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Patrick Luciani: You don’t have to be a conservative to be anti-woke

Commentary

Review of: Left is not Woke
Author: Susan Neiman
Publisher: Polity Press, 2023

When philosopher Susan Neiman decided to write Left Is Not Woke, friends warned her to avoid the word “Woke” in the title. They were concerned it might be taken as a move to the political Right and push her into the camp of Ron DeSantis, Rishi Sunak, or even Eric Zemmour in France. I suspect they were more worried that any attack on wokeness might mean banishment or cancellation by a political movement with all the characteristics of a religious cult. Neiman agonized over the title but stressed in the book that she was still a card-carrying socialist with all the proper credentials. But even that would not have spared her grief and ostracization if she were teaching at a North American university. She is safe for the time being teaching in Germany. 

Most attacks on woke ideology usually come from the defenders of classical liberalism, such as Francis Fukuyama, who stresses free speech, the evils of cancel culture, and policies that relentlessly push the trinity of diversity, inclusiveness, and equity. Professor Neiman now confronts wokeness from the Left and how it has broken with traditional socialist ideals of universality, justice, and progress. Neiman isn’t willing to accept the suggestion that you aren’t Left if you’re not woke.

Her first concern is that wokeism has gone off the rails by abandoning the universal principle of worker solidarity. That concept was too general for today’s politically sensitive crowd. Wokeness pushed the idea that unfair treatment of minorities and the powerless had to be fought at the micro level of society. Throw in the concept of intersectionality and political oppression is now supercharged. It is no longer a question of traditional domination of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. The hierarchy of power dynamics now includes men oppressing women, straight over gays, Whites dominating Blacks, White women over women of colour, the abled over disabled people, ad infinitum. A few years ago, American Black students at Cornell University demanded preferential treatment over foreign Black students since the latter represented a higher proportion of spots on campus. Any group or tribe can claim a special status regarding policies on compensation for past discrimination and grievances. The only groups that don’t qualify in this hierarchy of oppression are Jews, Asians, and rich men who are White. 

Woke thinking compartmentalizes groups according to their identity rather than class oppression. Wokism breaks this connection by moving us into tribes disconnected from each other. And since everyone can claim membership to one group or another, most can claim victimhood. 

Second, Neiman condemns woke attacks on enlightenment thinking. The Enlightenment wasn’t a Eurocentric invention of White men to oppress and justify the subjugation of other nations but a way to use reason to move away from religious and superstitious beliefs that held humans from their full potential. Enlightenment thinkers were some of the harshest critics of colonialism and slavery, including Rousseau, Diderot, and Immanuel Kant. Kant’s teaching was universal when he said that humans should never be treated as a means to an end. The Black scholar Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò—no apologist for the Enlightenment—insists we put Enlightenment ideas in their proper historical context. As he says, ideas must be historicized, not racialized. He even refers to the prominent anti-colonialist Frantz Fanon, who wrote, “The elements for the solution to the major problems of humanity existed at one time, or another in European thought.”

Her final objection to wokeism is the movement’s influence by the work of Michel Foucault and his concepts of power, progress, and truth. Foucault, considered the godfather of wokeism, promoted that power is the defining force between all human interactions and that truth is a naïve conviction of no value. Foucault had a profound contempt for reason and the notion that there was any improvement or progress in social interactions, an idea contrary to socialist thought. Even Noam Chomsky believed that Foucault was thoroughly amoral in his thinking. That isn’t hard to believe, knowing that Foucault endorsed sex between children and adults. For the Left, reason and freedom would liberate humans from superstition, prejudice, poverty, and fear. Foucault had no such faith. 

Professor Neiman has written a brave book against a philosophy cutting through our cultural institutions. And she is right in her criticism. Finding a government, university, or major corporation that doesn’t follow a hiring policy dictated by woke protocol is almost impossible.  

Liberalism was about centring the individual with freedom in personal affairs and commerce. Socialism added rights and entitlement to housing, education, health care, and a decent wage. Wokeness is about victims and victimhood with claims on society’s resources for past and present injustices. Who determines the injustices and compensation? Those are questions we aren’t allowed to ask. But the pushback is out there, and not just from Florida. 

Trevor Tombe: Do Canadians have a debt problem?

