Why Canada’s Job Future Is Sinking like a Stone

Canada’s economy is increasingly at the mercy of a risk-averse, inept corporate elite addicted to government tax breaks. They are enabled by an ideologically addled government which is incompetent.

It is a deadly combination — a dumb and dumber team dragging us backwards at a time when the world is hoping there won’t be another economic collapse.

Recent media reports reinforce what we have known for decades about the Canadian corporate elite. One highlighted Canada’s dismal performance when it comes to research and development, the other our pathetic efforts at broadening our markets for exports. More and more evidence piles up that we are de-industrializing — reminding me of the Star Trek episode where the whole crew starts devolving. Captain Picard is destined to become a pygmy marmoset. I wonder what the end point for Canada might be?

An OECD study reported in the Globe shows that Canada has dropped out of the top ten in R&D spending and now ranks 12th. While we de-industrialize and fall back on raw resource exports, previously underdeveloped countries — Taiwan, India and Brazil — are now outspending us as they industrialize.

We continue to decline in the World Economic Forum’s World Competitiveness Index as well. For 2014-2015 we rank 15th.

Even worse, in the category of “innovation and sophistication factors” we rank 25th.

In 1998 our overall rank was sixth. Some of the countries that now beat us: the United Arab Emirates, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Canada’s dramatic decline in R&D has a continuing negative impact on labour productivity as well. According to OECD figures for the year 2012 we stood at 73 per cent of the U.S. benchmark of 100. This failure to increase labour productivity through investment in new machinery and innovation has a huge impact on our standard of living and the domestic economy: as wages stagnate and personal debt increases domestic consumption starts to flatline — and that further suppresses investment.

The other media report that reveals the pathetic level of government and corporate leadership on the economy focused on our complete failure to look to India as a potent export market. It is the fastest growing economy on the planet yet Canadian corporations and their government partners seem asleep at the switch.  Kevin Carmichael in the Globe and Mail quotes the president of Canada-India Business Council: “We’ve got to get in here fast or we’re going to miss the boat. You’ve seen a rush to the gates [from other nations]. We seem to be taking a slow walk.” Currently exports to India account for a minuscule .63 per cent of Canadian exports — and just under half of that is raw materials.

Canada scarcely does better in other emerging nations: our top three destinations for goods: the U.S. takes 74.5 per cent, China 4.3 per cent and the UK 4.1 per cent. Australia, a Pacific nation we compete with is far more diversified: China 29.5 per cent, Japan 19.3 per cent, South Korea 8 per cent, India 4.9 per cent.

For decades, alarms about lagging productivity

Where I live, in Powell River, B.C., the evidence of our race to the bottom is stark. An endless stream of huge log booms go by my window, most headed to China which not too many years ago bought one of the local mill’s paper machines, packed it up and sent it home — to process our trees.

The more things change the more say the same — especially when it comes to corporate leadership. Two studies on Canadian competitiveness by Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter, one in 1991   and one in 2001, concluded: “The absence of intense local rivalry combined with customers who were not demanding produced weak pressures for firm productivity and upgrading…Research uncovered key weaknesses in the sophistication of company operations and strategy.”

Canadian firms that did “compete” internationally took the easy way out — exporting almost exclusively to the U.S. and relying on “natural resource advantages or lower labour costs than other G7 competitors instead of sophisticated products and processes.”

Is it even possible to change corporate culture or at least engage in a little behaviour modification? Do we — that is the government — have to treat our (ridiculously over-compensated) CEOs as adolescents to get them to deliver?

After all we have given them literally everything they have asked for starting with the original free trade deal with the U.S., deliberately suppressed wages, a shredded safety net, and the gutting of regulations.

None of it has had any impact. Their performance has been getting worse for almost two decades.

What’s Harper got against manufacturers?

So what does Stephen Harper do? He rewards corporate ineptness and irresponsibility by providing one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the 34-nation OECD. It doesn’t matter that all this free money just goes into the cash reserves of the country’s largest companies (now totaling over $600 billion). Why doesn’t it matter? Because Stephen Harper doesn’t actually care if they invest in anything. The point of his tax cuts was never to stimulate investment — it was to jettison government revenue in aid of dismantling the activist state and making it impossible for future governments to act.

The only sector Harper even thinks about is oil and gas. If that seems a bit over the top have a look at the Carol Goar’s Toronto Star story on the phantom $200 million fund to stimulate Ontario manufacturing. The money, formally announced a year ago, was slated for something called the Advanced Manufacturing Fund and it was first mentioned in February last year. The goals were laudable, including: “To support transformative technologies and foster collaboration between universities and the private sector.”

The problem, says Goar (using information dug up by the NDP’s Peggy Nash) is that “To date, not a single project has been approved. Not one dollar has been released. Not one job has been created.”

Two hundred million might sound like a lot of money to promote manufacturing in one province but the fact is that given Canadian corporations’ appalling record of investment in innovation and “sophistication of company operations and strategy” government engagement is absolutely critical. The manufacturing and high tech sectors are in desperate need of the kind of guidance that can only come from a smart industrial strategy. Otherwise Canada faces a continued decline in its value-added sectors and export markets. Ontario has lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs in the last ten years — that’s more than one in four.

If the goal is to create “transformative technologies” (the word green comes to mind) then $200 million is just lunch money. But the Harper government is so opposed to government intervention it can’t even bring itself to spend the money it actually allocated.

Everything oil wants

Imagine if even 10 per cent of the largesse and free passes showered on the oil and gas sector was used to create what the Advanced Manufacturing Fund was established to do.  According to the IMF Canadian subsidies to the oil sector, in real dollars and avoided externality costs, amount  to $34 billion a year.

