By Chris Jordan-Stevens
The rhetoric of oversimplification: Cashing in on our socio-economic illiteracy
With the Conservative leadership race underway, I’m reminded why I’m not—and likely never will be—a conservative. I won’t bore you with the details of my socio-economic beliefs here. This reach for power has brought to light a bigger problem in Canadian politics, one that impacts all dimensions of the political spectrum: political parties think we’re stupid.
Here I’ll be focusing on the important topic of inflation, though I think any hot button issue could be substituted.
Each party is trying to lay blame for inflation on an external source. The Conservatives blame the Liberals, who blame geopolitical unrest in Europe. By contrast, the NDP fingers the vague enemy of ‘corporate greed’, a feature of reality which pre-existed current inflation rates by (I don’t know) forty decades. All of them are wrong, but not for the reason you may think.
They are all wrong because they are all right. Yes, Liberal stimulus spending could have been more targeted. Yes, the war in Ukraine has led to increased commodity pricing. Yes, the COVID-recession has squashed smaller businesses, making way for their larger competitors.
These statements aren’t wrong, but they are a sliver of the truth. None of these explanations sufficiently explain inflation as it currently exists. In order to lay the blame in any of these ways, the topic of inflation first has to be simplified until it’s distorted beyond recognition.
Why do our political parties expect us to be convinced of such watered-down views? As a recent CBC article points out, “political rhetoric on inflation is out of touch with reality, experts say”. If this rhetoric is so out of touch with reality, why do parties expect us to comfortably swallow the illusion?
It can’t be because they are convinced by them. Politicians know full well how nuanced socio-economic problems are. They have ground-floor access to the chaotic intersection between money and fairness.
There is only one alternative: they must believe that we are, or can be, convinced of this watered-down version of reality. But if they think a tweetable talking point can satisfy our need for an explanation, then they must think we’re stupid.
Pierre Poilievre thinks we’re stupid. He expects us to blame the central bank—i.e. government spending—for inflation. But monetary policy can’t sort out supply-chain disruptions or increase the supply of gas.
Inflation can happen without any change in the real supply of money. Money supply is one side of a many-faced coin. Also, Poilievre has no explanation for how he would’ve handled COVID-recession differently. Would he have refused to stimulate the economy when it needed it most?
Jagmeet Singh thinks we’re stupid. In a recent Instagram post, he correctly points out that inflation is running high. He then goes on to say that the cost of living is skyrocketing while CEOs and mega-corporations make record profits. Grotesque inequality existed before, and will sadly exist after the current inflationary economic pressures. There is no argumentative fabric between the two points, at least as he presents them. As an NDP supporter, I hope the party develops a more nuanced economic position. There is an argument to make here, but the party doesn’t respect our intelligence enough to make it. Modern monetary theory, for example, lends itself well to a left-friendly economic model for government spending, taxation, and inflation. Instead, Jagmeet Singh exploits the ideological soft spot of his political base, much like Poilievre is doing with the ‘freedom fighters’.
Yes, Justin Trudeau thinks we’re stupid too. While the Liberal Party has presented a more nuanced view of inflation—for that, we have Chrystia Freeland to thank—it has also been mired in contradiction. On the one hand, the Liberal government blames inflation on external factors, first COVID-19 and now the war in Ukraine. At the same time, the Liberal government admits that monetary policy, which sets controls on the supply of money, will have a role to play in taming inflation (Liberal budget 2022, p. 13). But if the supply of money matters, then so does the degree of government spending. Perhaps the Liberal government should take responsibility for their part, especially when they are prepared to defend the outcomes of their emergency spending. And, in my view, they should be prepared: without that spending, the economic effects of COVID would’ve been more disastrous.
Rhetoric in politics is unavoidable. But if leaders are expecting us to be swayed by blatantly partisan versions of reality, then I’m worried for our political future. They would risk being discovered only if they were confident that their straw men might be confused for real ones. Sadly, they must have enough evidence to know that, with the proper set of instructions, we will fight scarecrows.
Why do they expect us to be so gullible? (That’s a rhetorical question.)
Christopher Jordan-Stevens is a writer, researcher, and activist. He is currently focused on the local housing crises, but has many interests, ranging from philosophy to economics.
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