January 9, 2015

Readings: “The Twin Insurgency” and the Referendum

At the end of every year, New York Times columnist David Brooks announces “The Sidneys” – his recommendations for the best magazine articles of the year, here and here.

My choice among them is “The Twin Insurgency,” by Nils Gilman in The American Interest.


(Gilman) argues that two political forces are squeezing the middle class. At the top, there is the global plutocracy: rich elites, often in tech and finance who are disengaged from national obligations and common life. At the bottom, there are the deviant entrepreneurs: corrupt oligarchs in the developing world, drug dealers, black-market millionaires.

These two blocks secede from common life. They try to carve out space above and below the reach of the traditional state apparatus. They weaken the welfare states, which have provided stability for the middle class. …

You may not agree with it all, but Gilman gets you thinking about the erosion of political authority that we see pretty much everywhere around the globe.

Sample quote from “The Twin Insurgency”:

Practically speaking, plutocratic insurgency takes the form of efforts to lower taxes, which necessitates cutting spending on public goods; reducing regulations that restrict corporate action or protect workers; and defunding or privatizing public institutions such as schools, health care, infrastructure, and social space.

And may I add, transit.  For that is what, in part, the Transportation and Transit Referendum is about – an opportunity for the No side to defund a public good.

For plutocratic insurgents, this strategy is dictated at bottom by a raw cost-benefit analysis: The price the social modernist state asks them to pay in taxes and regulatory burdens outweighs the benefits they believe they receive from living in such a state.

Plutocratic insurgents believe they can afford (and therefore everyone should be required) to buy for themselves the sorts of goods that the state was once expected to provide. …

As these public services deteriorate in quality, the result is a self-reinforcing cycle whereby plutocratic insurgents increasingly see no reason to contribute anything to their host societies and, indeed, actively contest the idea that citizenship comes with economic responsibilities. …

The growing popularity of the pseudo-philosophical novels of Ayn Rand, whose ideas George Monbiot refers to as “the Marxism of the new right”, represented the most visible manifestation of an ideology that depicts the rich as “makers” and the masses as shiftless “takers.” From Washington to London, plutocrat-funded think tanks devoted themselves to creating a body of usable ideas and policy proposals aimed at dismantling what is left of social modernity.

In the case of the referendum, the think tanks and astroturf orgs like Canadian Taxpayers Federation have to persuade those who benefit from collectively funded transportation services to vote no by convincing them that their money will be wasted by an incompetent authority or that the service is abused by “incumbents, loafers, and parasites in government and society.”  While on the surface the aim is to critique government inefficiency and waste, the real goal, Gilman argues, is “to defund or de-provision public goods in order to defang a state that its adherents see as a threat to their prerogatives.”

How elegant the result: the middle class as an essential aid in its own erosion.

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  1. Jordan Bateman had the gall to say that he opposed the new tax because sales taxes are regressive. It was so smarmy and insincere I couldn’t imagine he typed it with a straight face.

  2. What about wage & benefit growth of the average public sector worker vs an average private sector employee ? Much divergence here too to the detriment of the average private sector worker via ever increasing taxes. How about some articles or charts on that ?

    1. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives addresses public vs. private sector wage differences in a study at https://policyalternatives.ca/wage-gap. However, its conclusions don’t support your hypothesis. The authors argue that public sector wages are higher at the lower end of pay scales where there is a concentration of groups – women, aboriginal and visible minority workers – who experience the greatest pay discrimination in private sector salaries, and thus gravitate to the public sector jobs. The public sector is better at pay equity than the private sector, although women, aboriginals and visible minorities, with equal education, are still paid less than non-visible minority men.

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