Piketty, Inequality, and the NHL Draft.

Some colleagues and I are starting to work our way through Thomas Piketty’s new book “Captial in the 21st Century”. There has been lots of discussion on the interwebs concerning this book and there are many particularly interesting reviews out there.  For those who haven’t heard of it there are a few novel contributions that Piketty makes. The first the data that Piketty and his team collected. This little gem from Piketty sums up why this data acquisition is so novel: “For far too long, economists have neglected the distribution of wealth, partly because of Kuznet’s optimistic conclusions and partly because of the profession’s undue enthusiasm for simplistic mathematical models based on so-called representative agents”. The other thing is that he focuses not only on income as a factor inequality, but, and this is central to his overall argument, on wealth as well. This leads him to the central overarching argument of the book: r>g (where r is the rate of return on capital and g is the growth rate of the economy). So when r>g then wealth grows faster than the economy as a whole which leads to a structural form of inequality that will continue unless checked through some form of political intervention in the system.

While there were many interesting aspects and themes that my colleagues and I discussed, there is an issue that is still percolating in the pack of my mind. In collecting his data, Piketty has provided a substantial extension to existing studies about inequality, most notably the work of Nobel Laureate Simon Kuznet’s whose infamous Kuznet’s curve provides the basis for many free-market ideologues to argue that the market will ‘sort itself out’ and that any argument for increasing inequality that was a structural component of capitalist systems was nonsense. Piketty, in focusing on wealth in addition to income, was able to extend his analysis earlier in time that Kuznet (who relied on income tax data which began in response to WWI, while estate and inheritance taxes existed prior) as well as incorporate more contemporary data. While some questions have emerged concerning the data itself, and I am by no means qualified to assess those claims and arguments (one great piece about the data specifically is this piece by my friend’s cousin Nate Silver) the overarching conclusion seems to be that the data the Kuznet’s curve is primarily based on is an aberration resulting from the shocks of two world wars and the great depression and not the norm.

In social scientific terms this is known as ‘selection bias’, which is a fancy way of saying that you shouldn’t generalize from unusual circumstances. But the question it raises is what is a proper time frame to properly assess these kinds of questions? I’m interested in studying long-term governance issues for my dissertation so you can understand where this question is coming from. Questions of “sustainability” are precisely focused on the long-term stability of economic, social, and ecological systems. If you’ve got data showing that over time inequality lessens, there is reason to hypothesize that this is a ‘natural’ outcome of capitalist systems. But as the saying goes, correlation does not mean causation. The argument at hand is whether inequality increases or decreases due to inherent structural or systemic forces within capitalist economic systems. In other words, will capitalists systems lead to a place of relative equilibrium or does it lead to increased inequality that will be socially unpalatable because of the exponential power of compound growth of wealth (wealth begets wealth). Piketty’s work suggests the latter.

The good news, however, is that Piketty’s work also suggests this is not a deterministic reality of capitalist systems. Capitalism does have an immense power to efficiently, and rapidly distribute goods and services to a broad population that continually encourages increases in productivity and efficiency: doing and making more with less. Capitalism works best when everyone is playing on a level playing field. It is, or can be, a very meritorious economic system, which is why so many ‘conservative’ types find it appealing – you get out what you put in. Unfortunately, capitalism simply assumes equality. This assumption is the basis for many ‘liberal’ critiques of this economic system because some people (there will always be some) are marginalized and thus at a structurally disadvantaged position. Assuming everyone started out in the same socio-economic position, after the first generation there would be winners and loser. This is all well and good, but when being among the winners increases your odds of winning again, this establishes structural inequalities.

To use an analogy from hockey, the Los Angeles King’s are 1 win away from the Stanley Cup. Currently the NHL’s draft system is designed to keep teams competitive by giving the greatest chance to draft first (and thus draft the most skilled prospect available) to the team that did the worst. The Los Angeles King’s, assuming they win this year, will draft last. Imagine if the NHL draft was designed so that those who won the Stanley Cup drafted first (perhaps arguing that it is a reward for success)? What do you think would happen after 5 seasons? (One could also posit that Stanley Cup winning teams earned a higher salary cap as well, or even had more of their people on committees that decided on the rules such that they could alter the rules to suit their teams style of play. You get the picture). You would likely see a team that would be unbeatable for generations to come (better than Team Canada in the Olympics, imagine picking an All-star team from Olympic players). Would that be fair? Would that even be enjoyable to watch for anyone not from southern California? The NHL’s current design isn’t “robbing the rich to give to the poor” it is an institutional design aimed to keep the league as competitive as possible. Capitalism thrives on competition. Questions of social justice aside, my main hope for this book is that it can help illuminate the fact that structural inequality is bad for competition, and as a result, bad for capitalism. 



Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Individualism & Future Generations: Problems & Possibilities

This post is a very short snippet of my much larger political theory comprehensive exam paper presented at the University of Alberta Political SCience Graduate Students’ Conference in March, 2014.



At the beginning of the 21st century, political theory is largely dominated by liberal assumptions about the citizen, state, and society, with a particular conceptualization of the individual at its core (Habermas 1994). While these conceptualizations were developed to respond to some of the most pressing challenges of those times the challenges facing societies in the 21st century are in many ways of a fundamentally different nature. In particular problems such as climate change, nuclear waste, and demographic pressures, all raise important intergenerational concerns. We have an unprecedented ability to negatively affect the living conditions of future generations while simultaneously are gaining an increased ability to know and understand the long-term consequences of our collective decisions.

Questions of intergenerational justice contain a number of unique features with which other theories of justice have not had to contend (De-Shalit 1995, 4–5). Such problems include motivational problems, intergenerational transfers of wealth, unknown preferences of future generations, the one directional relationship of the present with the future, irreversibility of many issues, and the size of the future population being is unknown.

Despite these challenges, numerous scholars have attempted to deal with intergenerational issues within a liberal paradigm, often talking about the question of “rights” for future generations (Dierksmeier 2006; Gosseries 2008; Hiskes 2005; Sólyom 2002). The problem is that by remaining within a individualistic liberal paradigm we encounter numerous theoretical problems. How do we speak of human rights regarding the not-yet-born? How do we adjudicate between the rights of the not-yet-born vis-à-vis the present generation? Is “rights language” even logically coherent in a nonreciprocal relationship such as the one between present and future? This paper makes the argument that in order to act temporally we need to think collectively. In other words, we need to think of ourselves, not primarily as individuals, but as members of a given community with members coming and going over time. 

Individualism in Rawlsian Contractualism

While many are familiar with a Theory of Justice, what is less known is that Rawls presented a new means of conceptualizing intergenerational justice. From Rawls’ thought experiment about actors in an original position behind a veil of ignorance, emerge two principles of justice. The second, the difference principle (the greatest expected benefit of the least advantaged) Rawls translates into a form of temporal distributive justice, which he calls the just savings principle. The just savings principle is the foundation of Rawls’ theory of intergenerational justice. Deliberators within the original position are to determine how much is required to maintain the “just institutions within which the basic liberties of all can be realized” (Rawls 1999a, 256). Originally, Rawls suggests those in the original position are contemporaries determining principles of justice for all generations. To do otherwise would treat the original position as an actual (albeit hypothetical) deliberation about the principles of justice. The problem is “earlier generations will have either saved or not; there is nothing the parties can do to affect that” (Rawls 1999a, 255) which presents a motivation problem. It is here that the individualism inherent in Rawls’ account presents a problem. Actors in the original position are assumed to be self-interested or ‘rational’ and so have no reason to act for the benefit of others. Rawls’ initial solution is to propose that each member of the original position “represent family lines, say, who care at least about their more immediate descendants” (Rawls 1999a, 255). This then situates the individual within a particular kind of community – an extended family unit. This initial solution, however, is one which Rawls has been critiqued most heavily, primarily because it compromised the very impartiality that his framework sought to establish (English 1977; MacClellan 2013).

Later, Rawls drops this familial solution and posits that the just savings principle “is one the members of any generation (and so all generations) would adopt as the principle they would want preceding generations to have followed, no matter how far back in time” (Rawls 2001, 160, 2005, 274) or what others refer to as the “universalizability principle” (MacClellan 2013). This principle goes the farthest in creating the basis for the just savings principle particularly because it forces those behind the veil of ignorance to think of themselves as part of a larger, historical community of humanity broadly speaking.

The problem is that the decision by Rawls to limit his account to a political conception of justice (Rawls 1985, 1995) undermines the plausibility of this truly being applicable intergenerationally. By presupposing reasonableness and rationality, Rawls is forced to limit his account to a political conception of justice because it cannot provide a more comprehensive basis for these principles that would be plausible for all existing societies. If it cannot be deemed acceptable for existing societies, why would one expect this conception to be deemed acceptable for societies that have come or are yet to come? In order for Rawls’ Political Liberalism to be universal, the way his ‘universalizability principle’ seems to desire, Rawls would need to assume reasonableness and rationality for ALL generations. Without having a means of adequately coping with different ‘comprehensive moral doctrines’ Rawls restricts himself to a conception of justice that is limited geographically as well as temporally.

Communitarianism and Deliberative approaches: De-Shalit, and Habermas

I now turn to two approaches which try to address this over emphasis on the individual: Communitarianism and Deliberative Democracy. Communitarianism emerged in direct response to the work of John Rawls. Communitarians argued for more attentiveness to communal particularities contra Rawls’ pursuit of universal principles of justice. In addition, they argued for a more nuanced understanding of the way in which the self is embedded within a community that is continually shaping and being shaped by its members. Community, they argued, played a greater role, as both the source of justice as well as defining the content of justice, than liberal theorists allowed (Kymlicka 2002, 210).

Avner de-Shalit takes the communitarian approach to develop a notion of a “transgenerational community”. He writes: “among all the conceptions of a community, those that are acceptable must be compatible with the notion of free and rational agency [in which he defines rational as] subject[ing] their membership in the community to a critical examination” (De-Shalit 1995, 16). In this way, de-Shalit creates a reflexive conception of community where the community and the self constitute each other and each other’s identity. If there is no critical examination of membership, the choice to be part of that community is not intentionally shaping one’s identity. This debate leads to continued and sustained reflection on the values that shape the community. Thus it is not only shared background, but shared commitment to working out different ideas that shape the identity of the community.

 Furthermore, the commitment to working out issues with the community is what creates the bridge with future generations. “The reason I care about the future is not that there are many future selves and some of them will belong to the same organism as my present self, but rather it is the relationship between my future selves and my present self that causes me to care about the future” (De-Shalit 1995, 36). This creates a future oriented self, one that connects with future generations through our ideas and our legacies. There is a means by which our vision of what we want the future to be like, including what we hope our future selves to be, that is a constitutive feature of the present self. My understanding and thoughts of the future shape the person I am and become, thus this is part of what constitutes the self. We can then extend this process to include the future in a more communal sense, a move from “I want this to be my legacy” to “I want this to be the legacy of my community”.

Yet there is an important way in which this theoretical approach falls short. The primary impetus behind the rational process de-Shalit identifies as constitutive of the present self is to identify and maintain this communal identity. The question that arises is whether or not we might have obligations that extend beyond one’s sense of community. I believe we do, but it is insufficiently clear whether this is the case in de-Shalit’s account. Political theorist Brian Barry, for example, argues that as “a cross generational form of communitarianism, [de-Shalit’s account] cannot offer any reason for people in rich countries to cut back so as to improve the prospects of future people in other communities” (Barry 1999, 99 emphasis added). De-Shalit gives an account of intergenerational justice that leaves questions of international justice unanswered.

Jürgen Habermas makes a similar critique. He argues that the problem with the communitarian approach is an “ethical constriction of political discourse” (Habermas 1994, 4). The communitarian requires ‘moral similarity’ before one can begin to answer questions of intergenerational justice; the ethical precedes the political.

As part of his theoretical project, Habermas develops a concept of intersubjective reason which he calls communicative action. Using Chomsky’s structural linguistics (Edgar 2005, 140), allows Habermas to develop his universal pragmatics and discourse ethics with reference to the “ideal speech situation” which looks at the structural conditions necessary to allow for free and equal communicative action to occur. Habermas then uses the “ideal speech situation” as a point from which to leverage a critical assessment of modern society.

Habermas thus outlines a purely procedural understanding of justice that provides the rules by which agents deliberate over the substantive issues with which they are faced. Rawls sees his theory of justice as procedural as well, however because the original position strips the agents of any distinctiveness this makes the whole process monological rather than dialogical, with a notion of consensus that is so thin as to be utterly meaningless (Habermas 1995, 2000; Rawls 1995). Rawls arrives at principles of justice which lauds a liberal democratic political system by presuming agents that operate according to liberal democratic assumptions (reasonable and rational). Rawls, himself, recognizes this cannot be applied internationally, yet somehow does not see that it is equally problematic intergenerationally.

Habermas’ work has the potential to deal with questions of intergenerational justice because his approach develops a means of responding to the demands of intergenerational justice that is attentive to difference and changing conditions, while pursuant a universal vision. Habermas achieves this through the principle of universalization and the discourse principle. The principle of universalization (U) states that: “all affected can accept the consequences and the side effects that [a norm’s] general observance can be anticipated to have for the satisfaction of everyone’s interests, and the consequences are preferred to those of known alternative possibilities for regulation.” While the discourse principle (D) states “only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse” (Habermas 1992, 65–66, see also 1996, 107). These two principles allow Habermas to articulate a way in which a moral viewpoint might be achieved (U) and how it is justified (D). In contrast to Rawls, who develops his moral viewpoint through the original position by stripping the individual of any particularities, Habermas argues that the moral viewpoint can only occur through free and equal argumentation. Moral norms and the content of justice are something that must be worked out in deliberation among all those who are affected.

Unfortunately, Habermas still runs against a problem: a lack of interaction between subjects. While his discourse principle argues for moral norms to be actually deliberated upon, the question is whether this is necessary for his theory to remain cohesive. In the practical application of Habermas’ theory, notably in the expanding literature of deliberative democracy, actual deliberation by ALL is an impractical demand. The ideal speech situation is unlikely to ever be actually realized; nevertheless it serves an important critical role. It forces the arguments that are made to be articulated as if they were to be deliberated by others. These generalizable arguments can thus serve to incorporate future interests as arguments are made to which we might imagine future citizens agreeable. In this way, deliberative democracy has been able to propose the inclusion of environmental interests into the political decision making process (Baber and Bartlett 2005; Dryzek 2002; Smith 2003). By better balancing the particular with the universal, Habermas has the potential to navigate simultaneously the torturous waters of international as well as intergenerational justice.


