Bourgeois Thoughts

 

In no civilization is city life evolved independently of commerce and industry. Neither antiquity nor modern times show any exception to this rule. Diversity of climates, peoples or religions is as immaterial as diversity of eras. It is a rule which held true, in the past, in the cities of Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, and the Roman and Arab Empires, just as in our day it has held true in the cities of Europe, America, India, Japan, and China.

Its universality is explained by exigence. A city group, in fact, can live only by importing its food-supply from outside. But with this importation must correspond, on the other hand, an exportation of manufactured products constituting a counterpart or countervalue. Thus is established, between the city and the surrounding country, a close interrelation of services. Commerce and industry are indispensable to the maintenance of this reciprocal dependence; without the first, to assure a steady traffic, without the second, to furnish goods for exchange, the city would perish.

— Henri Pirenne, Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade, tr. Frank D. Halsey (Princeton, 1952) p.130-131.

 

Recently my residential property tax assessment arrived from the City of Edmonton. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was actually three dollars lower than last year’s. Meanwhile, a friend received his business property tax assessment and found it had increased about twenty-five percent over the previous year. As a note, my friend’s business is a very small business with (apart from himself) one full-time employee and two part-timers. His small shop provides local products to the local market employing local people and is owned by a local person who also pays residential property tax locally on his own home. This friend is the epitome of “buy local”, “shop local”, “support local”. He is also the quintessence of true “Capitalism” and an example of the fundamentally “bourgeois”. And, if you are one of the 30% or so of Edmonton’s workforce who work for the Government (in healthcare, education, the civil service, or in the government-grant-supported arts), my friend and people like him are paying your salary.

There is no such thing in civilized society as self-support. In a state of society so barbarous as not even to know family cooperation, each individual may possibly support himself, though even then for a part of his life only; but from the moment that men begin to live together, and constitute even the rudest of society, self-support becomes impossible. As men grow more civilized, and the subdivision of occupations and services is carried out, a complex mutual dependence becomes the universal rule. Every man, however solitary may seem his occupation, is a member of a vast industrial partnership, as large as the nation, as large as humanity. The necessity of mutual dependence should imply the duty and guarantee of mutual support . . .
— Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, chapter XII, 1888.

Consider:

Pretty much all of us pay various forms of taxes and in return, of course, we all gratefully receive public services and infrastructure. To describe things very simply, those public services and infrastructure are bought with the revenue raised through taxes. And some of us, the above-mentioned 30% or so, get our wages or salary out of that same tax revenue in return for providing those services to, or building and maintaining that infrastructure for our fellow citizens. That seems a fair description, doesn’t it? Sort of?

But . . .

Let’s pretend there are 1000 people in the world, 30% government workers and 70% Bourgeois Capitalists and their employed proletarians. Furthermore, we’ll pretend each Government worker is paid $10,000 and pays 10% of that, $100,as taxes. That’s $30,000 in tax revenue contributed from workers with a combined income of $300,000. But that income comes directly from Government revenue. Clearly, $270,000 of Government revenue has to come from somewhere else, and that somewhere else must necessarily be the 70% of the population, 700 people, who are Bourgeois Capitalists and their employed proletarians. On average then, the non-Government workers and their employers will have to pay over $370 in taxes, *just to pay the Government workers wages and salaries*. Why would anyone chose to start a business? Indeed, why would anyone chose to work in the private sector?

And, really, when you sit down and think about it, even ignoring (sort of) the public/private split, how is this whole economic system in any way sustainable?

Consider again:

(the following is really just a rehash of a bit of Classical Social Credit)

My Bourgeois Capitalist friend is in debt and some months just breaks even after dealing with expenses. He and his (government employed) wife are managing to make mortgage payments on their modest house in a working-class neighbourhood — they have no extravagance. He pays his three employees a little better than minimum wage. Each employee, including the Bourgeois Capitalist, produces in an hour an amount of product which retails for more than his hourly income. This is as it must be as it is a vanishingly rare product that has the cost of labour as its only production cost. Even if profit were ignored, there must always be other input costs. So, like pretty much everyone in the private sector, each worker produces more value than he can afford to buy. If the workers cannot afford to buy that which they produce, who can? An external seems necessary for all the widgets the private sector produces or there must someday come a collapse of either price or economy. If the price collapses to an affordable level, the widgets will be priced below cost, and there will come a more general collapse. But in today’s interconnected world, where can this outside market be?

Is this necessary “external” market provided by the public sector and public sector employees? Perhaps, in the short term. But remember, the buying power of the public sector is nothing other than tax revenue from the private sector. The public sector is, in a sense, a somewhat parasitic appendage of the private sector. But, to be kind, each public sector worker, we hope, produces more value in services and infrastructure, than that worker can afford to buy on her salary. Just as the private sector can’t afford to buy all the widgets he makes in an hour, the public sector worker can’t afford to buy the bridge she helps to build.

With the ever growing interconnectedness of the global economy, there are really no longer true external markets: the global workforce of consumers produces more widgets than it can collectively afford to consume. Why do so many Canadians carry more debt than they can reasonably hope to pay off? Maybe because so many Canadians can’t afford to buy what they produce and so must borrow.

How has this continued so long? Can it be our whole economic system is nothing other than an exceptionally long-lasting financial bubble. Or, less generously, a multi-generational Ponzi scheme?

Han-headed Cathay saw it first,
Bright as brightest solar burst;
Whipped it into boy and girl,
The blinding spiral-sliced swirl:
Yang
And Yin . . .
Hegel saw it, saw it clear;
Jackal Marx drew near, drew near:
O’er his shoulder saw it plain,
Turned it upside down again:
Yang
and Yin . . .

–Frederik Pohl, “The Midas Plague”, Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1954, p. 32.

 

“Long live the Communist Revolution!” I hear some of you yelling at the back, and I read some similar cry on the malignancy of Twitter nearly every day.

But is that a serious solution? Surely things called Communism have been experimented with. Yes, Cuban health-care has been marketed well around the world, but some of us are old enough to remember Peter Fechter lying beside the Wall. I once had a dedicated Marxist-Leninist professor tell me that Soviet-style and even Maoist Communism weren’t “real” communism — that the only “real” experiment with communism was Hoxha’s Albania, and he held it up as a glorious example Canada should follow. I suspect that none of you, if you had any awareness of Albanian history, would choose to live in Hoxha’s Albania instead of 21st Century Canada.

Whatever -ism we use to describe the “system” by which our economy is organized, I don’t quite see how we can avoid real functional elements we might call, “labour”, “production”, “consumption”, “management”, and, yes, “Capital”. And, whatever its limits, there will be a good deal of dissatisfaction if there is not “Growth” of “Markets”. If there is not growth, however equitable the distribution, in very short order none of us will be able to afford to consume what our labour produces. And the bubble that began to expand with the growth of mercantile cities in Late Medieval Europe will finally burst and we will be forced into something like a barter economy. While I fully realize many vocal persons on social media and elsewhere think a simple barter economy an attractive and nostalgic solution, I doubt many of them would truly enjoy living in a Medieval world. And a barter economy didn’t produce smart phones or the xanthan gum that makes their gluten-free, egg-free, vegan bread possible.

What is the answer?

How would I know? I’m just another Bourgeois in my ivory tower. But since you ask, I don’t think there are any easy answers, and, I kind of have a feeling we — especially you Basic Income campaigners — would do well to revisit the thoughts of a British engineer by the name of Clifford Douglas. But there’s a fair amount of mathematics involved in that. And math, like Revolution, is hard.

But not hard like understanding the world’s money supply . . .

When we start talking about money supply, we have to talk about fractional reserve banking, and then the mind-bending headache really sets in. Fractional reserve banking may well be a contract with the Devil.

“Zu wissen sei es jedem, der’s begehrt:
Der Zettel hier ist tausend Kronen wert.
Ihm liegt gesichert, als gewisses Pfand,
Unzahl vergrabnen Guts im Kaiserland.
Nun ist gesorgt, damit der reiche Schatz,
Sogleich gehoben, diene zum Ersatz.”
— Goethe, Faust, Part II, Act I

But the magic (slight of hand?) of fractional reserve banking is stunning! And I, for one, have a strong feeling that fractional reserve banking is the single pillar — a pillar of blind faith and/or ignorance — supporting the inconceivably heavy roof of the bubble we live under.

On a spring day more than 5,000 years ago in the Mesopotamian city of Ur, a foreign merchant sold his wares in exchange for a large bundle of silver. He didn’t want to carry the bundle home because he knew he’d be back in Ur again to buy grain at the end of harvest season. Instead the merchant walked to the local temple, where valuables were often stored, and asked the priest to hold onto the silver for him. . . .
“Breaking the Bank”, Alexander Lipton and Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Scientific American, January 2018, p. 28.

In brief, fractional reserve banking creates concrete value-added through a more efficient use of money. I have cash I’m not using at the moment. Need capital to open a pie booth at the farmer’s market and to make a lottery deposit for your new play at the Fringe Festival? Use my cash and pay me back before I need the cash to start my new coffee roasting place. When the fractional reserve banking is finished there’s a new coffee roasting joint, a new pie booth at the farmer’s market, and we’re enjoying a new play at the Fringe. Concrete value added to our community. If I’d had to sit on my cash we’d just be roasting coffee. No play. No pies. Less value. A poorer community.

Could it be that fractional reserve banking is what lets us consume all the stuff we produce even though we aren’t paid enough to afford what we make?

Well, yes, perhaps mainly because governments and businesses and most private individuals avail themselves of the value-creating opportunities of fractional reserve banking. Those private sector tax payers don’t have to pay much of the salaries of government workers because governments borrow money to pay workers, borrowing from the worker’s own assets as often as not. And businesses do the same. And when my bourgeois friend makes his mortgage payment each month, he’s paying back money he’s borrowed from himself, and from his employees, and from every person with a bank account. We’re all shopping with money borrowed from our bank accounts and from the future and that’s all just fine — in fact, it seems to be the wonderful source of the amazing science fiction world we live in — but look out, brother, if we all decide to cash in our savings on the same day!

 

 

Pirenne, writing in the early 20th Century, concluded that “The antagonism between capital and labour is . . . as old as the middle class” (p. 154). But who is it in more recent, social-media fevered days, that cries out against capital and embraces the cause of labour? Who, too often for comfort, throws twitter stones through the windows of business, both small and large, local and global, willy-nilly? It is a rare person in Canada who is not living on capital leveraged from their own future capital, or intends (perhaps without full understanding) to one day soon be such a bourgeois, home-owning petty capitalist.

But few of us are interested in quitting working for others in order to invest our (usually meager) savings in a personal business making widgets we hope will interest the public. Instead, without realizing that we are ourselves Capital, we rail against Capital while continuing to play at being the proletariat. And we in the West do this while consoled to varying degrees with the comforts and protections of the Welfare State that has developed for most of us over the course of the last century. This isn’t the world of Marx and Engels, of Lenin and Hoxha. We live in a world of fiat currency, not of the gold standard. We live in the world envisioned through a fog by Goethe and Clifford Douglas and Robert Heinlein in his early days. We live in a world of imaginary money that buys more and greater real things than ever could have been produced at any other time in history. And we live in a world the workings of which few if any understand, of dangers we can little imagine, and of unprecedented feelings of entitlement, unprecedented levels of misinformation and ignorance masked as knowledge and wisdom, and of unprecedented ability to communicate masses of sophistry to vast numbers of minds aching to be filled with something.

Reality is hard. The world is difficult.

Nothing will change that.

But we really should make the effort to understand how things actually work .

Go ahead and dream of utopias — but not all the time!

 

Good luck.

 

Brief Thoughts on the Current Alberta Election Campaign from an Old Progressive Voter to the Progressive Voters of Alberta

The riding in which I have lived since the mid-eighties, Edmonton Strathcona, has not elected a Progressive Conservative Member of the Legislative Assembly since 1982. We’ve never elected a Wildrose MLA or (since 1982) an MLA to the Right of the Alberta Liberal Party.

What’s with the rest of you?

An Open Letter to Mr. Thomas Mulcair concerning the “withering on the vine” of the Canadian Senate

I sent this by email this evening [July 10, 2014].

Mr. Mulcair.

I have volunteered on the campaigns of both MP Linda Duncan and MLA Rachel Notely. For some time I donated monthly to the NDP, even though my income precludes any benefit from tax credits (which only benefit the wealthy, by the way, so the NDP really shouldn’t be pushing them). I am proud that my riding, Edmonton-Strathcona, is the only non-CPC riding in Alberta.

Some time ago I stopped my monthly donation because I truly cannot in good conscience support a party which has as its goal the abolition of the Senate, one of only two (appointed, by the way) institutions which can constitutionally stand in the path of an out of control executive with a majority in the House.

Today I learned that you, Mr. Mulcair, supported the absurd and constitutionally impossible idea of simply ceasing to appoint new Senators, the idea that the Senate might simply “wither on the vine” without the need for nasty Constitutional meddling.

Have you read our Constitution, Mr. Mulcair? The Constitution Act, 1867, sec. 91 clearly requires that ALL new legislation receive the consent of the House AND the Senate before Royal Consent may be considered, never mind granted:

91. It shall be lawful for the Queen, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate and House of Commons, to make Laws for the Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada, in relation to all Matters not coming within the Classes of Subjects by this Act assigned exclusively to the Legislatures of the Provinces; and for greater Certainty, but not so as to restrict the Generality of the foregoing Terms of this Section, it is hereby declared that (notwithstanding anything in this Act) the exclusive Legislative Authority of the Parliament of Canada extends to all Matters coming within the Classes of Subjects next hereinafter enumerated; that is to say, etc.

Never mind the rest. The important part is “With the Advice and Consent of the Senate”. That’s it, right there in Section 91 of the Constitution Act 1867. No Senate to give consent, no legislation by Parliament.

How do you propose to pass ANY legislation after the fading of the Senate? Any legislation granted Royal Assent without the consent of the Senate – an impossibility if there are no Senators – would be the subject of a completely legitimate and necessarily successful court challenge. Any simplistic attempt to allow the Senate to “wither on the vine” would not lead to enhanced democracy. Rather, it would lead to Legislative paralysis, Judicial gridlock, and a lawless, anarchic Canada.

I am disappointed that you, Mr. Mulcair, have made public statements about the Senate which show either a tragic ignorance of Canada’s Constitution, or, an paternalistic attitude to what you must think an ignorant and gullible populace. Your misguided targeting of the Senate strikes me as cheap opportunism and a sad lack of integrity. You seem to be trying to make an end run around both Canada’s Constitution and the hard working citizens of Canada.

I’m disappointed.

Sincerely,

John Richardson
etc.

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Rex Murphy

Rex Murphy, Canada’s indefatigable slayer of straw men, has done it again.  In a column titled “Check Your Bigotry”, Murphy has taken on the “anti-racism movement” which Murphy warns is imposing the “bigotry” of the “White Privilege” label on unfortunate White students at our institutions of higher learning.  I’ll be honest, I left the ivory tower thirty years ago.  I don’t know what the situation is in the Groves of Academe these days.  Of course, its been almost half a century since Murphy left the halls of Oxford (without a degree).  I don’t think it out of line to mention that Murphy sculled his dory on the Thames with his chums on a bit of a free ride, tuition and living allowance courtesy of Rhodesia’s colonial founder’s blood diamond fortune.  Certainly, a Rhodes Scholarship is no mean achievement – the closest I ever got was reading the application form.  For a smart, hard-working boy from Carbonear, Newfoundland, a Rhodes Scholarship is a remarkable personal achievement.  I think it safe to say that if Murphy had been a smart, hard-working boy from Attawapiskat that Rhodes scholarship would be so remarkable as to be fiction. And women weren’t considered at all for the privilege of a Rhodes Scholarship until 1977, shortly before I didn’t even come close to getting one.

When Murphy went off to Oxford in 1968, he had already done some great work for his fellow students at Memorial University, convincing (bullying?) the provincial government not only into granting free tuition to undergraduates but also getting them government cash for room and board.  What a privilege it must have been to be a government paid student at Memorial!  And then Oxford for Murphy on the same sort of ticket!  An achievement and a privilege at the same time!

Now, in 1968, when Murphy packed his books and afro-pick for Oxford, someone else was working hard on their life goals down in Southern Africa where Cecil Rhodes made the fortune (and his own personal Rhodesia) which funded Murphy’s Oxford gravy train.  Nelson Mandela was breaking limestone  on Robbin Island in 1968.  Maybe Murphy’s right: that brown South African fellow, despite his lack of privilege, through his own efforts, later became President of his country and a symbol of freedom and hope for racial reconciliation and equality around the world.  White-skinned Murphy, on the other hand, didn’t manage to get an Oxford degree and now rents his barbed wit out to various outlets to help them increase their hit counts.  Surely, if White Privilege were a Thing, Murphy would be Prime Minister by now (ran three times for two parties and never won a seat) and Mandela would have come off that Island in a box.

I’m certain that Murphy is a bright guy.  I think he knows full well that Mandela rose to the heights in spite of the barriers put in front of him. And I’m also sure that Murphy knows deep down that he’s just a freelance scribbler in spite of the doors opened to him because he’s a White man in a society built by White men for the benefit of White men.

But Murphy writes:

To read the student newspapers of some campuses, it would seem the hearty days of the KKK are just a tick of the clock away from returning. They seem especially convinced that every white person is a bundle of unearned advantages, owns a place purely because of his/her skin colour, and wanders through life with a Free For Me Pass simply because daddy and mommy, and their daddy and mommy, were white.

It’s astonishing. Could there be a better definition of racism, a better example of a purely racist concept, than this, the holding that all a person does and is springs from the colour of his skin?

The entire notion is called “white privilege.”

Well, I don’t know which or how many campuses are the “some campuses” Murphy means. He never specifies.  Instead, he throws out a lot of straw loosely held together at the multiple “seems” and the straw man is there for us all to be horrified by. It even wears a nice Murphy-supplied name-tag.  If Murphy’s straw man really is bestriding the campuses of our nation, than it’s a bit of a problem – probably not more of a problem than the absurd continued existence of fraternities – but a problem.

I’m sure that as some point Murphy was taught that a description of a factual situation is neither racism nor bigotry.  Acknowledging that Western society has historically been constructed by white people for the benefit of White people is no more racist than to acknowledge that most of the people of Sub-Saharan Africa have more melanin in their skin than does pasty old Rex.  The difference between those two examples, however, is that one is a description of a social fact and the other is a description of a genetic fact.  And this is where Murphy plays his nastiest card, trying to twist the discussion of a social fact into some sort of genetic claim.  I can’t imagine anyone claims, as Murphy suggests they do, that White people are genetically privileged.  The claim – and the fact – is that due to historical facts the playing field remains uneven.  Murphy ignores that fact and tries to obfuscate it by shouting “Racism!”

But in these days of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, of British Columbia’s impending apology for its anti-Chinese history, in this centenary year of the Komagata Maru tragedy, and in the light of Murphy’s previous bilge spewing about Elsipotog, I don’t for a moment believe that Murphy is worried about rampant “political correctness” on the campuses of the nation. I suspect Murphy privately would acknowledge not only the social fact of White Privilege but is fully aware of how he has himself benefited from that Privilege.

No.  I suspect Murphy is just crassly playing the Old White Curmudgeon that his audience enjoys.  He’s found a hot button to push that will get outraged traffic to his column and advertising dollars into the coffers of those who pay him.

What I would have enjoyed from Murphy would have been a nuanced high road.  He could have said that to dwell on very real White Privilege at the individual level, denying the value of White individuals achievements, is not a state of affairs to be desired.  Whether that state of affairs exists anywhere apart from Murphy’s imagination I can’t say.  I would have enjoyed a strong statement of the importance of White individuals acknowledging to themselves that they started the race a little closer to the finish line than their neighbours of colour.  I would have liked Murphy to rant about it being more important to strive for an equal world by bringing advantage to the disadvantaged than by handicapping the privileged.

But that wouldn’t stir outrage on Twitter, would it?

Unlike Murphy, I (and many others) openly acknowledge my privilege. I have benefited from Colonialism.  It is easier to live life as a White male in the Western world (just as it is easier, by the way, to live as a Japanese male in Japan or an Arab man on the Arabian Peninsula.)  Being a member of the dominant social group in any society is a privileged position.  Saying so is not bigotry or racism. It is simply a fact.  If we truly are hoping to build a more equal society, we must acknowledge that the playing field is still not level, however well or badly individuals do at the game.

Yes, Mr. Murphy, your achievements are laudable.  The other closest I ever got to a Rhodes Scholarship was being accepted for a year of study at St. Andrews University in Scotland.  (I couldn’t afford to go as no money came along with that acceptance.) You worked hard to get your Rhodes Scholarship, maybe as hard as the nameless South African and Rhodesian Blacks who dug those diamonds out of the ground to pay your tuition.  I wonder how many of them even learned to read.  I wonder if any of them, if given the chance, could have stood up to Joey Smallwood and won free tuition and a living allowance for Memorial University students.  Is hard work really all that gets us up the ladder?  Did you, Mr. Murphy, really never get a hand up, a door opened, or a palm greased by the simple fact that you are a White man in a society built by and for White men?

Of course you did.

I wouldn’t demand that you publicly “check your privilege” Mr. Murphy.  But I must tell you that your public denial of your privilege is a remarkably ugly thing to watch.

Update, May 16, 2015: Yesterday, a year almost to the day after “Check Your Bigotry” appeared,  Rex Murphy published a “new” column titled “‘White Privilege’ on the march” in which the privileged Mr. Murphy again expounded on how modern society is a level playing field for all born or immigrating into it, and that suggesting otherwise is inherently racist.  I wonder: does Mr. Murphy have only a year’s worth of columns? Does he recycle them over and over on an annual basis, only changing the titles?  Or has his memory simply shortened so much that not only does he forget the blood money that gave him the privilege of dropping out of Oxford in the Sixties, but he now also forgets 2014?  I’ll be watching next May to see whether he once again attacks the existence of privilege.

“Just Get Over It!” A Brief Thought Arising From the TRC National Event in Edmonton

 

Call and response:

 

Remembrance Day?

“Lest We Forget”

 

9/11?

“Never Forget”

 

Holocaust?

“Never Again”

 

Canada’s Indian Residential Schools?

“Why don’t you just get over it?!”

 

The above is a rephrasing and expansion of something Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission gently pointed out as he began the closing day of the Commission’s final National Event in Edmonton. Justice Sinclair did not have any anger in his voice or his words as he told the story of being in New York last September for the commemoration of 9/11 and hearing the words “Never forget”. He did mention Remembrance day, but the above reference to the Holocaust is my addition. He was directly addressing his expectation that many at the Event had heard the words “Get over it” in conversation about the Residential School experience.

Why is it, I wonder, that so many can say “Get over it” to victims of childhood sexual abuse, victims of rape, survivors of attempted genocide, and those struggling to be parents when they never knew parents of their own? Why is it that so many Canadians can say “Get over it” to aboriginal people when they would never imagine saying “Get over it” to survivors of Rwanda, Bosnia, Apartheid or the Nazi death camps?

Is it simply racism?

I wonder.

I suppose Canadians like to think that “We” helped to bring down the Nazis, “We” refused to play Sun City, “We” were peacekeepers in Bosnia, “We” and our General tried to stop the genocide in Rwanda. . .

But “We” stood by as the children were taken to the schools. “We” were the police who forced them from their parents’ arms. “We” were the staff who ate well while the children starved. “We” sent the children out to the unmarked graveyard to bury their schoolmates.

Maybe many of us say “get over it” because we have barely begun to confess to ourselves our own complicity in the catastrophe.

It’s long past time for the rest of us to acknowledge our own guilt and racism. Once we have done that, maybe we can ourselves work to get over it.

If Your Only Tool is a Hammer . . .

 

Society has come to demand a “business model” for every human effort. Artists have to have business models. Charities do. Hospitals and schools do. Schools, for goodness sake, have to catalogue their inputs and outputs, their production, their “outcomes” and present reports to “stakeholders”. Government services like post offices, social services, armed forces . . .

It used to be we valued these things for how they made life better, how they improved society and the world. We valued the “Public Good”.  Now we only ask for their “business model” and demand that we get “value” for our money.

I wish we’d stop.

And I wish we’d demand of corporations (and governments) that they make life better, that they improve society and the world.

I wish we’d stop and realize, and make our leaders realize, that sometimes – often – the bottom line is not the bottom line.