As part of it's social policy challenge series, the C.D. Howe Institute published a rebuttal to the widespread perception that Canadian society is becoming economically polarized, Are We Becoming Two Societies: Income Polarization and the Myth of the Declining Middle Class in Canada, by Charles M. Beach and George A. Slotsve. (A summary of the study is online at: http://www.cdhowe.org/eng/word/beach.html)
An accompanying, friendly commentary by Chris Sarlo crows:
"Anyone who has followed the discussion of social policy issues in recent years, especially in the popular press, will have been told repeatedly that income disparities are growing, that the rich in Canada are getting richer and the poor, poorer. This claim is made without a shred of supporting evidence, yet some journalists, commentators, and even academics continue to repeat this canard in the belief, perhaps, that it must be true since they have heard it so often. I hope, without much optimism, that these folks will look at the Beach and Slotsve study."
Sarlo's "Without a shred of supporting evidence," would seem a rather reckless and sweeping dismissal of, for example, substantive Statistics Canada analysis such as "Good Jobs, Bad Jobs and the Declining Middle: 1967-1986" by Garnett Picot, John Myles and Ted Wannell. But, just how do Beach and Slotsve refute the "canard" of rising income disparities?With a puerile tautology.
To read the online summary of Beach and Slotsve's analysis is to marvel at the (choose one): 1. pristine naivety, or 2. sheer cynical chutzpah of the C.D. Howe Institute. Beach and Slotsve deftly disprove disparity by definition. Their prime "econometric tool" is that bluntest of all blunt instruments "the average" or, to be more precise in this case, the median income. Let's face it, folks, at a high enough level of aggregation we're all equal. (And in the long run, as Keynes would add, we're all dead.)
What Beach and Slotsve discover is that the proportion of the population hovering around the floating middle point hasn't changed drastically in twenty years, adjusting for presumably "cyclical" changes in unemployment (let's leave aside for now their presumptuous stance that unemployment "doesn't count"). I am reminded of the indignant speech by a U.S. state legislator who deplored the results of a state-wide examination of high-school students: he was appalled that nearly half the students had scored below the average (mean). In their study, Beach and Slotsve were delighted to find that incomes hover around the average (median).
To Beach and Slotsve's credit, they do acknowledge -- almost as an afterthought -- that the median income of Canadians has been declining relative to total family income for the past 25 years or so. In other words, the rich are getting richer, but one may comfort oneself with the knowledge that the middle classes are still by definition in the middle.
Are Beach, Slotsve and the C.D. Howe Institute stupid? Or do they think the rest of us are?
Beach and Slotsve's study is more interesting as a tactical move than as a piece of analysis. It is instructive to note the use of the pejorative "myth" in the study's title and to expand a bit on the procedure by which think tanks manufacture "myths".
A myth is a story. But if the study's title merely referred to "the story of the declining middle class" it would seem to lend credibility to the argument about decline. Stories offer alternative versions of reality; myths, however, are something to be debunked as "non-real". For the myth-buster, there can be only one version of reality, one master perspective, one unquestionable orthodoxy. Defenders of the faith -- whether they be Inquisitors, Stalinists, or neo-liberal economists -- are perpetually on guard to label as "myth" any glint of narrative that strays from the orthodoxy.
In the defense of orthodoxy, good arguments are inconsequential; tactics are key. Good arguments are disdained because they can be found on either side in a dispute, arguments are no respecters of authority, arguments are "inconclusive" in that they ultimately depend on one's perspective and the perspective of one's audience. But the whole point of myth-busting is to decisively exclude other perspectives. The tactics for doing so are extremely crude and apparently quite successful.
There are three stages in the myth-making procedure: labeling, repetition and amplification. Anyone can practice the first stage of myth-making. All you have to do is find an argument you disagree with and call it a myth. Your counter argument doesn't have to be particularly astute, just include enough "analysis" to bore the casual onlooker and impress the already converted.
The second stage, repetition, is more important than the first. Repeating the myth-label is a defensive tactic. An ally, such as the Financial Post or the Wall Street Journal, (or, if you're lucky, the Minister of Finance) merely cites your myth-label as a way to dismiss the heretical view. Here is a ready-made template for dismissive citation: "(Fuss and Bother) express concern about (growing income inequality in society), but (Beach and Slotsve) have dispelled the myth of (growing inequality) in their path-breaking study." An adjective such as "path-breaking", "monumental" or "authoritative" is useful for easing the transition to the third stage: amplification.
Amplification is the offensive counterpart to repetition. Unlike labeling and -- to some extent -- repetition, not everyone can play. The key here is the SIZE OF YOUR MEGAPHONE. It helps if you have a lot of money or a lot of access to opinion leaders in government, corporations and the media. The point of amplification is no longer simply to dispute the errant idea, but to drown it out entirely in a wall of unanimous noise.
During amplification it is a good idea to assemble a "panel of experts" on an issue, all of whom have dutifully participated in the repetition stage. These experts will have no trouble producing a "consensus" that is none other that the inverse of the original, offending heresy. This expert consensus needs no other ground to stand on than the "refutation of the myth".
Of course, it is open to the other side to employ the same tactics and expose the new consensus as a "myth". But whether or not this will be successful depends on the size of their megaphone.
Neo-liberal think tanks glory in the polemical game of "myth versus reality". It is a game they are sure they can win. And it's the game they play the most. Consider the title of an online publication, Intellectual Ammunition. The imagery is militaristic and the implied strategy is victory by war of attrition. The think tanks' advantage is industrial -- with a large, well organized network of policy intellectuals, sympathetic access to media and government opinion leaders and generous funding from corporations and wealthy individuals.
But what is really at stake in the intellectual policy battlefield marked out by the think tanks? Is it, as the tank thinkers claim, the promotion of free-market ideas and policy perspectives? Or is it the entrenchment of a particular fraction of the policy elite in positions of state sanctioned monopoly? Both, one might say, with the second -- strategic -- objective underpinning the first -- ideological -- goal.
Let's overlook the obvious contradiction between policy ends and careerist means and focus instead on the personal stress of doing polemical battle against an enemy who is presumably out of official favour but whose pernicious presence must be constantly hunted down and rooted out. How many of these warrior clones dimly perceive that their usefulness to corporations declines in proportion to their ideological success? Given the predictability of the neo-liberal "myth versus reality" formulaic, there can't be too much trouble pumping up the supply side of the neo-liberal intellectual labour market or, for that matter, programming a computer to churn out free market screeds. Perhaps prospective think tank internees should consider differentiating their product in order to create and capture new markets.
As for the rest of us, perhaps we could learn to develop a healthy skepticism of "myth versus reality" rhetoric. Tempting as the formula is, it only becomes persuasive when coupled with repetition and amplification -- resources that money can too easily buy. The alternative, an inclusive, narrative analysis requires acknowledging the non-exclusive plausibility of a full range of policy perspectives -- even those which we may prefer to dismiss as "mythical". To be a criterion for credibility, however, inclusiveness need not be bound by non-partisan dithering. Being inclusive does not mean being inconclusive.
What inclusiveness does mean is seeking conclusions that open up dialog to other points of view, rather than closing it off.
Tom Walker, knoW Ware Communications
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