Any approach to intergenerational justice needs to be flexible enough to respond to changing conditions. The issues facing society at the beginning of the 21st century are different than those facing societies at the beginning of the 20th century, or 10th century. Each generation of political theorists applied their talents to solve seemingly intractable problems facing their particular society. To treat those solutions as universal and ahistorical undermines the contextual distinctiveness which made those theories so persuasive in the first place.

Conceptualizing the self communally helps re-orient oneself to thinking about the needs and interests of future generations. This isn’t to say that the self is subsumed into the community, or required to sacrifice for the sake of community, but is a way to temper the self-interest that marks our late capitalist society. This connects with other debates within contemporary political theory about how to include those without a voice into our collective decision making processes such as different species, or the disabled, as identified by Martha Nussbaum, as examples of different communities affected by our collective decisions but unable to speak to those decisions with which they are affected. To this, one could easily add future generations.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Activism and the Arts Keynote: “On Anger and its uses for Activism”


This post is an attempt to clarify a couple questions/thoughts that I attempted, unsuccessfully, to pose after Alexa’s keynote speech on March 20, 2014.

The Political Science Graduate Students’ Association at UAlberta recently had its annual Students Conference. We elected to have one of our own, Alexa DeGagné, as our Keynote speaker. Alexa is very involved in the LGBTQ community here in Edmonton and her talk touched on some of the issues she has faced inhabiting both the worlds of “academia” and queer “activism”. Her talk, and I will undoubtedly do a disservice by trying to summarize it all too briefly, essentially argued that anger has its role in the activist life, particularly as motivation to deal with the injustices we see in the world. As part of this project Alexa set up and then tore down the dualistic binary that is established between academia and activism, a component she acknowledged was something gender theorists like herself are fond of doing. Anyone even remotely familiar with feminist theory will recognize this trope: Academia is rational; Activism is emotional, Academia is objective; Activism is biased. This all then can be imposed on typical gender binaries leading one to see how Academia = male; Activism = female. This is all well and good.

What got me thinking was that it seemed like rather than actually tearing down the binary, Alexa just seemed to be trying to reverse it. Her argument for the role of anger seems to suggest that she is trying to find a means to honour and value the role that emotions, such as anger, which are routinely dismissed or devalued, actually play an important role. While I am not a gender theorist, like so many of my colleagues here at UAlberta, I am familiar enough with some feminist theory to know that concerns over reversing binaries, rather than actually deconstructing them, is one component of intrafeminist debates.

With this general argument in mind, I was reminded of a question that was asked at a recent IPAC event about PhDs entering the public service. The person raised the question of whether “activist” people like herself could find a home in the public service under a government they might vehemently disagree with – such as the Progressive Conservatives in Alberta. The dichotomy of Public Service/Activist easily parallels the Academia/Activist binary which is what got me thinking about this idea of “activists” in the public service. One person (an individual with a PhD currently working for the public service in Alberta) responded by saying that she herself was a “bleeding heart liberal” and that she first went into academia in order to study poverty so that she could effect change. What she discovered when working in government was the power that she had to identify a problem and be able to quickly remedy that problem in a very tangible way. In contrast she talked about the timelines of academia : 2 year study, 1-2 years writing up, 2 years to get published (if you are lucky). She argued that you didn’t need to check your ‘activism’ at the door, but that many people within the public service are highly motivated precisely because of that profound desire to effect change – they just choose to do so within the system.

In this way, the public service and academia have many parallels. People go into high levels of academia (graduate work) precisely because they are highly interested in a particular subject, and often because of some desire to understand the world better in order to change it. For myself, I am studying the intergenerational dynamics of energy policy precisely because I want to know how we can make policies that are better oriented to addressing intergenerational or long-term problems like climate change, especially when their are institutionalized incentives that may bias policy making for short term electoral gain. In this way, everyone, whether public servants, academics, or activists, are all highly motivated by problems and injustices we see in the world. In a sense, we are all activists.

This got me thinking about the role that ‘objectivity’ and ‘rationality’ have to play in those various roles. Returning to the IPAC event, one of the public servants (I believe a deputy minister) was talking about a discussion with someone who was involved in the Education ministry. This individual was aware of some of the studies out there that if they were to be adopted would likely revolutionize secondary education in Alberta, but this individual said “that wouldn’t fly here in Alberta” and “if we tried for that battle we’d loose the war”. In other word, numerous contextual factors went in to considering how far these people were willing to push an issue they felt deeply impassioned about.

