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Peter Puxley: Overcoming Inequality in Canada: A Cultural Challenge?

responses-puxley2_0.png "The ideas of economists and political philosophers … are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." - John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money (1936)

In economics, hope and faith coexist with great scientific pretension and also a deep desire for respectability.  - J.K.Galbraith, New York Times Magazine (June 1970) 

The policy community praises the ideal of “evidence-based” policy – policy with a solid research base. In the real world, however, we all know that public policies, as implemented, are more often than not only vaguely related to research results and the best available data. 

Political parties are focused on achieving power. The opinions of voters have shown themselves to be highly malleable. So, instead of investing in policy research and promoting its results and the policies they suggest, governments have of late opted for investing in the science of manipulating public opinion, a science that is now highly sophisticated, but chiefly available to those of above average means. 

A true democracy is a messy ongoing battle among competing, often conflicting, interests. That being the case, equality must be more than an economic objective, it is a political necessity if our democracy is to function effectively. Without concerted effort and constant vigilance, democratic values can’t survive inequalities of power and influence. 

Economic inequality is almost always reflected in political inequality. Rising economic inequality like that Canada has experienced over the past three decades has been accompanied by growing political inequality and a rising disaffection with the political process on the part of many Canadians, especially the youngest generations. Few Canadians today realistically expect to compete with the political power wielded by major corporations, the major media outlets that largely publish and broadcast their perspectives, or their lobbyists who dominate the political hallways of access between elections.

Canadians under 45 years of age are unlikely to have adult experience of other than a neo-conservative political and policy environment, one that prefers simplistic dichotomies, that pits the citizen against her government, public against private interest, and sees public investment as less economic than private investment. The important truths discovered in more than half a century of experimentation with public finance and the initiation of major social programs in the mid-20th century, the realization that good social policy is good economic policy, await rediscovery it seems. 

To make that rediscovery all the more difficult, Canada has been subjected to three decades of conservative discourse – a conservative conventional wisdom, to use Galbraith’s term more broadly – that has dominated the marketplace of ideas, defined the acceptable policy options to eliminate many suggested by the evidence, and misled the electorate into thinking that the status quo is almost inevitable, whatever it might otherwise wish.

The reigning conservative discourse, so readily parroted uncritically by journalists and much of the academic establishment devalues public goods by comparison with private goods; treats the prices (taxes) we pay for public goods, like health care, differently from the prices we pay for private goods; espouses a rhetoric of non-affordability and unsustainability unrelated to evidence; denies the applicability of the insurance model to public goods like unemployment insurance, pensions, health care, quality education from early childhood to adulthood; makes facile and inappropriate comparisons between public and private budgeting. The list goes on. It is a list that ignores the data and the evidence of Canada’s own history.

We accept those neo-conservative assertions at our peril as a society and evolving nation. For what defines us as Canadians are those very commitments we make to each other as citizens with agreed upon rights and a guaranteed minimum standard of living (that includes essential public services), wherever our careers take us in this country or wherever we choose to live.

The guarantor of that minimum standard can be none other than the federal government. No amount of parochial rhetoric about the responsibilities and jurisdiction of the provinces can absolve the federal government of its responsibility to speak for all Canadians qua Canadians. The deterioration over the past three decades of the national social programs that share life’s risks and responsibilities among all Canadian citizens is a record of the failure of federal commitment and leadership. That failure is a direct result of the level of economic and political inequality in this country, an inequality that has left the majority without proportionate influence.

Lack of evidence of inequality is not the problem, but rather the intentional promotion of a world that fosters inequality. That being the case, the struggle to overcome inequality involves more than communicating the evidence of inequality and its economic and social costs to a receptive public. It is, rather, a cultural battle, to overcome a discourse that promotes inequality and rules out of consideration viable and preferred policy options that serve the majority.

The “Affordability” Lie

It is a tribute to the triumph of the reigning conservative discourse that most of our leading pundits and academics accept the suggestion that we “can no longer afford” such essential national programs as modernized public health care, employment insurance that actually lives up to its name, publicly funded early childhood education, adequate public pensions or to tackle a host of other costly social ills, from illiteracy to the social and economic exclusion of Aboriginal people and the disabled. The conservative discourse, simply put, regards equality as unaffordable.

What is the reality? It is that the country has never been so capable economically to deliver equality. Statistics Canada data show that real income per person today is more than 50% greater than in 1980, roughly when the era of spending cuts began. Real per person income is more than twice as large as when we began implementing so many of the programs we are told we can no longer afford.

The primary factor uncritical pundits and conservative thinkers overlook, and given the evidence do so wilfully, is our failure to redistribute the benefits of the phenomenal growth of our economy over the past three decades in a way that ensures all Canadians benefit from the fruits of their labour.

Is it surprising that most Canadians, not having fully experienced that prosperity, are unaware of just how wealthy we are as a country, and are even fatalistic about the chances of improving their private circumstances, let alone improving the quality of public services? On this fertile ground, the dominant conservative social discourse takes root, and the conventional wisdom that we can’t possibly afford to maintain what we once took for granted seems perfectly believable.

Addressing Inequality is a Cultural Challenge 

So, where does this lead us? To the recognition that tackling growing inequality in Canada is not simply a matter of marshaling the evidence of its reality, and the data demonstrating its costs to the economy and our democracy. 

We have to defeat the dominant discourse that suggests we can’t afford to do anything about it, and that rules out those options that involve Canadians coming together to share more equitably the wealth we create together. This is a cultural challenge that involves dismantling the reigning myths one by one in our communities, academic establishments and media outlets. It will not happen overnight. Being armed with the facts will help, but the hard work will be convincing our neighbours that they have been victims of misinformation and the burial of the lessons of our own history.

Peter Puxley is the former Director of Research and Policy, Office of Jack Layton, Leader of the federal NDP.