A tip for all occupiers: If you need help articulating your grievances, this newspaper should be one of your research tools. Seriously. Take last Saturday’s Focus section, for example, published on the first day of the Canadian occupation. No fewer than three articles in that single section presented the case of the 99 per cent as eloquently as anything else I had read.
First was an extended feature by Ira Basen with the intriguing title, “ Economics had met the enemy, and it is economics.”
Second was a long column by Alex Himelfarb, former Clerk of the Privy Council – this country’s most senior public servant – pithily titled “ Tax isn’t a four-letter word.” It’s more-comprehensive subhead read: “We seem to have forgotten the simple fact that if we want government services (and we do), we need to pay for them.”
Finally came the weekly column by The Globe’s intrepid European correspondent Doug Saunders: “ We need a global army of tax collectors.”
As it happens, each very much relates to the others.
Ira Basen’s very crucial point (although he’s not quite this blunt) is that the entire economics profession is something of a fraud and that mainstream economists often have no idea what they are talking about. Except for some shining exceptions like John Maynard Keynes, John Kenneth Galbraith, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, for over 200 years economists – including the “trained economist” who governs us –have operated on the basis of self-evidently ludicrous premises. Not only ludicrous but relentlessly anti-scientific. As even The New York Times said the other day, the destructive trend toward austerity across the Western world – at least austerity for the most vulnerable – is nothing more than political ideology masquerading as economic policy.
As Eric Reguly – yes, of The Globe and Mail – reported this week from Athens, Greeks blame “a seemingly endless series of austerity programs ... for an ever-deepening recession that has boosted the unemployment rate to 16.5%, pushed down wages and eviscerated pensions.” Of course rich Greeks have largely avoided paying taxes since Zeus was an infant.
I guess if you think the time’s ripe for austerity you’d also buy the bewildering assertion that each of us seeking only our own self interest somehow culminates in the good of society as a whole. Similarly, the happy capitalist dogma peddled by all kinds of Nobel-winning economists that people invariably act on the basis of rational expectations backed by complete knowledge is as nutty as the simplistic Marxist dogma that says humans are mainly motivated by material concerns. In these make-believe worlds, apparently there is no nationalism or race or religion or ethnicity.
So in the desiccated never-never land of real economists, human actions are never motivated by irrationality, unpredictability, opportunism, envy, venality, ignorance, megalomania, mental instability, or even mistakes. Yet despite this obvious foolishness, Ira Basen points out, economists have provided a “scientific” cover for the anti-regulatory agenda that American politicians gifted Wall Street to enable it to cause the 2008 collapse. Once again, articles of faith operate in the name of rationality and evidence. Yet so much of the economics taught in our universities and guiding our governments and international financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank have little relationship to the real world we all live in.
The incomprehensible and therefore presumed foolproof computer-driven mathematical models that have dominated in recent decades have largely been built on the illusions of their predecessors. Not surprisingly, these awesome models failed to predict the 2008 financial debacle and haven’t a clue how to get us out of it. Remember Nobel laureate Robert Lucas of University of Chicago – where else? – asserting five years earlier that, “The central problem of depression prevention has been solved”? Oops. Close but no cigar.
Ideology trumps science and – who’d have thunk it? – the 1 per cent are the huge beneficiaries.
Alex Himelfarb picks up the theme. He points out that the domination of the neoliberal agenda – an extreme extension of the free-market ideology promoted by Milton Freidman and his many acolytes – means that government is seen as the problem, while markets are the flawless solution. Progress, as the former Privy Council clerk sums it up, “would come not from our collective efforts to build a better society but from the pursuit of our individual interests.” Even old Adam Smith warned against this illusion.
Both neolibs and neocons repudiate the enlightened proposition, to use Mr. Himelfarb’s words, that “taxes are the price we pay for civilization and for a better future … a way of funding public goods and services, redistributing income to avoid the worst excesses of inequality and shaping the future to the extent we can.” You don’t become clerk of the Privy Council by being a flaming pinko. Yet it has become all but politically impossible in many rich countries to tell the truth about the need for more taxes. As a result, we face the curious paradox that the world has never been richer than at this moment yet there’s apparently no money available for public purposes.
Globe scribe Doug Saunders knows better. There are, for one example, trillions of dollars – to be precise, no less than $9.4-trillion, according to the Boston Consulting Group – that are not being taxed at all, squirreled away by the 1 per cent in secret offshore banks precisely to avoid paying taxes. That, Mr. Saunders says, “is $2-trillion more than all the money held in all the banks in the United States. Taxed at 11 per cent (a fraction of what’s actually owed on it), this would yield an instant trillion dollars,” roughly equal to what Europe’s governments now need.
Then there’s let’s-pretend taxes, as represented by some 94,000 Americans with earnings over $1-million a year who pay lower taxes than their secretaries. This was one of many gifts from an empathetic George W. Bush with the enthusiastic backing of the rabidly anti-tax Republican Party, often with the quieter complicity of the Democrats. Their views are not at all influenced, of course, by the fact that about half of all members of Congress, from both parties, are themselves millionaires.
As it happens, The Globe’s tutorials for the 99 per cent didn’t stop on Saturday. Only days later, another columnist, Lawrence Martin, joined the tutorial. Mr. Martin described how Stephen Harper was successfully transforming Canada into a mean-spirited nation best represented by Don Cherry and “the growing gap between rich and poor” where “living standards have flatlined for three decades and the evidence that trickle-down economics doesn’t work is accumulating.”
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