If you have been taken in by the spin that this sector creates thousands of jobs in other provinces then think again. The entire resource sector accounts for only 7 per cent of the economy and is one of the worst job creators we have. Two reports, one by the IMF and another by the Canadian Energy Research Institute in 2011 revealed just how little the oil and gas sector contributes to jobs and GDP growth.

Commenting on the reports, Frances Russell highlighted the fact that “Canada’s energy sector created only 1.7 per cent of all new jobs in Canada from 2007 to 2012.” That was just 13,000 jobs. Compare that to the 22,000 jobs created in a single month, December 2013, in health care and social assistance. “The energy sector accounts for only 0.1 percentage point of the average 2.25 per cent annual GDP growth over the last decade,” according to the IMF.  As for the alleged benefits accruing to other provinces, a dollar invested in the tar sands boosts manufacturing in the rest of Canada by three cents and GDP in Ontario by four cents. And if none of the pipelines from the tar sands were built? The economy would grow 0.5 per cent less by 2020.

The potential for Canada to be leading in many new areas of innovative green growth has been squandered for years and continues to be ignored.

Instead Canadian governments shower the oil and gas sector with obscenely large subsidies and allows risk-averse and timid added-value sectors to languish in the ferocious competition for global markets.

To add insult to injury we hand over billions in tax cuts that could be used to become genuinely competitive.  Dumb and Dumber was a bad movie. But this one’s worse.

Four Prime Questions about Harper’s Response to Ottawa Shooting

Two weeks after the senseless murder of a soldier on Parliament Hill (and another earlier in Montreal) there are several things we know and many we don’t. Obvious questions have been asked and inconvenient ones have been left aside.

We know — and indeed could predict one second after the shooting — that Stephen Harper would use it as an excuse to expand the security and surveillance state he has been constructing.

We know that the shooting was not a terrorist act, but a criminal one, regardless of what the RCMP and CSIS, eager to enhance their political role and resources, are saying. (Within an hour of the shooting an over-eager CSIS official was declaring hopefully, “this will change everything.”)

We know that the enhanced security measures and police powers will do nothing to help us understand, let alone deal with, the root causes of what the Harper government claims is an existential threat to Canada and the West (but is content to deal with symptoms).

We know that there will be no additional resources from governments to deal with mental illness as Mr. Harper plans to cut billions from medicare. There will be no revisiting of the issue of gun registration in spite of its obvious importance in dealing with such incidents. And there will be no effort on the part of our Christian fundamentalist PM to counter the anti-Muslim backlash he knows he is contributing to by hyping the terrorist threat.

The bigger questions remain to be asked and so they won’t likely be answered. They include:

1. What freedoms must we now erode and why? Mr. Harper, who eagerly adheres to the (simplistic) idea that jihadists “hate our freedoms,” might reasonably be asked to explain why he is so eager to destroy those freedoms in response to the jihadists’ “war” against the West. Isn’t that exactly what they want — or does Harper want to rid us of freedoms so the jihadists won’t hate us so much? Wouldn’t a genuine response be to celebrate and enhance our freedoms even more (perhaps by ending the auditing of groups critical of the government)?

2. What is producing Canada’s homegrown jihadists? This is another question the government seems decidedly uninterested in: what is it about our Western societies — supposedly the model for the entire world, morally, culturally and socially superior — that alienates some young people so much that they can suddenly decide it’s all right to kill innocents and it’s worth dying for a cause so remote and alien to their lived experience that it is scarcely possible to believe they can understand it let alone truly embrace it? Could it possibly have anything to do with 35 years of neoliberal assault on community and consumer capitalism’s failure to provide meaning to their lives beyond purchasing the next electronic gadget?

3, What is the most effective response to radical Islamists? Yet one more question not being asked is what would a rational, enlightened (we are enlightened, right?), effective response to so-called “radical” Islam look like? The “this changes everything” gang certainly don’t intend to change Canada’s foreign policy or recommend a change to its allies. Yet it is key to any long-term solution.

There are countless experts and historians who are eager to address the issue. And we know what they would say about Stephen Harper’s efforts to transform Canada from a moderate, middle power with a history of virtually inventing UN peacekeeping, into a shrill, warmongering nation ever ready to rattle its (insignificant) sabre at any opportunity.

The fact that these two unconnected killings were not terrorist acts doesn’t mean such acts cannot or will not happen. And while Mr. Harper puts on his warrior’s armour and militarizes the government’s response, he ignores the impact of his reckless Middle East foreign policy on escalating such threats. Canada’s ham-handed policies actually do put us at risk.

According to a report in the National Post, on Sept. 21, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani “urged ISIS supporters to kill Canadians, Americans, Australians, French and other Europeans…. Rely upon Allah…. Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict.”

This threat is clearly connected directly to Canada’s policies and its determination to join the war against ISIS. Harper, in what has become his standard adolescent response to events in the Middle East, bravely declared he would not be “cowed by threats while innocent children, women, men and religious minorities live in fear of these terrorists.” Yet Canada’s contribution is laughably minuscule — but just big enough, perhaps, to put us at risk of a future attack. And all, as usual, for domestic political consumption as evidenced by the total inability of the government to explain its mission.

To their credit the opposition parties in Parliament, the NDP and the Liberals, voted against the ISIS mission for most of the right reasons: what exactly was the mission, what were the government’s expectations, how was success being defined, what Canadian interests are being served and why six months? Not one of these questions was answered and instead the questioners were treated to the usual contempt from the prime minister.

4. Can we learn from how we got here? We are supposed to learn as children that actions have consequences so I suppose we are left to conclude that current leaders of the Anglo-industrialized countries (in particular) were badly neglected by their parents. A catastrophic failure of imagination on the part of the West has led us to this point. It’s worth tracing back to its origins. The first failure belonged to Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, and the key architect of the mujahedeen war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Before the U.S. began arming, financing and training the original handful of religious zealots opposed to the godless Soviets, they were a threat to no one.

