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Patrick Luciani: Nostalgia for outdated economic policies is no solution for today’s workers

Commentary

Review of: Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty—and What to Do About It
Author: Sohrab Amari
Publisher: Forum Books, 2023

If we think of tyranny, it’s usually an autocracy or dictatorship. Authoritarianism can also take the form of an oligarchy or tyranny by elites. But can a system of free markets and competition also be a form of tyranny that forces its will on society? Sohrab Ahmari believes it is, and makes his case in Tyranny, Inc. that it is a tyranny that society refuses to see or acknowledge. 

As a social conservative and convert to Catholicism in 2016, Ahmari argues that oppression by corporations, along with the evils of modern liberalism, keep the poor and middle classes from thriving through the abuse of a few asset-owning wealthy owners over those without assets. Rather than liberating people with low incomes, markets—through large businesses, including Amazon and Starbucks—subjugate the less fortunate by exploiting low-income workers. Hiring practices, in particular, deprive many of their rights. These rights can take the form of loss of intellectual and personal information. This makes life for the majority of marginal workers not only insecure but stressful and unjust. 

According to Ahmari, the poor are easily duped by asset-rich holders who can hedge their bets, spreading risks over the ownership of several businesses and investments. At the same time, workers are fully invested in one job, which leaves them vulnerable and compliant. Tyranny, Inc. shows how unfair and complex employment contracts can easily scam workers who unknowingly sign away their rights, including “gag clauses” and “non-compete agreements.” After all, who reads all the fine print when one desperately needs a job? Without control over their conditions of employment, too many workers are exploited and alienated from their work and families. Workers do have recourse through the courts, but too often, these remedies are expensive and time-consuming. To make matters worse, workers are subjected to bullying by corporations that push woke social policies, as in the case of Disney.  

The only solution, according to Ahmari, is a political one. It is up to the state to tilt the scales of justice towards the powerless worker through greater corporate regulations that promote the interests of workers, including unravelling the damage caused by globalization and trade agreements that have destroyed good-paying and secure jobs. He also advocates policies that make it easier to join unions that fight for the interests of workers. In short, Ahmari wants to take America back to the nostalgic days of the 1950s when unions were strong and the New Deal “left behind a political map for building a better economy and a more authentically free society.”

The reaction to Tyranny, Inc. has met with favourable reviews from the Left and deep skepticism on the Right—though not exclusively. The pundit Jonah Goldberg aptly labels Ahmari a “Pro-life New Dealer.” There is much to agree with in how capitalism in its rawest form can isolate and oppress some workers and their families who are buffeted around from job to job as the economy stumbles around, creating and destroying jobs and making life miserable for the working poor who never catch their bearings. The question is, are Ahmari’s solutions the best options?

The first problem is one of definition. Is tyranny the proper description of what’s going on? It does capture the notion that there is a victim and a victimizer. But the intent is hard to define. Markets deliver goods and services as efficiently as possible without the apparent intention of subjugating anyone. One can argue that intent is irrelevant if the result is harmful. The state has a role in mitigating the harm not by distorting the economic process but by supporting those damaged by the unintended consequences of market failures. Distorting the market by legislative regulations favouring labour may do more harm than good.

Unionization has declined because the nature of manufacturing has changed drastically. High production costs have also driven jobs offshore. Unions today are dominated by government service employees rather than old-fashioned steel or production workers. Ahmari writes, “American workers did best under the combination of large private enterprise [and] high union density.” But large unionized manufacturing jobs are a thing of the past, never to return in an era of rapid technology and growing AI. 

The author may believe that more regulatory control of corporations is necessary to balance the scales of justice, but he underestimates the damage of overregulation. One study by the OECD showed that excessive industrial regulations throughout the West, especially in transportation and communications, lowered productivity throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Do we really want to return to the economy of the late 1970s that was plagued with strikes, inflation, and high unemployment? 

Many of the problems raised in Tyranny, Inc. are resolvable without reimposing industrial regulatory measures. Low-income workers who have shown their worth and value during the pandemic need our support to earn as much as possible by strengthening laws that protect their rights. But bringing back the reactionary policies of 50 years ago is to replace one tyranny with another. Let’s not forget G.K. Chesterton’s advice that we should think carefully before taking down fences and remember why they were there in the first place. The same with regulations; let’s appreciate why they were removed before putting them back up again.

Stuart Thomson: Reporters should take Poilievre’s combativeness as a challenge

Commentary

One of my best memories from journalism school was when John Baird visited for a Q&A session and had the time of his life.

Baird was the infrastructure minister and in the early stages of rolling out the government’s economic action plan, a massive stimulus program designed to jolt the economy out of the doldrums that followed the Great Recession.

He stood in front of 30 or so bright-eyed journalism students, all keen to pin him down on something or another, and ripped us to shreds one by one.

When it was my turn to ask him a question I had already seen several of my classmates go down in a blaze of glory so I wrote out my question and tried to find the exact wording that would stump the minister.

I asked him if he was worried about cost overruns or scandals arising from this massive blast of infrastructure spending and before I’d finished my sentence Baird cut me off.

“Do you have any examples of what you’re talking about?” he said.

I groped for examples and came up with a newsy U.S. scandal about a “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska. That allowed Baird to pontificate about the differences between the U.S. system and the Canadian one and my question mostly went unanswered.

To be entirely truthful, I considered it a victory. I got out of there alive without looking too stupid.

At the time, it felt like a reality check. Baird’s performance seemed like a preview of what life would be like if I reached my goal of someday covering politics for a living.

Don’t ask a lazy or unfocused question, I told myself, because these people will absolutely pounce on you.

But strangely, those responses from Baird were some of the most intense I’ve ever seen in journalism. And to be clear, Baird had a smile on his face for much of it. He was just having fun in a low-stakes situation.

I have seen reporters get extremely heated with politicians and other public figures, sometimes to a degree that I considered unprofessional or excessive. I’ve also seen flashes of ire behind a politician’s eyes in response to my questions, but it always subsides into a calm and measured response.

Until Pierre Poilievre came along, anyway.

When Poilievre cut a reporter off mid-sentence last week to clarify an accusation that he was “dog-whistling to the far Right,” it brought me back to that day in journalism class.

Poilievre asked who was making that accusation and when informed by the reporter that it was unnamed experts, he asked which ones. After a brief back-and-forth, Poilievre told the reporter that her question was based on a false premise and seemed, to him, like a “CBC smear job.”

Up until that last part (it wasn’t even a CBC reporter), Poilievre seemed to be on solid ground. If he is to respond to accusations that he is either an extremist or courting extremists, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask for an example or some evidence.

But of course, like anything in politics, it shouldn’t just be taken at face value.

For Poilievre, the short-term benefits of this strategy are obvious: his supporters dislike the media and it’s fun to watch him take on reporters like this. Clips of Poilievre raking journalists over the coals are especially popular on YouTube.

The long-term benefits are harder to see, though. Poilievre has been undergoing a “softening” of his image lately, and these prosecutorial exchanges seem to conflict with that. Swing voters usually don’t like argumentative people, even if they are right (and sometimes especially when they are right).

The other effect for Poilievre might be that reporters start doing what I unsuccessfully tried to do once I realized Baird was going to interrogate me. I put a little more effort into my question and I started to think about my strategy for getting a good answer.

It’s easy to see why most politicians don’t argue with bad or lazy questions, though. Instead, they nod sagely, as if they are impressed with it, and then rumble through their talking points. Pushing for a better question actually makes their job harder.

As it says in the Bible, and in every NFL training camp since time immemorial, iron sharpens iron. Poilievre may be inadvertently forcing reporters to think twice as hard about their questions and their story premises, pushing them into a little more research than they may otherwise do and generally making his life more difficult.

It’s also worth considering that the social media world, and the way it divides us into ideological tribes, provides bad incentives to reporters the same way it does for politicians. For a journalist courting a left-wing audience, sparring with Poilievre is valuable, the same way heckling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would be for a journalist seeking a right-wing audience. These tribal social media incentives tend to be contrary to the health of our democracy and its institutions.

It also puts more emphasis on the process of journalism than its result. Because scrums and interviews are such a big part of a journalist’s day, and because they can be exciting, adrenaline-pumping moments, it’s easy to put too much importance on them.

Of course, it’s vital to get politicians on the record, and to report on it when they don’t answer our questions, but the key mechanism for accountability is not the question screamed at a hapless politician or its tepid response, it’s the news stories that get written afterward.

Most big scandals start off with a “no comment,” or a talking point, or a flimsy denial“The allegations in the Globe story this morning are false.” and the bickering in the scrums isn’t even a footnote.

There is a temptation among reporters to see any kind of pushback or criticism as an assault on our role in the democratic process. We should be careful about that. It’s worth considering that the kind of spirited exchanges we’re used to seeing in question period might be good for us in scrums and interviews.

And anyway, the YouTube content will be great.