Tag Archives: neoliberalism

MICHAEL WALKER of the Fraser Institute

DEBORAH JONES
November 12, 2005

Michael Walker’s desk in his new office at the Fraser Institute is crammed between the door, a window and a ceiling so low that red tags flutter from overhead sprinklers, warning him not to bash his head. Yet he has taken some space to prop up a large portrait on the floor just inches from his chair. It’s a stodgy youngster with bright red hair, a pug nose and a smoke in his hand.

“It’s a joke,” laughs Mr. Walker, who bought the Jennifer Bell painting, a spoof on Thomas Gainsborough’s famous Blue Boy, on impulse. “He’s an impudent little bugger. . . . I was impudent, feisty with teachers, always questioning, and I started smoking when I was 9.”

Critics and fans of Mr. Walker would agree that he’s still impudent, feisty and questioning. (He has quit smoking.) As a founder and the executive director of the Fraser Institute think-tank for more than three decades, he looms over Canadian public policy as a larger-than-life symbol of neo-conservatism.

Mr. Walker has helped to spearhead Canadian policy trends such as balanced government budgets, curtailed public spending, privatized crown corporations and ongoing attempts to privatize health care. He is also gaining an international reputation for starting, with U.S. free-market economics guru Milton Friedman, annual global reports that rate countries’ degrees of “economic freedom.”

His positions, and the Fraser Institute’s, are contentious, to say the least: If climate change exists, it will help Canada; the risk of second-hand smoke is overblown; there should be almost no government intervention in the economy; and marijuana should be legalized and taxed.

He is even a contrarian on democracy, claiming peace is more closely linked with free markets. Shuffling piles of paper and books to let his visitor rest a coffee cup on his desk, he refers to studies showing that “democracy produces more interstate disputes.”

His critics are incensed by his supreme confidence in his views. The Roman Empire, he declares in an interview, collapsed simply because “they didn’t discover [economic]freedom.” In short, the free market cures all ills.

Few Canadians incite such extremes of rage or admiration. He’s being bombarded with laurels and darts as he eases into retirement at the age of 60, beginning with his change of offices in September, and next a Nov. 15 roast featuring national luminaries of the right.

Preston Manning will publicly laud Mr. Walker at the $175-per-plate gala, along with admirers such as Financial Post editor Terence Corcoran, former Ontario premier Mike Harris, Western Standard editor Ezra Levant, health-care privatization advocate Brian Day and the emcees, columnist Gordon Gibson and broadcaster Danielle Smith.

“Michael is just a living testament to the power of ideas and perseverance,” says Mr. Manning, founder of the Reform Party, which evolved into today’s Conservative Party. “It’s almost impossible to estimate how much influence he’s had on public policy in Canada.”

But Seth Klein retorts that he’s “a hard-core ideologue.” Mr. Klein, the brother of activist icon Naomi Klein, is the B.C. director of the left-wing Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Mr. Walker is also unoriginal, economist Jim Stanford of the Canadian Autoworkers union says dismissively. “He was very clever in finding ways to get his message across, but there was nothing unique in his theories.”

And yet nobody condemns Mr. Walker personally. “I don’t want to sound too negative — he’s a very nice person,” Mr. Stanford says. “His arguments are wrong and his approach is simplistic, but I’ve always found him an honourable debating opponent.”

Even former British Columbia premier Dave Barrett, whose NDP government the Fraser Institute helped to defeat in the 1970s, tempers his ire. “Their propaganda is disguised as a think-tank — and is, in the lexicon of many, the ‘stink-tank.’ But other than that, he’s a nice fellow.”

“He’s a shit disturber, that’s what Michael is,” says Dalhousie University economist James McNiven. Prof. McNiven was head of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council in the 1970s when he first met Mr. Walker, who was bringing radical libertarian ideas to conferences. “In a democracy, it’s a good thing. . . . Those people keep other people on their toes and, in their own ways, change how the world works.”