In an interview that appeared in 1998, Brzezinski revealed his impoverished imagination when asked if he regretted creating Islamic terrorists: “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”

ISIS would not exist had the U.S. not created its predecessors. And this failure of imagination is replicated year after year in the White House, in the Strangelovian world of NATO and now in Ottawa. Imperial hubris, wilful ignorance, political opportunism and sheer incompetence still determine Middle East policy. Harper enthusiastically bombed Libya, with the unintended but predictable consequence of handing over thousands of tonnes of sophisticated weapons to another branch of radical Islamists. He gives Israel absolute carte blanche in its savaging of Palestinians, alienating even moderate Arabs throughout the region, and now he pointlessly tweaks the tail of the ISIS tiger.

Harper’s every act in the name of Canada creates more jihadists. We are just lucky that an attack on Canada initiated by ISIS is extremely unlikely.

From Israel to ISIS: Harper’s ‘Orwellian’ foreign policy

It’s getting difficult to remember a time when the Canadian Parliament actually tried to make principled decisions regarding foreign policy and our place in the community of nations. But we should try. Perhaps a first step in returning to such a time was the decision of the NDP and Liberal Party to oppose Stephen Harper’s most recent ill-considered and cynical march to war with his decision of join the bombing of Iraq.

Harper’s amoral political calculations about who and when to bomb people has little to do with any genuine consideration of the geo-political situation or what role Canada might usefully play – or even in what Canada’s “interests” are. So long as he is prime minister it will be the same: every calculation will be made with the single-minded goal of staying in power long enough to dismantle the post war activist state. The nurturing of his core constituency includes appeals to a thinly disguised pseudo-crusade against Islamic infidels, a phony appeal to national security (preceded by fear-mongering) and in the case of Ukraine a crude appeal to ethnic votes.

Reinforcing this legacy is a mainstream media that lets him get away with it and in particular refuses to do its homework while the bombing – or posturing – is taking place and then refuses to expose the negative consequences of the reckless adventures. The result is what cultural critic Henry Giroux calls “the fog of historical and social amnesia.” The three most obvious examples are Harper’s extremist policy in support of Israel, his joining with France and the US in the catastrophic destruction of the Libyan state and his infantile posturing on the Ukrainian Russian conflict. And now we have Harper’s mini-crusade (six fighter-bombers for six months) against ISIS or the Islamic State. With rare exceptions the media has gone along with him at every turn, treating Canadians as children incapable of navigating the nuances of foreign policy.

Regarding Israel, Harper, with widespread support in the media, has gone so far as to try to establish criticism of Israel as a kind of Orwellian “thought crime.”  By declaring repeatedly (and even threatening supportive legislation) that criticism of Israel was anti-Semitic Harper hoped to establish what Orwell referred to as “protective stupidity” – a kind of mass denial of the obvious. Freud referred to it as “knowing with not knowing” and when it comes to most of Canada’s military adventures it is epidemic.

In Afghanistan the war went for so long that the facts eventually broke through the protective stupidity but only partially. Even with the total failure of the mission to accomplish a single worthwhile goal it is likely that most Canadians still see it as having been a “good war.”

Everyone who reads the news or watches it on television “knows” that Libya is now a failed state, swarming with literally scores of heavily armed and murderous Islamist militias, and facing an almost total collapse of central government authority and public services (formerly the best in Africa). Life in Libya is ten times more insecure and dangerous now than it ever was under the “madman” Gadhafi. Yet we choose not to know what we know.

This was supposed to be a humanitarian mission – the much-touted “duty to protect” principle in action. The catastrophe of the failure soon spread of course to Mali and elsewhere as Gadhafi’s carefully constructed balancing of competing tribal interests collapsed. In the ensuing chaos massive supplies of weapons seized by the “democratic forces” were distributed to lunatic militias (including ISIS) across the Middle East. But still there are no mea culpas, no accountability, and no price to pay for the misery created. The cheerleading pundits have gone silent as if they had never written a word in support of the war. Planned amnesia.

As Giroux puts it: “Neoliberal authoritarianism has changed the language of politics and everyday life through a poisonous public pedagogy that turns reason on its head and normalizes a culture of fear, war and exploitation.”

Harper’s response to the Russia-Ukraine conflict has been similar: a maximum of infantile, simplistic sabre rattling rhetoric with an absolute minimum of reflection on the historical context or even the immediate facts of the situation. This is foreign policy for the willingly – if not willfully – ignorant. We are encouraged – or perhaps enlisted is a better word – to treat facts and history with a disdain bordering on contempt. Facts, context, history and thoughtful anticipation of the consequences of our actions – all of this is for sissies and Putin apologists. The nay-sayers are all Neville Chamberlain clones.

The fact that the boys with their military toys in NATO have been provoking Russia for twenty years, encircling it with hostile regimes aligned with or members of this military alliance, promising to put missiles on its border, breaking promise after promise made in agreements with Russia – it’s all irrelevant. So is the fact that the “revolution” in Kiev – don’t dare call it a coup, the thought police will knock on your door – was promoted with millions of American “democracy” dollars.

And the fact that the movement was hijacked by neo-Nazis? Just an inconvenient detail to be assigned to the amnesia machine. And the consequences? Just how is driving Russia away from integration with Europe (which it had been seeking throughout Putin’s rein) and into the arms of the imperial Chinese in Canada’s interests? The $400 billion natural gas deal Putin signed with China – accelerated and made a certainty by NATO’s aggression – will likely kill BC’s dream of billions in LNG investment (a silver lining in my view but hardly a smart move for an “energy super-power”).

