The 2nd Place Prize Winner of the 2015 AIMS Essay Contest is…

Congratulations Meagan Campbell!!! 

2nd Place, $750 Prize Winner
of the AIMSonCampus 2015 Essay Contest

This year’s essay contest brought many creative submissions analyzing the deepest issues affecting Atlantic Canada. Students were asked to write both a policy report and an op-ed on any issues they felt could “right the sinking ship” that is our region. Enter Meagan Campbell.

Meagan, a Journalism student at the University of King’s College, dedicated both her essays to a seriously under-reported story in our region: The lack of prison programs in Nova Scotia’s criminal justice system, programs that promise to improve living conditions and reduce recidivism. Criminal justice reform is on everyone’s lips in recent months, particularly as US policy makers consider paths to reducing their enormous prison population.  Meagan shows that Atlantic Canada isn’t exempt from these national debates. Digging into the evidence from criminology, she argues letting prisoners do work is a win-win — the province is able to employ idle resources, and the quality of life for the average inmate is greatly improved, both during and following their sentence:  

ns prison

“It’s getting ridiculous, Captain. We’re all locked down even when it has nothing to do with our range.” This is one of 348 complaints scrawled in ten months last year by prisoners at Nova Scotia’s largest jail. More than half of them report being wrongfully confined to their cells, without programming or exercise, for up to nearly a week at a time. Beyond knocking the prisoners’ health, these programless lock-a-thons hurt the economy and community of Nova Scotia at large. And so, if the province wants to bolster productivity, we must bolster it too in the lives of the handcuffed.

Formal written complaints demonstrate that Nova Scotian inmates are consistently locked down. During lock-downs, prisoners eat in their cells and never glimpse the library, gym, classrooms or outdoors. “My lungs hurt from not getting fresh air.” “This is not right.” “It’s been four days since we got showers.” “This is causing a lot of us to be depressed.” One declares a hunger strike until they see change; another declares war on a captain officer. Lock-downs can be used as individual punishment, but with more violence and fewer staff members last year, guards locked down everyone for up to five days in a row. “It’s unfortunate,” says Sean Kelly, Director of Correctional Services for the province. “We realize it’s important to give people something to do in the course of the day.” But the word, ‘important’ is tremendously understated.

After shedding their orange jumpsuits, released prisoners have a choice for change of clothes: work uniforms or burglar masks. If they have spent their incarcerations in education programs and vocational training, substance abuse treatment and counseling, they are better equipped to find jobs, to contribute to a provincial economy that lost 5000 working-aged citizens last year. But if cell-constricted inmates have gotten depressed in the head and asthmatic in the lungs, they are set up to steal from that economy and land back in jail.

60 per cent of inmates are recidivists, with the most common offense being theft. In this spiral of barbed wire, offenders accumulate criminal records that make them decreasingly able to get jobs, scare away potential immigrants who prioritize community safety, and cost the province more than $200 each per day.

If we guarantee programs for prisoners, we also enable them to be productive during their sentences. Inmates across Canada build roads, tend land, sort mail, clean. In Winnipeg, prisoners fill sandbags to prevent flooding; in Nova Scotia, they formerly trained dogs from the pound to become seeing eye guides or adoptable pets. This is not enforcing slavery, as if it were chaining inmates to electricity-generating treadmills. Rather, they can have the chance to work for privileges or to reduce their sentences. Industry programs help prisoners help the province rather than just costing it, while also building work experience that makes them more employable upon release.

Even if we thought prisoners should be confined to cells, provincial legislation says we aren’t allowed. The act governing jail practices mandates officers ensure every offender works or participates in programs—and accommodate to prevent exceptions. While violence spiked and staff shrunk last year, neither can erase legislated duty. There’s a modest hope that new staff increases will be used to run programs and renovate security systems that can prevent lock-down-provoking violence.

Nova Scotia cannot afford to have idle prisoners any longer, both due to the cost of incarceration and all the lost potential. This scarcely mentions the grimness of being locked in a cell itself, in some cases alone. As Kelly himself admits, “I’m claustrophobic. I’d hate it.”

By Meagan Campbell

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How Capitalism Helped End Slavery

The development of capitalism and the rise of humanitarianism occurred around the same time – from the mid-18th century continuing into the present day. Clearly there is some sort of causal connection that historians and economists have attempted to describe and identify. Recently, some academics have argued that, while slavery obviously contributed to the growth of industrializing economies and capitalism as a mode of production, capitalism was ultimately the system that was able to finally end slavery and the slave trade.

What many fail to realize when examining capitalism in an historic context is that it is more than a system of economic production. Sure, much of what capitalism is boils down to a how it organizes markets – but the mode of production it creates is necessarily informed by the philosophical side of capitalism as an ideology.

From Friedman to Krugman, many economists have agreed that capitalism is more than just economic – it is informed by classical liberalism ideas, such as property rights. This small distinction can easily change the narrative of capitalism throughout history but is lost on many academics. There can be various forms of capitalism but all proper definitions are derived from the central ideas of property rights and individual liberty.

Capitalism was a force that was able to push the moral boundaries of society better than any government or revolution prior. The existence of relatively free markets in the 17th, 18th, and 19th century allowed for the expansion of moral responsibility and for individuals to address society’s values while providing an avenue for others to listen. The expansion of markets and moral boundaries encouraged promise keeping (strengthening contract law) and engaged individuals with the consequences of their actions.

Thomas Haskell has argued that if there was a technology, such as a button, which individuals around the world could use at no cost to the end the suffering or negative utilities of others, most individuals would use that button. He was illustrating the idea that, while we are passively aware of suffering around the globe, we don’t act because we are not confronted with how our actions affect the situation of others. Likewise, free markets forced individuals to contemplate their role in the slave trade.

