Reviving #ThePublicGood, part 5: Taxes and the role of government | #TOpoli #onpoli #cdnpoli

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With today’s lesson, we focus on one of the most loaded topics in public conversation: taxation. Strap in, it’s going to get a little bumpy.

It’s easy to hate the idea of taxation, I know. And god knows, there’s a lot invested in cranking up that hatred. We’ll examine the reasons for that investment in due course, but for now, let’s just focus on first principles: taxes are the price of civilized society. We don’t live in Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, wherein all are at war with one another; in return for a measure of security and as a step up from anarchy, barbarism, and incessant war, we agree to surrender a degree of our autonomy to this larger thing called “society.” It goes back a ways — farther than Rob Ford, David Miller, or Mel Lastman, in fact. Farther back than Agnes MacPhail, Nellie McClung, John A. MacDonald, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, John Locke, the Magna Carta, Jesus Christ, and maybe even to the point where humankind started to record history. It’s a robust and resilient thing, civilization is, but it’s not unbreakable.

And what is the fundamental characteristic of civil society? It is a collective commitment to pool our efforts, to live by common norms and rules (more on that later), and to combine our efforts to accomplish, as a group, that which we cannot accomplish on our own. You know — roads, hospitals, civic infrastructure, collective defence, electricity, running water, clean air, and other things conducive to the public good. We act together to do things for the collective benefit.

And how do we accomplish those things? By pooling our resources. By paying taxes. That, in its most basic terms, is what taxation is. We determine collectively, through the democratic process and our elected representatives, what our social priorities are, we pool our resources, and then we allocate our pooled resources in accordance with those priorities. In other words, we “tax” and “spend.” It’s not right or left. It’s not socialism. It’s not capitalism. It’s not liberal or conservative. It’s not evil, it’s not confiscation, it’s not theft, and it’s not dictatorship. It’s government. It’s what government does. All the frippery and bullshit that’s been thrown at it just clouds the issue.

So now that we’ve established what taxes are and what they’re supposed to do, let’s talk about their role in democratic governance. Healthy, livable and functional communities, I’d respectfully submit, are not built by people who focus on keeping taxes low. Let’s make our biases clear straight off. Emphasizing low taxes at the expense of everything else isn’t just shallow thinking any more. Given the failures of far-right governance and the damage inflicted by years of devotion to so-called “austerity,” I’d submit that it verges on sociopathic.

Make no mistake, dear friends. When you cut taxes, you kneecap government’s ability to act in The Public Good. And that’s its role.  Government is there to enhance the public good by working to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s not there to make a profit, it’s not there to strengthen the brand, it’s not there to generate returns for shareholders. There will be more about the fetishizing of The Market and The Private Sector later, but for now, let’s just focus on government’s core function.

And it’s here that we must re-emphasize the non-partisan nature of this little project. It’s not as if I’ve made my feelings about the Toronto mayoral shitstorm a secret, although I’ve been trying to dial it back for a while, but let’s be clear: this is not about Rob Ford. It’s easy to get caught up in the crack, the coarse boorishness, the racism, the sexism, the homophobia, and the other non-stop embarrassments, and lose sight of the fact that it’s the whole small-government, private-sector-market-fetishizing, low-taxing, union-hating mindset that’s toxic. It’s a mindset that rejects the whole notion of the public sphere as such. That’s what’s captured the mantle of “conservatism,” and that’s what needs to be pushed back.

The pushback starts with the shallow and destructive fixation on “respect for taxpayers.” Forget about the current administration’s spectacular failures and hypocrisy in that regard for a moment, and let’s focus on the misdirected emphasis and the attendant enfeeblement of any collective commitment to The Public Good. When you reduce the relationship between people and government to one of taxpayer and tax collector, you’re inevitably setting up a dynamic of resentment, hostility, smallness of mind, and meanness of spirit. It’s a very sad, angry and limiting view of citizenship, of our collective well-being, and of public life. This isn’t conservatism. It’s destructive, atavistic bullshit.

