Why is Chrystia Freeland leaving journalism to run for office?

August 16, 2013

Until recently, Chrystia Freeland was managing director and editor for consumer news at Reuters. She was also a prolific author, including, most recently, of the excellent book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else

But Freeland recently announced she's leaving journalism to run for parliament as a member of Canada's Liberal Party. On Thursday, I got the chance to ask her why.

Ezra Klein: So, why leave journalism to run for public office?

Chrystia Freeland. (Author's photo.)
Chrystia Freeland. (Author's photo.)

Chrystia Freeland: For me it was a very personal decision. It comes in two parts. The first is it comes out of my journalistic work. I’ve been writing a lot about the changes in the economy -- namely, globalization and the technology revolution -- for both the exciting possibilities they hold and their impact on income distribution. My conclusion is that we in industrialized Western societies are at a real watershed moment. It’s comparable to the peak of the industrial revolution. Our economy is changing really profoundly, and I don’t think our social and political institutions have kept up with that.

And look, I’m excited about these changes; I’m a capitalist red in tooth and claw. It’s important to embrace the power of innovation. But we’re seeing that there’s no guarantee that the fruits of even positive changes in the economy will be widely shared. In recent decades increases in productivity and wages have been decoupled. So now we’re seeing this surging inequality with people at the top doing really well and the middle class being hollowed out.

This became my preoccupation. I gave a lot of book talks, particularly in Canada, because I’m from Canada, and my book did best in Canada, and book talks are great...

EK: That’s a cheerful disposition. I’ve mostly heard authors say touring for books is horrible.

CF: Anybody who complains about it is either a hypocrite or an ingrate. You’re talking about something you love to audiences who care. What could be better than that? But so I’d do these talks and people would say: Okay, I’m sympathetic to your analysis. It rings true. But what will you do about it? What can I do about it? And I thought, yeah, that is the right question.

The second piece in my decision is I’m a very patriotic Canadian. I’ve worked outside Canada a lot but remained very connected to Canada. It meant a lot to me that ... at Thompson Reuters I was working for a global Canadian company. And writing my book made me feel very Canadian because the combination of being very enthusiastic about capitalism and very concerned about the social implications is very central to the Canadian polity.

And Canada also happens to be at a political turning point. Canada has done better than the U.S. at protecting it society from the surge in inequality and the effects of globalization. But it’s starting to happen here, too. And I think the current conservative government isn’t grasping this as an issue. They’re not looking forward creatively to ways we as a society need to address these changes, but they’re also eroding some of the great national institutions that have helped Canada weather the storm so far. And in the Liberal Party and its new leader, Justin Trudeau, I think Canada has a real alternative.

EK: As a journalist, you’d gotten to a place where you could write about all these issues and actually be heard and have an impact. Now you’re going into politics where, even if you win, you’ll be one of many members of a parliament. So why do you think you’ll have more leverage to effect these questions from there than you have now?

CF: The first thing I’d say is I think journalism is really important and really fun, and I am incredibly grateful that I’ve had the chance to be a journalist for so many years and -- who knows? -- life is long, and perhaps in my 80s, I’ll be able to return. My personal choice is not about shaking the dust of journalism from my feet. It’s not a lesser choice to be in journalism.

The question of what are the levers in politics is a good one. A lot of people say to me that politics has become so dirty and trivial and petty. It’s not an arena where good and important work can be done. And it’s also a personally unpleasant arena. And I think you can credibly argue that’s what politics is. That view is true in Canadian politics, too. But not to sound too "new agey," but I had to ask myself if I believe in democracy. And, yes, I really do! I’ve lived in countries without democracy. I’ve watched people sacrifice to create democracy. The way it looks and is lived now often isn’t that appealing. But I’m idealistic. And I feel if I can try and have a voice as a directly elected politician that’s an important and powerful way to make your city or country a better place.

EK: The inequality problem you’re focused on addressing is a global problem. It’s happening, to greater and lesser extents, in many countries simultaneously. It’s being driven by forces far beyond Canada’s borders. So how, working inside the government of one country, can you grapple with it?

