Bloody well right, we need to tax and spend | #TOpoli #ThePublicGood

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“You’re bloody well right, we need to tax and spend. We’re living with the results of decades of NOT taxing and spending, and what have we got? Buses that don’t arrive. Chunks of the Gardiner falling on our heads. Crumbling infrastructure. Poisonous inequality. Epidemic levels of child poverty. It’s way past time we fixed this, instead of embracing the failed policies advanced by the austerity advocates and other mouthpieces for the far right.”

What I’d love to hear from progressive candidates, not just in the municipal arena, but almost any other context. Stop letting the flimflam artists of the Right use “tax and spend” as a smear. Things cost money. Taxes pay for things. Socialist, left-wing, progressive, whatever. Morans and poo-flingers can call it whatever names they want. A fella can dream.

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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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Getting past the ‘War on the Car’ | #TOpoli #ClimateChange

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(This grew out of a Facebook discussion with the divine Septembre Anderson, so it’ll be a little abrupt. Indulge me. Tips of the chapeau are also due to Rosalind Robertson, Breeyn McCarney, and Daniel Cowans.)

A lot of this is boilerplate, and it’s already been tackled by folks like Daren Foster and Ed Keenan, but what the hey. I’d also recommend a necessary and illuminating piece by the indispensible Steve Munro, who’s forgotten more about transit than I’ll ever know.

The context was a juxtaposition of revenue from city recreational programs, and a proposal that those programs should be free, and the loss of municipal revenue from the Vehicle Registration Tax, regularly caricatured as part of the Leftie Downtown Elitist War on the Car. This isn’t really intended to get into the specifics of that; it’s more of a step back, let’s look at the big picture and try and see this in historical context (oh Christ, there he goes again — ed.) kind of thing.

Anyway, someone on Septembre’s FB feed was talking about the way we “penalize” car owners whenever the city needs revenue. I jumped on it, perhaps a little more intemperately than I might have:

The idea that you’re being “penalized” by having to pay a tax is where the debunking begins. I’d suggest a review of Alex Himelfarb‘s Tax is Not a Four Letter Word for starters. And if you do something as fundamentally self-centred, anti-social and environmentally destructive as driving a private automobile on a regular basis, then quite frankly I don’t have a problem with you being required to pony up more …

I’ve never met a group of people more obsessed with their own privilege — and less willing to acknowledge it — than motorists. Their sense of entitlement to absolute primacy on the roads is boundless. I don’t care about other users, and why do I have to stop for that goddamn streetcar, and get the fuck out of my way cyclists because I just wanna go wherever the fuck I want as fast as I can. And it’s my god-given right to park my private car directly in front of my destination, as opposed to actually having to walk a block or two from a bus stop or something. Angry, aggressive, impatient, and selfish. Ford is just an extreme and grotesque example.

Bluntly, I’m out of patience. Don’t like gridlock? Don’t like road tolls? Don’t like scrambling for parking spots (which are also heavily subsidized, BTW)? Get out of your fucking car and take transit. Or ride a bike. Honestly, just stop whining and grow up.

The discussion continued, with the same participant arguing, not without justification, that he couldn’t rely on public transit to get where he needed to go in a timely manner. He also complained, again with some reason, about the wasted time and lost productivity due to service interruptions, overcrowding, poor service, and all the other problems besetting public transit in Toronto. (I’m paraphrasing, and in truth, it would be fairer for me to allow him to speak for himself, so in that regard, if he wants to respond here, I’ll commit to publishing whatever he wants to say, unedited, at as much length as he wants.)

At any rate, that prompted this additional outburst of sanctimonious wankery:

… if you find public transit inefficient, perhaps you should work to improve it, and support public initiatives that will do the same. (Ruinously wasteful subways that will never justify themselves in terms of ridership might be a good place to start.) Honestly, where is it written that public transit has to be slow, inefficient, dirty, overcrowded, poorly maintained and unreliable? It doesn’t have to be that way at all. There are jurisdictions all over the globe where a well-maintained and functional public transit system is recognized as the Public Good that it is, and in fact it’s the preferred method of getting around. Private cars are well down the list.

Now, I’ll grant you that it’s not necessarily the best or fastest way to get around in the GTA. It’s no secret that our current urban form has been built around private automobiles: large highways, single-family homes on large lots, huge malls with large parking lots, low population density have all combined to make public transit very difficult to operate efficiently. And we’ve structured our lives and jobs and communities accordingly. You drive to work, you drive the kids to school or daycare, you drive to the mall to get groceries, you shlep all your stuff around in a car. It’s just the way it is.

Problem being, that’s simply not sustainable. I don’t need to get into greenhouse gases or climate change or emissions control; suffice it to say that our addiction to private automobiles is one of the biggest sources of smog and air pollution in North America, so there’s the impact on health and productivity to consider, never mind the environmental impact. Factor in the advent of peak oil and it becomes clear: we simply can’t structure our cities and our lives around cheap gasoline and abundant energy and inefficient land use any more. Sadly, we’re stuck with infrastructure and urban form that’s built around that, so it makes efficient and low-impact transit that much harder to achieve. But that also makes it that much more imperative. It’s not a question of cars being evil so much as a recognition that reliance on them as the primary means of getting around simply doesn’t work any more. And part of fixing that includes getting motorists to assume a greater share of the costs they’ve been offloading onto the rest of us. Whether you want to admit it or not, private automobiles are subsidized up the yingyang. As those subsidies are phased out, more and more people will make the rational economic choice of opting for other ways of getting around.

What I’ve impatiently characterized as selfishness and entitlement on the part of motorists, in that context, has to be seen for what it is: privileged distress. When you have a group of people who’ve enjoyed preferential treatment for so long that they’ve come to see it as the natural order of things, they’re going to see any revisiting of the arrangement as an attack on themselves. Suddenly they’ve become victims. It’s like MRAs who see feminism as a giant conspiracy to attack men, or bigots who whine about Political Correctness. It’s where you get idiotic memes like the “War On The Car.”

And so on. Again, nothing that hasn’t already been said, previously and more eloquently, by better people than me, but given the way things are likely to be framed over the next twelve months, worth emphasizing.

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Maturity, citizenship, @jerryagar1010 and more on the "all taxes are evil" theme | #onpoli

At first glance, this might seem at odds with my resolve not to engage with trolls. But in fairness, I haven’t really paid that much attention to him, so it’s not really fair to assume that this guy’s a troll. Benefit of the doubt and all that.

So, first principles, Jerry. Let’s unpack some of your assumptions. Please — explain to us exactly what’s wrong with using “taxes and tolls in order to pay for government,” and how embracing the idea demonstrates a lack of creativity? And just what is it “not an answer” to?

Y’see, I’ve always viewed community and society as a means for people to pool their resources and work together to do things they can’t do individually. That’s how we manage to have nice things like roads, hospitals, fire departments, libraries, schools, police services, water treatment, public sanitation, electricity, public health, recreation centres, transit systems, and public spaces. Maybe you think of it as the “nanny state.” I’ve always thought of it as “infrastructure.” (I dunno, maybe it just sounds better.)

And maybe I’m just naive, but isn’t that supposed to be the natural function of government? It raises revenues and gathers resources via various forms of taxation, and then it allocates those resources in accordance with publicly determined priorities. We get a say in that determination by voting and by talking to our democratically elected representatives and public officials. Am I missing something here? You make it sound as if there’s something inherently wrong with that.

Now, not to dump all this on Jerry, but isn’t that the problem at the heart of all the “tax-and-spend” rhetoric? And in a larger sense, with a one-dimensional viewpoint that sees people only as “taxpayers” rather than as “citizens?” Isn’t there something a little suspect about a worldview which reduces our relationship with society (and by extension, with each other) to robbery? If you consistently view government as an inefficient and malevolent force that just steals your hard-earned money, then aren’t you just setting yourself up for a lifetime of resentment and victimization?

It’s OK, you don’t have to answer right away. Let’s move on. You were talking about creativity, I think. So tell me, since you don’t like taxes and tolls, what’s your creative solution to paying for public infrastructure?

Lotteries?

Casinos?

Private investors?

PPPs?

Geez, I’m ready to smack myself in the forehead. How come nobody’s ever thought of those things before?

Back to the “adult conversation” theme. I’m all for creative solutions, and reasonable discussions about what government should be doing, and how it should go about it. But simplistic repetition of slogans like “taxing us to death” and “nanny state” and “government monopolies” strikes me as … childish.

(h/t @cityslikr, @kvonbling, @trishhennessy and @VassB)

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From Campaign 2010 to Campaign 2014: framing the #TOpoli narrative

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It may be conventional, as we near the halfway point of Team Ford’s mandate, to expect a raft of think pieces, assessments, sententious analyses, and windy “Whither Toronto” wankfests. But enough about me.

Regular visitors to this little corner will be familiar, I think, with your humble servant’s fascination (obsession? – ed.) with framing, storylines, and narratives. It’s nothing new, of course; I harp on it because discourse – the words we use to talk to one another, the stories we tell each other, the themes we use in making sense of current events, the implicit assumptions – is at the very basis of civic engagement. It’s the most essential currency of citizenship. It’s from the basic discursive tools that everything else in the Citizen’s Toolbox – critical thinking, a sense of the public good, an appreciation for complexity – arises.

