Monday, March 01, 2010

When "Freedom" Means "Privilege"

In Saturday's Toronto Star, Tom Walkom noted that, over the last fifteen years in this country, we have seen reverse class resentment. "Class resentment used to be the preserve of the left," he wrote. "Indeed, the entire post welfare state was designed to better the conditions of the poor, thereby ensuring that these class resentments didn't get out of hand."

But things have changed. These days "class resentments have been turned on their head. The focus of anger is not the silk hatted capitalist, but his unionized workers, with their job protection guarantees, their pension plans and their good wages."

The Harper government has signaled that its unionized work force is now under the gun. Their argument is that, if private sector benefits have been pared back because of the financial meltdown, then it is only fair that public employees share the same pain as their brothers and sisters on the shop floor. On the surface, it sounds like a matter of simple justice.

But, as Walkom points out, that argument ignores the causes of the recession and the damage neoclassical economics has done to those folks on the shop floor. For thirty years, the ideologues of the right have tried to dismantle the progressive income tax system. They have  argued, as has our prime minister, that there is no such thing as a good tax; and that,  if taxes are a necessary evil, then the best tax is a simple tax -- a flat tax -- on both the rich and the poor. And in their search for tax simplicity, they have maintained that corporate taxes are redundant, because corporations are owned by people; and, therefore, people who own corporate shares are taxed twice -- on income and dividends.

They ignore the fact that some people start life with more advantages than others -- claiming that just because some are born with silver spoons in their mouths, there is no reason why they should  pay more than anyone else. "Freedom," they say, means freedom from progressive taxes. Outcomes might be unequal; but that is the result of honest toil, not the result of privilege. And, therefore, it is necessary to demonize those on welfare who, although they were not born to privilege, have the audacity to demand privileged outcomes. That was Mike Harris' argument when he came to power in 1995.

And when he appointed John Snobelen -- a high school dropout -- as Ontario's Minister of Education, Harris argued that the management expertise Snobelen had acquired at the helm of his own waste management company made him the ideal candidate for the job. He neglected to mention that Snobelen had inherited the company from his father. Applying the principles of waste management to education, Snobelen created a mess which he left to others to clean up.

George W. Bush -- a man who former Texas governor Ann Richards liked to say was "born with a silver foot in his mouth" -- followed the same philosophy as the Harris government; and he left catastrophe in his wake -- whether it was the aftermath of Katrina or the aftermath of the Wall Street Meltdown.

Now, in the upcoming budget, the Harper government -- which contains three charter members of the Harris government --  Minister of Finance Jim Flahlerty,  Minister of Industry Tony Clement and Minister of Transportation John Baird -- plans to follow the same playbook. "For the Harper Conservatives," Walkom wrote:
all this is useful. First, it removes the focus from the country's real pension problems: Most Canadians don't have workplace pensions; those who do have found their plans savaged by this recession. British Columbia and Alberta have suggested ways of dealing with this, as have the federal New Democrats and the Liberals. The Harper government has done nothing. Second, and more important, an attack on public sector pensions refocuses class resentment along lines more amenable to the Conservative government.

As was the case with prorogation, this is an attempt to create a diversion. The best way to do nothing -- and to get away with it -- is to have the public look away. And the effect of doing nothing is to further entrench the privileges of the wealthy. If someone from that class, like TD president Ed Clark, suggests that people like him should pay more taxes, the Harperites immediately demonize him as an enemy of the little man. Clark, they say, wants to raise the taxes of ordinary folks. However, even people like Michael Bliss -- a steadfast defender of the government in recent months -- have suggested that the government should demand more from the wealthy.

The question is, how long can Mr. Harper and his confreres maintain this fantasy? They are betting that the public is too stupid to figure out what is going on. My bet is that they are wrong. Ordinary folks have a visceral understanding of the difference between freedom and privilege.


Zero said...

In countries like Canada and the USA, where wealth is almost entirely concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority of capitalists, where senior ministers of government are routinely vetted for office by these same wealthy few, do you find it surprising Mr. Harper is trying to undermine public unions, or toying with taxation which favours the rich at the expense of the poor? Or that President "Baby" Bush, in speaking to representatives of that group a few years ago, should have addressed them as his "real base" (of support)?

Owen Gray said...

I do, indeed, remember Bush's comment. As I recall, he said that his base was "the haves and the have mores."

When that remark is placed along side the images of New Orleans after Katrina -- people stranded on roofs or outside sports stadiums, and dead bodies floating in the streets -- it's clear that Mr. Bush's attempt at humour was really an obscenity.