Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Bert Olivier is the latest to weigh in on Paul Verhaeghe's work showing that the obsessive pursuit of market fundamentalism harms our health in a myriad of ways:
What does the neoliberal “organisation” of society amount to? As the title of the book indicates, it is market-based, in the tacit belief that the abstract entity called the “market” is better suited than human beings themselves to provide a (supposedly) humane structure to the communities in which we live. But because neoliberal capitalism stands or falls by the question, whether profit is generated or not, it means that human economic activities in such a society have to generate optimal profit.

Predictably, according to the profit-driven dictates of the market, workers/employees in every organisation, from small companies to large corporations and even what used to be regarded as public institutions such as schools and universities, have been increasingly subjected to a regime of relentless competition, linked to rewards (such as promotion and bonuses) for productivity and punitive measures (no promotion, no bonuses, being fired) for lack of it. This has gone hand-in-hand with quasi-legal measures to ensure the productivity of employees and the identification of those who are not productive, such as the imposition of production-deadlines, self-assessment and company audits. Not even schools and universities have been exempted from this. It was not difficult to guess what effect these transformations in working conditions would have on people’s health.

Among those focused on by Verhaeghe are psychiatric conditions (the incidence of which has multiplied) like depression, eating and personality disorders and depression. Nor is it difficult to guess why this should be the case – if one feels that, no matter how hard you try, it is just not possible to be as productive, or as innovative regarding product-design as some of your colleagues, depression and anxiety are likely to assert themselves sooner or later.
One should keep in mind that income inequality is directly linked to differences in social status. And not surprisingly, Verhaeghe points out that low social status has a “determining effect on health” (2014: location 2375). He therefore arrives at the startling conclusion, that even in “prosperous … Western Europe, it isn’t the quality of health care … that determines the health of the population, but the nature of social and economic life. The better social relationships are, the better the level of health” (location 2375). And health has been deteriorating steadily under the neoliberal regime. Need I say more?
- And Tyler Cowen points to research on the connection between financial stress and physical health, as mortality patterns in a study of workers correlate with paydays. 

- Meanwhile, Patricia Pearson aptly observes that one mental health concern which happens to coincide with the devaluation of social relationships is being relabeled as a virtue:
The celebration of remorselessness is everywhere. Friends on Facebook have lately been reporting their scores on widely circulating psychopathy quizzes that ask users to agree or disagree with statements such as, “I never feel remorse, shame or guilt about something I’ve said or done.”

“I’m 19-per-cent psychopath!” they announce. Or: “I scored five out of 10!” As if the chilling absence of human empathy I witnessed as a crime reporter in covering trials like that of serial killer Paul Bernardo had become a fun little personality quirk.

What fire, exactly, are we playing with? Have we taken a tolerance of difference, of identity, of moral relativism, too far?
The diagnosis may be clinical, but the issue, fundamentally, is moral. What kind of a society do we wish to inhabit, with what kinds of leaders and heroes?
Real-life psychopaths do not resemble charming, focused and ruthless business leaders and politicians, or breathtakingly intelligent investigators like Sherlock Holmes. Instead, they are impulsive and greedy. Their conduct destroys companies and devastates communities. In his book The Psychopath Test, British journalist Jon Ronson points to Haitian death squad leader Emmanuel Toto Constant, a charming brute whom he interviewed in New York, and Al Dunlap, a prime corporate predator who eviscerated the labour force at Sunbeam. These men, Mr. Ronson argued, would be much closer approximations of a clinically assessed psychopath than the fair-minded Dexter.
Any bid to normalize or even celebrate psychopaths’ absence of emotional intelligence is disturbing to those who see compassion and empathy as critical to social growth. “Empathy is actually the essence of a life that contributes to civil society,” says Mary Gordon, the Canadian founder of a celebrated school program called Roots of Empathy, which is now working, for example, with Protestant and Catholic children in Northern Ireland to overcome decades of violent hostility. “If we cannot connect, we cannot collaborate.”
- The Vancouver Sun decries the stench of corruption as mining companies get special treatment and avoid responsibility for their environmental disasters after greasing the wheels with the Clark Libs. And David Frum (!) discusses the dangers behind the use of private donations to influence the management of public pension assets:
Finding ways to use public funds for private benefit has been one of the longstanding preoccupations of American finance. The villain-hero of Theodore Dreiser’s novel The Financier gets his start by persuading the treasurer of Philadelphia to let him invest city funds to enrich them both. The United States has progressed since those times, but perhaps not as far as you might suppose...
To put it bluntly: Nobody needs to pay an intermediary $13 million to entice investors into a great deal. These fees only make sense when the goal is to attract state funds into deals that cost too much, deliver too little, or are burdened with fees that are too high. Placement-agent fees are in themselves, and almost inherently, warning signs of trouble.

And yet in our belief that it’s politicians who are always and everywhere to blame for everything that goes wrong in a political system, we consign to the financial pages the abundant evidence that the most fundamental vulnerability of state pension plans to corrupt influence is located less in politicians’ need for campaign funds, and much more in the weak governance of state pension plans themselves. 
- Finally, Jim Bronskill reports on the Cons' priorities when it comes to trade barriers: while they're eager to sign agreements preventing governance in the public interest, they have no interest in discussing how to reduce or even competently manage restrictions set up purely out of spite.

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