With last week’s budget, the Trudeau government has given up any pretence of fiscal responsibility – it’s spend, spend, spend, especially in an election year.
Even with higher-than-expected revenues, Ottawa has sunk us even deeper in the hole. Much of the spending will be unproductive, wasted under the guise of short-term benefits when the money would be better spent on long-term investments such as infrastructure that will outlive the current crop of voters. But, of course, it’s only today’s voters that governments have any interest in.
Short-term thinking is an affliction that’s permeated all facets of our society.
Adopting the business model that’s taken hold in the last three decades – today’s stock price, shareholder value and this quarter’s profits above all else – our political system has been shaped by constant lobbying from those who see society through only the lens of finances. It’s what’s made citizens no more than consumers.
Politicians, of course, have a built-in capacity for short-term thinking: the election cycle. They make promises and float policies designed for immediate impact – spend for votes today. That’s problematic in and of itself, as it gives little regard to the idea that actions taken now will have impacts years, sometimes decades down the road.
Making matters much worse, however, is the equally troubling issue of taxation. The promises they make come with a price, but 30 years of neoconservative lobbying and influence have made taxes a four-letter word, meaning many politicians will try to win votes by promising to spend today while simultaneously pledging to cut taxes. That often means deficits, a situation that’s ideal for politicians intent only on re-election: the bill won’t come due until later, when they’re off living comfortably on gold-plated government pensions.
That kind of thinking is what got us into today’s mess. That the very people who supported tax cuts to corporations even as government largesse filled their coffers are the ones leading the charge for austerity measures – not to themselves, of course – has been lost in the shuffle.
In the course of a couple of generations, we’ve undone centuries of efforts to create a society based on the common good. Much of the we’re-all-in-this-together ideals that came out of the Great Depression and the Second World War, for instance, has been replaced by relentless individualism.
Rapid urbanization whereby we no longer rely on family, friends and the broader community – indeed, we may not even know our neighbours – makes us forget just how interdependent we really are. A consumer-based society, pushed by marketing, focuses on individual pleasure. This comes at a cost to the collective ‘us,’ especially when discussing matters of financing the common good: taxes are seen as taking money away from ‘my’ enjoyment. Increasingly, we’re encouraged to give rein to our natural tendency to look after number one. Couple that with an individual’s capacity to seek immediate gratification, and long-term planning for our collective future becomes even more difficult.
There’s nothing wrong with looking out for personal interests, but we’re in danger of forgetting that most of the middle-class gains of the postwar years stem from socially-driven ideas. In purely economic terms, the collective efforts are the rising tide that lifted all boats – some more so than others, certainly. Today, however, there’s an element that seems hell-bent on undoing precisely the conditions that allowed for the great prosperity now under attack.
Thanks to decades of concerted effort, many people have bought into a set of diminished expectations about the role of government and, more troublingly, the possibilities of shaping a better society. We’ve had democracy reduced to the occasional trip to the polls. We’ve seen government reduced to managerial functions, where debate is constrained to a few well-worn topics. We’ve seen the economy reduced to fiscal policy – deregulation’s the order of the day as the financial services industry sets the agenda. We’ve seen citizenship dumbed down to passive observation, at best.
If we’re going to have a better society we need to think about the future 10, 20, 50 and 100 years down the line. The road we’ve been on for the last three decades, driven by the neoconservative corporate agenda, has diminished our quality of life. We have to look past dubious vote-buying programs, immediate tax cuts and partisanship.
Long-term thinking is not just for issues such as climate change, though we’re not prepared to tackle even that issue, despite the consequences. No, it’s all about living for today. But long-term planning is crucial for a host of issues that are part of today’s political reality, encompassing all levels: long-term resource consumption, human migration, transportation demands, retirement and pensions and the like. Our failure to do so has led to rampant consumerism, environmental crises, unchecked immigration, urban sprawl, financial speculation and a host of other ills that plague our economic, political and social systems.
That we’ve been reduced to the short-term interests of the most affluent gives lie to the notion that our system of government – our democracy – is based on the consent of the governed. Government policies that run contrary to the public interest – an increasing proportion of its actions – surely are the opposite of what we’d consent to.
Who is responsible for that? Certainly those who’ve benefited have fostered an unending propaganda campaign that’s been every bit as effective in sweeping aside citizenship as the corporate marketing has been in turning us into consumers. We’ve happily abdicated power and responsibility for the comforts of our lives. We’ve opted for the distractions. As a result, we’ve got the government we deserve, one that acts against our interests and against the common good.
The political and economic systems we live under are both manmade constructs. We devised them, and they’ve evolved into something that no longer meets the needs of the majority of us. If the social contract means that there’s a greater, common good, then that contract has been violated.