And that is exactly what Mr. Walker lays out as his life’s goal: “My mission has been . . . to change the world, to change the climate of opinion about the role and power of markets in making lives of people better. To realize: How does our wealth get generated, and how are our cultural opportunities made available to us, and what are the things we take for granted?”

Mr. Walker learned to fight early on. He was born in 1945 into a Catholic family in Corner Brook to a stay-at-home mother (who was trained as a teacher) and a father who worked at the local paper mill. The town was divvied up into religious sections, with children fiercely defending their fiefdoms. “We had to pass through the ‘Orange’ part of town, and fought our way to school and back every day. . . . Sometimes I remember being afraid, but it was just part of growing up in Newfoundland.”

The family was not well-off, but there was always food on the table. Their late father was a union leader who set up a co-operative coal outlet as well as a credit union to help the community. (Mr. Walker has set up a union scholarship in his name.)

All three Walker siblings excelled in school: His sister was briefly a nun before becoming a physician, while his brother recently retired as an Ontario school administrator. They remain close.

Mr. Walker went to St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, intending to study history. “I had to take an economics course, and it was love at first sight.” He remembered how his father’s enterprises (left-wing though they were) helped the community, pondered why so many of his schoolmates had no socks or lunch, and fitted such issues into Newfoundland’s troubled economy. “All these things gelled, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s how it works.’ “

But it still would be a while before Mr. Walker became convinced that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” would solve such woes.

He won a Woodrow Wilson scholarship and was offered several Ivy League placements, but chose to attend the University of Western Ontario, where he could finish in one year. Then, with a master’s degree (and the basis of his PhD) in hand, he was hired by the Bank of Canada as an econometrician, believing he would help fine-tune the Canadian economy.

“I went to the bank thinking I could fiddle dials, change tax rates, figure out the optimum way to eliminate higher unemployment and get higher growth,” he recalls, shaking his head. “I was very idealistic, and I really didn’t know anything about the philosophical implications.”

He didn’t last long in Ottawa. One day, he asked a colleague who wanted to increase taxes on large automobiles, “Why should we be screwing around with peoples lives?” The response was, “If you don’t believe in screwing around with people’s lives, what are you doing in Ottawa?”

It prompted an epiphany. Mr. Walker rethought his views on econometrics, began reading more widely and soon, at 28, moved to Vancouver, where in 1974 he was hired to help found the business-financed Fraser Institute and counter what he saw as the trend toward socialism.

At the time, Prof. McNiven recalls, Canada was so tightly regulated that the government decreed what size of sandwiches airlines fed passengers. “There was the whole problem of stagflation, with high unemployment . . . and there were wage and price controls. It was not exactly a time to write home about.”

Mr. Walker promoted free-market perspectives long before they were popularized by politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. “The world has changed course,” Prof. McNiven says. “It’s now accepted there are limits to what, financially, the state can do.”

At the same time, Mr. Walker discovered he had a gift for communication. “He takes facts and figures, lines them up, presents them to the public in way they can understand, and holds officials accountable,” Prof. McNiven says. “If there’s another group that doesn’t like the way he adds up the numbers, they should add them up differently and have a debate.”

(In fact, his opponents have learned to do so. The Council for Policy Alternatives produces an alternative budget, while Mr. Stanford has created a counter to Mr. Walker’s freedom index, called “Economic Freedom for the Rest of Us,” which instead of markets measures freedom from poverty, coercion, unemployment and discrimination.)

Mr. Manning credits Mr. Walker with many of the assumptions Canadians take for granted today, such as the benefits of balancing a government budget. “He established the fact that idea-based research is relevant to public policy, and the notion that ideas have to be backed by sound research and measurement.”

To change public opinion, Mr. Walker has tread ground most others avoid. Alone among voices of the right, he agreed to be interviewed for The Corporation, a provocative documentary attacking the impact of multinational corporations on society. “If people saw the world as I do . . . they’d arrest the people who did [the movie]for criminal negligence causing death, because of the power of corporations to solve the problems of the world,” he says now.

Such provocative Walkerisms won’t entirely vanish when he retires. As senior research fellow and president of the Fraser Foundation, he will globetrot promoting the economic-freedom index. Meanwhile, he hopes that by leaving gradually and staying nearby, he will ease the transition for his replacement, Mark Mullins, a former chief economist, columnist and Conservative Party policy adviser.

Mr. Walker also hopes to spend more time with his wife — a professor of nursing at the University of British Columbia — his son in Calgary and his daughter in Seattle, her husband and their two young children, whose pictures are displayed proudly on Mr. Walker’s computer desktop.

He says he might play tennis more than his current daily 6 a.m. game near his West Vancouver home, wants to perfect his wind-surfing techniques, and has a stack of reading to get through, including Collapse, an apocalyptic environmental study of how societies fail, by Jared Diamond.

“I’m not retiring. I am seizing an opportunity,” Mr. Walker says. And should the Fraser Institute need him to return, he says he’s good for another “vigorous” five years.

Copyright Deborah Jones 2005

This story was originally published in the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Walker’s greatest hits:

Michael Walker’s motto is, “If it matters, measure it.” He and the Fraser Institute have influenced public policy by promoting:

Calculations of “tax freedom day” throughout Canada.

Privatization of nationalized assets (CN, Petro-Canada).

Privatization of the delivery of government services.

Reduction of the overall role of government in the economy.

Reduction of “red tape”.

Measurement of provincial education performance with “report cards”.

Measurement of hospital waiting lists.

Measurement of government “interference” to rank “economic freedom” in 127 countries.

Contact: djones AT factsandopinions.com (including for republishing.)

If you value this story, the author would appreciate a contribution of .27 cents, Canadian, to help fund her ongoing work and pay for this site. Click on paypal.me/deborahjones to be taken to Deborah Jones’s personal PayPal page.

 

 

DebJones in Spain

Deborah Jones is a partner in Facts and Opinions.

Bio 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Soft’ Neoliberalism Preceded Brazil’s Far-right

Protest by workers in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on April 1, 2016. Photo Klaus Balzano/Flickr/Creative Commons

Protest by workers in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on April 1, 2016. Photo Klaus Balzano/Flickr/Creative Commons

By Roxana Pessoa Cavalcanti, University of Westminster 
January, 2017

Recent reports indicate that far-right groups from the Ukraine have come to Brazil to recruit neo-Nazis to fight against pro-Russian rebels. Western readers reacted with shock and fascination – but however strange the story might seem, conservatism and political extremism have been on the rise in Brazil for some time.

Many of the country’s hardline right-wingers come out of religious movements, such as neo-Pentecostalism, evangelical Christianity and US-style churches. There are over 600 Christian TV and radio channels, including the second-largest TV channel in the country, Rede Record, which is owned by billionaire bishop Edir Maçedo of the pentecostal Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

But the right’s most visible political advocates are gathered in Congress, where they form the Bullets, Bible and Beef (BBB) caucus. An increasingly dominant political bloc, the BBB began to form in 2012 during legislative discussions about Brazil’s forest code. Right-wing pro-deforestation rural lobbyists forged an alliance with the evangelicals, and later with armaments and ammunitions lobbyists.

That alliance successfully put forward a number of pro-deforestation proposals, and in 2015, a special commission approved the BBB’s proposal to amend the constitution to give the national congress sole authority over the demarcation of indigenous lands. Many NGOs and advocates consider the proposal disastrous for Brazilian indigenous tribes that rely on land for survival, and a severe environmental danger. And as the BBB has grown more powerful, its far-right conservative agenda has expanded beyond deforestation and agribusiness to include hardline stances against abortion, women’s rights, homosexuality and gun control.

Coming 30 years after Brazil embraced liberal democracy, the sight of ultra-conservative politics returning to the mainstream is rather shocking. And it might never have been possible had the country’s progressive governments done a better job addressing their people’s concerns.

Jumping ship

As did their counterparts in many other countries, Brazil’s social democratic and centre-left parties long ago signed up to “soft” versions of the so-called neoliberal agenda, embracing globalisation and free trade. In doing so, they gave up their identity as organs of popular protest – and thereby left an opening for far-right parties and movements to exploit anything resembling a national crisis.

This is what happened to the Workers’ Party (PT), which governed Brazil for a full 14 years. The PT advanced progressive policies, most famously the social security cash transfer programme Bolsa Familia, but also a higher minimum wage and wider access to credit and university education. This policy programme wasn’t popular with the mainstream media, the middle classes and business leaders, but it won the PT loyal support among poor voters. Under its tenure, Brazil saw mild reductions in inequality for the first time in its history.

But these policies weren’t enough. They could not close a gap between high taxes and the low quality of basic public goods, the PT having failed to rework a historically regressive tax system that disproportionately punishes Brazil’s poorest. Services simply did not improve quickly enough to keep up with the country’s growth, pushing many Brazilians’ patience to breaking point. In 2013, massive urban protests erupted against a rise in bus fares and poor service provision.

This all left the PT highly vulnerable.

Ousted

The PT never held more than 20% of seats in Congress; to govern a country with over 25 political parties, it had made coalitions with the right and adopted some of its economic policies. This proved to be a big mistake, especially when it introduced public spending cuts that ate into its support base. Right after the party’s Dilma Rousseff was re-elected president in 2014, the opposition started calling for her impeachment, citing corruption allegations that many observers considered dubious.

As the economic downturn intensified during 2015 and unemployment rose, media publicity about corruption scandals brought Rousseff’s already low levels of popularity to rock bottom. Michel Temer, Rousseff’s vice-president and coalition partner, was quick to take the opportunity to remove and usurp her.

This was the BBB’s best chance yet to flex its muscles. Among the 367 members who voted to impeach Rousseff, 313 are associated with the BBB. At the time of writing, 373 out of 513 (73%) elected federal deputies in Brazil’s congress are part of at least one of the three congressional fronts that form the BBB.

The right has plenty more fodder at its disposal. Fear of violence is a central issue: according to one study, nearly 60,000 Brazilians lost their lives to violence in 2014 alone. It’s widely understood that the authorities are unable or unwilling to control high crime rates, and this insecurity fosters extremely punitive attitudes towards stereotyped groups, especially the poor and criminals.

In this febrile atmosphere, armed far-right and neo-Nazi groups have been able to present themselves as the defenders of poor communities. Nothing better illustrates that than a recent lynch mob epidemic, which showed just how explosive the combination of violent insecurity and rampant individualism can be. With the BBB as powerful as ever in Congress and disgust at ineffective, corrupt government still widespread, small wonder that the far right is on the march – and that it’s finally getting global attention.

The ConversationCreative Commons

Roxana Pessoa Cavalcanti is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Westminster. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The leadership chaos in Brazil and South Africa is a timely reminder for emerging economies that unless they also press ahead with political, administrative, judicial and social reform they are doomed. The prospects for the BRICS —  Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — don’t look rosy, and in every case it is because the governing regimes failed to use their growing economic wealth as a tool to fuel political, administrative, judicial and social reform.

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An area the size of Switzerland belongs to the Yamomani people. But in their lust for gold illegal miners — who in the 1980s used guns and disease to kill 20 per cent of the population — continue felling trees and poisoning rivers with mercury. Authorities stage raids and destroy the miner’s equipment. But who are the illicit business interests behind the miners?

 

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German economist challenges orthodoxy, inequality

“There is a feeling that we are superstars, that we are doing everything right and that no one should criticise us. I see this as a problem.”

