Saturday, January 05, 2013

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Crawford Kilian comments on Chrystia Freeland's Plutocrats as a useful expression of trends many of us have seen in action for some time:
(T)he plutonomy is not just booming, but skewing the still-depressed economy the rest of us live in. Many of the plutocrats reflect soberly on Andrew Carnegie's comment that the man who dies rich dies disgraced. Many, including George Soros, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett, are giving away their billions to various causes and charities.

Individually, those causes may be admirable (Soros has worked hard to promote democracy in eastern Europe). Collectively, those causes may be compromised and diverted from their original purposes by the sheer quantity of plutocratic money available. And of course many billionaires like the Koch brothers are pumping money into political causes that promise to keep their taxes low while suffocating government programs for the rest of us.

This is just one form of plutocratic "rent-seeking" -- getting one's businesses into a monopoly position, or lowering their operational costs, through favourable legislation. Every business, after all, wants to improve its own working conditions, just as every worker does.

But what is good for one's business is not always good for the country. Rent-seeking simply runs up the plutocrats' revenues while doing nothing for their customers. And it never occurs to such plutocrats that their success ultimately stems from the system created and maintained by the rest of society. As Barack Obama observed, "You didn't build that."

Freeland makes a useful contrast between plutocrats who are pro-market and those who are pro-business: In the market, companies compete, innovate, or die if they can't. This is the "creative destruction" that brings genuine improvements in living standards, and it's still at work. As one plutocrat told Freeland, the big companies used to eat the little ones. Now the swift eat the slow.
But in business, one tries to protect one's own company by eliminating the competition (and the innovation). Historically, innovators become consolidators and rent-seekers, creating a new privileged class of their children and hangers-on.
- And on a related note, Frances Russell writes that we're now in the age of corporate shakedowns of government:
A Canadian government official puts it this way: “I’ve seen the letters from the New York and D.C. law firms coming up to the Canadian government on virtually every new environmental regulation … Virtually all of the new initiatives were targeted and most of them never saw the light of day.”

These so-called “pre-emptive strikes” are on the rise, with investment arbitration no longer a last resort but a political weapon in a wider war of attrition against states.

Even already-adopted laws on public health and environmental protection have been abandoned or watered down because of the threat of huge damage claims. Canada backed away from anti-smoking policies after Big Tobacco threatened to seek compensation.

NAFTA and its growing ranks of copycats like the Canada-Europe Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership are about nothing less than entrenching de facto government by transnational corporations. So far, the corporations are winning. In the process, they’re not just enriching themselves but also a global network of fabulously wealthy lawyers and accountants busy impoverishing governments and their citizens to achieve maximum profits for the multinationals they represent.
- Frank Graves discusses how arguably rational political calculations on the part of the Cons may be producing decisions which directly attack Canada's future:
The political calculus couldn’t be clearer: it makes great sense for a conservative politician to concentrate on emotionally resonant policies and communications which will appeal to a group that votes en masse. It also makes sense to discourage the participation of younger voters (who wouldn’t vote for you anyway) through negative advertising and policy positions that are of little interest, or antagonistic, to those younger voters.

The net result, however, is a gerontocracy which reflects the exaggerated and imagined fears of older Canada precisely at a time when we urgently need the more optimistic and innovative outlook of the relatively scarcer youth portion of our society. So good politics becomes highly suspect as a tool for meeting the severe challenges of the 21st century.

This growing disconnect between the public interest and what works in the political marketplace is a serious challenge. The mounting generational tensions in our society are just one particularly unwelcome expression of this.
- Trish Hennessy runs the numbers on how First Nations have been frozen out of social gains in Canada.

- Finally, Andrew Potter expands on Glen McGregor's ideas for more productive political journalism:
If there is a big takeaway from "McDogme95" (as Stephen Maher calls it) it is this: It is an opportunity for political journalists to retrench and concentrate their energies on what they are best positioned and best qualified to do: work sources, file ATIP requests, comb through public databases, and break stories that are in the public interest. That in turn creates a space for academics to insert themselves directly into the conversation through their own devices (Twitter, blogs, etc), or through more traditional means such as op-eds or essays. (I can't think of a better example of this than Peter Loewen's recent essay for the Citizen looking at what Stephen Harper is up to.)

Canadian politics is in need of both better reporting and better contributions by academics. Glen McGregor's manifesto is an excellent first step at articulating the proper division of labour that will take us in that direction.

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