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Sunday, May 31, 2020
Their View / Opinion

Tide has turned on reopening, but how that works is a question

Nowhere near the extent seen in some U.S. states, and even out in Manitoba, Waterloo Region this week took some tentative steps towards loosening the lockdown in place since mid-March.

In doing so, the region was in sync with the easing outlined by the province, which has been more reticent about reopening than some other jurisdictions – Quebec, for instance, has kids going back to school, while restaurant patios might be options again in Winnipeg, the weather notwithstanding just now.

Concerns about a resurgence of the virus and the potential of a second wave are increasingly supplanted by a restless populace and the economic toll of measures in place to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. Businesses are foundering on the rock of hardship, and governments are sinking into record levels of debt and deficits to offset some of the losses, a situation that can’t go on indefinitely.

Just as shutdown measures snowballed after the initial closures, re-openings are picking up pace now that others have taken the plunge.

The current crisis has put in the spotlight many of the weaknesses of both our economic and political systems, exacerbating underlying problems with both predatory capitalism and ponzi-scheme-addicted officials who rely on constant growth that threatens the environment and societal balances.

More visibly, we’ve seen the strains on the likes of traditional retailers and the service industry.

Brick-and-mortar retail has been under assault for years, never more than today, but just like the stream of cheap crap from China, we’re more concerned with price and convenience than with the loss of jobs and local revenues.

Some of that is a natural evolution – if anything to do with the march of corporatism can be called natural – that saw the rise and fall of downtown main streets at the hands of malls, which were in turn supplanted by big-box stores. All forms of traditional retail are now prey to online shopping, most notably Amazon, which has about half of the online market … and growing.

That shoppers have been searching for better deals – especially in the face of crappier jobs, stagnant pay and exploding housing costs – isn’t surprising. It’s another symptom of predatory, monopoly capitalism. Amazon and its social media counterpart Facebook are examples of the worst kind of robber-baron capitalism that emerged in the Gilded Age that led to the Great Depression and, eventually, tougher laws to temper the worst effects of an unchecked economic system.

The deregulation and corrupt politics that took off in the 1980s courtesy of corporate lobbyists and an unparalleled propaganda effort that continues to this very minute have culminated in a mirror of the last 19th and early 20th centuries.

The major culprit is big tech firms and their sweeping patents, data, growing networks, and dominant platforms that are barriers to new entrants.

The solution is the resurrection of antitrust laws. We should break up the high-tech behemoths, or at least require that they make their proprietary technology and data publicly available and share their platforms with smaller competitors.

While the corporatism and resultant fascist tendencies aren’t as pronounced here as in the U.S., we’re on the same path. We need both the economic and democratic reforms long espoused by advocates.

Those who argue that regulation only hinders capitalism – often the same people who wrongly equate capitalism with democracy – miss the point of a so-called free market. The idea of a free-market economy is to let the market decide what will be made and in what quantity, rather than the central planning of the communist system, for instance. It doesn’t, however, mean free from regulation. How many people would argue that business should be “free” to use slaves or child labour? That was once the case in the West, but has been regulated out of the mix.

Once we’ve established that the market is an artificial construct that we’ve devised, we’re free to shape it in such a way that it provides only benefits to society, not harms. The deregulation that fuelled the corporatism of the last few decades – think of the rise of globalization, monopolies and oligarchies and the resultant decline in our quality of life – followed a postwar boom that was shaped by a market system that was devised with the broad public in mind. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but far more equitable than is the case today. Deregulation killed that. New regulations controlling the excesses of the financial sector are needed to put us back on track. The same goes for removing corporate influence in the political system.

The Depression-era safeguards have been steadily rolled back under an avalanche of political donations, payoffs and propaganda. The assault on the public good really picked up steam under Reagan, Thatcher and, here, Mulroney. Governments have largely abandoned public protections against monopolies.

The U.S. is leading the charge on deregulation and a lack of oversight of bad business practices, including mergers, acquisitions and monopolistic practices, which are pursued as eagerly as deficit-causing tax cuts under the current regime. Joining in that race to the bottom, the Trudeau government making moves to reduce corporate taxes following Trump’s lead, a tit-for-tat corporate PR flaks began shilling before the ink was dry south of the border.

All, or at least much of that must change if we’re to emerge on the other side in a position to better serve the people as a whole.

The current pain isn’t going away anytime soon, notes University of Waterloo economics professor Joel Blit.

“Before this epidemic hit, we were in the longest economic expansion in recent history. We are now likely in the midst of the deepest recession since at least the Great Depression (we may even surpass that).  The U.S. economy shrank by 4.8 per cent in the first quarter due to decreased consumer spending and lower business investment.   We are likely to see similar or even larger drops in economic output in Canada since we are more exposed to a fall in commodity prices, and our COVID-19 measures were overall more stringent than those imposed in the United States,” he says in a UW release.

“Hopes for a “V” shaped recovery are misplaced.  There remains too much uncertainty for firms to rehire workers or make significant investments.  Consumers’ spending is likely to remain depressed for a while, as they will have accumulated even more debt, and they are likely to be scarred by the crisis.”

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