Trudeau’s Growth Council is back with more bad ideas

Justin Trudeau’s friends in finance, consulting and big business dominate the grandly named Advisory Council on Economic Growth. A few months after recommending a giant privatization scheme, the gang is back with more ideas, many very good for them but very bad for you and me.

The biggest news: a recommendation to increase the retirement age from 65 to 67. Trudeau has been breaking promises and sticking with Stephen Harper’s policies left, right and centre, so it’s no surprise to see his economic advisors raising another Conservative corpse from the dead—despite the fact that Trudeau actually rolled back Harper’s shift of the retirement age up to 67 in his first budget. Of course, when Harper proposed it, it was mean-spirited, when Bay St. wants it, it’s the bleeding edge of innovative growth strategy!

Beyond this one terrible idea, the Council’s report is full of warmed-over buzzwords and overblown market-speak. Recommendations will “re-imagine the role of government (specifically, as a convener/catalyst and as an investor)” and “catalyze the formation of business-led ‘innovation marketplaces.'” There’s a bit of Sheryl Sandberg feminism for the 1%: gender inequality ameliorated via “a corporate gender diversity challenge.” Yet elsewhere the ideological bent is more transparent: “much of our potential is untapped, held back due to policies (e.g., excessive regulations).” Chamber of Commerce talking points shouldn’t be a surprise in a document prepared in the C-suite, but they’re being sold as “inclusive growth.”

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When the left takes the city

This week, the focus is on experience of left parties and organizations at the municipal level. Although the left has still exercised only limited political power in many places since the financial crisis, some cities have seen left projects come to power or build new institutions in interesting ways. My two guests shed light on two examples of municipal socialism in Europe and North America.

First, Yusef Quadura describes the experience of Barcelona en Comu. In 2015, this new left coalition took control of the municipal government in Barcelona. Led by the housing activist Ada Colau, the party did what Podemos couldn’t do nationally and garnered enough support to govern with the intention of implementing a left program, at least at the municipal level. To get a sense of the plans, accomplishments and challenges faced by Barcelona en Comu just over a year into its mandate, I spoke with Yusef, a member Barcelona en Comu’s international group. Yusuf is also part of the party’s co-ordinating committee in the Gracia district, where we met and talked over coffee (excuse the ambient noise), and a substitute counsellor for the Gracia district council.

My second guest is Kali Akuno, a leader within Cooperation Jackson, a municipal organization far beyond just a political party in Jackson, Mississippi. Although the group elected the radical Chokwe Lumumba as mayor of Jackson in 2014 (before he died tragically only a year into his term), electoral politics is only a small, supporting part of Cooperation Jackson’s mission. Kali describes what this network of worker-run cooperatives, party and movement congealed into one is up to and some of challenges it faces.

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Beware of basic income

Wouldn’t it be great to get a cheque every month just for being you? This is the sweet, fuzzy vision the Ontario and federal Liberals, are counting on to sell their latest idea, a basic income. Just this year, the Ontario government laid the groundwork for a pilot project to test the idea. Any actual large-scale program is far off into the future, however, and that’s a good thing. We need to take a hard look at the idea, especially in Liberal clothing.

Pie-in-the-sky or slap-in-the-face?

A basic income is exactly what it sounds like: a monthly cheque provided to every person by the government with no strings attached. A recent Ontario poll suggests the idea has broad support: 41% of Ontarians support it compared with 33% who oppose. Yet when people are asked whether they think a basic income is a good idea, they are never asked what they would be prepared to lose to get it. The point isn’t that basic income is pie-in-the-sky. It’s just that it could be implemented as a slap-in-the-face.

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Growing the middle class or adapting the elite consensus?

Today’s federal government budget is a litmus test for the new Liberal government. They campaigned on promises of “real change” from the last regime, including a willingness to increase social spending even if it meant running deficit budgets. And, in keeping with this pledge, spending is up, and the deficit is forecast at $29.4 billion.

