The Written and Understood

Society rests upon written rules and established understandings. In the United States right now the written and understood are in tragic conflict.

From 1882 to 1968, 3,446 African Americans were lynched. Last week, we saw another one. A white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against George Floyd’s throat until he lost consciousness and later died. The written law responded. The officer was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. That makes sense. The protests that are rocking American cities also make sense. The legitimate protesters are not trying to bring attention to what is written but, rather, what is understood.

Written and Understood

After 700,000 deaths in a Civil War to determine if all men are really created equal, America’s original sin was vanquished. But the belief that had created slavery – a belief in one race’s inherent superiority – remained. The belief was seen in segregation and Jim Crow. It is seen in practices that still suppress African American votes. The belief was seen in the decades of lynchings and when African Americans are pulled over for “driving while black” or shot while walking home with a bag of skittles, or when jogging, or when they are suffocated while on the ground and handcuffed.

There were and are laws standing against all that. But the laws don’t matter. What matters is the underlying understanding. Too many white people and white cops understand that unless there’s a video, they can get away with harassment, assault, and even murder. Too many African American parents understand the need to teach their children to cower, avoid eye contact, and assume the worst in all encounters with white people to keep from being arrested, beaten, or killed. Too many white people think all of that is just fine and too many African Americans think it will never change.

All those understandings violate a bigger understanding. The notion of a Social Contract was first expressed by French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1762. He argued that we all surrender a little of our rights to live in a society that can then protect our essential rights. The Social Contract stipulates, among other things, that if I work hard and live right I can earn a good living and if I obey laws the police won’t bother me.

But what happens if the Social Contract is broken? What if you work hard and live right but the system is stacked in such a way that you still can’t make a decent living? What happens if you obey laws but police and the ignorant and intolerant harass you anyway? What happens if you live in a society where everyone simply understands that the way you are treated every day and the opportunities available to you depend primarily on your race, class, ethnicity, gender, or how long your family’s been here? If all that and more becomes part of what is simply understood, the written laws stand but the Social Contract collapses.

Rousseau wrote that laws are binding only when supported by the peoples’ general will. If the Social Contract dies, that will dies with it. The pandemic tore one part of the Social Contract and the economic collapse ripped another. The recent killings of African Americans, after years of similar murders, left it in shreds. And so, we have Minneapolis and 40 other cities in flames.

We Canadians have our own original sin – the treatment of Indigenous peoples. We have our own less flagrant but equally virulent racism. We can’t be smug.

Thoughtful Americans and Canadians alike should listen to those advocating a broad national conversation not about changing laws but righting systemic economic injustice, racism, and bigotry. We should listen to and support those seeking a restored Social Contract based not on new laws but new foundational understandings. After all, we know that changing laws is easy while changing minds is hard but, in the end, it is the only way to clear the tracks, douse the flames, and save our souls.

The Audacious Power of No

President Kennedy once said that most government decisions come down to choosing between two lousy options. Like all government leaders, Kennedy understood that as important as deciding to undertake certain steps is a decision to take no step at all. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, Kennedy’s military leaders and the majority of his cabinet urged him to attack Cuba. But he said no. Instead, his diplomatic efforts led to the Soviet missiles being removed and the world avoiding a nuclear holocaust. Kennedy’s courageous decision demonstrated the power of no. Let’s consider a Canadian example.

The Power of No

In the 1990s, much of the western world was enthralled with the celebration of cowboy capitalism and the veneration of corporate leaders. Government was suspect. State regulations were rolled back as mega-mergers created mammoth corporations. In the United States, the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that regulated bank mergers and separated savings and loans from investment institutions was rescinded. Elephantine financial institutions grew. They put peoples’ savings, pensions, and homes at risk to spur higher and higher profits through increasingly complex investment vehicles.

Canada’s prime minister at the time was Jean Chrétien. He had served as finance minister and so understood the issues at hand. Chretien’s finance minister was Paul Martin. As a successful businessman, he understood micro and macroeconomics. Chrétien and Martin knew what America and other nations had done with their banks and financial institutions and were under enormous pressure to do the same.

In January 1998, the Bank of Montreal announced its intention to merge with the Royal Bank. Shortly afterwards, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Toronto-Dominion Bank announced that they too would merge. The banks demanded that the merger be approved and that the Canadian government do as other governments had done and end regulations that separated retail from investment banking. Chrétien and Martin knew that in the current political climate it would be politically popular to say yes.

MARTIN/CHRETIEN/BUDGET

Chrétien and Martin

But they said no. They argued that limited competition in the financial sector was dangerous. They worried that the mergers would create institutions that would be too big to fail, leading to a situation where trouble within them would render government bailouts essential. They insisted that the regulations in place were designed to protect Canadians, the Canadian economy, and even to protect the banks from themselves.

The mergers were not allowed to happen. In fact, the capital requirements for banks – the amount of money they must keep in reserve related to outstanding loans – was increased.

Within a decade, in the fall of 2008, the world economy collapsed. Enormous banks and financial institutions had caused it through sneaky undertakings that starved their customers and fed their greed. Around the world, bank after bank fell. Former American Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan quipped that when the tide went out, we saw who had been swimming naked. But Canadian banks were suitably suited. The disallowed mergers and maintained regulations meant that no Canadian banks went bankrupt, no big bailouts were necessary, and Canada rode the storm much better than nearly every other country due mostly to its banking and financial system remaining sound and stable.

Quebec and Nova Scotia leaders said no to Benjamin Franklin when he arrived, hat in hand, asking them to join the American revolution. Quebecers said no in 1980 and 1995, rejecting ethnic nationalism and remaining in Canada. Elijah Harper said no to allowing the Manitoba legislature to vote on the Meech Lake constitutional amendments which led to its failure and the inclusion of Indigenous nations in future negotiations. Canada would be a different place if in these and many other cases there had been a yes rather than a no.

We all know the power of no in our lives. We teach our children. As we age, we grow more willing to wield it without excuses. It is an essential concept for businesses, schools, and big and small organizations. Leaders must use it. Middle managers must sometimes employ its power to remind the powerful of vanishing values. As important as what a government does, is what it does not do, does not allow, and what it prevents. We must pay closer attention, and acknowledge and applaud the audacious power of no.

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