Tag Archives: Joseph Heath

Filthy Lucre, Joseph Heath

<em class="BookTitle">Filthy Lucre</em>, Joseph Heath

Harper Collins, 2009, 338 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-1-55468-395-6

Given the importance of money, it almost goes without saying that a good understanding of the world goes hand-in-hand with a good grasp of economics.  “Follow the Money” isn’t just good for crime thrillers: it’s a solid way to figure out what’s really happening around us.  Unfortunately, economics isn’t called the dismal science for nothing: often politicized into uselessness, the study of money has attracted, well… people with money, intent of using the results to further their political aims.  As a result, activists from the right and the left now come with preconceived notions about economics that are actively harming any rational policy discussions.

To truly understand economics, argues Joseph Heath in Filthy Lucre (subtitled, somewhat incompletely, as “Economics for people who hate capitalism”) we have to let go of a few myths, cherished preconceptions and long-held statements of faith about economics.  To this end, he presents and demolishes twelve fallacies about economics: six that are favoured from a right-wing perspective, and six that are usually held by the left.

Heath isn’t an economist; he’s a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto and already well-known in Canada as one of the country’s most interesting intellectuals after a few well-received books such as The Efficient Society and The Rebel Sell.  He’s a skilled rhetorician, and Filthy Lucre is at its best when it starts poking at beliefs that have been ingrained in us through lazy consumption of political debates.  (His metaphors aren’t always convincing, but he can usually offer further sources for readers who would like a deeper understanding of his arguments.)

In the first half of the book, he demolishes a few right-wing fallacies: Libertarianism is the first target in explaining why capitalism isn’t natural.  In successive chapters, he argues that incentives aren’t all that matters, that competition isn’t always better, that taxes are usually at their optimal level, that international competitiveness isn’t required and that moral hazard doesn’t necessarily embed morality into economics.  Game theory figures heavily in his metaphors and readers are almost guaranteed to come away from this section with a better understanding of economics in general.

What’s more interesting, however, is the second section which takes aim at economic fallacies cherished by the kind of left-leaning readers most likely to pick up a book on “economics for people who hate capitalism”: Here, Heath serves some tough counter-examples to people who still believe that prices must be set by governments, that the pursuit of money is evil, that capitalism is doomed, that equal pay is an ideal, that all wealth accumulates to the top or that equality is more desirable than efficiency.  If the book’s first section is fun to read, this second half makes the book even better, because it forces equality-minded left-leaning readers to confront their own prejudices with colder facts and ponder the trade-offs required to get to their shiny progressive utopia.

Anyone who’s familiar with Heath’s previous work will find a continuity of argument in Filthy Lucre: Heath may be writing from a deep and self-acknowledged left-wing perspective, but he’s remarkably successful at explaining the status quo, its advantages over most alternatives and the wonders of steady incremental changes.  The book argues for a keener, more nuanced understanding of the current system before setting out to improve it, and it’s hard to argue with such even-handed reason.

After The Efficient Society and The Rebel Sell, Filthy Lucre also marks a third great popular book in a row for Heath.  If anyone has missed his work so far, don’t wait for another excuse: Read the books and wait for his next one –he deserves a spot on anyone’s must-read list.

The Efficient Society, Joseph Heath

<em class="BookTitle">The Efficient Society</em>, Joseph Heath

Penguin Canada, 2002 reprint of 2001 original, 339 pages, C$22.00, ISBN 0-14-029248-0

From time to time, I find myself wishing that I’d read some books earlier.  Part of it is a reflection on my stack of things to read: Even if I completely stopped buying books right now, I would still have about two years’ worth of stuff to read.  Part of it is the vertiginous realisation that the universe of good books is vast, and there are still thousands of them to read.  The Efficient Society is one of those; a book that, in 2001, first brought philosophy professor Joseph Heath to national attention.  Heath would go on to write The Rebel Sell with Andrew Potter, which is the book that made me realize that I should be reading more of Heath/Potter’s work.  Going back in time to The Efficient Society, I end up cursing myself for not reading it ten years ago.

The basic thesis (“Why Canada is as close to Utopia as it gets”) is that our country is one of the best in the world largely because of its pragmatic efficiency.  This may be surprizing, even worrying to some: after all, most people frown at least a little when “efficiency” is praised.  Trained by decades of cost-cutting exercises presented as the epitome of efficiency, all-too-aware that “efficient” usually means cutting away the extras, fat, lubrication and slack time that make life worthwhile, readers may be forgiven for not being entirely well-disposed toward the notion of “an efficient society”.  But Heath isn’t using the word in that sense.  In his mind, efficiency means finding the best way of co-existing, the best way to deliver services, the best way to live.  It means not caring about the proclivities of other people (because being nosy is inefficient), finding a balance between private and public service delivery (because ideological approaches are usually wasteful) and understanding how social forces compel us toward common lifestyle decisions (because society works like that, and understanding why is the first step toward changing it).

As a philosophy professor, Heath is well-equipped to vulgarized grand ideas.  For instance, in the section of the book which concerns itself with moral efficiency, he proposes that old-fashioned morality is based on an ideal of human perfection.  Living up to these expectation is practically impossible; hence, the more efficient idea of tolerance; as long as others aren’t actively interfering in our lives, as long as everyone’s actions aren’t harming others, what’s the point of measuring others against an ideal that is impossible to reach?

