By Errol Black and Jim Silver
On August 12, 2011, we published a Fast Facts titled, The Inequality Agenda and the Specious Ideas that Support It. In that article we cited a July 20, 2011 Globe and Mail article by Jeffrey Simpson titled, Do we care that Canada is an unequal society? Simpson answered his question with the following observation: “Committees of both the House of Commons and Senate have issued reports on poverty: neither stirred much interest. Income inequalities are apparently not deemed important subjects in this self-centered age.”
In response we noted that the burden of the evidence shows that most Canadians are concerned about income inequalities. It is the obsession-driven Harper government in Ottawa — cut corporate taxes, attack trade unions and collective bargaining, dismantle institutions that provide benefits for direct producers (the Canadian Wheat Board), etc. — and the big corporations, including most of the corporate media that don’t care.
The Globe and Mail, while it claims to be Canada’s national newspaper, is a leading cheerleader for the Harper government and the corporate agenda. It is national in the sense that it is available in all the provinces, but it does not connect with most thoughtful and concerned Canadians; indeed, it has moved in the opposite direction in recent months replacing most of its thoughtful and interesting journalists with individuals who pride themselves on being apologists for the status quo.
Against this backdrop, Jeffrey Simpson tackles the topic of inequalities once again in his October 29, 2011 column with the question: “Why aren’t we talking about income inequality?” His answer is signaled in his opening paragraphs: “Equality is fitfully in the news…Deficits are large, social programs need to be funded, the poor are growing. Ergo, the rich should pay more. So goes the simplistic argument.” From there he goes on to argue that Canadians are preoccupied with gender and regional inequalities. “Income inequality, however, seems to be the kind of inequality that Canadians don’t talk about much.” He then argues that the question of why Canada has become more “unequal in an income sense is a complicated business…And taxing [the rich] more doesn’t raise all that much money; to get real dollops of cash, governments have to tax people who consider themselves ‘middle class.’ That gets politically awkward.”
What should we make of Simpson’s arguments, apart from the fact that they are overly simplistic? Well, to start with his article is once again a defense of the status quo. However, his basic premise, namely, that we don’t want to talk about income inequality, is wrong. They aren’t talking about the issue in his paper (or other papers that endorse the redistribution policies of the Harper government), but there is plenty of discussion about inequality across our country. For example, The Toronto Star regularly features articles and columns on the causes and consequences of growing inequalities in Canada.
Simpson’s claims that the issue of inequality is very complex. It is not. The fact of the matter is that successive Tory and Liberal governments have restructured the Canadian tax system and social and economic policies as a means of increasing income inequality and concentrating wealth and power at the top of the income distribution. He is also wrong to say that imposing a higher tax rate on the rich would not generate much revenue. In an October 24 column in The Toronto Star (“How to make inequality obsolete,”), Linda McQuaig suggests that modest changes to the progressive personal income tax structure (as proposed by Neil Brooks) would generate $8 billion in additional revenue.
The one useful observation that Simpson makes is that our equalization program and the “equality rights section” of the Constitution are recognized as public goods that provide benefits to all Canadian citizens. Given that the overall poverty rate, the child poverty rate and inequality in Canada are among the highest in developed OCED countries, we would suggest that a concerted national program to reduce income inequality and poverty in this country would yield similar benefits.
The question is: where will we get the leadership to initiate debate on such an agenda?