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Monday, November 25, 2013

The theory and practice of "tax relief": Austerity, inequality and neo-liberalism (in three parts)

This is a republication of three pieces (one written with Matt Fodor) on the devastating impact of tax cuts on society and on the creation of the austerity agenda as well as the ineffectual "response" of the left; a response that in many cases facilitated it. 

"Austerity is not simply the consequence of constant tax cuts, it's their purpose"- Alex Himelfarb

Part One: Tax relief and the austerity agenda
One has to hand it to the neo-liberal ideologues and the neoconservative political movement in Canada; they have managed to get all political parties, the mainstream media and most of the population on board the "tax relief" train. To one degree or another, they kneel at the alter of this ultimate false god.

And in the wake of round-after-round of federal and provincial income, sales and corporate tax cuts, the threat of severe austerity measures grows as each year passes.

While this story has played itself out across the country, right now it is doing so most dramatically in the province of Ontario, where citizens are faced with an austerity agenda that will be one-degree-or-another of the disgraceful Drummond Report.

The massive income tax cuts of the '90s and the past decade in Ontario are the chickens that have come home to roost and they are directly why our governments claim they cannot "afford" to fully fund the programmes that citizens depend on, and why they are increasingly rattling the sabres by giving us the entirely false and unnecessary choice between supposed impending economic collapse and massive service cuts and user fees.

To put this in perspective, we have to begin by looking at what potential revenue was lost by Ontario's two decades of tax cuts. By 2003, as was noted at the time by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Harris era personal income tax cuts alone were removing $11.6 billion per year from the Ontario treasury. These tax cuts, which were never reversed, (and which no one is proposing to reverse) have meant that Ontario has lost a minimum of $90-100 billion in revenue since 2003, not including the further tax cuts of the McGuinty era and not including the revenue lost during the Harris era itself. They also were of far greater benefit to the upper income brackets than the lower.

The reversal of these specific tax cuts would have reduced Ontario's overall debt from in excess of $236 billion to under $140 billion. This is very significant, given that Ontario paid out more in interest on this debt in 2010-2011 than it spent on post secondary education. The interest the province is handing to global financial concerns would have been around half the nearly $10 billion it was. That pays for a lot of programmes. It would also have meant that instead of facing an approximately $16 billion deficit this year we would be facing at most a deficit of $4.5 billion.

And this does NOT include all the other tax cuts; the cuts to corporate taxes, to small business taxes, to personal taxes since 2003 under McGuinty, etc. It only includes the impact of cuts to personal taxes that occurred under Mike Harris.

In fact, McGuinty's government has bragged that it is cutting income taxes even further. In Ontario's Tax Plan for Jobs and Growth of March, 2010 the Ontario government is openly proud about how their personal income tax "relief" will benefit 93% of Ontarians (which means many very well-off people) and take another $11.8 billion in revenue out of the coffers over three years. That's almost $4 billion a year. And that means that, without these additional tax cuts, had there not been the "tax relief" since 1995, there would have basically been no deficit and their would be no need for the austerity agenda at all.

If the corporate and small business tax cuts of the 1995-2011 period had not happened, combined with the restored revenues from personal income taxes mentioned above, we would be running a surplus now and we would have an overall debt well under the $100 billion mark.

And yet no one, in any of the mainstream political parties, is advocating for reversing the vast bulk of these taxation policies. Not even close.

It is very important to understand that for the majority of citizens the money that they have received through this "relief" does not even remotely compare to the services, social cohesion and opportunity that they have lost as a result of it.

Unless you are in one of the small tax brackets at the pinnacle of our very steep income pyramid, tax relief is no relief at all. 100 per cent the opposite in fact. Tax relief is the key reason we can't "afford" and do not have programmes like universal day care. It is the reason that "economists" like Don Drummond can claim a fiscal crisis where none need exist and advocate to cut your programmes to the bone in the name of "fiscal responsibility". It is the reason our social programmes are not as good as they were in the '80s and early '90s. The reason our social and even physical infrastructure is falling apart. The reason why user fees on things like children's programmes are ever increasing. The reason why public transit exists at levels well below what is required. The reason why if you lose your job you can't count on any real long-term government help, why health care is in "crisis", why tuition fees are way up, and so much more. It is a large part of why it seems, despite unprecedented economic "growth" over the last 25 years, that we are asked over-and-over again to make sacrifices to keep the wealthy wealthy and big business afloat. It is the primary reason we have been utterly unable to really confront the stain of child poverty and it is a root cause of the massive growth in social inequality.

The results of the theory and practice of "tax relief".

Tax relief is the greatest snake oil salesperson political trick of all promised to deliver financial aid and social stability but, for the bulk of the population, it delivered the exact opposite.

After the 2008 crisis of capitalism and the massive funds that were found to bailout major corporations in both Canada and the USA, it is also very clear that the idea that all this "tax relief" would result in eternal prosperity, corporate investment and trickle-down wealth has now obviously been shown to be the total nonsense that it always was. Most of the population has less job security, less access to programmes and less of a share of overall social wealth than they did when it all began. So, one has to ask, what was the point if not simply to benefit companies and those with higher incomes?

But there is no real political counter-offensive against the basic idea of personal tax cuts.

