Did you hear those two cheers last week from the unlikely direction of progressive economists and their admirers? Who could blame them?
Since 2010, austerity devotees had loudly hailed a study by two Harvard economists, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, that concluded that excessive debt in any country would lead to a catastrophic collapse in growth. Here was the latest excuse for those who lusted after smaller governments and shrunken public expenditures to continue doing what they were doing anyway.
But then, justice raised its little-seen head. An American graduate student and his two profs uncovered “miscalculations, data errors, selective exclusion of data, and unsupported statistical technique.” Seems the Dynamic Duo had been dead wrong. So, it followed logically, all those prominent folk who had enthusiastically embraced R&R had to eat crow.
This was wishful thinking. The laugh, as usual, remains on us. Conservatives have been working assiduously to undermine the role of the state as a bulwark for the less privileged since at least Maggie Thatcher and Ronnie Reagan, and don’t bother them for fancy “proof.”
Typically, at the very moment of Reinhart-Rogoff’s public humiliation, the Finance Minister of Ontario was proclaiming that “Eliminating the deficit is the single most important step we can take to grow the economy and create jobs.” That’s exactly wrong. Growing the economy is the single most effective way to reduce the deficit. Slashing public expenditures, as we’ve seen across southern Europe and in the UK, is a surefire formula for slowing growth and so growing the deficit even more.
Yes, the deficit must be reduced as soon as possible. After all, it now takes $10.6-billion to service Ontario’s debt, making it, incredibly enough, the third largest expenditure in Ontario’s budget after only health and education. And all those billions go to the most privileged rather than the most needy. But austerity, predictably, is proving the worst possible way to cut deficits.
Yet we can be confident that cutting government social programs will continue to be the template for most governments. So our world will continue to be characterized by growing inequality twinned with the existence of trillions of dollars in the private sphere unavailable for public purposes. Yes, that’s trillions.
The world has never been richer. There’s never been greater productivity in the history of the species. Stock market prices are higher than at any time in history. So are corporate profits. There have never been so many Croesus-rich individuals indefatigably finding ways to minimize their tax obligations. There have never been so many corporations sitting on or otherwise burying incomprehensibly vast sums of money.
The world’s economy may be precarious for most of us, but not for all. There are now 1,426 billionaires, 210 of them joining the club just in the last year. According to Forbe’s magazine, the filthy rich collectively own an estimated $5.4-trillion – that’s trillion, if you can fathom it – equal to more than a third of the annual output of the American economy.
Here’s another way to think about how crazy wealthy they are: One think tank has shown that taxing an extra 10 per cent from those in the United Kingdom earning $225,0000 – not exactly a painful sacrifice – would come close to delivering a living wage to all in the bottom 25 per cent. And Oxfam-UK calculates that “the additional income amassed last year by the world’s 100 richest billionaires would be enough to lift the poorest people on earth out of poverty four times over.”
In the meantime, Africa loses an estimated $200-billion a year through various illicit financial outflows, while the benefits of the continent’s recent impressive growth rates go, as usual, overwhelmingly to the richest 10 per cent.
Then add on the $21-trillion – all these trillions! – reported by The Globe and Mail as the “conservative estimate” of moneys held in offshore accounts in 2012; that’s about the size of the American and Japanese economies combined. Canadians for Fair taxes estimates that the 1 per cent here have shipped $160-billion to offshore havens, avoiding about $8-billion annually in unpaid taxes. This would come close to halving Canada’s federal deficit this year. Internationally, the Tax Justice Network calculates the super-rich have squirreled away a cool $20-trillion in offshore accounts, saving themselves at least $200-billion in taxes.
And that’s only a small portion of moneys not available for the public good. Corporations, including Canadian ones, have for decades used “transfer pricing” to evade taxes. They create subsidiaries, often on paper, then simply shift revenues and costs among them so profits conveniently show up in low-tax jurisdictions. The public loses untold billions – yes, maybe trillions – in foregone taxes.
In the process, an entire service industry has developed that caters exclusively to the whims of the1 per cent. In her revelatory book “Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else,” Chrystia Freeland describes a parallel universe that most of us have never even heard of. Here her subjects – she actually says they’re the 0.1 per cent – frolic amidst self-indulgence, opulence and privilege barely imaginable in our most avaricious dream. They even believe righteously that they’ve earned it. Nothing like it has ever been known in human history.
Thanks to the latest Ontario budget, the welfare rate for low-income families in the province will again be increased by 1 per cent. Typically, that could mean $16 more a month. As those plutocrats might say, let them eat Kraft dinner.