus on the ways provincial government money (our money) is being weaponized by him against unions, teachers, school boards, health-care workers, students, farmers, municipalities, First Nations communities, small businesses and environmental groups, to suit Pallister’s compulsive ideological agenda of budget cuts, no matter who gets hurt or what gets wrecked.

But this is way too easy a target. These are his choices, for sure, and we get offered rambling anecdotes as reasons for those choices that are easily dismissed as illogical or misinformed.

The real problem is what lies behind those feeble reasons and poor choices. While Pallister looks like a poster child for Carney’s critique of leaders who only measure value in terms of dollars and cents, there is a more troubling problem here: his values.

So, what can we discern about Pallister’s core values, from the choices he makes? Despite the media shtick, he does not demonstrate a big heart for the less fortunate. After all, no one accidentally buys a house on Wellington Crescent and a vacation home in Costa Rica; nor do you make a lot of money in any insurance business by discounting premiums and being generous in settling claims.

Yet apparently in Pallister’s worldview, this is OK, because we are all responsible for our own destiny — our success or failure. Government is supposed to get out of the way, and allow people either to reap the rewards of their labour or to suffer the consequences of their poor choices.

As a sop to conscience, occasional charity is bestowed on the less fortunate — such as $200 cheques for all Manitoban seniors, from a government simultaneously slashing (or off-loading) basic services and leaving some of those seniors to die, unprotected from COVID-19 in underfunded care homes.

This is not real generosity, nor is it the kind of compassion Manitobans consistently demonstrate to each other. We are often the most generous province, per capita, in charitable giving. The rural communities Pallister assumes will always support his PCs only survived their first 150 years because people cared more for each other than for themselves.

Money was a distant second to quality of life, for everyone; care and compassion were the expression of shared religious beliefs, or just of being a good neighbour. Yet, as the world spins into an uncertain future, we know that we need each other now more than ever. We are in this together, rich or poor, privileged or not, and the divide-and-conquer, slash-and-burn choices of Pallister’s government help no one — except, perhaps, Brian Pallister.

You see, I think the key value behind everything he chooses is Pallister’s desire to leave some political legacy behind him, some monument to his personal accomplishments. At the rate he is going, however, that legacy won’t be another Duff’s Ditch; more likely, it will be a smoking hole in the ground, one that will take a generation, at least, to heal.

Mark Carney says we should be “building a better world for all.” If Pallister would only read this book, too, perhaps his values — and therefore his choices — might change.

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