Transformations in profit and possibilities of resistance: A reply to Sam Gindin

Several weeks ago, I published a series of blog posts on profitability and investment in Canada since the financial crisis of 2007-8. These were republished as a single long article on Socialist Project and given the title, “Canada’s Profitability and Stagnation Puzzle”.  Since them, Sam Gindin has published a reply to my piece, “Puzzle or Misreading? Stagnation, Austerity and Left Politics”. Gindin challenges me on a number of fronts, most generally for misreading the current predicament in terms of a static formula that treats all capitalist crises ahistorically. This critique has ramifications for how Gindin sees not only my empirical account of present trends, but also my theoretical background and thoughts on strategies for resistance and alternatives.

Despite what appear to be many points of dispute, I think Gindin and I actually agree on a great many things, both in terms of the diagnosis of the current crisis and strategies for overcoming it. There are quibbles about statistics and wording, and I want to deal with a couple of these here, but I think we share much on broader theoretical and strategic matters. I want to primarily focus on the agreements behind our recent Socialist Project-facilitated interaction. (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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Demand or destruction: Two ways out of the profitability puzzle

In my previous post, I outlined the disconnect between profitability and investment in Canada’s private sector.  While businesses are doing well and profits have rebounded quickly after the global financial crisis of 2007, investment has continued its slow and steady 20-year decline.  This decline is especially visible when investment is related directly to profits. Slightly more than 60% of gross profits are currently being re-invested, down by a third relative to just two decades ago.  Such a gap between strong profitability and dismal investment does not correspond with standard accounts of how the economy functions.  According to standard accounts, strong profitability should encourage investment, not depress it further.  This theoretical relationship is not borne out in recent Canadian experience.

While the last post also examined a few factors that could have been at play in creating this odd state of affairs, here I want to move in the opposite direction and look at two competing pictures of how to revive low private-sector investment.  The first picture comes from Keynes, the second from Marx.  I am particularly indebted to Michael Roberts, who has written extensively on the crisis from a UK perspective and who used a similar framework in a recent article (on the adoption of the idea of a permanent slump by mainstream Keynesians).

The two pictures agree on a diagnosis of on-going stagnation – with low investment being just one feature.  Indeed, the lack of sustained recovery across much of the developed world has led increasing numbers of mainstream economists to declare that the current slowdown is permanent.  Paul Krugman, likely the most prominent Keynesian economist, recently wrote that we may have entered a “permanent slump.”  Even the more hawkish Larry Summers has added his voice to the chorus, referring in a recent speech at the IMF to a period of “secular stagnation”.  Many Marxist and other radical economists have, of course, been making the same point for years, citing a variety of structural changes and imbalances in the economy, particularly those that characterize the neoliberal period that began in the 1970s when the great post-war boom lost steam.

While their diagnosis may be similar, Keynesian and Marxian economists see the way out of the current long-term slump rather differently. (more…)

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Canada’s profitability puzzle

Most developed economies continue to experience fall-out from the financial crisis of 2007-8. The Eurozone has been most ravaged, but the US and UK have not fared much better.  After the initial rebound from the most severe crisis, growth in many economies has been decelerating to the point that some are once again contracting in real terms.  At the same time, unemployment remains high – hitting record levels among youth in Europe for example – real incomes are flat for the vast majority, inequality is on the rise and austerity programs targeted at social services are eating further into living standards.

Canada has partly bucked these trends.  While the overall growth rate has not returned to pre-crisis levels, it has not done nearly as poorly as that in Europe or even the US.  Other measures of economic well-being do not suggest the level of alarm felt in harder-hit economies.  To give two examples, the Canadian unemployment rate has grown relatively modestly and the distribution of gains since the crisis has not been skewed towards the very top to the extreme that it has been in the US and elsewhere.  The financial press is increasingly optimistic – just this past week cheering newly-released above-forecast quarterly growth figures – and the Conservative government remains steadfast in touting our supposed economic prudence and resilience.

Finally, but not least, Canadian corporations also have had it relatively good since the crisis.  Other than a sharp dip around 2008, profits have remained high and growing.

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