Now Is the Time to Talk up Big Ideas

TheTyee.ca – Opinion – Rather than accept the accident of Harper’s agenda, dream up one bigger, better.
May 21,2012.   By Murray Dobbin

Stephen Harper, too, shall pass into history, recorded as one of the most destructive personalities ever to have soiled the Canadian political landscape. But in the meantime, Canadians are distracted by his political blitzkrieg on the agencies, policies, programs and institutions that make Canada what it became over five decades – so distracted that we are in danger of losing our imagination regarding what is truly possible in this country.

While it may seem counterintuitive, now is the time for Canadians who actually believe in government and nation building to be contemplating big ideas, the ones that will take us the next step to equality, economic stability and environmental sustainability.

Why? Because if we don’t try to get what we want we won’t even get what we need.

Is this just pie in the sky? Are Canadians actually open to big ideas? Absolutely. Here are just a few of the signs. CARP, the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (membership: 330,000) has just witnessed a sea-change in its members’ voting intentions. For most of the past year just over 50 per cent of them chose the Conservatives. But suddenly, two issues reversed that — giving the NDP (which had consistently run a distant third) first place with 39 per cent and the Harperites 31 per cent.

The first issue was the changes to the OAS. But the “political game changer,” according to Susan Eng, vice president of advocacy for CARP, was the omnibus bill. Eighty-five per cent opposed bundling so many legislative changes into a single bill. Seniors, a key part of Harper’s broader base, apparently care about democracy even more than their own safety net.

Sign number two: Perhaps we should call it free market fatigue, as increasing numbers of Canadians are questioning the Conservative ideology of minimalist government and a free hand for corporations. As I detailed in my last column, large majorities of Canadians are calling for higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations and are willing to pay more themselves to preserve what we have. And they see the tax issue tied directly to that of inequality: the new top-of-mind issue.

Number three: The Alberta election which seemed for weeks to heading towards the election of a Harper clone reversed course as Albertans suddenly paid real attention. This wasn’t just a vote against bigotry — though it was that, too — but a vote for good government, something the iconic Tory Peter Lougheed reminded voters of just in the nick of time.

Four: The re-election of Liberal and NDP governments in Ontario (where the NDP did well, too) and Manitoba respectively was not just a vote for incumbency. It was a vote for rational governance and against libertarian recklessness. So will be the almost certain election of the NDP in B.C. next year.

Five: The Quebec student rebellion. Deep rooted rebellions are always messy and imperfect but while many are uncomfortable with the scenes of violence, the students are absolutely right to be protesting tuition fee increases. And now the demonstrations are as much about human rights and the reactionary government of Jean Charest as they are about tuition fees. They are sustained by tens of thousands of our fellow citizens prepared to make real sacrifices for what the rest of us pay lip service to: equality.

But this is also a good example of the role of big ideas. Why wouldn’t we be demanding zero tuition fees, so that all education is free and paid for collectively? We are now, as a nation, well over twice as wealthy per capita (in real, inflation adjusted dollars) as we were when Medicare was established in 1967. The money is there, and in a democracy the people get to decide how those resources are used. We owe the Quebec students (and their hundreds of thousands of supporters in civil society groups) a huge debt of gratitude for shaking us out of our ideology-induced political torpor.

Their message: A better world is possible, but only if we fight for it.

Corporations as forces for stagnation

Our preoccupation with Harper’s outrages, though totally justified, is distracting us from imagining the kind of world we really want to build. Ironically, the projection of extremely low economic growth for the foreseeable future actually provides an imposed opportunity to examine what we desperately need to do anyway — begin to put together plans for a sustainable economy, a redefined prosperity that is not based on unfettered growth in the private sector — the economy of stuff.

If ever there was a time to move in this direction it is now, with corporations sitting on over $700 billion in cash which they refuse to invest because their own policy preferences and reckless behaviour has destroyed demand for private goods and services. Perhaps a tax on idle capital would make sense. That is, a declaration by government that if the private sector can no longer allocate capital investment in the interests of the country and its citizens, then we will take some of it back and allocate it ourselves as public investment. It’s not that we don’t need investment. A no-growth economy is actually a misnomer, for what its advocates are really talking about is a different kind of growth — the kind that only governments can create: mass transit, green energy, a national food strategy, child care, pharma care, home care, culture, and anti-poverty programs including affordable housing.

Capitalism will be around for a while yet but its current incarnation, the savage capitalism of Wall Street and deregulation needs to be put to rest. The Canadian corporate sector has proven over and over again that it is utterly inept at improving its performance, its investment in research and development and its willingness to take risks and thus improve its productivity. The experiment with government ‘getting out of the way’ of business has been an abject failure.

Why not plan a better economic future?

That should bring back the big idea of a much more planned economy — a robust, imaginative industrial strategy that directs the allocation of private capital to where it is most productive, produces the most and best jobs and provides stability and balance to the economy (NDP leader Thomas Mulcair is on the right track with his Dutch disease analysis). It is the other half of the capital allocation equation. The CAW has taken the lead amongst private sector unions with a 10-point plan to promote the long-term growth of the auto industry. First on the agenda is a national auto policy.

Continuing with the theme of public investment it is long past time that we use thepowers of the Bank of Canada to lend to governments (including provincial and municipal governments) at virtually zero interest rates (just enough to cover administrative costs). The insane practice of accumulating a massive public debt by borrowing from private banks ranks as perhaps the most perversely destructive practice of the past forty years.

The really big idea

Policies and programs administered by government bureaucracies will not give us what we want — especially given that these bureaucracies are now populated more and more by people dedicated to dismantling government itself. The big idea that will make the difference is a radical, deeply rooted democracy that includes the obvious reforms needed to the electoral system but involves far more than that. Participatory budgeting, institutionalizing citizen participation in the design and delivery of social programs, government subsidies for citizen study circles (as they have in Sweden where some 300,000 such circles are reported each year) which promote education, political literacy and discussion about the kinds of programs and policies people actually want should all be on the agenda.

That’s just a start. Add to them yourself by simply using your imagination about what kind of world you would like to wake up to. How will these things ever come to pass? I have no idea — except that unless we think about them, imagine them, and talk about them amongst ourselves it is an absolute certainty that we will never achieve any of them. It is a question of choosing between despair over the historical accident of Stephen Harper and hope rooted in what we know in our hearts to be possible.

In the end it is all about reclaiming the commons — robbed from us by the One Per Cent and the perverse ideology of neo-liberalism. Maybe we could begin with a small step in that direction — by reinstating Sunday closing. I know, there are lots of objections (its initial roots in Christianity being one) but imagine there actually being a day when you couldn’t buy more stuff. We could bring back an ancient commons tradition: Talking to each other.  [Tyee]

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