You want evidence? Well, let’s work those critical-thinking skills, shall we? Just ask yourselves whose interests are served by such a poisonous agenda. From this, healthy communities, committed citizens, and well-appointed public spheres do not spring. It’s fine if you’ve got the resources to buy your own infrastructure and retreat behind the walls of your private enclave, but I’d submit it’s not too healthy for the rest of us.

We are citizens, not just taxpayers. Not residents, not customers, not voters, not consumers. We are more than that. It is with the idea of citizenship that we express our sense of community and our aspiration to  work together for the greater good. As citizens, we have obligations to one another, and to something bigger than our individual interests — and it is through our collective action and our contribution to public resources that we fulfill those obligations.

I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious (strangled derisive laughter — ed.), but I haven’t got much time for people who bitch about “goddamn government wasting my tax money.” News flash, folks: it’s not your money. It’s society’s money, to be spent in accordance with duly determined public priorities. You get to have a say in that determination through your elected representatives and the democratic process, but you don’t get to take your ball and go home if you don’t get the results you want.

You can bitch and moan and begrudge every nickel you pay in taxes, or you can have a healthy society. I know which way I’d go.

ETA: I’d be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the guidance of my wise friend Alex Himelfarb here. He’s more eloquent in his sleep than I’ll ever be wide awake.

ETA: Trish Hennessy also. She and Alex are the finest civic and moral guides a fella could ask for.

 Related posts:

The Trouble With Austerity: Economics as Ideology | via @alexhimelfarb

We need to understand how we got here and we ought to stop repeating what just doesn’t work. What got us here was a combination of recession – temporarily higher spending and lost revenue – and over a decade of unaffordable tax cuts. Before the recession and the latest tax cuts, we were running surpluses. Spending obviously wasn’t the big problem and our government debt to GDP is pretty reasonable and interest rates are low. Why then the obsession with cutting? And where are the alternatives?

About 80 years ago Antonio Gramsci, an ideologue of a different stripe, wrote in his prison notebooks of moments in history when old ways of thinking are clearly not working but new ways have not yet been born. “In this interregnum”, he wrote, “a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” We are, it seems, in just such an interregnum.

via The Trouble With Austerity: Economics as Ideology | Alex’s Blog.

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Toronto budget #WTF: Less shouty, more talky | #TOpoli #TObudget

Shylock105

Let’s talk about money. (H/t Daren for the shouty / talky thing.)

In the service of raising the discourse, a public discussion this evening at the Tranzac, Bloor & Brunswick. Featuring John Lorinc, Gord Perks, Alejandra Bravo, Matt Elliott, and a whole bunch of engaged and interesting people.

As smarter people have already pointed out, the continuing circus at city hall shouldn’t keep us from having adult discussions about important things. The budget. Infrastructure. City appointments. Congestion. Gender imbalance. The downtown / suburban divide and how to deal with it.

And yeah, the disclosure thing: like Daren, I’ve sort of been marginally involved in setting it up (if sitting there catatonically, nodding occasionally, and punctuating the silence with odd zombie-like grunts counts as involvement. I’m pretty sure I managed not to drool too much).

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#cARTographyTO and Astral Media: subverting the commercial colonization of public space | #TOpoli

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Via The Grid and Torontoist, news of an inspired and inspiring guerrilla action over the weekend.

Dozens of sidewalk-blocking, ad-filled eyesores, laughably known as “info pillars,” were repurposed and turned into art installations, social and political statements, and focus points for satire.

It’s hard not to sympathize with cARTography Toronto. Public space and public amenities are under relentless pressure from the advocates of privatization and the purveyors of commercial messaging; with the dogma of “austerity” comes more and more pressure to find new sources of revenue, especially when we’re saddled with a municipal administration intent on choking off one of the most traditional sources.