Objectivity, in this sense, is not so much about eliminating emotion from ones consideration, but about balancing and mediating between different perspectives and presenting information in particular way. Objectivity becomes a form of strategic performance so to speak – who is your audience, how must I present my information to them. In academia, we try to do this through evidence and argumentation – take the most compelling argument of your opponent and try to refute that. In other contexts, such as trying to raise the salience of an issue or sway public opinion you might not try to present your case in a way that seems fair and balanced, but one that evokes an emotional response. This parallels a really good blog post by my MA supervisor George Hoberg who talks about the “Three Logics of Climate Politics“. The climate policy wonk is all about detailed information assessed in context, the climate activist is trying to build a social movement of people to force politicians to do something about climate change. Repeating the phrase “game over” with reference to the Keystone XL pipeline is not necessarily intended to be an “objective” statement, but is intended to evoke an emotional response about the seriousness of the climate problem which one could easily argue is very serious from an ‘objective’ perspective, as the IPCC report has attempted to do.

The result is that rather than differentiating between academics and activists as rational/irrational, I have been arguing that objectivity is a strategic choice that has more to do with audience and context than anything else. Appealing to emotion may very well be the ‘rational’ thing to do, at other times appealing to emotion will have your audience tune you out. Activists and academics don’t always get that balance right, but there is a place for both in the various contexts we inhabit.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

E-mail to my MP Re: Reform Act

To the Honourable Laurie Hawn, 

I am writing you today in regards to an upcoming private members bill proposed by the Honourable Michael Chong known as the “Reform Act”.

I want to register my support for this bill and encourage you to vote for it.

It is my belief, as a PhD Student in Political Science at the University of Alberta, that our Parliamentary institutions have eroded to such a point that there is very little if any accountability within the system. The Conservative party first was elected to government in 2006 campaigning on the theme of accountability and shortly after arriving in office passed the “Accountability Act”. However, since that time offices established to provide accountability by that bill (such as the Parliamentary Budget Office) have come under attack whenever they did not fully agree with the Government’s (or the PMOs) official story. The fact that the PBO would have to go to court to gain access to the information required to do the job of providing accountability is baffling.

However, I want to also note that my support for this bill is not due to any qualms I may have with the current government, but that I firmly believe this to be an excellent bill for strengthening our Parliamentary institutions whether Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau, or Thomas Mulcair were to win the next election. Our Parliamentary system is based on holding the confidence of the house, that confidence is too easily come by when the leader of the party has full control over who gets to run for the party and who gets to participate in caucus (the removal of Helena Guergis, whether warranted or not, was a complete debacle from a perspective of due process). Our MPs are currently elected by our ridings and those ridings and riding associations, not the party leader, should have final say over who gets to represent them. 

You might wish to respond by saying that the current system provides stability to our governance processes that allows for strong economic management and job creation, etc. Yet other countries have similar parliamentary systems without such dictatorial control by the party leader – as Andrew Coyne notes in his recent column, this power granted to party leaders in our political system is unprecedented in Westminster systems around the globe. I strongly believe that the concerns raise by the centralization of power in the PMO, the very issues this bill intends to address, will strengthen our democracy and that these concerns about our democracy are vastly more significant than any potential threat that instability might present.

Our MPs, like yourself, are elected to represent their constituents. It is an honourable vocation you have chosen and such public service is to be commended. Yet when those Honourable members are not allowed to speak for themselves, to think for themselves, or to act for themselves, they do not bestow upon themselves the honour that their position grants them.  I implore you to take this opportunity to take back the honour, and respect your position supposedly grants you.

With humblest respect and sincerity, 

Geoff Salomons
11707-122 st
Edmonton, AB

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ethics, Intergenerational Justice, & Blood Donations

So I’m in the middle of my comps and reading lots about intergenerational ethics and political theory. Much of what I am reading is the standard analytic philosophical approach which attempts to determine principles of justice that are universal, with the razor sharp specificity one would expect from NASA technicians. This overall approach, in my mind, has several issues that I find deeply problematic. First, I am a firm believer that context matters, for ethics especially. As a result, different historical contexts raise different ethical issues especially with regards to intergenerational justice issues. For example, climate change presents particular intergenerational ethical issues that weren’t present 200 years ago. In times of prosperity, intergenerational justice demands are different than in times of lack. This is not to suggest that there isn’t a possibility of generalizing such ethical demands, but the pursuit of universality as the main focus I find problematic.

