#RealChange wearing thin: A look back at Trudeau’s first year

We’re one year into Justin Trudeau’s government of #RealChange, yet it’s mostly the rhetoric not the policies that have changed. Some of the shine is finally wearing off. Whether approving pipelines, settting electoral reform up to fail or privatizing airports and transit, the Liberals are showing themselves to be the good capitalist managers they’ve always been, not the anti-austerity crusaders of the last election campaign.

Today, three guests—Derrick O’Keefe, Clayton Thomas-Müller and Luke Savage—take a look back at this first year of the Liberal government and look forward to how opposition to it can develop. Derrick is a journalist, author and editor at Ricochet Media. He’s based in Vancouver and currently working on a book on BC politics and history. Clayton Thomas Muller is a climate campaigner with 350.org based in Winnipeg. Luke Savage works for the Broadbent Institute at its Press Progress media outfit and writes frequently on US and Canadian politics.

All the best to you and yours! Back in the New Year!

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Trudeau’s economic model is clear and it is not good

Last week gave us a good idea of the economic model that Trudeau’s Liberals are gradually putting forward and it is business-friendly to the core. The infrastructure bank privatization scheme was the big news item in the fall fiscal upate (see my post from last week), but there are far more goodies to make business happy tucked away in the update and in news from recent weeks. The Liberals plans for the economy are not just about being business-friendly today but about integrating government with business ever further, in ways harder for future governments to unwind. Theirs is a tweaked neoliberalism for an age of stagnation. The mantra remains the market and the state is there to support it.

Here’s the broad strokes of how the Liberals’ plans are shaping up on economics.

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The great rentier give-away

With today’s fiscal update, the Trudeau government has really shown itself to be at the forefront of global left neoliberalism. Taking nearly all his cues from his business-dominated Advisory Council on Economic Growth, the Finance Minister announced a new Canada Infrastructure Bank as the centerpiece of the fiscal update and the Liberals’ economic strategy. Don’t believe the fanfare that is bound to come from the Canadian and international press, this isn’t anything progressive. It’s a new elite consensus that might become one of our main exports, pumped via virtual pipelines across the globe.

Here’s how Dominic Barton, the managing director of McKinsey Global, one of the world’s largest business consulting firms and head of the Advisory Council, framed the impetus behind the new bank:

Barton said infrastructure aimed at improving productivity will be of huge interest to foreign investors in search of steady returns with record low or negative interest rates in many parts of the world. “Infrastructure is the new fixed income,” Barton said in a speech over dinner at the conference. The mix of public and private capital has the potential to “jolt the system.”

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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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Robots, migration and the future of work (Briarpatch Magazine)

I have a longer read in the newest issue of Briarpatch Magazine, which is dedicated to the world of work. If you don’t know Briarpatch, be sure to check out the other articles in this issue and consider subscribing; this is one of Canada’s oldest independent left publications and definitely worth supporting. My piece has the rather grand title “Robots, Migration and the Future of Work” but it’s really about trying to see how we are often pitted against one another and encouraged to see external threats, like machines and migrants, to our well-being rather than working together in solidarity against systemic causes.

The past several decades have not been kind to workers, as most of us know only too well. Those making minimum wage are making a penny more in real terms than they were in 1976, union membership continues to fall, and wage growth for most has been anemic – far outstripped by rising productivity. And this is to say nothing about how unfulfilling the jobs that swallow the waking hours of our lives can be. Yet when workers speak out, whether about our own crappy working conditions or the absurd enrichment of those at the top, we’re greeted by a familiar chorus that is often loudest inside our own heads: just be happy that you have a job at all.

For some, the implied culprit in the background of this story is the much poorer worker in the Global South, whether at a maquiladora in Mexico, a sprawling electronics factory in China, or a call centre in India. As Canadian workers have been integrated into a globalized economy, the story goes, they can be kept in check by what happens halfway across the world. Labour discipline isn’t just – or perhaps even mostly – a function of globalization, however. There are many domestic pressures keeping workers in line and the economy unkind.

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Magic numbers and the math stick

Economics is often associated with numbers. We are bombarded with economic data: GDP, unemployment, inflation, debt, exchange rates, market indices…the list is seemingly endless. While many of these numbers change – we are encouraged to cheer when they rise, jeer when they fall – there are others that are presented as fixed, immutable boundaries between good policy and bad. These are magic numbers that aspire to reduce economic policy decisions simple rule-following. Upon closer inspection, the magic of these numbers may turn out to be nothing but pixie dust. Breaking the illusion, however, risks a real mathematical headache.

Last week, another nail was applied to the already tightly-shut coffin of what had until recently been considered a magic number in economics. In a series of influential papers, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff purported to show that a country’s public debt becomes a sizeable burden on economic growth once it exceeds 90% of GDP. This 90% threshold was used by governments, international institutions, lobby groups and others to create and influence public policy across the globe. Many countries either willingly undertook or were – more or less gently – nudged into undertaking destructive austerity programs to lower debt levels below this magic threshold.

An IMF study published last week indicates that the RR studies, as they’ve come to be called, use a much too short, one-year time-frame to measure the effects of public debt on GDP growth. Taking a longer view is not only much more appropriate, it shows there to be no discernible negative effect of higher public debt on GDP growth – and certainly no clear threshold like that posited by Reinhart and Rogoff. This latest study comes on top of another published last year by graduate students from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, which uncovered  not only serious methodological flaws in the RR studies, but also simple errors in how data was entered into Excel spreadsheets. Together, these errors were responsible for the emergence of such a clear threshold. In short, the accumulated weight of critiques of the RR studies has largely shown these studies to be…to put it bluntly, wrong. The magic 90% number turns out to truly be a conjurer’s trick. (more…)

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QE: Furthering the habit of privatizing gains and socializing losses

“Privatizing gains and socializing losses” could be the motto for the neoliberal era. Alongside this and “there is no alternative”, few slogans better capture the ideology that has been so successfully diffused throughout the world over the past several decades.

Five years after latest financial crisis, this motto rings true as ever. To say that the losses stemming from the crisis were large is a heroic understatement; indeed, not only were they humongous, their exact size remains a tad fuzzy. Meanwhile, across the world in the aftermath of the crisis, stock markets have rebounded, wealth and income inequalities have grown and corporations and financial institutions have returned to making healthy profits. At the same time, many countries have seen both employment and median incomes either stagnate or fall.

In short, once again, losses were socialized, while gains privatized. Prominent among the means employed by governments to ensure that this be the case were various kinds of asset purchase programs. First, in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, came actions that transferred toxic financial assets into public hands either through direct buybacks (as in the US TARP program) or temporary nationalization/bailout. Since these short-term, more explicit socializations of private loss came to an end, the policy of quantitative easing (QE), through which central banks purchase vast amounts of long-term debt from financial markets, has been their implicit continuation. Unlike the earlier programs, QE is aimed instead at the other end of the equation, privatized gains. (more…)

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The in-and-out trick: Thoughts on Canada Post, CPP and your child’s breakfast

The past few days have not been great for public services in Canada. Canada Post will be phasing out home delivery of mail. Expansion of the Canada Pension Plan was scuttled at the finance ministers’ meeting. In the grand scheme of things, however, these are not extreme cutbacks. It’s not as if Canada Post is to be dismantled completely or our public pension fund to run completely dry. This government has long brought us death by a thousand paper cuts and those from the past days are just a continuation of the strategy.

There is a particular common thread that runs through all such small cutbacks. Corey Robin’s recent article in Jacobin, “Socialism: Converting Hysterical Misery into Ordinary Unhappiness”, helped greatly in seeing and naming it. Let us call it insourcing.

This kind of insourcing refers to taking a collective public service and making it into an individual responsibility. Perhaps James Moore recently summed up the insourcing philosophy best, “Certainly we want to make sure that kids go to school full bellied, but is that always the government’s job to be there to serve people their breakfast?” Serve your own breakfast, get your own mail, don’t wait too long to die.

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Notes on pensions and risk

Canada’s finance ministers are meeting this weekend and a proposal to expand the CPP is at the top of the agenda. If implemented, this proposal would bolster an important public program at a time when public programs are under attack and the public sector as whole is shrinking. There are many good arguments in favour of strong public pensions, but I want to focus on one not often discussed: revitalized public programs are a counter to forces that aim to make us accustomed to taking on more and more (potentially disastrous) financial risk.

In yesterday’s post, I noted that austerity is not only a strategy to maintain business profitability, but also part of a broader agenda that can be neatly summed up by the phrase, “privatize gains, socialize losses”. From bailouts to public-private partnerships to the outright privatization of public services, the aim of much right-wing economic policy is to allow the private sector to capture economic gains, at the same time ensuring that society absorbs the costs of something going wrong. This removes financial risks from the private sector and distributes them throughout society.

Effecting such an agenda, however, requires more than just the appropriate policies – it also requires a fundamental change in attitudes towards risk. People have to become habituated to taking on ever-greater individual risks, especially in areas where risks were previously low. Pensions are a prime example of a policy area that can impact on attitudes toward risk.

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Austerity and the profitability puzzle: government gives profits a helping hand

This is the third and final post in what has become a three-part series on the puzzle of high profitability and low investment in the Canadian economy. In the first part, I looked at some data that shows the existence of the puzzle and explored a few of the factors that could be behind it. The follow-up post outlined broadly Keynesian and Marxian solutions aimed at raising investment: the former based on stimulating demand, the latter on eliminating overcapacity and increasing the relative profitability of productive capital. Here, I want to continue the thoughts that concluded the second part, namely that the Harper government’s preferred response to the puzzle has been neither demand stimulation nor industrial policy. Instead, it has been austerity – a strategy by no means accidental, but in fact designed to support the status quo of high profitability and low investment.

Austerity is not an isolated Canadian phenomenon nor is it a new one. The neoliberal era that began sometime in the 1970s has seen austerity in one form or another applied worldwide. Economic crises have especially provided governments with excuses to institute or continue austerity policies that would not have been difficult to institute otherwise. While Canada did not experience the latest economic crisis to the same extent as a number of other countries, it has seen a more moderate version of many of the same trends – such as slower growth and lower employment. The crisis was large enough to allow the Harper government to continue and deepen a tentative austerity regime. While Canada has not pursued austerity programs as spectacular as some, for example the UK or Spain, the Conservative government has, nevertheless, succeeded in substantially reducing the size of government, small cut by small cut. While Canadian austerity policies predate the crisis, the crisis has only helped to entrench them and further orient them towards propping up profitability.

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