Monday, June 22, 2009

Perfectly Legal

While this is clearly and American book, David Johnston's Perfectly Legal is quite an enlightening read. Mr. Johnston, writing firmly from within a market-based philosophy, asks the question, who pays the taxes? Using his investigative reporter skills, what he finds is that while token gestures are made toward the poor, the vast majority of so-called "tax cuts," accrue to the super-rich - the top 1% and the top 1% of the top 1%. In order to recover some of these lost revenues, taxes are actually increased on middle and upper income families. Repeated calls by the public for "tax breaks," and "tax relief" from our "excessive tax burden" only serve to compound the problem. Assuming his figures are correct, the American government is missing out on collecting between $300-$500 BILLION annually. For a more detailed review from an entrepreneurial/business perspective, visit here.

Sadly, even though Perfectly Legal was published in 2003, it has become dated. Moreover, it highlights problems in the American tax system. Linda McQuaig's 1987 book, Behind Closed Doors: How the Rich Won Control of Canada's Tax System ... And Ended Up Richer is a Canadian account of our tax system. I can't find a more recent Canadian book on the market. Perhaps governments should appoint an investigative reporter to provide an annual public report on the state of our tax system.

This CBC story might also interest you if you are interested in the issue of taxes.

Finally, a wee bit of editorial. The Fraser Institute, with its large media-and-marketing budget has recently issued notice that we've reached "tax freedom day." The idiocy of this phrase bothers me to no end. Here are a few alternative names we can celebrate the day by (can you think of more?):

Freedom from Literacy Day
Vetran Support Freedom Day
Freedom from Firefighting Day
Pothole Day
Freedom from Public Education Day
Freedom from Environmental Monitoring Day

Monday, May 11, 2009

Nudge (review by John Steeves)

Puzzling though it may seem, I would like to suggest a book I have never read. My only reason for proposing it is an interview I heard with one of the co-authors on the BBC.

The book is Nudge, written by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, a couple of professors from the University of Chicago. Here's a link to a review:

As I remember the interview, the authors suggest that the best way of changing human behavior (whether economic or social) is to 'nudge' them, rather than to impose draconian orders to force such changes.

The co-author, Thaler, gave a couple of examples:

1. Officials at the Amsterdam airport felt they had a problem of cleaning expenses in men's washrooms. I think the word used was 'spillage'... basically caused by men not paying enough attention to their aims at the urinals. The solution the airport came up with was a 'nudge'... they etched a common housefly into the porcelain of the urinals. According to Thaler, the airport is now saving thousands of Euros in cleaning costs by the simplicity of giving men something to aim at rather than ordering them to aim. (He also said similar flys now appear in urinals in New York and Singapore).

2. Undoubtedly on a more serious note... Thaler said that the clean-up of polluting industries might be better served by the simple 'nudge' of demanding full disclosure of how much carbon and other pollutants they create.  Such disclosure, he argues, leads to the companies themselves trying to find ways to bring the numbers down. Presumably, out of embarrassment. (Or, at second best, seeing the neighbours suddenly becoming more insistent that they shape up).  If I recall correctly, he said there are actually studies that support this theory. Although I don't think he said it in the interview, I implied that he was ready to accept draconian punishments for anyone who evaded such full and open disclosure.

When I think of the Chicago school of economists, I think of Milton Friedman and right-wing politicians with their tax-cut manias and promises that benefits will then trickle down to the masses. During the interview, I found myself unable to peg this man as either right or left wing. I  got the impression he might be neither...  just a  bright guy with new ideas about what might, or might not, work for the benefit of society as a whole.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

Not a book, but a "think tank" with an associated journal, the CCPA is an excellent point to look for critique of the mainstream.  The focus is almost always based on grounded research as compared to ideological bent (which is much more prevalent in the "research" produced by the Fraser Institute and the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, and to a lesser degree the CD Howe Institute).  When you come across a "news item" that cites any of these last three sources, and the reporter/journalist fails to state "right wing think tank," then I humbly suggest you visit the CCPA to see what they have to say about the topic.  For fairness and balance, I recommend everyone bookmark the CCPA website and refer to it to see a different take on the news.  For those who are more devoted, I strongly recommend becoming a member.

Deep Economy

Bill McKibben's Deep Economy is a must-read in my opinion.  It presents a straightforward critique of the way we've come to organize our lives today and then continues to suggest how we might fix things by investing in communities and building local economies.  My only complaint was that on occasion, he fails to critique the GDP-measurement issue strongly enough.  But to me, all is forgiven because he ultimately provides a sense of hope which is something I feel we're going to need a lot of in the future.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Predictably Irrational

While not specifically on environmental or social justice issues, Dan Ariely's book, Predictably Irrational, is a very interesting read. I like it for a number of reasons, not the least of which is it is an easy way for people to see what sort of stuff I specialize in as an economist.

More germain to this site, I recommend reading his chapter 4 on social versus market norms. I firmly believe that the neo-liberal agenda is to have us all working in the sphere of market norms in all that we do. It would be a sad world if this were successful. Rage against the machine.

Don't Think of an Elephant

George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant is an excellent read in the use of language to frame debates and craft arguments.  Just admit it, you've already been thinking about an elephant in the process of trying not to think of one.  Lakoff point out that similar techniques have been used by the (American) Right to frame debates (e.g., tax cuts / tax relief / tax-and-spend).  Who can be against "tax-relief" especially when we suffer from such a "tax-burden" that it takes the better part of the year to get past "tax freedom day"?  (Do you recall hearing this language, not just from our friends at AIMS and the Fraser Institute, but increasingly in the day-to-day news reports, in newspapers, and popular magazines?)

In this very short book, Lakoff raises awareness, and calls us to action. We have to take back the language, get rid of this "truthiness" and engage people in meaningful debate.

I suggest visiting the Rockridge Institute where you can download another Lakoff book, Thinking Points.

Shock Doctrine

Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine is well-researched and well-written.  I can't say I found it to be a fun read, because the issues she raises are quite disturbing, but sometimes the truth hurts.  For instance, her chapter on torture techniques is stomach-churning (how can people do that to each other?).  However, she crafts her argument to show the evolution of the implementation of neo-liberal policy ideals (market-based policy solutions free from all those stupid government regulations) from torture, to funded-revolt, to the (bland-in-comparison) manufactured crisis.

The hardest part about reading this book is the slow dawning of realization that she's writing about New Brunswick today.  Not to say that she actually writes about New Brunswick, but her argument is very applicable to current events in our province.  Our governments seem less interested in regulating for the people, and more interested in regulating for industry.  In fact, we may just be at the height of our own manufactured crisis.  

Using the current global recession as a backdrop, Shawn Graham's Liberals have passsed a budget with a $700+ million dollar deficit.  They've disguised this as a fiscal stimulus package, failing to point out that with all of this stimulus, there will need to be significant austerity measures (i.e., cutbacks on crazy social spending like literacy and poverty-reduction).  Moreover, the new and flatter income tax structure, which primarily benefits the richest of the rich in New Brunswick, accounts for half-or-more of this deficit (between $300-500 million in lost revenues).

With a Libreal majority and a Progressive Conservative opposition (who are sympathetic to tax decreases) and not an NDP MLA in legislature, barely a peep has been made.  Of course, turning to our newspapers is a joke (although I'll give it a try) because they are owned by the very people who most-benefit from both income and corporate tax cuts - the Irvings.  Some economists in this province believe this may very-well be the end of public healthcare for us in New Brunswick, and the thin-edge-of-the-wedge for the rest of Canada.


New Brunswick is relatively small, even by Canadian standards (heck, the whole province has about 100,000 more people than Hamilton, Ontario where I grew up).  Still, the province is richly blessed with culture, relatively unspoiled nature, abundant natural resources, and a wonderful human spirit.

Unfortunately, because we are small, we're exploited.  New Brunswick is usually out of the national spotlight (except during flood season) and our provincial papers are more of a long and glorified advertising leaflet than a source for news and investigative reporting. (Perhaps that's because most of the papers are run by the dominant industrial group - the Irving conglomerate).  What goes on in New Brunswick seems to stay in New Brunswick.  For neo-liberal governments, this is ideal.  They can test-bed their crazy theories and noone hears us complain.

So, I set up this blog as an attempt to bring like-minded critically-thinking people together to discuss the books they are reading.  I am trying to limit the area of discussion to topics of social and environmental justice (as I see it, two sides of the same coin).  I'll start by posting some of my picks.  I encourage you to please send me your own reviews (please send them to and I will post them too.  Keep the reviews short and personal if you will.  I will keep book titles in the label field so you can search to see if your favourite is being discussed.

Finally, I ask that you forgive me for tapping into Google's advertising feature.  I've included it for now, primarily to see what happens.  If it sells more books, then that's all the better - we get more people thinking, talking, and creating communities that work for everyone.  Please support independent bookstores when possible!