The second issue is one that struck me today heading to the Blood Clinic. Many of theoretical approaches that I have come across seek to find theories or principles that are universal and internally consistent with regard to that universality. But what is worse is that many potential theories are often dismissed for their failure to achieve this supposedly required universality and internal consistency. For example, one theoretical proposal suggests that we have obligations for future generations because previous generations have provided for us. This ethical framework, based on reciprocity, suggests that because we have received we should leave for others. But questions arise about the nature of this reciprocal relationship with no-longer and not-yet existing generations. Do we automatically owe someone because of a gift we have received from past generations? Are we obligated to leave just as much as we received? Or are we required to leave more than we have received (either to account for inflation or because ethics demands we leave more)? What is curious is the author in question of this article suggests that this approach can be dismissed on account of the very first generation. The very first generation assumedly didn’t inherit anything from a previous generation and thus this theoretical approach is no longer deemed universal and consequently internal inconsistent. Obviously the example assumes some kind of literal reading of Biblical creation stories such that at some point there did not exist human beings and then there did as opposed to an evolutionary approach that might assume a slow evolution towards Homo sapiens and the increasing level of consciousness of the human race which would suggest the notion of a ‘first generation’ to be deeply fallacious.

What I find especially curious, however, is the fact that there must be a definitive answer to intergenerational justice or none at all. This especially came to light when I went to give blood this afternoon and tried to answer why I was doing so. I know friends and relatives who have needed blood transfusions so in a way my donation is helping them out by proxy. I could assume that it serves a reciprocal function for my own self-interests, namely that I may be in need of a transfusion at some point and so it is logical that I donate in anticipation of that possibility. Or I could approach it from a Utilitarian perspective and say that blood saves lives and thus increases the overall utility of society at large. Yet many of these theories are equally lacking in the overall specificity that theorists of intergenerational justice seem to pursue. So why do I donate blood – because of a general intuition that it is the right thing to do, nothing more. Is that intuition strong enough to help future generations?

Posted in Comps, Ethics, Future Generations, Political Theory | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Comprehensives – Intergenerational Justice

So I haven’t blogged in a bit. Part of it is just trying to find inspiration in order to post quality blogs and not simply the mindless ramblings that happen to pass through my brain. But I’ve also been quite busy this summer. I’ve got lots of RA work with the Alberta Climate Dialogue project that I am an RA for AND I’m in the middle of Comps.

The UofA political science comps process is actually a really cool way of getting students read up on their sub fields. Rather than handing you an obscene reading list and sending you on your merry way to read, remember, and regurgitate, the UofA process asks us to compile our own lists and write a 40 page paper on the state of the field and produce a syllabus for that respective subfield. In case you were wondering, my two subfields are political theory and comparative politics.

As I am interested in long-term policy problems I get to use this comps opportunity to really dig into some of the intergenerational justice literature. Part of my argument is that the current dominance of liberal political theory, with its assumptions about the priority of individuals and individual rights and interests, lacks to theoretical resources to effectively respond to problems like climate change with regard to how they will affect future generations of not-yet-born individuals. We need to think generationally (that is collectively) in order to act temporally.

One of the most central problems that any text on intergenerational justice is likely to highlight is the Non-Identity Problem that was proposed by Derek Parfit in Reasons and Persons in 1984. The non-identity problem challenges general assumptions about what it means to “affect” the future, following the general democratic principle known as the all-affected principle whereby those who are affected by a decision have a right to have a say in it. Parfit suggests that decisions to address problems or to make the future better will alter who will come to exist. Consider two alternative scenarios: person A exists in a world ravaged by climate change or because actors addressed climate change the person B comes to exist in place of person A but in a world where climate change has been mitigated. In such a case, you cannot say that person A is affected because the alternative would be for that individual to not exist at all. Existence in a deleterious environment is assumed to be better than no existence at all. Essentially Parfit suggests that we should take any context as an assumed given – something which flies in the face of basic common sense with regard to future issues.

This problem has never sat well with me but often for reasons I could never really put my finger on. On the one hand, it seems to be a ludicrous conclusion that results in the over emphasis on individuals within liberal theory. If we think collectively for example, of course we are affecting future generations taken as a whole. The issue is about collective responsibility, and less about individual responsibility or individual (future) rights. My comprehensive paper is currently designed to address this particular facet – thinking about the common good and extending that to future generations. The common good takes as a given a particular community. Often this is defined as a nation-state, other times it can be particular subsets such as ethnic communities, religious communities, etc. Other approaches, like basic utilitarian approaches, view the common good merely as an aggregation of individual interests. The key is that these are all existing communities. My question is what theoretical resources exist that might allow us to extend our conception of the common good to future generations.

Another take on the non-identity problem, one that I just came across yesterday and really like, is to take issue with its sense of causality. Basically the problem treats as monocausal something that is multi-causal. The example used was a discussion between a father and a daughter, the daughter says

Dad, why did you drive all your life when you could have biked? Now you leave me with a world that is polluted because of all the exhaust from your driving.

To which the father replies:

But if I hadn’t been driving then I would have arrived home later than I did on the day you were conceived and you would not have been born so you can’t say that you have been affected by my driving.