The book is on even firmer ground in discussing economics and efficiency.  Canada, argues Heath, has found an ideal balance between European pro-state and American pro-business ideologies.  The United States, after all, seems perfectly happy wasting a few percentage points of GDP to health care billing services that a single-payer model doesn’t even need.  Europe, on the other thand, wastes GDP points by over-nationalizing businesses that should be handled by the private sector.  This efficient Canadian equilibrium between the state and private enterprise is to everyone’s benefit.  Many other examples abound, exploring the delicate interaction of the market in its modern, efficient form.  Eventually, the narrative becomes an argument for improving the status quo rather than burning everything down –a theme that Heath carries through to The Rebel Sell.

From this promising start, The Efficient Society wanders a bit during a last third notionally dedicated to social efficiency: While there are a few striking passages –the deconstruction of typical gender roles in couples raising young children seems particularly implacable- the book seems to become an anthology of Health’s ideas without much of a guiding theme to carry it along.  It’s also in this segment that The Efficient Society most clearly shows its age.  The technological references are obviously a decade old, and developments since then (particularly in democratization of web publishing, and the increasing universality of web access devices.) would be interesting to study through the efficiency prism.

Still, The Efficient Society easily contains more thought-provoking material than most other non-fiction books of its length.  Heath interrogates economics from a philosophical viewpoint (a left-wing one, albeit a more sophisticated left-wing perspective than the activist fringe) and the rest of his investigation can be just as revealing as any of the Freakonomics-style books that have been published since then.  I wish I’d read this book upon publication; maybe the world would have made a bit more sense.

The Rebel Sell, Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter

<em class="BookTitle">The Rebel Sell</em>, Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter

Harper Perennial, 2005 updated edition of 2004 original, 374 pages, C$19.95 tp, ISBN 978-0-00-639491-4

Shortly after reading Naomi Klein’s virulent No Logo, I ended up buying myself a copy of Adbusters magazine despite Klein’s own misgivings about the publication. It was the first time I purchased the magazine since high school: I wanted to see what I had been missing in the years since then, and gauge the current state of the anti-consumerism movement.  I wasn’t impressed: In-between spastic graphic design, incoherent articles and a message that didn’t seem to have evolved since the early nineties (and which may, in fact, have regressed into further insularity), Adbusters seems more self-satisfied than relevant, a charge that also broadly applies to a number of activists on the left end of the political spectrum.

So imagine my pleasure in finding kindred spirits in Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s The Rebel Sell. –also known as Nation of Rebels in the US market.  The book’s subtitle promise to tell us “why the culture can’t be jammed” and the demonstration is more than a discussion of co-optation.  Indeed, the authors demonstrate, there was never a need to co-opt, since counter-culture does nothing better than reinforce culture itself.  Their argument is complex and I’m not up to the task of summarizing their dense tapestry of ideas, but it generally breaks down in the realization that the mainstream doesn’t really exist.  Mass culture is made of many sub-cultures, including the counter-culture.  Nothing really stops anyone from adopting counter-cultural ideas as part of their individual identity, and there is a lot of money to be made selling ideas of rebellion.

So far so good; but what really sold me on the book were Heath and Potter’s demonstration that the current (Canadian) system, albeit imperfect in countless ways, actually works better than anything else tried so far.  Whereas the far left thinks it will settle for nothing less than revolution, the author point out that small incremental changes have, historically, been the surest way to chip away at social inequity… not to mention the losing gamble that is the complete replacement of an established system.  It seems like a common-sense point, and yet one that’s not often taken seriously.  Of course, small incremental changes are boring.  They require work, tenacity and, at the very least, some involvement in the messy real-world conflict of interest that is organised politics.  The Rebel Sell may be a triumph of conventional thinking, but it’s also far more reasonable than anything it criticizes.

Not always reasonable, though: The Rebel Sell is, in many ways, a sneering dismissal of left-wing power fantasies and at times it can’t avoid the trap of acting like the smartest kid in the class.  While most of the book is solid, it sometimes becomes wobbly in specific criticism.  They authors point and laugh at Naomi Klein’s musings about the gentrification of her neighbourhood in a way that almost makes me suspect that they must have had an argument with her at a Toronto social event or something.  (Not to mention their dislike of Alanis Morrissette!)  They also, regrettably, sketch a bit hastily over the point that not all No Logo-inspired left-wing activism is posturing: criticizing third-world sweat shops is about improving lives, not simply selling counter-culture merchandise.  (Maybe that point seemed obvious to the authors who, despite their targets, actually hail firmly from the left side of the political spectrum.)

But none of this changes the fresh thinking in this book.  It’s articulate, a bit smart-alecky, almost daring in its embrace of middle-of-the-road progressivism.  It’s very Canadian in how it speaks from the middle against forms of excess, and uses the ideals of the left to police its own worst excesses.  (In a formula I’m adopting from now on, they point out that the left has trouble differentiating dissent from deviance.)  This review barely scratches at the fizzy intellectual fireworks of the book, but it’s a joy to read and great way to complete the picture painted by Klein and company.  It’s perhaps most useful as an antidote and vaccine against some of the most inflamed rhetoric that starts to sound so good after eight years of the Bush administration.  Most people are, after all, reasonable people.  They don’t all subscribe to Adbusters magazine and would rather live well than climb to the barricades.

(Bonus Trivia: You can scour early-nineties Adbusters magazine and spot my name once in their letter columns.  If my memory of what I wrote there is correct, you will find out that I haven’t changed much since then.)