The lament for Canada’s middle class

I’ve been posting more sparsely lately for a number of external reasons but this should change soon I hope. For now, here is the first major piece I wrote for Ricochet. In some ways, it’s the obligatory piece on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, but really it’s my way of trying to think through the hand-wringing about Canada’s middle class. Below are the first couple of sections, read the rest here.


The US is in the throes of a debate about inequality: It’s the Waltons versus the Walmart workers on food stamps, the runaway rich in the 1 per cent versus everyone else. Meanwhile, Canada’s inequality discussion has been largely confined to the woes of the middle class. Even the New York Times added grist to the mill by proclaiming Canada’s middle class better off than its US equivalent.

Similarly, while the US has made a veritable rock star out of French economist Thomas Piketty, whose 600-page economics tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century has topped best-seller lists, Canadian reception has been much more muted. This is a bit surprising because Piketty, in drawing out the link between capitalism and inequality, tells the story of a new Gilded Age replacing the post-war Golden Age that saw the middle class establish itself. One reason Piketty’s book may have left less of a mark on Canadian debate is that more of a middle class has endured in Canada. But will today’s middle class survive? (more…)

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Forum on Piketty’s book in Vancouver

On June 25th, a standing-room only crowd of 150 people attended a public forum and discussion titled “Pikettymania, Inequality and You” on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Today, I’m happy to post in full the four talks that made up the first half of the event (the second half was all discussion). The total is about an hour in length with each speaker taking 15 minutes. Enjoy!

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Slides on Piketty’s Capital

I spoke at an event dedicated to Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century last night in Vancouver. It was great to have a conversation about inequality, economics and politics with an overflowing, diverse crowd. There is a palatable hunger for an understanding of what is going on today and what kind of political action can generate broad-based mobilization.

I’m posting my slides from that discussion here. They focus on the theory in Piketty’s work and are partly expository as one of the aims of the event was to introduce the arguments of the book. However, I have tried to raise some substantive points about how the book and its myriad empirical observations open the door to future avenues of exploration — especially exploration that takes politics seriously and wants to deepen the tradition of political economy.

One of the fruitful things about the book is door it opens out of the stuffy rooms of neoclassical economics back towards political economy. All the more important, however, to remember the task of carrying out a “Critique of Political Economy” (the subtitle of that other Capital): a serious engagement that is at once a serious critique.

Slides in PDF ]

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Updates: Ricochet, Piketty Forum and more coming soon

I’m in the midst of a spell of travel and other work that’s been keeping me away from posting new content here. Another week or two and I should be able to return to much more regular updates of this blog. For the time being I wanted to mention two things that might be of interest to readers here:

Ricochet

I’m happy to be joining Ricochet as a contributing editor. Ricochet is a new entry into the media landscape in Canada: crowd-funded and independent, bilingual and pan-Canadian. The aim is to focus on traditional investigative journalism and hard-hitting analysis. I’m proud to be joining a range of colleagues and friends from across Canada. Especially exciting is the fact that many colleagues on the French-language editorial collective come out of Quebec’s Maple Spring student movement and a number have roots in the Idle No More movement that reasserted First Nations struggles. I’m looking forward to the much-needed exchange of ideas between Quebec, First Nations and English Canada.

The initial crowd-fundraiser is running until June 20th so check it out if you haven’t yet had a chance and consider helping us out financially if you have the means.

My role as contributing editor is relatively flexible but expect to see some of my writing up there both between now and the full launch later this year and beyond.

A Public Forum on Piketty in Vancouver

Also of interest to readers might be a public forum on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century that I’m both helping organize and speaking at later this month in Vancouver. The idea is to provide both those who have read the book as well as those who don’t have the time for the 600-page tome of the the season an opportunity to learn about and discuss its major ideas.

The event will take place on June 25th at 7:00pm at SFU Harbour Centre (Room 1700) in Vancouver. Speaking will be Iglika Ivanova (CCPA BC), Marjorie Griffin-Cohen, Geoff Mann (both of SFU) and myself. There will be discussion of everything from Piketty’s massive trove of inequality data to his proposed solutions. I’ll be talking about the mechanics of Piketty’s economic model and how it fits into mainstream economics (in 15 minutes!). Here is the Facebook event page.

Hope to see you there if you happen to be in town!

 

 

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Piketty on Canada: Oil and inequality

Alright, so the title is a bit of a cheap hook, taking advantage of the popularity of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. In his book, French economist Piketty traces the contours of global inequalities of wealth (and income) over the past 300 years and wraps them in a novel and thought-provoking theory of economic dynamics. Inspired by this general theme, I present here a smattering of numbers and thoughts on the links between inequality in Canada and the concentration of hydrocarbon (oil and natural gas) resources.

Piketty mentions Canada several times and only fairly incidentally. On initially flipping through the book, however, I came upon a short section tucked away in one of the last chapters. The section is titled “The Redistribution of Petroleum Rents” and it has some very direct relevance for Canada. In it, Piketty writes,

When it comes to regulating global capitalism and the inequalities it generates, the geographic distribution of natural resources and especially of “petroleum rents” constitutes a special problem.

The remaining page and a half of this very short section is taken up with Piketty’s musings on the two most recent Iraq wars, on the injustices that can develop in petro-states and on how conflict over unequally-distributed of oil can differ from democratic ideals.

The general “special problem” of petroleum rents, however, also applies to Canada. Canada is an interesting case because oil (among other resources) is geographically very unequally distributed within its national borders. Overlaying the unequal geographic distribution is a federation in which provincial governments operate within the same very broad institutional bounds but can yet differ substantially on policy in a wide range of areas. Indeed, Canadian provinces are sometimes compared, in their powers, more to very delimited states than sub-national jurisdictions.

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