As shown the McGuinty Liberals have carried the Harris tax cuts further, and have pledged repeatedly that any tax hikes are off the table. The Tories advocate for even deeper tax cuts, and have implied that they would, if they could, implement Drummond's report in its entirety: a recipe for Greek-style social collapse.

The Ontario NDP has called for a raise in the corporate tax rate back to 14%, but the money that this would put back into government coffers would be offset in large part by what the government would lose by the NDP's promises to cut the HST on home heating and gasoline, and by tax breaks to small business. They outline this themselves in their 2011 election platform, the Plan for Affordable Change. Nowhere does this platform call for any personal tax increases, not even on the highest income earners. And yet increasing income taxes even marginally on, say, the top 25% of incomes in Ontario, would have a profound impact on, at the very least, maintaining government programmes as they are now.

The plan's constant refrain of "Rewarding Job Creators", "Living Within our Means", and "Making Life Affordable" expose the central contradictions of the tax relief idea. These targeted tax cuts proposed by the NDP are bad environmental policy, as many have pointed out, most notably the David Suzuki Foundation. But, more basically, would life not be made considerably more affordable for the pocketbooks of "working families" if we reversed personal income tax cuts and used the money to create a provincial system of, for example, free daycare or free pharmacare?

These are programmes that cannot really happen in any other way. Sometimes one can't help but feel that Social Democrats in Canada think that one day they will deliver Scandinavian Social Democracy and social programmes with US level tax rates. They won't.

These are just two examples of the programmes that could have, and could yet exist, if we turned back the near twenty years of personal and corporate tax cuts. Instead we will likely see more service cuts, and we will see a yet greater burden on the province's poor, its workers and its middle-class.
In fact, of course, without personal tax increases on, at the very least, the top income brackets, all the rhetoric of the "shared pain" that is flowing from Queen's Park is unbelievably and contemptibly hollow.

Now, more than ever, we need to fight for real, fair, steeply graded progressive income taxes and to understand that only with these taxes can we build the kind of society that we want and can we fight the inequality that is the hallmark of our times.

Part 2: It's still time for an adult conversation about taxes
Written with Matt Fodor

In a 2009 article in the  Toronto Star, progressive economist Hugh Mackenzie commented on the "strange debate that separates taxes from the services they pay for."  This is a problem across the political spectrum.  Mackenzie criticized the tendency of the Canadian Left to "[campaign] for better public services as if they can be provided free. Better services won't cost us anything because the higher taxes needed to pay for those services can be paid by people we don't know. People who make a lot more money than we do. Big corporations but not small businesses."

Mackenzie was referring to the British Columbia NDP's campaign against the carbon tax as well as the campaigns against the HST "tax grab" by the NDP in both B.C. and Ontario.   This continues today with the Ontario NDP's opposition to road tolls in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area to pay for much needed transit improvements, which eerily echoes Rob Ford’s “war on the car” narrative.

Just this past week, in a truly amazing statement when asked about taxes, this from Tom Mulcair:
Mulcair seemed surprised when he was asked if taxes would go up under an NDP government.
"You’re the first person who’s ever asked me that," he said, adding quickly that they most definitely won't.
"I am categorical on that," he said. “Several provinces are now at the 50 per cent rate. Beyond that, you’re not talking taxation; you’re talking confiscation. And that is never going to be part of my policies, going after more individual taxes. Period. Full stop.”
The Canadian Left, in seeking to justify this and similar stances, will often point to historic left-wing "anti-tax" moments, like the fight against the Poll Tax in the UK in the '80s. But in doing so they take the issue out of the present neo-Liberal context of an ideological campaign against the very idea of taxes. This campaign has been exceptionally successful and has been a critical component underpinning both the appeal of right wing populist ideas (and a major factor in why people support the right and its ideas even against their own seeming class interests) and the growth of rampant, "Gilded Age" levels of social inequality.

On the surface, the "people we don’t know" argument seems appealing.  After all, the Left has long fought for progressive taxation – based on the ability to pay – as a key means of redistribution and raising the revenue to pay for welfare state measures and public investments.  Progressives have rightfully condemned the changes of the tax system over the past two decades that have benefited affluent Canadians.  By increasing taxes on “people we don’t know”, so the argument goes, we can provide "tax relief" to hard-working, middle income Canadians and "everyday families."

This argument is problematic for several reasons.  It underemphasizes the issue of revenue and the devastating impact of tax cuts in Canada, as well as the redistributive power of public spending.   The argument is also contradicted by the experience of the Nordic countries, which have the most advanced welfare states and lowest levels of inequality among OECD countries.

Further, it helps to reinforce the complete illusion that taxes are, in fact, a "burden" upon the "middle class" at all, an illusion that furthers right wing ideological ideas and objectives. It feeds into false 99 per cent fantasies that mislead with the facile notion that social inequality and economic injustices can be rectified exclusively by making "them" (big business, the rich, etc.) pay, while not increasing taxes on, say, a household with $100,000 in annual income (a household that would, one might note, fall well within the parameters of the 99 per cent).

As we will show, this reluctance to confront the socially negative ramifications of tax cuts for the middle class and this capitulation to the notion of taxes as a "burden" upon the middle class, has severely limited the ability of government, of any ideological stripe, to actually implement or re-implement social programs and polices that played a direct role in lessening inequality and its consequences. The "War on Poverty" that governments declared at the height of the post war period of "social compromise" was actually succeeding and it was founded and predicated upon far higher personal income taxes for citizens of all classes.

Also, these ideas underestimate the highly disparate nature of "need" within the so-called 99 per cent. They equate the desire of a household with an income of $100,000 a year to finance the mortgage on a large house, or buy a second car that they feel they "need", with the ability of a family with an income of $35,000 a year to send their kids to "public" summer programs (which are no longer free in most centres), to access increasingly expensive higher education, to have properly government funded daycare, or any number of other programs that would fundamentally alter their lives and social mobility.  These "needs" are highly different morally and ethically.

Over the past two decades, neoliberalism has been consolidated as the economic orthodoxy in Canada, at all levels of government and is now supported by political parties of all stripes.  In order to cultivate popular support for neoliberalism, the positive role of government came under a media and corporate assault.  Public services were demonized as overly generous and bureaucratic; the more efficient private sector could do it better.

Tax cuts were sold as a means of freeing Canadians of taxes and giving them more money to spend.  Taxes were thus not a positive investment in society but a burden to be avoided. There developed a culture of tax revolt that crossed class and ideological lines.
As Marxist economist Leo Panitch put it:
It also had to do with a tax revolt on the part of the working-class, which starts to see less and less for itself in the welfare state. Respectability leads this segment to increasingly deride that working class we now call the precariat. And many of them opt -- and the unions aren’t able to stop many of them opting (to some extent they’re even complicit in it) -- for the $200 a year they can save by voting for a government that offers them less taxes. A portion of the working-class opts for that. And the left was complicit in it when it opposed, for example, the sales tax. One needed to say and should be saying that Sweden’s value-added tax is 23 per cent. You can't have a welfare state without it.
Jean Chretien and Paul Martin slayed the deficit by massively cutting public spending, and dismantling much of the progressive state that had been built up during the 1960s and 1970s.  They then implemented personal and corporate tax cuts and also slashed the capital gains tax, the single most regressive tax cut in Canadian history.  Tax-cutting has continued under Stephen Harper, who cut the GST by two points, implemented many boutique tax cuts for "middle class families" and continued to cut corporate taxes.  The effect of these tax cuts has been to turn Canada into a more unequal and market-dominated society.

It is true that the right-wing line that “there aren’t enough rich people, so why bother taxing them?” is a self-serving one that can easily be refuted.  At the same time, we need to recognize that working and middle class Canadians benefit far more from quality public services, paid for by taxation, than from tax cuts.

Tax cuts have also had a devastating impact at the provincial level.  While this is true across Canada, taking the example of the past nearly twenty years of fiscal policy in Ontario, [as noted as well in part one] a key component of the Common Sense Revolution of Mike Harris was a 30 per cent personal income tax cut. This cut and its preservation and expansion over the years by both the Tories and Liberals, fundamentally changed Ontario politics.   Once in place, the province could not return to previous levels of spending for health, education, welfare and municipalities, and no major political party has dared to suggest reversing it.

The profound effects that this has had are not widely understood as they have been not only compounded by further tax cuts, personal and otherwise, under the provincial Liberals, but also by the fact that a generation of complete cross-ideological subservience to the underlying concept of tax cuts have led them to become so ingrained  in our political and economic culture that they fundamentally narrow the scope of the possible in terms of redistributive or social program options.

The tax cuts remove at a bare minimum between $12 and 14 billion a year from the coffers of the government of Ontario. This dramatically limits not only attempts to preserve social programs and infrastructure, but basically makes it impossible to expand them in any meaningful sense. It has also led, in Ontario and across the country, to large increases in the structural debt of many provinces, a fact that is significant as it means that more  money is spent servicing the debt every year, essentially meaning that it is spent paying interest to largely foreign financial concerns as opposed to on services for citizens.

In the case of Ontario, for example, the amount spent servicing the debt is $10.6 billion a year, which is greater than what the province spends on any other single program or service, like welfare or transit, other than health and education.

After two decades of tax cutting, both the federal and provincial governments have lost billions of dollars of revenue.  By 2009, tax cuts under both Liberal and Conservative governments since 1995 had deprived the federal treasury of about $50 billion annually.  We need to restore the fiscal capacity of the state to pay for welfare state measures and much needed public investments.  In the current context, calls for "tax relief" -- even if ostensibly from the Left -- are dangerous and wrong.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in its Alternative Budget noted that raising the top federal income tax rate from 29 per cent to 35 per cent for those earning $250,000 or more would yield about $3 billion annually.  A Financial Transactions Tax would raise $4 billion, while an inheritance tax on very large estates would yield $1.5 billion.   Closing tax loopholes -- including by taxing capital gains at the same rate as wage and salary income and by cracking down on tax havens -- would bring in about $10 billion.  Erin Weir notes that raising the corporate tax rate to 19.5 per cent would raise $7-8 billion; restoring the 22 per cent corporate tax rate would raise $11-12 billion.  All of these are worthy proposals that should be adopted.

Yet we should not be under the illusion that these tax proposals -- or even stiffer ones -- on "people we don’t know" -- would restore the fiscal capacity of the state that has been undermined over two decades of neoliberalism, let alone allow the state to provide "tax relief" to the "middle class or entirely do away with consumption taxes such as the GST.   It has been long understood that consumption taxes are an excellent way of raising revenue, and provide a more steady revenue stream to the treasury than taxation on income, which fluctuates during economic downturns.  According to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, each percentage point cut to the GST costs the federal government $7 billion annually; Harper’s GST cut alone thus costs the federal government $14 billion annually.
Looking in comparative perspective, there is a strong correlation between direct spending and equality; countries with higher taxation are more equal. It is for this reason, that it is important to recognize not only the redistributive function of taxation, but also its role in financing welfare states and providing benefits that fall to low-income and dependent workers.  Taxation as a percentage of GDP in Canada in 2011 was 31 per cent, below the OCED average of 33.8 per cent.  This was far below that of Sweden (44.5  per cent) and Denmark (48.1 per cent), though ahead of the U.S. (25.1 per cent).

As Hugh Mackenzie notes: "Nations that have the most highly developed systems of public services pay for them with all kinds of taxes, including sales taxes and payroll taxes that everyone contributes to because everyone knows there is no such thing as a free lunch."

The Nordic countries of Sweden, Denmark and Norway all have a Value Added Tax (VAT) of around 25%, far higher than the GST/HST, which finances the welfare state.  The Nordic model is notable for its reliance on transfers, which do the heavy lifting in terms of countering inequality.  While personal income taxes are higher than in Canada, they also pay much higher levels of consumption and payroll taxes.  Yet the net impact of the tax-and-transfer system is progressive. Rather massively so. In part, this is for the obvious reason that because the affluent spend more, the net impact of consumption taxes are progressive if they are spent on human need.

Indeed, the redistributive power of public spending -- on healthcare, education, pensions and an array of other public services -- should not be ignored.  A CCPA report, Canada’s Quiet Bargain, found that more than two thirds of Canadian households receive more than 50 per cent of their income in public services, a far better deal than the market and far more than they pay in taxes. This was even more true before the tax-cutting mania of the past two decades.

The taxation of private consumption can fund the provision of public goods (such as parks, public transit, public housing, etc.) that are more ecological than private goods. Furthermore, public goods provision has the effect of decommodification which is as important as progressive taxation in terms of moving toward socialist relations in capitalist societies.

Beyond this there is the basic morality of attempting to put a break on consumption. Whenever one speaks of obviously environmentally or socially beneficial taxes or revenue tools like taxing gas or fuel consumption or whenever one opposes populist campaigns to cut them, some on the left will talk of examples of how "ordinary people" cannot afford to pay them. Even when this is true, there are many other means, such as rebates, to rectify the impact on those who are genuinely harmed by such taxes.

But what they never talk about are the wealthy homeowners who will get gas tax cuts, the reckless or irresponsible users of cars or air conditioning or home heating who will get tax cuts, or the reality that if we wish to alter social behaviour and to change patterns of consumption, taxing behaviour that is environmentally destructive or anti-social in its implications is not regressive at all. It is one of the primary goals of socialist politics to shift society away from the wanton or reckless behaviour of not only corporations, but also the consumerist society that they have manufactured. This is simply impossible in any meaningful way without altering the behaviour of consumers, especially those whose consumption patterns reflect their higher incomes.

The state has a fundamentally important role to play in shifting patterns of behaviour through taxation, and when shifting people out of cars, or encouraging them to consume less gas, electricity, water and other resources, the progressive nature of implementing disincentives is clear. This is even more clear if these taxes and revenue streams are tied directly to social goals like mass transit expansion.

Our consumerist society is highly destructive and the patterns of consumption it has created are both unsustainable and morally wrong given the consequences to the planet and the disparities that exist in consumption globally. It will not be changed by goodwill. Next time anyone proposes blanket tax cuts to home heating or opposes taxing car use, ask yourself about how progressive it really is to give a tax break to heating millionaire's mansions, or to oppose encouraging car pooling or making sure that the person driving that empty SUV might be made to think again if fuel taxes are high.

Cutting consumption taxes on these fronts especially amounts to little more than revenue depleting, environmentally negative proposals  that are boutique policy gifts and handouts to the upper middle and upper classes.

In terms of generating the revenue that will allow for the possibility of real social democratic governance and that will give the state the resources needed to implement a social agenda that will directly benefit the overwhelming majority of citizens, the "progressive" necessity is very clear.
Higher taxes in all forms.

The restoration of the GST to 7 per cent alone would significantly offset the cuts to the public sector. Further increases to the tax are essential components to the improvement and expansion of public services. Transfers to lower-income households must be significantly increased as well.  We should fight for a return to more progressive taxation, and begin with calls for higher taxes on capital and on wealthy individuals.  Given the more inegalitarian income distribution in Canada as compared to the Nordic countries, the progressive income tax needs to play a greater role in the tax mix.  We welcome, for instance, the call by Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks for combined federal-provincial income tax rates of 60% and 70% on incomes over $500,000 and $2.5 million, as proposed in their book The Trouble With Billionaires.

We would propose the reversal of all income, corporate and sales tax cuts that have been implemented in the last 20 years. We would further propose the expansion of taxes on fossil fuel, natural gas and electricity consumption, as well as on cars and their usage, with an extensive rebate program to offset the impact on actually lower income citizens.  For instance, a progressive carbon tax could be designed so the bottom 50 percent of households would be net beneficiaries, where 80 percent of households would receive at least some credit and the most affluent 20 per cent that have the biggest impact would pay the most.We would also favour revenue generating tools like heavily taxing luxury goods.

Altogether these proposals would generate tens of billions of dollars in extra revenue annually for the government.

