Democratic Pains (The Long-Term Battle for Public Services)

1. Voting Pains

A seasoned public relations professional recently told me, in a refreshingly honest way, that pain plays a central role in selling an idea, product, or service. In crafting a message that will resonate with an audience, those pitching their product will be most successful if their message is couched in a framework that appeals directly to the anxiety being felt by the audience, all while demonstrating, however honestly or dishonestly, how you will remedy that anxiety.

It’s a maxim that represents both the  best and worst of messaging where any kind of sale is concerned. One can offer something that honestly and genuinely remedies a problem for individuals or a community by zeroing in on a problem and creating and distributing something that will alleviate it. On the other hand, and this is perhaps most prominent in the fashion, cosmetic, or beauty industry in general, it is possible to create pain and subsequently offer the product that will supposedly cure that pain.

In the latter case, the pain comes from expectations of beauty and aesthetics that are always set just high enough that they are unattainable without expensive surgery or advanced photographic technology, in turn allowing products to be continually manufactured and sold by appealing to a pain that was constructed and may never really go away so long as those pushing the message command such a strong presence in the media we consume daily. Here we have the most cynical dimension of advertising.

The principle of appealing to pain is not lost among politicians. Whether or not it makes for good policy is irrelevant. So long as one can spot the moral, cultural, or safety related anxieties, just to name a few, any idea that appears to confront any such type of pain can gain traction among the electorate. The objective once again is to couch the message in a set of values that speaks directly to the pain or fear of voters and citizens in general. Such a dynamic operates in the ongoing and now resurgent culture wars.

Currently, the sharpest pain among the electorate concerns finance, both their own pocketbooks and the government purse. Perhaps we are just more individualistic than we used to be. Perhaps the financial squeeze on government at all levels coupled with our own individual anxieties concerning personal debt and finance in addition to an unpredictable job market has elevated fiscal discipline to the top of our list of priorities with regard to our personal lives as well as our government.

In Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything, FS Michaels proposes the theory of an economic monoculture, wherein the most resonant and dominant story in our daily lives concerns costs and benefits. Jessica Crispin, in a review of Michaels’ book, explains,

The result is that everything in our lives is evaluated by its economic value. If you’re making an argument for putting a stop to mountaintop mining, best couch it in terms of lost revenue from pollution, the economic burden of those in the area made ill, and the potential for lawsuits. Fights for worker rights such as paternal leave are framed with stats showing that rehiring and retraining a new worker is more expensive than allowing a new father to stay home for a few weeks. Even human rights groups, charities, and environmental advocates have taken up the language of economics because, when we talk about what things cost us these days, we generally mean “financially” and not “morally.”

In the case of government, it’s not merely that we’ve acknowledged the need for restraint and reevaluation of spending. Rather, the notion has taken hold that government serves little to no effective purpose and that nearly any cut in spending is a good one no matter what might be sacrificed. Some rebel, but the powers that be agree that austerity is the necessary medicine.

It is worth noting that this is often strangely selective. In the American case, cuts to defence or military spending are seldom mentioned despite their astronomical costs and the ineffectiveness of certain aspects of defence policy. In small pockets, this issue has been raised, but not to any real effect as of yet. In most cases, if an initiative cannot be justified within the framework of a cost-benefit analysis, usually be cutting the former, then it cannot be justified at all.

Here in Toronto, a political firestorm brewed over a massive slate of service cuts proposed by Mayor Rob Ford. Mayor Ford’s brother Doug was quoted as saying, “We’re going to be outsourcing everything that is not nailed down.” Among supporters, the message resonated. So far as they were concerned, spending was dangerous and should be confronted immediately. The city was spending too much money. The gravy train needed to be stopped.

2. Communication Breakdown

Many services in Toronto happened to be spared the slash treatment, thanks largely to organized efforts among citizens’ groups who tirelessly campaigned at City Hall and participated in meetings to tout their cause. In the case of the Toronto Public Library, the attention of Margaret Atwood and a widely circulated online petition spared the system from the brunt of Ford’s knife.

It was certainly a major victory that secured significant concessions from City Hall and mobilized no small number of Torontonians to rally to save our public library system. The movement largely recruited the faithful, however, those who used the public library regularly and those who had a stake in its survival along with the country’s most famous living author. Councilor Giorgio Mammoliti dismissed those at City Hall as not really truly representative of the broader Toronto population.

I don’t want to give credence to Mammoliti’s claim, which implies that those who pushed to save certain public services should not really be considered because they don’t really know what’s good for Toronto. There may be a grain of truth to the fact that it a small and organized group of citizens rallied to save something that was not a concern for the broader population, but this does not mean that their claim is not valid or that their right to participate is void.

Nonetheless, it is worth considering whether or not this important victory can have a long-term impact, namely in whether or not it succeeded in making the case to the public at large that libraries have value and are worth preserving. Did the movement, at least for the time being, change the discourse that the gravy train must be stopped and that services are worth losing?

In the battle to save public services, this to me is a major cause for worry. Within an organized movement, at least at the local level, legislative victory and organization may be possible, but this does not necessarily entail that the hearts and minds of the public have been won.

When it comes to future battles, it will matter that the population at large understands the value of these services so that incentive is removed from attacking them. Furthermore, it matters that the importance of these institutions are clearly conveyed so that they are actually used and their benefits are actually enjoyed by citizens. Once again, as important as a legislative victory might be, these institutions have to mean something more.

