My interview with Open Book about Shopping for Change

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Book cover for the Canadian publication by Between the Lines Books.

This week marks the publication in Canada (very exciting!) of my new book, co-edited with Louis Hyman, Shopping for Change: Consumer Activism and the Possibilities of Purchasing Power. Published by Between the Lines here in Canada, it’s published elsewhere by Cornell University Press, which will have it out in April.

Recently I spoke about the book with Open Book (which celebrates and profiles Ontario’s literary scene, with a special focus on the books and events produced by Ontario’s independent, Canadian-owned publishers) as part of their Lucky Seven interview series. In the interview, I discuss how the Occupy movement inspired the book, about dealing with imposter syndrome, and, of course, the importance of tea in the writing process. The Lucky Seven interview, with Joseph Tohill

Incomes, Not Values, Explains US-Canada Difference in High-End Retail Consumption

With another high-end American department store about to open in Toronto’s Eaton Centre this week, the New York Times today contrasts the retrenchment of department stores in the United States with their expansion in Canada. In addition to the new Nordstrom stores, it notes the expensive renovation of the Hudson’s Bay’s flagship store, located immediately south of the Eaton Centre, and the expansion of Quebec’s La Maison Simons into other parts of Canada.

A little irksome, however, is the resort to tiresome cultural comparisons between Canadians and Americans in order to explain differences between the retail markets of the two countries. The article, for example, cites the greater Canadian frugality to explain why Canada hasn’t had the same explosion of high-end retail shopping that the US has experienced in the past few decades. This assumes that consumers in each country are about equally wealthy. Of course, it was the New York times itself that did much a couple of years ago to hype the idea median incomes in the United States were falling behind those in Canada.

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“Falling behind” is a relative term, as the NYT’s own data demonstrates. The top 50 percent of American earners still do better than their Canadian counterparts.

The US middle class, the Times lamented, was falling behind Canada’s (an idea that did not go uncontested at the time). Whether this was accurate or not, the striking thing is that once you go above the median income, at which point Canada and the United States are relative equal, Americans in every decile (i.e. increment of 10 percent) above earn significantly more than their Canadian counterparts.

Surely the explanation for the supposed frugality of Canadian consumers when it comes to high-end retailers is this: Canada is simply home to fewer super-rich earners (and consumers) than the US. In 2010, for example, the richest 1 percent in Canada took home about 10 percent of the national income; in the US, they “earned” 25 percent of it. To break into the top 1 percent in Canada that year, you had to earn just $201,400; in America, $352,000.

The retrenchment of the high-end retail industry in the United States suggests the American market is oversaturated with stores like Nordstrom, Macey’s, and Saks. My bet is it will eventually happen in Canada, too, and probably more quickly than south of the border. And Canadian frugality will have nothing to do with it.

Why Obama has made so little difference: reflections on Canada-US differences

This is a post I wrote for Active History last year, just before the US presidential election.

It draws on my comparative and transnational historical research and writing on the United States and Canada. I’ve stressed the importance of political-institutional structures in shaping and constraining what it’s possible for political leaders and policymakers to accomplish in each country.

In retrospect, a more descriptive title would probably have garnered more interest in this post. (It doesn’t really get explained until the end.) At the time, though, I liked the militant sound of it.

World War II Propaganda Poster, Office of Price Administration.

Less than two weeks to go in the US presidential election campaign, and the candidates are (surprisingly) running neck and neck. The sense of disappointment in incumbent President Barack Obama is palpable, especially after his sleepy first debate performance turned what should have been a runaway race into a real contest. Of course, the current disappointment is just the latest in a string of disappointments—from the failure to close Guantanamo Bay to the failure to reform social security. Combined, they have turned 2008’s campaign slogans such as “Change We Can Believe In!” into a bitter memory for many audaciously hopeful liberals, lefties, and social activists of all sorts.

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