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Death of an ideal

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Another pointless federal election just flew by, and Canada is a little worse off for it. Not because the Conservatives won or because they didn’t win a majority, or even because it cost taxpayers about $350 million to find out that we still agree to disagree. It’s because the only real ideas any of the parties had this time around involved cutting our taxes while somehow providing us with better everything.

Not that this tactic is anything new, but what really made it interesting this time around was the global economic meltdown taking place in the background while the campaign unfolded.

Although some blame banks and investment houses for their greed, governments past and present for their lack of oversight and regulations, or even the poor suckers who bought all those overpriced homes with subprime mortgages without reading the small print, it was clear that something bigger was afoot.

As many economists have pointed out, the economic crisis actually represents the implosion of an ideology that has governed capitalism and conservatism since end of World War II — the concept that free markets are always self-correcting, that government interference and regulations are always bad, that laissez-faire economics work, that bigger banks are less likely to fail. It represents the death of Reaganomics, two flavours of Bushenomics, trickle-down economy theory, the privatization of the public interest, and maybe even the concept of privately held U.S. Federal Reserve Bank.

Progressives can be forgiven for their obvious enjoyment of the meltdown, for it merely proves what many of us have argued all along — we sink or swim together, whether we like it or not, and even the richest at the top are dependent on a healthy society below. You can’t divorce the needs of the economy from the needs of society, because at the end of the day the economy needs a functioning society more than society needs the economy.

The economy is just a concept after all, an artificial set of rules and regulations we’ve created to govern the production of money and the trade of goods and services. It works best when wealth is fairly distributed, when the middle class is strong, when employment is high, when the economy is diversified, and most of all when it benefits society as a whole. When the rich get richer and the middle class gets poorer, it inevitably fails. If it wasn’t the subprime fiasco and mortgage bubble it would have been something else that brought the economy down. Maybe personal debt levels, or the price of energy.

It recently occurred to me that being a member of society is a lot like being a member of a Costco: Socialism, the heart of the Canadian brand, is really just buying the things we all need, or might need, in bulk.

Take health care — it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to treat someone for cancer, which few of us could afford. But because everybody is a potential victim we all pay into the health care system to ensure that treatments are free.

You can apply the same bulk purchasing philosophy to everything from fire departments to policing, from infrastructure to education.

Allow any of these things we’ve socialized to become privatized and you create a wedge of middlemen eager to profit from all sides. The U.S. health insurance industry has about two million middlemen wedged between doctors and patients who can only profit by denying coverage to the sick and injured and denying claims.

Which brings me back to the federal election, and this unfortunate idea that we somehow pay too much tax.

Our Conservative MP argued several times at the Whistler all-candidates debate that people should have control over their money because we know better how to spend it than government bureaucrats.

I would argue that the opposite is true, and that most of us would just find newer and stupider ways to blow that extra money while the world crumbles around us. That’s why debt levels are at an all-time high in this country, and why SUV’s once represented 50 per cent of new car sales. That’s why we have a national pension plan, helping seniors that haven’t saved enough to cover the cost after retirement. That’s why education is free — if it cost $10 a day instead of a portion of our taxes every year I’m sure we would be an illiterate society. You can’t cut taxes until those basics are covered.

But the most convincing argument against tax cuts is the economic crisis. Even the U.S., which has spent the last few decades pushing for free markets, is waking up to the idea that a strong government is necessary to foil the worst inclinations of capitalism, and to keep society on an even keel.

Those tax dollars that our national parties are so eager to return to us have more power in the hands of government, when they’re spent on things of interest to society instead of frittered away on second cars and personal electronics.

For example, the $100 per month child care benefit given to parents would be better spent fixing the daycare system than covering two days of child care, and could have saved the infant programs at Spring Creek.

I have a hard time voting for any party that promises to cut my taxes, or perpetuates the myth that government wastes our money. I’m all for cutting government bureaucracy and being on the alert for waste, but most studies show that governments are remarkably efficient at getting money where it needs to go.

Hopefully some of the parties will see things the same way in the next federal election. Which we can probably expect in the next two years or so.

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