I’m sure these goddamn things are good for someone. No doubt they’re good for Astral. And perhaps they get the advertisers’ messages in front of more eyeballs. And who knows, maybe they bring in a dollar or two in licencing fees or something. But, in the words of one of the activists:

They’ve done a lot of permanent damage, tearing up sidewalks, cutting down bike posts, and creating a sightline hazard for pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists…

How you see this depends, as do many things, on how you define terms and how you frame the questions. If we’re committed to making the public good paramount, then the reclamation of public space from those who seek to colonize it is something to be encouraged. And while aesthetics are admittedly subjective, it’s hard not to be disturbed by the incessant, intrusive, and garish invasions of public sightlines, the cheapening of the visual environment, and the cumulative assault on our senses.  Factor in the removal of bike posts, the destruction of trees and the interference with pedestrian traffic and it’s hard to see how the community as a whole comes out ahead. Surely we’re surrounded by enough vulgarity already.

Of course, that’s only one viewpoint. If we buy into commercial orthodoxy and the gospel of privatization, then anything that brings in revenue is good, and anything that questions the underlying assumptions or interferes with the sacred operation of the market is suspect, elitist, anti-capitalist, and quite probably a threat to national security. And by that logic, it won’t be long before the corporate media are pounding that drum day and night, the activists (already a word with negative connotations for some) are demonized, and the resources of the criminal-justice system are marshalled in their pursuit.

It would be easy to reduce this to competing visions of what public space should be. And while that’s certainly part of the discussion, not all such visions are advanced with the same energy. Not everyone has the resources for lawyers, lobbyists and SLAPP suits. Not everyone has the same degree of access and influence to the decision-makers or conversation-shapers. And not everyone has the same fluency with the technocratic, class-biased language that informs so many public-policy debates.

As we work for more inclusive and democratic conversations, it’s worth keeping that in mind.

(Image via torontoist)

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Public space, public amenities and the public good, or corporate colonization? | #onpoli

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So I’m driving along the lakeshore this morning and my daughter, who’s loved going to the waterpark and the waterslides and such, notices the signs and landmarks leading to Ontario Place. Which is going to be, if not closed, then transformed into an innovative provincial landmark. In any event, the Ontario Place grounds, Cinesphere, waterpark, rides, attractions and restaurants are out of business this summer for “revitalization.”

Which is a drag, but, well, you know — shit happens.

But keep going and it’s pretty much impossible to miss the signs for the Honda Indy. And later this summer, we’ll probably be hosting the air show

Not going to talk at length about noise or extravagance or inconvenience, because this isn’t about pissy downtown elitists wanting their peace and quiet or anything, and, well, tourist dollars.

No, for the moment I just want to compare and contrast. If I understand this right, then spending public resources on the public good is a bad thing, so in the name of fighting the deficit and tightening our belts and living within our means, as the austerity prophets like to browbeat us, we’re closing public amenities like Ontario Place. Private events with corporate sponsors up the wazoo, on the other hand, are a good thing — despite whatever noise and inconvenience they may imply, and despite their obvious encroachment upon public space.

(Hey, it brings in money. What are you, some kind of effete downtown socialist?)

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Fiscal discipline, @cityslikr and Toronto’s endless budget follies | #TOpoli #onpoli

Can-of-worms

My pal @cityslikr has a thoughtful post over at his place, riffing on the whole Moody’s municipal credit rating thing. If you’ve been reading his stuff regularly, as you should, and keeping abreast of the #TOpoli big picture, then you know: contrary to the edge-of-the-abyss picture regularly presented by certain political camps and their tabloid-media enablers, city finances are not one bad cheque away from fiscal Armageddon.

(I sometimes hesitate to talk about @cityslikr and his take on discipline. He’s got a tendency to stray occasionally, like that time he started talking about Karen Stintz and her safe words. But never mind all that just now.)

That we’ve been subjected to overwrought misleading language on the municipal finance file isn’t news, of course. The relentless pounding isn’t about informing us so much as it’s about softening us up and getting us braced for a nice tall glass of the Kut Kut Koolaid. If anything, the events of the past few months ought to have demonstrated that the whole thing is, like the Austerity Agenda (TM), a manufactured narrative. The lead spokesthingy, of course, is budget chief Mike “No cupcakes for you, widows and orphans” del Grande.

