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David Bush is a community and labour activist based primarily on the East Coast. Currently he is finishing his Master's in Labour Studies at McMaster University. His blog will be exploring the theoretical and strategic debates facing left-wing activists who are trying to build a better world.

Hey CBC, get your invisible hand out of my face!

| July 12, 2012
Hey CBC, get your invisible hand out of my face!

For the past three Wednesdays I have listened to one of CBC's new summer programs, The Invisible Hand, with maddening frustration. The show, hosted by Matthew Lazin-Ryder, is an attempt to explain the economic realities of everyday choices and situations. It is supposed to be a hip, poppy take on the dismal science much akin to National Public Radio's very much overrated Planet Money.

The result has been an illogical and uncritical take on a potentially interesting subject wrapped in a Malcolm Gladwellesque pseudo-scientific neoliberal facade. Instead of tackling the inner workings of financial capitalism, or how the global economic crisis came about, we are treated to an array of bubblegum justifications for greed, inequality and misery. The show is not only overly simplistic; it is downright dangerous. The first three episodes have covered the field of despicable neoclassical economic tropes from "greed is good" to "price gouging is noble." The show bills itself as an exploration of the economics of everyday life but the result is nothing short of brazen right-wing propaganda.

In episode three, we are treated to the familiar, if not tired, idea that the high drug prices charged by pharmaceutical companies for drugs that cost pennies to make are justified. The reasoning here is that the initial investment in research and development should be factored into the subsequent price. This sounds simple enough, but if one scratches the surface the argument begins to fall apart on several fronts. First of all, research and development is built off the backs of public infrastructure. Publicly funded school systems from primary to universities provide the backbone of almost all research and development in our society. The canon of public knowledge allows for the production of new and better ideas. Government funding in the sciences allows most research and development to exist in almost all sectors of the economy. The direct and indirect spin-offs of public goods make private profits possible.

Secondly the basic assumption at work in this episode, that only the profit motive drives human beings to create and innovate, is false. One need only look at the greatest scientific achievements in human history to know that this argument holds no water. The major scientific discoveries in physics, chemistry, biology, telecommunication and human exploration were driven by motives of human curiosity, creativity and passion. The profit motive has given us an unshakable worldwide recession, global warming, extreme inequality and 17 kinds of Doritos. It has never sent people to the moon let alone fed those without food, clothed those without clothes and healed those without money.

The show also fails to grapple with economics' fundamental existential crisis. Economics is not a hard science. It cannot measure or replicate experiments that control variables and predict with any certainty the outcomes in its field of study. Economics is political; indeed, the discipline was originally referred to as the political economy. It is not some island of objectivity but is coloured by ideological assumptions of human behaviour. In fact, the show's projection of economics as an objective body of knowledge that flows through daily life is extremely ideological. It renders the debates over neoclassical economic assumptions themselves invisible. This is perhaps why the candy-coated presentation of this show is so dangerous. It tries to present neoliberal ideas as a kind of fun, commonsense way of looking at the world.

The show's economic "guru," Stephen Gordon, a right-wing economist who spends his time defending corporate tax cuts, arguing that reduced tuition fees won't make university more accessible, and that austerity is a good thing, undoubtedly influences the thought processes behind the show. The fact that Gordon's neoliberal analysis has now found a home on Canada's public broadcaster shouldn't surprise anyone. The CBC has been drifting rightward and away from anything resembling news, let alone critical thinking, for years. Maybe the CBC is thinking that this show will endear them to their cut-happy Conservative overlords, but I doubt it.

The neoliberal ideas that are peddled by The Invisible Hand are the same ideas that set the course for the still ongoing economic crisis of 2008. Instead of leaving these ideas in the dustbin of history, our publicly funded broadcaster has dedicated an entire show to defending debunked neoliberal free-market ideas. How they do this entirely without irony is absolutely baffling.

So I suggest write to the CBC and then turn off your radio. It is too nice a summer to be haunted by the spectre of The Invisible Hand.

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Comments

Sadly we are witnessing the death of an old friend, the CBC. Harper and crew have underfunded it to scare every one into flogging their crap. I am afraid the thinking people of Canada are starting to abandon it. By the time we get rid of Harper there may be nothing left to save. Welcome to Canuckistan.

Before I comment I must share: I used the search function to find "cbc the invisible hand" and was asked if I meant "cbc the visible hard." Who programs your search functions? 

I've heard two episodes of this dreacly program. It is sophmoric, stupid, simple-minded and cloyingly cute. Mathew Lazen-Rider sounds like a rich kid having a lark before settling into dad's investment business, Ponzi Inc. 

In the third episode we are seriously asked to believe that a sweet 90 year old retired school teacher is the "typical capitalist" of today because she draws a pension--and that segment went on and on and on..... OMFG! How stupid do they think their audience is. I know how stupid I think they are. 

/rant. 

Having said that I don't think this is consciously pandering to Harper as much as it is opening the door to ideas such as IH represents. Either way, not good news CBC. 

