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"Everything feels broken" and conservatives won't fix any of it
The right wing program of austerity, trickle down economics, and a war on drugs has never worked—and it won't work now.
The job of an opposition party in contemporary politics is to claim everything is broken. It’s a heavy-handed, silly way to do politics. Some things are broken, some things aren’t. Some things are broken in a big way, some things are broken in a small way. Some things are fine. Some things are quite good, actually. But if you’re not in power, you’re not allowed to say so. It’s bad for business. You’ve simply got to say everything is broken and you’ll fix it all by doing the opposite of what’s being done right now.
We’re bound up in a partisan system of the sort that collapses everything into a simple binary for the consumption of pre-committed members of one team or another. That’s bad enough. But when you stack on top of that a conservative program with a record of failure, things become intolerable.
Enter Conservative Party of Canada leader Pierre Poilievre. On Sunday, Poilievre shared video of himself doing a form of cynical, voyeuristic, suffering porn for the self-styled morally superior. The video is exploitative. I’d like to say it’s beneath him, but it isn’t. The video is about the drug poisoning crisis and what’s being done, or not done, to address it. Beyond the tastelessness of the thing, Poilievre got the facts wrong, aspoints out in detail in his now-ungated piece.
Poilievre is also wrong about how we ought to approach drug policy in general.
In the past, I’ve argued we need a different approach to drugs, one that emphasizes what experts tell us work. One measure, which is supported by Canada’s chiefs of police, is decriminalization. Another is safe supply, which I’ve also argued for.
The conservative war on drugs, which Poilievre’s video represents, is a failure. It’s been a failure wherever it’s been tried. It hasn’t succeeded and it won’t succeed because it’s not a policy solution; it’s a moralizing crusade aimed at indulging punitive impulses and drives towards impossible purity. In the United States, a desparate Donald Trump is trying to turbo-charge anti-drug rhetoric, calling for the death penalty for drug dealers, the ultimate twisted logic of a heartless and thoughtless policy approach. Almost wherever you look, the right’s approach on drugs is cruel and ineffective.
Poilievre’s video will resonate with many who share his proclivities. It’ll play well because people frustrated with the status quo, which is, in fact, full of problems. Moreover, the context in which he shares videos, memes, and photos is a welcoming one for gutter ball politics. Our oppositional politics could be effective way to ensure we get the tension and accountability we need in a democracy, but the way it’s practiced in much of the democratic world ends up being counterproductive.
Set aside for a moment the fact that partisan politics is not the only way to decide how we ought to live together. Just consider how it operates in our world. A 24-hour news cycle encourages feeding the beast with a never-ending loop of gotcha nonsense and oversimplified rhetoric. Social media encourages rapid, unreflective interventions and dramatic back and forth dunks that often produces little beyond entertainment and hits of dopamine. Televised, streamed sessions in the legislature turn representatives into reality TV stars who wouldn’t pass the first audition outside of the chamber, assuming anyone let them into the building in the first place. Everything is too fast, too flashy, and too toxic.
Digging beneath the surface of the contemporary right, things don’t look too much better for us. Conservatives who view the state as the essence of the problem can’t and won’t solve the challenges they see all over the place. The legacy of Thatcher and Reagan and Harper (and the Martin/Chrétien era, for that matter) should be proof positive for anyone paying attention that the logic of an austere, de-regulated state that lets the wealthy run the show leaves a mess for everyone else.
Attempting to be hyper charitable for a moment, Poilievre is right, in a sense. Everything does feel broken. And he’s right to be concerned about disproportionate elite influence and the affordability crisis. And as I noted above, everything feels broken because a lot of things are broken. Inflation. Climate change. Inequality. Healthcare. Housing. Policing. Disability policy. Abortion rights (in general in the United States and as an issue of access in Canada). And plenty more.
Repairing all the broken structures and policies that have led us to where we are requires a collective and inclusive effort, though. It requires that we pool our resources and undertake large-scale investments of the sort that only states can manage. Poilievre wants to cap spending and supports the ridiculous idea of a “pay as you go” approach to budgeting that would see new spending matched by equal cuts. It’s austerity and it’s based on junk economics.
Sovereign states aren’t households—they have access to resources you don’t and they have tools to manage debt no other entity does. That doesn’t mean a state can spend infinite amounts of money indefinitely, but it does mean that the treasury doesn’t have to pinch every penny, every day. It can take the long view. It can take the really, really long view. Treating the state as a household is campus conservative nonsense that has no place in serious politics.
In most instances, if the government wants to invest in sustainable programing or infrastructure, it can do so without worrying about cutting elsewhere; in fact, it ought to do so. As policy analyst Alex Hemingway writes in Policy Note, spending on people is an investment that produces a return. “[A] growing body of evidence tells us that spending on public services, social supports and physical and social infrastructure comes with major economic benefits,” he writes. That makes sense. Removing resources and capacity from the economy helps no one except those at the top who may get a tax break they don’t need. Putting resources and capacity into the economy helps the many.
Citing a report from the Economic Policy Institute, Hemingway quotes author Josh Bivens, who found “investments in public capital have significant positive impacts on private-sector productivity, with estimated rates of return ranging from 15 percent to upwards of 45 percent.” So, state spending is good for the market, too, for those who insist on that sort of thing. Hemingway details a handful of studies and reports that find similar effects of government spending. When the state spends on people, it generates good outcomes for itself and, naturally, for the people its spending on.
In some cases, spending is literally a matter of life and death. Canada under-invests in its healthcare system and has for a long time. As Danyaal Raza writes in Policy Options, the country is “a miserly stand-out on public spending” compared to its peer group. Years of retrenchment and downloading in the 1990s followed by insufficient spending subsequently has produced a healthcare crisis that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Now people are suffering and dying. They were before; but it’s worse now.
Meanwhile, as Raza points out, the state has reduced tax collection since the 1980s, lowering the corporate rate, the highest earner rate, and capital gains. To that I’d add a reminder that the country has a serious tax avoidance problem, too. All told, Canada is collecting far less revenue than it might, to predictable outcomes. Further cuts, which is what you get when you reduce spending or when you cap it during inflationary times, will lead to further broken systems and bad outcomes.
Conservative moralizing, shaming, and stigmatizing combined with cuts is a plan for dysfunction and suffering. The “tough on crime” has approach failed. The war on drugs has failed. Austerity has failed time and time again. The conservative classic trickle down economics has been proven to be a convenient myth that benefits the rich and harms everyone else. And yet conservative politicians continue to drink their own bath water, believing that the same old discredited ways of the past will work this time around. They won’t. They never will. And no one should believe anyone who claims otherwise.
Conservatives say everything is broken. But nothing is more broken than their hopeless approach to “fixing” things. That approach ought to be repudiated and resisted as if our lives depend upon it, which they do.