This will have to be the next frontier in the battle to save and bolster public services and institutions. In my experience, it has been difficult to persuade others of the value of these services. Certainly, in electoral contexts, they are mentioned primarily with regard to cutting costs.

3. Value Reconsidered

My personal opinion is that the difficulty in defending them has to do with the fact that libraries, public parks, public transit, daycares, etc. usually cannot be justified within the context of a simple cost-benefit analysis. One can certainly stretch to say that public parks and public transit will contribute to the environment and the recreational activity of individuals in a manner that will reduce health care costs, but many of these services and institutions do not operate at for profit and in many cases function at a loss. Within the economic monoculture, and at a time of government and personal financial squeeze, arguments in favour of these institutions that are not cost-related may prove futile.

Indeed, these services produce an entirely different kind of value for a community. I use the example of a public library system because it is the one closest to my heart. The Toronto Public Library (TPL) is perhaps the only public service that has never fallen short so long as I’ve used it. Furthermore, it’s contribution to my own personal and intellectual development has been invaluable. Coming from a family that could not always afford to buy the books I wanted to read, the TPL never failed to deliver and demanded no payment from me.

My love affair with books is what made me a more thoughtful person, a more creative thinker, and a stronger writer, though I don’t deny I have a long way to go in all these respects. Nonetheless, this seemingly unlimited access to knowledge and information had a direct impact on my academic performance and provided ideal solace in a world where a teenage me did not quite fit. I directly credit the library system for fuelling a curiousity and love of learning that led me to a university education. This could not happen if I did not have access to books. The library made my socioeconomic background irrelevant when it came to my academic performance.

Keith Michael Fiels, executive director of the American Library Assocation, said much the same in response to the city Swampscott, Massachusetts considering implementing user fees for its public library system:

Libraries provide all residents with unlimited access to the reading and information resources that will mean the difference between success and failure for Swampscott residents as individuals, Swampscott as a town, and the United States as a nation. They are supported by a very modest contribution of public tax funds, and provide a fabulous return on this investment by any measure.
Sure, the library is an old fashioned concept. So is democracy. So is equal opportunity. So is getting your facts right.
Like the library, many public institutions are equalizers. Public parks afford all individuals a space for recreation and escape from the daily grind, yielding physical and mental health benefits at no additional personal cost. They are places where we might actually get the opportunity to meet those in our community. Public transit makes a city equally accessible to all residents, including those who are disabled, cannot afford a personal vehicle, or are just more environmentally conscious.
These services are not valuable for the profit they yield, but for what they make us as a community. They make us a community that is more literate, active, mentally and physically healthy, one rich with social capital, and one that is more democratic in its ability to undercut one’s socioeconomic background as a determinant of the choices and outcomes available to them. These services are not for personal gain, but an investment in future leaders and in the attractiveness of the city as a whole to current and potential residents.A city that offers little to no choice in terms of recreation, culture, and intellectual fulfillment will likely soon be hearing a giant sucking sound as talent and youth moves elsewhere. Perhaps therein lies the economic argument after all. For those who are here, however, and who will remain here, these services maintain their intrinsic value. Equal opportunity and a vibrant community need not be reserved for a young and talented “creative class.”

4. Fostering a Democratic Yearning

As much as we can articulate these values, the problem remains of selling it to a population en masse. A friend remarked to me recently that our increasingly isolated habits of living, especially in more suburban parts of the city, allow us to eschew any concern for public spaces. Our backyard is more important than the public park, which many of us may never really use. The pain of losing the benefits of such a space is simply not felt by some. The same may go for the public library or public transit, which many feel to just be an inconvenience or secondary substitute for a personal vehicle.

The current political culture may stem from Robert Putman’s argument that we are increasingly isolated and individualistic, and community is trumped by our own selfish interest. Our pain is no longer cultural or democratic, but financial and not visible beyond our own self-interest.

Overcoming this obstacle will perhaps be the most long-term and strenuous task of the fight to save public services and institutions. It’s so easy for someone like myself who has benefitted from these services to see their value both for me and others who have enjoyed them. Reaching out to those who have not benefitted from such institutions and see no reason to preserve them is another matter entirely. For many who can access these goods and services privately, even the economic argument may not be persuasive. Sure, access to books may yield better learners, but must this be funded with public money? Can we really afford that in these times?

This is where I’m still left with questions. How can something that is not necessarily financially fruitful, especially in the short-term, also be something that is popular in the political arena? Certainly, it helps for someone to personally experience what all these wonderful instituions have to offer. It helps if we have a culture that truly believes that a community is more than a place to live and work, but also one where we feel stimulated, at home, and engaged with our neighbours.

How to foster such a culture is a question to which I wish I had an answer, but I know at least that it is one that must be addressed. The battle to save public services is not over, and winning it in the long-term will depend on far more than single legislative victories. These services need to be promoted, used, supported, and a pain, or rather yearning, for a livable city needs to be fostered.

It starts certainly, with telling our own stories of what these services have meant to us and how they make us valuable to our community and how they make our community valuable for us. It’s a long-term project that doesn’t just appear when something we value appears to be in jeopardy. Somehow, we need to continually remind and persuade the public at large that these institutions are not luxuries, but integral components to the community and that they need not be justified via a balance sheet. This is how the next stage in the battle begins. The legislative component of the battle may find successes at times, but the real communicative and cultural component must now be addressed if long-term success is desired.

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