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Why Economics Cannot Be Separated From Politics

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With a nod to Ernesto.

The initial draft of this essay was spurred, in part, by reflections on the City of Toronto's deliberations regarding the 2013 budget. There will be more detail, more insight and more analysis than I can offer here, but there's one small oberservation that bears repeating, I think, and it concerns the nature of the budgeting process, and, by extension, governance itself. And it's something that goes beyond the municipal arena; the lesson here is, I think, applicable at any level.

One of the hallmarks of contemporary political discourse, or more accurately, the sewer into which the modern right has dragged it, is the characterization of undesirable things as "political," and the corollary implication that anything tainted by the stench of "politics" is undesirable.

When people seek to hold Rob Ford accountable for his misdeeds, they're engaging in a "political witch hunt." When the Ombudsman critiques the Ford administration for interfering with appointments, she's "politically motivated," or has a "political agenda." It's an all-purpose insult, frequently deployed by the Denzils, DoFos and Mammos of the world. When you want to kneecap your opponents, all you need to do is bluster and accuse them of "politicizing" the issue. Nothing new here, really. But it's time for some pushback. What is budgeting, really, but a process of determining priorities and allocating resources in accordance with those determinations? We decide on priorities through debate that is, ideally, open, democratic, transparent, and, yes, often messy. We participate in public meetings. We elect people to represent us and look out for our interests. Both we and they balance various interests and try, ideally, to arrive at solutions that produce the greatest good for the greatest number. Inevitably, some interests are given greater priority and more resources than others. It cannot be otherwise. That's what governance is. In prioritizing things and deciding how much to spend, we are invariably making value judgments. We are negotiating with others and making trade-offs. In other words, we are engaging in politics. There's nothing to be gained by deluding ourselves or trying to convince others that we are not. And yes, as John McGrath points out, that illusion may be easier to sustain in contexts wherein most people think, substantially, the same way. It's easier to think, in situations like that, that you're just making administrative decisions. But as communities grow in size and complexity, the number of interests needing to be balanced also grows, as do the numbers you're dealing with. Before long, you're making decisions involving millions and billions of dollars that have profound and long-lasting effects on the shape of your city and the surrounding communities, not to mention the lives of millions of people. It's either the height of naivete or revoltingly disingenuous to lament that it shouldn't be political. And it's even worse to suggest that because it's political, it's somehow icky or sordid or dishonourable. Either way, I don't want decisions left to people who think that way. Related posts: