Blog | March 25, 2020

 Laura Kruse, Communications Officer, Public Interest Alberta

In the midst of the Red Scare panic and rumours of communist brainwashing in the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began an operation known as MK Ultra. Their goal was to learn how to erase a subject’s memory and instill new patterns of behaviour. To achieve this goal, To achieve this goal, they enlisted renowned Canadian psychiatrist Ewen Cameron at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal. During the late 50s and early 60s, patients seeking help for mental health issues like postpartum depression and schizophrenia were subjected to grisly experiments without consent from themselves or their families -- shocked with high-voltage electricity, placed into months-long drug-induced comas, and given massive doses of LSD. Cameron’s hypothesis was that once these patients were stripped of their basic functioning, they could be reprogrammed. Experimenters bombarded them with messaging, repeated hundreds of thousands of times on an audio loop. Sometimes it was while they slept, and sometimes it was through a speaker placed in a helmet which was locked onto their heads. 

The Montreal Experiments were a cruel and abject failure and a black mark on the history of psychiatry. They shattered the lives of the unwilling patients, many of whom never regained their previous levels of cognition. The experiments permanently altered the personalities of the victims who dealt with the effects of severe traumatization for the rest of their lives.  

Naomi Klein uses the Montreal Experiments as the central metaphor in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. She demonstrates the way that shocks to social and economic systems -- wars, natural disasters, terrorist attacks -- are used by neoliberal politicians backed by powerful private interests to implement policies of deregulation, mass surveillance, privatization, and cuts to public services. For example, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina left the state of Louisiana reeling from $125 billion dollars in damage and a staggering death toll, conservatively estimated at 1,200 people. New Orleans’ already-struggling public school system was decimated. Instead of re-building the public system, charter schools--schools with no public accountability and with the ability to turn students away--took their place with massive outside “philanthropic” investment. Private profiteers descended vulture-like onto the traumatized city and built a new system which suited them -- a system that would see the public interest gutted in service of a market-based ideology of individuality and competition to benefit the wealthy, while eroding any understanding of the common good. 

Why is this important? Quite simply, we find ourselves at a time of unprecedented crisis. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the coronavirus a global pandemic -- the third in its entire history. Reduced economic activity has caused the stock market to drop to levels not seen since the disastrous 2008 financial crash. Consequently, the price of oil has collapsed, exacerbated by a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia who have increased production as demand has lessened. 

The mood is grim. As the number of cases and death toll rises, borders have closed, grocery store shelves are empty, and social distancing and isolation are leaving many feeling vulnerable and afraid. We are definitely experiencing a massive shock. If we are not vigilant and organized the profiteering vultures could be circling us, ready to push for policies of privatization, corporatization, deregulation, and cuts to social spending. 

As tensions and terror about the pandemic and the economy heightened, conservative economist Jack Mintz tweeted the following: 

If we have learned anything over the first year of the United Conservative Party (UCP) government, it’s that the UCP loves to appoint panels to reverse-engineer the results they want in order to justify their already-made decisions -- draconian cuts to public services, increased privatization, and corporate hand-outs. The UCP rose to power on the drummed-up fear of a “fiscal cliff” where if we didn’t immediately make significant cuts to our public sector, our economy was in danger. One of their very first orders of business was appointing the Blue RIbbon Panel on Alberta’s Finances which was mandated to solely focus on government spending (conveniently ignoring the entire question of revenue). This report -- colloquially referred to as the MacKinnon Report after panel chair Janice MacKinnon -- provided them with the political cover necessary to begin their assault on public services (and the workers who provide them) in their first budget in November 2019. 

Armed with an understanding of the gravity of our present situation and the tenets of Klein’s shock doctrine, anyone invested in defending and strengthening our public services should be concerned about Mintz’s call for a new blue ribbon panel -- a call which was promptly answered. Mintz co-authored a paper about the “dire need” to cut public sector wages with MacKinnon herself and has done work with the Fraser Institute and the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation -- a veritable who’s-who of ultra-conservative think tanks. By publishing skewed research and agenda-driven papers, these think tanks unabashedly embrace and propagate the lie of “trickle-down” economic policies of deregulation and tax cuts to benefit corporations and the wealthy.

As oil prices collapsed, Premier Kenney announced he had taken Mintz’s advice -- even naming him chair of the new “emergency economic panel” which is almost entirely made by by wealthy corporate CEOs and former conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper We would be naive to expect anything other than the same type of “decision-based evidence-making” from Mintz’s Blue Ribbon Panel that we have seen previously from this government. We know that MacKinnon’s talking points were given to her directly from the UCP’s top brass, and we should expect nothing different from Mintz. The MacKinnon Report cherry-picked metrics to suit their agenda, like comparing the test scores of charter schools (who are under no obligation to serve all students) to a public school in Northern Alberta with students with complex needs. Why would this be any different? We can confidently expect that the Mintz Report will follow in the footsteps of MacKinnon and Ernst and Young, the firm tasked with doing a “review” of the Alberta Health Services (AHS) which recommended -- you guessed it -- cuts, deregulation, and privatization. Mintz and his panel will provide the UCP with results-engineering and political cover to make the decisions they already want, ultimately worsening the long-term impacts of this crisis.      

The collapse in oil prices, in part as a result of the pandemic, justifies the evergreen observation that Alberta must diversify its economy and tax base and get off the rollercoaster of relying on oil and gas revenue. The cancellation of the Teck Frontier Mine and the world-wide trend toward investor pull-out from Canadian oil and gas exploration also signal that fossil fuel extraction is a sunset industry which is being wound down. Energy needs will still remain as we phase out fossil fuels, and to that end, we need massive public investment in a low-carbon economy and nationalized renewable power utilities along the lines of a Green New Deal if we ever hope to reach our climate targets and create an economy that doesn’t leave anyone behind. However, the shock of the faltering economy and the global pandemic mean that Mintz’s prescriptions may leave us worse off than we started out.

Mintz’s regressive policy prescriptions include advocating for a “revenue-neutral sales tax” -- meaning the introduction of a 13% harmonized sales tax, off-set by massive income tax cuts for wealthy individuals and large corporations. In an era of unprecedented global wealth inequality, we know removing progressive income taxes (meaning the more you make, the higher rate you pay) overwhelmingly benefits the already wealthy. And as the province with the highest wealth inequality in the country, this is a direction we can’t afford. 

In the midst of this pandemic, the critical role that our public services play is front and centre. Where would we be without the front-line health care workers administering tests and caring for the critically ill? With all the decreased economic activity, we could be facing yet another monumental economic recession. We need to send a clear message to our elected officials and policymakers that we will not allow them to repeat the mistakes of the financial crash of 2008 where the Canadian federal government bailed out the banks, and didn’t move towards significant investment in restructuring the economy to stem growing inequality and stagnating wages. Ottawa has already announced plans to bail out oil and gas to the tune of $15 billion. We know for certain that corporate bail-outs do absolutely nothing to improve the lives of working people. For context, that $15 billion would move us past the international benchmark of 1% of gross domestic product spent on early learning and child care, moving us towards a universal child care system, enabling higher workforce participation (especially for women), greater gender pay equity, and healthier brain development for children. Working people run the economy, and all people from all walks of life deserve a well-functioning safety net and well-funded public services; handing off money to corporations is not the answer. 

The current crisis lays bare the need to create a new and better world, requiring a World War II-like mobilization to address our economy and make it one which works for everyone, not just CEOS, corporate shareholders, and the wealthy. The pandemic has shown that measures like paid sick leave and universal pharmaceutical coverage are absolutely essential. We may even see more novel solutions like free public transit (which just passed in Edmonton), a universal basic income, and moratoria on mortgage payments, rent, and utility bills -- that is, if we fight for them. The crisis is showing us how valuable all working people are in the functioning of our economy. 

To protect working people during this uncertain and frightening time, the government needs to respond in kind to expand our public services and measures to protect the economically vulnerable from negative repercussions. They need to ensure that wealthy individuals and large corporations are paying their fair share. We know from the Government of Alberta’s own budget documents that we would raise between $14.4 and $25.5 billion dollars if we adopted the tax system of any other Canadian province. Rather than the punishing direction of public service cuts, this revenue would more than eliminate the deficit and be enough to protect, strengthen, and expand our public services. Our taxation plan must include higher corporate income taxes and higher progressive income taxes, or else it will just be shifting the burden onto working people and away from the people who can most afford it. We need to explore options like wealth taxes, closing tax loopholes that allow for the wealthy to shelter their income in off-shore accounts, taxes on luxury goods like expensive cars, and mansion taxes similar to the one in place in Vancouver.

The truth is that before this crisis point, we had already been living through the slower-moving crisis of income inequality and climate change for the last 40 years. To come out of this shock with our sanity intact, we must stop the proponents of cuts and privatization from imposing false solutions that only exacerbate the existing problems. The real solution lies in a strong safety net of protection for working people, expanded investments in the public services we need and rely on, and a transition to a low-carbon economy that is sustainable for the future. We owe it to working people all over the world to get this right.