All of this is swept aside when foreign policy is decided in a kindergarten class instead of a graduate class. But there will be no lasting consequences for governments – Harper’s or anyone else’s. The structure of protective stupidity is in place and without a radical change in consciousness the current political consensus will prevail. All will be forgotten.

Which brings us to the Islamic State. Here, too, the conventional approach to making intelligent foreign policy is cast aside on the basis of reacting to a handful of Westerners being beheaded (as happens on a regular basis already to citizens of Saudi Arabia). Can it be possible that our policy-making has been reduced to this level of drunken barroom reaction? We know that ISIS did this precisely to provoke a Western military response. But “we don’t know.” We prefer denial and the simplistic – the notion that we can correct twenty-five years of imperial hubris, ignorance and gross incompetence by Western powers by bombing our own creation.

Ooops, sorry for introducing a fact here – a bad habit. The West created these murderous madmen decades ago when the US funded, armed and advised the nascent Mujahedeen to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. They are now a permanent feature of the Middle East and beyond, an evolving monster the US Defence Department and CIA lost control of a long time ago. Yet politicians like Obama and Harper think we can correct it with bombs. Ironically after decades of treating their citizens like children, our governments are reduced to behaving like them.

Why New Euro-Canada Treaty Is a Gift to Oil Firms

By sheer coincidence the media has recently been filled with stories that reflect the parallel universes we seem to be living in. The first were the stories about the international climate summit and the huge climate march (and hundreds of smaller ones) that preceded it – punctuated by the launch of Naomi Klein’s powerful call-to-action book This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate adding to the power of the moment.

But while climate activists were demonstrating and some 100 world leaders were making pledges to finally get serious about climate change many of those same leaders had already put their name to an international investment treaty parts of which seems to have been virtually written by the same oil companies targeted for criticism and calls for greater regulation. That agreement is called the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA), in the news recently because of yet another photo op with Harper signing it with European leaders.

While there has been attention paid to some key provisions of CETA – such as its investor state rules, its impact on Canadian drug pricing and its curbs on governments’ ability to buy local – there has been almost nothing in the media about CETA’s chapter on domestic regulation. But a new Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report on CETA suggests there should be because the articles of that chapter seem designed to kill efforts to regulate the resource industry. In other words just as governments need to get deadly serious about reducing our dependence on fossil fuels they are tying their own hands through new restrictions on their right to regulate.

CETA’s domestic regulation chapter would be more aptly called “Gifts for the Oil and Gas Industry”. These CETA provisions are so biased in favour of corporations it is easy to picture industry execs sitting at the elbows of CETA’s negotiators, guiding their pens as they draft the agreement. Short of an international treaty banning all government regulations outright, CETA gives the oil and gas industry virtually everything it has been asking for, for decades. Of course these anti-regulation gifts are also available to other sectors including the mining industry but given the special place in Harper’s universe reserved for Alberta’s oil patch it’s not hard to see where the impetus came from.

Most trade and investment agreements are full of obscure legalese, but the Domestic Regulation chapter of CETA – is actually relatively simple to understand. So check it out. The restrictions on regulation you will find are right out of the oil and gas industry’s wish list. Chapter 14 on Domestic Regulation provides so many grounds for regulations to be challenged that almost any regulation could conceivably be ruled in contravention of the agreement.

CETA places an absolute value on the ease with which corporations can get approval of their projects. It demands that parties ensure “…that licensing and qualification procedures are as simple as possible and do not unduly complicate or delay the supply of a service or the pursuit of any other economic activity.” (Article II.7) Requiring that oil and gas companies do environmental assessments, archaeological studies or get approvals from different levels of government is clearly a process that could be made simpler by doing away with these requirements. Obligations to consult with the public and First Nations certainly complicate the regulatory process and cause delays.                                                                                       Whether or not governments have simplified their licensing processes to the absolute maximum extent possible and are not causing “undue” delays or complications would be up to a panel of trade lawyers to decide in the event of a dispute. They could look at examples from the most deregulated jurisdictions to determine what is “as simple as possible.” China, for example, allows corporations to ignore requirements for environmental impact assessments (EIA) and just pay a small fine after the fact. An article in Businessweek reveals the results of the “simple” Chinese process: “In November 2013 an oil pipeline burst in Qingdao, killing or injuring more than 100 people; a faulty EIA process was partly to blame for the deaths. As Chinese environmental journalist Liu Jianqiang commented in reference to the Qingdao disaster, ‘It is common in China for EIAs to be faked and planning assessments to simply not exist—and so our country is littered with such ticking time bombs.’”

CETA’s Chapter 14 requires that all regulations that governments have not expressly excluded from the agreement must be “objective” and “established in advance”. (Article 2.2) Given that these terms are not defined they can mean anything that a trade tribunal decides they mean. While the word “objective” might not seem threatening in most contexts, here it is loaded with danger for public interest regulation. If a tribunal interprets “objective” to mean ”not subjective”, existing regulations could be challenged. Why? Because they are based on a government regulator’s effort to balance competing interests – a necessarily “subjective” exercise. If licensing approvals are based to some extent on public opinion of a project, this too could mean licensing decisions are not “objective.”

And what does it mean to say that regulations have to be “established in advance”? Does that mean that new regulations cannot be introduced? Even if this provision is just interpreted to mean that regulations cannot be changed once an application has been approved, there are very good reasons why a government might need to impose new regulations on operations that are already licensed. BC’s Mount Polley mine spill is a perfect example of where a government had to impose new requirements on established mines after a catastrophic regulatory failure. CETA could make that impossible in the future.

Disputes arising out of so-called “trade” agreements are decided by tribunals of corporate trade lawyers. These dispute panels are nothing at all like any public court of law. The model is taken right out of the international commercial dispute resolution process – designed to settle narrow disputes between commercial entities. As such there is almost no room for taking into account interests other than commercial interests. This is square-peg-in-a-round-hole territory.

