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After covid come deficit woes, but we have bigger problems

The COVID-19 isn’t over yet, with plenty of fears about a spike following the resumption of school, followed by an even larger problem when flu season arrives.

There are also fears a growing segment of the public is growing blasé about the virus and the threat it poses.

We’re seeing some jurisdictions moving to a second lockdown, with others discussing such action, as a result of an increase in the number of cases.

Along with such concerns, there’s also an uptick in discussions about the economic costs of fighting the coronavirus, particularly the massive government deficits. While much of that is led by right-leaning groups always eager to call for spending cuts and reducing the size of government, the budget shortfalls will have to be addressed, one way or another.

The federal government expects this year’s deficit to balloon massively to $343 billion, about a tenfold increase from what was expected prior to the COVID-19 crisis. Ontario is expecting its deficit to double to $38.5 billion.

It’s too soon to talk about austerity measures, but we’re going to get there eventually, especially once a vaccine is developed and widely distributed.

Getting a handle on spending that provides little or no benefit to most of us – from corporate welfare to bloated public sector salaries – is fine; cutting essential frontline services and benefits is not. (We’re going to have to downsize what we consider essential, however.) Nor are we served if there are rumblings about corporate tax cuts that enrich a few while reducing government revenue precisely as politicians bemoan blossoming deficits. Such poor decisions are the hallmark of ideologues, from whom we’ve heard repeatedly, through good times and bad.

One of the usual suspects, in this case the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, is already calling on Ottawa to tackle the deficit, taking aim specifically at the federal government’s 368,000 employees and the $51 billion they cost us.

The organization is calling for a 15 per cent cut in the number of workers, with the remaining employees taking a 15 per cent reduction in salaries and benefits to provide a savings of $14 billion a year.

“Some will protest that this seems cruel and unfair. But is it unreasonable to ask government to cut costs when many businesses have gone bankrupt and millions of Canadians have lost their jobs or taken pay cuts? Are we really ‘all in this together’ if those whose salaries are paid by taxpayers are completely insulated from the economic impact of the pandemic – with all the pain borne by those outside government?” asks federal director Aaraon Wudrick in a recent opinion piece.

It’s certainly one of many questions to be raised in the coming debate to be had about taxes and would-be economic fixes. The topics are the subject of short-term thinking, an affliction that’s permeated all facets of our society. Adopting the business model that’s taken hold in the last few 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 40 years of neoliberal 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 the mess that existed even before the novel coronavirus exacerbated the problem.

That the very people who support tax cuts to corporations even as government largesse fills their coffers are the ones likely to lead 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 four decades, driven by the neoliberal 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 – today’s hurricanes, floods and massive wildfires are all reminders of why that’s important – 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 clearly 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.

In the light, deficits and the coronavirus seem like more manageable issues.

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