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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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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@Cityslikr, @NickKouvalis, and the need for civility in public discourse | #TOpoli #TeamFord

Ah, nuance.

What a thing it is to contemplate. It’s so bracing. Complication. Reflection. Complexity. It’s what puts the real in real life.

My friend @cityslikr, who on his worst days is ten times more eloquent and compelling than I will ever be, was involved in one of those Twitter conversations the other night. Initially it was with some tabloid scribbler, but as the evening went on, he was joined by Nick Kouvalis.

Mr. Kouvalis, you may recall, was widely credited as the brains behind Rob Ford’s election victory. And full marks to him for that; a lot of people, including me, never thought it would be possible for a guy like Rob Ford to win the mayor’s chair. Regardless of what we may think of it, Mr. Kouvalis ran an effective and successful campaign. Whatever’s happened in the ensuing year can’t change that.

But watching that exchange and reviewing the duelling tweets prompted a couple of related observations: perhaps not especially original, but no less relevant for that, especially given the state in which Toronto now finds itself. The first concerns the difference between electioneering and governing; the second, perhaps more subtle but no less important, concerns the importance of framing (for which I’m also indebted to Trish Hennessy. If you haven’t bookmarked her blog, do it now).

Back to @cityslikr and Mr. Kouvalis. Rather than put words in their mouths, I’ll let them speak for themselves (guys, if I’ve left anything out, or if you feel I’m taking your words out of context, please feel free to write. I’ll publish your comments as you submit them).

To the extent that you can have a compelling policy debate via 140-character bursts, that’s what appears to be going on. And I can’t help but contrast that with the themes that dominated last year’s mayoral contest, thanks in large part to Mr. Kouvalis: Gravy Train. Respect for Taxpayers. Wasteful spending. We don’t have a revenue problem. War on the Car. Those of you bored or desperate enough to read my stuff regularly know what I think of those memes, but that twitter exchange illustrated, beautifully, the gulf between electioneering and governing.

Admittedly, this isn’t a new lesson, but it’s no less worthwhile for the repetition. Democratic governance, whether it’s at the local, provincial, or federal level, is a complex, multifaceted exercise. It involves balancing of multiple interests, looking at issues from both a long-term and short-term perspective, analyzing costs and benefits, identifying opportunities and stakeholders, allocating resources in accordance with needs, recognizing that community is evaluated not just in fiscal terms, but also in terms of aesthetics, cohesion, and sense of common purpose, and above all, trying to fashion public policy in a way that produces the greatest good for the greatest number. Ideally, it’s informed by devotion to things like citizenship and stewardship, a resolve to enhance the public good and leave the public sphere just a little better than we found it. In sum, it’s complicated. It’s not something that can be reduced to sound bites, lapel buttons and bumper stickers.

It’s been instructive, watching the direction the conversation’s been taking, most notably with the recent comparisons likening Toronto’s municipal finances to the impending cataclysm in Greece. Do we really have to go there? We’re not Greece. Greece itself isn’t Greece, at least not in the apocalyptic way the tabloid brayers have been portraying it. But that’s the problem with caricature, hyperbole and simplistic thinking. It may play well on the campaign trail or in tabloid columns written by or aimed at people with limited attention spans and cognitive faculties, but it rarely translates into effective and responsible governance.

Simplistic narratives depend on fudging the truth, on omission of nuance, on leaving out and glossing over anything that complicates things or gets in the way of delivery of an easily digested and manipulative message, like … oh, like “public-sector workers are lazy overpaid unionized thugs. Unions are to blame for the mess. David Miller left the city on the verge of bankruptcy because he was their puppet. Who the hell are these greedy bastards?” It plays right into prevailing attitudes of envy and intellectual laziness. Why bother to think things through? Certainly, it’s easier to be a disengaged dullard who gets information from tabloid headlines and Don Cherry’s yargle-bargle, if that’s the extent of your civic engagement.

Which brings us to the source for most of those simplistic narratives: the city workers’ strike of 2009.

It’s no great secret that Ford’s strategy was to tie it to Miller. (Indeed, he wasn’t the only one.) It’s also not much of a revelation to suggest that much of Ford’s mayoralty is predicated on payback for that, most apparent in the drive to privatize or contract out waste collection. Once again: Respect for Taxpayers. Stop the gravy train. Greedy unions. An easily digested, simplistic message which may be short on facts but resonates emotionally with the target audience. Truth and reality are just a bit more complex than that, but you won’t read about that in the tabloid press. It’s much easier, and a more effective means of manipulating people, to keep recycling spite, hatred, misdirection and disinformation.

Good for campaigning, no doubt, which may be why the tabloid press seems to be in permanent campaign mode. Not so good for citizenship or governance.

It’s all in how you frame things, really. Not to take anything away from Nick. Guy ran a successful campaign, based largely on his ability to frame things. Can’t argue with it. He won. His boy’s the Chief Magistrate now, ably backed by the drooling cheering section in the tabloid press. But at what cost? I’d argue that it’s been at the cost of reasonable intelligent discourse, and of effective and responsible governance. The very tone of public conversation has been debased by the constant flow of bullshit and sloganeering. To the extent that we can, it’s worth considering the way issues are framed nowadays, because that’s how the stage is set for public discourse.

This isn’t about elitist sneering at coarse, loutish, vulgar behaviour any more. At the end of the day that’s a matter of personal taste, and that’s not what this is about.

Public conversation and civil discourse are the currency of citizenship. They are the means whereby we conduct public business and ourselves as citizens. Maintaining standards for them is in everyone’s interest, regardless of whether we’re left or right or liberal or conservative or socialist or whatever. Allowing them to degenerate to the level currently practiced by the Ford administration and enabled by the tabloid press (half-truths, distortion, misdirection, name-calling, screeds) makes it that much harder to have civil conversations with one another. Our ability to talk to each other like sane, intelligent and reasonable human beings is undermined.

Effective, responsible governance has suffered as well. (No point in rehashing the campaign-trail guarantee of no service cuts, except to contrast it with current fiscal discussions, dominated as they are by the song of the chainsaw.) The Port Lands clusterfuck may be the most high-profile example, but it’s not an isolated one. When you consider the underhanded, sandbagging way that Team Ford does things, it’s hard to see how things are better than they were under the previous administration.

Again: framing. It isn’t even about whether Rob Ford can grow into the job any longer. If we allow tabloid screed-writers and astroturfing operatives to set the terms of the discussion, we’re screwed. We’ll waste God knows how much time and energy distracted by Shiny Objects and manufactured controversies (polar bear versus beaver, anyone?) instead of having the conversations we really need to have.

Let’s move beyond slogans.

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