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Should we ‘take down’ the banks or try to save the best of capitalism?

Canadian PoliticsWeb Exclusive

It is November 1968, and a writer for Modern Mechanix peers 40 years into the future:

“People have more time for leisure activities in the year 2008. The average work day is about four hours…Homes are practically self-maintaining. Robots are available to do housework and other simple chores…You slide into your sleek, two-passenger air-cushion car, press a sequence of buttons and the national traffic computer notes your destination. Ninety minutes later, you slide beneath the dome of your destination city…A typical vacation in 2008 is to spend a week at an undersea resort, where your hotel room window looks out on a tropical underwater reef.”

So what the hell went wrong?

  • It is now 44 years later, and instead of having too much leisure time, most ordinary people work long hours, while some take on two or even three minimum wage jobs to survive.
  • While the rich have their own cooks and maids, many people consume cheap, fattening processed food marketed by a handful of wealthy multi-national corporations.
  • While the well-off select their next $25,000 vacation from The Globe and Mail’s elite Travel Section, some people scrape together enough money for a week in Cuba while others never have a real vacation.

In 1968, Modern Mechanix author James R. Berry could not imagine there would be such staggering capitalist greed in this century. It appears that he assumed that poverty would be a thing of the past.

At that time Canada and other western countries were in what is known as the “Golden Age”, the period between World War II and the early 1970s when many countries experienced high levels of prosperity. The “welfare state” looked after the less fortunate.

But then “liberal” capitalist economic policies began to fail. Unemployment and inflation increased. Some economists argued that liberalism, if tinkered with, could likely be fixed. However, those in favour of giving more power to corporations and loosening market control won the day.

A new breed of economics—“neoliberalism”—was born.

Totally untested, neoliberalism was promoted by the U.S.-dominated World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and adopted by Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan of the United States in the early 1980s.

“Fair” was out. “Greed” was in.

Under neoliberalism, corporations have become all-powerful. The so-called “free market” is much less regulated. Regulations that had prevented business from getting out of control were removed. Taxes on the rich and corporations have been greatly reduced. Public expenditures for social services were cut. Government-owned corporations were privatized. The concept of “public good” was replaced with the notion of “individual responsibility.”

In Canada, the government of Brian Mulroney implemented some neoliberal policies, but the changes that hurt ordinary people the most were brought in by Finance Minister Paul Martin under the Liberal government of Jean Chretien.

Despite the fact that neoliberal policies have not helped the vast majority of Canadians over a 30-year period, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper pushed ahead with even more devastating policies.

While some Canadians have some understanding of “supply side economics,” it is disturbing how few people know anything about neoliberalism—especially since they have been living under it for the past six years. Just as disturbing is the fact that the mainstream media never identifies the Harperites as neoliberals.

Attack neoliberalism leading up to 2015

Barring the unforeseen, Canadians are locked into Harper’s neoliberal capitalist world until the next election, which is expected in 2015.

So what can we do to try to gain control over our lives again?

Should radicals such as Occupy groups storm and vandalize banks as a demonstration of our displeasure? Unfortunately, the protestors would end up in jail. Even though the public hates the banks, people would turn against the radicals because they detest violence even more then they dislike the banks.

Even so, I think we need to target the banks by using non-violent tactics to show how they abuse the system – particularly the outrageously high incomes paid to their executives. Research could be conducted to determine which banks and which executives abuse us the most. Then the Occupy Movement and other radical groups could carry out actions such as unannounced “hit-and-run” occupations of banks, making thousands of phone calls to banks to express their displeasure, and bombarding their website services with protest messages.

Canadians who want to see dramatic change could create a truly social democratic party that would have policies such as support the nationalization of key resources. However, it is unlikely that a radical party would have much success in the short term. The first-past-the-post electoral system discourages the creation of new parties because of the near certainty that they would not win any seats. Moreover, while Europe has both socialist and communist parties, the United States has successfully demonized socialism across North America.

Of course radical change often comes when we least expect it—think Arab Spring. It is possible that we Canadians will be shocked out of our complacency by what is still to come.

In particular, Canada could experience serious difficulties if the U.S. economy were to go into a serious tailspin. We are heavily dependent on the U.S. for food, and the U.S. is by far our largest export market. If we faced food shortages and the loss of a lot more jobs, it is impossible to say what could happen in terms of public unrest.

Push NDP and Liberals to back progressive policies

If Canada is to rid itself of the destructive neoliberal Conservatives, perhaps the best that we can do, given present conditions, is to push the New Democrats and Liberals to embrace some aspects of traditional liberalism and combine those policies with some tough, new measures to protect the public.

Some thoughts mostly about financial changes that would serve Canadians well:

  • Banks and other financial institutions must be strongly regulated and prohibited from exposing themselves to too much risk. There needs to be strong controls on the amount of money banks make by making loans.
  • Canada should develop public-owned provincial or city public-interest banks, or increase the powers of co-operatives, to have them perform the old fashioned tasks of loaning people money, providing mortgages, and investing peoples’ money in simple financial vehicles such as stocks, bonds and GICs.
  • High-flying fools and speculators would be able to gamble with their own money through vehicles such as hedging, derivatives, and options – as long as these get-rich-quick or go-broke-quick vehicles were government controlled and that they did not interfere with “logical values” of basic necessities.
  • The income tax system should be made progressive again. People earning $300,000 and more should be taxed at the rate of perhaps 45 per cent. The huge number of loopholes and tax breaks created for the rich by Paul Martin and Jim Flaherty should be removed.
  • Corporate taxes should be gradually increased to a base rate of perhaps 25 per cent. Instead, corporations should be rewarded through the tax system based on job creation and their performance as corporate citizens.
  • Government must carefully monitor the housing market and take steps to cool it down should there be signs of a bubble. Economic problems often begin with a crash of over-valued real estate.
  • Because Canadians themselves cannot manage to stay out of serious debt, government should place stronger controls on many forms of credit. No more getting your furniture now and not paying anything until 2015!
  • All of the professors and lecturers at Canada’s far too many business schools should be sent to Inuvik to be re-educated. lol!

All four opposition parties should be able to embrace policies of this nature. In addition, political parties, public interest groups, and the media must start explaining to the public what it really means to be a neoliberal Harper Conservative. Voting is meaningless if people are unaware of what one of the key party stands for.

Then, the New Democrats and Liberals should be pushed into taking whatever steps are necessary coming up to the 2015 election to see that Harper does not win another five years in office.

If this means working together to form a one-time coalition or cooperative government, or even working together in some ridings to run the candidate with the best chance of defeating a Conservative candidate, then so be it. The parties must place the country ahead of their own self-interest.

Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist and activist who worked as a reporter, editor and producer with the CBC for more than 25 years. He is co-founder of the Canadian Association of Journalists and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

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