“The ancient philosophy of Turtle Island, in regards to life on this planet acquired from the Creator, was that in all things we do, we do ‘for those that are not yet born.’ This belief dictated the relationships to each other and the environment. No one was, therefore, more important than the other because we are all in effect, just partners to prepare the way for those that are important.” – Edmund Metatawabin, from Hanaway
The pendulum of politics is always swinging. These days it is swinging in the direction of the no-tax NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard’ers). The phrase “not with my tax dollars” is utilized by the no-tax’rs on just about every issue in our discourse. Populist politicians like Rob Ford are gaining power across the country, powering the wave of the no-tax’rs by promising to “end the gravy train”.
Ignoring the irony that the very fiscal-conservatives who manipulate this sentiment are actually high-spending, high-deficit stewards of government, many Canadians are in the mood for tax-cuts. These politicians, while failing to reign in government spending (see Harper, Ford, and the promises in Hudak’s ChangeBook), are delivering.
And why wouldn’t people be in the mood for tax-cuts? Government is known for wasteful spending and governments of all stripes have been plagued by spending scandals. Add in a spiking cost of living and a more materialistic, individualistic culture, and people are more inclined to believe that more money in their pockets is the way to go.
This attitude pains me. Many become cynical and assume government cannot be better. I believe we must take a different approach. I believe government can be better, that government can be a rallying point, that government can solve problems, if we only get involved, come together to make decisions, and hold our representatives accountable. I look to all the amazing things we as a society have done through government, through our tax dollars. A few extra dollars in my lone pocket does little, but if we together can pool our money and create something for the common good we can benefit not only society today but society tomorrow. That’s why I started this post off with the quote from Hanaway – in a culture of fiscal immediacy, measuring profits quarterly, we are losing our capacity to invest.
I state unequivocally that taxes are good – when used well. Just like everyone I am disgusted when governments waste or scandalize our tax dollars, not because it’s money I could have used but because it represents lost potential. Yesterday Waterloo Regional Council voted overwhelmingly to invest nearly a billion dollars in a light rail transit system. It was inspiring to hear so many of our local politicians, under immense pressure from all sides of the debate, calmly explain that they studied the proposal and found it to be the best thing for our community for the future. Many of them talked about it being a gift for their grandchildren. They will surely continue to face scrutiny over the project. Some may even lose reelection, but using the facts they had available they made a decision to invest in the future. They used government, used our tax dollars, to create something good. It was a beautiful moment for taxation.
I’m fearful of the fate of our public services when the no-tax sentiment gets a hold of the public purse. It’s easy to cut, and far less easy to invest. The many things we as a people own collectively need to be cherished and no tax-rebate could be worth making cuts in education or in our public healthcare system. It’s time to fight the swing of the pendulum and head in a smarter direction – not turn on the spending taps but embrace the amazing potential that wise public investment holds.
Progressives in Canada are often characterized as being wasteful spenders. A quick glance at facts shows this to be untrue; however, it is the progressive belief in investing in people that allows the right to spin smart planning and turn it into reckless spending. Thus, progressives need to be better at positioning. Here are three ways:
1. There is one word – spend – that we need to avoid. I spend money on candy; I invest in education. Spending is stupid; investing is smart. For example, if our plan as a government is to put money into early childhood education, which will pay off for our economy years down the road, then it is an investment. Let’s be sure to call it what it is.
2. We need to know the facts. Investing is always risky business so it’s often difficult to project accurately what the results will be. We need to do our best to make accurate projections and show smart spending (investing!) as being a wise choice with our money. Using the light rail transit debate in Waterloo Region as an example, the pro-LRT side was more effective in using the facts to sell the system. Why? Because the facts spoke for themselves. The data showed it to be a wise investment for our future, whereas the anti-LRT side lacked a factual argument and resorted to fear instead – fear of waste, fear of cost-overruns, fear of tax-hikes. Their side lost because people, when given the chance, will side with facts over fear. Progressives cannot lose debates on smart investing when we have strong facts to back us up.
3. Finally, let’s no longer let the right so easily own tax-cuts. Everybody likes tax-cuts! Tax-cuts sound good. However, when we are collectively running up massive debt tax-cuts only exacerbate the situation. Harper’s tax reductions over the last five years were not tax-cuts – they were tax spending. Spending with money we don’t actually have. Spending money ‘for those that are not yet born.’
When we have this debate, when supposed fiscal-conservatives promise populist tax-cuts with imaginary, borrowed dollars, we need to make sure that they own it. They own the tax-spending bill they are leaving for future generations. We, the investors, will take the high-road and own the investments we are leaving for future generations. I think I know who they will thank.