Allan Weiss 

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Mirror Columns

North York Mirror - "Socially Speaking"

For a little over a year, I wrote a column for the North York Mirror called "Socially Speaking." The column allowed me to explode some of the myths underlying what is known as "neo-conservatism"-- the modern version of classical liberalism. At one time, classical liberalism was the philosophy of middle-class thinkers and capitalists who sought to overthrow what they saw as the oppressive policies of monarchs and aristocrats: the "powers that be" of the day. Now, though, wealthy capitalists are the powers that be, and their views of smaller government and freer markets are designed to maintain their position at the top. After all, as I say in one column, "Why wouldn't a dog-eat-dog society be so highly favoured by big dogs?"

You may browse through the articles at will, or look for particular subjects:

On Education 1 2
On Neo-Conservatism 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
On Intolerance1 2 3
On Rights 1
On Economics 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
On Social Programmes 1 2 3 4 5
On Regulation and Government 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
On Taxes 1 2
On Unions 1 2


Dec. 9-10, 1995:

Cheating Our Children

I've taught part-time at universities for about fifteen years. I have seen constant, annual cutbacks to universities, and the effects those cutbacks have had on our education system. But I have never been as angry as I am now.

The cutbacks began, in fact, during the late 1970s, but the cuts started to cause visible effects during the early 1980s, the days of Marc Lalonde, Finance Minister of the federal Liberal government, and Bette Stephenson, Colleges and Universities Minister under the Ontario Conservatives of Bill Davis.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s I have seen class sizes grow, libraries reduce the number of books and periodicals they buy, and more teaching being assigned to graduate student teaching assistants. Fewer full-time professors were being hired.

Meanwhile, tuitions went up, and so did the cost of books and accommodation. Student aid didn't keep up with these increases.

This year, we profs have noticed a disturbing trend among our students: many are not doing the required readings. The reason is simple, as I discovered when I conducted a mini-survey of one class. Virtually every student is working during the school year, and about half are working over 20 hours per week.

The result is that these students have less time to do their assignments. So, they come to my tutorials and have nothing to say, and therefore lose class participation marks. Even when they manage to do the assignments, because they're working they have neither the time nor the energy to do them well.

And don't get the idea they're working to pay for sports cars or other luxuries. As some explained to me, they have no choice but to work in order to supplement their inadequate food allowances. And if they live off-campus they may be paying Toronto rents. . . .

Thus, my students are exhausted and under tremendous stress. They're going to come out of university worse-educated than they could have been, and their whole lives will reflect that. On top of everything, they're being taught by inexperienced T.A.s and using poorly supplied libraries to do their research.

When I see what my students are going through because of the selfishness of voters and politicians, I become very angry. Remember: when you insist that the government cut its spending, when you ask for a tax cut or even a tax freeze, you are cheating your children out of the education they deserve and need.


Dec. 16-17, 1995:

"Common Sense" Contradictions

I'm surprised that no one has noticed the contradictions in the philosophy and policies of Mike Harris's government. If you compare the things they say at different times, you begin to wonder if they really have thought anything through.

For example, according to them there are lots of unemployed people around, including those on welfare, because they're lazy and have something called a "culture of dependence." The term means that they're psychologically damaged by an overly generous welfare system, and can no longer take care of themselves.

In other words, there are plenty of jobs, and if you just make huge cuts in welfare rates, people will be "encouraged" (forced) to look for them.

Yet, if you hear the Tories tell it the NDP government made life so terrible for business that there aren't enough jobs to go around. Thus, "anti-jobs" legislation like Bill 40 had to be scrapped.

Well, which is it? Lazy, dependent people or not enough jobs?

Or try this one: the Tories say that the tax cut they promised will put money in the hands of consumers who will then spend it and create economic growth.

First, the deficit is supposed to be such a serious problem that we can't afford shelters for battered women, or to keep Branson Hospital open. So how can we afford a tax cut?

Second, we took money away from people on welfare and will give it to "consumers." Well, what do the Tories think people on welfare do with the money they get? Burn it?

They spend it; in fact, they're among the best consumer-spenders we have. They spend just about every dime they get, because they can't afford to save money, and that means the money gets pumped right back into the economy. And they spend it in their own communities, because they can't afford to take trips to Europe or buy expensive foreign goods. So the economic benefit is both profound and local. Take away their money and you take away their spending power.

But don't expect the Tories to see the own contradictions in what they say and do. That would require just a bit too much common sense.


Dec. 26, 1995:

Intolerance Is Everybody's Problem

Every week I ride the bus north on Bathurst Street, and pass the Holocaust Memorial in Earl Bales Park. I'm sure most of you are familiar with the obelisk that commemorates those who died at the hands of racists.

Since the end of the war Jews have cited the Holocaust as one of the defining events of the century. It has become an indelible part of our consciousness; I grew up hearing a great deal about it, because I lost a set of grandparents to the Nazis.

We talk about the lessons of the Holocaust, but I'm not sure many people know the main one. We think of it as a Jewish event, but it was much more than that. It was the ultimate expression of intolerance, a very human trait, one that isn't limited to the Germans of the 1930s or Southern U.S. Whites before the civil rights movement.

In fact, when we see the evil outside of us, when we identify others--especially members of a defined group--as monsters, we miss the point. Intolerance lurks in all of us. And it can emerge from all of us, especially when we're frightened or facing bad economic times.

This has been true throughout the centuries. At one time in Canada the Irish were scapegoated and discriminated against because they were Catholics. Jews, Blacks, East Indians, West Indians, Natives--and now welfare mothers--all have had their turn being stereotyped and treated with intolerance by otherwise "decent" people. Not by monsters, not by distant and evil enemies, but by average people in difficult circumstances. All you need to become a target is be economically and politically weak--and then get a politician or other leader who plays on and reinforces people's prejudices.

What's especially galling is to hear racist statements coming from members of groups who have themselves suffered racism. When a Jew or a Black says something racist, I feel terribly dismayed. Meir Kahane said things about Arabs that the Nazis used to say about Jews; Louis Farrakhan says things about Jews with the kind of venom we heard from Southern Whites concerning Blacks.

Every time a Jew makes a racist comment, he or she spits on the graves of the victims of the Holocaust. Every time a Black makes a racist comment, he or she tightens the chains on a nineteenth-century slave.

The monument stands in Earl Bales Park reminding everyone about the Holocaust. But as I look at it through my bus window I sometimes wonder how many people really know what it means.


Jan. 13-14, 1996:

The Limits of Rights

I was recently asked to participate in a continent-wide protest over the U.S. government's attempts to censor the internet. As a writer I'm concerned about all forms of censorship, but I politely declined.

The issue of the right to free speech has been a prominent one recently, not only involving the internet but also more local controversies such as that of the Ryerson professor who has advocated sex with children.

The assumption most people have is that a right is unlimited, or "absolute"; the right to do something means that you can do it any time and in any way you want.

That's simply not the case. There is no such thing as an absolute right. Your right to do something ends when your exercise of it deliberately harms or infringes on the rights of others.

Let's take a simple example: you have the right to walk anywhere you want in North York, without the police stopping you without cause and asking you where you're going and why.

But that doesn't mean you have the right to trespass--you can't violate someone else's right to privacy.

It's the same with free speech. You may say whatever you like, but that doesn't mean you have the right to lie, to libel or slander, to engage in malicious rumour-mongering in order to destroy another's reputation, or yell "Fire!" in a crowded theatre in order to start a stampede in which people may get hurt.

That's why there are laws against such things--laws that don't violate anyone's right to free speech because no one has the right to exercise speech this way.

And that's why when neo-Nazis like Ernst Zundel, or the purveyors of kiddie porn, are simply wrong when they claim the right to free speech. The holocaust deniers are not engaged in legitimate historical analysis; they are trying to slander an entire race by proclaiming all Jews to be lying extortionists. And the kiddie-porn mongers are seeking to abuse those who need, and have the right to, society's protection.

Internet providers defend the "right" of slanderers of races, or advocates of child abuse, to say what they want. Misguided about the nature of rights, they have made no effort to police themselves, and are equally responsible for the stuff they broadcast.

I did not participate in the internet's "Day of Protest," nor will I ever defend the "rights" of people who don't know what a right is, nor especially where it ends.


Jan. 20-21, 1996:

1995: Pain and Hope

This past year has been a distressing period for many people. Here in Ontario the rise to power of Mike Harris's Conservatives, riding a wave of anti-government feeling, has meant harder times for the poor, the elderly, students, children in one-parent homes, unionized and non-unionized workers alike.

For years we have been hearing that the public has been moving to the right politically, as evidenced by people's desire for lower taxes and smaller government.

In fact, there has never been a time when people did not want lower taxes, and the image of government officials as "fatcat bureaucrats" is as old as government itself. What has changed is that politicians have been able to use the deficit to tap into these feelings, leading a crusade that, I think, will ultimately hurt the people most in favour of it.

Actually, I don't subscribe to the notion that people have shifted rightward. They're concerned about the deficit because they've been told for so long that it's a serious problem--more serious than fact or reason would suggest. They've also bought into the myth that social program spending caused that deficit, because it sounds like such a simple explanation.

But if you look at people's positions overall, we've actually become a more progressive society than we were, say, twenty-five years ago.

It's no longer considered acceptable to make racist or sexist comments, although the right is trying to turn the clock back by crying, "Political correctness!" every time an offensive statement is challenged. Any politician who suggests women should not be treated equally would be laughed at.

And even the Ontario Tories and the Reform Party, two of the most right-wing groups in the country, know better than to attack Medicare. Not that they wouldn't like to--but they don't want to alienate our supposedly right-leaning voting public.

On questions of the environment, civil rights generally, the need for government assistance for the poor, the handicapped, and the elderly, and many others, the public is much further left than they were a quarter century ago.

Unfortunately, we don't have many politicians willing to appeal to people's better natures. But the growing disgust with right-wing policies in the U.S. and Alberta give me hope that Ontarians will also react if pushed too far.

As I see education, health care, legal representation, library access, and many other services being stripped from those who can't afford them, I nevertheless retain hope that the tide will be turned back by decent people--people who aren't as selfish and short-sighted as politicians think they are.


Jan. 27-28, 1996:

Business, Taxes, and the Government

Business owners are always complaining that their taxes are too high; they often threaten to move to other parts of the country or even the world where taxes and wages are lower.

Of course, everybody complains about taxes, and have done so forever. But if we look at what businesses get from government spending, their attitude seems awfully short- sighted.

Our governments provide good roads, bridges, ports, and airports so that raw materials can be shipped in, and finished goods shipped out, efficiently. Public transit ensures that employees can get to work, and customers can get to stores, reliably and inexpensively.

