Saturday, August 24, 2019

Money and Happiness

In recent years I have been making the case for paying people at the top of an organization no more than 3-4 times what the lowest paid member of that organization is paid.* So if the cleaner or the newly-hired junior clerk makes $30,000, $90,000 or so is an appropriate salary for the CEO. I've been arguing that on grounds of fairness, but it now appears that such ratios may benefit those at the top of the ladder as well as those on lower rungs. A 2018 study by Andrew Jebb and Lewis Tay of Purdue University concludes that there is a point beyond which having a higher income is not likely to make you happier-and may even make you less so. Depending on the measure used, the study suggests that the "point of satiation" is in the range of $75,000 to $95,000 (in 2018 US dollars). Amy Patterson Neubert (also of Purdue) summarizes the results in this way:
The study ... found once the threshold was reached, further increases in income tended to be associated with reduced life satisfaction and a lower level of well-being. This may be because money is important for meeting basic needs, purchasing conveniences, and maybe even loan repayments, but to a point. After the optimal point of needs is met, people may be driven by desires such as pursuing more material gains and engaging in social comparisons, which could, ironically, lower well-being. (Purdue News, 13 February 2018: Money only buys happiness for a certain amount)
The fairness argument is still the most compelling one, of course. But it's good to know that rich people have reason to support a much fairer pay structure too-even if they find it difficult to look beyond their own self-interest!



P.S. My attention was drawn to the Purdue research by an excellent article in today's Globe and Mail on how large houses can also make you less happy. It's by Matthew Hague; I highly recommend it. (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/home-and-design/article-smaller-homes-could-make-us-happier/)
*See "Why Plato was Right: Those at the Top Should Be Paid No More than Three or Four Times What We Pay Those at the Bottom " https://donlepan.blogspot.com/2017/06/bringing-end-to-luck-money-why-those-at.html

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Ethical Clothing and the Need for a Fashion Revolution

Over the last few years I’ve started (finally) to pay attention to the ethics of what I wear. If something’s been made by a company that treats its workers horribly, I don’t want to wear it. (The same goes for the fabric that goes into what I wear.) I’m sure many feel the same—but as anyone who has tried will know, it can be extremely difficult to obtain reliable information on such matters. When I have asked in shops, the answers I’ve received have ranged from “They don’t tell us that” to “People don’t usually ask us that sort of question” to “That’s a pretty reputable brand; I don’t think they would allow unethical practices.”

But the fact is that the vast majority even of “reputable brands” aren’t transparent about their practices. And, interestingly, there seems to be little or no correlation between the list of companies that have cultivated reputations as ethical enterprises and the list of companies that actually behave in a responsible, transparent, ethical way. I came across one instance of this recently when my partner was ordering some of my favorite L.L. Bean shirts for me. I thought I had some sense of L.L. Bean being an ethical brand, but after Maureen had put in the order I thought “maybe I’ll just check their website and see what it says.” Sure enough, the reassurance was all there in black and white—and in large print too: “You can be assured that [an L.L. Bean product] was manufactured under legal, safe and fair working conditions. Because we believe every worker—and every person—deserves respect.”

Those visiting the site can also click on the L.L. Bean Official Manufacturer’s Code of Conduct. That’s in much smaller print. Here is some of what it says:
As a base, employers will pay employees the prevailing industry wage or at least the minimum wage required by local law, whichever is higher….
Except in extraordinary business circumstances, employees …will not be required to work more than … 66 hours per week.
My favorite L.L. Bean shirts are made in Malaysia, so I looked up the minimum wage in Malaysia—it’s equivalent to roughly $1.25 in American currency. Was the “prevailing industry wage” any higher? I couldn’t find anything suggesting that it was; “prevailing industry wage” is of course a notoriously slippery term. So too is “extraordinary business circumstances.” I sent the folks at L.L. Bean an email:
Dear LL Bean

… I’d always assumed LL Bean would have high standards; what a rude shock it was to discover that what you describe as “strict standards” are in fact so lax. You allow people to work 66 hours per week in your factories—that’s 10 ½ hours a day, 6 days a week! But in fact they may have to work even more than that if their employer declares that “extraordinary business circumstances” apply. That’s a loophole wide enough to drive a Mack Truck through.

And how much are employees paid? In Malaysia, where these shirts are made, I see the local minimum wage is 5.05 local currency an hour—equivalent to roughly US $1.25. In other words, when one checks out the fine print in your “Official Manufacturer’s Code of Conduct,” it’s clear that the workers in your factories can work incredibly long hours at incredibly low wages. Yet in the large print you make this boast: “you can be assured that it was manufactured under legal, safe and fair working conditions. Because we believe every worker – and every person – deserves respect.”

How do you square the two? And when will you be raising your standards?

That was over a month ago; I’ve received no reply.

But I did discover late last week that L.L. Bean is far from unusual. The CBC had an excellent feature last Friday on The Current—a David Common interview with Carry Somers, the founder and head of Fashion Revolution, “an advocacy group that demands transparency and improved business practices in the fashion industry.” They publish a Fashion Transparency Index that lists 200 leading suppliers of clothing—and ranks them. I urge you to check it out. You’ll find, among other things, that no brand achieved a score of over 70%, and that only five brands achieved a score of between 61 and 70%. Of the 200, 92 scored in the 0-10% range. And in between? Let me pass along a very partial list of the various categories:
61-70%: 5 brands— Adidas, Reebok, Patagonia, Esprit, H&M

51-60%: 15 brands, including The North Face, Wrangler, Nike, Converse, Banana Republic, The Gap, Old Navy, and Levi Strauss

41-50%: 17 brands, including Hugo Boss, Calvin Klein, United Colors of Benetton, Tommy Hilfiger, and Lululemon

31-40%: 15 brands, including Gucci, St Laurent, Bonprix, Burberry, and Target

21-30%: 30 brands, including Walmart, Hudson’s Bay, Saks Fifth Avenue, Ralph Lauren, Prada

11-20%: 47 brands, including Land’s End, Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, Hanes, Macy’s Bloomingdales, Joe Fresh, J.C. Penney, J. Crew

0-10%: 92, including Brooks Brothers, Footlocker, Urban Outfitters, Versace, Eddie Bauer—and L.L. Bean
Again, there seems to be little or no correlation between the list of companies that have cultivated reputations as ethical enterprises and companies that actually behave in a responsible, transparent, ethical way. Nor is there much correlation between higher priced, luxury brands and brands that behave more ethically. Prada and Ralph Lauren and Saks Fifth Avenue are in the same low group as Walmart—while Old Navy and Converse are in the second-highest group. Not surprisingly, I suppose, the companies that could most easily afford to treat their workers better are not always most likely to do so.

I know one thing: next time I buy shirts, I’m going to be looking at what Patagonia has to offer before I consider buying my old favorites at L.L. Bean!

Deforestation

I sent the letter below to The Globe and Mail this past week after reading an excellent column by Paul Shapiro. The letter was published in yesterday's paper (along with a very good letter by Anna Pippus, calling for governments to play a much more active role on these issues).
Re If You Don’t Want to Ditch Meat For your own Health, Do It To Avoid Pandemics (April 24): Paul Shapiro’s piece on the many good reasons we should transition away from eating animals mentions the UN’s conclusion that 15% of greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to animal agriculture. But the relevant UN Food and Agriculture Organization study looked only at the agricultural operations themselves. An additional 10-15% is attributable to deforestation, which is primarily also related to animal agriculture; we cut down “carbon sink” forests primarily in order to grow crops that are to be fed not to us, but to animals we will then eat.

When we obtain our nourishment directly from plant sources, far, far fewer forests are destroyed; if we transition away from eating animal products, the net positive effect on climate change will be closer to 30% than 15%.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Voting Green

I've just posted the message below on the Facebook page of Vegans of Nanaimo. (That's a group that had a little over 400 members a year or so ago; now it's well over 1,000--in a city of fewer than 100,000.)
For the past several months I’ve been doing everything I can to lobby two Canadian political parties—the Green Party and the New Democratic Party—on issues relating to the harms caused by animal agriculture to the environment, to human health, and of course to non-human animals.

A couple of weeks ago I urged members of this group to come out to a town-hall style NDP meeting at which federal leader Jagmeet Singh would be speaking. As those of you who were there will know, both he and local candidate Bob Chamberlin spoke at some length about the environment. As is usual for New Democrats, however, they said nothing in that context about animal agriculture. The flyers I started to distribute on this issue were collected by an NDP staffer almost as fast as I could hand them out. When I spoke with Singh one-on-one following the meeting—the second time I had spoken to him on this issue—he said he was thinking about it; he gave no indication that his thoughts might translate into policy recommendations for the party anytime soon. Over the phone, a staffer said local candidate Bob Chamberlin would phone me about this issue; he never has. I had also written Singh (and two other NDP MPs who I thought might have an interest in this area) over 6 months ago; there has been no response whatsoever from any of them.

Over the same period I’ve been in touch with Green Party people; what a contrast! When I wrote Green Party shadow cabinet members last fall on these issues, several responded thoughtfully and at length. Elizabeth May herself eventually wrote to say that she agreed that “we must transition to a more plant-based diet as part of the fight to combat climate change.” And this week local candidate Paul Manly wrote, saying that he “definitely would support policies to encourage Canadians to eat a plant based diet.”

The Green Party as a whole is still very far from fully recognizing the importance of these issues. As my email correspondence with Green shadow cabinet members made clear, there are many in the party who regard it as much more important to support organic meat and dairy operations than it is to encourage Canadians to move away from animal products, period. And there are many Greens too who are reluctant to acknowledge the importance of animal agriculture (and associated deforestation) as a key driver of climate change; under the heading “Solving the Climate Crisis,” the Green Party’s website still says absolutely nothing about animal agriculture and the degree to which it contributes to climate change. At the moment there is nothing on the party’s website supporting policies to encourage Canadians to eat fewer animal products, and more plants and vegetables. But however slowly, the Green Party does seem to be moving in the right direction on these issues—and certainly that seems to be the case for Party leader Elizabeth May and local candidate Paul Manly. Moreover, the Greens are clearly open to hearing us—and to welcoming us into the Green Party and encouraging us to try to influence the shaping of future policies. The NDP, on the other hand, does not seem to be moving at all on these issues—and they don’t even seem willing to listen.

I first joined the NDP in 1978, and I’ve volunteered for the party in dozens of elections since then. I ran as a federal candidate for the New Democrats in 2000. But gradually over the past couple of decades (I started changing my meat-eating habits in the late 1990s, and went vegan in 2011) I’ve come more and more to appreciate just how important and just how interconnected these issues are. On this network of issues—arguably the most important we face today—the NDP has failed completely. I’ll be voting for Paul Manly and the Greens in the May 6 by-election; I urge you to do the same.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Eating Vegan – Is It Elitist and Expensive, or Cheap and Cheerful?

Just about everyone knows that, as formerly-poor countries such as China and India have become richer, many people in those countries have developed a taste for foods that were previously beyond their budget—most notably, animal products.

And just about everyone in North America also knows that, in this part of the world, “the high costs [of vegetarian and vegan options] make them inaccessible to many” (Sylvain Charlebois in The Globe and Mail, 22 January, 2019).

Can both these ‘knowings’ be right? Can it really be the case that animal products are far more expensive than vegetable ones in India or China, but far less expensive in North America?

No, is the short answer.

Let’s compare. Say you’re planning to make a simple spaghetti and tomato sauce meal tonight. For protein you can throw in 454 gram package of extra firm tofu, cubed. That will set you back $2.89 at the local grocery story here in Nanaimo—or, if you want to go organic, $3.79 for the same size package. What if you choose ground beef for your protein instead? If you buy the “family size” lean ground beef, it will cost you $4.99 for 454 grams ($1.10 per 100 grams). If you want to go upscale, 454 grams of organic lean ground beef will cost you $7.99 (1.76 per 100 grams); 454 grams of non-organic but extra lean will cost you $6.99 ($1.54 per 100 grams). So here’s the chart:

Extra firm tofu (regular) $2.89

Extra firm tofu (organic) $3.79

Lean ground beef (regular) $4.99

Lean ground beef (organic) $7.99

Extra lean ground beef $6.99
Partisan carnivores might reasonably quibble here that there’s more protein in 454 grams of lean ground beef than there is in 454 grams of extra firm tofu—and partisans of another stripe might reasonably respond that it’s now been conclusively demonstrated that humans require far less protein than the food guides of the past (and the meat and dairy industries) long tried to make us all believe. Either way, it would be hard to argue on the basis of these prices that the vegan option is the more expensive one.

The above is in fact an example stacked in favor of making meat options seem cheaper; let’s look as well at a chili dish as a point of comparison. Our recipe for “Great and Fast Vegan Chili” of course calls for no meat—and it needs no tofu either, since there’s lots of protein in the kidney beans. (The full list of ingredients includes an onion, several cloves of garlic, a large tin of diced tomatoes, 1 large tin of kidney beans, and spices). That’s pretty much the basis for most chilis with meat in them too—except for the meat, which of course is a lot more expensive than kidney beans are. If you want your chili to be served con carne, the meat costs extra—and it's a cost you simply don't need to incur if you choose the vegan alternative.

But what if you really want a “meat and two veg” sort of meal? Maureen and I often still want exactly that; our go-to option for the “meat” part of it tends to be Tofurky brand tofu-based meatless Italian Sausage. That is definitely something of a premium product; a pack of four large sausages costs $7.99 for 397 grams. By comparison, 397 grams of the in-store mild Italian sausage or the in-store Bratwurst in our neighborhood would set you back only $5.24 ($1.32 per 100 grams); 397 grams of the somewhat fancier Grimm’s garlic sausage would set you back $6.98 ($1.76 per 100 grams)—still a dollar less than the premium Tofurky product. You could I think argue that much of the difference disappears in the weight lost in fat when you cook sausages made from meat. But that would be to quibble. Let’s grant that this vegan “’meat’ and two veg” meal costs a dollar or two more than the animal-product equivalent. That’s still more than balanced by the lower expense of the spaghetti meal (vegan version significantly less costly) and the chili meal (vegan version much less costly).

In fairness, it should be conceded that certain forms of processed vegan food (such as vegan cheese) are often more expensive than the closest animal-product equivalents. But there’s no question that the fundamentals are such that, for any animal-product based meal, there are less expensive vegan alternatives that are nutritionally comparable.

The above examples are of standard North American-style meals. We haven’t even begun to consider the many delicious meals you can make with little more than lentils and rice and few spices (if you don’t believe me, again I will volunteer to give you one or two of Maureen’s recipes!). It’s these sorts of dishes, or course, that poor people all over the world who can afford neither chorizo nor Tofurky sausages eat on a regular basis.

The simple fact, then, is that it’s not inherently more expensive to eat vegan; if anything, quite the reverse.

How has the misconception that vegan = expensive taken root? In part it’s no doubt because, until quite recently, the sort of person in North America who would consider going vegan tended also to be the sort of person who would consider buying everything organic if they could. Organic products (whether for vegans or carnivores) are typically more expensive; whether they’re worth it or not is an interesting argument, but one I won’t get into here. (Sometimes yes, sometimes no, is I suspect the answer.) For the present purpose, the point is twofold.
One: these days there are many, many different sorts of vegans, including many who rarely if ever buy organic.

Two (and more importantly): The simple fact is that organic and vegan are entirely different categories, and not to be conflated. As it happens, organic alternatives tend to cost more than non-organic ones—but vegan food more often than not costs less than food made from the flesh or milk or eggs of animals.
The other reason why people often wrongly imagine vegan options to be more expensive than animal product ones is much sadder. It has to do with fast food. McDonald’s and KFC and the others are cruel and ruthless machines, creating vast externalities—costs that others in society will eventually pick up, whether it be the costs of the health care and other benefits these companies don’t provide for their workers, or the costs of the pollution inflicted on the environment by animal agriculture. As a result, these companies are able to provide meals at extraordinarily low prices. They are meals that are bad for our health, bad for the environment, and bad for the animals who have been bred and killed in order to manufacture them, and in the end they carry high costs for our society. But in the short term they are low cost to the individual who buys a burger and fries at McDonalds—that much, sadly, is undeniable.

Vegan fast food is still in its infancy; given that no cruelty to animals is involved, it is impossible that vegan fast food will ever rival the ruthless cruelties of animal-product fast food. But perhaps vegan fast food will one day rival McDonald’s prices. If—and we should all fervently hope this occurs—governments everywhere start to see the error of their ways and reduce the subsidies they currently provide to animal agriculture, and start to charge fast food companies appropriately for the external costs they are imposing on society at large, it will then be a level playing field—and we can expect the Beyond Burger at the local fast food joint to cost no more than the comparable-size beef burger.

Gaps in the Story: Kathy Page's Dear Evelyn and The Concept of Chronochasmus in Literary Plotting

Modern-day literary critics sometimes pay lip service to Aristotle’s argument that plot is the most important element in a literary work, but they rarely do more than that. When it comes to prose fiction, the shaping of character, or the imagery, or the diction, are far more often the focus of critical attention than is the plot. When reviewers and literary critics turn to the qualities that make a literary work worthy of praise, again and again they fall back on phrases such as “the sheer beauty of the prose” and quote a particularly striking image or a particularly memorable phrase. With rare exceptions, though, images of startling originality or phrases that bring the reader up short with their surprising insights do little to contribute to the overall effect of a work of fiction; indeed, to the extent that they may take us out of the story as we admire their brilliance, they may even detract from the overall effect. (“Murder your darlings”* is advice that most of us should heed more often than we do when writing fiction.)

The whole, then, is more important than the parts, however much the parts may sparkle. And plot is all about the shaping of the whole—the organization. The story is the raw material, but story material can be shaped in an almost infinite number of ways; the plot of a novel is the shape a writer gives to the material.

Aristotle’s definition of muthos (plot) (Poetics, 1450, 5-15) has been translated into English in several ways, among them “the ordering of the incidents” (T.S. Dorsch—Penguin) and “the structure of the incidents” (S.H. Butcher) . George Whalley’s edition of Poetics should perhaps be regarded as the most authoritative; he gives us “the putting together of events” as his translation, with “structuring” offered as a possible alternative to “putting together.” (See pages 70-73 of Whalley’s Aristotle’s Poetics for his translation and commentary.)

Having no Greek, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of any translation myself, but I can and will argue that to regard plotting as simply “the ordering of the incidents” is to misrepresent what is involved.

To be sure, it is on the ordering of the incidents that most attention has tended to be placed, both by literary scholars and in Creative Writing programs—flashbacks and flashforwards, beginning a narrative in medias res, enclosing a narrative in a frame from a later period—all these aspects of the ways in which incidents can be ordered have been fodder for a great deal of discussion.

Much less frequently noticed have been aspects of structure that have nothing to do with the order in which things are told. Here's one very important such aspect: the choice as to whether or not to leave gaps in time in the telling of a story—and, if one does leave gaps, how to space those gaps, and how long to make them extend. If one is telling the story that unfolds over many years, one can include significant pieces of story material from every stage of the story. But one can also choose to simply leave out large chunks of material—years and years of it—along the way. That’s the approach Kathy Page takes in her interesting and evocative novel Dear Evelyn (which won the Writer’s Trust of Canada award for best work of fiction last year); almost everything is recounted in chronological order, but a very great deal is skipped over.