That is the classic non-identity problem to which the daughter responds:

If you are trying to say that your driving made it possible for me to be conceived at such and such precise day and time (down to the second) there were other issues that came to play as well. You went golfing after work which delayed your getting home, there was heavier than usual traffic which also delayed you, when you got home you got yourself a drink of whiskey rather than come straight to bed with my mother….

…and you can imagine a whole host of other reasons why the father and mother conceived their child at precisely that time.

The result is that the question of who will come to exist is no longer as relevant as the non-identity problem suggests. This actually allows for one to take a more liberal approach to future generations thinking about the potential for all of us collectively to affect, and thereby be responsible for, the quality of life of future generations. Needless to say, this has been a fascinating week in the life of comps.

Posted in Comps, Future Generations | Leave a comment


A year ago I participated in a fantastic event: Ride2Survive.  (www.ride2survive.ca).  It is a 388km 1 day bike ride from Kelowna to Delta in BC raising money for cancer research.  Moving to Edmonton and other financial constraints meant I was unable to participate this year.  But it is an amazing event and so I wanted to share my experience of this event with everyone a year later.


June 20, 2013

Ride 2 Survive:

For me, a rookie on this ride, all I have to go on are my expectations of what the next 18 hours will hold.  In many ways I remain blissfully ignorant which either helps (you cannot truly fear what you do not know) or doesn’t (my expectations make me more anxious than if I knew what was coming).  In the end, what sums up my experience is that my expectations completely missed the mark.  What I expected to be more difficult was in fact easier, what I expected to be easier was the most difficult.


Before long we roll into our first stop.  Volunteers are everywhere, grabbing our bikes, filling our bottles, handing us a banana and, even thought it is 4:30 am, speakers blasting AC/DC.  It feels like it will be a good day.  After this quite stop on the west bank of Kelowna we head out, off to start the Pennask summit.  From here we have approximately 50 kms of climbing, going from 400m to 1728m above sea level.  These two legs of the ride, while they sound the most intimidating, were less onerous than expected.  By the time I reached the top, my shirt was soaked with sweat, my legs were ready for a break but the second we got on the flats of the summit and I could soft pedal and coast with the group, I quickly felt recharged.  The training paid off, the climb, as many had said, was not as bad as our Cypress training ride as the grade isn’t as steep.  While I was unsure whether I would be able to complete every single leg, my goal was to attempt them all and if I had to bow out, so be it.  However, standing at the top of Pennask, feeling great with a banana in hand, I felt like completing the ride was a definite possibility.  Maybe it was the fog that never let us see farther than the pilot car, but this was one expectation that was easier than expected.

The next leg up was the Coldwater creek run as part of the Coquihalla ascent.  The leg was recommended as a good one to take off and recharge for those who were feeling a little spent.  I decided to at least try it and if I had to quit so be it.  The weird thing about this leg was it was a lot of rolling hills, up and down, up and down.  I was getting anxious because it didn’t seem like we were ascending that much and, having left a bunch of the slower riders behind, we were moving at quite a pace.  I was getting to the point where I was unsure I would be able to do the major ascent we would need to do and then, before I realized what was going on, we were rolling into our next stop.  I looked up and the Coquihalla was just above – we had ascended, just not all at once.


Next up was Larsen hill, the last steep climb (3km) we faced.  We headed out and so far it had been overcast or sunny.  Many expected the same and so, like me, were in nothing more than a jersey and shorts.   The second we pulled out and started up Larsen hill, it started to rain.  Perhaps fortuitously, it merely rained for that climb and kept us cool (perhaps a little too cool) on the climb.  But the 3 kilometres when quickly and we were on the ‘false flats’ of the Coquihalla.  And at this part of the ride, my back started to ache something fierce, your hands go numb, and the wear of the ride starts to get to you.  But you know in your mind…its all down hill from here.  This too, was easier than expected.

At the final stop near the Coquihalla summit, we changed gear in preparation for the decent into Hope.  I was so cold from doing that last leg in just a jersey and shorts.  Volunteers were going around with hot soup.  Glorious!  Never before had Lipton’s chicken cup-a-soup tasted so good.  On the ride down to Hope, it began to rain again so we didn’t get the free reign of the road the way we previously had.  With lots of water on the road, we had to be careful.  While it was nice to be coasting for pretty much the whole way, my back was still aching and so I kept standing and trying to stretch it out on the bike.  That gives you temporary respite which lasts about, oh, 30 seconds.  Heading down, I couldn’t tuck for very long because of my back and yet, as usual, I would generally catch up and pass a lot of people.  I caught up to one of the ride captain’s and as I passed him, me more upright, he in a tuck, I jokingly said “Come on Mike, put your back into it” as we coasted along at 50-60km/hr.  He laughed.  Rolling into Hope was a sight for sore eyes; a large group of people awaited us, some with signs cheering on their rider.  And all we could see looking up the lower mainland was blue sky and a bright yellow sphere up in the sky – I think I remembered what it was called. At Hope we had our last big meal before the 140km flats along the lower mainland.  At this point, I was determined to continue.  I just rode over 2 mountains; the rest should be a piece of cake!  But I needed help, I saw the paramedic helping one of the riders stretch out his hamstrings and glutes, and I asked if she could give me a hand stretching out my lower back.  She put me in the Yoga “child’s pose” where you are on your knees, arms stretched out in front of you.  She told me to exhale while she pushed down and compressed me as much as possible.  Then she told me to push up against her hand and suddenly my back was on fire.  We did that twice and I got up.  It felt slightly better, but still ached.  Nevertheless, we still had a ways to go.  One quick group photo and we were on our way.