But at least in other trade and investment agreements governments are allowed to defend their regulations as necessary to protect human health and the environment. Either by intent or sheer carelessness, this defence is not applied to the domestic regulation chapter of CETA. For example, if environmental assessments are challenged as “unduly” delaying oil and gas development, a government would not be able to defend these assessments as necessary to protect the environment. EU governments could go to bat for their oil giants Total and BP – and force Canadian governments to gut licensing regulations for the whole industry.

Just as the world is trying to come to grips with the growing climate crisis and Canadians are increasingly skeptical about a national economic strategy relying on expansion of the tar sands, CETA threatens to make action on those concerns increasingly difficult. Environmentalists point out that the faster you develop the tar sands, the worse it is for climate change but CETA could make it extremely difficult to slow down their expansion. There are many good reasons to hope that CETA never actually comes into effect, but perhaps the best is to preserve the policy space needed to address climate change.

Work in the age of anxiety

Working Canadians, from blue collar workers to middle class professionals to hamburger flippers are facing the worst economy insecurity, most stressful working conditions, the slowest increases in real income and the most cynical anti-worker governments literally since the 1930s. At the same time the 1% and the powerful corporations which make them rich have not been so privileged in terms of wealth, income and political power since the pre-crash 1920s.

Yet in those days when there was virtually no state protection for workers, unions were illegal, police were more brutal and economic security for many non-existent there was a level of militancy, courage, social solidarity and sheer determination that was at once stunning and inspirational. It terrified that day’s 1% and following the depression and war it brought the only concessions to workers capitalists have ever agreed to.

Which raises the question: Why is there no militancy today, why no sustained and focused solidarity or even simple courage in facing powerful adversaries? Some of this passivity clearly has to do with the rapidly evolving security and surveillance state and the fear it deliberately fosters. But it started elsewhere and over twenty years ago. And it is rooted in an almost universal anxiety. We can explore it by asking the question, What’s an economy for?

If you think the now conventional answer to that question is obvious you haven’t been paying attention to the free market propaganda machine over the past four decades. When now retired Michael Walker was hired to head up the Fraser Institute almost 40 years ago he told his corporate backers “If you want to change society you have to change the ideological fabric of society.” And that’s what the FI and other think tanks (and media owners) proceeded to do with a patient but relentless attack on conventional notions of what a good society and the role of its economy entailed.

In those pre- corporate globalizations days it was conventional political and social wisdom that the economy served the nation and by inference the community and families. The Bank of Canada’s dual mandates – unemployment and inflation – were still competing but full employment was one of the few shared policy objectives of all three federal parties. It wasn’t until the early ‘80s that inflation took a serious bite out of the accumulated wealth of the West’s economic elite. That changed everything and “inflation-fighting” became the obsession of the West’s central banks.

But more than that it also became the weapon of choice of free-marketeers like former Liberal finance minister Paul Martin who with the co-operation of the Bank of Canada used extreme inflation targets (and subsequent high interest rates) to actually suppress economic growth and deliberately create high levels of unemployment. Few people recall that under Martin’s ideological war on inflation throughout most of the 1990s, unemployment hovered around 9% – higher than it is now.

Martin’s war on inflation was actually a war on labour, justified by the signing of the FTA and subsequently NAFTA. It was all about global competitiveness and that meant driving down the cost and power of labour. Enforced high unemployment was perhaps the most powerful weapon but dramatic cuts to EI eligibility and the elimination of the Canada Assistant Plan (CAP) were effective as well. The CAP transferred money to the provinces and was targeted specifically at establishing a minimum national standard for welfare. With its cancellation and replacement with a lump sum (for health, education and welfare) the provinces radically reduced social assistance rates and shifted money into the politically popular items like Medicare.

Pro-business provincial governments, following the example of the labour flexibility imperative of Ottawa, took their own initiatives and gradually reduced the enforcement of labour standards which protected non-unionized workers from draconian working conditions.(Like below-the-poverty-line minimum wages.) The overall effect definitely made labour extremely “flexible” – in other words more vulnerable to the whims of employers large and small than at any time since the 1930s. The corporate and neo-con propaganda machine worked overtime to frame all of this as good for the “economy” – an abstract notion that translated in reality as good for corporations.

And having been redefined as taxpayers and consumers, rather than citizens, the affected working people have been suckered into thinking they and their legitimate needs are the problem – and they have to make sacrifices for the good of the economy. Or they have been convinced that they will benefit as taxpayers – even if they suffer as citizens.

Over the past few years a stream of reports have revealed just what that sacrifice has entailed. It has even fostered the use of a new term to describe modern working life: precarity. The numbers are scary. The Canadian payroll Association’s annual poll revealed recently that 51 per cent of Canadian employees would be in real financial trouble if their paycheck were delayed by a week. A week. A quarter of those surveyed said they couldn’t pull together even $2000 to deal with an emergency. Almost half said they were spending all their income – or more – on basic family needs. The savings rate is now below 4% – it was 15% in the 1980s. Personal debt is at record levels, some 160% of annual income and no wonder: the real income gain of the average employee between 1980 and 2005 was a measly $52 – two dollars a year. The only thing keeping many families afloat is rising house prices. But 17% of mortgage holders will be under water if rates rise just 1.5%.

According to the Toronto Star’s Carol Goar labour market statistics suggest we are becoming a nation of part-timers: “For the past year, the only part of Canada’s job market that has showed any sign of life has been part-time employment. The numbers are striking. Since last autumn, Canada has created 50,000 part-time jobs but lost 20,000 full-time positions.“ And while we like to see ourselves as an industrialized nation we are actually going backwards in terms of value-added jobs. For years now Canada has had the second highest percentage of low-paying jobs in the OECD.