The novel begins with Mavis giving birth to the child she and her husband Albert call Harry—and the book proceeds to give us the story of Harry’s life. That story is given shape largely in the recounting of Harry’s relationship with Evelyn, who first makes an appearance in the third of the book’s twenty chapters and who remains a secondary focus the rest of the way through. (For much of the time Evelyn is an unattractive character—self-centered to the point of cruelty; Dear Evelyn is fascinating not least of all for its convincing portrayal of how powerfully human love can persist even when its object becomes anything but endearing.)

Through the central decades of the lives of Harry and Evelyn, the gaps between the segments of their lives that are part of the novel each seem to be three or four years in length; in all there are ten of these more-or-less regularly-spaced segments. At the beginning and the end of the novel there is much less regularity to the temporal structure. The first part of the novel includes just two brief clips of Harry’s early life, followed by three segments recounting events occurring in little more than a year—principally, the development of a relationship between Harry and Evelyn and the ways in which the coming of World War II disrupts the nascent relationship.

At the other end of the book, there is a gap of perhaps sixteen or seventeen years between the series of regularly-spaced segments that make up the book’s second part (“Blue”) and the five segments that comprise the final section (“Hotel Paris”); the spacing of these final five segments is quite irregular.

What to say about this structure? First, perhaps, how fitting it seems in a book largely about the relationship between Harry and Evelyn to place the greatest emphasis on the years that are at the centers of their lives. But it also strikes me that this structure is gently suggestive of the ways in which we sense time to pass in our own lives—at a more regular pace through the middle years, and at more variable speeds in childhood and old age.

Page’s Dear Evelyn is of course not the first work of fiction to be structured in segments with long gaps between them. Another notable example (pointed out to me recently by Jamie Dopp of the University of Victoria) is Carol Shields’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1993 novel The Stone Diaries. But whereas Shields places each segment precisely in measured time (giving the parts titles such as “Marriage, 1927,” “Love, 1936,” and “Motherhood, 1947”), Page’s technique is more fluid. For one thing,** the segments in Dear Evelyn are undated; the sort of estimates I have provided above of time elapsed between segments are the product of analysis after the fact and are of necessity imprecise; there is nothing in the novel itself to draw attention to the exact number of years that has passed between each segment. Again, that seems to me to be a structure suggestive of the ways in which we sense time to pass in our own lives. Our active sense of how much time elapsed between events is usually dormant, and often imprecise; if we do reflect on such matters, we ask ourselves questions that it may take us some time to figure out the answers to (“When was it exactly that they moved to the island? Fifteen years ago? Perhaps it was more like twenty.” “How many years did Sheila spend trying to play the trombone? Three? Four? There were moments when it seemed like forever.”)

The inclusion of gaps of time in the presentation of fictional lives—and the spacing of those gaps—is an aspect of plotting that, so far as I’m aware, has never been given a name. In the highly-categoried world we inhabit, things should always have names—and, if they are to be taken seriously, it’s preferable that they be given foreign names. People are far more likely to take literary effects seriously if they have names like onomatopoeia than if they have names like flashforward (which sounds like something from a cheap adventure novel). I am thus giving up on the term time-jumpage, my working word for this aspect of plotting. Someone has kindly suggested to me Zeitspringen or Zeithuepfen (trans.: time jumping), from the German; another possibility would be chronochasmus (trans.: time gaps) from the Greek. I leave you to choose between these two enticing terms—but I urge you to read Page’s highly accomplished novel.

*Like so many famous quotations, this one has a tangled history. The source is apparently not William Faulkner but rather Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who offered this advice (under the heading “Extraneous Ornament” in a 1914 lecture entitled “On Style”:
If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” (See Forrest Wickman, “Who Really Said You Should ‘Kill Your Darlings’?” Slate, 18 October 2013.)

