- Aditya Chakrabortty contrasts the myth of the free market against the reality that massive amounts of public money and other privileges are shoveled toward the corporate sector:
Few conceits are more cherished by our political classes than the notion that this is a free-market economy. To the right it is what makes Britain great. For the left it is what they are up against. And for the rich it is what justifies their huge pay packets: after all, they have earned it.- And Andre Picard discusses why our support for science shouldn't be limited to research with immediate commercial applications:
When asked for his view of western civilisation, Gandhi said he thought it would be a very good idea. I feel much the same way about the free market: I’m genuinely curious to see what such a mythical beast looks like. But that term, however widely accepted and advertised, has little to do with today’s Britain. The economy most of us experience – everything from who collects our bins, to how we commute to work, to that new school attended by the kids – is often not a free market at all. Instead, it’s a bog of privately run monopolies; of public projects and services outsourced to businesses for years, even decades, at a time; and massive taxpayer subsidies handed to the corporate sector with fewer questions asked than of disabled people wondering where their living allowance has gone.
Grasp that, and the question of how to tame corporate power becomes easier to answer. If corporations rely on the public for a sizeable chunk of their revenues and power, then we should start asking what they are doing for us in return. Do businesses deserve the privileges given them by society?
In Britain businesses take £85bn a year from the public in grants, subsidies, insurance schemes, preferential credit and government services. That’s the corporate welfare bill as totted up by Kevin Farnsworth, senior lecturer in social policy at the University of York, and he admits it’s on the conservative side. Add on the various subsidies for too-big-to-fail banks and you’re well in excess of a hundred billion. Nor does he include the most fundamental privilege society affords the investors in a business such as Tesco: that of limited liability, which means they only stand to lose the value of their shares, and no more. We could argue for limited liability, but let’s not pretend it’s anything less than a substantial underwriting of shareholder enterprises.
The fashionable thing to say is that in a globalised economy states can’t keep up with businesses. That is to get the relationship the wrong way round. The reality is that states often give businesses their revenues and so their power. More than that: markets are created by states, who provide the infrastructure, the transports and the rule of law.
So let’s start asking businesses what they’ve done for us recently.
Government’s role should be to invest tax dollars for the collective good. In science, that means investing where businesses won’t, namely in basic research. A secondary purpose is to direct tax dollars where there are shortcomings and great public need, such as aboriginal health, mental health and repairing environmental damage (as opposed to just extracting more oil out of the ground). The strategy starves already neglected areas.- But the pattern of freebies for the corporate sector is still playing out, as Erika Eichelberger notes in reporting on a giveaway to the financial sector snuck into the U.S.' budget legislation at the behest of Citigroup.
Whether it ultimately creates jobs or not, innovation is a complex process. It emerges in an environment where there is healthy pursuit of knowledge, an exchange of ideas and no small measure of serendipity.
The scientific environment the federal government has created is precisely the opposite: Scientists are muzzled, more time is spent on bureaucracy required to get funding than on research itself, and the only measure of success is return on investment.
The problem with this approach is that it won’t result in better science or more innovation. On the contrary, it will make scientists shy away from taking risks or from pursuing “paradigm-shifting” ideas (speaking of buzzwords). Instead, they will opt for projects with sure-fire return on investment in the short term, and good political optics that ensure continued funding.
In short, the new science and technology strategy will result in the rich getting richer, and all of us being the poorer for it.
- Carrie Tait and Jeff Lewis report on Alberta's plans to allow tar sands operators to put off cleaning up the environmental devastation they've wrought, while Justin Ling catches the Cons pairing their tendency to criminalize dissent with new and draconian sentencing. And Seth Klein observes that contrary to the Cons' spin, a time of dropping prices is exactly the best time to reevaluate our reliance on resource extraction.
- Finally, Michael Harris reminds us of the Cons' focus on marketing rather than reality. And Mia Rabson offers an update on their continued efforts to keep accurate information from reaching the public.