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.

 

 

 

Can You Imagine? Toppling the Fossil Fuel Empire

 

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein

 

As the world struggles with how to deal with the slow motion apocalypse of global climate change it becomes more and more apparent that we are trapped in “the kind of thinking” that got us here. While I don’t want to wear out Einstein’s quotability his other little piece of wisdom that we need to keep top of mind is this:

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Our failure of imagination regarding the ever-increasing production and use of fossil fuels will, over time, kill billions of us and irreversibly change all life on the planet. It is a failure of imagination not at a policy level but at level of civilization. It’s not a lack of knowledge – we have a staggering amount of information and analysis, a frightening compendium of what we are doing to ourselves and every other species on the planet. We keep piling it on, study after study, dire warning after dire warning, irrefutable science, actual evidence of melting ice-caps, the virtually unprecedented level of agreement on the part of science about where we are headed. Additional information is already hitting up against the principle of diminishing returns.

We have seen especially alarming predictions in the past few months. Two studies released almost simultaneously  claim with a high degree of certainty that the glaciers in the western Antarctic are irreversibly melting. The first, by NASA and the University of California-Irvine, examined a group of large glaciers that collectively contain the equivalent of four feet of sea level rise. They are in “continuous and rapid retreat and there is “no [major] obstacle that would prevent the glaciers from further retreat.” They have “have passed the point of no return.”

Another study by the University of Washington came to the same conclusion and suggested the Melting of the Thwaites glacier could undermine the rest of the Antarctic ice shield holding ten to thirteen feet of sea level rise. None of this will happen soon and the maximum rise could take centuries, yet Greenland expert and glaciologist Stephen Box we have already set in motion 69 feet of sea level rise.

While some of these changes will unfold over decades and centuries a report from the US National Research Council warns of the distinct possibility of tipping points: “… the scientific community has been paying increasing attention to the possibility that at least some changes will be abrupt, perhaps crossing a threshold or ‘tipping point’ to change so quickly that there will be little time to react.” Another study examining the speed of species extinction says the extinction rate is 1000 time faster than it should be according to historical rates.

One of the major political factors preventing serious consideration of major and rapid policy changes is the sheer power of the fossil fuel industry. Unimaginable wealth translates into unimaginable power world-wide. To imagine bringing the industry to heel in a serious effort to slow climate change we have to imagine treating the industry like we eventually treated the tobacco industry: as an existential threat to human health. For decades the tobacco giants exerted so much political influence they were virtually untouchable. To the extent that this changed (it is obviously still a health scourge especially in the developing world) it changed because the notion of corporate “rights” was successfully challenged.

Multiply the impact of the tobacco industry by 1000 and you have some idea of how difficult it will be to escape the political and social conventional thinking that protects the oil “industry” from rational policy. Indeed part of that conventional thinking is seeing the giant corporations involved as just another industry. This actually serves to protect this sociopathic monster because we have rules governing industries and the individual companies that make them up. Companies are “citizens” with rights (thanks to our Charter) and they live forever. They have literally unlimited money to lobby governments for continued subsidies ($2 billion yearly from Ottawa), and tax breaks and against subsidies for renewables which could save the planet. Even though 97% of climate scientists agree about climate change, these corporations have the power trash science and sew doubts about global warming.

The energy giants are protected by rogue governments like those in Alberta and Ottawa. They are permitted to take us much of the stuff out of the ground as fast as they can ship it and sell it regardless of the global consequences. Like no other sector of the economy (except perhaps nuclear power) they are allowed to externalize hundreds of billions – possibly trillions – in costs they should be paying: air and water pollution costs; health costs; the costs associated with distorting the rest of the economy; the cost of new roads and bridges and freeways and paved-over farm land. We refuse to tax it to cover those costs and that means ridiculously low prices and little incentive to wean ourselves from its pernicious and deadly effects.

The mega-corporations that peddle fossil fuels and effectively sponsor climate change and the melting of the ice caps are not an “industry.” They are a plague. And indeed their impact is already tantamount to a plague – the fastest rate of species extinction since the end of the dinosaurs – and will over the next hundred years kill exponentially more people than all the plagues in world history combined. Speaking of dinosaurs, perhaps if we mobilized to confront the criminal negligence of the fossil fuel empire in the same way we would mobilize to divert a collision-course comet, we might achieve a realistic sense of the scale of the coming catastrophe and what needs to be done to avoid it.

And it would require us to listen to Einstein’s observation about the need to use a different kind of thinking to solve our problem. No, I mean a really different kind of thinking, the kind of big idea thinking I have referred to in earlier columns. The sooner we begin to think of the fossil fuel empire as a criminal conspiracy and not just another industrial sector, the sooner we will actually get to the point where it is not just acceptable to nationalize and control fossil fuels but necessary for the survival of all life on the planet.

