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They call it democracy, but that’s still a stretch

Was 2011 the year of democracy? Or, at least, when we gave lip service to democracy?

As Gwynne Dyer notes in his year-end summary, the planet was full of democracy-related news, most notably the Arab Spring. Public action in the likes of Egypt, Libya and Syria (still unfolding) put shame to the those of us here who can’t even be bothered to vote, nor to even take note of the erosion of our rights and freedoms.

In the latter context, we did see the Occupy movement gain some traction, only to break on the battlements of public apathy and entrenched corporate interests. While casting some light on the inequities of the system, the movement’s failure to breakthrough echoes the string of letdowns that followed the financial collapse of 2008, as politicians of all stripes sold out the public interest to corporations lobbying against regulation and accountability.

We got platitudes – lip service – but no action.

What did stick from the Occupy experience are the 1% and 99% labels. Not just catchy, they are appropriate as they show the growing economic inequities in our society: a handful of people got richer even as the majority of us took a hit. That’s a problem in itself, but the real story lies in the fact that those who have profited are responsible for the poor economy, having lobbied for the deregulation, trade and fiscal policies that created the mess.We remember the slogans, but how many of us really got the message?

As it does every year, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives brought the situation into stark relief this week – and garnered the usually short-lived media attention – with its report on the compensation of Canada’s top 100 CEOs. By noon on Tuesday, that select group had already pocketed $44,366 – what it takes the average wage earner an entire year to make.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ (CCPA) annual look at CEO compensation reveals Canada’s Elite 100 CEOs – subbed the 0.01$ – pocketed an average $8.38 million in 2010, 27 per cent more than the average $6.6 million they took in 2009.

In contrast, after taking inflation into account, the average worker’s weekly earnings are lower now than they were during the worst of the 2008-09 recession.

“The average of Canada’s CEO Elite 100 make 189 times more than Canadians earning the average wage,” says the report’s author, economist Hugh Mackenzie.

“If you think that’s normal, it’s not. In 1998, the highest paid 100 Canadian CEOs earned 105 times more than the average wage, itself likely more than double the figure for a decade earlier.”

The report finds that those CEOs among the country’s richest 0.01 per cent, a privileged group of 2,460 tax filers whose minimum income was $1.85 million in 2007. Their incomes soar above the average income of $404,500 (2007) required to enter the richest 1 per cent club. The lowest paid of Canada’s CEO Elite 100 pocketed $3.9 million in 2010, though few of us would shed any tears over that.

“The conclusion from these data is inescapable,” says Mackenzie. “Soaring executive pay plays a significant role in driving the growth in income inequality in Canada. “The gap between Canada’s CEO Elite 100 and the rest of us is growing at a fast and steady pace, with no signs of letting up.”

These people are certainly the elite, as the title of the report suggests. Still, there’s something to be said to fall into that 1% category that is the mainstay of the Occupy movement. If you’ve made it into Canada’s richest 1% club, you’re among the 246,000 who made a minimum of $169,300 and an average income of $404,500 (as of 2007, the most recent year for which data are available.).

What about the remaining 99% of us? Well, we’ve not been so lucky, says the report.

Between September 2010 and September 2011, average weekly earnings in Canada rose by only 1.1 per cent. After taking inflation into account, weekly earnings are now lower than they were during the worst of Canada’s 2008-09 recession, resulting in a dan­gerous mix: Canadians are feeling the squeeze of shrinking disposable incomes, a rising cost of living, and record-high household debt.

Clearly, the very modest efforts made to correct such inequities did not make the problems vanish when the calendar flipped over. Much more effort is needed if we’re going to reverse a decades-long slide. Note, however, that politicians don’t have that kind of change among their resolutions.


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