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Published on Friday, November 17, 2000 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
Notes On the Debate That Wasn't
by Rick Salutin
I'd like to conduct an election debate no one is having. It's about whether public surpluses should go to tax cuts or be spent in areas such as health, schools and the environment. The absence of this debate is deafening.

Why ought we to have heard it? Well, tax cuts are a priority for every party but one. (I'll get to that.) Yet no polls -- not even the National Post's -- show this as a priority for Canadians. The Ekos surveys put tax cuts ninth behind the usual suspects (health, education et al.). At the least, the parties should have to justify ranking tax cuts so differently from the voters. The burden falls on me. I'll conduct the missing debate in the next two paragraphs.

For the affirmative: Judy Rebick tells me her brother-in-law says he doesn't want to put money into hospitals, schools and other public services because they're lousy. He says give him his money back and he'll buy his own services. Others argue economics: They say lower taxes are essential for growth. Also: It's only fair to make the poor pay less tax, or none. I hope that's a just summary of the pro-tax-cut side. Here's the negative:

Judy Rebick's brother-in-law is dreaming. What's he gonna do -- fund his own private ORs and universities with his tax cuts -- along with AIDS research or a local ice rink? There are things individuals can't do. You can improve public services, but you can't replace them out of your own pocket. As for growth, there's no empirical correlation between it and taxation levels. As for the poor, the few bucks they'd save by not paying taxes won't help much. What they need is services to help them get jobs. Furthermore, tax cuts can end up costing you. In Ontario, people now spend more for drug plans, higher property and other taxes, user fees, toll roads, and bake sales to buy the kids textbooks than they get back in tax cuts. Plus there's Walkerton, which a billboard campaign calls a fine example of Your Tax Cuts At Work.

So there it is. If the parties don't like my rendition of the debate on tax cuts, they should have had their own.

One party, as I say, dissents from the consensus. The NDP would effectively put the entire surplus into programs, while fiddling a bit with taxes. In the TV debate, NDP Leader Alexa McDonough seemed to me clear and passionate about this. Perhaps it helped that she was expressing the majority view. Immediately after, on the air, viewers seemed impressed by her, but this didn't show in follow-up polling. I'd like to know why. Is it because most of those polled got their impressions not from seeing the debate but from coverage of it, and reporters simply won't take the NDP seriously because it holds the popular, not the "respectable," stance on this matter?

I don't deny there are people who will vote for tax cuts. They include the rich, the young and the indebted. The rich: because they get the vast bulk of cuts and can afford to buy their own services. The young: because they can't recall when those services were any damn good. The indebted: out in 905 and including well-paid union workers with big mortgages. But the young will soon run into the costs of university, which tax cuts won't cover. And the people in 905 have been acting as if voters elsewhere will protect their hospitals and schools while they selfishly vote for tax cuts. Something's going to give and, in some cases, it already has. Up in north Toronto, there is a group of bombastic wealthy guys, real Mike Harris kinds of voters. They are organizing hecticly against Mike Harris and what he's done to their kids, by savaging their public schools in order to give them tax cuts.

Since I've said where I disagree with the tax cutters, let me end by saying where I have problems with the anti-cutters, i.e., those who want to devote the surplus to restoring and creating social programs.

There's something passive in their approach: Now that surpluses are here, they're ready to rely on "the economy," trusting to capitalism and globalization -- even while often denouncing them. But what if capitalism falters, as it always has, so that surpluses vanish and deficits loom? Having put all its faith in surpluses, does that mean our society won't be able to do what any reasonable family would do under pressure: go into judicious debt and hold out for better times -- rather than lose the home and the kids' future?

Every society battles over its surplus -- not just in the governmental sense, but in the sense of the wealth it generates overall. The rich are always out to appropriate whatever is there -- by plundering the peasants' harvests or foreclosing on the widow's mortgage or demanding concessions and cutbacks from unions. They never cease waging what you could call class war and never feel the need to apologize for it. Others fight back in their own way, in our time largely through workers' organizations and left-wing parties. I don't see why you would abandon that historic struggle, which has largely defined the human experience, to put your entire faith in economists' projections about a government surplus.

Copyright 2000 Globe Interactive


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