We would suggest that this be used to build, to start, a national daycare program, a national housing strategy, free pharmacare, eye care & dental programs through transfers and incentives to the provinces, an anti-poverty strategy, a public transit infrastructure campaign and a transition to a 'green' economy as well as to reassert the state's role in the economy and in social justice in the many other ways that having these resources would allow.

As leftists we can fantasize about a coming revolution that will make taxation unnecessary and wipe away the state altogether.  At the other end we can pretend that relatively minor tax increases on small groups of people or on corporations will solve everything like manna from heaven.

Or we can grow up.

Part Three: The fallacy of corporate taxes in a neo-liberal context

"Make the corporations pay!"

It is a slogan that sounds good, and with which I would fully agree, under conditions where "corporations," or, more accurately, those who control them, were actually paying. But this is not the case in the debate in Canada today where many on the left are falsely proclaiming corporate taxes as an alternative to increasing personal taxes, even on the wealthy, and seem to display little understanding that corporate tax rates have nothing at all to do with inequality socially and are not at all a tax on wealth or the wealthy.

When Thomas Mulcair juxtaposes his "plan" to increase corporate taxes as a "progressive" alternative to Toronto-Centre candidate Linda McQuaig's previously stated notion that taxes should be increased as well on Canada's wealthiest individuals, he is fundamentally juxtaposing McQuaig's plan that might accomplish something to a plan that will accomplish absolutely nothing.

The essential fallacy of mythologizing corporate taxes in the present context lies in the fact that, unless you agree with the U.S. Supreme Court, corporations are not people. By definition, if government taxes a corporation, ultimately some individuals, somewhere, pay the bill. Corporations cannot pay anything, any more than a house you own pays its own property tax. Given that corporations can, will and must extract the money to pay their tax bills any number of ways, from increasing prices, to attempting to force down worker wages and benefits, to finding creative ways to reduce nominal profit (which includes actually increasing CEO salaries or privileges, which are a "cost"), in the absence of a campaign to dramatically increase personal taxes on the managerial and CEO class of corporations or to re-adjust social power relations through the threat of socialization of assets and/or price controls, the net effect of corporate taxes, in terms of income levelling, will often  be either zero or regressive.

It sounds radical, and is therefore appealing to centrists who wish to nominally appear radical, but its impact on inequality is essentially non-existent for the very simple reason that inequality is driven by disparities in the incomes that exist between individuals. Inequality is facilitated by corporations and corporate actions, but it is manifested in the difference between people and people alone.

This exact inequality exists within corporations themselves. Corporations are comprised, as a general rule, of workers, managers and upper management. Given the nature of the capitalist economy, the way corporations will seek to lessen the impact of higher taxation will not be at the expense of their CEOs.

It is not corporations who own multiple mansions, live lavish lifestyles or indulge in tremendous decadence, it is wealthy people who do so. The disparity between rich and poor is not between rich and poor companies, but rather between rich people and those living working-class lifestyles or those actually living in poverty.

Taxes on corporations, in isolation, separated from higher tax rates on the wealthy individuals who own, profit from and run the corporations, act as little more than waypoints to collecting taxes on corporate workers or customers.

"Progressive" politicians, New Democrats, Liberals and Democrats alike, like the corporate tax narrative when it suits them precisely because it does not threaten any actual people at all, whether it is Galen Weston or one of his Loblaws cashiers. They can claim to be holding the banner of redistributive justice high. To be defending the mythical "99 percent."

Yet these taxes can only have an impact on inequality if you assume, barring personal tax increases, that corporations will pass the "costs" of higher taxes along, out of a sense of social justice, to their corporate boardrooms. This is, frankly, a counterintuitive and bizarre assumption for leftists to make.
They will not. They will, as they always do, make their workers pay.

We need to move beyond the false narrative of so-called "corporate taxes" as a solution under capitalism and, instead, to advocate for both a dramatic increase in personal taxes on the wealthy and the upper middle class with a corresponding fight to socialize corporate assets. We need to tie this to an entrenchment of union and workers' rights and democratization of the economy.

It is time to actually make those who benefit from the corporations pay. By higher taxes on capital gains, by higher income taxes on the wealthy and managerial class, by inheritance taxes, by expanding the legal rights and powers of workers.

By advancing expropriation and radically new ownership models.

Until then, when it comes to understanding how to tackle income inequality and its consequences, it is the pre-by-election Linda McQuaig who was right and it is the desperate-for-power NDP leader Thomas Mulcair who is wrong.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The myth of the leftist, feminist, anti-racist, elitist

This article was published on Feminist Current

In an act of what has to be acknowledged as tremendous, though in some respects entirely typical, rich famous male hubris,  Joss Whedon, of comic book and Buffy the Vampire Slayer note, recently gave a talk in which he proclaimed that feminism is a term that he objects to and that he feels should be replaced because, in essence, he does not like it. He does not like it because it is supposedly at variance with his idea that equality already exists as a “natural condition” or for some pseudo-philosophical reasons that are never really clear other than that, frankly, they are rather silly, it must be noted,  coming from a man.

The sheer idiocy of a wealthy straight male (or any male of any kind) telling women how they should frame the language of their own liberation movement, however, did not prevent large numbers of liberal men (and, of course, some women) like CBC Toronto’s Metro Morning host Matt Galloway on air, from gushing over it, thrilled, apparently, to see yet another in a long line of alleged male “feminists” talking down to women about just what it is that they are doing “wrong” that men could tell them how to do better.