Take for example, Mr. John Wollman – a Quaker on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Born in the 18th century, Mr. Wollman owned many businesses spanning across different industries. What ultimately drove him to oppose the slave trade was his direct dealings with the bills of sale for slaves. He abhorred the dehumanization of others, even if they were not Quakers, and ultimately decided to join the clergy and travel the United States to oppose the slave trade. Increased globalization and free markets ultimately enabled Mr. Wollman to be exposed to the horrors of the slave trade and help inform him of his fellow man.

Put simply, capitalism compounded enlightenment thinking and provided more avenues to end slavery. Capitalism, at is core, is a system that promotes free exchange and voluntary association with other parties. Countries have twisted this system to suit their own political needs, like modern day China, but ultimately lack the core tenants that are necessary in a capitalist system. As a system of production and political thought, capitalism enabled the end of slavery and can be used to end similar systems of oppression around the world today.

The Irrational Fear of Austerity

Activists, students, and public sector workers joined together last Halloween in Montreal and paraded through the streets ghoulish effigies of Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and Finance Minister Carlos Leitao wielding bloodstained chainsaws to express their disdain for the Parti Liberal du Quebec’s (PLQ) 2014-15 budget. These protests painted a grim picture of the province’s future if the cuts were executed.

Several months later, Quebec’s economy is still functioning and blood is not running through the streets. Protesters have reorganized en masse, however, in an attempt to revitalize the 2012 Maple Spring protests and unions and student groups voted for strikes in the next several weeks. Much of the grievances come in response to cuts to education and the passage of the controversial Bill 3, which reformed public sector pensions to the relative detriment of pensioners.

The PLQ’s approval ratings have fallen sharply once the electorate felt the reality of their budget. Opposition parties, ranging from Coalition Avenir Quebec on the right and Quebec Solidaire on the left, have been taking advantage of the situation by volleying criticisms toward the Couillard government. Nevertheless, Leitao seems to be holding fast to his plan by emphasizing a stable investment environment, productivity growth, and tax reform as the path toward fiscal solvency. The PLQ promised to balance the budget for 2015-16 without raising taxes on Quebecers and their plan appears to focus on cutting evenly across the board, thereby spreading the pain around, while holding the line on spending in the coming years. Following their projections, growth-fuelled revenue should outpace spending growth, which would eliminate the deficit.

Protestors demand an end to or reduction in the cuts to social services and various groups have been pushing for to increase corporate and top-tier personal income tax rates, reduce business subsidies, and eliminate corruption. Lastly, they would like an end to dubious and frivolous spending. In any case, as illustrated recently in a Fraser Institute study, Quebec’s debt is a mammoth problem and it is only growing scarier. Public debt per capita and the province’s debt-to-GDP ratio, for instance, are the highest among all Canadian provinces. Indeed, it is a struggle to find another subnational government in a poorer fiscal state.

Boasting an unusually large debt burden can be disastrous: interest rates, for example, may rise unexpectedly and such a development could jeopardize scarce public funds. As a matter of common sense, Quebec should begin reducing its public debt burden. William Watson even considers the “Grecification” of the beleaguered province to be a possibility.

Considering that Quebec already has some of the highest tax rates in North America, spending control is evidently where the bulk of reform must happen. What is a government to do?

Protestors in Quebec have a right to feel frustrated. Quebecers have grown accustomed to generous social services as government after government spent beyond its means, and thus, they have never had to reap the consequences of such uneconomic behaviour. Provincial governments have also resoundingly mismanaged fiscal matters and corruption is widespread. Naturally, those protesting in the streets have begun looking toward the top percentile of the income distribution to bear the responsibility of balancing the budget. Yet, one wonders if these protesters have an alternative budget in mind that would not require raising taxes to crippling levels.

Much of Quebec’s austerity would have been rendered unnecessary of increases to tuition, daycare, and other government services had been indexed to inflation as they should have been for decades, but those options were unpalatable and remain so. Alas, the debt has stayed put and it has put on a few pounds.

Importantly, as Premier Couillard argues, the proposed spending cuts do not actually qualify as “austerity.” Austerity refers to an attempt at shrinking the state through spending cuts. The PLQ is not proposing this solution to the province’s debt situation. Instead, it is proposed a reduction in the growth of spending, which is mild by all measures of comparison.

But, as previously mentioned, protesters have a right to feel frustrated. Leitao’s budget will increase subsidies to small and medium enterprises, reintroduce the controversial economic development “Plan Nord,” and increase spending in other areas, ostensibly to encourage economic activity. More importantly, perhaps spending cuts should be more specific, as opposed to the provincial government spreading them around all departments. Public sector pension reform was necessary, however, spending cuts in the realm of social services could have been much friendlier. Lastly, one must consider whether it is appropriate to cut spending on education in light of Quebec’s universities performing worse each year in international rankings.

It could be more palatable, and more economical, to replace some of the spending cuts to education and health by eliminating business subsidies and scrapping Plan Nord, which, in particular, is a very expensive and ambitious project dating back to the Charest era to “develop” energy and mining sectors in Northern Quebec. The province would be better served by focusing on fiscal health and tax reform and by cultivating a commerce-friendly environment. Enacting Bill 78­-styled protest repression measures, however, will almost certainly not calm things down.

All said and done, the Leitao budget is a reasonable and effective one for sorting Quebec’s fiscal mess. It is imperfect, but it mostly makes good sense and it is moderate in nature. Thus, the province’s long-term economic prospects depend on its success and, ultimately, protesters will have to join the rest of the province and confront the reality that debt cannot be reduced without everyone taking a haircut.

Leo Plumer is an AIMS on Campus Student Fellow who is pursuing an undergraduate degree in economics and political science at McGill University. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies