Comparing inequality between societies is useful, if only to remind us that inequality is not like gravity: there is no “law of inequality”. Political choices matter. True, worsening inequality trends across the OECD countries indicate important structural forces are at work in labour markets and in making it harder for governments to redistribute wealth. But significant variation persists between countries, meaning that we are not fated to become ever more deeply unequal.
Many of the growing social and economic inequalities visible in Canada today are rooted in, or enabled by, inequitable public policies. The impacts of policies on diverse groups of people are not adequately considered, and the result is often unequal access to programs and services. This inequality creates a problem of fairness (inequity). For example, in my city of Fredericton, NB, if you live in an apartment, you probably don’t have your recycling picked up. If you live in a house, your recycling is picked up every week. Your experience differs depending on whether you’re a renter or a homeowner. In our country, you may not have access to clean drinking water if you reside in a rural area where logging is a major industry. If you live in an urban area in Canada, you almost certainly have clean drinking water. You have a different experience depending on whether you have access to a good water treatment system, and whether you reside close to a natural resource extraction industry. In my city, my province, and our country, you cannot vote until you’re 18 years old. Access to an important piece of our democracy depends on your age.
While it is now only just over a year since the Occupy Wall Street movement began to draw attention to the wide and growing gulf between the 1% and the 99%, many have been quick to dismiss its staying power. After all, it was pointed out from the very beginning that the Occupy movement really did not have much to offer in terms of concrete policy proposals. Asked by the Wall Street Journal last October about his views on OWS, Martin Feldstein, the prominent Harvard economist, could only say: “I can’t figure out what that’s all about…I haven’t seen what they’re asking for.”
But the vagueness OWS projects in terms of its policy proposals is hardly a basis for dismissing its significance.
I don’t know whether it’s smugness or indifference, but we Canadians can be a self-deluding lot. Growing inequality, portrayed recently in The Economist as a global scourge, when viewed from Canada, seems to be a problem only for others.
After all, it was other countries’ banks that crashed in 2008. It’s in southern Europe that tens of thousands are taking to the streets. And it was in France and the United States that recent elections were fought over the fact that those who created the mess, the top 1 per cent, are still getting big bonuses and low tax rates.