Like abandoning the very term feminism for starters.

This would all be Buffy-style darkly humorous were it not for the fact that it is indicative of a far broader problem within both the left and society as a whole.

The problem being that, somehow, the notion has arisen that not only are the people living oppression, like women under Patriarchy, not allowed to frame their own discourse without condescension from those who are actually members of the oppressive group socially, historically and right now, but also that people in struggle for liberation against injustice and fighting systemic oppression are regularly labeled as “elitist” or as part of an “Ivory Tower” for doing so.

Often such resistance is called out as “purity” and as an example of “identity politics” that, apparently, indicates that one is an “intellectual” or “academic” who is out of touch with all of those supposed “salt-of-the-earth” leftists.

There are few better examples than the sad and extreme exuberance and exultation that greeted the BBC interview with Russell Brand that some heralded, rather farcically, as the start of a new social discourse or revolution; a notion so facile that it can only be a comment on the left’s desperation that it would actually be believed by anyone.

Russell Brand is at least as misogynist in his personal conduct as rape anthem “star” Robin Thicke, if not worse in every meaningful real world way, but apparently, for some, making a quasi revolutionary rant on the BBC (that the BBC then promptly shared everywhere, of course) absolves one of having to be held accountable for it.

This is an odd version of leftism.

When, entirely rightly, feminist activists and others pointed out that the notion that one should take inspiration from the ranting of a well established misogynist with a long history of ugly, exploitative and violent behaviour towards women, (by his own acknowledgment), is highly problematic, they were often met with the standard line that they were being “elitist”, “putting identity first” or that they were exhibiting what was an example of “posh” leftism, as if any such thing actually exists.

This came from many of the usual suspects of sexist “leftism”, the allegedly revolutionary exponents of the tired old “class first” line, for example, but it was inherently ridiculous given that they were defending the rather minor, in political terms, outburst of a rich, abusive and atrociously self-indulgent white male that was then widely and wildly promoted by the very media that he had supposedly “bested” and called out on his way to a gig as guest editor of the New Statesman! If it is “elitist” to identify, question and condemn behaviour and opinion like Brand’s towards women, behaviour that reflects centuries of oppressive and violent entitlement and social power, and if it is allegedly counter to the interests of the “left” to do so, then there really is no left.

This is hardly an isolated example. Regularly one hears from pundits and politicians, and certainly not only those on the right, that any number of people are now part of the “elite”. Variously unions, anti-poverty activists, anti-racist activists, people of colour, First Nations and aboriginal peoples, LGBT groups, women and feminists are all commonly described as “special interest” groups, despite the obviously reactionary background to this.

It turns actual elitism on its head.

This is going on, right now, with the entire Rob Ford fiasco (the misreading of which by the Left deserves to be the focus of an entirely separate article from this one). Even here we find not only the right but also many leftists framing the Ford phenomenon as a revolt against “elites”; a notion that is demonstrably false. Never mind that his abusive behaviour to women is constantly overshadowed and even ignored in the discourse.

There are very real elites. Industrial, financial and commercial capitalists are an elite. Hollywood stars, comedians, sports players, etc., are certainly an elite and an almost neo-feudal one in the way that they are fawned over by sycophantic “handlers” and servants. The capitalist managerial class and professional upper middle class, including large numbers of the so-called 99%, are an elite. There are others. Never mind whites and men, the beneficiaries of centuries, and sometimes millennia, of systemic privilege, acknowledged and unacknowledged, spoken or otherwise.

A generation ago, as a part of their assault on the gains of working people, women, people of colour, the LGBT community and others, the reactionary right created all of the terms like “Champagne Socialist” or “latte drinker” that are tossed about in an attempt to turn social relations around and make out leftists, feminists and community activists and liberation theories and movements as the new elites. They made it seem as if talking about the injustices and consequences of systemic oppression was an academic exercise or a function of “privilege”.

It is not. Misogyny, racism, homophobia and poverty are a violent and oppressive reality every single day. These institutions of oppression abuse, violate and kill women, people living in poverty, aboriginal and First Nations peoples and members of the LGBT community daily. They cause tremendous and demonstrable inequality and suffering in the lives of real people. They are not an abstraction, and, unlike Mayor Ford in Toronto, for example, people living under the weight of these oppressions are often not given first chances, let alone second ones.

It is bad enough that these views and terms are to be found within society and the forces of reaction. It is even worse that we use these arguments and terms ourselves in our debates and disagreements within the left. Instead of exposing and combatting institutionalized oppression within our own leftist movements, when using this language or logic of reaction activists who do allow them to continue without being confronted  and minimize their fundamental importance to the struggle for human liberation. Far from “distracting” from the struggle, you cannot have a radical socialist agenda of any meaning without taking a radical stance against all of these oppressions.

No matter what disagreements leftists may have, it is not elitist to fight racism, misogyny or homophobia. It is not elitist to stand for union or worker’s rights. It is not elitist to acknowledge systemic oppression or injustice.

In reality there is no such thing as a leftist or anti-oppression “elitism”. It is a right wing myth.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

It is time for a war on the car

Every weekday when I get up and take my kids out the door to start their trek into school, we turn off of the street we live on and onto 26th St. in South Etobicoke, a suburb of Toronto. This leads us to Lake Shore Blvd. W., where we can either choose to walk in or to catch a bus in bad weather.

