Jonathan Kay advises the left

Jonathan Kay knows what’s hurting the poor. Is it absurdly low welfare rates and social supports? Perhaps it is lack of access to affordable housing? Poverty wages? Food insecurity? Over-policing? No, says Kay, the honest broker of politics, the inconvenient truth-speaker, it’s the left’s political correctness that’s really keeping the poor down.

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Kay supports this claim with a jumble of obvious facts, unexamined assumptions and misrepresentations held together like the remnants of the fraying neoliberal consensus. In his most recent Walrus editorial, Kay jumps from (1) houses in Vancouver cost too much (true) to (2) it’s all the fault of the Chinese (nope) to (3) the left doesn’t care about class or the poor (wtf), all in the span of under 900 words! Here’s the punchline, complete with the obligatory reference to “things I’ve seen on social media”:

The left now has a golden opportunity to push for bold policies that would go to the heart of income inequality in our class-based society: guaranteed income, universal access to care for those suffering from mental illness, and, yes, tax and regulatory policies that discourage hot money from overinflating local real-estate markets. But from what I’ve read on social media and in Walrus editorial submissions, many activists and pundits seem far more comfortable striking positions on highly compartmentalized identity-politics issues that can be reduced to succinct, tweet-able messages.

For someone who has so much sage advice for the left on class politics, Kay is utterly oblivious to how class operates. Kay castigates Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson for not speaking out against the real estate bubble ballooning under his watch and blames it on steadfast anti-racism. Is Robertson a bleeding heart liberal hopelessly in the clutches of radical dogmas or is it rather that he is the leader of a party that received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from real estate developers in the city?

There’s no point in citing the innumerable left articles, speeches, rallies, occupations, forums, talks and leaflets on the topics of “socio-economic stratification, poverty, and income inequality” that Kay claims are missing. What better proof that the left has managed to get all of these issues onto the agenda than the fact that clueless elite scribes like Kay are forced to treat them seriously?

Then again, here’s just one example, from this very blog back in 2014 on the same topic of Vancouver’s unaffordable housing:

The growth of inequality, attacks on pensions, increases in lifespans, aggressive tax cuts – all of these factors have moved wealthier Canadian households to look for new investment opportunities. Investment in real estate has been helped by low mortgage rates, a supply of new housing skewed towards small, high-end condominiums as well as existing equity available to those who lucked out and grew rich on the initial housing boom that started in Vancouver in the 1980s.

As absurd as it is to say it explicitly, it’s not a hegemonic anti-racism that’s driving millennials and the poor out of cities like Vancouver. It is the combination of record low interest rates and money pumping pushing up asset prices all over the world. Art auctions are breaking records and condos are selling like hot cakes because the rich have won—they no longer have to make productive investments that will boost the wages of regular folks alongside boosting their wealth. It is also government at all levels completely abandoning the project of house-building. The Liberals in the 1990s announced that the Canadian government was “not in the business of housing” and turned to driving private mortgage finance instead.

It is a global glut of too much money chasing too little tangible wealth. Just by virtue of proximity, money from mainland China plays some role in the housing bubbles in Hong Kong, Sydney or Vancouver. But is money from mainland China pricing people out of New York City? out of London? out of Amsterdam? Everywhere it is the wealthy who are pushing out the poor. Developer-funded crocodile tears, not anti-racism, are stopping meaningful reform that would include progressively taxing wealth, wherever its owners are domiciled.

Kay mentions that the average individual income in Vancouver is $43,000. The average for recent immigrants is about half that. The overall median is closer to $30,000. Here’s an opportunity for class and anti-racist politics; the kind already pushing for a higher minimum wage and pushing back against developers. It’s one where the poor, the working class and the racialized have autonomy over solutions rather than being told inequality is a big problem elites should solve. Maybe Kay’s protests and lamentations about Uberization or union weakness would be more believable if they didn’t come from an avid fan of Uber who “won’t go back to cabs” (and whose big solution is to cash out cabbies with a one-time payment) or someone who has wasted hundreds of column inches attacking unions of all stripes.

The truly blind to the class politics screwing workers and the poor are those like Jonathan Kay whose complaints take political cues from service to elites.

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The media love the TPP, but should you?

Canada’s media have heaped fawning praise on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the biggest free trade and investment deal in years. Rather than raising questions and red flags over a secret deal with mixed impacts, our media has been cheering and patting elites on the back.

Negotiations over the TPP concluded early Monday morning in Atlanta. The deal was signed onto by 12 countries from around the Pacific Rim, including Canada. Details of the deal are murky as the negotiations were secret and the final text has yet to be released.

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More to the point, Canada already has existing free trade accords with many of the countries involved in the deal and low tariffs on imports and exports. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, among others, has pointed out these deals are less about the economics of trade and more about the political clout of corporations in today’s already-globalized world.

Rather than pausing for critical reflection and investigation, Canada’s mainstream media and pundit class initiated a TPP love-in. To see just how narrow the range of opinion is, try to spot the difference in the following quotes from the editorial and opinion pages of Canada’s major newspapers and magazines. (more…)

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A labor journalism resurgence?

As unions and workers suffered defeats over the past few decades, so has labor journalism dwindled from a mainstay of major media outlets across Canada and the US to a relatively niche reporting interest. The past few years, however, have seen a still small but noticeable resurgence of labor reporting. Large media outlets, both print and online, have once again started to hire journalists looking at workers’ issues and reporting from the perspective of workers. At the same time, independent media have continued to do the same and some have gained in readership and size. The staff at some new media outlets, most recently Gawker and Salon, have even unionized themselves. This week’s podcast looks at the state of labor journalism, trying to get a sense of the current rekindling.

It’s a big podcast, too, with four guests. First up, I talk to Sarah Jaffe, prolific freelancer who covers labor issues from a grassroots perspective. Sarah writes for The Nation, the Guardian, In These Times and many other venues; she is also co-host, with Michelle Chen, of the excellent Belaboured podcast. Next, I speak with Lydia de Pillis, labor reporter at the Washington Post, one of the crop of reporters rebooting the labor beat at major media. My third guest from the US is Mike Elk, labor reporter for the online magazine Politico. Mike is a former organizer and has long roots in the labor movement. My final conversation is with Sam Ponting, one of the editors of RankAndFile.ca, Canada’s new independent source for labor news and commentary. Sam provides some perspective on the situation of labor media in Canada and how worker-focused media can make a difference in labour campaigns.

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Media talks debt

How to characterize the mainstream media reaction to the unfolding debt negotiations between Greece and Europe (not the financial press mind you, which knows what it’s about though sides largely with the creditors)? For those looking for the simplest angle, it is merely a stand-off without context: a horse race or Wild West shoot-out. Here, the problem is not so much a particular internalized economic doctrine, though that’s there too, but an additional utter lack of context.

A significant chunk of reporting, however, tries to give at least some context. Often, it starts with the “fundamental fact” of the debt: hark! there’s a huge pile of debt. Even this choice of starting point is already open to significant unacknowledged assumptions. One such natural assumption is “oh it’s probably the result of profligacy” or some variation on this theme. Debt is moralized from the outset rather than a search begun for potential structural causes. (Krugman is actually quite good on critiquing this.)

A second theme often almost immediately follows, “well, clearly belt-tightening is in order” — austerity is the natural remedy to the crisis. This is the household budget view of government finances that has little basis in economic theory, but is a central plank of excuses given for the politics of austerity: you’re in debt so save your way out, pinch pennies even if starts to cause immense suffering. The suffering is acknowledged but in similar terms as collateral damage is in so much mainstream war reporting.

Yet while the focus is often the sum of debt and how it can be repaid, both are in many ways meaningless if the debt is truly unsustainable. Greece, with the Troika and the other European states, is involved in an argument partly over symbols, albeit symbols with very real effects. If Greece is insolvent, then further repayment on harsh terms brought about via financial lifelines to enable this repayment is also disciplining device, one that conveniently also sends a message to other EU states. The tool is the austerity program, which produces real suffering, dislocation, enormous unemployment and massive shrinkage of the social sphere.

All this is too often left out. The amount of debt figures large in reports, the billions and debt/GDP ratios frightening and pushing the austerity narrative. Sometimes, the fact that 25 percent of Greeks are unemployed sneaks in, or 50 percent of youth. But how often is it mentioned that the Greek government needs to be able to redirect spending towards its social programme, which at a basic calculation provided by Syriza before the election actually amounts to a modest 11 billion Euros? Similarly, the question of how the state can even collect revenues to pay for anything — measures to end the tax strike by the oligarchs and clientelist state-business relations — is a side issue at best.

This interplay between media assumptions and reality was in rather full effect in the recent interview with Yanis Varoufakis on BBC Newsnight. Take the phrase “structural reforms” — clearly the presenter and the interviewee meant very different things but assumptions obscured this away. The other elements were there: the Wild West metaphor, surface level yes/no questions, the eschwing of ambiguity in favour of a horserace. Entertaining if demoralizing to watch:

[This is an extended version of a short commentary I was asked to provide for Al-Jazeera’s Listening Post on the mainstream media’s handling of the Greek debt talks.]

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