 

By Noah Barkin 
March, 2016

Marcel Fratzscher, chairman of the German Institute for Economic Research, speaks during an interview with Reuters in his office in Berlin, Germany REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Marcel Fratzscher, chairman of the German Institute for Economic Research, speaks during an interview with Reuters in his office in Berlin, Germany REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

BERLIN (Reuters) – Marcel Fratzscher is not your typical German economist.

Educated at Oxford and Harvard, he often writes the first drafts of his papers in English. When asked whose work inspired him, he names Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist and philosopher.

And in contrast to many of his domestic counterparts, Fratzscher does not believe the German economy and the special brand of rules-based governance – Ordnungspolitik – that has shaped it since World War Two is a model that others should emulate.

In fact, the 45-year-old president of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) in Berlin, has made a name for himself in recent years by exposing flaws in the German economy and daring policymakers to fix them.

In his 2014 book “Die Deutschland Illusion”, he argued that what was being hailed by politicians and the media as a second German economic miracle was little more than a mirage that masked deep-seated problems, including a massive investment shortage that had left German roads and bridges crumbling.

The ensuing debate prompted reluctant Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble to earmark funds for infrastructure.

On Monday March 14, Fratzscher releases a new book, called “Verteilungskampf” (The Distribution Battle), which tackles what he says is another fantasy: the notion that Germany is a nirvana of economic and social equality – more caring Scandinavia than callous United States.

In the book he calls Germany a country of “enormous inequality” in which income, wealth and opportunities are distributed “more unequally than in almost any other industrialised country”.

“We live in denial in Germany,” Fratzscher said in an interview in his Berlin office near the Gendarmenmarkt square.

Some economists may challenge his argument. Germans earn more per capita than virtually all of their European counterparts, have one of the highest savings rates in the bloc and are enjoying record-high employment levels.

A report by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) last year showed Germany scored better than average on most measures of inequality.

But Fratzscher clearly hopes the book will encourage politicians to tackle reforms of the German education and tax systems, which he says have fuelled inequality.

It seems sure to make waves at a time when many Germans are worried that an influx of refugees could erode their living standards. On Saturday, Der Spiegel magazine did a cover story linked to the book with the title: “Divided Nation”.

“Germany in 2016: the rich are getting richer and the poor remain poor,” Spiegel said.

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Marcel Fratzscher, president of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), introduces his new book "The Distribution Battle - Why Inequality in Germany is Rising" as he speaks during an interview with Reuters in his office in Berlin, Germany, March 7, 2016. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Marcel Fratzscher, president of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), introduces his new book “The Distribution Battle – Why Inequality in Germany is Rising” as he speaks during an interview with Reuters in his office in Berlin, Germany, March 7, 2016. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

ANTI-SINN

“Verteilungskampf” also establishes Fratzscher, who ran the international policy analysis division at the European Central Bank (ECB) before joining the DIW in 2013, as one of the most influential economists in Germany – a successor of sorts to Hans-Werner Sinn, the president of the Munich-based Ifo institute, who is due to retire at the end of March.

Sinn, with his signature chin strap beard, has been a staunch defender of German orthodoxy. He opposed bailouts for Greece and other struggling euro members during the bloc’s financial crisis and condemned steps by the ECB to stem the turmoil, sometimes finding support from politicians like Schaeuble.

Fratzscher is the anti-Sinn. He broke with the mainstream in lauding the economic benefits of the euro at the height of the crisis and now talks about how an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees will be good for German growth.

His stances have drawn criticism from conservative voices such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper. In the world of German economists, some view him as an apostate.

“He’s one of the few economists in Germany who is challenging the traditional conservative view represented by people like Sinn,” said Henrik Enderlein, a professor of political economy at the Hertie School of Governance.

Fratzscher jokingly refers to himself as a “bad German” because he studied abroad.

“If there is a common thread to my books it’s the message that Germany has been somewhat arrogant, that it has been deluding itself,” Fratzscher said.

“There is a feeling that we are superstars, that we are doing everything right and that no one should criticise us. I see this as a problem.”

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Editing by Louise Ireland)

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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