Commentary

Dramatic headlines about household debt are everywhere: “Canada’s household debt is now highest in the G7,” read one headline. “Households now owe more than Canada’s entire GDP,” read another

It’s not just the media. The Bank of Canada is increasingly signaling that it is “more concerned than it was last year about the ability of households to service their debt.” And the CMHC’s deputy chief economist recently warned that Canada’s high debt levels make its economy more vulnerable to any global economic crisis.

This all sounds pretty dire. 

But do Canadians really have a debt problem? 

A deeper look at the data suggests things may not be as gloomy as these headlines suggest. At least, not for most households. Instead, we should focus much more than we do on the very real challenges facing young Canadians and avoid lumping all households together.

Of course, it’s certainly true that household debt is higher than in many other countries. In Canada, households owe an amount equivalent to 107 percent of the economy—behind only Australia among advanced industrial economies, according to the IMF. Just for comparison, consider the U.S., with a household debt representing 78 percent of their GDP. Or the U.K., with their figure sitting at 86 percent. And Germany? A modest 57 percent.

This is not a new development. Canadian household debt has been rising considerably in recent decades. Today, household debt exceeds 182 percent of income—roughly double what it was in the early 1990s.

But these particular statistics tell a misleading story if viewed in isolation. 

Households have not only been increasing their debt but have also dramatically increased their assets. So while Canadians owe a lot, they also own a lot!

This might even be a better way to think about household debt. Comparing it to GDP or to incomes is to compare stocks (debt) with flows (income or GDP). Better to compare like with like, i.e. debt (a stock) with assets (also a stock). After all, in the event of a crisis leading to job losses and declining incomes, those affected can lean on savings to meet their obligations. 

In short, we mustn’t forget the other side of household balance sheets.

And I’m not just talking about the ever-increasing value of real estate that Canadians own. Selling a home is challenging, both financially and sometimes emotionally too. Even if we look at just financial assets, which excludes real estate, you can see Canadian households on the whole are doing well. Financial assets are 600 percent of income—more than triple the total debt—and over 330 percent of GDP.

So by comparing total debt as a share of assets, we get a very different story. Instead of an intimidating upward climb, the chart below presents a steadier landscape. Debt as a share of assets remained within a range of about 15 to 20 percent for most of the past thirty years. Today, it’s actually on the relatively low end of things historically. Relative to financial assets only, household debt is barely over 30 percent—also in line with historical norms.

Let me be clear, though: this is not to suggest that all Canadians are having an easy time with debt during a time of rapidly rising interest rates. The cost of servicing debt has risen from just under 6 percent of income at the end of 2021 to nearly 8 percent at the end of 2022. That’s a sharp change and an interest burden not seen since 2009. Mortgage interest payments also reached 4.5 percent of household income at the end of 2022, the highest since early 2000.

But these rising burdens are not evenly felt. The situation facing young families and new home buyers is particularly acute.

Consider younger families that have not yet built up a substantial cushion of liquid savings and must take out considerable debt to access unaffordable housing in many cities. By the end of 2022, households led by those under 35 found their debt burdens outweighing their financial assets. In households headed by someone aged 35 to 44, debt amounted to 80 percent of their financial assets on average. Debt burdens decline sharply for older households.

Young households are also typically new home buyers. The proportion of new homeowners who are devoting more than a quarter of their monthly income to mortgage payments is now substantially higher than it has been in the recent past. Today, nearly half of these buyers find themselves in this situation—more than double the normal share in most previous years. And while I don’t have data, these buyers are almost surely dominated by young Canadians.

This is where the risks are. Recessions normally lead to large increases in the share of households that can’t make a mortgage payment on time—a fact of the data that is strongly related to changes in the unemployment rate over the past half-century. That’s a real and serious risk, but not one faced by the majority of households. Indeed, it may not even be a concern for the average household. 

But it most certainly is a risk for most young households. Little wonder that young Canadians are generally pessimistic

Addressing this appropriately means a targeted response, with concrete policy ideas. “If there is a battle for the hearts and votes of young Canadians,” as Stuart Thomson noted in these pages recently, “it likely won’t be won with soaring rhetoric and patriotic appeals.” 

In short, we should take the typical coverage surrounding Canadian household debt levels with several large grains of salt. Digging deeper into the data makes clear that Canada’s debt situation may not be as ominous as it first appears. At least, not when considering the overall picture. 

Headlines that paint all households with the same broad brush divert attention from the genuine challenges confronting young Canadians. That’s where our focus should be.