Tag Archives: book review

(1068) Subdivided. City Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity [Book review]

Subdivided. City Building In An Age of Hyper-Diversity
Jay Pitter & John Lorinc, editors
2016. Coach House Books, Toronto
279 pages. $20.95 CAN
This collection of essays was much tougher reading than we expected.  After nearly six years blogging about social difficulty in the suburbs we don’t expect to be unnerved by our topic.  Subdivided unnerved us.
The good old days of multiculturalism, in which eastern and southern Europeans (and maybe a few other groups), found Toronto adjusting to, and eventually welcoming, them are long gone.  In its place, we now see an ever bigger and richer Toronto home to newcomers in a living arrangement of hyper-diversity.  This infinitely more complex Toronto is by turns depressing, ugly, unjust and unequal despite recurrent commentary about its peacefulness, high socio-cultural potential and general awesomeness.
Subdivided delivers unto us many a less-than-comfortable truth.  There’s too many people here in isolated lives centred on a combination of shit jobs and lacklustre housing.  Reading Subdivided made us feel like Toronto’s diversity is the stuff of an Adam Curtis documentary, another nightmarish expression of the global economic machine and its operating system, neoliberalism.
That toughness of presentation is what makes this collection of essays so amazing, so real.  It’s hard to think of any other such wellspring of direct, sustained observation of what it is really like to live here.  A chapter on Brampton, for example, brings forth a wave of nausea faster than a jar of expired mayonnaise.  ‘Browntown’ is next door to suburban-poverty.com’s backyard, we can attest to the truth of what is said here about Brampton.  Same for another entry on Mississauga, which is literally our backyard.  You’d almost wonder why Canada bothers attracting new residents to its Sprawlvilles.  Except perhaps as a cycnical ploy to increase domestic markets and the tax base and to fulfill some corporate/ideological role in the global economy.
What to do?  Good transit, a strong social safety net, higher wages, police reform, and affordable housing would help us toward a healthy, cross-connected society according to the essays in Subdivided.  None of these things will be achieved quickly or cheaply, though.
We better get busy before something really awful comes of the present lame and indifferent regime of city building in greater Toronto.  Stress is not good for the indivdual or the community.  Stress and reaction brought us Rob Ford, the scale model mock up of Donald Trump.  Who knows what the stresses of race and class we are leaving in place will inflict on us?  We aren’t Milwaukee yet but how much longer will we sleepwalk into this?

We suggest future editions of Subdivided include a stamped, pre-addressed thank you card readers can mail to the one percent.

Buy Subdivided for your unnerved urban affairs shelf.

(953) Evicted [Book review]

Evicted. Poverty and Profit in the American City

Matthew Desmond
Crown Publishers, NY
432 pages
CAN $37.00 hardcover
What a knockout.  The more we think about this book the more we have to admire it.  Matthew Desmond took on his subject in a way that very few authors can: by going and living it bodily for an extended period of time.
Ethnography is a discipline within anthropology and sociology that involves direct observation of social interaction from within, or very close to, that interaction.  Milwaukee’s slum apartments and a large, dumpy (yet lucrative) trailer park are the settings at hand.  They are representative ones, unfortunately, in an America still longing for recovery.
Evicted reads often like a novel.  Desmond’s presentation of a brace of poor people, and those who make a living off of them, with historical background and socioeconomic data is nearly seamless.  Without this phenomenon Evicted would have been pretty tough going.  There’s a lot of serious bullshit and misery in America these days.
Indeed, the constant churn of misfortune in this book is awful.  Bouncing from one crap apartment in some bad neighbourhood to the next, the individuals Desmond lived beside are constantly stretched, fighting to stay ahead of total disaster.  Eviction is something of a new force acting on the lives of America’s poor, falling particularly hard on top of African American lives.  Desmond describes eviction as a handmaiden to mass incarceration.  The worst part of it all is just how lucrative the poor are for landlords, property owners, moving-and-storage companies.
Eviction’s depressing panorama is contemporary America for a lot of people.  Desmond tells us that nearly one third of Milwaukee’s evicted population are black females even though they are only nine percent of the general population (page 98).  Stuff like this is crazy.  It makes for quite depressing reading.
To be truthful, we nearly gave up a couple of times on all the rough apartments and dodgy building owners that are encountered here. What do you think having your personal effects piled on the curb feels like because you fell behind on the rent?  Evicted is important, though.  Much of its reality remains unstudied, undocumented and ignored by society at large.  This is not good, Americans deserve better.
As optimistic Canadians we would have liked it if half of Evicted had been like the twenty-page epilogue: stronger on solutions and positive statements rather than the narrative of bad luck and systemic grief.  We could urge the proactive adoption of specific policies to protect Canada’s post-industrial communities.
Desmond believes an expanded housing voucher program would liberate people like those he wrote about.  If such a program were large enough and well-funded it would probably function almost like a universal basic income, helping to reinforce a socio-economic level that nobody need fall below.
Hard reading on an important topic for anyone interested in contemporary American life.  Almost made easy by the author’s level of commitment and writing skills.   Buy this book.
evictedbook.com for the book trailer, photos, links and other features
Will this new book change the national debate on poverty?

(944) Under the Affluence [Book review]

under the affluenceUnder the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America by Tim Wise
City Lights Books Open Media Series
360 pages
San Francisco, CA
CAN$23.50 paperback
Writing about poverty isn’t the easiest task.  We know from our own modest efforts around here that the topic can leave you feeling wound up and put down at the same time.  Scale that to the level of social difficulty in the United States right now and you get an idea of the challenge before Tim Wise when he set out to produce Under the Affluence.
What this book unpacks is a layered and ridiculously well entrenched set of social conditions.  A damaging racialization of US poverty is one of several really nasty things emanating from a set of mainstream social values that serve to uphold a very troubling level of inequality described and analyzed in detail.  Much of the book is about the beat down job done on the behaviour of poor Americans and the adoration bestowed on the winners in the world’s largest economy for their behaviour.
Yes, the so-called one percent and their privileges appear early and often in Under the Affluence. So does the so-called culture of poverty which has given so much mileage to right-wing economics from the late seventies right through to the crash of 2008.  It is nothing less than crazy, the levels of righteousness, resentment and sheer magic thinking that accompany that new class of super elites shaping our neighbour’s life.  Wise looks for the reality and documents his positions like a scholar. Wise’s book is a lucid and commendable piece of work on the topic of social conditions and social attitudes.  It’s powerful, as good a work as any reader in this area could wish for or humble blogger like ourselves hope to emulate.
Like we say when we find quality of thought and effort in a piece of writing on poverty and social difficulty: buy this book!

Tim Wise on America’s Culture of Cruelty – Interview on KGNU, Boulder – 2016

1:05:05 timwise.org

(808) The New Urban Agenda [Book review]

nuaThe New Urban Agenda: The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area
Bill Freeman
$21.99 trade paperback
Dundurn Press: 2015.  240 pages

Have you been thinking that a post-Rob Ford Toronto is ready for sane voices in dialogue on the difficult issues of the day?  Voices for reform?

We certainly have been. That made our discovery of The New Urban Agenda: The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area such a nice thing we knew we had to share it. Bill Freeman is looking to construct a shared and reasonable vision of a well-managed city moving forward with democratic, humane, reasonable responses to popular needs. Freeman is a sociologist with a long record of publishing on urban and other issues. The voice of a calm and rational adult considering complex socio-economic and socio-political issues of place without resort to a crack pipe, and from a bicycle or bus rather than a Cadillac Escalade, ought to be the preferred manner of discussion. So much is at stake for Toronto in an unbalanced world that the failure to be grown up about our city is to ask for disaster.

For obvious reasons, suburban-poverty.com went ahead to the second chapter, devoted to inequality. Chapter seven came next, the one dealing with Toronto’s affordability, or rather its big-and-increasing lack thereof. The GTHA cannot continue to let things slide on either file. The author fully recognizes suburban poverty as one of the GTHA’s issues, distinguishing between the older inner suburbs and the sprawling outer suburbs. Transit, politics, the environment, and the planning process make up the rest of the book’s content. Freeman mixes solutions and positive examples into his descriptions of problematic situations. All of it is well handled.

Freeman obviously cares. He made his way to the company of a series of experts for insight when writing the book. More in the way of maps and infographics would have been nice. These things lend themselves so well to the topics at hand, even if they add to the cost of the book, that they are really obligatory. The jacket on this book, with its map that chops off part of Hamilton is kinda ugly, giving zero encouragement to bookstore browsers to think there might be a topic of enormous material importance between its covers.

Millions are directly affected by the problems and potentialities described in The New Urban Agenda. After the twisted and depressing Ford years with their lies, anger and general sickness there is a big need for Freeman’s brand of brainy yet warmhearted good sense. Professionals, elected officials, journalists and interested citizens as well as teachers and students in this broad area can journey into this book and find many things of interest. Hopefully that will happen to good effect for Canada’s biggest urban area.

As we say when we like one: “buy this book.”

(566) Human Transit [Book review]

Human Transit CoverHuman Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives
Jarrett Walker. Island Press, 2011.
244 pages, e-book & softcover ($35.00 CAN)

We finished up reading Jarrett Walker’s manual of transit common sense while taking Mississauga Transit’s 42 bus on a Sunday.  The new blue bus took a while to arrive at our stop because the route serves industrial and commercial areas on the edge of Mississauga near Pearson airport and the Brampton border.  Luckily, the roads were quiet so the bus verily wailed along and we caught our transfers right away. Couldn’t have asked for a better Edge City demo of the basic tensions in transit geometry.  Frequency versus coverage is a major issue, so is connectivity and routing and stop placement and span and headway.

These things, and more, make up the content of Human Transit, released in 2011 and again this spring as an e-book.  If you read the introduction HERE you’ll see why this volume needs to be required reading for anybody going anywhere near the transit file.  If only Toronto, struggling with a rotating set of election-time transit schemes, all compromises when compared to what the city actually needs, could find the clarity Mr. Walker has earned on the job from Portland to Sydney as a transit consultant.

Clearly thought out, appropriate public transit helps protect us against poverty, suburban or otherwise.  Again and again on suburban-poverty.com we come across the tyranny of time and distance.  The very essence of public life in the sprawl is about this difficulty too often.  Human Transit is the way out.

Quality of thought badly needs to be applied to how we get around our cities and suburbs.  Pressure for this elusive commodity seems only to grow by the hour as gasoline prices move upward with the excuse of recent new fighting in Iraq.  The time is now.  Our recommendation “read this book” has almost never been so easy to apply.

Sure, this stuff is kinda technical but the outcome of clarified thinking about public transit is better living for nearly all of us.  We like the ease with which the author’s good sense approach wraps around the technical matters of how to do transit geometry.  Almost any political decision maker, planner or activist should come away from a reading of this book with greater strength in what they are doing.  It all comes down to a set of surprisingly simple things: once we pull our heads together, that is.

Transit really can enrich our lives and communities.  General readers who use transit could find this book insightful if they are willing to embrace the details.  Transit enthusiasts are probably already on this book.  If Human Transit could make one reader’s bus ride across a big corner of Mississauga more exciting and empowering ( in a down-to-Earth kind of way ) imagine what that might mean at the scale of millions…

Human Transit: the professional blog of public transit consultant Jarrett Walker   

(551) Bikenomics [Book review]

BikenomicsBikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy
Elly Blue. Microcosm Publishing, Portland, OR. 2013
191 pages, softcover/e-book, $16.95/$9.99 in Canada
ISBN 9781621060031

One of the delightful things about bicycling is the way that as a body of knowledge it feathers into almost any other topic so easily.  This power to cross connect bikes to other realms, namely macro- and microeconomics, community design, human health and well-being, environmental change, political and personal development is well demonstrated by Portland, Oregon resident Elly Blue in Bikenomics.  This is a book we urge suburban-poverty.com readers to buy, read and talk widely about.  Blue is onto something powerful and she backs up her standpoint with a strong array of arguments supported by citations and lived experience.  This is a fine book from a fine mind about a fine thing: that bikes might just save us.

Getting around is a huge topic on this blog and the propositions of suburban poverty are acknowledged and addressed in Blue’s book.  Bicycle economics could ease a lot of the strain on nearly all North Americans by improving their health, bolstering local economies, easing the external costs of fossil fuel use and just making us feel good.

A little more encouragement in the form of modest levels of public investment and we could be pedalling past some of the most serious dangers of economic systems based on oil, real estate bubbles, easy credit, debt mechanisms, fiat currencies and global conflict.  And why not?  Central bankers and their fellow travellers in high finance and government have had their turn at directing things under neoconservative and neoliberal thought regimes for a while now, with rather mixed results.

Blue establishes a pretty sound case for bicycle economics while working through the real and imagined difficulties that hold things back.  At family and individual level the costs of automobility are simply getting to be too much.  At community and national level the costs are mind boggling: from ugly wars in Central Asia to lethal air pollution, accidents, and public debt.  Public health issues from obesity to diabetes and too much sitting in cars and at desks can also be amended by bikenomic approaches.

Bikenomics reflects US experience in several cities and cites a couple of Canadian examples.  The latter included this Toronto study supporting the idea that bike infrastructure boosts human health.  Also close to Blue’s heart is the remarkably efficient way bike infrastructure lifts local entrepreneurs, especially smaller independent ones linked to each other instead of to corporate systems.  While we have a long way to go in Canada and the United States until we see the level of normalization of cycling accepted in the Netherlands or Denmark it looks like we are poised for something of a bicycle renaissance.

Elly Blue’s Bikenomics is almost impossible to argue against given North American reality in 2014; though no doubt those entrenched in the status quo will give it the old college try.  Bikenomics is ahead of the curve, yes, but we hope an alignment between the content of this little blue book and lived reality comes about quickly.

It kinda has to!

Elly Blue’s blog is here: takingthelane.com

Cycling Economies torontocycling.org report on bike lanes & local business
14-page .pdf file

See also: (327) Cyclonomics

(463) The American Way of Poverty [Book review]

American Way of PovertyIf poverty in the USA was a machine then we now have the requisite manual for understanding how that machine works. And what a devilish device American poverty is in 2013: one in six Americans is below established poverty lines.

The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives witnesses the catastrophe in its first part. To read it is to follow a visceral route through the deindustrialized zones, crapped out suburbs, food pantries, homeless shelters, trailer parks and other depressing sights of poor America. Wages are shit, benefits few. Government programs are weak. Morale and health is stalling out for millions.

Sasha Abramsky’s newest book on hard times America grew from an ongoing project called Voices of Poverty. That was a gathering up of mini biographies of social difficulty intended as a counterweight to conservative narratives of poor people as responsible for their own misery and unworthy of meaningful public help. Starting with lived experience like this makes great sense when trying to understand the complexity and stubbornness of deprivation. Part two is about policy responses to this reality. Reportage attached to intellectual analysis makes The American Way of Poverty powerful and should help it be attractive to many types of readers.

Suburban poverty is not named as a specific ill. It needn’t be since it is simply a part of the furniture of the book. Underwater mortgages and pitifully low wages abound here.

What to do? Abramsky says Americans need a better social compact. While acknowledging the difficulty of the political moment in America he calls for a“fairness agenda.” His smart, hopeful ticket of repair tools includes:

  • better measurements for describing poverty
  • pension reform
  • a major funding mechanism for higher education
  • public works and regional development especially for high-unemployment areas
  • excess profit taxes particularly on energy and financial industries
  • estate and consumption tax increases
  • higher income taxes on the wealthiest Americans
  • more progressive tax policies for middle/low income earners
  • reform and innovation in government service delivery – including 211 systems & cross platform benefit applications
  • reductions in defence spending
  • a changed approach to drug addiction & mental health care
  • criminal justice system reform – especially sentencing reform
  • reduced rates of incarceration
  • Medicaid, SNAP, TANF reform – especially to access requirements

A mighty agenda this is, one requiring grass roots action and concerted federal effort. Many of the programs suggested will have high start up costs and require support from tax revenue. It’s fascinating to read what Abramsky has pulled together.  Common sense shines out of his book all the time easing the dark aspects of the subject.

Sadly, many good ideas have to be accompanied by passages describing how they can be spun, for lack of a better word, to make them more appealling in a polarized environment that includes deeply internalized neoconservative and neoliberal values. Poverty in twenty-first century America cannot just be approached with a view to its elimination by the best possible technical means. The possibility of a technocratic approach modelled on the 1960s War on Poverty or the space program is not possible in America right now. Abramsky has to belabour himself early on in three ways because of the condition the national psychology is in. First, just to establish that America’s poverty is real, large in scale and worthy of everybody’s attention. Secondly, that it is a scandal not a tragedy. And thirdly, that there are multiple incentives for carefully applying well thought out correctives to poverty that will benefit all of American society.

Readers might have expected more comparisons to Canada along the way. Cultural expectations in both countries are still comparable for many people. Touchy Americans usually respond with contempt or disinterest to comparisons between the United States and say Sweden or Iceland, no matter the content of the comparison.  Canada may have been a more useful object of comparison for the author.  Canadians can also still be thankful that their poverty is modified by publically funded health care – something Americans have yet to fully get around to and which Abramsky advocates.

North of the border this book makes for alarming reading. Is this Canada’s future?  Maybe our ailing neighbour will surprise us and the world. The country that was spending $5,000 a second at the height of the Iraq war might yet lift up its poor and discover it likes doing so along the way. What an example to the world that would be. In the meantime America’s poor can be thankful someone is out there recording their words and drawing together the best ideas on the topic of what is to be done.

Read this book.

Poor in the land of plenty: Sasha Abramsky’s ‘American Way of Poverty’
NYT review

The author is featured in this Democracy Now! segment:

(341) Five Stages of Collapse [Book review]

5SC_ThumbThe Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors’ Toolkit
Dmitry Orlov,
New Society Publishers: British Columbia, 2013
240 pages
ISBN: 978-086571-736-7

“This sucker could go down.” George W. Bush, 2008.

Dmitry Orlov, writer and collapsatarian social critic has been travelling up this intellectual trail for so long now he is nearly out of sight of most North Americans.  As his readership already knows he got to observe the failure of the Soviet Union fairly closely.  His family were émigrés to the United States from Russia.  Insider/outsider status in both worlds got Orlov thinking that the West was probably next into the garbage can of history.  That thinking led to his 2008 book Reinventing Collapse: Soviet Experience and American Prospects.  For this new book, Orlov describes the phenomenon of collapse in greater detail and at a wider scale.

It’s gonna be a doozy, folks.

You see, resource depletion has already fatally undermined industrial complexity.  Where we are headed will only result in collapse, there isn’t going to be a slow deflation, soft landing, an energy-technology miracle.  We could make some better decisions along the way but there will be a global, societal collapse by mid-century at the latest.  Collapse is built into industrial society, and it is completely indifferent to your sucky feelings, good intentions, daydreams, denials and entitlements.

Casual observation, statistical analysis and computer modelling alike demonstrate there is simply not enough of anything left at the quantities and price needed by the machine to keep it fed.  The financial systems supporting our reality require indefinite future growth so that debt can be repaid and new debt issued.  Without a positive resource trend, especially for energy resources, the financial system no longer can remain the operating system for commerce.

The built forms and human behaviours related to suburban sprawl are the primary complex of North American economic life.  It’s over for the whole enchilada, according to Orlov.  Five Stages of Collapse is a well-argued, moderately priced opus and through it we can see the suburban poverty we look at here as an early stage of collapse, an unavoidable, terminal, and ever growing deviation from the original intention of suburbia as an expression of prosperity.

Expect five stages:

1. Financial collapse

2. Commercial collapse

3. Political collapse

4. Social collapse

5. Cultural collapse

The first two stages are about the end of money.  That’s expected because lending at interest, usury, only works under a scheme of perpetual growth, otherwise it’s cyanide to everyone imbibing.  Orlov feels we are already past this stage.  For example, on page 32 he tells us blithely that “…the main use of the old industrial-era infrastructure will be as a plentiful source of scrap”.

To a great many people, his shtick is shocking, anti-social, unpatriotic, science-fictional, it might even seem like it’s the product of a poorly-adjusted mind, maybe even an ill one.  Certainly Orlov is a remarkably critical man with little in our present approach to life not overdue for evisceration.  “And now that most of the easy, cheap, plentiful reservoirs of these fossil fuels have been used up and what remains is difficult, risky, expensive to extract and rather small in size, we are due for another collapse.  The difference that this collapse will be on a completely unprecedented scale, and global in scope,” he says.

Yikes!  What will happen to our regional shopping malls, the condominium towers that seem to reproduce all over the landscape while we sleep?

The third element, political collapse, is when things start to get sticky.  In fact, the shit truly hits the fan as the system dimly recognizes the terminal danger it is in and flails and claws angrily about in self-defence.  Instead of naturalistic “new rules” developing from the ground up we see an official desperation that blends all too easily into serious violence, repression, corporate power and abuse and other heavy forms of control.

Plentiful precedent and our imagination indicate to us that the first three stages of collapse can get dicey fast.  Weimar Germany comes to mind as an example of just how unhinged an advanced society can become.  At the same time though, such collapses might offer humanity the opportunity to start anew with simpler, clearer goals, something often sought within the life of the individual so why not for our communities?  Orlov also indicates via his own manner of living (on a box-hulled sailboat and as a writer) that a reasonably equipped individual with a supportive community, tribe or network could actually ignore a good part of the first three types of collapse.  You know what, he’s actually a pretty optimistic end-of-the-world kind of guy …in a depressing way.  His writerly acquaintances mention Orlov’s charm and wit very often.

It’s in the latter two stages of collapse that the potential for creativity and decency becomes exterminated and human society fails at the level of its most basic behaviours and relationships, passing down through levels of tragedy to a state of barbarism that would have to be described as sub-animal.  Orlov has a grim deftness with the topic, asking questions most of us are schooled to pretend don’t exist.

What is to be done, then?  Well, not much colleagues, cousins and neighbours, you see “…the sort of community that stands a chance post-collapse is simply unacceptable pre-collapse: it is illegal, it is uncomfortable and it is unsafe.  No reasonable person would want any part of it,” Orlov says on page 200.  What can emerge from collapse, and the system’s doomed-to-fail responses to collapse, are new tribes suited to immediate realities and providing for their members according to new behavioural codes and relationships.  This is where a rough kind of hope lies.

The case studies Orlov uses to illustrate what will be possible are deeply off-putting ones.  Except for post-2008 Iceland perhaps, this is certainly the case for the remaining four, which are the Pashtun tribesmen of Afghanistan, the now-dispersed Ik people of Uganda (about as messed up a story of any human grouping as you will ever find), the post-1991 Russian Mafia, and the Roma.

The Five Stages of Collapse contains a great deal of wisdom about human behaviour and social relations.  It’s well informed by history but is about us in the here and now.  Each stage of collapse has its own chapter with a case study following it to add depth.  Orlov’s comfort with science and engineering is evident.  There’s a mini rant here and there including a memorable one about the inherent flaws of the English language.  State religion gets a spanking, as it should, though the social benefit of local religious association is to be welcomed.

Whatever stands out for you in particular about The Five Stages of Collapse, you will need to go for a long walk in the woods by yourself after reading it.  Or have a stiff drink, …or both.

Either way, when you come back, you’ll be thinking about getting ready for it all.

Suburban-poverty.com says “read this book!”

(337) The Great Deformation [Book review]

Great Deformation2

The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America
David A Stockman, PublicAffairs: New York, NY, 2013
742 pages
ISBN: 978-1-58648-912-0

“I invest in anything that Bernanke can’t destroy, including gold, canned beans, bottled water and flashlight batteries.”  –David A. Stockman on CNBC in 2010

The American economy is in a bad place decades in the making.  Deeply messed up macroeconomic approaches are to blame.  This, the tightly coupled interplay of specific public policy and deliberate elite behaviour also helped build suburbia, the single most visible monument to the American way of doing business since the 1930s.

America’s macroeconomic policy raised up this spectacular suburban edifice and then promptly whacked it in the face with a folding chair, among other things.  David A. Stockman brings us the story in one battleship of a book.

Polemical?  Yes.  Righteous?  Yes.  Objective, well, not really, but the author’s take on the whole concussed, black-eyed, nosebleeding mess that is America makes this an alarming, unputdownable blockbuster.

Apparently, the Eisenhower era was the last time there was any shred of sound fiscal policy in Washington, D.C.  Since then it’s been mainly a horrifying tale of crony capitalism based on flawed, destructive Keynesian mythologies made popular in the Great Depression.  Too much borrowing, too much money-printing, too little gold standard.

Stockman starts with a survey of the smoking hole that remains of America’s finances.  Oh, the “wonder and plunder” he sees, this financialized End Times of red hot printing presses and liquidity injections, TARP and auto bailouts, prosperity management via rock bottom interest rates, jacked up stock markets, lobotomized stimulus spending, vast sums for welfare and warfare, green energy boondoggles, fractional reserve banking, fiat currencies, outright corruption and fraud, lawlessness in an overgrown financial sector, deindustrialization, bubble-crazed markets for commodities and real estate, leveraged buyouts and plutocratic elites.

Nixon did this, mostly.  He took the US dollar off the gold standard, hoping to make recovery from the disastrous Vietnam war faster and easier.  Nothing has been the same since.  This was when the idea that money and prosperity are just artefacts of policies and postures at the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, the White House and on Wall Street exploded.  Just as the little bungalows of the 1950s were replaced by long ranch houses in the 1960s and then the crazed monster homes of the 1980s the sound money policy of the Eisenhower era was abandoned in stages for something ever more fake and elaborate.

The result is permanent ruin.  This could not have happened, argues Stockman, if the US dollar had remained attached to something real, namely gold.  Carter made some efforts to cope with inflation but Reagan was very comfortable with the new regime, adding vast and unnecessary military spending to a reactionary hatred of taxation.  Before anybody knew where they were a long, yet totally ersatz, boom was underway thanks to casual miracles of financial engineering.  Sprawl replaced mere suburbia.  Clinton took credit for the manufacturing of prosperity in turn.  More tax cuts came under George W Bush, a massively idiotic president in terms of economic policy.

In 2008, it all blew its guts out.  What lies ahead?  A $20 trillion “tower of deficits” is what.  A “fiscal doomsday machine” which has so trashed free enterprise’s best qualities that nothing can really save America now, it is, apparently, sundown over the state-wreck.  Welcome to permanent fiscal cliff and permanent sequester, America.

Sure, there’s a prescriptive appendix of policies that need to be adopted yesterday which could turn things around.  They are interesting, worthless and lame all at the same time.  After the demolition job done on America by crony capitalism, far too little and not exactly on time.  Stuff like means testing social benefit programs is weak and Tory, and won’t bring back this patient.

The wild tale of how America got where it is right now is about as big as it gets.  Such as it can be held by one story teller Stockman is probably custom made to do the job.  He was one of Reagan’s budget directors, a Congressman and worked for Wall Street for many years.  Combine that insider perspective with his study of the Great Depression and you get a privileged viewpoint.

The reader will find a high level of detail and much colour in The Great Deformation.  The vast arc of economics, mind boggling statistics and casual meetings between a handful of decision makers are handled with equal deftness.  Even though the overall package is huge we never felt lost in it.

Of particular interest to suburban-poverty.com readers will be chapters 19 and 20.  This is where we see the racy folly of casino capitalism finally putting American hope in the sepulchre.  Fiscal policy drew everyday Americans into Wall Street’s gambling addiction and fostered the long, long boom in real estate prices.  Both of which have worked out not very well for America’s working people and middle class, and most of the main institutions affecting their lives.

Wow!  Suburban-poverty.com says, “read this book.”

“…a welcome thrashing of the ruling classes in both parties.” That was said of The Great Deformation by a Wall Street Journal reviewer: Bow to Our Malefactors


(336) Thieves of Bay Street [Book review]

TTOBSThieves of Bay Street: How Banks, Brokerages and the Wealthy Steal Billions from Canadians
Bruce Livesey
Vintage Canada, Toronto, 2012
313 pages
ISBN: 978-0-307-35964-3
$21.00 paperback

Dishonesty, mismanagement and mediocre regulation in the financial sector burns Canadians to the tune of twenty billion dollars a year.  So says investigative reporter Bruce Livesey in his book Thieves of Bay Street, recently made available in paperback.

Livesey’s critique reverses the rosy description of this country’s financial sector that appeared in the wake of the American meltdown.  In that description, Canada’s banks and brokerages are seen to have dodged the ruinous calamity and moral disaster of the mortgage crisis and too-big-to-fail bank bailouts through better regulation and less inclination to rapaciousness and greed, because they were a sensible reflection of the country’s best qualities.

Livesey swings hard at all that.  Less than ten pages in he describes Bay Street as a “…wealth destroyer, a parasitic reaper of money from the middle and working classes, transferring it to the very people who run the financial industry and Canada’s wealthiest citizens.”  He works from the evidence.  By the time Livesay is done, Canada’s financial players are only marginally distinguishable in terms of character and behaviour from those of the United States or Great Britain, or indeed, the Third World.

The source of pain is the small, club-like financial elite operating the industry.  In turn, they are facilitated by fragmented, weak regulatory bodies whose decision-makers are usually drawn from the industry.  A constitutional weakness also renders Canada virtually unique among developed countries in that regulation of high finance is not a national responsibility. Instead, it is divided amongst thirteen subnational bodies.  Changing this has been on the radar of the present Tory government but is proving difficult and is seen to have encouraged international fraudsters of the worst kind to come to Canada and get busy.

Conrad Black starts the action in Thieves of Bay Street.  A household name and recently released from jail in America, Black’s issues revolve around fees and fraud.  Where once management handled money to advance a business and its investors they now maneuver millions while rationalizing a share for themselves at the expense of good governance and achievement through productive activity.  Corporations come and go quickly and vast sums are raked off by managers like Black regardless of outcome.  Notably, Black has chosen to litigate against Livesey, assuring the latter of valuable publicity.

Dozens of further examples of nasty behaviour towards corporate holdings, pensions, investors and employees unfold in this book.  Names like Hollinger, Nortel, Stelco, and YBM Magnex, Edward Jones are already familiar, others less so, all representing plenty of damage to Main Street.

The positive propaganda around Bay Street post-2008 really doesn’t survive a reading of this book, which is a bestseller and has been positively reviewed even in conservative newspapers like the National Post and the Globe & Mail.  Conrad Black was busted in Chicago, not Toronto.  Contrast even lifestyle entrepreneur Martha Stewart’s notoriety south of the border for an insider trading deal worth about $45,000 with the case of two Toronto financial sector lawyers described in chapter fourteen.  The pair scored about $10m in two quiet four-or-five year runs of insider trading, outed only after giving in to emotional instability and a series of sloppy moves described as “moronic”.

Fraud and greed on the part of individual players is one thing.  Livesey reserves some of his very strongest criticism for the regulators, underwriters, lawyers, analysts, and rating agencies.  This is the logistical tail of Bay Street and too frequently white collar criminals make handy use of this part of the industry.  “Sometimes, these ‘enablers’ consciously assist the criminals and are intricately involved in frauds; sometimes they simply turn a blind eye in order to make a lot of money; and sometimes they screw up. Either way, their behaviour is part and parcel of the investment world’s culture, one that suggests declining morals and dearth of concern for investors’ interests,” writes Livesey.

Canadian banks were party to the sub prime mortgage horror show in the United States and sold financial products to Canadians based on toxic real estate-related debt.  Not always with pretty results, either.  Livesey sees Canada’s banks and brokerages as extensively integrated to a global system that courts enormous risk and encourages a growing and destructive picture of inequality in wealth.  A system further seen to have extensive relationships to crime via a system of shadow banking.

Central to the positive image of the big Canadian banks after 2008 is the idea that they received nothing in the way of public-money bailouts as their American and British institutional cousins required to remain alive and not bring down their respective national economies along with themselves.  This myth has proved quite persistent.  Chapter eight, Bankers Behaving Badly, addresses it.  Indeed, Canada’s big banks have been “bailed in” since Victorian times you might say but have been privileged to the tune of  many tens of billions of dollars in response to recent global economic difficulty.  Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation helped the banks blur the impact of toxic assets.  Ordinary Canadian customers also pay very high fees to banks for their basic services.  The much trumpeted position of the banks is due as much to government help and ATM charges, not to mention public complacency, as fiscal prudence on the part of management.

Curiously, when we began reading this book with a review of it in mind for suburban-poverty.com two bank-related developments entered the news stream.  The first that several big Canadian banks have been officially described as “systemically important” that is to say, too big to fail.  The other was a report from Bloomberg about bank CEO pay for North America.  Canadian bankers are among the top tier for compensation, and are also named for being overpaid in proportion to the size and performance of their banks.  This is barely a month after the furor over outsourcing jobs at RBC (and later HSBC) and so we are reminded again of the huge role of Bay Street in the life of Canada, like it or not.

The more realistic our view of this complex, lucrative industry the better.  After reading Livesey’s book and blog it’s hard not to be pessimistic.  If Canadians are to be richer or poorer people over the coming decades a lot will depend on the money business.  Recent government interest in making the reality of Bay Street as sound and sensible as the image is welcome, Livesey suggests it may be too late.

Either way, suburban-poverty.com says “read this book!”