**Page’s segments are fluid in other respects as well. They are named, but in ways that suggest their themes more elliptically than the titles of Shields' segments. “Chatterley,” for example, recounts Evelyn’s experience of trying that book by D.H. Lawrence everyone had been reading (“Was the whole rest of it going to be them either fucking, as they insisted on calling it, or talking about it?”) and then recalling a wartime near-romantic experience she had had with another man while Harry had been overseas.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Case for Individual Reparations

Until I read Ta Nahesi Coates’ now-classic article “The Case for Reparations” (published in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic), I hadn’t given much thought to the idea that the beneficiaries of slavery—and of the decades of Jim Crow exploitation as well—should pay reparations to the victims and their descendants. It was tucked it away on that top shelf of the mental closet we reserve for ideas we class as unrealistic, impractical. We acknowledge they might have something to be said for them as a matter of moral principle, but we feel instinctively that, realistically, practically, nothing could possibly be done for the foreseeable future.

Ending slavery was once an idea like that. So was giving women the vote.

When I read Coates’ article I was immediately persuaded that reparations were justified. But as I discovered, raising the topic of government-sponsored reparations tends to be a conversation-stopper. Many prefer to discuss not whether or not reparations are justified, but whether or not people should be forced to pay reparations; that second question is one they feel confident answering no to. And there the matter rests.

Plainly, government-funded reparations will not be politically possible for the foreseeable future. One might as well imagine the American government ending all its subsidies to the factory-farming of animals and encouraging us all to go vegan. Perhaps it should happen, but we all know it’s not going to happen any time soon.

Does that mean that, as individuals, we’re helpless? Far from it. Why wait for governmental action when we can act now, as individuals, to make reparations?

I’m not the only one to have had this idea. Michael Eric Dyson, for one, in Tears We Cannot Stop, suggests that individual white Americans keep their own “individual reparations” accounts by making appropriate donations.

This past year I put the idea into practice. In the spring of 2008 I had bought a small house in the Bywater area of New Orleans, with the thought of one day being able to live in the little back unit, at least for part of the year. I rented both units out, and the years went by. By 2017 it was clear my idea of living there for much of the year would never happen. My partner and I were quite happy in a different little house—on Vancouver Island, a very long way from New Orleans. I sold the property last December. I’d owned it for nearly ten years, and the house had of course appreciated. On reflection it seemed to me that about one quarter of the capital gain was an amount I felt comfortable in paying in reparations, and I sent a check for $7,500 to a worthy non-profit dedicated to increasing opportunities for African Americans. Is a quarter of the capital gain in fact the most appropriate amount? Probably a higher percentage would be more appropriate. But at least it’s a start—and I’m absolutely persuaded that this sort of contribution is the right thing to do.

It’s the right sort of thing to do in terms of my own past history. I’m Canadian, but my great grandfather lived in New Orleans from 1838-1849; it’s impossible to imagine that, as a white person living in New Orleans at that time, he did not benefit significantly from slavery.

It’s also the right thing to do in the context of a large transaction involving a transfer of assets. Even more striking than how disadvantaged African Americans have been in terms of wage levels are the disparities in wealth. Whereas white North Americans have typically been able to pass on wealth generation after generation, and thereby start small businesses and buy houses, African Americans have been heavily and consistently disadvantaged in terms of wealth. For that reason I think it’s particularly appropriate to think of reparations at times when those of us who have been privileged are receiving the proceeds of a capital gain. (I should emphasize here that, much as whites as a whole have been advantaged in North America, there are of course some whites who have never been and will never be privileged recipients of a capital gain, from a real estate transaction or from any other source; the argument I am making here about making voluntary reparations should apply only to those with the means to consider that course of action.)

Again, I’m not suggesting that anyone be forced to pay any amount at all in reparations. In most cases, reparations should be something humans want to make, not something we are forced to make. But as to whether or not those of us with the means to do so should do so? I urge you to read Coates’ extraordinary article.