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.
Thinking about a sustainable economy
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 – 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.
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 the powers 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.
Democracy and reclaiming the commons
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.