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.

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Also from @neville_park, a picture

Liberation theology

Liberation theology

Not for nothing do I love her.

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Politics, the charitable sector, and the public sphere | #cdnpoli

There’s been some discussion recently about the role of charitable organizations, and by extension other NGOs, in social advocacy and the debate over public policy. In an essay for the Star this past weekend, Alan Broadbent calls for just that in arguing for more overt political activity from Canadian charities. 

It’s not hard to discern the context for Mr. Broadbent’s essay. Indeed, he makes it clear in his very first paragraph in citing the recent federal budget and characterizing it as a shot across the bows of Canadian registered charities, and in noting the rhetorical strategy employed by the Harper government and its acolytes in promoting accelerated exploitation of the Alberta tar sands.

HIs essay notes that the law allows charities to devote up to 10 per cent of their activity to politic, and encourages Canadian charities to become more active participants in policy discourse. (In fairness, he also notes that many charitable organizations don’t have the organizational resources to play too prominent a role in that regard, occupied as they are with programming and fundraising.) In describing the need for their participation, he notes that 

… since governments have shed much of their policy capacity in the last few decades, they need good ideas from outside, and particularly from those working close to the coal face of society’s problems.

Mr. Broadbent makes a useful argument, and it’s particularly timely in its evident defence of the fact that some of the money for Canadian charities and advocacy comes from sources outside Canada, if for no other reason than that it blunts the Harpublican strategy of demonizing opponents as foreign-funded radicals trying to hijack Canadian regulatory processes.

That’s one level, anyway. The discussion is valuable on that level, but let’s try to view it in a somewhat larger context — one which examines the role of charitable organizations not just as political actors, but as service providers and enhancers of community bonds and — one of my favourites — the public good.

It’s become fashionable, as governments embrace the “austerity” fetish and shed the capacity to act, to call for more reliance on private-sector actors and/or charities. Indeed, last December Hamutal Dotan described an incident wherein Doug Ford reached into his own pocket and wrote a personal cheque to help out a school nutrition program. 

God knows, I’m not here to kick Brother Doug around for that. But, as Hamutal argues, necessary social programs shouldn’t have to rely on charity or personal generosity. And that’s the larger context for both her argument and Alan Broadbent’s.

Once again, it’s useful to unpack some of the underlying assumptions and go back to first principles. Part of that involves making my own biases explicit, but that shouldn’t take long.

Why do we have government? Why do we have a public sector? Why, for that matter, do we have communities and social structures? I’d argue that a large part of the reason is collective empowerment: we pool our efforts and our resources in pursuit of the common good. By working together, we accomplish things we can’t accomplish on our own. Regardless of whether you want to call yourself a conservative, a socialist, a liberal, or whatever, that’s the basis for community. 

And that’s the organizational underpinning for whatever sector of public policy you want to cite: education, national defence, municipal infrastructure, public transit, health care, food inspection, energy, environmental protection, and so on. That’s why political priorities are set, resources allocated, timelines established, and structures established to ensure democratic oversight and administrative accountability. It’s not a simple process, but it can and does work when it’s properly resourced and managed. As with most complex undertakings, it depends on consistency, predictability and transparency, and an overarching commitment to the public good.

It’s for that reason that I find the increased emphasis on charities disquieting. I’m not questioning the value of the work they do, and I’m not saying they aren’t worthy of all the support they get and more. But I am taking issue with the idea that we should rely on them to step into the vacuum left by diminished and kneecapped public institutions.

Where is it written that we must reconcile ourselves to the enfeeblement of government, of the public sphere, of our collective capacity to act for the common good? Just because “austerity” has become the flavour of the month doesn’t mean we’ve suddenly been relieved of our obligations to ourselves, to our communities and to our fellow citizens. 

Regardless of the political context or the issues of the day, those obligations are constants. They are necessary incidents of citizenship, and of membership in civil society. As such, they need to be resourced and supported consistently. They shouldn’t have to depend on charitable donations. They’re unpredictable, they’re hard to budget for, and they’re too dependent on the personal preferences of donors, commendable though those might be. Frankly, I don’t want the social fabric and essential community programs dependent on the Jim Doaks of the world.

And, as the warning shots Mr. Broadbent cites illustrate, charities are vulnerable to politically motivated attacks. 

We can argue about the legalities and the definition of political activity and whether any given initiative comes close to the 10 per cent threshold, but the chilling effect of those warning shots is perfectly obvious. The Harper regime’s strategy for dealing with people and organizations it doesn’t like is a matter of record. Bracing as Mr. Broadbent’s call to action is, it’s that much riskier for any small organization to stick its head up under the circumstances.

(Do I have to point out that I’d be delighted to be wrong about this?) 

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Monday evening at St. James Park in Toronto | #OccupyTO #OccupyWallStreet #OccupyBaySt

No analysis or or argument this time, just observation.

Too soon to say how long this will last or whether it’s got real staying power. 

Not as if I’m there day and night, but with every visit I’m struck by the relaxed and nurturing atmosphere. People are working together, caring for one another, and there’s no sense of hierarchy or externally imposed authority — just community.

I recognize that others may have cited Jack’s words already — maybe even three or four times by now — but what the hey. I can’t think of anything better suited to what’s going on:

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

Love, hope, and optimism. Will this change the world? I don’t know. But maybe it’s a start.

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Monday evening at St. James Park in Toronto | #OccupyTO #OccupyWallStreet #OccupyBaySt

No analysis or or argument this time, just observation.

Too soon to say how long this will last or whether it’s got real staying power. 

Not as if I’m there day and night, but with every visit I’m struck by the relaxed and nurturing atmosphere. People are working together, caring for one another, and there’s no sense of hierarchy or externally imposed authority — just community.

I recognize that others may have cited Jack’s words already — maybe even three or four times by now — but what the hey. I can’t think of anything better suited to what’s going on:

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

Love, hope, and optimism. Will this change the world? I don’t know. But maybe it’s a start.

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In answer to @graphicmatt – no, this isn’t conservatism | #TOpoli

Matt Elliott’s post yesterday wonders, perhaps rhetorically, where Toronto Council’s conservatives are. He sums up the incoherence and cumulatively damaging effect of some of the decisions Team Ford’s managed to push through this week – getting rid of bike lanes, turning down free provincial money for public health nurses, voting against community grants, dismissing the results of rigged community consultations that produced results they didn’t like … well, it goes on and depressingly on.

I’ve already argued that this bunch clearly doesn’t think government should be in the business of advancing the public good at all. And even though I’ve written that we should think of ourselves as citizens rather than as taxpayers, if we take wise management of our tax dollars as a touchstone of good governance (regardless of political inclination), then it’s pretty hard to argue that they’re meeting that standard either.  Continue reading