How could this actually happen? What would such a course of action look like? I have no idea. That’s why imagination is more important than knowledge – and why if we don’t begin trying to imagine controlling the private fossil fuel empire it will never happen. And if I doesn’t happen we condemn our grandchildren and their grandchildren to an unimaginable dystopia. Perhaps a sign that things are moving in the right direction will be when a group of young people make a mock citizens’ arrest of the CEO of an oil company on a charge of species murder. I can hardly wait.

 

 

Wynne’s Win, and the Agony of Right-Wing Pundits

While I realize it is churlish to take so much pleasure in the whining and wingeing of the usually arrogant right-wing pundits, I just can`t help myself. This gaggle of ideological nut bars rarely get angry at the fact that most governments in this country have been doing their duty in dismantling the democratic, activist state for 25 years. They really thought that it was impossible — due in part to their own pernicious influence — that the idea of government actually working for people could rise from the ashes.

But when Kathleen Wynne put together a budget and a campaign platform that looked like it came from the NDP in 1975 and then actually won a majority on it? Well that`s not just heresy, it`s apostasy. The Liberals, after all, are still supposed to be a Bay Street party, doing capital`s bidding — as defined so often by these same pundits

The pundits, all nominally in favour of democracy so long as it produces anti-democratic governments, will be twisting themselves out of shape for some time to come. Here`s  Kelly McParland of the National Post (headline: “Ontario election result makes perfect sense in an irrational world”), truly rendered incoherent by the unexpected results:

“Who won is, in a big way, immaterial. Oh, the result matters to the participants, of course, and in terms of the dismal message it sends about how tolerant the Ontario voter is of Liberal abuse and mismanagement. But in the big picture, who is premier or what party won the most seats wasn’t the real issue.”

Really? Then just what is the point of elections? I wonder why McParland bothers to write his columns. But he quickly returns to suggesting maybe it did matter — and trashing Ontarians who didn`t vote for communal suicide by voting for Tim Hudak: “Ontarians seem able to hate their government, while simultaneously wanting more of it.  Is this some sort of new public mania, masochism by democracy?”

So blotto is Mr McParland from drinking his ideological Kool-Aid, it is simply impossible for him to imagine that people might actually be attracted to the idea of a party that runs on a platform of making things better for ordinary people. Only someone living in that batty libertarian universe could see an enhanced pension plan as masochism.

The National Post`s John Ivison attacked Wynne for a cynical campaign of “fear and anger” but then criticized the Conservative leader because he “did not make enough people angry enough at the Liberals for them to ignore their misgivings about Mr. Hudak.”

No mention, however, of the cynicism demonstrated by Hudak who travelled to the U.S. to consult with some genuinely certifiable Tea Partiers about how to win the hearts and minds of Ontarians by trashing their government programs and firing those who deliver them.

And then there was the Sun chain`s Christina Blizzard addicted, apparently, to hyperbole:

“This province is morally and financially bankrupt. Yet, we’ve patted the perpetrators on the back and sent them to Queen’s Park with a licence to spend and plunder. They will be insufferable. Watch for a festival of smug triumphalism from the Liberals….voters had no appetite for honesty in politics.…This is a stunning Friday the 13th horror story.”

The Toronto Sun is a newspaper devoted to the Conservatives like a mother to her children. With Wynne’s “’safe hands’ in charge of this province, we’re closer to Greece or Detroit than the witless in this city ever want to think,” wrote Sue-Anne Levy. “Wynne cares about one thing only: Clinging to power and keeping her Liberal friends happily rolling in largesse.” And Anthony Furey, another Sun columnist chastised voters with the headline “Shame on you, Ontarians.”

And then there was the National Post`s Robyn Urbach who boldly declared: “Liberals shouldn’t mistake their majority with voter support for their mandate.”  I would love to see what Urbach wrote about Stephen Harper`s mandate with virtually the same percentage of the vote for his majority.  And given that NDP voters almost certainly supported virtually all of the Liberal budget and platform that does translate into a big majority: 62.4 per cent.

Amongst the right wing commentators it seems only Andrew Coyne could bear to tell it straight up:

“This election was very much a referendum on fiscal conservatism, and the fiscal conservatives lost. [T]he central issue in this campaign, unambiguously, was fiscal policy — the Liberals ran on their budget, and the Tories ran on theirs, the Million Jobs Plan. Everyone agreed this election presented the voters with a clear choice, perhaps the clearest in 20 years. And they made their choice, just as clearly.”

Amen.

While the right’s hard liners may be lighting their hair on fire, citizens on the other hand may actually get to see what governments used to be like. There is, of course, still a possibility that Wynne will renege on these pledges as Liberals have done historically. But just imagine if she does deliver with the most progressive budget in Canada in 20 years. It could have huge implications for politics at all levels.