That’s part of the context for a discussion that developed earlier this afternoon on the Tweetr (kids these days). Regardless of what I may think of Team Ford’s approach to governance, you have to agree that the municipal election of 2010 was pretty much defined by the Ford campaign’s success in establishing and controlling the narrative. The messaging was so effective that with the exception of Joe Pantalone, all the other major mayoral contenders ended up buying into it to some extent. 

Nothing new or revealing there, of course. But as the subsequent two years have shown, there’s a big difference between campaigning and governing. Campaigning can be very effective when the messaging is straightforward and easy to grasp. Whether it’s truthful or constructive is another matter. Once you get into the nuts and bolts of governance, things get a bit more complicated. Either way, though, discourse and narratives matter. Words matter. Definitions matter. Connotations matter, because they’re all essential in establishing the terms whereby we communicate.

That’s not exactly a new insight either, and I’m not the first to suggest it, but I’d humbly suggest that it’s a lesson well worth repeating and establishing as one of the dominant memes for 2014. (I’m not tipping my hand or anyone else’s with this, I trust.)

It’s instructive, therefore, to read the tweets from Nick Kouvalis. Anyone tapped into Toronto politics knows about his role in getting Rob Ford into the mayor’s chair; as I’ve said before, regardless of what I may think about Ford’s politics and approach to governance, there’s no denying that Nick ran an effective and successful campaign. He knows about messaging and about mobilizing voters, and as the following collection of tweets shows, he’s got some insights we would do well to learn from. (Nick, why can’t you use your talents for niceness instead of evil?)

[View the story “Two years of #TeamFord, and what people voted for | #TOpoli” on Storify]

 

Perhaps it’s too soon. We don’t know what’s going to happen in two years. But I can’t help thinking that the difference between campaigning and governing is going to be central to almost every attempt to define and describe Team Ford’s record. 

Narratives, folks. Fasten your seat belts.

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Some quick thoughts about #OneCity | #TOpoli #transit

Juggling live-blogging, tweeting, and this, so nothing profound, but a couple of things:

1. I wouldn’t assume that “the mayor is back in charge of transit” just yet. Just because OneCity didn’t fly doesn’t mean that he’s suddenly got anything more than shouting “subways subways subways” until our ears bleed.

2. Whatever OneCity is or was, at least it contemplated tying transit expansion to public revenue. You want infrastructure? You gotta pay for it. If nothing else, that’s the beginning of an adult conversation. Beats the shit out of “I can’t support taxing the taxpayer.”

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Video: Oh, and speaking of Grover Norquist … | #uspoli

Samantha Bee, I’ve always loved you.

(h/t @cityslikr, @jm_mcgrath, @davidhains and @neville_park)

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Let’s stop fetishizing "The Market" | #cdnpoli #TOpoli #classwarfare #austerity

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Comrades, this is our moment. Tonight we smash capitalism!

(The code word is Dzhugashvili.)

OK, cheap laugh. Sorry, but how could I not? Bemoaning the debasement of public discourse isn’t doing much good on its own, so might as well get the easy laughs while I can. 

Anyway, to business. Two marvellous contributions to the conversation recently from Alex Himelfarb and Trish Hennessy; if you’re not reading their stuff, then start now. Where some people go for the easy snark and descend into rudeness, their stuff is invariably thoughtful, tempered and beautifully written. Their arguments are persuasive and elegantly constructed. If you want contemporary Canadian policy issues framed in a comprehensive context, it’s hard to think of better places to start. 

Both Alex and Trish have written recently about the so-called austerity agenda and the foolish unsustainability of fiscal policy based on tax cuts. I’m not going to try to improve on their arguments, because I can’t. I’ve linked to them; read them at your earliest convenience. What I do want to do, to the extent that I can, is expand upon them and, perhaps, establish a bit of context.

Before I get into that, though, a small observation consistent with my obsessive focus on the meanings of words, their use, and their connotations. “Austerity” is one of those loaded words. It’s got overtones of moral opprobrium, fiscal imprudence, even Calvinist rectitude. It’s difficult to imagine it coming up in conversation without connotations of stern paternalism, a sense that we’re wayward children in need of firm correction — for our own good, of course. Less is more. Live within our means. Shared sacrifice. Tightening our belts. We’re all familiar with the discourse by now. Inevitably, however, the attendant pain is borne mostly by the less privileged members of society. 

Again, though: Alex and Trish have set up a comprehensive and essential discussion of the “austerity agenda,” so I won’t rehash it. To the extent that I can contribute, I’d like to suggest a bit of political and discursive context; if I’m successful, this will help re-frame the discussion and expose some of the underlying assumptions. 

The most important pillar in that context, in my submission: “The Market.”

There’s no shortage of right-wing think tanks devoted to deification of “The Market” and belching out talking points in an attempt to control the discourse. In an earlier post, I linked to a terrific site examining the sources of their funding; The Sixth Estate goes into a fair bit of detail about who funds them and why. It’s worthwhile background reading if you want to understand why the meme of “The Market” holds such sway in the national conversation.

My purpose here, though, is more basic. Let’s go back to first principles and define our terms: what do we mean when we talk about markets? From Wikipedia:

A market is one of many varieties of systems, institutions, procedures, social relations and infrastructures whereby parties engage in exchange. While parties may exchange goods and services by barter, most markets rely on sellers offering their goods or services (including labor) in exchange for money from buyers. It can be said that a market is the process in which the prices of goods and services are established.

I’m not suggesting that Wikipedia’s is the last word. I’m citing it only for the sake of discussion. In this context, it’s defined as a system of economic relations, a means for establishing the value of goods and services. Left unaddressed is the question of whether such a system should be the only means whereby we govern social relations; we’ll return to this momentarily.

Let’s acknowledge at the outset, though, that like most social relationships and forms of organization, it is an artificial construct. It did not exist in a state of nature; it is not some uncontrollable force like the weather, and it does not function through acts of God.

However, let’s take a good long look at the position to which we have elevated it. We have raised this artificial construct to a position of quasi-divine power, and we are making weekly obeisances to it as if it’s a force of nature. An immutable thing over which we have no control. And tied to that is the assumption that left to its own devices, it will always produce the optimal result. Societies governed by market forces, we are told, are always more free, more efficient, and more adaptable.

And we attribute the most anti-social, destructive things to it and then just shrug. What are you gonna do? Supply and demand. It’s “The Market” at work, folks, and you’ve priced yourselves out of it. We can’t afford to pay decent wages any more. We can’t afford a social safety net any more. Investors will just take their money elsewhere. We’ll need to tighten our belts and live within our means. 

Let’s imagine for a minute. A powerful external agency devastates our country / flies planes into office buildings / inflicts unimaginable environmental degradation / destroys our economic infrastructure. Pick one. Or pick them all. The common theme in all of these is a destructive external force ripping the heart out of our community. All the myriad connections, bonds and interdependencies upon which the fabric of society is built are unsentimentally torn apart. In other contexts, we’d consider it an act of war. We’ve been attacked.

But when corporations like Electro-Motive do it, we shrug and tell ourselves it’s just market forces. As if that somehow takes away the moral stain. Let’s not pussyfoot around here. Leaving people without the means to support themselves is wrong.

When people place self-interest above all, ignore the rules of civilized behaviour, and don’t give a shit about anyone else, we call them sociopathic. When international investment vehicles and corporations act that way, they’re just maximizing shareholder value and reacting to “The Market.”

But if “The Market” can’t ensure a living wage and decent benefits and contribute to the economic underpinnings of a community — all those parts of our daily lives that make us social human beings — then What Fucking Use Is It?

It’s time to stop fetishizing it.

Never mind the artificial construct or the logical and se
mantic hoops its mouthpieces lead us through. Subsidies, tax breaks, artificial monopolies, empty regulations — all these things are a licence to print money when, in fact, the recipients don’t compete in a “free market” at all. They want us to guarantee a return on their investments, look the other way when they use their economic power to crush competition, and meekly acquiesce when they form oligopolies and cartels to milk us for all they can get.

But for all the frippery and harrumphing we’ll hear from the corporate media and the think tanks, they never really address that question. There’ll be plenty of distraction, plenty of misdirection, and reams of effort devoted to changing the subject. And again, we’re all familiar with the memes: investor confidence, mobility of capital, free trade, labour market flexibility, respect for taxpayers, yargle bargle blegh.

Which brings us to the question of unions and organized labour, and the impending lockout of Toronto city workers. Once again, let’s be clear about our biases: as a paper from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives recently argued, 

No country has ever achieved widespread prosperity and created a large middle class without strong unions.

Generations of hard-fought union struggles brought Canadians the eight-hour day and the weekend; workplace health and safety legislation and employment standards; income supports for new parents and training for unemployed workers; public pensions and minimum wages; protections for injured workers and equal pay for equal work.

Unions helped organize the extension of these negotiated workplace-based achievements to the whole workforce through legislation.

Again, this is boilerplate. The CCPA paper is essential background material; it helps establish the context for a more fundamental argument which owes much to Trish Hennessy’s implication about a ruthlessly unilateral shredding of the social contract. That shredding has been abetted or even tacitly encouraged by a succession of increasingly feckless and then captured federal governments. As Trish argues, 

1. Instead of defined pensions, we were offered RRSPs.

2. Instead of an EI program that’s recession-ready, we were offered TFSAs.

3. Instead of affordable university tuition, we were offered RESPs.

 

Once again, let’s go back to first principles and examine some of the underlying assumptions. Why shouldn’t we have these things? They benefit society as a whole. Their value ought to be so self-evident that we shouldn’t even have to have the debate. That’s why I’m referring to the social contract. Underlying the phrase is another concept that needs to be reaffirmed and reclaimed: the public good. And since these things accrue to the public good, it stands to reason that they should be enshrined as public-policy objectives, and funded accordingly. 

Instead, we listen as one think-tank mouthpiece or bank spokesthingy or columnist after another lectures us about “living within our means” and tells us we can’t afford it. And thus are our expectations steadily lowered — of ourselves, of our country, of one another, of citizenship itself. The bar is progressively lowered, the defining criteria for enlightened and civilized society are abandoned, and eventually we’re left at the mercy of international investment regimes and the corporations that work them, with no corresponding public institutions to defend the public good.

Where does organized labour fit into all this? As Trish points out, it’s no coincidence that unionized public-sector workers are being attacked and demonized. In my submission, they’re an essential element in the defence of the public good and the public sphere. They’re one of the few countervailing institutions in the struggle against “market forces” as defined by the think tanks and their patsies. I recognize that this is going to be a hard sell these days, but that doesn’t make them any less important as a counterbalance, so let’s have at the inevitable objections. 

Should unionized public-sector workers be making 150, 200 % more than the “market rate?” Frankly, I don’t care, because that’s not the issue. I’m not going to reduce the conversation to one about numbers, and I don’t know what “the market rate” means. There will always be some nasty corporation ready to undercut the public service, pay people 8 bucks an hour and treat them like shit, and protest that “that’s the market rate.” SFW? How does that advance the public good? What’s so special about “The Market?” Again, if it can’t advance the public good or ensure that quality of life is enhanced for everyone, what fucking use is it

Once again, back to the notion of the public good. The public sphere has a role to play in this beyond whatever artificial reductionist fantasies about “The Market” you want to indulge in. By ensuring that public-sector workers are paid a living wage with decent benefits, we set an example for private-sector employers to follow. We are making a statement about our values — that decent wages and the healthy communities which rely upon them are important and worth preserving, regardless of what the free-marketeer flimflam artists might be selling. We support that with workplace-standards legislation, with laws protecting the rights of workers to form unions and bargain collectively, anti-strikebreaker legislation, and so on. All of these have been enacted, after protracted struggles, by democratically elected governments supposedly charged with enhancing the public interest. It’s no coincidence that as that government gets colonized, regulatory agencies crippled by lobbyists, and the public conversation dominated by the corporate media, these have all been under attack — most stridently by the tabloid press which brays about being the voice of the little guy while advancing an agenda that just happens to coincide with the interests of the 1 per cent.

And again, let’s go back to the imaginary example suggested above: the scenario wherein a community’s economic backbone is at stake. Yes, my taxes pay public-sector workers’ wages. So what? Ensuring a decent income for everyone benefits society as a whole. I don’t have a problem with that, and the steady drumbeat of demonization and stupid memes about them being lazy overpaid thugs isn’t going to change that.

Sure, maybe my tax bill might be lower if we outsource to some contractor who pays its people shit, but how does that make society better? I might save a few bucks on my taxes, but I’ll be paying for it in countless other ways — as Alex has described, a meaner, more threadbare, more divided and polarized society with more crime, more conflict, more violence and more despair. All to save a few bucks and stick it to the “greedy unions?” Really, union-haters? Is that what you want? If so, then at least have the courage to admit it.

There’s a whole series of assumptions that need to be exposed, unpacked and questioned. It’s beyond the scope of a single blog post, but one of the conversations that needs to happen concerns things like tariffs and “protectionism,” versus “free trade.” While I’m not claiming economic expertise, it seems to me that once again, it comes down to value choices. If we’re placing the right of international investors to make a quick buck above the need to foster domestic industries and maintain national control over re
source extraction, or the right to craft industrial policy in a way that serves the interests of our citizens and produces the greatest good for the greatest number, fine, but then let’s be honest about it. It’s not about some irresistible natural force called “The Market.” It’s class warfare, pure and simple. The only question we need to ask ourselves is which side we’re on.

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