Daren’s analysis is dead-on, so I’m not going to repeat it here, but there’s one detail in it that bears a closer look, and that’s Moody’s call for 

a permanent solution to the existing operating budget pressures.

And that’s where this perennial bit of municipal theatre really challenges the audience; it’s in establishing and assessing the context. (Yeah, there he goes again.) Because you really can’t have a worthwhile and comprehensive discussion about “existing operating budget pressures” without addressing Toronto’s continuing structural deficit. And that goes beyond Team Ford, David Miller, and/or Mayor Mel.

Such a discussion must necessarily involve the role of senior levels of government, and the dysfunctional mess that governments of various political stripes have made of municipal finance — indeed, of the entire municipal-governance file. I like to start with the Harris government’s ill-advised municipal amalgamation in the 1990s, coupled with the uploading, downloading, sideswiping shemozzle precipitated with the Common Sense Revolution. But if you want to suggest that the fecklessness of the McGuinty approach hasn’t made things better since then, well …

You may very well think that, Mattie. I couldn’t possibly comment.

So, in order to make Moody’s really happy, we need to examine and correct the mistakes of previous provincial governments. And while we’re at it, we might want to revisit that whole constitutional municipalities-as-creatures-of-provincial-legislatures thing. 

Anyone want to give odds on how likely we are to see that?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Related posts:

Fiscal discipline, @cityslikr and Toronto’s endless budget follies | #TOpoli #onpolil

Can-of-worms

My pal @cityslikr has a thoughtful post over at his place, riffing on the whole Moody’s municipal credit rating thing. If you’ve been reading his stuff regularly, as you should, and keeping abreast of the #TOpoli big picture, then you know: contrary to the edge-of-the-abyss picture regularly presented by certain political camps and their tabloid-media enablers, city finances are not one bad cheque away from fiscal Armageddon.

(I sometimes hesitate to talk about @cityslikr and his take on discipline. He’s got a tendency to stray occasionally, like that time he started talking about Karen Stintz and her safe words. But never mind all that just now.)

That we’ve been subjected to overwrought misleading language on the municipal finance file isn’t news, of course. The relentless pounding isn’t about informing us so much as it’s about softening us up and getting us braced for a nice tall glass of the Kut Kut Koolaid. If anything, the events of the past few months ought to have demonstrated that the whole thing is, like the Austerity Agenda (TM), a manufactured narrative. The lead spokesthingy, of course, is budget chief Mike “No cupcakes for you, widows and orphans” del Grande.

Daren’s analysis is dead-on, so I’m not going to repeat it here, but there’s one detail in it that bears a closer look, and that’s Moody’s call for 

a permanent solution to the existing operating budget pressures.

And that’s where this perennial bit of municipal theatre really challenges the audience; it’s in establishing and assessing the context. (Yeah, there he goes again.) Because you really can’t have a worthwhile and comprehensive discussion about “existing operating budget pressures” without addressing Toronto’s continuing structural deficit. And that goes beyond Team Ford, David Miller, and/or Mayor Mel.

Such a discussion must necessarily involve the role of senior levels of government, and the dysfunctional mess that governments of various political stripes have made of municipal finance — indeed, of the entire municipal-governance file. I like to start with the Harris government’s ill-advised municipal amalgamation in the 1990s, coupled with the uploading, downloading, sideswiping shemozzle precipitated with the Common Sense Revolution. But if you want to suggest that the fecklessness of the McGuinty approach hasn’t made things better since then, well …

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“You may very well think that, Mattie. I couldn’t possibly comment.”

So, in order to make Moody’s really happy, we need to examine and correct the mistakes of previous provincial governments. And while we’re at it, we might want to revisit that whole constitutional municipalities-as-creatures-of-provincial-legislatures thing. 

Anyone want to give odds on how likely we are to see that?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Related posts: