Monday, December 16, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Heather Mallick discusses what Canada stands to lose as Canada Post is made both more expensive and less functional. Ethan Cox suggests that what's missing from Canada Post is a postal bank - which makes postal services elsewhere both more profitable, and more valuable for citizens. And the Star points out that the Cons have stood idly by while allowing the institution to fall apart.

- But then, post offices are the least of what the Cons have gone out of their way to portray as beneath them - as made clear by James Moore's rightfully-skewered declaration that he doesn't see why he should care about - or do anything to help - hungry children. 

- Meanwhile, Paul Krugman reminds us why inequality matters both economically and politically:
It’s now widely accepted that rising household debt helped set the stage for our economic crisis; this debt surge coincided with rising inequality, and the two are probably related (although the case isn’t ironclad). After the crisis struck, the continuing shift of income away from the middle class toward a small elite was a drag on consumer demand, so that inequality is linked to both the economic crisis and the weakness of the recovery that followed.

In my view, however, the really crucial role of inequality in economic calamity has been political.

In the years before the crisis, there was a remarkable bipartisan consensus in Washington in favor of financial deregulation — a consensus justified by neither theory nor history. When crisis struck, there was a rush to rescue the banks. But as soon as that was done, a new consensus emerged, one that involved turning away from job creation and focusing on the alleged threat from budget deficits.

What do the pre- and postcrisis consensuses have in common? Both were economically destructive: Deregulation helped make the crisis possible, and the premature turn to fiscal austerity has done more than anything else to hobble recovery. Both consensuses, however, corresponded to the interests and prejudices of an economic elite whose political influence had surged along with its wealth.
Surveys of the very wealthy have, however, shown that they — unlike the general public — consider budget deficits a crucial issue and favor big cuts in safety-net programs. And sure enough, those elite priorities took over our policy discourse.

 Which brings me to my final point. Underlying some of the backlash against inequality talk, I believe, is the desire of some pundits to depoliticize our economic discourse, to make it technocratic and nonpartisan. But that’s a pipe dream. Even on what may look like purely technocratic issues, class and inequality end up shaping — and distorting — the debate.

So the president was right. Inequality is, indeed, the defining challenge of our time. Will we do anything to meet that challenge?
- And Michael Valpy discusses the plight of the precariat who have been so deliberately excluded from the Cons' political calculations (other than as a source of cheap labour for their corporate benefactors).

- Fortunately, the continued efforts of the Cons and their provincial counterparts to silence the general public are only giving rise to more creative ways to influence the shape of our society. On that front, Lloyd Maybaum suggests that employees who have been arbitrarily denied the right to strike should focus their efforts and their dollars on the political system. And Ashley Renders reports on Unifor's steps to include workers who can't organize through traditional workplace union structures.

- Finally, Mariana Mazzucato makes the case for governments to serve as generators and incubators of big ideas, rather than pools of funding to be exploited for corporate benefit:
(T)he point of public policy is to make big things happen that would not have happened anyway. To do this, big budgets are not enough: big thinking and big brains are key.

While economists usually talk about things that are not done at all (or done inadequately) by the private sector as "public goods", investments in "big" public goods like the UK national health service, or the investments that led to new technologies behind putting a "man on the moon", required even more than fixing the "public good" problem. They required the willingness and ability to dream up big "missions". The current narrative we are being sold about the state as a "meddler" in capitalism is putting not only these missions under threat, but even more narrowly defined public goods.

Public goods are goods whose benefits are spread so widely that it is hard for business to profit from them (or stop others profiting from them). So they don't attract private investment. Examples include transport infrastructure, healthcare, research and education.

Even if you're an avid free-marketeer you can't avoid benefiting, directly and indirectly, from such public investments. You gain directly through the roads you drive down, the rules and policing which ensure their safety, the BBC radio you listen to, schools and universities that train the doctors and pilots you depend on, parks, theatre, films and museums that nurture our national identity. You also gain, indirectly, through enormous public subsidies without which private schools, hospitals and utility providers would never be able to deliver affordably and still make a profit. These are conferred as tax breaks, and provision of vital skills and infrastructure at state expense.
The public sector must produce public goods, and through the creation of new missions catalyse investment by the private sector – inspiring and supporting it to enter in high-risk areas it would not normally approach. To do so it requires the ability to attract top expertise – to "pick" broadly defined directions, as IT and internet were picked in the past, and "green" should be picked in the future. Some investments will win, some will fail. Indeed, Obama's recent $500m guaranteed loan to a solar company Solyndra failed, while the same investment in Tesla's electric motor won big time – making Elon Musk richer.

But as long as we admit the state is a risk-taking courageous investor in the areas the private sector avoids, it should increase its courage by earning back a reward for such successes, which can fund not only the (inevitable) losses but also the next round of investments. Instead, calling it names for the losses, ignoring the wins, and outsourcing the competence and capabilities, is ridding it of the courage, ability and brains to create the missions, hence opportunities, of the future. And without brains, all government will be able to do is not make big things happen but simply serve a private sector that is concerned only with serving itself.

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