I don’t know how to process last week’s New Yorker article by Evan Osnos, The Haves and Have-Yachts. In my day, the well-to-do were satisfied sharing nautical space with a handful of their social inferiors on the most basic of three-hour tours. Although, it is true, they were just millionaires, and the wife.
If you want to see the hollow, corrupted shell that modern conservatism has become, check out its reaction to the leap manifesto. (The what? I know, I know. So like, 10 days ago.) “Naomi Klein’s Great Leap Backward,” wailed the Financial Post’s Peter Foster, “…issued on Tuesday by an asylum full of celebrity victims of Harper Derangement Syndrome…is certainly a thought-provoking platform. The main thoughts it provokes are: Does achieving celebrity cause a sharp drop in IQ and increase in hypocrisy, or does all-consuming artistic ego and/or power-hungry socialist inclination prevent all logical thought?”
Celebrities and eggheads. What do they know about the real world, am I right? Marxists and Maoists, the lot them, trumpeting long-refuted Keynesian economics, strangled as it was by the Invisible Hand of the free market. The FREE market.
Only moderately less hysterical, the Globe and Mail editorial board similarly dismissed the presence of ‘movie stars and pop musicians’ (and public-service unions — *spit*) signing on to this “…revolutionary (but not in the good sense of the word) critique of capitalism.” What might be a good sense of the word ‘revolutionary’? The G&M doesn’t really take the time to explain such details, too busy ripping apart the document’s contents for that.
In doing so, the Globe showed itself as willing as the Financial Post not to engage candidly with the leap manifesto. Misrepresentation was more to their liking. Not coincidentally both publications claimed that the manifesto called for an end to all trade deals with a big ripping noise. Problem is, they both cut and copied the first part of that particular sentence.
“We call for an end to all trade deals that interfere with our attempts to rebuild local economies, regulate corporations and stop damaging extractive projects. [Bolding mine.]
That’s a huge gulf of difference between what is written and what these newspapers claimed was on the page.
At least these papers made the pretense of having a serious (but not in the good sense of the word) discussion. Over on social media, all critique and flack began and ended on the word ‘manifesto’. In a nutshell: You know who else wrote a manifesto? Karl Marx. It was called The Communist Manifesto. Therefore, all manifestos are communist. You support this manifesto? You’re a communist. You know who supports this manifesto? The NDP. They’re communists. Their leader, Tom Mulcair, is a communist. A Tommunist. Get it? Tom-Comm, Tommunist. Tommunist Manifesto. hashtag#tommunistmanifesto
A ‘50s-era line of attack smear intending, I guess, to provide cover for those still in desperate need for a reason to vote Conservative in the upcoming federal election. Well, Harper’s not perfect but at least he’s not a communist. hashtag#tommunistmanifesto.
Mock and ridicule. The current state of our conservative politics, folks.
* * *
(The three dots to denote a change of what will hopefully turn out to be a related narrative direction that I couldn’t masterfully do using just words. I’m fessing up to that up front.)
Along with the leap manifesto, I also spent some time reading Joshua Zeitz’s August Atlantic article, Born to Run and the Decline of the American Dream, commemorating (if that’s the right word) the 40th anniversary of the album’s release. “I don’t think the American Dream was that everyone was going to make it or that everyone was going to make a billion dollars,” Springsteen said in a later interview. “But it was that everyone was going to have an opportunity and the chance to live a life with some decency and a chance for some self-respect.”
That, in two sentences, summed up the rationale of the western post-war consensus. A mixed-use economy with the government playing an integral in both smoothing out the regular kinks the market suffered, as well as ensuring a level playing field in providing equal access to opportunity. Not, as Springsteen pointed out, equal access to a billion dollars but at `the chance to live a life with some decency and a chance for some self-respect.’
Born To Run became something of an anthem to the breakdown of that consensus occurring in the mid-70s. Conventional economic thought had not seen the economic shocks that rattled the boom time belief in never-ending growth and prosperity coming, and it wasn’t quick enough to offer up possible solutions to the malaise which set in. In its place, up popped a seductively simple alternative. Free up the markets from the death grip of government intervention. Unleash the wealth creators and let the good times roll. Money will trickle down to everyone. A rising tide will raise all boats.
Remove the human element from the free market, the FREE market, and let it run perfectly, like Newton’s well-oiled cosmic clock, keeping exact time according to the immutable laws of the universe. Keynes was dead. Long live the Chicago school!
“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong,” H.L. Mencken wrote decades earlier, predicting, I’m sure, economic theorists.
The upheaval wasn’t simply economic. The social consensus also fractured. In this everybody for themselves environment promoted by the new economic model we were told would solve our problems, oppositional forces turned on each other. Union leaders were now seen as fat cats and leeches. Racial divisions hardened. And what were the damn girls screeching about now?
As Zeitz points out in his article, the protest politics of the 60s didn’t disappear in the 70s. They changed. Gone were the hippies marching against an unjust war, in favour of peace and love. In their place, the taxpayers’ revolt and the moral majority. The counter-revolution, reactionism.
Like many Canadians of my demographic, I was buffered from the tumult, by and large. I had discovered Bruce Springsteen post-Born To Run with Darkness on the Edge of Town. He spoke to the mild youthful rebellion I was experiencing. Springsteen and the punks. But I was far from one of the working class figures he depicted in his songs.
My parents certainly were but they had seized the opportunity offered up by the post-war consensus Springsteen spoke of, to live a life of decency and self-respect, and ensure I never had to toil as hard as they did. The irony is, the only time I spent on the factory floor was in a summer job between 1st and 2nd year of university, in a union shop, making a shitload of money. A shitload of money.
But that was during the early-80s, and things were different back then. Me and my generation (probably grammatically incorrect but sounds appropriately gritty) kicked away the ladder behind us as we climbed into the comfortable positions our parents created for us. Sorry, kids. Didn’t you hear? The rules have all changed.
* * *
(Act 3, or the Final Act, a variation on the Hegelian thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Fingers crossed!)
Just as the post-war consensus era ran its course, collapsing after 30, 35 years, its successor, what do we call it, The Great Unravelling, is walking wounded on its last legs. Hidebound ideological adherents refuse to admit it but it all came crashing down in 2008, and now limps toward its demise, unable to staunch the bleeding.
We call it the Great Recession because, apparently, it wasn’t as bad as the Great Depression which, along with World War II, was an important element in the subsequent creation of the post-war consensus. We’ve been through some tough times recently, sure. But not that tough, not Dust Bowl, bread line tough. Everybody’s got a cell phone and hi-def TV. How hard can it be?
2008 was just blip, a bad downturn, a correction, if you will. Nothing that 7 years of sluggish growth wide spread economic insecurity won’t help fix. Pay no attention to any dark clouds that pop up on the horizon, it’ll be blue skies and smooth sailing ahead if we just keep doing what we’ve been doing, keeping taxes low, governments small and our ears to the ground for any sort of threat to our way of doing business life.
Friend of this site, former city councillor and proud Progressive Conservative, John Parker, in reaction to the news that the pay of the average U.S. CEO in 2014 was almost 400 times that of the average employee, “multiples of what it was a few decades ago,” Mr. Parker tweeted, asked how many had read Adam Smith’s book, Wealth of Nations. Smith was an 18th-century philosopher, hero of the neo-conservative/liberal set, who penned the idea of the Invisible Hand, the magic of the free market, the FREE market, summoned by our rational pursuit of self-interest.
“And hands up everyone who knows that Adam Smith also wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Parker continued. “The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith, redux: An economic system must have a moral foundation in order to be sustainable.”
Markets don’t have morals. They just determine winners and losers. People are moral (or should be). Government should reflect people, moral people, not markets.
While it would be simplistic to chalk up the cause of the crash of 2008 to just one thing, I do not think it outrageous to believe that the key to understanding such a massive economic failure (and its ongoing lingering malaise – there’s that word again) is that the system had absolutely no moral foundation. It wasn’t sustainable, a spectacular flameout was inevitable because it lacked morality, fairness or any sense of responsibility beyond me, mine and my own.
I would postulate that it is this lack of morality the leap manifesto seeks to address.
Or sought to address, I guess it’s fair to conclude. Ten days is a long time, especially in a 70+ day campaign. The leap manifesto seems to have become something of a relic, a tic. Big news for a day or two, then vapour. Almost as if it didn’t happen. A new shoe tried on but ill-fitting. It didn’t stick to the NDP like conservatives hoped it would. It didn’t stick to the NDP because the NDP wanted nothing to do with it.
Clearly, an election campaign is no time to talk about root causes, big ideas or actual change from a rotten status quo. Carry on, gentlemen. It’s business as usual.
Now we’re on to niqabs and the conservative rallying cry of Can Governments Really Do Anything About The Economy? Really?
A couple weeks back, Doug Saunders, certainly no avid proponent of government interventionism and writing for the same Globe and Mail newspaper that had haughtily dismissed the leap manifesto, suggested that maybe, just maybe, the government does have role to play in economic affairs.
Many economists came to realize not only that government intervention bailed many countries out of the post-2008 recession and restored growth and employment, but that the crisis itself may have been caused, in good part, by the disappearance of active government support in the economy – the sort of direct investment and partnership that had existed in earlier decades.
“The crisis itself” — a crisis of 21st-century capitalism – “may have been caused, in good part, by the disappearance of active government support in the economy.” Active government support “that had existed in earlier decades.”
How’s that for your great leap backward? To a time when government didn’t simply get out of the way and let the magic of the mythical invisible hand do its thing. To a time when it was expected that a government would do all it could to ensure that, how did Bruce Springsteen put it? “…everyone was going to have an opportunity and the chance to live a life with some decency and a chance for some self-respect.”
