Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/11/2011 (3048 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Our political language about taxes has changed. Gone is "ability to pay." The new catchphrases are "user pay" and "pay as you go." The bottom-line message to citizens is "if you can't pay, you don't go." You don't get to drive into our congested cities without a toll; you don't get your garbage collected without a fee; and who knows, soon you won't get to visit a doctor without a charge.
So pervasive is everyone-for-himself that there is hardly anyone talking about concepts such as "the public good" and "a rising tide lifts all boats."
There's no more community, just individuals and their self-interest.
Alex Himelfarb, clerk of the Privy Council and secretary to the cabinet from 2002 to 2006, has joined an eclectic band of prominent public figures challenging the 30-year-old demonization of government and taxes. They include American billionaire Warren Buffett, who noted he is taxed at half the rate of his secretary, and Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney who called the Occupy movement "entirely constructive" and an understandable product of the "increase in inequality... You've had a big increase in the ratio of CEO earnings to the workers' on the shop floor."
Himelfarb traces the neo-liberal assault back to the late 1970s.
Neo-liberalism — free-market ideology — took full bloom in the aftermath of the stagnation of the 1980s, he said in a recent address sponsored by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
The neo-liberal solution was to let the market do its work and get government out of the way. "Progress would come not from our collective efforts to build a better society... but from pursuit of our individual interests in the market. So began three decades of an unrelenting assault on our government," he said.
The deliberate separation of taxes from the public goods and services they provide is now part of the political culture in every democracy, he continued. The destruction of the commons is furthest advanced in the U.S., where endless tax cutting has meant fire stations are being privatized, street lights dimmed, schools closed, teachers laid off, essential services choked.
Throughout the 1980s "the talk in Ottawa and Washington and London was less bureaucracy, fewer rules, more flexibility... As we cut taxes and make them less progressive, the costs of the free lunch accumulate," he said. "While the most obvious signs may be longer wait times, potholes and crumbling bridges, more insidious and worrisome is the inevitable rise in inequality."
Extreme inequality, he said, "diverts capital, stifles demand, deprives us of the talent we need, erodes trust and undermines democracy. It also eventually turns us against one another — the gated community only the physical manifestation of a deeper divide."
Inequality is fed by divisive, fear-based politics. It leads to a politics "which has contempt for evidence and experts, plays to both our fear and vanity and divides us into hard and fast moral categories: villains and heroes, criminals and victims, hard-working taxpayers and freeloaders."
Mistrust of government and a preoccupation with waste leads to cuts and expensive layers of control and oversight that make government no more accountable or transparent, but more risk-averse and inefficient. He warned tax cuts on the promise of "ending the gravy train seldom find enough gravy." There is no evidence that tax cuts lead to economic growth or that tax cuts to corporations and the rich create jobs.
Himelfarb noted the two-point cut to the GST, reducing government revenue by $13 billion annually, occurred with almost no debate. Now the omnibus crime bill is being pushed through "with almost no information on its costs and no debate on how it's supposed to make us safer rather than just meaner. That is not real transparency. Trust continues to decline."
The future will need a more innovative, productive and confident Canada. "But none of that will happen without a more just and equal Canada."
A good place to start is to ask the rich to step up, he continued. "When it comes to taxes, it is smart to be progressive, to ask the rich to pay a bit more for that lunch that none of us is getting for free."
Frances Russell is a Winnipeg
author and political commentator.