The entire world seems to be one huge advertisement for The Shock Doctrine. Naomi Klein showed in her revelatory book how the corporate-political-military-media complex exploits crises to further impose their harsh right-wing agenda – even when they themselves created the crisis. In a sane world, the economic meltdown and deep recession of the past four years would have led at minimum to stringent regulation of financiers and speculators plus programs to assist their victims. But in this world, you have to be nuts to believe in a sane world.
In reality, everything that’s happened in the past several years has gone to further empower and enrich the 1 per cent (or maybe the 5 per cent) at the expense of the rest of us. Look anywhere you want. What else does the universal demand for austerity programs mean? What else does the sudden concerted attack on public sector workers mean? What else does the intransigent line taken by multinational corporations against their unions mean? What else does the demand for “right-to-work” laws mean? What else does the widespread attack on seniors’ pensions mean?
Look at poor Greece. Ms. Klein could have invented it as a pure case study for her thesis. Big economic problems, it’s true. So how do you fix them? As a Greek journalist wrote matter-of-factly in The New York Times, the latest bailout program imposed by the IMF, the European Union and the European Central Bank “almost guarantees recession.” And this will be on top of the punishment that had already been inflicted on the 99 per cent, including deep cuts to private-sector wages, layoffs in the civil service and significant reductions in health and social security.
Throughout, economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, whose forecasts have repeatedly been borne out, assured the few who would listen this was a guaranteed recipe for exacerbating Greece’s economic woes. It meant, after all, instead of growth, a guaranteed contraction of the economy. Which is exactly what happened. But apparently these critics, while correct about the consequences of enforced austerity, were wrong about the proper solution. The punishment, it seems, had not been crushing enough. Now a new and improved package of pain will be inflicted, a condition for the country receiving bailout funds at sky-high borrowing costs. For the vast majority of them, it’s a Greek tragedy.
At least 21 per cent of Greeks are unemployed. Yet the thumbscrews are to be tightened once again: more austerity, more spending cuts, eliminating another 20 per cent of all government jobs and slashing the minimum wage by another 22 per cent. All this, in a country in its fifth year of recession.
Spain is not far behind, collapsing under the same burden of salvation. The economy’s contracting, unemployment has soared; 350,000 newly out of work, giving a jobless rate of 22.8 per cent, including almost half of all young Spaniards. These are staggering figures. In Britain too, David Cameron’s punishing economic strategy had led to a shrinking economy.
How exactly ordinary Greeks and Spaniards and Brits will endure, get by, pay for their rent or groceries or transportation, or offer their kids a hopeful life – this has become the greatest question of the early 21st century.
In Canada, Stephen Harper's attack on old-age pensions may not be in the same league as the plagues being inflicted on Greece, but it’s a start. It took no time at all for his entire rationale to be repudiated by real data. As The Globe reported on its front page, “Expert advice commissioned by the federal government [itself] contradicts Stephen Harper's warnings that Canada can’t afford the looming bill for old age security payments.”
Soon enough, from all directions came other credible reports all showing that our Prime Minister had been inventing his own reality, not for the first time. As Robert Brown, a maven on actuarial science, quaintly suggested: “Old Age Security reform needs to be based on facts rather than alarmist fantasy.”
He was wasting his breath. When Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page flatly contradicted the Prime Minister’s assertion that benefits for the elderly were neither sustainable nor affordable, he was slandered by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who called Page’s research “unbelievable, unreliable and incredible”.
In a paper for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Monica Townson, a long-time expert on seniors, also identified the fictional qualities of Mr. Harper's statement, but reminded us as well of the human consequences of his little initiative: “This is the worst possible time to be considering cutting back on the basic benefit that provides the foundation for the retirement income of all Canadians. It could well reverse the progress Canada has made in reducing the poverty of older Canadians.” Here was the real point, of course. Exactly who will be hurt by either increasing the age of old-age pension entitlement or decreasing the amount of the benefit, and who won’t even know anything’s changed?
As if the attack on pensions weren’t threatening enough, in true shock-doctrine fashion Conservative ministers soon launched their strategy of creating a phony intergenerational war among Canadians, who don’t yet realize that all but the deeply-privileged need be very wary.
The same is true in Ontario, thanks to Don Drummond’s remarkably hyped report on how the Ontario government should operate. Mr. Drummond insisted mightily that the tough measures he recommends should hit everyone in order to be seen as fair. But as the Toronto Star’s Tom Walkom pointed out, there’s no way that will happen or was ever intended to happen. “The well-off will fare better than the poor and middle class.” If enacted, his recommendations “would throw tens of thousands more Ontarians out of work … and push the provincial unemployment rate into double-digit territory.” Isn’t that what happened in Spain and Greece?
I wonder how many Ontarians know that Premier Dalton McGuinty actually chose to instruct Mr. Drummond not to look at surtaxes on high-income earners, and that Mr. Drummond chose to accept that mandate. Yet the wholly predictable consequence of these choices was a report that calls for austerity only for those already most vulnerable.
Finally, in the United States, where the President is hysterically accused of inciting class war every time he hiccups, the old pinko has just announced that he wants to lower the top corporate tax rates significantly. Take that, you greedy 1 per cent!