OTTAWA—Three years after the global financial crisis of 2008, the anxieties it unleashed had blossomed into a worldwide protest movement.
Thousands marched in Manhattan to occupy a small park off Wall Street, inspiring copycat demonstrations in cities as far flung as Auckland and Zagreb, Kelowna and Kuala Lumpur.
The “99 per cent” was said to be waking up. The avarice of the “1 per cent” had had its day.
Daniel Roth was a young activist back then with Occupy Toronto, the movement that hunkered down in St. James Park for 40 days in the fall of 2011. He recalls with awe the workings of the occupation, how committees were struck to set up kitchens and a library, an infirmary and a space for “spiritual healing,” which in practice meant somewhere to do yoga.
It was a new world — at least, a glimpse of one — and Roth remembers it fondly as the beginning of a politics of inequality that rippled out from the Great Recession and has coloured the public discourse of so many countries over the decade since.
“The economic collapse shone a light on the reality of economic inequality,” says Roth, now 38, over the phone from Jerusalem, where he is co-director of a social justice advocacy group called Solidarity of Nations.
“A lot of people just woke up to a reality that maybe they weren’t living in a just system,” he says.
One way to look at the story of the past decade is to see the Great Recession — that economic shock that ricocheted around the world — as the starting pistol for an era of anxiety and suspicion about the promise of modern capitalism: that, in a phrase associated with the optimism of the postwar 20th century, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
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In the years since, a burst of right-wing populism has shaken much of Europe and the United States. Political economists point to slowing growth in much of the West, accompanied by a new-found strain of protectionism and a nationalist retrenchment tinged — in its ugliest formations — with racism.
Meanwhile, protest movements like Occupy have heralded a new language and concern for economic inequality — both adopted in Canada by a Liberal government that has sought to tamp down anger and resentment by trying to share the wealth of the beleaguered global trading order it is at pains to defend.
Through this lens, the Great Recession at the tail end of the last decade can be seen as a catalyst for the political currents that have helped shape the one now coming to a close — and on into the future.
In March 2011, months before Occupy, Jean Boivin, then deputy governor of the Bank of Canada, gave a speech about the Great Recession to an audience of financial analysts in Montreal.
He surveyed the damage of the downturn, triggered in the fall of 2008 when Lehman Brothers — a major investment bank in the U.S. — filed for bankruptcy protection. Within months, a panic set in and global stock markets plunged to depths not seen in 75 years. Governments in the U.S., Britain, Germany and Belgium spent billions to save banks from going under. Economic activity in the Group of 7 dropped by more than 5 per cent, and 30 million people lost their jobs, according to a 2010 analysis by the International Monetary Fund.
“The spectre of the Great Depression of the 1930s hovered on the horizon,” Boivin said at the time, “reminding us that recessions following financial crises are usually longer and more difficult than others, and leave behind indelible scars.”
This spectre coincided with — or perhaps precipitated — an emerging concern over economic inequality, a chasm between the wealthiest elites and the masses struggling under ballooning household debt and stagnating incomes. These concerns, voiced evocatively by the rhetoric of the Occupy movement, gained some institutional legitimacy with the seminal 2014 book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” in which the French economist Thomas Piketty charts the structural inequalities created when the incomes of working people grow slower than the wealth reaped from capital investments like stocks and real estate.
Piketty writes that this could present an “enormous problem” if sustained over long periods, as he predicts it will in much of the developed world, where growth of annual output has flatlined at between one and two per cent. When that happens, he writes, “The past devours the future.”
In a global sense, the biggest consequence of this insecurity has not been the widespread calls for a new economic system, as one might expect, says Greg Albo, a professor of political economy at York University, but a strengthening the political right — particularly the “hard right” — in many countries.
Albo points to the rise of anti-immigrant politics in Europe, as seen with Viktor Orban in Hungary, Matteo Salvini’s Lega party in Italy, and Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France. A new iteration of nationalism also gained prominence, says Albo, with the “America First” populism of Donald Trump in the U.S. and the forces behind Brexit in the United Kingdom.
The reason for this, in Albo’s estimation, is that the political left in much of the Western world had lost credibility as a true alternative to the centrist, pro-business politics it had clearly opposed through most of the 20th century. In the 1980s and 1990s, many left-leaning political parties — such as the Labour Party in the U.K. — swung to the centre and began supporting principles of “neo-liberalism” like free trade and privatization, turning away from traditional positions to protect publicly owned institutions and domestic industries and their workers from foreign competition.
