Moving Fast and Breaking Good Things

The Ford Government has done so many ill-advised things in its first few weeks in office that one hardly knows where to begin.

As a social scientist, I think one of the worst things it has done is cancelling the basic income pilot. The pilot was a three-year experiment intended to determine the impacts of giving lower-income individuals a stable income ($17,000 for a single person with a 50 percent tax-back of earned income). The pilot was particularly interested in the impact on choices in areas such as health care, diet, housing, education, and employment. Approximately 4000 people were selected to receive the income in three areas (Hamilton, Thunder Bay, Lindsay) and another large group was selected as a control group that would not receive the payments. At the conclusion of the pilot, a third-party research consortium would determine the results.

Despite promising during the election campaign to maintain the pilot, the Ford Government abruptly cancelled it. Quite rightly, the Opposition parties have criticized this decision for its unfairness to the participants in the pilot. But a second reason to criticize the decision is for stopping an experiment before it is completed. The pilot would have produced important information about things like work incentives and decisions by lower income people to invest in human capital. As a social scientist, I find this obscurantism unconscionable.

In a previous blog about the Ford Government, I criticized the firing of the Chief Scientist. Had the Chief Scientist been on the job, I think it likely she would have criticized the government for this decision, for this reason.

In two short months in office, it is becoming clear that Ford is an ignoramus who makes decisions on the basis of hunch and prejudice, rather than evidence and reason. It would appear that his government is operating from the standard right-wing prejudice that people are intrinsically lazy, and they should be compelled – through hardship – to do whatever work is available. According to this view, if people are given a basic income, without any restrictions, they will simply spend it on beer (especially now that the price might be a bit lower), drugs, and video games. I find this prejudice a bit rich, coming from someone who, when he dropped out of college, simply asked daddy for a job in the family business.

The chief scientist could have been a position to speak truth to power, to insist on the importance of evidence and reason for government decisions. Following the organizational slaughter of Dr. Shoichet – sorry about the Yiddish reference – no new chief scientist has been appointed. My guess is that the Ford Government has absolutely no intention of appointing a successor, exactly for this reason.

What about career public servants? Will they speak truth to power in this and other instances (like a strategy for dealing with addiction)? In the case of the basic income pilot, Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod said that ministry staff told her that the program didn’t help people become “independent contributors to the economy.” Was she making this up or were craven public servants telling her what they knew she wanted to hear?

Will anyone on the inside speak about evidence and reason to a government hell-bent on moving fast and acting on the basis of prejudice? If those on the inside won’t, we on the outside had better.

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