Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Leo Panitch reminds us that the term "reform" was once understood to represent efforts to bolster the public interest against unbridled market forces - and suggests it's well past time to take the word back from the business interests who have turned it into just the opposite. 

- Paul Krugman comments on the twin myths of the undeserving poor and the deserving rich. And Sam Polk writes from experience about the mindset that drives money addicts to demand that others' basic needs give way to their desire to accumulate:
I’d always looked enviously at the people who earned more than I did; now, for the first time, I was embarrassed for them, and for me. I made in a single year more than my mom made her whole life. I knew that wasn’t fair; that wasn’t right. Yes, I was sharp, good with numbers. I had marketable talents. But in the end I didn’t really do anything. I was a derivatives trader, and it occurred to me the world would hardly change at all if credit derivatives ceased to exist. Not so nurse practitioners. What had seemed normal now seemed deeply distorted.
I had recently finished Taylor Branch’s three-volume series on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, and the image of the Freedom Riders stepping out of their bus into an infuriated mob had seared itself into my mind. I’d told myself that if I’d been alive in the ‘60s, I would have been on that bus.

But I was lying to myself. There were plenty of injustices out there — rampant poverty, swelling prison populations, a sexual-assault epidemic, an obesity crisis. Not only was I not helping to fix any problems in the world, but I was profiting from them. During the market crash in 2008, I’d made a ton of money by shorting the derivatives of risky companies. As the world crumbled, I profited. I’d seen the crash coming, but instead of trying to help the people it would hurt the most — people who didn’t have a million dollars in the bank — I’d made money off it. I don’t like who you’ve become, my girlfriend had said years earlier. She was right then, and she was still right. Only now, I didn’t like who I’d become either.

Wealth addiction was described by the late sociologist and playwright Philip Slater in a 1980 book, but addiction researchers have paid the concept little attention. Like alcoholics driving drunk, wealth addiction imperils everyone. Wealth addicts are, more than anybody, specifically responsible for the ever widening rift that is tearing apart our once great country. Wealth addicts are responsible for the vast and toxic disparity between the rich and the poor and the annihilation of the middle class. Only a wealth addict would feel justified in receiving $14 million in compensation — including an $8.5 million bonus — as the McDonald’s C.E.O., Don Thompson, did in 2012, while his company then published a brochure for its work force on how to survive on their low wages. Only a wealth addict would earn hundreds of millions as a hedge-fund manager, and then lobby to maintain a tax loophole that gave him a lower tax rate than his secretary.
- Susan Delacourt theorizes that Twitter is becoming the defining communication mechanism for political leaders. And Konrad Yakabuski writes about the dark side of detailed political data collection - as the same information which can help parties reach supporters may also be used to target non-supporters for punishment and exclusion if there's no mechanism to test how it's used.

- Finally, Kevin Page suggests that we won't be able to make any progress in dealing with economic and social issues without first ensuring that our political system functions to serve the public interest rather than its own:
Income inequality is increasing in Canada and international comparisons put us well behind many European countries. The richest 1 per cent in Canada earns about 10.5 per cent of income, up from about 7 per cent some 30 years ago. About 9 per cent of our population lives in poverty, including some 570,000 of our children. Without aggressive action, these numbers are bound to get worse, not better.

Canadians have also added a lot of debt to our balance sheets. The ratio of household financial liabilities to household disposable income now sits at a record high 166 per cent, compared to 110 per cent in 2000. And as Canadians try to pay off this increased debt, inevitably consumption will further decrease, adding to more economic drift or stagnation.

So how do we get out of this dangerous spiral? One thing is clear: we cannot overcome the pressing economic challenges before us without the concerted effort of our government institutions. And yet in the wake of a year of scandal, those institutions are more distracted and less able to help than ever before.

The Prime Minister will not stand accountable for the actions of his own office. The Senate has lost trust over a spending scandal. The House of Commons has lost its power of the purse. Members of Parliament are forced to vote on appropriations without the information they need. The public service has become dangerously good at avoiding transparency and accountability.

Without rebuilding — and rebuilding trust in — the bodies charged with protecting our prosperity and democracy, we will continue to drift aimlessly, to put off the thinking we must put off no longer.

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