Adam, 

We don't really need drug companies. Scientists who are curious and publicly supported will do research and continue to produce drugs. Instead of the corporatization of post-secondary institutions, which is what we're doing now, and wasting precious talent and time for superficial designer drugs, we would allocate all the resources to the most important problems. 

And instead of giving them lengthy patents and incredible profits to these corporations and select few scientists, we should simply give them a one-time reward for any major breakthrough and be able to produce and sell the drugs at cost. How is it moral to profit on people's health and suffering, which is exactly what the pharmaceutical industry does. 

 This argument answers your second question. Humans do not have to motivated by profits. The majority of the high tech industry (aerospace, internet, computers, etc.) were created through defence spending. That means on the taxpayers' dollar. 

No wonder Harper has cut funding to CBC Radio International and is closing it down.  It still represented an intellectual approach to a variety of subjects and was listened to by people seeking factual news in countries where the national media is government controlled.

As stated by both the author of this article and the commenters that follow, CBC television has become a propaganda machine for Harper and corporate interests.

This was shockingly evident for anyone, like myself, who lives in Quebec and saw the CBC treatment of the Quebec student movement.  Not only did the CBC "National" do lousy reporting, they created montage after montage showing the violence committed in Victoriaville by the police as an example of student anarchy.  They never reported on the injuries to the students from stun grenades and plastic bullets (2 students lost an eye, one had her jaw and teeth shattered, another got hit on the temple and hovered between life and death for several days, etc. etc. They reported the Earth Day protest in may with 250,000 people marching as a student rebellion and mixed up old footage with new to create a visual lie. 

Unfortunately, what is left of CBC national radio will probably be Harper's next target.

 

 

"First of all, research and development is built off the backs of public infrastructure. Publicly funded school systems from primary to universities provide the backbone of almost all research and development in our society. The canon of public knowledge allows for the production of new and better ideas. Government funding in the sciences allows most research and development to exist in almost all sectors of the economy. The direct and indirect spin-offs of public goods make private profits possible."

That's true. But is it relevant to the question of whether or not we should allow drug companies to make profits? Suppose there were two scenarios: scenario A in which drug companies were banned from making profits over the last 50 or 60 years and scenario B in which they were not. Further suppose that the level of public spending on education and infrastructure was the same in both cases. In which case would society be better off today?

 

Perhaps you'll say A, because who needs all those prescription drugs anyway? But if that's true, I'm not sure why high drug prices are such a problem. Or perhaps you'll say A because you believe the government could have employed all of those researchers, directed activities, allocated resources, and produced the drugs more efficiently than the private sector. I would seriously doubt that but if that's your argument then you should make it. But either way, the fact that we engage in public spending on education and infrastructure tells us nothing about whether or not society is better off allowing private drug companies to make profits.    

 

"Secondly the basic assumption at work in this episode, that only the profit motive drives human beings to create and innovate, is false."

This is a straw man. The show's message was not that ONLY the profit motive drives human beings to innovate. It was only saying that the profit motive matters. If you passed a law saying that all prescription drug prices must be cut by 50% starting tomorrow, would you doubt that the stock prices of those companies would plunge and they would attract much less capital forcing them to shrink dramatically (employing fewer people, producing less output and investing much less in discovering new products)? Perhaps you think that's a good thing - which is fair enough. But the message of the show is that is (roughly) what would happen. And the manner in which markets would redirect resources within the economy in response to such a policy is not something that comes naturally to most people - which is why I think the show is valuable.

I look forward to your response,

Adam

David Bush wrote:
The fact that Gordon's neoliberal analysis has now found a home on Canada's public broadcaster shouldn't surprise anyone. The CBC has been drifting rightward and away from anything resembling news, let alone critical thinking, for years.

Long before Stephen Gordon found a home at the CBC, he found a home at Rabble.ca and trolled the threads for many years at Babble as well.

My jaw dropped when I heard this show a weekend or two ago -- do not understand what is happening to this country ...

I am with the author and the other commenters on this one. I, too, have noticed the right-wing turn that the CBC has taken in recent years (especially the English Corp - Radio Canada is not as bad). All we hear on the CBC these days is wall to wall coverage of the trio of conservative obsessions: The military, the royals and a growing neo-liberal bias on every topic. The coverage of the Quebec student movement is a case in point. Terrible coverage from CBC on this one. Just awful.  

It must upset the bigwigs at the Corpse that the government has cut into the broadcaster's budget. That's gratitude for you! There's the support for the war in Afghanistan. The "Mission," Peter Mansbridge calls it. Mansbridge gave Conrad Black a smooth ride and he couldn't have been nicer to Benjamin Netanyahu. He's sort of our Barbara Walters, only balder. Neocon talking heads like Amanda Lang are everywhere. And still the cuts keep on coming. Why not call it the Conservative Broadcasting Corporation and be done with it?   

It's unfortunate that the neoliberal puppet masters who control the Reform Conservatives have finally taken over the CBC.  Alas, the CBC has morphed into SUN news, with slightly better production values.

 

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