This is fine in the short term, but it isn’t just about how much spending will be created. The really crucial thing is what kind of spending. Since the 1990s, the Liberals across the country have been masters at implementing a slow-grinding austerity that has cut programs, given away our public services to private interests, and reduced taxes, largely for business and the rich.

More than anything else, this budget reads like new technocratic consensus. Like 1990s austerity, Canada’s Liberals are once again at the forefront of global elite policy. In an era of slowing growth and productivity, with monetary policy by central banks all but exhausted, even the OECD and IMF have called for higher deficits. The Liberals are forging the path that the global elite will try to travel to get global capitalism working again — especially for the elite. As Greg Albo remarked, with this budget the Liberals have rolled back Harper but left Chretien and Martin untouched. (more…)

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The economic debate we got and the one we need

I feel more like a broken record: another piece for Ricochet on the economic debate in the 2015 election and the missing big picture. This after the Globe Debate on the economy.

The Conservatives have promised balanced budgets and have even enshrined them in law. The NDP is also promising balanced budgets, painting itself as “responsible” with government finances.

The Liberals are the only party to break out of the balanced budget consensus, admitting that for a few years they may run small deficits of about $10 billion, or 0.5 per cent of GDP.

The leaders will meet in Calgary to go head-to-head at an event sponsored by the Globe and Mail. But will they break out of the narrow constraints that have thus far defined the conversation on the economy? (more…)

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Canada’s new recession and the push for alternatives

The Bank of Canada today cut its benchmark interest rate today to nearly record lows, now just 0.5%. In the face of an oil shock and other weakness, monetary policy is expected to do the heavy lifting of beating an economic funk. Today’s move reflects a poverty of economic policy from the ruling Conservatives and much of the political class.

Harper has been adamant that Canada’s downturn—now very likely a recession, about which his own Finance Minister  remains in denial—is the result of global forces. There’s nothing that can be done to counteract a host of external problems but to button down. The best a government can hope for is to maintain a fabled fiscal discipline.

However, there’s a disjoint between saying that policy couldn’t have been used to avert downturns like this one and screaming bloody murder anytime someone raises the prospect of even mildly activist, redistributive, old-school social democratic economic policy. If current policy is that ineffective, then perhaps it’s high time to try something else? “There’s nothing we could have done” is just a fatalistic cover for political choices.
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Quick thoughts on Vancouver’s transit referendum “No”

Here are a few quick, initial thoughts on Vancouver’s transit referendum, where new transit funding paid for by a regional sales tax was rejected roughly 60% to 40%. You might want to read on even if you’re not from Vancouver: after all, it isn’t the only property-value-driven urban “utopia” where public services, public spaces and people themselves are being pushed out by elites.

(1) The result is unhappy, but not unexpected. The process was designed to fail and it has succeeded at that task with flying colours: the provincial government took an area of long-standing funding responsibility, turned its expansion into a vote on new taxation, and then abdicated all responsibility for an effective campaign. (This rather than getting money for transit out of general revenues and sparking debate over how to fund services and which ones.) If and when Christie Clark gets her pink slip, someone should stick a gold star on it for this one.

(2) On one hand, the result confirms the ideological victory of the right on the level of a very concrete, local example. New taxes and expanded public services are easy to pick apart in an age where cutting both is a hard-won default position in political debate. On the other hand, it will be easy to interpret these results in a way that further strains any remaining bonds of social solidarity. There is self-satisfaction from the ideologues of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation; however, alongside it it’s already easy to see complaints about “stupid suburban voters” from those in favour of more transit on social media. (more…)

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Austerity and economy in Quebec (transcript)

On last week’s podcast, I interviewed two researchers from Montreal’s IRIS, or the Insitut de recherché et d’informations socio-economiques, which has now been producing important progressive research for 15 years. This conversation with Julia Posca and Eve-Lyne Couturier is a great introduction to Quebec’s experience with austerity, the resource extraction agenda and popular organizing against both. Here’s the (almost) full transcript of that interview, edited for clarity and length.