Goar’s conclusion is backed by a recent TD Bank report called “Part Time Nation.” Statistics Canada has reported that the number full time jobs have declined by 13,600 since May 2013. And it isn’t just blue collar workers or those in the low wage service industry who are affected. This imposed “flexibility” strikes deep into the middle class. A recent report  on part-time faculty at Laurier University revealed that despite Ontario university students paying the highest tuition fees in Canada over 52% of them (up from 38% in 2008) at Laurier are now taught by sessional lecturers or contract academic staff (CAS). The pay difference between a CAS and full-time faculty member is staggering – with the latter making between $80,000 and $150,000 a year while a CAS teaching exactly the same class load will earn about $28,000. And they get no benefits and no job security – signing new contracts every session, even with decades of experience.

One of the most valuable studies on the state of work and life is the 2012 National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada. This is the third time the study, by professors Linda Duxbury of Carleton University and Christopher Higgins of the University of Western Ontario, has been done in the past 20 years. It is a tracks the (ever-worsening) work-life imbalance of thousands of individual workers and the situation it reveals is grim. “Almost two-thirds of us are working more than 45 hours a week – 50-per-cent more than two decades ago. Work weeks are more rigid, with flex-time arrangements dropping by a third in the past 10 years. … More than half of the survey’s respondents took work home with them, putting in an average of seven extra hours a week from home. To top it off, only 23 per cent of working Canadians are highly satisfied with life. That’s half as many as in 1991.”

As in the previous studies the authors observe that most working families effectively have no family life. The extreme demands of employers have in fact delayed or even prevented couples from having children. “One-third of Canadians feel they have more work to do than time permits. That number rises to 40 per cent when family roles are taken into account.”

This, then, is the core of the age of anxiety. Precarity, combined with the deliberate creation of fear through constant surveillance, the security apparatus and the demonization/criminalization of dissent starts to answer the question of why there is no militant resistance to savage capitalism or even sustained social solidarity. According to the Institute for Precarious Consciousness (IPC)   “Each phase of capitalism has a particular affect which holds it together.” In the 1920s is was simple misery and militant social and labour movements were the response which ended the effectiveness of misery as a form of social control. But, says the IPC, “One aspect of every phase’s dominant affect is that it is a public secret, something that everyone knows, but nobody admits, or talks about. As long as the dominant affect is a public secret, it remains effective, and strategies against it will not emerge.”

That, the authors suggest is the situation we find ourselves in today. “Today’s public secret is that everyone is anxious. Anxiety has spread from its previous localised locations (such as sexuality) to the whole of the social field. All forms of intensity, self-​expression, emotional connection, immediacy, and enjoyment are now laced with anxiety. It has become the linchpin of subordination.”

How do we expose the public secret? We need to actually communicate with each other. “People have to be socially isolated in order for a public secret to work. This is true of the current situation, in which authentic communication is increasingly rare. Communication is more pervasive than ever, but increasingly, communication happens only through paths mediated by the system. Hence, in many ways, people are prevented from actually communicating, even while the system demands that everyone be connected and communicable.”

Expose the secret. Get rid of the cop in your head. Phone your friends. Re-occupy.

Can the NDP challenge Harper on the economy?l

The NDP’s announcement that it will push for a national minimum wage if elected is good news and suggests that the party may finally be overcoming its decades-long aversion to engaging its Liberal and Conservative adversaries on the question of the economy. It’s too early to tell if they will follow up with other policy commitments and weather the expected attacks. The social bottom-feeders at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, ever eager to promote policies that harm their members’ interests, have already attacked. Their knee-jerk response — “wage inflation and higher unemployment” — has been disproven so often that they should be embarrassed to drag it out.

The minimum-wage pledge accomplishes two things: it addresses the issue of inequality which Canadians say they care about, and it implies a perspective the NDP needs to expand on: that if you really want to see some economic growth then you have to put money in people’s pockets, especially low-income people who spend every cent they get.

The NDP really doesn’t have much choice but to take on the economy as a key election issue because it has gradually abandoned many traditional social democratic policies. They have abandoned foreign policy, where the NDP has historically staked out at least a small, more moderate position (peacekeeping, honest-broker, middle-power influence). It is now in lockstep with the Conservatives on virtually every front — from Libya and Israel to Ukraine. Mulcair will be forced by his own policies to have a “me too” foreign policy which simply bolsters Harper’s dominance of the issue. Much the same is true on the tough-on-crime front.

This situation effectively means that the party is left competing for votes on a political battleground exclusively defined by the Liberal and Conservative parties. And that means that it has to figure out how to be “competitive” on the issue of the economy and jobs.

The Conservatives are extremely vulnerable on this issue but have managed to still claim to be good economic managers — because no one effectively declares that the emperor has no clothes. Trudeau is extremely weak on the economy as well and his party power-brokers are essentially on side with Harper’s neoliberal doctrine of “getting out of the way” of corporate decision-making — in other words, leaving economic policy exclusively up to the private sector.

With their huge advantage in fundraising and therefore TV ads, the incumbent Conservatives will largely determine the issues the election is fought on. And there is nothing to suggest that it will be any different this time around: promoting Harper as a sound economic manager. Attacking the Harper record during a four-week campaign won’t cut it. The NDP needs to start now and begin to erode the Conservatives’ undeserved reputation.

The minimum-wage pledge is a good start. They could follow up with the novel idea that good economic managers actually, well, manage. Managers examine their company (country) and develop strategies and long-term plans to build its strengths, address its weaknesses and facilitate growth based on its natural advantages. It used to be called industrial strategy. Harper has none and in fact both the Paul Martin Liberals and Conservatives have abandoned this pre-NAFTA economic policy in favour of a radical free-market theory that gives corporations the almost exclusive right to allocate capital. In effect, Harper is AWOL as a genuine manager.

