Writings 1990-1999


Kenneth Westhues

Catholic New Times, 21 September 1997; on the web by permission, August 2003

"The hardest thing to do is to tell what is going on," Arthur Miller said in 1956. "It is easy to talk about the past and future, but nobody knows what is happening now."

Through drama, Miller did the hardest thing. The honourary degree Harvard gave him this year was belated recognition of this fact. By putting the Salem witch trials on stage in The Crucible, Miller told what was going on in the McCarthy era he was living through. Death of a Salesman showed what was happening to people in the market economy of the fifties—and of today.

Whether any nonfiction writer can tell what is going on as well as a playwright can is an open question. Here, at least, are two who try. Their books shed precious light on what is happening now.

Robert Kuttner is a Boston-based economist whose syndicated column appears in many U.S. newspapers and who also writes for Business Week, the Atlantic Monthly, and other leading magazines. This book is his systematic debunking of the cult of the free market that has overtaken economics and other social sciences in North America, and that currently holds sway in the making of public policy—not just in Washington, but in Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton, and lesser capitals.

The strength of Everything for Sale is that it attacks the prevailing orthodoxy from the inside. Kuttner is not a Marxist, not a preacher of the option for the poor, not a proponent of native spirituality. He is a friend of capitalism, enamoured of technical innovation, in favour of creating wealth, and tolerant of inequality. He knows, however, what has escaped many blinkered, simpler minds: that if a capitalist society is not to self-destruct, markets have to be kept within political bounds. "In a sense," he writes, "it is the market that free-rides on extra-market values that make our market society a bearable place, by tempering the relentless opportunism that the market model commends."

The nine chapters of his book address the major areas of public policy: work and unemployment, health care, the financial system, regulation of corporations, and the environment. For one topic after another, from airlines to telephones, Kuttner shows that the free-market ideal does not square with the evidence, and that pretending so benefits no one but the corporate powers that be.

Peter Li's book is a chronicle of how corporations have come to dominate Canadian politics and society over the past half-century, and with what consequences. A sociologist at the University of Saskatchewan, Li sets out to show how diverse changes in this country, "which appear as disjointed and haphazard, are in fact related to each other in a coherent way." Li's focus is not like Kuttner's, on the ideological forces that uphold the current structure of power, but on the structure of power itself.

The most lustrous pearls in this treasure chest of insight are the meticulously constructed figures and tables of statistical data. The reader gets a numerical picture of the shift of the tax burden year by year from corporations (31% of tax in 1952, 7% in 1993) to individuals (27% in 1952, 53% in 1993), of the rise of consumer credit and mortgages (from 50% of personal disposable income in 1961 to 89% in 1993), of the per capita debt of the federal government ($796 in 1970, $17,376 in 1994), and much more. The ongoing concentration of property and power in Canada's capitalist economy appears as the overarching trend.

Readers in this country will appreciate the attention Li (unlike Kuttner) gives to distinctly Canadian issues: postwar immigration patterns, Quebec separatism, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and our more developed welfare state. It is as clear in Li's book as in Kuttner's that the main thing going on in Canada of late is the same as in the U.S.A.: the steady reshaping of all the rich diversity of life into commodities for a market whose players are big corporations that depend on profit to survive.

No playwright would describe what is happening now in quite the way Kuttner or Li describe it, but at some point great drama, great literature, and great social science all converge. The two books reviewed and recommended here do not reach that point, but they are in that direction.