Ever since the so-called `free-trade` deal with the U.S. Canadians have been sold a bill of goods by the economic and political elites about there “being no alternative” to small, mean, punitive and arrogant government. With the NDP`s apparent abandonment of principle in favour of crass opportunism and consumer populism, it seemed activist government was well and truly buried.

If Wynne wants to have a really extraordinary legacy she has a golden opportunity — and a powerful personal mandate.  Progressive politicians can pitch good policies until the cows come home but the impact of actually seeing them work could be enormous: an executed plan is worth a thousand pledges.

Wynn`s $15 billion mass transit plan is huge in terms of reducing Ontario`s climate foot print.

Providing retirees with greater income security is something almost every government knows is critically necessary.

Her pledge to raise the pay of the lowest paid health and child care workers directly addresses the issue of inequality. The rest of the platform was pretty interesting, too.

I can think of three positive outcomes of Wynne carrying out her pledges (besides her actual program).

Most important is demonstrating to voters across the country that governments can do things that make their lives better — that voting can make a difference. When the punditry puzzle over how the Liberals could have won despite a litany of corruption charges and large deficits consider this possibility: the tired mantra about deficits and debt (and the scary bond-raters) suddenly takes its rightful place in the political firmament when it has to compete with real public goods and higher taxes on the undeserving rich.

Secondly, if this does start a trend towards more rational and less ideological politics (like actually addressing the $160 billion infrastructure deficit across Canada) the NDP might once again find the courage to run campaigns and engage the public on social democratic principles. After all, if they are going to mimic the Liberals to get to the centre, better they mimic Wynne, who is moving the centre to the left. NDPers everywhere would thank her (notwithstanding the irony that it took a Liberal to push the fiscal boundary — sort of like Nixon recognizing China).

Lastly, though there may not be time for this to play out, a government representing over a third of the country`s population actually pursuing an activist agenda could make things very difficult for Stephen Harper`s continued assault on democratic governance.  The 905 area surrounding Toronto went solidly Liberal in this election and it is these voters that Harper must have to win even a minority in 2015. If they are happy with Wynne`s performance, Harper could be in serious trouble.

Who Needs $80 Billion? Starve Us Some More!

For years Stephen Harper often seemed at war with his own government, so consistently critical were reviews by its various independent oversight agencies. It seems that at least one “independent” body, the Parliamentary Budget Office, is now a little more PMO-friendly. A recent report from the PBO’s new chief Jean-Denis Fréchette declared that thanks to the incredible generosity of the federal government, “Canadians” have an extra $30 billion in their pockets — money “saved” due to Conservative tax cuts. The figure includes reductions in personal income tax of $17.1 billion and the federal share of revenue loss GST/HST of $13.3 billion.

That’s almost $1,000 per person.

Isn’t that nice.

Except that the “average” is meaningless. According to Canadians for Tax Fairness (disclosure: I am on the board) “the top 20 per cent of income earners got $10.9 billion, or 36 per cent of the total, while the bottom 20 per cent got $1.9 billion, or only six per cent… What this means is that while the lowest 20 per cent of income earners have gained less than $500 in tax reductions, the top 20 per cent have seen their taxes go down by almost $2,000 a year.”

There was no suggestion that the $30 billion could also be seen as lost revenue and lost services. No debate about whether the poorest 20 per cent are better off with an extra $500 to spend or whether they might actually be better off with affordable child care, Pharmacare, low tuition fees for their kids or affordable housing.

The PBO report again raises the question of how we will ever get an adult conversation about taxes in this country?

There was no critical comment from any of the national political parties.

For so many years now the conversation was like one hand clapping. Anti-government voices like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the National Post, the Fraser Institute and C.D. Howe Institute and the editorial writers in virtually every newspaper in the country repeat the mantra that tax cuts are good to the point where there is apparently no level of government impoverishment that is unacceptable.

I wonder if Canadians would be so sanguine about the “savings” they receive if they were announced as options forgone. So, instead of announcing the upcoming income splitting scheme (slated for the 2015 budget) as savings for taxpayers the government news release would state: “Today the Harper government announced that it was taking new tax measures that will ensure that Canadians will never get a national child care program. ‘Our government is acutely aware of the fact that we still have too much revenue — revenue that Canadians would expect us to spend if they knew we had it,’ said Finance Minister Joe Oliver. ‘So we are going to continue to implement our revenue reduction plan to ensure that no one gets attached to the idea of affordable child. Our income splitting measure will eliminate the $3 billion it would cost to start such a program.'”

