Let Go of my Lego
My grandson loves Lego although lately he’s been into this thing called Minecraft (also by Lego) which looks to me like something thrown together by a bunch of people with no design ability whatsoever. Lego was around when I was a kid but I didn’t play with it much. I built stuff using Tinkertoys and Mecano when I built anything at all. But times change and Lego is huge these days.
So huge that pro-democracy Chinese artist Ai Weiwei decided to incorporate Lego into his art.
He tried to buy sufficient Lego directly from the manufacturer but Lego declined to sell it to him because they deem his work to be too ‘political’. Imagine that, a company headquartered in a democratic nation finds the free expression of pro-democratic rights to be ‘too political”.
I suspect it isn’t what his art expresses so much as at who is art is targeted – The People’s Republic of China.
China is not noted for its stellar respect for democracy or human rights but – and it’s a big but for companies like Lego – it’s the single largest market in the world and when it comes to making a buck; there are few companies that will risk offending the red giant by put democracy and human rights ahead of sales.
I’m not even close to being anti-business but I am very opposed to companies (often supported by governments) ignoring what is right in pursuit of profits and we’re seeing more and more of it these days.
When the price of crude oil plunged, it took gas prices at the pumps down with it. Since then, the price of a barrel of oil has stubbornly refused to climb back up to its former level. That hasn’t prevented gas prices from working their way back up though. In my city, gas prices are hovering near where they were when the price of crude was 50% higher than it is today. More annoying, there is as much as a $0.15/Litre price difference between the east end of the city and the west; a distance of about 20 kms.
Government makes a considerable amount of revenue from gas taxes so, of course, it’s not rushing to force fairness in the marketplace.
Interest rates have never been lower than they are today and yet, the interest banks charge on credit cards is pretty close to where it was before interest rates dropped. Indeed, interest rates climbed into the high teens years ago when the prime rate was double digits, they just never came down when the prime rate was lowered. When I checked earlier today, the interest rate on a Visa card in Canada was 19.99%. The prime rate is 0.5%. Banks have been slow to reduce their lending rates in lock step with continuing reductions in the Bank of Canada’s prime rate. Despite the increased profit this affords, both TD Canada Trust and Scotiabank announced job layoff this past week. This is the second time this year that TD has announced layoff despite record profits.
The Internet has become virtually lawless as far as the tech giants like Google and Facebook are concerned. To be sure, they get banged up a bit over privacy issues every now and then which forces them to make a public display of tweaking their policies but they’re pretty much left alone to make money anyway they want and usually by using you and your information as a product to be sold.
Microsoft recently introduced Windows 10 which it gave away for free. That seemed somewhat egalitarian but the goal is to have all PC user on Windows 10 at some point whether they want to be or not. Slowly, they are forcing PC users to accept the upgrade which removes choice and which will give Microsoft yet another monopolistic springboard for future sales and profits.
The list is quite long so I won’t drone on and on about it but the point is made, corporations are becoming international oligarchies that feel little to no responsibility to the countries in which they operate or the people living in those countries who have often provided handsome subsidies and tax breaks.
After the 2008 recession, which incidentally was caused by the greed of the financial services sector in the United States, it was taxpayers in countries around the world that coughed up the money to bail out banks and investment firms. Everyday citizens lost their homes in the thousands, unemployment rose but the money lenders and gamblers just kept on trucking thanks to an infusion of money from government which ultimately means people like you and I.
The one notable exception was Iceland which not only refused to bail out its banks but has since charged and convicted bank executives for their role in the financial collapse. Not one investment banker in the United States was ever charged, let alone convicted for their role in the creating the recession.
Canada’s banking system is one of the most stable in the world so we didn’t have to bail out our banks but we did bail out the auto industry.
How did that work out for us?
Well, employment in that sector is down. GM announced it was closing its Camaro plant and Volkswagen announced it was relocating its manufacturing operation to Mexico. In a continuing fit of stupidity, the Ontario Government loaned Volkswagen a half billion to facilitate their move in the hope that it might induce them to continue to purchase auto parts in Ontario.
That’s merely one more example of taxpayers subsidizing business, in this case, the auto parts sector for no long term benefit.
If history has taught us anything, it should be that you can’t buy jobs. Once you start handing out wads of cash to corporations, they only hang around as long as the cash keeps flowing. It’s nothing less than corporate welfare and once they get a better offer somewhere else, corporations are quick to pack up their equipment and take their jobs elsewhere.
Even companies like Bell Canada have no sense of national interest. Bell relocated its customer service operation to India where salaries are cheaper and just a few months ago, floated the trial balloon that using services like Unblock Us to access American Netflix was, if not illegal, at least should be. The reason? It cut into their profits.
Profits are important and a necessary part of the free enterprise capitalist system but I don’t think we are a capitalist system anymore. I think we have more in common with old time feudal societies where economic control rests in the hands of a few and it is they, not the people or even the people’s government that make the rules – or ignore them.
Think I’m nuts?
Consider the European Union / Canada Free Trade Deal that was signed a couple of years ago. It still hasn’t been ratified. The reason? Germany refuses to sign on unless the provision that allows corporations to overrule laws that cut into profits is removed. The EU and Canada refusing to amend the agreement so it basically is in stasis until someone gives in.
The pending Trans Pacific Trade Deal gives corporations the right to sue governments if and when the rules set out in the agreement cut into their profits. At some point, it is conceivable that corporations might find it more profitable to simply sue governments rather than actually produce and sell something.
Responsible capitalism can be the economic engine that creates prosperity and innovates new products and technologies that combined improve our quality of life. But capitalism reduced to unrestrained greed concentrated in a few powerful hands is like a swarm of locusts. It strips away everything and leaves nothing behind it.
Increasingly, wealth is being concentrated in the hands of corporations and the people who own and run them and governments are tripping all over each other to reduce corporate taxes even further. When corporate taxes are reduced, it means that the rest of us have to cover the shortfall or allow our governments to cut services.
There is little difference between unbridled capitalism and irresponsible socialism these days. Both have developed an addiction for taxpayers’ money and as Margaret Thatcher pointed out, the problem that creates is that once you run out of other people’s money — there just ain’t no more.
Perhaps we will use Lego as a medium of currency when that happens. If we do, my grandson will be rich.
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