From Mission onward was undoubtedly the toughest section of the whole ride for me.  I kept thinking of reasons to just take a leg off but looked back at what I had accomplished thus far and couldn’t quit now.  Maybe this is the “wall” people keep telling me about, the part where it is the mental battle more than the physical one.  My back was beginning to ache again, my fingers numb, my butt incredibly sore and I just kept pedalling.  Before I knew it we were leaving Maple Ridge and heading over the Golden Ears Bridge.  Up a hill or two and there was 64th Ave.  I knew we were turning there and it was the home stretch.  I just didn’t know how much longer it was until we hit Scott Road.  This was, by far the toughest stretch of riding I did.  It wasn’t that it was a slight climb, it was the fact that, really, I was done back in Mission and still had gone so far.  I kept thinking the next set of lights would be Scott Road, only to be disappointed.  If I had stopped, for even a second, I doubted I would be able to start pedalling again.  And then, Rich grabbed Graham (two of our Ride Captain’s who are cancer survivors) and they headed to the front.  I knew we must be close.  We arrived at the gas station and got our selves organized.  Anyone who was wearing R2S gear stripped off any jackets or what not to ‘show their colours’.  (My one jersey I was able to buy was drenched in my bag after a certain thunderstorm incident).

The final stretch was perhaps the most surreal.  Mostly down hill, coasting through red light after red light as the cops blocked off the intersections.  People were cheering from their balconies – whether they knew what we were about or just saw a massive group of cyclists, I do not know.  A light flashes over top of the riders ahead of me, a few of us look up to see a police helicopter flying above with its search light on us, leading us home.  At this point, I begin to realize what a big deal this is.  I begin to realize how much support we have with us now and all along the way.  From those of you who liked my Facebook check-ins all along the way, knowing that you were following our progress throughout the day, to something as extraordinary as pulling out a helicopter to follow us home was unbelievable.  And then we arrived at the Yellow Mile.  Masses of people dressed in yellow, run out into the street as we roll in.  Bag Pipers were playing, people were cheering, yelling out “thank yous” as we rolled under a big welcome home banner.  I’m sobbing at this point (both during the ride and as I recall these events) as I wonder what my mom would think of what I’ve just done.  She passed away January 13, 1996.  And I had spent more time thinking about her the past 15 hours than I had the past 15 years.  A small part of me wonders why I didn’t do something like this sooner.  To that I have no answer.

Looking back over the whole event, from that first training ride to today, I am amazed at what I’ve accomplished and how I have changed.  I bought my first road bike the year before, but it wasn’t until a random conversation with a few customers working at the Point Grill that I was set on a path that would take me on an extraordinary journey.  Those customers were the owners of West Point Cycles and, in talking about uncertainty about work for the summer, they offered me a job right there on the spot.  That was my introduction to the biking culture that got me interested in combining cycling with something beyond mere fitness.  Be careful when talking to people, they might just change your life!

Essentially, though, I was a rookie rider – as green as they come.  Others had come from competitive bike racing groups, or had done groups rides before.  I experienced many of my cycling firsts with this group: first group ride, first ride over 30kms, over 100kms, over 150kms, first ride up a mountain, first ride in a torrential downpour, first flat tire and subsequent ride in the SAG because of my special ‘pinhead’ wheel locks that kept me from changing that flat, and the first time eating so much red liquorice in my life!

All in all, a great experience.  Just not what I expected.  It usually never is.

So much thanks to the Volunteers, the police, the ride captains, Cheerful Charles, my donors and those who supported us in whatever way they could (Dogwlkaing you say?  That’s awesome!) and to all my fellow riders thank you for your friendship and support!

I don’t know if I will be able to do the ride next summer as I will be living in Edmonton.  I know its not impossible, but the thought of doing all of that training on my own with out you guys is intimidating.  If not riding, I hope to at least be crewing next year.  Perhaps attempting to outdo Cheerful Charles’ enthusiasm!

Peace & Respect!

Geoff Salomons

June 27, 2012

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment