Pension trade-offs and democratic deficits

Forget houses as a source of secondary income – that’s so 2007. After the latest recession, Americans are increasingly dipping into their retirement savings to fund on-going consumer expenses. Many private 401(k) plans have rules that allow workers to withdraw some amount of saved funds before retirement and such early withdrawals are on the rise.

The individual irrationality of raiding a 401(k) plan fits nicely with the old stereotype of the stupid poor who don’t know how to save; as if this is what separates everyone else from the truly wealthy. We not only lack the human capital for high-skilled, professional or managerial labour – with its attendant high salaries, good benefits, possible stock options, and so on – but this lack of human capital also translates into unfortunate decisions about what to do with incomes and savings. Inequality of resources becomes a question of less capable faculties in more ways than one: worse economic outcomes are compounded by inadequate life-planning, whether you have a pension or not. In short, inequality naturalized. (more…)

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What’s the risk? Climate activism aiming at supply and demand

One way to think about climate activism is to see if it focuses on the supply of or demand for fossil fuels – pipelines or cars, hydrocarbons or carbon emissions. This distinction is not a new one, is doubtless very simplistic and has often been used to chastise activists. Here, I hope it will draw out some potentially useful thoughts that centre on the aims of activism and the idea of risk.

In an article published yesterday in The Nation, Chris Hayes makes an interesting analogy between the struggle for climate justice and abolitionism: despite numerous differences, both assume the destruction of potential future income streams – abolition by freeing slaves, climate justice by leaving fossil fuels in the ground. The weak link that climate activism can exploit is the capital-intensiveness of fossil fuel extraction. This is a re-framing of the supply side of the story. (more…)

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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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