Or perhaps they could announce it with a somewhat different spin. “The Conservative government in Ottawa announced today a continuation of its long term commitment to making rich people richer. ‘Our government is not going to stand idly by and watch rich people in other countries get richer than our own wealthy citizens. Not on my watch,’ said Finance Minister Joe Oliver. Oliver announced that the Conservative will be implementing an income-splitting measure in 2015 that will put loads more cash into the pockets of those who can’t figure out how to spend the money they already have.

“‘The spending side of it is their problem,’ said Oliver. ‘Our job is to give them more money.’ He pointed out that 86 per cent of all families would gain no benefit whatsoever from income splitting. The richest five per cent of families would see more benefit than the bottom 60 per cent of families combined. The bottom 60 per cent of families would receive, on average, $50 while the wealthiest five per cent would receive an average benefit of $1,100. ‘No one should doubt our commitment to taking from everyone else and giving to the rich. It’s what we do.'”

Of course the $30 billion figure doesn’t even take account of the enormous cuts that Paul Martin made in 2000 (larger than anything Flaherty implemented) and it also doesn’t count cuts to corporate taxes implemented by the Conservatives. The hand over of community revenue to the largest corporations in the country means we are nearly $20 billion short every year. That’s $50 billion we would have had if taxes had been left the way they were starting in 2005. If you add in Paul Martin’s gratuitous gifts to the undeserving rich and their corporate co-conspirators the number is closer to $80 billion. To put that in perspective, we now have about $230 billion in federal revenue — rather than $310 billion we should have.

It might be a useful exercise for Canadians to sit down and produce a couple of columns. One, called “taxpayers” would list what we could spend our savings on. The other, called “citizens” would tally what we could, collectively, as a national community, accomplish if we somehow went back to the year 2000 or even 2005 tax levels.

For the vast majority of us the first column would be pretty short. But the other list could get quite long for the simple reason that when we all throw a bit of money into the pot, the pot gets pretty big.

The folks at Press Progress did some of the work on such a list allocating $43 billion in additional revenue annually.

Balance the budget: $2.9 billion
Pay down debt: $10 billion
Urban infrastructure and public transit: $9.5 billion
National childcare program: $2 billion
National pharmacare program: $3.8 billion
Reduce university tuition to 1992 levels: $3 billion
Invest in affordable housing: $1.5 billion
Invest in First Nations communities, water supply and education: $2.2 billion
Invest in long-term health care for seniors: $5.6 billion

And, say the authors, we would have enough leftover to buy a Welsh pony for every child under the age of nine (cost: $2.5 billion).

Of course the anti-government propagandists frame this in their own special way: taking money out of people’s pockets, killing growth, attacking private investment. For them it’s all cost, no benefit.

But the facts tell a different story. Having the lowest corporate tax rates in the G7 has done exactly nothing for investment in Canada. Every dollar we give these carpetbaggers is just added to the huge pile of idle capital (some $600 billion) sitting in corporate bank accounts. These folks aren’t stupid — they’re not going to invest unless there is a demand for what they produce. You only worry about income tax if you’re making an income. Taxes historically rank about number five or six on the list of factors going into an investment decision.

How might we create demand so that corporations would invest? Well, how about spending $50 billion on things that actually employ people (day care workers, health care workers, teachers), spend money in the private sector (housing and infrastructure, transit, and water systems and schools on reserves) and educate more people for high-paying jobs?

Despite how obvious this should be it appears that no national party has any intention of proposing a return to the days when we actually funded government generously — when we understood that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.

The Liberals and the Conservatives are responsible for destroying our national revenue. The Green Party has a “revenue neutral” pledge that will raise carbon taxes but reduce other taxes by the same amount. That leaves the NDP. But that leaves us nowhere. In the fall of 2013, Thomas Mulcair made it clear enough: “…that is never going to be part of my policies, going after more individual taxes. Period. Full stop.”

An insider told me Mulcair regretted being so strong in an off-the-cuff remark. But on May 15 he reiterated: “We’re saying that personal taxes will not be touched. That’s a firm undertaking. That’s a contract with the Canadian voting public on our behalf.”

A contract that includes, apparently, the super-rich, the one per cent.

Mulcair is not avoiding tax increases because he is afraid of the media response. He is committed to the status quo because he actually believes that taxes should not be raised. That is the inescapable conclusion a lot of people were hoping wasn’t true.

Which means, if progressives in this country are serious about political change at the federal level they need to take action to convince the NDP to change its position. No one should give a dime to this party until in indicates it is committed to finding the necessary revenue to fund what Canadians say they want. I received a fund-raising letter from the NDP last week and I returned it saying: “Not a dime until you pledge to increase taxes.”

I sent the same message to Thomas Mulcair (thomas.mulcair@parl.gc.ca). I suggest you do the same. It may be the only message that gets through.

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