Recycling neo-liberalism in austerity budgets

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At what point does something that was once new, turn into old, and make way for something newer? Twenty years? 30? 40? I ask in light of the CBC's Terry Milewski's question to NDP Leader Tom Mulcair at his first news conference. How do you expect to appeal to voters, he prodded, with a program so "antiquated"?

But hold on. If you're 30 years old, 35, even 40 (born in 1972), the only economic wisdom you've ever known is the nostrums of neo-liberalism, which began in the Reagan-Thatcher 1980s and continues into the current round of austerity budgets everywhere. You've lived entirely in a pro-business context of deregulation and "reining in" public spending. It's ancient, as old as you are. (And includes the era of those zealous neo-Liberals, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.)

Or take a Globe and Mail editorial, which asked, "Is a 'labour-friendly government' really what is needed at a time when public-sector unions have lost touch with the reality of the economy?"

Now, labour-hostile governments are all anyone under 40 has seen, starting with Thatcher and Reagan smashing the miners and air traffic controllers. The decimation of unions over that time is seriously related to the rise of social inequality (We are the 99 per cent) that marks and mars our era. Union bargaining had largely created the middle-income sector. Some labour-friendliness might restore balance and avoid the strife that inequality has led to. It would be innovative. Milewski and the Globe editorialist are basically showing their age, and a lazy refusal to think fresh.

That isn't a personal flaw. One of the endearing traits of our species is its capacity to learn from experience combined with the failure to do so. Consider the current round of austerity budgets. Why are governments in deficit? It isn't due to programs like health care. They were funding those 10 years ago and many were in surplus. Yoo-hoo -- does anyone remember 2008? The world economy teetered; it had to be bailed out and "stimulated" with public money. As a result, other programs, especially on local levels, were starved. That's what hammered public accounts. Why did the economy teeter? Because of those neo-liberal policies: deregulation, downsizing the public sphere, anti-unionism. But anyone who wants to try something truly new and avoid a repeat of 2008, is "antiquated."

I don't blame the neo-liberals (also known as neo-cons) for having taken their shot. Back in their early days, they had some real juice. Staff from the Fraser Institute roamed the country like papal envoys. Heads of parliamentary bodies and editors pulled out chairs for them as they announced, with a certainty once owned by Marxists in the 1930s, that "We know how to make the economy work." Their formulas turned out to lead directly to the crash of 2008 but, in the manner of true believers in all eras, they said we hadn't done enough of what they prescribed. Our lack of faith in their creed was the problem; it was time for more austerity, deregulation etc. You become a dinosaur by repeating yourself and ignoring the signs of catastrophe, even as the meteor nears again.

Yet there are also signs of fading conviction, for instance in this week's "tough" budgets. They're longer on rhetoric than actual acres of scorched earth. They don't compare to the ravages of the 1990s Paul Martin or Mike Harris budgets, when the flame still burned bright. There's a sense of exhaustion, as if 2008 weighs on them. They carry on cutting, in Stephen Harper's case because he ideologically opposes government activity regardless of effects; or to reward their rich backers and receive their reward in return. There are signs of exhaustion in Europe too; as if the rhetoric is living on fumes. It suggests an opening for something different and genuinely new.

Like what -- activist, redistributive government? Who knows? I grant it's easier to say what's old than what's new. And between us, how much does old or new really matter?

Finally: This is my last column for a while. I'm taking time off to write a series on the niggling subject of democratic renewal. I'll miss the weekly contact but I promise to return as soon as possible.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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