Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The NFU Convention, Part 2

The keynote speech of the National Farmers' Union convention in Ottawa, November 2013, was open free of charge to the public. Jim Stanford was invited to speak on "Defeating Austerity, Reclaiming Canada." Whenever the CBC news has a panel on the economy, we pay attention if Stanford is among the panellists, and so do others. An Ottawa area organic farmer who sat near us said he'd seen Stanford on TV and thought he made sense.

Stanford is an economist for UNIFOR (the new union formed this year when the Canadian Auto Workers united with the Energy and Paperworkers' Union.) He was educated at the University of Alberta, in fact, was a classmate of Stephen Harper. He then studied at Cambridge and got his Ph.D from the New School for Social Research in New York City.

Stanford was an amusing, entertaining speaker. He began by saying that economics is too important to be left to the economists. Then he quoted Lord Robbins's classical definition of economics as "the relation of given ends to scarce means which have alternative uses." Orthodox economics, then, is based on the idea that scarcity is central, something that Stanford would question.

In our own time, the modern day ideological spin on scarcity is "austerity."  Austerity, said Stanford, is "the response of the rich and powerful to the effects of the financial meltdown which they caused in 2008. The wealthy gambled with other people's money. Then they take advantage of moments of crisis, which they caused, to reinforce their position. They try to promote an ideology of powerlessness.

Stanford said that there is nothing preordained about economics, and that the old phrase that "it's all a matter of supply and demand" isn't so.  Wealth comes from gifts of nature and physical and mental work. Our Gross Domestic Product comes from human effort. The economic crisis of 2008 wasn't caused by working people, but by private finance, speculation, and profit-driven credit creation. Instead of subsidizing the problem, government should solve it.

"What is scarce?" Stanford asked. Not capital; companies in  Canada are sitting on 600 billion dollars of capital. Not revenues; governments can raise money in various ways. Not people; two million Canadians are unemployed if you include those waiting for jobs to start, involuntary part-timers and those who have given up the search and therefore don't appear in the statistics. "The only thing scarce," concluded Stanford, "is our ability to work and the ability to ensure that the fruits of our labour are used to better the human condition." Stanford contended that if we put two million Canadian back to work, each would produce labour worth $100,000 per worker per year in productivity. This would produce a Gross Domestic Product of $200 billion. The government share would be $70 billion; therefore, concerns about government debt wouldn't hold us back.

The Conservatives are not good managers of the economy, Stanford said. In the five years since 2008, Canada's population has grown by 2 million. Employment has decreased if we consider the number of employable people. Job creation under the Conservatives has failed.

To the Conservatives' claim that Canada's economy survived the 2008 crisis better than other economies in the world, Stanford said, "I don't think so." The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) employment rate ranks us Number 20 out of 34, in the lower half of the countries with the largest economies. 'As for productivity, Canada has had the worst productivity performance in history under Harper.

Canada's free trade agreements are not working for us, Stanford contended: Exports as a share of our GDP have declined during the Harper years.

The worst claim made by conservatives, [both small c and big C] in Stanford's view, is that corporate tax cuts stimulate investment. Tax cuts to corporations equal 12 billion dollars a year, money "thrown down a deep dark hole leaving us nothing to show for it... We have spent $4 on tax cuts for every dollar the business community has put in," he said. This, in his view, ought to be a bigger scandal than the current Senate scandal.

The answer for Canada is that we do more work and do it more valuably. Under the Conservatives, work is being devalued and the environment is being destroyed.
How to fight back? Stanford suggested four ways:
. Debunk the ideology of austerity. (For example, Bay Street has been arguing to take away the public pension system, and already, for no good reason, the age of eligibility has been raised to 67.)
. Reject the human and social consequences of austerity.
. Increase the political cost on those who push austerity.
. Remember that work is the answer, not gambling on changes in prices of paper assets. Demand our right to work.

To build a winning movement, Canadians must educate, organize and mobilize, and we must do it better.  Education involves exposing the flaws of the current system. Organizing means helping Canadians fight for their rights, using new organizing models like internet campaigning. Mobilizing means picking winnable battles and fighting focused and disciplined battles. (Stanford suggested that a fight for expansion of the Canada Pension Plan would be winnable even without the defeat of the Con. government, because the RRSP model of a pension plan has failed.)

Stanford spoke of UNIFOR, the largest private sector union in Canada, formed on Labour Day 2013 with the merger of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Canadian Electrical and Paperworkers.  Unifor has 300,000 members in 20 sectors of the economy.  It is also the largest union in ares regulated by the federal government.

Unifor has a new structure, with regional and industry councils. Ten per cent of all revenues are going to organizing. Its president, Gerry Diaz, is an example of the new leadership being brought forward in the union. An advertising campaign has been launched to reboot the image of unions as a force fighting for all workers
The formation of "community chapters" in Unifor is a new development for trade unions and is intended to broaden the base. Any group of workers with a common economic interest and a desire to fight for change can join the union. They don't have to be members of a certified bargaining unit as used to be the case. Freelancers, people in non-traditional jobs, anyone doing precarious work can join with dues set at a lower rate than those members in certified bargaining units. The community chapters can be nation-wide; for example, there is one for freelancers in the media industry, and, possibly, there will be one for ministers in the United Church of Canada.

Stanford concluded that the system, not ourselves, should be on trial, and that we should go on the offensive and be audacious. [He gave similar advice to young people facing bleak employment prospects when he appeared as a panellist on "The National" of December 3, 2013. The other three panelists, from the right of the political spectrum, focused on personal solutions, advising young people to take the "right" subjects in school, network, take any job and reduce their expectations.]

During the Q and A period, Stanford got more deeply into the problems with free trade, and potentially with CETA. (At present, CETA is an agreement in principle that no one has ever seen.) The conventional wisdom that free trade is always good is problematic, because the agreements allow corporations to sue governments. It's really about more power to the corporations.

Stanford believes in trade; that is, local production of valuable goods that the world wants to buy. Instead of "pillaging the environment", which isn't currently growing the economy, he recommends "less extraction, more value-added, and clean-up of pollution sites."

I left the convention thinking that Stanford's speech, and the panel presentation in the afternoon, were well worth the price of admission - that is, the conference fee - which my husband kindly paid as an anniversary present for me. One sign of a good presentation is that the audience is left wanting more. Of course there are books and the Internet. But I wish the CBC would give more time (one might say "fair coverage" or "equal time") to the viewpoints I heard that day at the conference.

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