CF: I think that right now we’re laboring under this double fatalism. There’s a fatalism that politics doesn’t work and that politics can’t do anything about these big changes anyway. I think people have to push back on both of those. We need to get some perspective here. We as societies have done really big things. The Second World War was a really big thing! Perhaps a closer analogy was a response to the great economic transformations of industrialization and urbanization that our grandparents lived through. We in Canada built a single-payer health insurance system. That was hard. Imagine living in a modern, urbanized system without that.

EK: I can very much imagine that.

CF: And it’s awful! I’m glad Canada got there early. But, broadly speaking, Western Europe and North America did rise to the challenge of industrialization. Those “dark satanic mills” powered prosperity and modern middle-class democracy. Let’s not be wimps. We can do this. On the global question, part of the reason I want to argue to Canadians that they should pick me is that my global experience will be an essential part of figuring out solutions that will work for Canada.

Some things you can do in one country. We have health care and did that ourselves. We made a different choice than our biggest neighbor. But a lot of the biggest issues now will require some level of agreement and collaboration. And that, too, will be done. What I find encouraging about it is that everyone is asking the same questions. This is a debate happening in a lot of different countries, and I think if we elect people of goodwill who care they can start chipping away.

EK: Tell me specifically what that chipping-away will consist of. What’s the policy agenda you think is needed to begin responding to these changes?

CF: Sadly for me and for you, I’m not an economic genius. I’m not Keynes or Teddy Roosevelt or FDR. I don’t have fully formed in my mind the answer. I also think -- and this is a really core conviction of mine -- that there are some issues in politics where there is, at least for me, an easy yes/no answer. Full, equal rights for gays and lesbians --that doesn’t require deep thinking and elaboration of policy. That’s an easy one. For me, a women’s right to choose. But how we find ways to share the fruits of globalization and the technological revolution more widely is really hard. I think it’s a 25-year project for a lot of people thinking and writing and proposing. And it’ll require a lot of trial-and-error by politicians. And I can see people’s eyes roll every time I say that. But it’s true. It’ll take a lot of time.

Having said that, I know some of the general areas we need to work at. A few I’d name are social mobility and social opportunity. One economist whose work I admire the most on this is Miles Corak. His work shows rising income inequality leads to declining social mobility. That says to me that we need to do everything we can in this time of turbulent social change to make sure kids being born today, no matter where they’re born, have excellent education and excellent health care and enough resources that they’re not growing up in poverty. And that’s part of how you preserve mobility and citizenship at a time of rising inequality.

The other piece, which I don’t think people think about enough, is entrepreneurship. Ontario is very much part of the North American car industry. We’re starting to see it in white collar jobs, too. If you want to be a successful society or city you need to do everything possible to be the most attractive place for entrepreneurship. I’m a big believer in Richard Florida’s ideas around this. You need to be a buzzy, creative, sexy city where people want to be. I think some social welfare measures, like universal health care, play a big role in freeing people to be entrepreneurs. But we here in Canada and Toronto need to really work harder to make this a magnet.

A third important area is, I think, corporate governance has gotten out of whack with the public good. There are a lot of CEOs who feel that way, too. There are a lot of CEOs who will tell you quarterly earnings are oppressive and don’t allow you to build a company for the long term. Trying to figure out how to realign what the executives and officers of companies are incentivized to do with the broader public good is really important. And the thing that gives me hope in that arena is that a lot of businesspeople are very keen to work on that, too.

And then a final thing to talk about is we live in an age of global capital and national taxation systems. And to me one of the most interesting sets of stories that has come out in the past year is seeing how the tax burden on global companies is steadily coming down, very often because they’re operating in a global space and taxation systems are national. And a consequence of that is either the tax burden on the middle class increases or government is able to deliver fewer services.

EK: Hearing all that, it sounds like an excellent think tank agenda on some level. But given politics has this huge short-term component. There’s a need to be able to tell people what you did for them since the last election, what’s the very near-term of the agenda? If the voters elect you, what will you begin by doing?

CF: The near-term agenda for me, infant politician, is to win the liberal nomination in Toronto Center to get the right to compete in the election. One of the exciting things to me about politics is the opportunity and requirement to transform big areas of inquiry into practical action. But I’m not so arrogant to think that’s my job right now. My job right now is to win the right to be part of the conversation in the Liberal Party. If I do that, I win the right to have a seat at the table as the Liberal Party comes up with that agenda. And in 2015 the Liberal Party can present that agenda to Canadians.

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