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


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.

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Winning back the words: reclaiming ‘elitism’ in the age of Rob Ford | #TOpoli #onpoli

Never a dull moment in the civic life of our city, as they say. It’s been fascinating to watch, albeit in a slow-motion-train-wreck sort of way, and if at any time you’re overwhelmed and have to avert your eyes, there’s a terrifically energetic corps of observers to analyze, summarize and skewer.

Folks like @cityslikr, David Hains, Matt Elliott, Mike Smith, Dave Meslin, Tim Falconer, Ivor Tossell, Hamutal Dotan, Andrea Houston, Jonathan Goldsbie, R. Jeanette Martin, Justin Stayshyn, Justin Beach, Ed Keenan, Tabatha Southey, John Lorinc, and others (just take a look at the Sites I Like over to the left) have been doing an invaluable job standing up to, chronicling and picking apart the day-to-day indignities Team Ford’s been visiting upon us. Perhaps in the years to come, we’ll be able to look back on them, shake our heads, and surround them with ritual incantations, much in the way the Ten Plagues are recited at Passover. (I could live without the sweet wine, though.)

Every day it’s something. If it’s not the attack on libraries, or the rejection of provincially funded public-health nurses, then it’s inexplicable all-night committee meetings seemingly calculated to provide the appearance of public consultation while in fact making participation almost impossible. The latest bit of Ford Math has seen the mayor knocking on the door at Queen’s Park, demanding money from the province after blowing holes in the city’s revenue stream.

The list above isn’t exhaustive, of course, and the purpose of this little meditation isn’t a comprehensive detailing of the damage, actual or potential, that this administration has done or can conceivably do to the fabric of our communities or our public institutions. The observers I’ve cited are already doing a terrific job documenting that. At some point, however, it’s worth stepping back and viewing it in a larger context, and examining some of the historical and intellectual currents that have brought us to this. People like Rob Ford are symptoms of a much larger pattern. They don’t rise to power in a vacuum.

I’ve written previously about the need to cultivate critical-thinking skills as a necessary component of engaged citizenship. The logical extension of that, though, is that there’s a widespread critical-thought deficit. It’s not a pleasant thing to contemplate, and it carries all sorts of unpleasant connotations, but the evidence is there. It was clear all through last summer and last fall that Rob Ford’s numbers made no sense.

That’s not a partisan argument, either. Anyone willing to look at things like a rational adult rather than a petulant four-year-old could have seen that, and known that Ford couldn’t possibly guarantee no service cuts. His numbers didn’t add up. His grasp of the facts didn’t stand up to even the most basic scrutiny. His antipathy to certain sectors of the community was obvious. His transportation policy, to the extent he had one, amounted to little more than chasing cyclists off the road and flushing millions of dollars earmarked for Transit City down the toilet. His approach to delivering municipal services, his views about arts and culture … well, you see where I’m going. And yet, people bought into the rhetoric of rage and resentment, the laughably simplistic clichés about gravy trains, and the bumper-sticker slogans about Respect for Taxpayers, and voted for him anyway.

Again, back to the question of critical thinking and the lack thereof. It’s the most basic and indispensable ingredient for meaningful civic engagement, but apparently it wasn’t part of the process for a substantial number of our fellow citizens; rather than doing a few minutes of math and considering the implications, they were prepared to disregard the obvious faults in Rob Ford’s platform and just go along with the resentment, the vindictiveness, and the lazy, mindless desire to kick ass at City Hall.

But why? How did we get here?

Back to the larger pattern, and those historical currents alluded to above. It goes beyond class, the issues of the moment, or shallow explanations like the downtown / suburban divide. In fact, I’d submit that it’s a direct result of the deliberate cultivation of stupidity.

Those of us who were around in 1980 might remember the defining moment of the Reagan-Carter debates in the U.S. presidential election.

It’s instructive: Jimmy Carter is giving a thoughtful, well-researched and succinct listing of the policy areas wherein he and the Gipper disagree, and Reagan just smiles, and in that folksy, likeable manner, shrugs off the whole argument. Aw, there you go again with your facts and policy and numbers. Who cares?