If he were running a company, he’d be fired. That’s how Mulcair could — and should — frame the issue.

One of the most damning results of this ideological recklessness (which includes massive corporate tax cuts) is that corporations in Canada are sitting on over $600 billion in idle cash. In other words, they aren’t allocating capital at all — they are hoarding it. This is grossly irresponsible and if ever there was a compelling reason for returning to active economic management through a strategic industrial development approach, this idle money is it.

The Canadian economy is in deep trouble, falling far behind the U.S. in job creation and recovery stats. Last week Statistics Canada reported the loss of 111,600 private-sector jobs in August. That figure screams, “Whatever you’re doing, it isn’t working,” and Mulcair should be repeating it over and over again.

He could also use the example of Tory government in Britain to argue the need to ratchet back this country’s “labour flexibility” policies — the ones implemented dramatically by Paul Martin and continued by Harper. This phrase is just a euphemism for driving down both the wages and bargaining clout of labour. The British government’s Business Secretary recently declared that labour was now “too flexible” — that the country needs wages and salaries to rise at the expense of profits to generate a recovery. “We do not want to reproduce the American experience, where — over a decade — wages have stagnated, even in a period of economic growth.”

There are other themes the NDP could pursue to expose the sheer incompetence of the Harper government (and the most recent Liberal governments) on the economy. By systematically denying labour its fair share of increased productivity over a 30-year period and keeping labour cheap, the government encourages business not to invest in new plant and equipment. Why? According to Bruce Kasman, head of economic research for JPMorgan: “We haven’t seen much allocation of resources to capital. Because labour is cheap, we are seeing companies substitute labour for capital.”

Kasman asks rhetorically how an economy dependent for 70 per cent of its GDP on domestic consumption can recover if people can’t spend. The exact same question applies to Canada (where the figure is 57%).

Cheap labour means low demand, low demand means billions in idle capital — and that means that two of the three big spenders in the economy are hobbled by government policy. The third big spender is government itself and Harper is determined to hobble it as well — creating surpluses that he can, once again, distribute as tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations. Government spending as a percentage of GDP — (up to 15 per cent of it going directly to private business) declined dramatically by almost one-third from around 24 per cent to 15 per cent under Paul Martin. Harper continued the trend until the NDP forced his minority government to increase spending in 2008-2009 and has decreased it since then back to 2006 levels.

This presents Mulcair and the NDP with the opportunity to frame both the Liberals and Conservatives as responsible for the perfect storm of economic decline, making any kind of sustained economic recovery virtually impossible.

Harper’s record on the economy is appalling and a concerted campaign by the NDP could erode Harper’s carefully constructed image between now and the 2015 election. But that leaves open just what alternative policies the party could put forward. Here, too, Mulcair could find support for progressive policies from an unusual source — the International Monetary Fund.

Regrettably, he is unlikely to avail himself of the IMF’s recent pronouncement on how to deal with income inequality. Infamous for its imposition of draconian austerity policies on countries around the world, the IMF has shifted ground, finally recognizing that inequality is a threat to economic recovery and a potent source for eventual social unrest. Last March the Fund’s deputy managing director, David Lipton, declared that the principal solution to unsustainable inequality is redistributive taxation — in other words, tax increases on the wealthy and corporations. While Mulcair is committed to rolling back some corporate tax cuts, he has pledged not to increase taxes on the 1% or their accumulated wealth.

Mulcair’s trial balloon on the economy front — if that is what his proposal for a federal minimum wage is — leads him inexorably to a package of economic policies that can only be implemented by gradually increasing the government’s share of GDP back towards 20 per cent and higher. That’s what it will take to rebuild infrastructure, save medicare from Harper’s new formula, allow more young people to attend university, implement an industrial strategy that focuses on renewable energy, mass transit and high tech, and to enhance and expand social programs to increase the social wage and decrease inequality.

It’s encouraging to see the NDP take a first small step in addressing the next election’s key issue. But without dealing with the issue of revenue and taxation a challenge to Harper on the economy will come up short.

Remember kindness?

I confess. I have been binge-watching TV series. Lately I have narrowed my watching mostly to The West Wing an old favourite about a Democratic president, Jed Bartlet, portraying the manic, day-to-day crisis management of the White House. But in my defence I am doing so in part as an antidote to another series which I quit watching because the values it displayed and promoted were so execrable. House of Cards stars Kevin Spacey as a ruthless congressman seeking revenge (and higher office) for being betrayed by “his” president.

Both these series are exceptionally well-written and well-acted. But one actually features characters who are trying to accomplish laudable social objectives (for the most part) and who treat each other with genuine respect and even affection. House of cards never allows such sentiment to prevail or even appear except as a reflection of weakness and naivete. It’s all about varying degrees of ruthlessness and we are clearly supposed to admire Spacey as a masterful practitioner of the Machiavellian arts.

Of course House of Cards is not the only series people are bingeing on. There is another popular series praised for its high production values, writing and its atmospheric tone. Breaking Bad’s “hero” is Walt, a high school chemistry teacher who starts dabbling in meth production and then gets deeper and deeper into the murderous meth business. He may be the only TV hero who is a psychopathic killer. I quit watching this one after the episode in which he orders the murders of nine convicts who could expose his role.

People who are addicted to this series manage, somehow, to rationalize their attraction by referring to how incredibly well produced and acted it is. I don’t care how well acted it is. It is grotesque, a vehicle for gratuitous violence and the demeaning of life, an assault on human sensibility. My advice – which no one will take – is to spend a few minutes asking yourself what a celebration of murderous psychopathy might be doing to your own mental state. While you are at it ask yourself what your limits are: what level of human depravity exploration would finally compel you to switch channels?

I don’t know if watching such series actually does any lasting epigenetic damage but an appeal to simple self-respect and social consciousness should be enough to launch a boycott of this ugly entertainment. Why? Because this sick amorality isn’t just on TV. It is everywhere – in schools in the form of rampant bullying, in too many politicians (Stephen Harper, Tony Blair, Benjamin Netanyahu, Dick Cheney come to mind), too many CEOs and if you watched the Wolf of Wall Street (all of which was based on true accounts) virtually all of Wall Street, and in too many of our institutions (like the RCMP). And it’s now in popular non-fiction literature and on the internet.

As reported recently by Canadian author Patricia Pearson: “The celebration of remorselessness is everywhere. Friends on Facebook have lately been reporting their scores on widely circulating psychopathy quizzes that ask users to agree or disagree with statements such as, ‘I never feel remorse, shame or guilt about something I’ve said or done.’ ‘I’m 19-per-cent psychopath!’ they announce. Or: ‘I scored five out of 10!’ As if the chilling absence of human empathy I witnessed as a crime reporter in covering trials like that of serial killer Paul Bernardo had become a fun little personality quirk.”

 

James Fallon, the author of The Psychopath Inside actually refers to himself as pro-social psychopath “..who chooses not to murder people even though, admittedly, he cares not one whit if he harms them in other ways.”

How is it possible that this idiocy passes for rational, acceptable narrative? Pearson rightly asks “What fire, exactly, are we playing with? Have we taken a tolerance of difference, of identity, of moral relativism, too far? ….the issue, fundamentally, is moral. What kind of a society do we wish to inhabit, with what kinds of leaders and heroes?”

Pearson quotes Adam Kotsko, author of Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television: “People enjoy watching sociopaths on television as a kind of compensation for their own feelings of powerlessness and helplessness.” Now we’re getting closer to the root of the problem: the inexorable imposition of capitalist social relations. What is the source of the average person’s ‘powerless and helplessness’ if not the hyper-competitiveness of late capitalism? It’s a competitiveness in which almost all but the 1% lose – with tax cuts, privilege and ever-increasing wealth accumulation fixing the game.

The stronger the imperative to compete the weaker become family, community and friendship connections because in rampant consumer capitalism – promoted and reinforced by television culture – such connections are seen as irrelevant. Or worse, they are seen as weak and inefficient means, if not actual barriers, to the end of achieving more stuff. We are competing in a zero-sum game whose rules are written by those with psychopathic tendencies. As Fred Guerin writes in Truthout “Obedience, docility, amorality and careerism will be duly rewarded. Those who can regularly suspend any desire they have to think from the perspective of another, or on behalf of a more universal or common good will be promoted.”

Guerin is getting at the real roots of our crisis in democracy. It is not first-past-the-post voting systems, or the cancellation of government funding for parties, or even the role of TV advertising. It is at its core our gradual acquiescence “…to things that are contrary to our individual and communal interests.” This acquiescence, say Guerin, is the “…consequence of very gradual political and corporate indoctrination that consolidates power not only by inducing fear and uncertainty, but also by rewarding unbridled greed, opportunism and self-interest.”

Is there an antidote to this death-culture? Can we reclaim our capacity to think beyond our immediate self-interest and regain our political agency – our ability to act as citizens and not just consumers? Can we begin to create a shared space where we can actually imagine a future worth having, talk about big ideas and recover the notion that we can act in concert for the broader good?

It comes down to the question of political agency. So perhaps the more important question is not what should be done but who is going to do it? Our gradual accommodation to the new and enervating normal means that none of our existing institutions are now capable of engineering this recovery. They are spent forces fighting on the edges of the battle.

If that is the case where do we start? While it is naïve to suggest that individual action will bring down corporate capitalism it is obvious to anyone not distracted by the shopping mall that it must be ended – or it will destroy life on this planet. So perhaps we do need to start at the political equivalent of the molecular level, with the most basic human principles that provide us with the capacity to resist, to act in concert, to get beyond our possessive individualism. What is it, for example, that causes otherwise consumption-addled North Americans to suddenly demonstrate generosity, compassion, and benevolence when confronted by the aftermath of some natural disaster like a flood or tornado? What is missing in everyday life without disaster that allows us to acquiesce to things that do us great harm?

British writer Barbara Taylor has suggested in her essay On Kindness (co-authored by Adam Phillips) that the missing ingredient is just that: kindness. The authors point out that for almost all of human history people considered themselves naturally kind. Christian philosophy called on people to “love thy neighbour as thyself.” But by the seventeenth century kindness was under attack by competitive individualism. Today, says Taylor, “An image of self has been created that is utterly lacking in natural generosity.” This is in spite of numerous studies that show giving provides far more pleasure than taking. People involved in these studies are astonished by the results – and simply don’t trust them.

The recovery of kindness would be a threat to the existing order. What kind of kindness? ”..it is not that real kindness requires people to be selfless it is rather than real kindness changes people in the doing of it, often in unpredictable ways. …It is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others in a way that self-interest never can.” Could this be the key to recovering that Guerin referred to as “possibility and human creativity”? Taylor clearly thinks so as the kindness she is talking about “..creates the kind of intimacy, the kind of involvement with other people that we both fear and crave; … kindness, fundamentally, makes life worth living …everything that is against kindness is against hope.”

Kindness, or “mutual belonging” has become our great taboo. It hangs on by the skin of its teeth in the imperative to carry out “random acts of kindness.” Instead let’s try purposive acts of kindness, challenge competitive individualism and begin imagining the end of capitalism.

 

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 92 other followers