That doesn’t seem overly ambitious or too unachievably utopian. It just doesn’t square with the self-made man image of the economic right where worth is measured solely by wealth regardless of the manner in which it was amassed. If you haven’t made it, bucko, look no further than the mirror. The blame lies squarely there, nowhere else.
It’s everybody for themselves and everything else will fall into place.
Except it doesn’t. It never has, and the façade of that political and economic belief system shattered in 2008. Having spent the past 7 years trying to piece it back together, to tweak and tinker it as if only minor adjustments were all that was needed, we’re simply denying the reality our current situation. Only a transformation, another great transformation, if you will, is in order.
That’s what the leap manifesto is all about.
That it’s already yesterday’s news suggests we’re not ready to make any sort of transformative leap. We agonize over almost rounding error deficits and accept the faulty premise that only balanced budgets will cure the economic ills that ail us. We’ll elect our next federal government based on minor differences, all revolving around a discredited economic model and an abused sense of governance. And then we’ll wonder why nothing much has changed.
Somebody really ought to ask Councillor Doug Ford, and his brother the mayor, and their official court stenographer, Sue-Ann Levy, to define the term ‘socialism’. I’m beginning to think none of them actually know what it means. It’s just a catch-all phrase they toss around to denigrate those they don’t agree with politically; those who believe in the positive influence government can have on the greater good.
The latest instance occurred at yesterday’s Government Management Committee meeting where councillors debated and then voted down a city staff recommendation to have exclusively healthy options — 2% milk, soy milk, fruit juices, no bottled water – in all city operated vending machines by 2014. “Down here we have a mentality that the government knows best,” Councillor Doug Ford said, arguing against dictating to people what they should be drinking. “We’re big brother, we tell you what to do.”
“This is socialism at its best, it really is,” Councillor Ford continued. Best. Worst. Whatever. Let’s just assume the councillor was speaking derogatorily.
Government certainly doesn’t know best but, according to the Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy, the beverage industry certainly does. Why listen to a staff report (which was just “a pile of crap” according to Committee Chair Paul Ainslie) when those who stand to lose most by any change in the current status quo can tell you all you need to know? “Consumers are going to purchase what they want to purchase and if they can’t get it on site they’re just going to walk across the street,” John Challinor, director of corporate affairs for Nestle Waters Canada, said. “We don’t need to be following this sort of Nanny state approach.”
Mr. Challinor went on to tell Ms. Levy that they ‘…do regular opinion surveys and have found the majority of Torontonians do not want bottled water removed from their civic facilities.’ If the people selling bottled water tell us a majority of Torontonians demand bottled water in their civic facilities, who are we to question them? Piles of crap are what governments produce not the private, for-profit sector.
I imagine if the tobacco industry conducted a survey among teenagers asking if they wanted cigarettes back being in sold vending machines, you’d find a majority somewhere saying, hells yeah! How about booze too? All sold in vending machines that don’t ask anybody what year they were born before dispensing their product.
“If they want to have cigarettes in the machines, so be it,” [Councillor] Ford said. “They might even put a shot of rye in there too. Unbelievable.”
Hoo-ray! Let’s hear it for the good guys fighting for the right of Joe Average to consume whatever product they desire wherever they want. Down with social engineering and all those do-goodie, ‘calorie-counting’, ‘eco-obsessed wingnuts’. Attempted behavioral modification by the government is nothing more than socialism and is doomed to failure.
Just take that pesky 5¢ fee the city forces merchants to charge customers for plastic shopping bags for instance. A government money grab, nothing more. Oh, and a business killer. Except the money doesn’t go to the government but to the retailers. So.. just over-reaching, nanny state government with their fingers in consumers pockets for no reason whatsoever.
“Five cents might not be a lot of money, but it seems to be enough to make people change their habits,” said Metro [supermarket chain] spokeswoman Marie-Claude Bacon. “People were ready for that.” How ready? According to the company, 1 month after the fee was introduced, demand for plastic bags dropped by 50% and 18 months later, it was down to 80%.
That’s 80% fewer petroleum based products in circulation. 80% fewer bags going into landfills. Environmentally friendly and economically sensible. Like Jim Harris argued in the pages of the National Post a little while back.
Just a little nudge is all people need sometimes. I’m not paying 5¢ for a plastic bag. I’ll bring my own bag. So it begins. No Coke in the vending machine?! Maybe I’ll try a cranberry juice instead. How can that be bad for anyone, for society?
If that’s what Councillor Ford wants to call ‘socialism’, let’s give it to him. Because his world view, his non-socialism is one filled with obese underage smokers and drinkers, and floating islands of unnecessary plastic garbage, where the customer is always right. It’s a cheap imitation laissez-faire attitude that hurls meaningless political labels as insults and that would shock and appall even the staunchest of traditional conservatives whose tattered banner radical right wingers like the Ford Bros. et al have hijacked for their own anti-social purposes.