Any Adults in the House? Sunday column, November 14, 2010
SUNDAY HERALD COLUMN – November 14, 2010
Are there any adults in the house? Is there anyone out there who can read and write and do simple arithmetic, and who has an attention span longer than that of a butterfly?
That’s my grumpy reaction after watching the latest wave of elections. The anti-tax, anti-government zealots of the Tea Party make huge inroads in the US, greatly to the pleasure of the billionaires and corporations who covertly fund their movement. Toronto elects a mayor whose only policy idea is that he’s going to “end the gravy train.” In BC, opponents of the HST line the roads, waving signs, and bring down Gordon Campbell – who was himself an anti-tax zealot in the first place.
Well, sure, nobody likes to pay taxes. And yes, governments do make expensive mistakes and waste money. So do I and so do you, I suspect. And so do do corporations – does anyone remember the Apple Newton, Nortel, Bear Stearn, the Chrysler and GM bailout?
Governments are human organizations, and – like other such organizations – they’re subject to human failings. Adults understand that. Adults also understand that if you spend more than your income, you eventually create a crippling debt. And they grasp the relationship between taxes and services, between what you pay and what you receive. They know that taxes are the price of a civilized life.
The illusion that a government can simultaneously cut taxes, increase services and stay out of debt was part of the legerdemain of that master illusionist, Ronald Reagan. Cut taxes to the wealthy and to the corporations, Reagan urged, and those people will put the money they save into lavish spending and productive investments. The economy will boom and the unemployed will find jobs. By cutting tax rates, you increase tax revenues, and the benefits “trickle down” to the poor.
Reagan’s opponent for the Republican nomination, George Bush I, described “Reaganomics” as “voodoo economics,” which it is. (That didn’t prevent Bush from becoming Reagan’s vice-president.) Reaganomics amounts to saying that the most effective way to get money to the poor is to give it to the rich. But the rich are savers, not spenders. Not much money trickles away from them.
Adults understand that taxation is, in effect, the “Costco of public services,” as a new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives puts it, because “tax revenue allows governments to bulk buy services such as health care, education, and public transit.” Bulk buying drives down costs, so more people can benefit.
Most Canadians, says the CCPA, don’t know the value they receive from taxes in terms of public services, health, education, food safety, social welfare and so on. The average Canadian enjoys $16,952 worth of public benefits annually, and the benefits increase with income; middle-class Canadian families receive an average of $41,000 worth of public services every year. That’s the equivalent of a significant second income.
All of which is under attack. Over the past 15 years, the tax system has become increasingly unfair, and those benefits have been seriously eroded. The richest 1% of families now pay less in taxes than they did in 1990, while the poorest 20 percent pay more. Meanwhile, the corporations pay $12 billion less in taxes than they did in 2000. That amount represents almost a quarter of our national deficit.
And so, says the CCPA, we face “a downward spiral of diminishing expectations – dangerously long wait times in emergency rooms, crushing debt loads for university graduates, boil water alerts, collapsing overpasses, and tainted food scares.” We are learning to accept “that grinding poverty within an affluent nation is the natural order of things.”
It’s not, and even the wealthy deplore the injustice. Warren Buffett, arguably the richest man in the world, is dismayed that his secretary pays a higher rate of tax than he does. Here in Canada, Edmund Clark, the CEO of the Toronto-Dominion Bank declares that he would pay higher taxes in order to improve the society he lives in.
These guys cannot be dismissed as spendthrift lefties. They know about costs and benefits, causes and effects. They don’t traffic in denial or wishful thinking. They know they are part of the social order, like everyone else. They’re adults. It’s a shame that such maturity seems so rare.
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