As bad as the pandemic’s been – and leaving aside for future discussions the actions/inactions/overreactions of politicians and bureaucrats, for whom a reckoning must wait – there may be some good that comes of it.
The situation has certainly made many of us take stock of what’s important in life. Some of that has translated into tangible differences in the way we live, in the economy and society as a whole. For instance, there’s been a shift to remote work, a migration away from crowded cities in favour of smaller centres and pressure on employers to improve wages, benefits and working conditions.
If the changes aren’t short-lived – never underestimate short attention spans and propaganda efforts of those who profit from the status quo – we might see some small reversal of the decades-long assault on middle and working class people.
Those who point to nebulous economic forces to justify the likes of falling wages, precarious work and rising prices may face the prospect of seeing workers earn a larger share. It’s been more than 40 years since workers saw their incomes rise with productivity rather than the opposite.
With any luck, the pressure being put on employers by what U.S. economist Robert Reich calls an informal general strike may actually lead to more than lip service from politicians.
The Trudeau government, in particular, has made much hay with discussions of the middle class. That’s a large part of Ottawa’s attempts to wrest more tax dollars from Canadians. They’re focusing on loopholes that involve incorporation to lower the tax burden. PM Justin Trudeau talks about tax fairness and the plight of the middle class, never mentioning their own profligacy and how the tax burden increases on the very middle class they claim to be defending.
Of course, the whole idea of a middle class remains muddled. Politicians and bureaucrats carefully avoid defining it, knowing many people see themselves as middle class despite their paycheques being lower than the median family income of $70,000. Many of us are more aspirational than actual middle class earners.
Instead, they prefer to maintain the fiction that as many people as possible will benefit in an “us” versus “them” scenario when invoking class.
There’s lip service to populism making the wealthy and corporations the target of failing middle-class and growing underclass, the kind of thing that gave rise to Donald Trump in the U.S., where the class distinctions are more pronounced, coupled with more than a touch of racial issues.
What we’re seeing, however, is more faux populism.
What the U.S. – and indeed much of the West, including Canada – needs is more class warfare. Oh, not in the sense of the riots we’ve seen in Greece, Britain and France in recent years, but in the sense that we recognize the system is not as advertised. As with Trudeau’s Liberals, governments attempt to sell us on the idea that they’re protecting our interests when they’re simply selling themselves for the next election – appear to be doing something to garner votes, while actually benefiting those of the more elevated classes.
That reality is precisely what’s missing from political debate, here as assuredly as in the U.S. Despite a recent upward blip due to the pandemic – a true accounting of which we’ll likely wait in vain – the framework has long been based on austerity measures: how much to cut from social spending in order to balance the budget. But that’s really just a distraction from the bigger issue, namely the framework of our civil society.
That has more to do with regulatory matters than it does with particular spending choices.
In short, it’s about who benefits from the political and economic systems we’ve created – and let’s be clear: they are manmade, not pre-ordained. For much of the postwar era, it was a large segment of the population. For more than 40 years, however, the number of beneficiaries has grown smaller, increasingly in favour of the wealthy and corporate classes. Everybody continues to pay, but fewer and fewer profit.
Conservative governments, funded by those who’ve seen the most benefits, have certainly led the charge against the types of advances that came out of the Depression/Second World War experience, including regulations governing minimum wages, working conditions, the environment, corporate ownership and financial services, to name a few. But they’ve been joined by their major opponents here (Liberals), in the U.S. (Democrats) and the UK (Labour) as money influences the debate.
Decision after decision that has been harmful to the middle class has been couched in just the opposite terms – supporters knowing full well you can’t sell policies by saying a handful will make out like bandits at everyone else’s expense. From financial deregulation to free trade, from outsourcing to corporate welfare, we’re told the changes will make us all better off. Or, if that doesn’t work, we’re told the sky will fall if we don’t go along with the prescribed course of action. For the latter, look no farther than the billions of dollars funnelled into corporate hands in the form of bailouts following the 2008 collapse, often paid to those responsible for the crisis in the first place. Large sums of that cash were paid out in bonuses, with banks and investment companies quickly returning to profitability while taxpayers were on the hook for the money, all the while suffering from unemployment and underemployment.
The central myth revolves around the free market, which typically boils down to privatizing profits and socializing losses, witnessed time and time again.
In Trump’s America, there was another recourse to trickle-down economics, with Joe Biden’s limited attempts at change meeting the expected resistance, even within his own party.
Voodoo economics – the label of former president George H.W. Bush – is what we’ve been living with for more than four decades. It’s founded on the belief that what’s good for the wealthiest classes is good for everyone. Bank profits are at an all-time high, financial services are raking in billions and corporations have rebounded nicely. Unemployment remains high in much of the West, personal debt levels soar and the standard of living falls. But it’s the latter group that gets to pay for the austerity measures we’re told we need in order to pay for the profits of the former.
With the pandemic, workers may be less inclined to fall under the spell of such voodoo.
“You might say American workers have declared a national general strike until they get better pay and improved working conditions,” writes Reich, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley and former Clinton labour secretary, in a recent blog post.
“I believe that the reluctance of workers to return to or remain in their old jobs is mostly because they’re fed up. Some have retired early. Others have found ways to make ends meet other than remain in jobs they abhor. Many just don’t want to return to backbreaking or boring low-wage shit jobs.
“The media and most economists measure the economy’s success by the number of jobs it creates, while ignoring the quality of those jobs. That’s a huge oversight.”
It’s just possible that some people will realize they’ve been victims of a long con.