And that’s set the stage for more than three decades of backlash against “elites.” From that wellspring, we got all kinds of ridiculous and damaging memes: government is the problem, more freedom through less government, drown government in the bathtub, the private sector is more efficient, taxes are theft, social programs just rob the hardworking taxpayer and ladle handouts to the lazy and undeserving, government bureaucrats telling us what to do, crime is out of control because of soft-headed liberal elites, yada yada yada … Just check the tabloid press sometime.

All this contrived backlash and resentment of “elites,” of course, just helped to feed manufactured narratives in which posing as the ally of the little guy against the snooty liberal elites masks an agenda that just happens to serve the real ruling interests: deregulation, “free trade,” tax cuts, anti-labour initiatives, and a furious suspicion and resentment of education or independent thought. They don’t want people to see the connections, or evaluate the evidence, or draw the analogies or conclusions. It’s all part of a decades-long anti-intellectual current designed to keep people from seeing what’s happening. And it’s why there’s so much invested in persuading people to deny the evidence and to ignore the obvious: that climate change is happening, that we can’t keep building communities designed around private cars and cheap energy, that cutting taxes hamstrings government’s ability to act and hurts everyone except the wealthy.

It used to be that education, intelligence and expertise were things to be respected. They were desirable qualities, things to aspire to. Now they’re practically liabilities. It’s an illustration of just how badly public discourse has degenerated. These days, allowing yourself to be portrayed as an “elitist” is political death. It suggests that you’re arrogant, out of touch, that you think you’re better than everyone else. Remember Karl Rove’s description of Barack Obama as the guy at the country club with the martini and the cigarette, sneering condescendingly at everyone else?

And the reverse is just as clearcut, to the detriment of politics, culture, and civic discourse. Once upon a time, being uneducated, insular or uninformed was something you wanted to hide, something you worked to overcome. Nowadays, it’s a badge of honour. Rob and Doug virtually trumpet their ignorance every day.

There’s a historical context for this, too. A few years ago, a former government of Ontario rose to power on just this sort of dynamic, and under the rubric of the “Common Sense Revolution,” pursued one of the most divisive and backward agendas in nearly a generation. Again, this goes beyond labels like left or right or liberal or conservative or socialist or whatever. What’s left over from that era, above all else, is a measurable diminution in the quality of life and the level of civic discourse, and damage to the social fabric that still hasn’t been repaired.

That’s what we’re up against, my friends. Thirty years, if not more, of this atavistic bullshit. Again, it goes way beyond labels like left or right or capitalism or socialism or whatever. It’s not a partisan observation. This kind of toxic effect’s been at work at all levels of government, and not just in Canada. And when ignorance, gut instinct, pandering to resentment, and mob rule become the yardsticks for the evaluation of governance, well, you can see the effect.

So how do we push back? I’d suggest that we can begin by reclaiming the language, and being vigilant about the meanings of words. One of the most damaging effects of this thirty-year march to stupidity has been the separation of words from their meanings. Terms like “liberal,” or “socialist,” or “elitist,” for example, are so fraught with baggage and negative connotations now that they’re almost impossible to use in rational discourse. They’ve ceased to function as effective means of communication, and have become rhetorical brickbats. They’re weapons used to shut down debate by dragging it out of the realm of rationality and into emotionally volatile terrain where people are far more susceptible to manipulation. Want to end a discussion? Call your opponent an elitist.

That’s what has to change. Discourse is the turf. If we allow the terms to be defined by other people, the battle is over before it’s even begun.

So let’s begin by reclaiming some of those terms, and reinvesting them with their original meanings. Elitism, for example. When decisions are being made about the future of my community and how billions of dollars in public monies are spent, I want them made carefully and thoughtfully. I want them made by educated and intelligent people, capable of reflection and balancing of interests, and willing to deal with complexities. I don’t want them made on the basis of anger, ignorance, resentment and gut instinct.

Stupidity is not a civic virtue. It’s past time we stopped pretending otherwise.

Update: Now playing at OpenFile.

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