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Is Canada a dangerous bastion of socialism? According to Trump, maybe: Don Pittis

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So what exactly is socialism, anyway, and why is U.S. President Donald Trump so alarmed about it?

In what some are calling the start of a new Red Scare of the kind that divided U.S. politics and economics in the previous century, the president used last week’s state of the union address to stoke partisan anxiety. 

« Here in the United States, we are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country, » Trump declared in his speech to Congress. « America was founded on liberty and independence — and not government coercion, domination and control. »

As he spoke, network cameras panned to self-declared supporter of socialism Sen. Bernie Sanders and, by U.S. standards, the left-leaning Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

‘Socialist’ like Canada?  

But, of course, to most Canadians — and to most of the world’s other liberal democracies — the socialism of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez that advocates things like universal health care and moderating the extremes of U.S. wealth and poverty does not seem very alarming. 

To most Canadians, raised in what has been called a mixed economy for its combination of the public and private sector, that kind of socialism holds little terror.

Left-leaning member of Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez looks down at a button with a picture of a child, as Trump talks about immigration during his state of the union address. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The discussion of who owns the means of production is one of the places where politics and economics come together in the subject area known as political economy.

When I studied economics decades ago, most of the courses analyzed the pure mechanics of capitalism. 

Political economy only raised its head in a final-year course on the history of economic thought, which came as a revelation, and in which anyone who did not follow mainstream capitalist thinking was described scathingly as « heterodox. » That included socialism.

Socialism defined 

In a short telephone call, Laura Macdonald, a Carleton University professor and former director of the school’s Institute of Political Economy, offered the following:

« Socialism is a broad ideology that has different variants, but in general is associated with greater faith in the role of the state versus the market, and a skepticism about the capacity of the market, on its own, to deliver both growth and social equity. »

As a term, she said, socialism is contextual, which means to say it depends on how you use it.

A sculpture of Karl Marx, author of The Communist Manifesto, in Chemnitz, Germany. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters) 

« I don’t think Donald Trump would call us socialist, but probably he thinks we’re dangerously close to that and that may be one of the reasons he doesn’t like Canada very much, » Macdonald said.

Stella Gaon was thrilled for a journalist to actually ask her questions on her specialty as a theorist at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, where she studies the economic and intellectual origins of political thought.

« This is just anti-commie rhetoric from the 1950s, » Gaon said of Trump’s remarks. « Nobody even knows what socialism is. »

Liberalism vs. socialism

Socialism and liberalism are both rooted in the Enlightenment values of freedom, rationality and equality, she said.

The difference between socialism and liberalism is that socialists don’t believe equality is real unless you include economic equality.

In its purest theoretical form, socialism required people to be equally rich, an ideal that Gaon said has never been attained in practice. In its original form, it also required the state to be in control of everything. No private businesses allowed.

A memorial to Karl Marx in London’s Highgate Cemetery was damaged by a vandal earlier this month. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

Socialism has come a long way since the days when socialism and communism meant roughly the same thing, said Tom Flanagan, a political theorist and professor emeritus at the University of Calgary.

Socialism meant the state control of all industry and « the replacement of the markets by an administrative economy, » said Flanagan, a conservative political activist who was an adviser to former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

But since then, and especially after the creation of the Soviet top-down communist system in the 20th century, social democracy became the mainstream form of socialism outside communist countries, a kind of watered-down version we see in northern Europe and elsewhere that attempts to share the wealth and equalize opportunity without requiring economic equality.

America, the already socialist

Whereas Gaon insists Canada is purely a liberal democracy — after all, even the country’s left-leaning New Democratic Party has dropped the word socialism from its constitution — Flanagan sees many elements of socialism and administrative planning not just in Canada but in the U.S. as well.

According to that way of thinking, Trump may be too late. Socialism has already arrived.

« It’s a matter of degree, » Flanagan said. « All contemporary countries have some elements of socialism, you know, public schools are socialist, owned and operated by the state and there’s no price to get into them. »

While Flanagan doesn’t see a full-fledged socialist takeover on the horizon, he says using the term within the Democratic Party represents a major change.

« Suddenly it’s gone mainstream, » he said. « It’s an important development, because once you start using the vocabulary, it indicates receptivity to more sweeping programs of state intervention. »

Follow Don on twitter @don_pittis

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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