Michal Rozworski: Why don’t we start with this little white book, “L’austerite au temps de l’abondance” that was recently published in Quebec. The title translates roughly as, “Austerity in a time of prosperity”. Julia, you wrote the title essay: what do you mean by this phrase?

Julia Posca: With the austerity agenda, citizens are asked to play their part and accept, for example, that we will all have to spend more to get public services and in order to have a more efficient state to get prosperity.

But for the past 30 years, this prosperity has only been for a small part of the population. We only see the incomes of the 1% that are rising. We see growth but we don’t see the whole population benefitting it.

Another way I’ve heard this put is “our austerity is their prosperity.” Who has benefitted in Quebec? What has happened to inequality?

Julia: There is this perception that Quebec is a poor province and that there are no rich people. What we’ve seen, however – and we’ve done our own research at IRIS on inequality – is the same trend as in the US and the rest of Canada: the same rise in the concentration of wealth. It’s been slower but it’s still there.

What struck me most is that the incomes of the majority of the population have tended to stagnate. Wage-earners have been abandoned. (more…)

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With NDP win, what’s next for Alberta?

This episode focuses on what else but the recent Alberta provincial election that saw the social democratic NDP sweep into power after 44 consecutive years of Conservative rule. To gain some perspective on this rather remarkable result in Canada’s oil and gas heartland and see what lies ahead for Alberta, I speak with an NDP campaign insider as well as a long-time analyst of Alberta’s political economy.

My first guest, Adrienne King, was Rachel Notley’s Chief of Staff during the campaign and was just announced as the new premier’s Deputy Chief of Staff. She’s worked for the Alberta NDP since before the 2012 election and offer her point of view on the future from within the NDP. My second guest is Ricardo Acuna. Ricardo is the Executive Director of the Parkland Institute, Alberta’s major political and economic research institute. We spoke about the economic situation in Alberta, the role of the oil industry as well as the challenges facing the new government.

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Canada’s Austerity Consensus

I have a longer piece out in Jacobin today on tracing the roots of today’s austerity consensus in Canada to the 1990s. In a way, it’s me coming to terms with the last twenty years of Canadian political economy.

How exceptional is Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his crop of Canadian conservatives? For not just large- and small-l liberals, but also some leftists, the last decade has been an aberration — particularly compared to the alleged synthesis between responsible government and economic expansion that occurred during the 1990s. Yet while both public and elite consensus has shifted even further to the right since the ’90s, too often Harper and the current Conservatives are portrayed as an anomaly rather than a continuation.

The ultimate irony of the last two decades of austerity may be that Harper’s Conservatives have been able to rest comfortably on their laurels because of previous attacks on working-class power and livelihoods, even temporarily increasing public spending to save a system in crisis.

While the 1980s had laid some of the groundwork in Canada, the Right’s counterrevolution was not as successful as it had been under Ronald Reagan in the US or Margaret Thatcher in the UK. It was up to Canada’s Liberal Party, the centrist, “natural governing party,” to cement it.

PM CHRETIEN AND DEPUTY PM GRAY APPLAUD FINANCE MINISTER MARTIN

In his 1994 budget speech, Paul Martin — then the finance minister, later the prime minister — encapsulated the Liberal message:

It is now time for government to get its fiscal house in order. For years, governments have been promising more than they can deliver, and delivering more than they can afford. That has to end. We are ending it . . . Over the next three years, for every one dollar raised in new revenues we will cut five dollars in government expenditures.

The subsequent austerity drive was one of the most severe in the Global North, and remains the foundation for the Right’s strategy of death by a thousand cuts.

Taking this longer view of the political economy of Canadian austerity — and the nature of Harper’s conservatism — isn’t just crucial to making sense of the present. It provides more stable ground to fight for a less austere future. (more…)

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