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“Social democracy as the main alternative to liberal capitalism … became just another form of neo-liberalism,” Albo said. “They’re kind of very much the same, and became squeezed out as an alternative.”
That’s not to say the left hasn’t changed in the aftermath of the recession. Andrew Jackson, a senior policy adviser with the Broadbent Institute, a social democratic think tank with ties to the New Democratic Party, says much of the post-recession discontent initially fuelled the populist right, but that “belatedly there has been more of a response from the left.”
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, for example, have finally taken the concerns of Occupy toward the political mainstream, focusing on income inequality in their respective campaigns for the U.S. presidency. There are calls for new forms of tax on the assets of the rich — a solution to inequality that Piketty proposes in his book — that include the NDP’s platform pledge for a “super wealth tax” during the federal election this fall. And the Labour platform in the recent U.K. vote, with marked increases in taxes and government spending, was “easily the most radical” in decades, Jackson says.
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“You even see that with the federal Liberal government,” he said, pointing to how Justin Trudeau won power in 2015 by vowing to dive into deficits to fund infrastructure projects that would spur economic growth, a position that put the Liberals to the left of the NDP on fiscal policy.
“There’s this obsessive concern with what’s happening with the middle class and the inequality issue,” he said.
Indeed, if there is a philosophical stamp the Trudeau government has brandished, it can be found in its very handling of the forces unleashed by the great recession.
The old orthodoxy died in November 2008. At least that’s how Jeremy Broadhurst sees it.
The veteran Liberal strategist ran the party’s national campaign this fall, and was recently named chief of staff to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. Back in the fall of 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis and the plunge into recession, the Conservative minority government of the day introduced a fall fiscal update that stuck to a balanced budget. This was at a time when U.S. president Barack Obama, the Communist government in China and others across the G20 agreed to open up the spending taps in a bid to spur growth and avoid an even deeper economic contraction that they were currently experiencing.
The way Broadhurst tells it, the opposition parties pressed prime minister Stephen Harper to pursue similar spending policies. The result, ultimately, was federal deficits that freed up billions for infrastructure, a massive bailout of Ontario’s auto manufacturing sector, and more.
“There are some of us within the Liberal party who saw that as the moment when the common economic orthodoxy of the previous 15 years” — rigid adherence to balanced budgets and cost restraint — “starts to crumble,” Broadhurst said.
Famously, this rejection of balanced-budget dogmatism led to the Liberal promise during the 2015 election to run deficits to fund infrastructure projects that would spur economic activity. It also coincided with the party’s stated concerns with economic inequality, highlighted by Freeland as a star candidate — and now second in command in Trudeau’s cabinet — who wrote a book about the world’s super rich, called “Plutocrats” before entering politics.
Once in power, the Liberals instituted policies designed to address inequality and a sense of unfairness, Broadhurst says. They raised taxes on highest income earners, cut income taxes for a broad swath of Canadians, and beefed up monthly federal payouts to parents that they call the Canada Child Benefit.
As foreign minister during the first four years of Trudeau’s government, Freeland touted such measures as a kind of antidote to the political earthquakes seen in countries like the U.K and U.S., where governments have rejected pillars of globalization such as free trade as sources of inequality and economic woe.
In a 2017 speech in the House of Commons that was framed as part of the Liberal government’s foreign policy doctrine, Freeland rejected the protectionism of Trump and Brexit and defended the global trading system as a source of prosperity.
But in a time of anxiety about inequality, Freeland acknowledged the benefits of this trading system aren’t shared fairly. The solution to populism and protectionism, then, is to share the wealth, she said.
This may be an obvious reaction to the decade’s changes in the global arena. Randall Germain, a political scientist at Carleton University, points to how Canada benefits from trade agreements that set clear rules for the flow of goods, as a nation heavily reliant on commodity exports. Those flows are under threat in the age of protectionist populism, Germain says.
“It really is roiling the political and economic relationships that Canada has with the rest of the world,” he says.
For Broadhurst, it’s not clear when — or whether — this era of anxiety will wane into something else. In much of the West, “there will always now be an underlying current of doubt,” he says.
That, more than anything, may be the legacy of this decade in the shadow of that Great Recession.
Those protesting the International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban political statements by participating athletes make several familiar arguments, all of them bad. The principal one is that since politics already saturates the Olympics—the parade of national flags, the contest between cities vying to host—the ban is incoherent and hypocritical, and the attempted interdiction of political speech is itself a political act.
No it isn’t. Declaring a politics-free zone is simply an assertion that one kind of activity is appropriate in a particular space and not another. Athletes, like anyone else, may be interested in political issues such as climate change, income inequality or minority rights. That’s why the committee is careful to say there will be no ban on political statements “during press conferences and interviews,” “at team meetings” and “on digital or traditional media.” But “on the field of play,” “during Olympic medal ceremonies” and “during the Opening, Closing, and other official Ceremonies,” words and gestures with a political message are outlawed.
Such restrictions are no more political than a rule preventing nurses from lobbying for higher wages during an operation or jurors from voicing their opinions in the middle of a trial. The point isn’t to suppress political views, but to recognize and honor the primary obligations taken on by those who enter a particular arena of practice. What Olympic athletes are forbidden to say at carefully specified moments, they are perfectly free to say in ordinary settings, when the severe requirements of disciplinary integrity don’t apply.
The IOC muddies the waters when it proclaims the importance of keeping “the Olympic Village and the podium neutral.” The word “neutral” suggests a space where contending political views are present and an administrative body resolves to favor none of them. Neutrality as a value comes into play only when the landscape is already politically configured. The landscape of Olympic competition isn’t. The committee’s effort is a prophylactic one: Politics might have infected almost everything about the Olympics, but the games themselves are a sacred zone that must be protected.
Why? Because if executing a backdoor play or breaking a world record in a relay solicits our admiration as an act affirming freedom or women’s equality or indigenous rights, what the IOC calls “sport and its values” will have been subordinated to a partisan agenda. The Olympics will be nothing more than a large scale political messaging center. Maybe that’s what the hundreds of millions of fans want, but I don’t think so.
Mr. Fish is a visiting professor at Yeshiva University’s
Benjamin N. Cardozo
School of Law and author of “The First: How to Think About Hate Speech, Campus Speech, Religious Speech, Fake News, Post-Truth and
There is one question that those who are madly speculating Stephen Harper may be about to mount some kind of return to political life have yet to satisfactorily answer. Do you get the sense that he particularly misses his life in the public eye? Is he so unhappy running his own consultancy back home in Calgary that he would decide to spend the next six months campaigning and then years waiting for the next election?
Does that sound like the Harper any of us spent 10 years getting to know?
A return to politics, specifically, to run the Conservative party he led to victory in three elections, would not improve his standard of living; if anything, politicians put up with a remarkable amount of personal sacrifice and aggravation for reasons hard to fathom for most of the population. He wouldn’t earn any more money by leaving his current private-sector gig to return to political life, with a long guaranteed spell as opposition leader before he gets a crack at the top job again. He doesn’t seem to lack for opportunity to travel the globe for meetings with well-connected officials or audiences interested in what he might have to say. And he’d have to start engaging in the personal-branding element of politics he was barely willing to tolerate during his first go-round.
Does that sound like the Harper any of us spent 10 years getting to know?
So why would he return?
Former prime minister Harper is a private, wonky and introverted guy. Huge parts of what it takes to be a successful political leader, parts that far too many leaders seem to think are the most essential, always seemed awkward and ill-fitting with Harper. Few question his intelligence. Likewise, few seem to believe he particularly enjoyed the schmoozing and baby-kissing parts of the job. Harper’s strengths, both as prime minister and as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, were in the policy and managerial domains. Over the course of his career, with much practice, he became passably good — at best — at the touchy-feely stuff.
In other words, he currently has the ability to do all the stuff he was good at and genuinely seemed to enjoy. And while he does the policy stuff, and the big-picture strategy stuff, and the thought-leadership stuff, he doesn’t have to do any media interviews, or show up at a legion hall to read some bland scripted remarks in both official languages, or be photographed walking his kids to school (which would be admittedly odd anyway, given that they’ve grown up). He gets almost all the good stuff and very little of the bad. He’s eating his cake and having it, too. And all he has sacrificed to get to this place is … actually, wait. Nothing. He’s sacrificed practically nothing.
The one argument that could perhaps justify the speculation is that Harper did not like losing to Justin Trudeau and would like a chance at a rematch, especially since Trudeau has in many ways revealed himself to be exactly what so many of his critics long suspected — bluntly, a carefully constructed political brand that does not match well with the reality of the man who carries it. But not only is it far from certain that Harper would win such a rematch, even if he gets a chance, which might not be for years, it would be a huge risk to leave a comfortable private life just for that chance at knocking Trudeau out of the PMO.
And if there is anything that even his critics and supporters can agree on, it’s that Stephen Harper was always a shrewd and calculating operator. Why any of them think a political return would be a shrewd move likely to improve Harper’s lot in life is baffling.
If there is anything that even his critics and supporters can agree on, it’s that Stephen Harper was always a shrewd and calculating operator
Perhaps it’s simply that Harper continues to hold a plus-sized place in the minds of many, most especially his most vocal opponents. Even a full four years (and counting) after he left the PMO, they continue to think he’s behind every move, moving every lever. Watching, an intelligence vast, cool and unsympathetic, for the moment to return.
The truth, meanwhile, seems much simpler and in keeping with the private man who led this country, reasonably well, for a full decade — that he probably enjoyed the job, on balance, but he doesn’t much miss it, particularly all the hassles. He seems to have gotten over it far faster and much more completely than his strongest critics have yet been able to get over him.
Politicos, market watchers and deficit hawks are trying to figure out if the president really opened the door this week to entitlement reform.
Asked if entitlements are “on his plate,” the president told CNBC’s Joe Kernen Wednesday, “At some point they will be.” The president said strong US growth made addressing entitlements “the easiest of all things.”
Cue the Democrats.
“The president promised that unlike other Republicans, he wouldn’t touch Social Security, and Medicare,” said Senator Chuck Schumer during a press conference to discuss the president’s impeachment trial. “He’s already broken that promise and gone after Medicare. Now it looks like Social Security is in the president’s crosshairs as well.”
Just as the White House was dangling an election year tease for new tax cuts, the president made different headlines by casually touching the third rail of American politics.
“Social Security reform is a virtually impossible sell, and Democrats are smacking their lips — Trump has given them an issue,” wrote political economist Greg Valliere in a note to his clients.
Trump had promised during the election that a super-strong Trump economy growing at 4 percent would fix the long-term problems for big government outlays like Social Security and Medicare. (The economy instead is growing around 2 percent.)
Some think the president tried to climb down Thursday with a tweet he would “save” Social Security from Democrats who want to “destroy” it.
But it hasn’t quieted the debate.
“Democrats in this town have been hand-wringing about their prospects in the presidential race,” writes Valliere, DC-based chief US policy strategist at AGF Investments. “Las Vegas oddsmakers have made Donald Trump the clear favorite. Inexplicably, he gave Democrats a major opening this week — Social Security, the third rail that politicians never want to touch.”
It’s unclear if the White House is serious about entitlement reform or if the president was just, well, talking.
What is clear: the combination of an economy growing at just about 2% the president’s 2017 tax cuts, and a huge spending bill, have sent the deficit soaring. The budget deficit has already topped $1 trillion in the Trump Administration, and grew another 12% from the year before in the first quarter of this fiscal year.
Even if entitlement reform were a priority, the balance of power makes it unlikely.
“If re-elected, the President will pursue more tax cuts and will not pursue significant entitlement reform,” economist Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics tells CNN. It “wouldn’t happen unless the (Republicans) captured the House and held onto the Senate, which at this point seems unlikely,” Zandi says. “If President Trump is re-elected, we can expect $1 trillion plus budget deficits for the foreseeable future, and much large deficits when the next recession hits.”
Politics aside, there’s a case for slowing the growth of entitlement programs like Social Security, says Valliere. Congress periodically considers reforms to the cost of living adjustments, raising the age of eligibility, increasing Social Security taxes, means-testing benefits, and tightening eligibility rules. But cowed by public outcry and lack of consensus, never acts. And the deficit hawks in the traditional Republican party appear to be in hiding.
“Chances of enactment are close to zero,” in a second Trump administration, says Valliere.
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