The New Oligarchs
We traded churches and merchants for unions and academics. That's not progress.
The 2018 provincial tax review found that more than 75% of respondents surveyed for the report were surprised by very basic facts about provincial government finances.
Nearly 85% of them didn’t know how much money the government spent per person.
We are not talking anything that would take much in the way of research skills. It’s just basic math using two easy facts: how many people there are in the province (roughly 525,000) and how much money the government spent that year (about $8.4 billion).
The answer in 2018 was $16,000, by the way.
Someone on Twitter pointed to the results of the tax review survey last week.
Maybe you need to explain it better to people, he said to me, but maybe not meaning any one person in particular needed to do the explaining.
The challenge made me think, though. There are lots of details people should know but there must be some basic things that pretty well everyone could carry around in his or her head.
What are the three big ideas people need to know about government and government spending?
After a few minutes, it came to me:
It is our money to spend and our problem to fix when we fuck up.
We should not spend more than we take in.
There is no magic, no secret tax pot, or a bottomless pit in Ottawa to give us more money when we forget 1 and 2.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, those are three heresies that contradict the official dogma of the people who dominate local society. Call it The Establishment Creed:
It’s someone else’s responsibility. It’s someone else’s fault.
We can never spend enough money. Borrow as much as you can.
Ottawa will pay.
With that in mind, go read the manifesto issued last week by corporate labour, self-styled “progressives”, and a gaggle of academics.
Start with the bit where they say we have a revenue problem, not a spending problem. That’s “We can never spend enough money. Borrow as much as you can” from the Creed.
Their revenue schemes boil down to “Tax the Rich. (The rich is someone else.)” That’s “It’s someone else’s responsibility” to clean up the mess, coupled with magic (economic development) and a secret pot of money (whack the taxes on the super-rich).
And their last big idea is literally the biggest part of the Establishment Creed: “Ottawa will pay.”
We don’t really need to show that their numbers don’t add up, which is literally what one math prof did last week in the space of a couple of minutes after the thing appeared in public. Instead of $42 million from one new tax, for example the more likely number was $14 million according to the prof. In another online conversation, an economist pointed out the pretty charts showed numbers that didn’t matter. The author of that part of the sloganeers’ manifesto seemed genuinely surprised to learn about these really basic ideas.
All you need to know is that the sloganeers are just reciting the same Establishment Creed we’ve heard before. Doesn’t matter that this is a pile of union leaders and academics who call themselves “progressive.” They are still part of the local Establishment and, like the rest of the Establishment, they want to keep things like they are, in their favour. In Alberta, they’d call themselves Conservatives. Here people think they are on the political left. In both places, they are just folks who want to keep everything to their own benefit and that of their friends.
This is the point I made in a column called “O brother! Where are we?”
“The people who dominate politics – business, social, and party elites - used public spending to silence opposition and buy support. It cuts across party lines. All three parties basically push the same ideas, ones that benefit the province’s middle and upper middle classes. They build up a dependence on government hand-outs on the one hand and on the other hand start to believe none of this can ever change. They have too much at stake personally.”
The manifesto these folks released last week is part of a planned political campaign to fight against any changes the government might make to the gravy train. It started when union boss Mary Shortall put on a big show when she quit the Premier’s Economic Recovery Team. At the time it looked like Shortall was onto something. Your humble e-scribbler supported her action since it appeared that she was pushing against an overly secretive process.
But in hindsight, with her subsequent comments, and with this latest step, it’s clear Shortall and her bunch are just putting on a show. They are part of the local economic or intellectual elite but claim to represent the ordinary people. They really just want to preserve their own privilege.
It’s the same as the people who fight for free university tuition with the claim it helps poor people get higher education. Newfoundland and Labrador actually has one of the lowest university participation rates for low income people so cheap tuition isn’t benefitting them at all. It benefits the folks who could pay for their own education anyway, a whole lot of them these days coming from Nova Scotia.
“People’s Economic Recovery” is the same scam. Supposedly, Moya Greene and her crowd are monied bigwigs. The Liberals made that easy by calling her Dame Moya and, at least early on, talking about the people on the team as the “best and brightest.” By contrast, this crowd of university professors, political activists, and union leaders speak for ordinary folks, just because they call themselves the “People’s” whatever. Pretty simplistic stuff and it is good enough to fool lots of people.
The People’s Economic Recovery folks didn’t put much thought into their manifesto. They didn’t need to do much. It’s just a prop. The goal was to keep up pressure on the provincial government and the other parties lest they think seriously about changing things in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Usually, the threat works. The Employers’ Council speaks up every now and again but once the labour bosses threaten a boycott, the local businesses cave in. They never even had to do that to get Andrew Furey to abandon his commitment to implement the recommendations his recovery team was supposed to produce.
We haven’t even seen the PERT recommendations. We have no idea what ideas they will come up with. Yet, there is already a rejection of the whole business. Be very suspicious of people who try to turn you against something before you have even seen it and who, at the same time, reject any discussion or criticism of their own ideas. Those folks aren’t looking out for anyone but themselves.
And by the way, that’s pretty much the definition of not just political conservativism but of reactionary politics.
That this is coming from the self-styled political left instead of the political right reflects the nature of politics in Newfoundland and Labrador. We’ve never had a liberal democracy in Newfoundland and Labrador. We went from one form of oligarchy dominated by Water Street merchants and churches to one dominated by the public sector unions and their clerics in the academy.
Unless we change that, the end this time will be as horrible for ordinary Newfoundlanders and Labradorians as it was in the 1930s.
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BondCast episodes are on the way. In addition to the return of the political panel, we’ll start a series of interviews with former Premiers about their time in politics. This is the fulfillment of a project I’ve had in mind for quite some time. Now’s the time to do it. There will be an audio and a video version of the interviews, although the two will be identical. I’ll describe the project in more detail in a future column.