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Death and no taxes

by Arthur Milner

Stephen Leacock defined a sportsman as “a man who, every now and then, simply has to get out and kill something.” Perhaps homo sapiens sapiens is a species that feels similarly about killing on a larger scale.

The right-wing revolution that began with Margaret Thatcher has left Canada with two legacies – legacies in that they changed not only our policies but our culture as well.

The first change was to the sissy notion that war is bad, an odd idea left over from the Vietnam days. The end of the Cold War made things even worse for war aficionados: all that talk of a peace dividend made it seem that spending billions of dollars on war preparations would henceforth be unnecessary.

That things had changed became evident with the second Iraq war: that sense of righteous violence; the moral courage of those willing to send others to war to fight evil; the willingness to sacrifice a people for their own good; the constant insinuation that something – testosterone? – was lacking in those opposed to sending troops; and the ubiquity of that popular liberal warmonger’s metaphor: the enemy is Hitler; you are Chamberlain.

We didn’t send troops to Iraq, but it ushered in current attitudes. In war, as elsewhere, we value our intentions far above outcomes. And now, a great many people have a stake in Canada’s newfound bravado. If I may quote myself: it may be true that militaristic countries go to war; the real problem is that countries that go to war become militaristic.

Drive down the 401 when a casualty of the Afghan war is being repatriated. Listen to the parents of dead soldiers talk about how ending our involvement in Afghanistan would render vain the sacrifice of their child. Listen to the sentimentality about soldiers on the CBC (Afghanada!) and other media. (But don’t pay attention to our treatment of veterans: soldiers returning with physical and psychological scars are an embarrassment, especially when they complain about neglect.)

The second legacy is the widespread hatred of taxes. It is astounding that the right wing has maintained a reputation for “prudent fiscal management” after decades of evidence that modern conservatives are interested not in balancing the books but in cutting taxes. If they bequeath crippling deficits and a shrinking tax base to incoming governments, so much the better.

Right-wing politicians promise to hold the line on taxes while cutting deficits and preserving services. How can this be achieved? By applying business principles to public spending. Toronto has just elected exactly such a charlatan as mayor. Ottawa did the same four years ago, but turfed him out in this last election after his promise to freeze municipal taxes failed miserably.

The right has managed to create a culture in which taxes themselves are illegitimate – like the long-form census, some kind of unwarranted intrusion into our private lives. They offer tax cuts as party favours, and it’s practically impossible for opposition parties to refrain from matching them, let alone for them to advise tax increases.

We demand good health care, the best education, smooth roads to everywhere, housing for the poor, a well-equipped army, more police and firepersons – all without raising taxes. Clean up the environment, but we won’t hear of a carbon tax. The Globe and Mail insists that the nation prepare for the coming onslaught of demented nonagenarians. Where will the money come from?

Our left-wing party is paralyzed. The largest font on the NDP homepage is devoted to “Heat your home – tax free.” (The carbon tax goes unmentioned, of course.) In the few cases in which the word “tax” appears, it is more often in the context of tax cuts than tax increases.

NDP commitments that will require increased expenditure include: enhanced child tax benefit; increased Canada Social Transfer; an action plan to eliminate poverty in Canada; support for social and cooperative housing; addressing homelessness, with special attention to Aboriginals; improving EI by abolishing waiting periods, calculating benefits on the basis of the 12 best weeks of work, expanding eligibility to self-employed workers and improving sickness and injury benefits; and meeting Canada’s international development assistance obligations.

The tax revenue increases mentioned or alluded to are: taxing capital gains at the same rate as salaries or wages; ensuring that large, profitable corporations pay a fair share of taxes; and rescinding tax breaks and subsidies for fossil fuel industries. However, the party is committed to “targeting tax reductions to help the middle class.”

Not exactly good leadership, but does the NDP have a choice in this neoliberal culture?

A recent study by Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely found that most Americans believe that the United States is far more equal than it actually is, and would prefer that it were far more equal than they think it is. In fact, given the opportunity to select a desirable level of equality for the United States, they choose Sweden. This preference applies to Americans of all income levels, party affiliations and regions. Then they turn around and vote for Tea Party candidates.

It’s hard not to conclude that Americans, in aggregate, are simply ignorant, and there is little evidence that Canadians are significantly more knowledgeable. I won’t pursue this depressing path. Instead, I urge everyone to read my brother Henry’s Civic Literacy: How Informed Citizens Make Democracy Work. The title says it all.

Over the last few decades, one of the great disappointments for the moderate left has been Tony Blair. By way of tribute to Tony Judt, who died on August 6, I’d like to point out that he had Blair’s number early on. “The Gnome and the Garden: Tony Blair and Britain’s ‘Heritage’” was originally published in 2001, in the New York Review of Books. Judt was no hard-line Marxist, ready to expose every deviation of the moderate left. He did a similarly devastating job on the structuralist Marxisms of the 1970s and 1980s, in “Elucubrations: The Marxism of Louis Althusser.” These essays and many more were reprinted, in 2008 in Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, which, if you don’t already know it, is an excellent introduction to Tony Judt’s work.

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About the Author

Arthur Milner
Arthur Milner is Inroads’ culture columnist and a member of its editorial board. He is a former artistic director of Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company.




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