At the northeast corner of 26th and Lake Shore there is always a long line of generally impatient drivers, queued up in their cars, pickup trucks or SUVs, (almost always, one might note, alone in their cars) idling while waiting to get to the drive-through Tim Horton's window to order and collect whatever pseudo-Canadian (the chain is owned by Americans) fast food, horrible coffee, "daybreak" starter that they apparently require for the rest of their journey.

When we arrive at the end of our walk or bus ride, this time at Dwight Ave. and Lake Shore, just down the street from their school, there again we are greeted with a line of cars, this time waiting for their turn at a McDonald's window, doing exactly the same thing.

These two drive-throughs are bookends of our relatively short commute. They are replicated many thousands of times across Canada, let alone North America. They also speak volumes as to what our consumerist, car centered society is about, and how its culture of immediate self-gratification and absurd fixation on convenience is both profoundly harmful and a function of a right wing mythology and adoration of the terribly destructive concept of suburbia.

One has to realize that the very large majority of people driving to these windows, to work or driving  their kids to school, do not "have" to do this, they chose to. As a person who has never driven a car and who has commuted to university and then work (and these were not short commutes) by public transit his entire life,  I can tell you first hand that no one living in the City of Toronto needs to drive at all. Even now the transit infrastructure exists that makes this, for the vast majority of citizens, unnecessary. Never mind that so many trips in cars are short ones, driving children to school or driving up the street to get groceries, and are entirely based around convenience as opposed to "need".

Driving in a dense urban setting is a lifestyle choice that has been re-framed as a necessity and this re-framing flows from distinctly North American ideas of convenience, independence and "freedom" that have also laid the foundation for the creation of the suburban lifestyle; a lifestyle tied directly into the middle class or pseudo-middle class fixation on home ownership that has driven the appalling growth of the environmental and social blight of urban sprawl, backed as it is by willing governments who have facilitated it through dangerously loose credit rules.

It is no coincidence that this is so easily tied to a fast food lifestyle. What is better than driving, by yourself, in your car, immune to any contact with other people outside of your sphere, and being able to pull right up to a tiny window and have a minimum wage worker hand you a bag of prefabricated, bland and homogenous "food", often that has a terrible environmental price tag attached to it,  without the need to ever even emerge from this pollution spewing cocoon?

The car is, in the end, something of a metaphor for our general unwillingness to actually take action to curb our reckless and disastrous levels of personal and social consumption. While it has become somewhat fashionable to place the blame for society and the environment's ills solely at the doors of impersonal corporations, it is rather meaningless to do so. Personal consumption, after all, is what feeds corporate profit and rapaciousness as much as anything else, and it is impossible to seriously critique or seek to mitigate the tremendously destructive effects of the North American and Western consumerist model without attempting to modify or change the patterns of consumption of consumers.
In addition, consumption, by definition, increases as you go up the income scale; in fact, rather drastically so. Those at the very bottom of the income pyramid can hardly be called "consumers" in the modern sense at all. Their "consumption" is limited to the very bare necessities. When we speak of "consumers" as opposed to citizens, we are already leaving the poor out of the discussion in any meaningful way, and discussions of making life more "affordable" for "poor" suburban drivers are, in actuality, aimed squarely and entirely at the middle and even upper middle class.

In the case of the Right this is reflected in the explicit embrace of the icon of the car, as most obviously evidenced by Rob Ford and his "fight" to end the non-existent "war on the car". His allegation was that this war on the car dominated civic policy in Toronto, Canada's largest urban centre, despite the fact that it is one of the most car friendly cities in the developed world, with basically no tolls, forced or encouraged car pool lanes or driving restrictions of any kind.

This, in fact, is true across Canada, which lags far behind the rest of the world in attempting to curb driving through disincentives to it like tolls and car pooling lanes.

Far from being an anti-driver nightmare, (other than the congestion caused by cars themselves), Toronto exceeds even Los Angeles in its devotion to catering to the whims of the car driver. Ontario's Liberal government has greatly exacerbated this by, despite some positive moves to enact disincentives on drivers, catering to Ford's inane subway plan in Scarborough and by having facilitated the destruction of the "Transit City" plan implemented by the previous Miller administration. It caved to the pro-subway lobby that won over many Torontonians by arguing that LRTs and streetcars were bad for cars.

Far more insidious, however, is the embrace of this by the "left", specifically, in the case of Toronto, the Ontario NDP, who see suburban car drivers as an obvious target for their new "pocketbook populism", as evidenced by their outright rejection of imposing some revenue generating fees on drivers to fund public transit, as well as with their fixation on "standing for Ontario drivers", a phrase they actually use.

This is tied to the ONDP's desire to replace truly redistributive politics with tokenism that sounds as if it is aimed at the disadvantaged, and that takes the rhetoric of radicalism and uses it to fight for meaningless and often reactionary tax cuts or an opposition to fees that, in fact, benefits the upper middle class more than anyone and that undermines directly and basically the ability of any government to create a public transit infrastructure of sufficient density in Toronto to shift car users onto transit. This infrastructure would obviously be in the interests of the urban working class and the poor.

As we will see, even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has acknowledged that the fixation of Western and some developing nations with subsidizing the energy and fossil fuel consumption of their citizens and corporations not only has a negative effect on the environment, but also directly benefits the better off at the expense of the poor.

To begin to see how, one has to realize just how extensive these subsidies are. As a business blogger on sustainability, Dennis Wong noted,
What the general public is mostly unaware of is the fact that our energy prices are subsidized prices. When we pay $50 at the gas pump, the gas we got is actually worth more than $50. When we pay $100 for our hydro bill, the energy we used is actually worth more than $100. Why is that? It’s because the government financially subsidizes the energy we use. Although this practice has been taking place for years, most people in the general public don’t realize the energy prices we consumers pay are below market levels.
According to the IMF study (and the additional data they provided to me) Canada incurred $26 billion on energy subsidies in 2011. The Canadian government’s revenues were $665 billion in that year. In other words, 4% of the government revenues were spent on energy subsidies. (Note that the IMF calculation uses U.S. dollar, but the Canadian dollar was at virtual parity with the U.S. dollar over the year of 2011, with $1 USD equaled $0.989 CAD).
These subsidies, which amounted to a total of $787 per year for every man, woman and child in the country, clearly and self-evidently are of greater benefit to those who consume more energy, from corporations to the wealthy. This makes them inherently regressive.
Further, however, this money is not being spent on other things, like mass transit infrastructure, education, health care, etc, which would directly benefit lower income earners. As the IMF  noted:
Developing and industrialized countries should rein in energy subsidies that totaled $1.9 trillion in 2011 to ease budgetary pressures and free resources for public spending in areas like education and health care, International Monetary Fund economists said in a research paper published Wednesday.
The paper said that subsidies were expensive for governments, and that, instead of helping consumers, they detracted from increased investment in infrastructure, education and health care, which would help the poor more directly.
Put bluntly, "Subsidies have been a counterproductive way to help the poor because they are more beneficial to the rich, who consume more energy, the fund said".

This also plays out in practice with all attempts to make life "easier" by enabling consumption. Consumption increases with income, it does not decrease. Unless it is tied into a broader anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist and radical reorganization of taxation, efforts to ease the costs, taxes and fees associated with things like gas or fossil fuel consumption will benefit the better off far more than those of lower incomes, and this explains why the Tories in Ontario also oppose such taxes.

Worse, though, there is a desperate and very real need to curb consumption, especially fossil fuel and energy consumption, in the wealthiest countries in the world, like Canada and the United States. Our consumption patterns, both by individuals and corporations, are not only unsustainable but are also literally destroying the planet and directly killing people.

In fact, a study released just three days ago at the University of British Columbia found that traffic related pollution is nine times deadlier than car crashes and that it has a terribly negative effect on quality of life. The report noted:
Air pollution is mainly associated with asthma, other lung conditions and cardiovascular diseases. Exhaust fumes from diesel, a known carcinogen, are tied to lung cancer. A 2008 federal report estimated that on an annual basis, there are 306 premature deaths, 1,158 hospital admissions, and 8,763 emergency department visits related to air pollution in B.C.
Nearly a third of the country’s population lives within 500 metres of a highway or 100 metres from a major urban road, exposing them to toxic fumes from more than 15,000 cars per day, according to the CMAJ report. Such air pollution triggers “inflammation, oxidative stress and imbalance in the autonomic nervous system” which includes heart rhythm disturbances.
As noted, "The article is timely, coming as it does on the heels of last week’s declaration by the World Health Organization that air pollution is a carcinogen". The report also suggests the use of disincentives to get people out of cars, such as imitating highly successful tolls like the one in place in London, England.

What this suggests, more broadly, is that not only are attempts to make driving more affordable highly regressive as social and tax policy,  but that they actually help to contribute to the deaths of many of those they are allegedly meant to help.

A consumerist social model, even while providing the thin veneer of trickle down luxury to citizens in lower income brackets, is, in reality, centred around the consumption of those in middle and higher income brackets. They have to fuel it or it would collapse, for rather obvious reasons. This is done in part through the extension of "easy credit" to the middle class, but also through the use of government to facilitate consumption via subsidies and the lifting of disincentives even when this consumption is highly destructive.

It is, in fact, time for a "war on the car" socially and in major urban centres like Toronto especially. The illusion that the patterns of car use that exist in Canada and North America are sustainable economically, environmentally or morally is reckless and dangerous.

Four-fifths of commuters in Canada do so by car, and the majority of these drive by themselves. The notion that this is an acceptable situation is truly wrongheaded. So is the demonstrably false notion that people "have no choice" but to do this. In urban centres where mass transit has been expanded and/or where disincentives to driving have been put in place, people have gotten out of their cars and, horror-of-horrors, used transit!

The idea that we should not be taking serious steps to force this to change through road tolls, enforced car pooling lanes, higher gas taxes, and ending the subsidization of energy consumption, and using these funds to build mass transit networks as well as in  more directly redistributive ways is profoundly reactionary.

More significantly, however, time is also running out. The consumerist, suburban, car driven, fast food, disposable goods society cannot exist indefinitely. The resources that drive it and the ability of our climate to endure it are finite.

If we do not change now, and if we do not take action, however hard and initially unpopular with some, the planet will ultimately force us to anyway. Then it will be too late, and making it more affordable for someone to drive, by themselves, wherever and whenever they want will seem a supremely misguided fantasy of a terribly decadent past.