Other aspects of our infrastructure--phone service, electricity supply, waste disposal, and so on--make it easier and more cost-effective to conduct business here. Try faxing your customers from Latin America some time.

Education makes people smarter shoppers. We know that the more education a person has the more he or she earns--and therefore has to spend on the goods and services a business might provide. Also, well-educated and well-trained workers benefit a company in innumerable ways; rather than getting "uppity," as some Neanderthal managers seem to think, educated workers become better contributors to the company's productivity. And publicly funded education ensures that real ability--not family wealth-- determines who gets the diploma or degree.

Publicly funded health care relieves businesses of the need to provide insurance for their workers. Ask American companies how they feel about this added labour cost, and they'll tell you our Medicare system is a major competitive advantage for Canadian companies.

Enforcement of government regulations minimizes unfair competitive practises, like price fixing to stifle competition, or lying about what's in one's own or one's competitor's products; and ensures that public confidence in a product won't be destroyed by one unfortunate incident or "bad apple" company. Health and safety regulations and their enforcement, and the Workers Compensation system, help ensure that many companies won't be sued into bankruptcy by injured workers or widowed spouses. Police and fire protection may prevent the loss of a business through theft, fire, or other disaster.

Even welfare and unemployment insurance help, by ensuring that potential customers don't get too poor to buy anything when hard economic times hit. A just society with a satisfied, prosperous workforce is a stable society, and stability is good for business.

Businesses benefit from government services--whether they realize it or not--but they don't want to help pay for them. Business people claim to be pragmatic people, but when they demand lower taxes they forget one important business lesson:

You get what you pay for.


Feb. 3-4, 1996:

The Neoconservative Shell Game

If the Toronto Star quoted him accurately, Mayor Mel Lastman declared after the provincial government's recent cutbacks that he is prepared to slap a user fee on "just about everything that moves."

If you voted Tory, you must be very happy. You got what you wanted. Your taxes will be cut, and the government's spending has been cut. Right-wing politicians from Mike Harris to Preston Manning to Mel Lastman have been offering you just this sort of seductive mix for years.

It means more money in your pocket, right?

Don't be so gullible.

This is the classic right-wing shell game. They tell you that lower taxes and lower government spending mean more money for everyone. It's utter nonsense.

Let's say you get a $100 tax cut next year. But now you pay a user fee every time you take out a book from a library, or have your garbage picked up, or go skating with your kids. If you take the TTC, your fares have gone up again; if not, you'll be paying tolls on your roads. Your total bill may well end up exceeding the $100 you saved.

Get it straight: you have to pay for public services one way or another, whether through provincial taxes or municipal taxes or user fees or charitable donations--or even from a private company. One way or another, the money eventually comes out of your pocket.

The only question is how. If you pay for public services like health care or transit through a progressive income tax system, you pay according to how much you have, according to what you can afford.

If you pay for them through user fees, fare hikes, and so on, then the less money you have the greater proportion of it you end up paying.

The neoconservative shell game involves convincing you that if you don't pay for something through taxes you don't pay at all; somebody else does. The economy doesn't work that way.

Don't let yourself be bamboozled any more. Don't let right- wing politicians help their rich friends save money by foisting more and more of the cost of services onto the poor and middle class.

Remember: the money can finally only come from one source-- you. The only question is whether that money comes from you fairly or not, openly or not, honestly or not.

Stop being such patsies.


Feb. 10-11, 1996:

The Truth About Welfare Recipients

The source of intolerance is ignorance; the less you know about people who fall into a particular category, the more likely you are to be prejudiced against them. Various racial and ethnic groups, and, today, welfare recipients, have been the targets of people's intolerance. I would venture to suggest that the vast majority of people who dismiss all welfare recipients as "bums" have never actually met anyone on welfare. I'd like to introduce you to some of these recipients over the coming weeks.

Kate (not her real name) is a single mother and local student. She never wanted or planned to be on welfare. She married at 21 and left her husband six years later, by which time she had two children. It was anything but an easy or irresponsible decision; in fact, she agonized over it for a long time. Her marriage was dead, because as often happens to people who marry young they had grown apart, but she long refused to accept it, and even contemplated suicide at one point.

She was working, but her boss decided he couldn't tolerate a woman leaving her husband and fired ("disowned") her for that reason five months later. She moved in with her mother and collected U.I., but wanted to go to school and better herself. She's studying at university to be a social worker--but the government apparently doesn't recognize university education as the sort of job training it will help welfare recipients with.

She now gets approximately $1,000 per month, 75% of which goes to rent and utilities. That means $50 per week on groceries to feed three people, mainly with pasta and potatoes. The 22% cut meant she had to eliminate meat, but is trying to feed her kids more vegetables so that less food doesn't mean less healthy food for them. Most of the rest of her money goes for gas; without a car, she wouldn't be able to go to school to better herself to get off welfare. . . .

Her husband was supposed to pay child support, but stopped to punish her for leaving, knowing she'd take the financial hit herself rather than let their kids suffer. Don't people on welfare get free drugs and other benefits? Yes, free prescription drugs--but most of what kids need (children's Tylenol, cough syrup, etc.) are over-the-counter products that aren't covered. She gets free dental service for the kids, but only emergency help for herself--nothing preventive (which would cost less in the long run anyway).

She's grateful for the system, and at least the food banks are there if she needs them. It took her a long time to get over her shame over taking assistance, and just wants enough help to allow her to get on her feet and support her family herself. Her main message to me was that she'd do anything she had to to take care of her kids.

That's the reality. It doesn't match the image promulgated by right-wing politicians. Kate deserves our help, and we can afford to give it. After all, when was the last time you had to choose between gasoline and cough syrup? Between meat and rent?


Feb. 28, 1996:

The Truth About the Deficit: I

The hammer commonly used these days against social program spending is the deficit. We're told repeatedly that we got into our deficit mess because of government "overspending" on these programs, and that we simply can't afford to fund health care, education, welfare, and so on properly. I can understand why people would think this way; it sounds very logical. But I disagree with this analysis on both counts: what caused the deficit, and what's needed to eliminate it.

Let's consider the cause. It's very tempting to interpret our debt and deficits as a sign of past government "freespenders" and "mismanagement." As a history teacher, I find this distortion of the past disturbing (Michael Wilson a "freespender"?), because as I tell my students you can't understand the present or solve its problems without knowing the history that brought us here.

The roots of our deficit can be found in the inflation crisis of the 1970s, when it reached double digits. Now, normally high inflation reflects an overheated economy. But the 1970s saw a stagnant, not booming, economy, leading policy-makers to scratch their heads over the phenomenon of what was termed "stagflation." The inflation was caused by the oil crisis that accompanied the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, not excessive growth; nevertheless, governments here and elsewhere, following the prescription of monetarists like Milton Friedman, raised interest rates to slow the economy in order to rein in inflation.

The result was predictable. The economy didn't just slow--it went into recession in the early 1980s. The combination of bad economic times and high interest rates produced high deficits. Recession means more unemployment, underemployment, and bankruptcies; the tax base shrank, so government revenues declined. Meanwhile, government expenses rose because more money was being paid out to the growing number of people on UI and welfare, and governments had to spend more to borrow money since their own interest costs were higher. Interest rates remained at historic highs throughout the 1980s, producing another recession in the early 1990s, and continue so today, all in the name of inflation-fighting. This fight has meant continued economic and fiscal hardship for everyone, including governments.

Social program spending had almost no role in causing our deficits (the figure I've seen is 3% of the debt). Social programs, and government spending in general, are unfairly blamed for the problem, with the result that unnecessary and damaging cuts are being made.

In future columns I'll deal with other factors that contributed to the deficit, and possible solutions to the problem.


Mar. 27, 1996:

Public Education at Risk

Our public education system is under attack. The attack is coming from two directions: our provincial government and religious groups. Both are seeking to weaken what is perhaps the most important guarantor we have of social and religious freedom.

Our forefathers and foremothers had the right idea. They recognized that public education was the only means to ensure that even the poorest members of society could advance. The rich could afford to send their children to private schools; the rest had to depend on inadequately funded charity schools. This was bad for the economy, since illiterate and poorly trained workers weren't very productive, and bad for democracy, since ignorant masses could be easily swayed by demagogues.

Public education means social mobility, and today more than ever an education is necessary for people seeking to better themselves or see their children do better than they did. Everyone pays taxes into the system, and everyone can send children to the schools. Of course, you can still send your children to private schools, but that choice does not relieve you of your responsibility to give your share to the public schools.

But now the provincial government has launched an all-out assault on public education, cutting funds while denying these cuts will have effects in the classrooms. How could the cuts not harm education? Teachers are being laid off, or are not being given time to prepare classes, libraries suffer cutbacks. . . .

On one other score, the Americans had a better idea. Their constitution provides a clear separation between church and state. They understood that when public institutions are used to enforce the tenets of particular religions, minority religions suffer oppression. That doesn't mean--contrary to what members of the Religious Right in the U.S. assert--that children aren't allowed to pray in school. It simply means that schools can't force them to pray. A nondenominational public school system is one of the most important safeguards of religious freedom.

Unfortunately, here in Canada we don't enjoy this separation of religion and government. Our constitution permits the funding of Catholic as well as public schools. Now other religions are demanding that their schools receive public money as well. If we must provide money for Catholic schools--and I don't think we should--we ought not compound the mistake by giving other religions access to the public purse as well.

Private schools claim that public schools won't suffer. But every penny diverted from public education means that much less quality in the public system. If the rich and members of religious groups take their money out of public schools, the schools that exist to benefit all will get even worse--once again, you get what you pay for. We'll be back to square one, with two education systems: a great one for the rich, a bad one for the rest. The rich will be able to get ahead, or stay on top, and the poor will be trapped, as they were a century ago.

We can't afford, and shouldn't want, to rip apart this vital public institution. Our children would never forgive us.


May 18-19, 1996:

What I Don't Believe

When you write a column like this, you anticipate receiving a lot of response from readers. The feedback tends to be fairly strong, both for and against; after all, it's a controversial column--although unlike some commentators I'm not just out to provoke a violent response in my audience--and a reader wouldn't call or write to a newspaper unless he or she felt deeply about an issue or statement. So I knew I'd get calls and letters about "Socially Speaking." People have strong opinions about the current political situation, and I've been heartened to see how many of you are becoming engaged in the debate.

Sometimes a reader responds to what the columnist hasn't said and doesn't believe; it isn't possible in a short column, or even a series of columns, to make one's views absolutely clear to everybody. I thought I'd take this opportunity, then, to respond to readers who have written or called, and clarify my position in part by stating what I don't believe.

For example, because I'm not in favour of unfettered free enterprise some people, predictably, have labeled me a socialist. I don't seek the destruction of the capitalist system; quite the opposite, I'm trying to save it from its own excesses and abuses. (Although it's interesting how many of us are beginning to get fed up with corporate leaders who make huge profits and lay off the workers who helped produce them.) Real economic and social freedom comes in a society based on law, and law-and-order ought to apply to the rich and powerful as well as the rest of us.

My column on public schools attracted a great deal of negative comment from representatives and supporters of religious schools. They made it sound as if I was somehow against having religious schools. Not at all--I just think they shouldn't be given public funding. Separating church (synagogue, mosque, etc.) and state increases religious freedom--witness Iran. For instance, Catholic school boards, understandably, want to hire only Catholic teachers; the government, equally understandably, wants schools that accept public money to adhere to public policies on non-discrimination in hiring.

Some people think I don't consider the deficit a problem, and that I want to keep "wasting" government money. I do want to see the deficit eliminated, but not by destroying our public programs. And no one favours wasting money; it's the right wing that equates all government spending with waste. I say eliminate the waste but not the programs--don't throw out the baby with the bath water, as the old saying goes.

Again, it's been wonderful seeing people engage in this vital debate; keep those responses coming, no matter where you stand. Whether you agree with me or not, you must react. Participating in public debate is the way to keep democracy healthy and strong.


May 25-26, 1996:

The Human Deficit

A term we don't hear very often now--but will in the near future--is "human deficit." What does this mean?

We know what a fiscal deficit is: it's the gap between what a government takes in and what it spends. A fiscal deficit is easy to measure, its effects are obvious, and you can eliminate it in publicly visible ways.

A human deficit is something quite different. You can't see it or its effects very easily, but they're just as real. A human deficit is the gap between what people are capable of doing, being, or achieving and what their situation and accomplishments actually are. For example, a person may be capable of getting higher education, finding a good job, and earning a high salary, but all that may never happen because of circumstances.

Our human deficit is growing, thanks to economic problems and government cutbacks. People who could have gone to school are being shut out by higher tuition fees, reduced courses, and other barriers. Those on social assistance--and many who are working-- are finding it harder to pay their bills; rather than being good tenants and consumers, they're in default on their rent and other debts. Young people who would otherwise contribute to society are being cast adrift. We know that poverty causes or at least exacerbates illness, and that means more lost opportunities in education, employment, and general lifestyle. And whether you want to believe it or not, people have died and are going to die because of cutbacks to health care and welfare.

You may say that I'm simply being a "bleeding heart" (although I make no apologies for caring about others, putting human values ahead of self-interested indifference). But the human deficit has a definite economic cost--in lost productivity, lost income for individuals and the government, higher crime and more social problems (for instance, family breakups), and so on. You can't measure these effects on a balance sheet, because they don't show up in easy-to-read forms, or they might not appear for years. But the effects are just as real, and are very damaging to Ontario and Canada as a whole both economically and socially.

I'm against cutbacks for both moral and economic reasons. It's wrong to deny decent living standards and equal opportunity to the poor, while citing arguments that are merely intellectual justifications for selfishness. But it's also bad for the country's economic health when all that potential is allowed to go to waste.

Too bad the ruined lives and untapped talent can't be recorded in a ledger, so that we could see the faces of the people, and the dollars, sacrificed to the human deficit.


June 1-2, 1996:

We Need Rent Controls

The Tories made it very clear during the election campaign that they wanted to scrap rent controls. Even though they have now backtracked (in the face of serious political pressure, despite their "toughness"), they are ideologically committed to removing such regulations on the economy. The debate over rent controls has been a long one, and was recently the subject of a programme on TVO's "Studio 2." Representatives of landlords and tenants appeared and answered phone calls, although some of the contradictions in the landlords' position were not explored.

According to landlords, the reason for our low vacancy rate in Toronto is rent controls. Rent controls keep rents from getting so high that people can't afford to find apartments. The landlords argue that because rents are artificially low, it isn't economical for developers to build rental housing.

To begin with, I don't think very many of us who rent in North York, and Toronto generally, consider rents in the Metro area to be remarkably low. Quite the opposite: Toronto has one of the highest costs of housing in the country.

The landlords say that rents must rise in order to make constructing apartment buildings attractive to investors. But if rents rise much higher than what they are now, people will be forced out of their homes. The greatest lack is in low-cost housing; raise those rents, and the people who live in those apartments, who are currently paying over 50% of their incomes just to have a roof over their heads, will end up homeless. And anyway, luxury condos and other high-end units will always bring in more profit for developers.

The landlords counter that it's up to governments to provide shelter subsidies for those who need it. But that would mean rents could go up to any conceivable level, and governments would have to foot the extra bill. After all, what would stop a landlord from charging double the rent if he or she knows the government will pay for the hike? Talk about distorting market forces--the thing rent controls are supposed to do.

On the other hand, the landlords say, they would never raise rents beyond what the market would bear, or they'd lose their customers. But if the market won't bear much higher rents, then wouldn't the landlords be back to square one? What's the difference for investors between "low" rents caused by controls and those caused by market forces? Maybe rents would rise greatly at first, then level off; meanwhile, though, people would have no place to live.

As for all the arguments about upkeep and repairs, we need only remember the rat-infested tenements that existed before rent controls, to see what market forces allowed, and even encouraged.

There are many reasons for Toronto's low vacancy rate: immigration, high interest rates, etc. Rent controls aren't one of them. And if controls were removed, the suffering would be immense.


June 8-9, 1996:

Taxed to Death?

One of my all-time favourite editorial cartoons was published in the Toronto Star on May 11, 1994. It's by Paul Lachine, and it shows a group of people labeled Haiti, Bosnia, and Rwanda coming face-to-face with an Average Canadian who is wearing a "Taxed to Death" T-shirt. The woman representing Rwanda, her hands on her starving son, says to the Canadian, "We should be so lucky!"

Do you think you're taxed to death? Or at least were before the Tories cut your income taxes? Probably. You felt pretty hard done by, and likely still do. Because you're not sure where your money is going, you assume it's all being wasted, and anyway you know (or think) that at the very least it's not in your pocket any more.

First, contrary to what the Tories tell you Ontarians have not been more highly taxed than other people in Canada or the world. While our richest people pay the highest tax rate, overall we're below the Canadian average.

Second, whether you want to believe it or not nobody has ever gone hungry because of taxes. The taxpayers who whine the loudest about their tax burden have never had to miss a meal, or go without meat in their diets, or do without running water or heat or electricity; in fact, they have never had to live without a car, or colour TV, or a host of other luxuries they now consider necessities. Compared to the truly poor, like people in Third World countries or on welfare, those who proclaim themselves Taxed to Death are living very well, but no longer appreciate what they have.

If you feel you aren't earning all you should, don't blame governments. Blame the corporations that have largely frozen wages to improve their profit margins. Blame the Bank of Canada for raising interest rates at the merest hint of "excessive" economic growth that might trigger inflation. High interest rates, not high taxes, trigger business failures, because capital and loans to buy the goods that these businesses produce become unaffordable. It is thanks to the right-wing policies followed by the federal government--not the taxes needed to support our social programs--that your take-home pay isn't greater.

Taxes never killed anyone. But the underfunding of hospitals, and nutrition programs, and domestic violence programs, and counselling, and subway repairs, and aid to starving people throughout the world has led to deaths.

You want me to tell you that you should have tax cuts because you're suffering, and anyway there won't be serious effects. But since I'm not a politician I don't have to tell you what you want to hear; I have the luxury of telling you the truth, even if you hate what I say and hate me for saying it.

If you think you're being taxed to death you're dead wrong.


June 22-23, 1996:

The Deny Responsibility Game

Games go through waves of popularity. "Monopoly" and "Trivial Pursuit" were once among the most popular games around. A new favourite game is being played by our governments. It's called "Deny Responsibility," and here's how you play.

If you're the federal government, you cut transfer payments to the provinces, and then brag about cutting your deficit, even though all you've done is transfer the deficit to the provinces. When people complain, for example, that cutbacks to universities have caused tuitions to go up, you say, "Well, that's not our responsibility; it's the provinces that set tuitions."

(For example, in an astonishing display of hypocrisy, Paul Martin recently declared that cutting university funding is a bad idea. He blamed the cuts on provincial governments, although of course he cut transfer payments for postsecondary education.

(When this fact was pointed out to him, he said the cuts won't come in till next year. So cutting postsecondary education will become a good idea next year? The fact is, the federal government has made cuts every year.)

If you're a provincial government, you cut funding to the municipalities, and when hospitals close and the poor go hungry you say it's the municipalities' problem. When you cut funding to universities, you say it's their responsibility to come up with ways to teach and do research without library books or professors. Meanwhile, of course, you brag about your lower deficit.

Of course, if you run a municipality you blame the senior levels of government, even though you kept demanding local control over things, or a previous government's "mismanagement."

So nobody takes responsibility for economic and social problems. You take credit for a deficit that hasn't really gone down--except in terms of the level of government saddled with it- -yet refuse to accept the blame for the damage done by your budget cuts.

And of course at all levels you put the ultimate blame on the voters, even though you were the one who offered them irresponsible tax cuts and lied about the effects of your spending cuts.

Of course, voters play, too: "I never expected them to cut that, even if they said they would!" Many choose the party that offers them the most for the least, never analyzing the contradictions in its platform--then complain about lying politicians.

How do you win the "Deny Responsibility" game? Just by playing. It's a game that makes you a very popular politician, as Chretien and Harris have discovered. Yes, it's dishonest, and you help destroy people's faith in their own political system. But so what? Honesty is a stupid strategy if dishonesty wins you elections.


July 13-14, 1996:

Long Live the United States

In a recent newspaper article, Antanas Sileika referred to Americans as Martians, describing his amazement at how alien Americans seem, given his long experience of American culture and especially media.

Like Mr. Sileika, I grew up on American television and books, magazines and radio broadcasts, consumer goods and myths that they think constitute their history. I, too, am always struck by how foreign the country seems when I'm actually there. I constantly assume I know the people and the land and will feel comfortable there. I'm constantly wrong.

I recently travelled to the United States to attend an academic conference, and was overwhelmed by certain distinctively American attitudes and obsessions. For one thing, the race issue is all-pervasive, and the Black-White divide is the subject of even more constant discussion and debate than is our French- English conflict in Canada. Also, we take for granted that people of different races will intermingle in our cities; American cities are subject to a form of unofficial apartheid.

Americans brag about their democracy as being the best and truest in the world. Yet they often distrust their own government--the one that they elected--and recoil whenever someone suggests that their civil servants actually do something for them. They'll never have a medicare system like ours because they're easily manipulated by insurance companies and right-wing politicians: "Do you want bureaucrats to run these things?"

Americans are also much more militaristic than we are; for all their individualistic ideology, they seem to love military and quasi-military insitutions. American universities frequently host sports and other "camps" during the summers that involve controlled group activities and patriotic rituals.

To tell the truth, I hope the Americans never do get their racial or social acts together. As long as they permit their society to remain so divided, and as long as they fail to institute effective social programs, they provide a wonderful object lesson for us. People there die because they're Black or poor, and if they get sick they're often ruined. We can always point south and say, "Do you want us to become like that?"

Yet there are Canadians who buy into the Americans' myths, and don't appreciate how much further ahead we are. Apart from those who spew hate against minorities--Blacks, Jews, gays, francophones--there are many who seek a nation divided along linguistic lines. They also want to privatize everything they can. Look south, and see America the way it really is. See how much better we really have it, and let's not follow their example.

If they're not willing to learn from their mistakes, at least we can.


July 20-21, 1996:

Protecting the Environment

One of my goals in this columns is to explode the myths of the right wing. For example, let's look at how neo-conservatives view the environment. Adopting the views of the corporations who support them, they say that protecting the environment is a nice idea, but we have to choose between being environmentally responsible and creating or saving jobs.

The reality is that our economy and our environment depend on each other.

Look at the east and west coast fisheries. For centuries people fished those waters without caring about the damage being done to fish stocks or the ecology generally. This was all being done in the name of protecting fishermen and competing with the foreign fishing boats.

First of all, I don't think many of us would trade our economy for Newfoundland's. Resource-based local economies experience periods of boom and bust, and the east coast has been going through a very long bust, with some of the highest rates of unemployment in the country.

Second, the irresponsible overfishing has led to such a decline in fish stocks that the government had to impose a moratorium on fishing. So all that effort to keep people fishing regardless of the consequences left us with neither a healthy environment nor secure jobs.

The same thing will happen in the forestry industry if we aren't careful. "Don't protect the forests," we're told; "loggers need the work." But what kind of logging industry will we have when the trees are all cut down?

Our provincial government has decided to give more control over our forests to lumber companies. We know what that will lead to: more destruction of habitats, more stretches of our ancient forests laid waste, more profits in the pockets of a few rich men and women while our natural heritage disappears and species die out.

Neo-conservatives' vision extends only to the next quarterly profit-and-loss statement. They can't see beyond it to what the effects on our logging and tourist industries will be twenty, thirty, or a hundred years from now. And they can't see how, many years from now, our children will despise us for our short- sightedness and selfishness as they look over the deserts that used to be forests, and suffer the effects of dirtier water and air. Our natural treasures will be devastated, and the jobs will disappear anyway.


July 31, 1996:

The Dangers of Decentralization

It seems to be a given these days that government ought to be decentralized. Powers, we hear constantly, should be transferred to local governments--from the federal to the provincial level, from the provincial to the municipal level. We're told that local governments are more responsive, and can do things more efficiently.

But in social policy at least, decentralization is very dangerous. In a variety of areas, from health care to worker safety to welfare, transferring powers downward tends to make things worse for programmes and the people who need them most.

As we have seen here and in the United States, letting provincial or state governments run programmes leads to an unfortunate form of competition. In order to attract businesses, for example, American states try to keep their business and property taxes lower than those of competing states. The result is less income for governments and thus starved programmes. Businesses go where they get the best deals, and can threaten to leave if they don't get concessions on taxes and regulations. The result is a downward spiral in health and safety and environmental standards, the percentage of taxes that businesses pay (with the shortfall being made up by everyone else), and so on. Meanwhile, the poorest areas of the country, which have the most need, also have the fewest resources to meet that need.

In Canada, without federal control, provinces would resist meeting their social responsibilities. If it weren't for the Canada Health Act, for example, provinces would have long ago introduced user fees. In fact, some have tried, and stopped only when Ottawa imposed financial penalties. Also, you may remember the dispute between British Columbia and Alberta over welfare when Alberta cut its rates and poor people fled to British Columbia. National standards in health care, welfare, and so on prevent patchwork programmes and interprovincial competition to see who can do the worst job for the most vulnerable.

The recent Golden Report pointed out some of the dangers of decentralization at the municipal level. The Report warned of the possibility of the "donut effect," whereby city centres decay as middle class people move to the suburbs, taking their taxes with them. The Report rightly argues for the pooling of resources, to ensure that everyone pays his or her fair share.

History has shown that local governments tend to be reactionary, and can be very unresponsive to anyone but the powerful. From the days of slavery in the United States, when "states' rights" was the rallying cry for the South, to today's social cutbacks, local governments have often fought against progressive measures. Some of us watch with dismay as Chretien and the premiers strive to decentralize our country, because that will lead inevitably to lower standards in some areas and slower progress in others.


Aug. 14, 1996:

The Assault Continues

The Tory assault on the helpless continues.

As of July 15, seniors and the poor have to pay towards their prescriptions. The $2.00 charge seems small to you and me, but for many seniors, especially those taking a number of different medications, the extra expense becomes a serious new burden. Some will have to choose between drugs and other purchases, like food.

The new policy reflects the contradictions in Tory thinking that I commented on in one of my earliest columns. The rationale behind this move, we are told, is the huge deficit the Ontario government is now running. It's so big, they say, that they have to make these "tough" choices, although I question how much "toughness" is involved in taking money away from seniors who can't fight back.

At the same time, however, the Tories have brought in the first part of their income tax cut; apparently the deficit isn't so serious that the government needs to worry about the surrendered income. Because under the income tax system the rich pay higher taxes than the poor, the rich will be the chief beneficiaries of the cut.

The Tory premise is that more money in the hands of consumers will lead to more spending and therefore more economic growth. But they're taking money out of the hands of seniors and the poor. Now, instead of paying for food, clothing, and other goods (thereby stimulating the economy), these people will be devoting their scarce resources to buying necessary drugs. Or they'll do without, and get sicker, and become an even more expensive burden on our health care system.

The fact is that prescription drugs are for the most part an absolute necessity, not a matter of consumer choice. Ontarians will pay for these drugs one way or another, either through a fair tax system or by taking the most money from those least able to pay it. And if too many drugs are being prescribed, or they cost too much, that isn't the fault of the patients.

What does it say about a society that considers tax cuts to people who don't need them more desirable than helping the poor and the elderly buy the drugs they need? Or that believes it's more important to spend money on CDs and video games than medicine?

My fundamental question about Tory theory remains: why is money in the hands of the rich economically stimulative, but money in the hands of the poor merely a drain on the treasury?


Aug. 24-25, 1996:

Economics 101

I think one of the problems we have in this country is a general lack of understanding about how the economy works. I'm not an economist, but I've studied the Canadian economy, both past and present, and listened to the commentators enough to get at least a basic grasp of how things work. It doesn't take a degree in economics to understand certain things; it just takes a bit of common sense, if I dare to use the term.

For example, it's often fun to watch the Americans debate health care, and see their knee-jerk reaction to any suggestion that the government take over the system. If you ask an American about his or her health care, the response will be something like, "Well, I don't have to pay for it; my company has group coverage." If the government takes over, that will mean higher taxes, something our fictional American can't afford.

But our American pays for the health care system every time he or she visits the supermarket. Where, after all, does the company get the money to pay for that group coverage? From consumers; built into the price of every item is the cost of buying health insurance for everyone who brings that item to market. Those who work for Campbell's Soup help pay the premiums of the workers at Dole every time they buy bananas, and the Dole employees do the same thing in return whenever they buy soup. But nobody realizes it at the same, so everybody thinks that someone else pays the bills. Also, companies provide health care coverage in lieu of higher wages, but people never notice the salaries they don't get.

The American health care system costs hundreds of billions of dollars, and that money comes from everyone. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that you'll actually benefit from the care if you need it; you may buy the soup and pay for someone else's coverage, but you may be unemployed, or work for a company without a plan, or be dealing with an insurance company that doesn't pay benefits if you have a pre-existing condition.

If the government took over the system, however, the same amount of money would be collected from the same number of people. In fact, if the Canadian experience is any indication the overall cost would go down. But the money would be collected more fairly--the amount would depend on your ability to pay--and coverage would be universal. Private health care doesn't mean less expensive health care--only less equitable.

But try explaining that to our American, who would only see the rise in taxes, not the fact that he or she would no longer be paying at the supermarket, through lost wages and raises, and so on. The economy is complex web, with money flowing around constantly. The issue is not whether we pay for something but how, because ultimately we all pay one way or another. That's something to remember when politicians make phony promises about how they're going to put more money into your pocket.


Sept. 14-15, 1996:

What Are Governments For?

I often hear a great deal of confusion when people talk about the role of governments and the purpose of law. People say they don't want governments to tell them what to do, seeing laws as restrictions on their freedoms.

One of the most common expressions I've heard in areas like the abortion debate and anti-smoking laws is, "We shouldn't impose our morality on others." Yet we do that all the time through our laws: if I feel that hitting someone over the head and taking her money is morally wrong, I will not only refrain from doing it but try to stop others from doing it, too; I would want a law passed against such things. In this sense, we can see law as "codified morality": in other words, law expresses our society's morals and values in written form--a code that everyone must accept and obey. Yet just because I don't smoke does not mean I feel I have the right to stop someone else from doing so, unless his smoking affects me.

That, then, is the crux of the matter: whether someone's behaviour affects others. We can say that there are two kinds of morality: private, and public or social. Private morality involves those actions that affect only the person him- or herself, or other consenting, responsible adults. Public or social morality involves actions that affect people who don't or can't choose to be so affected. (Among those who can't choose are children and the mentally ill.) Smoking is a matter of private morality, and I don't think it should be subject to legal penalty, until the smoking affects someone else. When you fill your own lungs with carcinogens, that's your business; when you inflict those carcinogens on me, without my consent, that becomes my business--in fact a public matter--and thus subject to legal sanction.

The purpose of law, then, is to stop people from hurting each other, and punish them when they do so. This principle applies to corporations as well as individuals: if the people running a company pollute the environment, or harm workers in some way through discrimination, negligence, etc., or engage in unfair trade practises, they should face legal penalties.

That's why I think the right-wing view of law is so twisted. Right-wingers want to come down hard on people--legally speaking- -in areas of private morality like pornography and possession of drugs. But they want to deregulate industries, allowing them to cause untold damage to the environment, to employees, and to other firms with impunity. They want strict controls on the powerless, and no controls on the powerful.

We express our sense of right and wrong through the laws we ask our elected representatives to pass. These laws should only concern actions that cause harm to others--and they should apply to everyone, the rich as well as the poor, the strong as well as the weak. I urge you not to listen to those who demand "law and order" for most of us while seeking "deregulation" for corporations and the wealthy.


Sept. 21-22, 1996:

Our Culture at Risk

Over the past thirty years or so, Canadian artists in all fields--from filmmaking to writing to the visual arts--and in unprecedented numbers have helped define who we are, and given us an internationally recognized and admired national voice.

Now, thanks to government cutbacks, that distinctively Canadian voice is at risk. Federal and provincial governments have cut funding to cultural agencies, notably the CBC, the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council, and TVOntario, directly threatening our ability to express ourselves as Canadians, and these cuts will almost certainly silence many minority voices that would probably never be accepted by the commercial media.

The cutbacks in publishing grants, for example, have led to the demise of one of the country's most important small publishers, Coach House Press; I have learned that another small publisher, Oberon Press in Ottawa, may well fold. These presses and others like them were the first to publish authors who later went on to greater fame and fortune, like Margaret Atwood and Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Carol Shields. Commercial publishers are loathe to take risks with new writers, especially those who don't write in comfortably commercial ways. Throughout this century it has been the small presses, in Canada and elsewhere, that have encouraged and promoted writers who challenge conventions and the homogenizing tendencies of the popular media. If we want to preserve freedom of expression we need outlets for those who don't want to write trashy bestsellers or books that just reinforce people's preconceptions.

We also need television that isn't controlled by corporate interests, that gives room for minorities to express themselves and broadcasts children's programs that aren't simply designed to sell toys. TVOntario has given us that kind of television for many years, but the Tories want to sell it off. The CBC has been a strong force for national unity, but the past two federal governments have done everything they can to gut it.

Cutbacks to culture have had less noticeable effects as well. The McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg used to have free admission on Canada Day, and didn't charge for parking; now both policies are gone, and with them have gone very strong inducements to go up there and see how we see ourselves.

The argument for such cutbacks is a familiar one: government deficits. But cultural spending has been shown by many studies to provide unmatched "bang for the buck" when it comes to job creation and retention. Less tangibly, support for the arts has made it possible for Canadian culture to flourish. Canadian literature and the other arts have always needed subsidies to survive, because of our small population. Cultural subsidies are a small price to pay to retain our distinctive voice, and keep from being swamped by American and American-style cultural expressions. We do have a culture that's different from the Americans'; I would hate for that different voice to be silenced by the short-sighted and ignorant decisions of our politicians. 


Sept. 28-29, 1996:

A Matter of Priorities

It all boils down to a matter of priorities.

The usual line we hear about social programs is that they're nice ideas but we simply can't afford them. Governments are running huge deficits and are strapped for funds.

In fact, governments get all their money from us as taxpayers, directly or indirectly, and decide how much to raise in part on the basis of what we tell them. Believe it or not, politicians really don't like to raise taxes, because it makes them unpopular, and they like getting re-elected.

Ultimately, then, as much as we like to blame everybody else for what happens in our city, province, or country, we are the ones who bear the responsibility for what gets paid for and what doesn't. We are the ones who choose where our money goes, and our choice depends on our values.

I think our sense of values has seriously deteriorated.

For example, we say that we can't afford the taxes needed to pay for public schools, hospitals, universities, day care, welfare rates that aren't humiliating, public transportation that's efficient, safe, and affordable, a clean environment, drug treatment programs, battered women's shelters, product safety inspections, and so on. We elect governments that promise to do less so that they can cut our taxes.

Yet somehow we manage to find millions of dollars for CDs, video and computer games, trips to overpriced amusement parks, designer clothes, and millionaire athletes. Take the latter point: we're willing to pay lots of money to see our local sports teams in action, both by buying tickets and paying the extra beer cost--money that goes into the pockets of the advertising agencies and television networks that in turn broadcast the games in order to sell us more beer. We find the money for computer upgrades and second cars, meals at fast food joints that inundate our kids with commercials (to the extent that we have to take them there or we won't hear the end of it), backyard swimming pools and billion-dollar profits for our banks, but somehow we can't find the tax money to pay for the really important things.

I think we're suffering from a blinkered view of how things work. First, most people don't realize that if, for example, an athlete signs a contract for millions of dollars the money comes from all of our pockets even if we never buy a ticket to see him play. Second, we convince ourselves that problems are someone else's responsibility; if the hospitals are underfunded, it's the administrators' fault, or the government's fault--but it's never our own. And third, I think people feel they have a God-given right to the luxuries of life, and often don't want to worry about necessities that they don't pay for directly.

I don't want people to be taxed against their will. I want people to start deciding that they consider public services more important than consumer goods. I want them to choose to pay for day-care spaces rather than CDs, schools rather than hockey players, hospitals rather than video games. I'd like to see people wanting rather than expecting a decent society, and recognizing that they have to pay for it, and can afford it.

I'd like to see a change in priorities.


Oct. 5-6, 1996:

Some Historical Parallels

Something strange is happening out there, and for those of us familiar with Canadian history it's very interesting to see.

Back in the nineteenth century, industrial workers were made to work long hours for very low pay. Ten- or twelve-hour days were common, meaning that workers would often be driven to the point of exhaustion. Work weeks were six days long, and no provisions were made for sick days; if you didn't work, you didn't get paid--in fact, you could even be let go. One of the worst effects of these long hours was that fathers got to spend far too little time with their families. Workers were paid whatever the market would bear, and in periods of high unemployment (there was always unemployment, by the way) that could be little indeed.

Of course, you couldn't very well complain that you weren't making enough, or that you were being overworked, or that your working conditions were unsafe. After all, you were told, there were plenty of others out there who would be glad to get your job. Meanwhile, the companies who underpaid and overworked their employees made large profits, and bosses raked in a great deal of money. The inequities grated on those who made those profits possible but seldom benefited from them.

Consequently, industrial workers formed unions, realizing that only by working--or stopping work--together could they wrest decent treatment from their bosses. The middle class was duly horrified by seeing all these working-class people banding together, and that fear and hatred of unions continues to this day.

Until recently, working in an office meant working nine-to- five, and it normally meant, too, that one breadwinner could house, feed, and clothe a family. But wages didn't keep up with inflation, and high unemployment made people feel very insecure about their jobs--a fact their employers took full advantage of when it came to pay and hours of work.

Now, many people I know who work in offices have begun to complain about their jobs. They say they have to work very long hours, even taking work home with them, and that cuts into the time they get to spend with their families. They say they're not making nearly enough to support a family alone, and that both spouses in a marriage have to work outside the home just to get by. Meanwhile, they see their companies make huge profits while engaging in layoffs--"downsizing" in current doublespeak--and as company executives pay themselves large salaries and bonuses. While average wages have remained frozen, or just barely keeping up with inflation, the incomes of CEOs have gone up dramatically. Since 1993, average salaries have gone up 8 per cent; executive incomes have gone up 32 per cent. (I heard one executive complain that he was being underpaid compared to American executives.) People are getting increasingly resentful about the inequities, but can't complain because they know there are plenty of people out there who would love to get their jobs.

You don't think that those middle-class people who have complained so vociferously about unions would start--?

Nah. But for someone who loves irony, as I do, this is all a lot of fun to watch.


Oct. 16, 1996:

Day Care Is Now a Necessity

The Ontario government has announced its proposed changes to the day care system, and they are typically wrong-headed and based on false assumptions.

Day care has become more important as more women have joined the workforce. They have done so out of pure economic necessity; no longer can one breadwinner house, feed, and clothe a family, or provide the other essentials of modern life. Day care is no luxury, especially for single mothers who want to work but can't afford to.

Janet Ecker, the Community and Social Services minister, claims that her goal is to provide more day-care spaces. That's laudable, but she wants to find the money to do it by removing wage supports for day-care workers. The people who take care of your children will earn less, but at the same time they'll be expected to take care of more children. One assumption underlying this policy, as well as so many others of this government, is that you can do more with less. The truth is that you can only do less with less. If day-care workers have to look after more children, they'll be able to spend less time with each, and lower pay translates into lower morale and the possibility that the more highly qualified people will look for higher-paid work elsewhere.

Other savings will come from weakening the regulations and oversight that govern the system. That means fewer inspections, and licenses will be granted for longer periods. I simply can't understand why anyone would want to cut back on the number of opportunities inspectors and licensing boards have to make sure that day-care centres live up to required standards.

The previous government encouraged nonprofit day-care at the expense of commercial, or for-profit, centres. This went against the free-market philosophy of the Tories, who are now trying to "create a level playing field." The result, of course, is that standards, wages, and so on will decline to the lowest common denominator. More importantly, however, this desire to strengthen the for-profit sector reflects another assumption behind the government's policy: the belief that the private sector is always better than the public sector, economically and even morally. Ecker justifies her proposals on the grounds that they will lead to more "choice" for parents.

Right-wing politicians constantly use the term "choice" when they talk about bringing the private sector into the provision of social services; this is certainly the case in the United States, where some are trying to privatize the school system. But the reality is that when it comes to social services "choice" is meaningless; when you have both a private and public system, what invariably happens is that those who can afford it get better service from the private sector, while the rest get stuck with second-rate service from the poorer public service. A two-tier system is inevitable. Only the rich get to "choose."

Do you agree that we can't afford to take proper care of our children, or to offer workers decent salaries that ensure we get the best people to do the job? Are we that selfish?


Oct. 23, 1996:

Knee-Jerk Reactions

One of the most dangerous things in politics is the knee-jerk reaction--the thoughtless response to circumstances and words. We have seen much of this sort of thing over the years, and it has gotten us into a lot of trouble.

Much of what I've said in this column, in fact, involves urging people to think before they react. For example, when politicians talk about tax cuts, people's automatic reaction is to think, "Hey, that means I'll end up with more money!" But the truth may be quite different: what you aren't paying for in income taxes you end up paying for in other, less fair ways. Meanwhile, you've lost the dependable social services that you took for granted and that help make Canada a civilized and prosperous nation.

When times get hard, people frequently look for someone to blame; after all, if things have gone wrong, somebody definable must have caused it. The easy answer is to look at those who seem to have been responsible, or simply to find a convenient scapegoat. Members of racial minorities, poor people, and immigrants have been the traditional targets, and as I have noted before, unscrupulous politicians feed into these prejudices for their own purposes. This is particularly true of bigots and ultra-nationalists; after all, who doesn't like hearing that he or she belongs to a superior nation? Or a master race?

Then again, politicians often become convenient scapegoats themselves. People blame their leaders for every problem, including self-inflicted ones, and kick them out of office--only to come to the same conclusions about their successors. Say the word "politician" and most people's reaction is instantaneous, whether fair or not. The truth is that politicians simply tell us what we want to hear, and if we want to hear nonsense ("We can cut your taxes, cut spending without hurting anybody, and eliminate the deficit!") we have only ourselves to blame for what follows. People deride politicians for being liars, but if being honest won elections no politician would ever lie.

Racism, bad governments, scapegoating, and many other political and social problems are the products of knee-jerk reactions. If you feel yourself reacting immediately and emotionally to a statement or situation, take a few moments to think through the matter, and even do some research if you have the time. Too many people have suffered, and too many bad (if not downright evil) politicians have taken power, because people haven't taken the time or trouble to resist their gut reactions.


Oct. 30, 1996:

"Religion, State Must Be Separate to Ensure Safety"

A recent series on PBS has traced the rise of the religious right in the United States, one of the most dangerous political developments of our time, as far as I'm concerned. It's something to beware of here, as we don't have their constitutional protections against the incursion of religion into matters of state.

What the religious right doesn't seem to realize is that that separation of church and state, one they condemn incessantly, is best protection they have for religious freedom. The framers of the U.S. constitution put that provision into the Bill of Rights because they were quite familiar with the situation in Europe, where countries had state religions (Anglican in Great Britain, Roman Catholic in much of the rest of the continent). They knew the consequences of having no barrier between religious belief and the power of the state, and were careful to avoid that mistake in their new country.

I understand why members of a religion want to see their government operate according to their principles; after all, nobody wants to see others go to hell, or preach ideas that run contrary to what (they believe) is God's word. The inevitable result, of course, is religious persecution. When the church (or synagogue or mosque) can use the powers of the state to enforce its will, no one who belongs to a minority religion is safe.

The difference between a secular state and a religious one involves how one sees the opposition, or dissidents. In a secular state, the opposition is mistaken; in a theocracy, the opposition is evil. No disagreement is tolerable, since any disagreement with religious truth is, by definition, on the side of the devil. This was true in Renaissance Europe, and equally true today in places like Iran.

In Canada, we don't have a state religion, although for a long time the Catholic Church had something of that role in Quebec, with damaging results for some (certainly not all) aspects of Quebec society. (Read about life under Duplessis, for example, such as the Padlock Law.) On the other hand, we do have an ongoing debate about religious schooling. I think it is very unfortunate that our constitution permits religion-based schools, and this should be changed as soon as possible. Public schools are institutions to which all parents contribute, and to which all students may go. If you want to give your child a religious education, you should have the right to do so--but not at the expense of those whose children can't or wouldn't go. While I think religions should be taught in public schools--you can't possibly understand human history without reference to it-- no school that accepts public money should be promoting a particular religion. Religious freedom is too precious a thing to sacrifice to the desire of denominational schools to get public money.

History has taught us that the separation of religion and state is the only way to protect minority religions from oppression. I hope that the Americans never forget this fact, and that Canadians learn it.


Nov. 2-3, 1996:

Days of Action

The recent Day of Action that partly paralyzed Metro Toronto evoked the predictable responses from supporters and opponents alike. My own response will probably be just as predictable, but it is no less sincere.

People complain when protesters take to the street and inconvenience them. One of their main questions is, "Why make us suffer, when your dispute is with the government?" Normally, complaints about government action can be directed to the government and receive some sort of hearing. But this government has made a point of listening to no one. They probably won't change their policies in response to the general strike, but that doesn't mean that people shouldn't bother trying to be heard.

Any government, in fact, invites protests--including illegal ones--when it behaves undemocratically. Being elected, even as a majority government, does not give anyone unlimited power, yet the Tories have made it clear that they will operate according to their ideology without paying attention to the legitimate concerns of the people affected. What makes their behaviour thoroughly unconscionable is the fact that they really don't have a mandate to do what they're doing, since they were not elected by a majority of the voting public, and anyway much of what they are doing violates their own promises. Do you remember them saying they would close hospitals?

Many small-business owners are among the leading voices complaining that the government should be the target, not they. Yet they largely supported the Tories in the last election; you can't shrug off your responsibility for the behaviour of a government you helped elect.

The issues in dispute are very important ones--the future of our education and medical systems, the fates of people who are poor, old, and sick, whether we will continue to control our own media and infrastructure and be able to protect our environment, and so on. For a day, people were seriously inconvenienced; but if the government continues its policies Ontarians will suffer much more than twenty-four hours of inconvenience. Already, we are seeing life-long damage being inflicted--and some of our citizens have already died.

If October 25 made you angry, direct your anger at the people who made it necessary; direct your anger at those whose arrogance and ideological blindness have caused so many to take to the streets; direct your anger at Mike Harris and his government.


Nov. 13, 1996:

Mind-Altering Chemicals

One of the things I'm most proud of is that I've never been drunk, nor have I ever smoked or taken (or even "experimented with") drugs. I simply don't want anything to do with mind- altering chemicals, whether in pill or cigarette or liquid form.

But if other people want to imbibe, or smoke up, or shoot up, that's their business--as long as their behaviour doesn't affect me. This is an example of "private morality," about which I wrote in an earlier column; if the behaviour causes no harm to others, it's nobody else's business.

That's why I find our legal approach to drugs bizarre. We outlaw marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and so on, but consider alcohol to be not only acceptable but a normal part of life in our society, and even allow it to be advertised. This despite the fact that alcohol has caused far more damage to more people, destroying more individuals and families, than any other mind- altering drug--and probably all the others put together.

We did try Prohibition once, earlier this century, and it didn't work. Instead of reducing their alcohol consumption, people simply turned to illegal sources. Instead of reducing crime, Prohibition increased it. The parallels to the drug situation these days are obvious; far too much of our crime- fighting resources, both personnel and money, is devoted to a farcical "war on drugs" that won't really reduce the demand and has only minor effects on the supply.

What possible sense does it make to arrest people for merely possessing (not even using) marijuana, while alcohol--a more intoxicating and addictive substance--is freely available? And we have far more control over the distribution to minors of alcohol than of marijuana precisely because the latter is illegal.

If we want to solve the drug problem, we have to be more consistent in our laws, and stop enforcing our arbitrary notions of private morality on others. By controlling and heavily taxing all such substances equally, we can go some way toward reducing crime and getting the funds necessary to fight drug abuse and addiction. Meanwhile, we can retain or even strengthen laws against harmful behaviour engaged in by perpetrators who have chosen to impair their judgement and self-control.

Our current macho approach to the drug problem makes no logical sense, has simply not worked, and is in fact counter- productive. Prohibition didn't work with alcohol and it's not working with drugs. Perhaps when we approach all mind-altering chemicals consistently we'll have better luck stopping our kids from destroying their brains, and their lives.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to resist all that peer pressure--and thus continue to annoy my friends mightily.


Nov. 30-Dec. 1, 1996:

Dangerous Ignorance

Just when you think Mike Harris has revealed the utter depths of his ignorance, he manages to surprise us yet again with how little he apparently knows about the real world.

In launching a new school breakfast program, he declared that the reason so many children go to school hungry is that their mothers are working, and therefore don't have time to cook them hot meals in the morning. Unemployment and his cuts to welfare, it seems, have had nothing to do with the increase in child hunger being reported by social agencies.

Now, the women who are working are by definition not those on welfare; they're generally middle-class women striving to help pay the bills. If we are to understand the "logic" behind this, then, it's middle-class children who go to school hungry, while children on welfare arrive very well fed because their mothers had plenty of time to cook them nourishing hot breakfasts. If that's the case, the solution to child hunger in Ontario is simple: send the mothers home, and have as many families as possible collect welfare instead of working.

Mr. Harris lives in a very strange world. In this world, people on welfare are prosperous, while the rich need tax "relief." The government's policies have had nothing to do with the past year's increase in child hunger, but instead the fault lies with social developments that predate his government. In Harris's world, giving people less money doesn't make them poorer; in any case, despite the higher unemployment reported recently, people on welfare could find jobs if they'd only get over their debilitating "culture of dependence." The problem is, of course, that if these women found jobs and made more money their kids would go hungry. . . .

We've got a government run by ideologues who are dangerously ignorant about what's really going on out there. Ivory tower theories about society and the economy are lovely things in the abstract, but when it comes to dealing with the real world--not just child hunger, but the education system, the health care system, and so on--they're useless, and real people get hurt. I wish Harris and his government educate themselves before more children end up going to bed, and then to school, hungry.


Dec. 14-15, 1996:

The Threat of Corporate Concentration

While my mandate is to discuss social issues, I often discuss economic and political ones because the three areas are inextricably linked. For example, what happens in our economy determines how much unemployment we have, and therefore the sorts of social problems we face, while politicians are the ones who try, or pretend to try, to find solutions for them.

One economic phenomenon with profound social implications is the growth of corporate concentration. It's something that's been going on for years, but never involving the amounts of money and power we've seen in the past couple of decades. We used to have Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi vs. Seven-Up; then the latter two merged. We used to have Eaton's vs. Simpson's vs. The Bay; once again, we're down to two "competitors". Of course, the fewer corporations competing, the less competition you actually have.

Two of the biggest risks to our society involve the banks and the media. We have five major chartered banks, and they are already on their way to posting record profits yet again, with all set to show annual profits exceeding $1 billion apiece. Yet they claim that their profits are too low to compete internationally, and that they need to merge. The inevitable result of such mergers would be more of our money being funneled into these fat institutions, with less choice for consumers and less money available for needed programs.

Perhaps even more frightening is the way the ownership of newspapers is being concentrated. Democracy is healthy only when there is a diversity of opinion, and when the views of people other than the rich, powerful, and right-wing are available. But as modern robber-barons snap up more newspapers, the opportunity for dissenting voices decreases. Your ability to hear all sides of an issue shrinks, and since you base your political choices on what you see as the "truth"--as defined by the media--this development constitutes a real threat to political freedom. Or do you really think Conrad Black would hire me as one of his editorialists?

The greatest threat to capitalism, ironically, comes not from so-called "socialists" like myself, but from capitalists themselves. Our federal and provincial governments are standing idly by while corporations merge; as a result, competition in goods, services, and ideas declines, and we move closer and closer to a world dominated by the very few. Without such competition, neither capitalism nor democracy can survive.

You need to be vigilant, and demand that your politicians act to protect your economic and political freedoms, instead of the profits and power of the elite.


Dec. 18, 1996:

Hoist on Your Own Petard

One of the most fun things about watching politics is the sheer blatant hypocrisy demonstrated by our leaders at all levels.

After fulminating for years about Brian Mulroney's cutbacks to social programs, Jean Chretien took office and engaged in precisely the same deficit-obsessed policies. The New Democrats in Ontario proposed workfare, cut back funding to education and health care, and curried favour with big business, and now scream at Mike Harris's Tories for doing exactly the same things. Meanwhile, in one of the most stunning displays of hypocrisy in recent memory, outgoing Liberal leader Lyn MacLeod, who campaigned on policies nearly identical to those of the Tories-- tax cuts, spending cuts, and so on--now spends most Question Periods railing in righteous indignation at those same, damaging policies.

The one recent example I found most amusing, however, was that of our own Mel Lastman's response to the proposal for turning Toronto into a "mega-city" by eliminating the six municipalities and their governments. Like a good conservative and Conservative, Lastman has spent much of his career criticizing what he sees as waste and duplication in government, and stresses "fiscal responsibility" (spend as little as you can get away with and avoid politically damaging tax increases) above all. When nurses, teachers, university instructors, social workers, safety inspectors, environmental inspectors, and other public servants are declared surplus, the Lastmans of our province cheer.

But now the Tories at Queen's Park have declared him redundant, and instead of accepting the judgment, and taking the wonderful opportunity of saving taxpayers the expense of his salary, Lastman joined his fellow mayors in condemning the proposal. His enthusiasm for the protest waned slightly when the possibility arose that he might become mayor of the mega- city, but now he's back on-side and quite upset again.

Actually, I do fear the effect on our democracy of such political "downsizing"; democracy may be expensive (a dictatorship, after all, would require taxpayers to fund only one salary) but I think it's worth the price. Still, as I've said before I love irony, and watching the Toronto-area mayors decrying this attempt to "rationalize" them out of their jobs, seeing them hoist on their own petard, is truly fun.


Jan. 4-5, 1997:

In Review

I've been writing this column for about a year now.

In that time, thanks to government cutbacks, waiting lists for surgery have lengthened; more children have endured poverty; education has deteriorated at all levels; battered women's shelters have become less able to serve their clients; hospitals hae been slated for closing; user fees have been imposed on seniors; municipal services like WheelTrans have been reduced; more people are using food banks; justice has been jeopardized. In the field of education we're seeing bigger classes, fewer teachers, and more kids giving up on university education--and therefore their own potential--because of its cost.

Thanks to regulatory and administrative changes, pollution laws have been relaxed; single mothers have had to do without child support payments; rent control has been gutted; unions have been weakened; North York has been slated for elimination.

In the meantime, banks have increased their profit margins, and other enterprises have used their higher profits to buy each other out or find ways to function with fewer employees. A higher number of very rich people managed to shelter their money from income tax, while doctors succeeded in making arrangements to keep more of their income.

So this province has become a harder place to live in for the poor and middle classes, and easier for corporations and the wealthy. This trend will continue as the Tories continue their "reform" of our province--a process based on outdated economic theories and ignorance of the real-world experiences of people struggling to get by.

We'll never be able to add up the human cost of these misguided, short-sighted policies. We'll never know exactly how many people have died because of them: while waiting for heart surgery; committing suicide out of despair over losing jobs and having other supports withdrawn; because they couldn't afford both medicine and all the food they needed. We'll never know exactly how many children suffered emotional, intellectual, and physical scars because of welfare cuts and chaos in the family support system.

On the positive side, most of us have gotten enough of a tax cut to buy an extra Christmas gift this year, or a new computer game--or more likely to help pay the higher cost of education, transit, local services, etc.

In the past year I've watched Ontario become a much uglier place. But I've also had the wonderful opportunity to decry what's happening to our city and province, to speak out publicly on behalf of the silent and forgotten, and to explain why I think impoverishing others doesn't make you any richer in the long run.

Happy New Year.


Jan. 18-19, 1997:

Elites and Elites

One of the most bizarre features of political debate these days is that liberals like myself are attacked as "elitists." Somehow, we are supposed to represent a kind of cultural higher class that, I guess, wants to preserve its privileges at the expense of everyone else. Meanwhile, our right-wing opponents claim they represent the "little guy," especially the small businessman.

In fact, the opposite is the case, but that's a message most liberals have a hard time articulating. The fact is, we're on your side. We fight for public education and medicare because we want you--the average person--to have access to all the things you need, the things the rich can afford. We want you to have all the opportunity they do, by ensuring your kids can get a good education, too; that you can get proper medical care without going bankrupt, too; that you will get paid what you should, too. We want your success or failure to be determined by how much ability you have and how hard you want to work, not whether you start out rich or poor.

We want you to have access to lots of information, so that when you go to the ballot box you'll make informed choices. That's why we fight efforts to censor what you're told (except in cases of libel and slander and other malicious misuses of the right to free speech). That's why we fight for public broadcasting; we know what sorts of distortions come from news and information programming designed solely to win profits and satisfy advertisers. That's why we're shocked when governments impose cutbacks on schools and libraries, and weaken access-to- information laws--all things that right-wing politicians do.

We want you to have a government that acts on your behalf, because you haven't got the time nor the money to fight powerful forces in our society, whether individuals or corporations, on your own. We fight for regulations on pollution, price fixing, false advertising, the production of dangerous products, the treatment of employees, and so on because we want to ensure corporations don't go around hurting people with impunity. And we want governments paid for through progressive taxes.

It's the right-wingers who represent the real elite in the country: the economic one. They want to reduce the power of your government--the one you elect--in order to permit more power to flow to people with money and influence. They offer you tax cuts that benefit the rich, while you end up paying more for health care, education, and other necessities in other ways.

We liberals, contrary to what you're told, are fighting for your interests. And we're very afraid that you'll only find that out when it's too late, when the universal programs and progressive taxes are gone or seriously weakened. Don't let that happen--recognize who's really on your side.


Feb. 15-16, 1997:

A Revealing Dispute

I usually have a hard time working up much sympathy for doctors in their disputes with the provincial government. As we have seen in the past (such as the extra-billing fight), despite doctors' claims to the contrary such conflicts invariably boil down to the issue of how much they're paid. It's especially galling to see specialists, among the highest-paid professionals in the province, complaining about their incomes, and then using bogus comparisons (their after-tax incomes and other people's before-tax incomes) to buttress their claims.

But the most recent dispute is a different matter. Using its Omnibus Bill, the government made unilateral decisions about doctors' billings and the funding of malpractice insurance; the doctors, quite rightly, objected to these changes being made entirely without their consultation. It was only the threat to withdraw services, unfortunately, that forced the government to talk to them.

The Tories have been doing just this sort of thing to everybody. They act without consulting the people affected, and then discover that people won't simply roll over for them. When the poor, the unemployed, and other weak people object, however, the government ignores them. When people with real clout object, the government tries to make a deal.

Acting without studying the issue or consulting people looks tough, but it isn't necessarily intelligent. For one thing, "special interest groups" (as the government labels anyone they want to ignore) sometimes actually know what they're talking about. Activists for welfare recipients, the elderly, the environment, women, and others have first-hand knowledge of what people are really experiencing out there.

Secondly, if you ignore some people but negotiate with others you come across looking arbitrary and unfair. That's exactly what the Tories have been--both by attacking the doctors, then singling them out for deal-making. In Mike Harris's Ontario, it not only pays to be rich, it may even be a matter of survival.

Harris could have avoided this crisis by exercising reason instead of being a slave to his contradictory and impractical ideology. The dispute is very revealing of the way Harris acts, and what it takes to make him change his direction.

Many others will suffer even more than the doctors from his arrogance and blinkered view. Too bad they can't scare the government the way the doctors can.


Mar. 19, 1997:

A Few Notes

Just a few notes on recent events:

This paper's recent editorial on the McGuire Consultants' report on violence against women spoke eloquently about its problems--and the government's responsibility to ignore it. Some of the recommendations are well-meaning--the part about sending women home was based on the feeling that it's unfair that the victim should lose her home while the batterer keeps it--but astonishingly naive. The only thing keeping most women in shelters safe (and even alive) is that their abusers can't find them. I don't generally think in such a macchiavellian way, but I thought the government accepted the report just so that it could dismiss it and show it really cared about abused women. I was wrong. During Question Period, the opposition gave the government plenty of opportunity to throw the report out, but Social Affairs Minister Janet Ecker and Women's Issues Minister Dianne Cunningham refused to do so. So the government hasn't really distanced itself from the report, and its only real attempt to do so--by saying it was a consultants' report, not one done by the government--is phony, given that it was the government that chose the consultants in the first place.

Some time back I argued that no right, including free speech, is absolute; a right extends only to the point where its exercise causes harm to or infringes on the rights of others. I refused to join an internet protest against government attempts to regulate what can be broadcast, saying that if the internet had policed itself against abuses of the right to free speech, like child pornography and racism, there wouldn't have been a problem. Late last year, police cracked an internet child pornography ring here in Ontario, and a report on the TV program "W-5" described how children were abused, including with handcuffs. How much abuse could have been prevented had people acted sooner, instead of defending the indefensible?

I described even longer ago how cutbacks are affecting first- year students at York University. The system has been officially changed, and as a consequence:

- small first-year courses are being eliminated;

- so is the Centre for Academic Writing, a service that provides one-on-one tutoring in essay-writing [actually, it was only service for first-year students-AW];

- new general-education courses are being instituted that will make it more difficult for students to complete a four-year B.A. in four years, unless they take courses in the summer--when they need to work to pay for the higher tuition fees;

- fewer teachers will teach more courses, meaning less time to do a good job on each; and more courses will be taught by graduate T.A.s instead of experienced part-time instructors.

Thus, thanks to cutbacks, students and/or their parents will pay more for less.


Mar. 22-23, 1997:

Getting It Right

Mike Harris got it half right.

During the recent "mega-week," he announced that education would be fully funded by the province; no longer would property taxes pay for those costs. In exchange, however, municipalities would be responsible for welfare and other so-called "soft" services. ("Hard" services include such things as snow removal and garbage pickup.)

The "mega-dump," as it has been called, became a factor in the recent referenda on the Tories' proposal for a mega-city to replace Metropolitan Toronto. Whether rightly or wrongly, the two issues were treated as one: opponents of the mega-city saw it as part of an overall plan to make the dumping of the costs of soft services possible.

On the issue of education costs, the government was correct in its decision to take on the full burden. Their rationale was legitimate; they want to ensure that students in all parts of the province, not just those living in cities with rich tax bases, would have an equal chance at a quality education. I certainly hope that's the real reason, not just the ostensible one. The Tories have to find more savings to accommodate their tax cut, and many fear that their taking over of education will simply be a way to cut education funding more easily.

But when it comes to soft services, the decision is a very bad one--not because the exchange will lead to higher property taxes (which it will), but because the services will then suffer. Poorer municipalities will have at the same time the greatest need and the least ability to meet that need. And municipalities will be tempted, if not downright forced, to compete with each other to offer lower taxes and therefore worse services in order to attract business. We've already seen the standards-lowering effects of that kind of competition in what happened to our short-lived smoking by-law.

What the Tories said about education applies to welfare, seniors' services, and other such programs: higher standards and equal treatment demand provincial, if not national, funding. The fact that they haven't applied the same logic to one as the other worries those of us who question their motives in taking on education costs. But at least they finally got something right when it comes to social services. Harris has said that his government is rethinking the mega-dump idea; I hope he's finally seen the error of his ways.


Undated or Unpublished:

I wasn't able to get copies of all the papers containing my columns. Some of the columns below appeared--I'm not quite sure on what dates--while others were never published for various reasons, mostly the sudden cancelling of the column.

The Truth About the Deficit II

In an earlier column I discussed the real history of government deficits, pointing out that they were caused not by supposed overspending on social programmes but by a deliberate policy of keeping interest rates high to battle inflation.

Today I'd like to talk about the deficit problem from a different angle. You can talk about a deficit either from the point of view of expenses or of revenues. The real problem in Canada generally, and Ontario specifically, is not that government spending is too high but that revenues are too low.

Does this mean that I think taxes are too low? It really depends on your definition. Individual taxpayers feel overburdened (of course, taxpayers have always felt overburdened, so that in itself is not much of a guide). Actually, I find it hard to muster a great deal of sympathy for those who claim they are "taxed to death" (more on that in a future column); people who say this aren't really starving, and anyway a society that can afford to spend millions of dollars on video games, bankers' salaries, CDs, and hockey players can afford the taxes needed to pay for health care, education, transit safety, and other necessities.

On the other hand, I do think that the burden on individuals is unnecessarily high. The problem isn't the level of taxation but the number and wealth of taxpayers; too few are shouldering too much of the burden. We have far too many people who are unemployed or underemployed--and therefore pay little or no taxes. Also, many who used to work in high-paying manufacturing jobs are now working in lower-paying service jobs, and lower pay means lower tax.

Also, an interesting article appeared last month in York University's newspaper, excalibur (Feb. 14). Reporter Yuki Hayashi gathered statistics from a number of sources showing how corporations and the wealthy have not been paying their share. Among the findings: if we still had an inheritance tax (which was abolished in 1972), the government would have raised $20 billion over the past 24 years and $3-5 billion this year; the proportion of government revenue coming from corporate taxes declined from 20% in 1961 to 7.2% in 1993; 62,000 profitable corporations paid no income taxes in 1991; in 1991 corporations owed $40 billion in interest-free deferred taxes, and would have paid $3.2 billion in interest had it been charged. By the way, corporate income taxes are paid on profits, not gross income, so they do not cost jobs.

Had there been lower unemployment and underemployment, and had the rich and the corporations paid their fair share, governments might well have had enough revenue to balance their books. Cutbacks to vital services would have been unnecessary. And since the tax burden would have been spread more evenly, each of us would have had to shoulder a smaller share of it.


The Truth About the Deficit III

In previous columns I discussed the real roots of provincial and federal deficits, focusing on two main causes: high interest rates and shortfalls in government revenue. Social programs, contrary to what we're told especially by right-wing politicians, had very little if anything to do with creating government deficits; hard economic times and unfair tax policies played a much greater role.

Governments are reducing their deficits mainly by cutting programs, although as I've pointed out, you won't really save money--you'll just pay in different ways: user fees, higher local taxes, and so on. Mainly, you'll be paying less fairly; the less you earn, the greater proportion of your income you'll pay. Also, there will be higher costs in both human and financial terms because of social problems caused by--or rather no longer prevented because of--the cutbacks.

How, then, do you reduce the deficit more fairly and more sensibly? First, the best way to reduce deficits is through economic growth. Greater growth translates into more sales and employment and therefore more tax revenue from businesses and individuals, and lower expenses as unemployment and welfare costs decline. Until recently, however, the central bank under Gordon Thiessen and his predecessors saw any sign of economic growth as an inflationary pressure, and raised interest rates to choke the growth off. Of course, that made balancing the books harder. Fortunately, the central bank has changed its approach, and is lowering interest rates, or keeping them low, despite pressure from U.S. rates and other factors. The first step to deficit reduction is to maintain stable low rates, and end the obsession with inflating-fighting. Anyway, there are other, less damaging ways to fight inflation than through higher interest rates.

Second, the tax system has to be revised to focus once more on income rather than consumption. Sales taxes, including the GST, should be reduced or even eliminated, and income taxes raised to make up the difference. Income taxes are unpopular, but they're fairer and less economically stifling than sales taxes. Taxes on profits should be raised while business property taxes are reduced, to encourage investment and growth. Overall, the wealthy must once more pay their fair share.

Finally, social programs should be maintained to ensure poor people continue to be consumers, and everyone remains as healthy and achieves as much education as possible. Good health and higher education mean higher incomes and less unemployment--and therefore more revenue and less cost for the government.

Third, a system of micro-loans (up to $5,000) should be established to encourage individuals--especially women--to set up small businesses in their homes. Such programs have proved very successful in other parts of the world.

A proper mix of growth-encouraging fiscal and monetary policies will lead to a reduction and eventual elimination of the deficit, without the damage caused by slash-and-burn cutbacks.


Our Medicare System at Risk

It was only a matter of time before the provincial government's cutbacks to health care began to have serious effects. But the damage is surprising even to those of us who expected it.

The latest mess, as many of you know, concerns obstetricians. The government has decided to cut back assistance for doctors' malpractice insurance costs. As a result, doctors in this very high-risk specialization are beginning to "opt out" of delivering babies.

On the one hand, I do think that midwives could handle most normal deliveries at least as well as doctors, although a doctor should be on hand in case of complications. Midwives could do the job at a lower cost--which is one reason doctors are uncomfortable with the profession.

But on the other hand doctors should be available for those women who choose to use their services. We can't know how many women and babies will be at risk. The two sides will probably come up with some solution--perhaps by the time this column appears--but the fundamental principle remains: in their determination to cut funding, does the government really know what the effects of their cuts are?

In other areas of medical care, the cuts are going to be just as severe. Hospitals are slated for closing, and the government is contemplating "delisting" services. Can we be sure that all hospitals to be closed are really wastes of space? Also, no one can argue that certain procedures go far beyond the bounds of necessary health care, but most of them--like cosmetic surgery-- are already outside of OHIP. Will all of the services to be "delisted" really be judged on the basis of medical need, or on how much they cost?

Further cutbacks to staffs, especially nurses, will cause untold damage. It's impossible to know how many serious problems will arise--problems that could have been prevented by having sufficient staff.

It really boils down to priorities. We have to decide what we consider to be the most worthwhile ways to spend our money. Ask yourself: what will you buy with the money you get from your tax cut that will be more important than health care?


The Right-Wing Lexicon

It's always annoying when you get an idea for a column or a story and then someone else beats you to the punch. I was planning some time ago to prepare a lexicon of right-wing jargon, but then Michele Landsberg in the Toronto Star came up with one of her own (see her column of Feb. 3, 1996).

On the other hand, she didn't cite all the terms I was going to, so I thought that I would supplement her list, and expand on the terms she does discuss. As I plan to say in a future column (I suppose this constitutes the journalistic equivalent of "staking a claim"), one of the most dangerous things in politics is the knee-jerk reaction, and these terms are designed to provoke just that: to make you react instantly and thoughtlessly in order to agree with the right-wing message.

As Landsberg says, a favourite term is "special-interest group." It's applied to any group with which the right disagrees, no matter how large; after all, the term is used for organizations representing women, minorities, and the elderly, to environmental groups, and so on, which I would suggest make up a bigger portion of the population than the Chamber of Commerce or corporate leaders.

She also cites "whining," which is a term used primarily for the poor, the sick, the elderly, the unemployed, and others who have legitimate complaints; it's never used for the rich and powerful when they complain. And if you've been abused or oppressed and say so, as she notes, you're trying to "gain `victim' status." Not so the corporations, of course, when they bewail the hardships of operating under environmental and health and safety regulations, or paying taxes on their profits.

To her list I would add "wasteful government spending"; the words are always used together, suggesting all government spending is wasteful and should be cut. No matter how much meat and bone is sliced off, there's invariably "fat" in the system. Similarly, everyone who works for the government is a bureaucrat- -not a public servant--and that evokes the image of a fat, lazy individual with no useful function. Are teachers and nurses "bureaucrats"? Or the people who renew your licenses and test for toxic chemicals? Spending needed money to solve a problem is "throwing money at it," as if you can get something for nothing (see also "achieving efficiencies"); when they say that about a government program right-wing politicians invariably mean they'll underfund the program until it doesn't work any more, then have a good excuse for eliminating it.

"Red tape" means government regulations that in most cases are designed to protect the public's health and safety; "self- reliance" means giving poor people as much freedom to starve as you give rich people to make more money; among politicians, "the character issue" refers to private behaviour that has no effect on the public, while it's never used concerning behaviour that actually harms people--like being in the pockets of tobacco and other corporate interests.

Beware of loaded terms; don't let yourself be swayed by them. Learn to translate them, and to react thoughtfully, not emotionally, to their use.


A Penny Saved Is a Dollar Wasted

Government cutbacks, we're told repeatedly, are designed to save us money. If we cut spending now, we'll eliminate our deficits and we'll all be better off in the long run.

It's a simple argument--and unfortunately a simplistic one. Often the money you save today will result in higher costs down the line. That's because preventing problems costs less than correcting them.

Let's look at a few key examples. Studies have shown that poverty leads to ill health. Undernourished and poorly housed children suffer from more diseases, and suffer more seriously, than those who are properly fed and housed. Unemployment causes physical and emotional stress. Naturally, these health problems translate into higher medical costs for everyone.

Lack of education also hurts the health and well-being of children and adults. The more educated you are, the better you're able to choose a proper diet for yourself and your children; you're more likely to read to your children and otherwise help them with their verbal skills. Education means higher wages and better quality of life for everyone.

The government has been cutting back in a number of areas, and the effects of these cutbacks will be seen soon enough. Funding for battered women's shelters has been cut, meaning more women will be hurt and perhaps killed. Counselling for abusive spouses is being cut back as well. The resulting court and hospital costs will far outweigh the savings.

Overall social services have been cut, meaning that drug addicts will find it more difficult to clean themselves up. Family counselling will be less available, and so families may well break up that would have been saved otherwise. Abused kids and runaways won't have as many places to go. Community programs will disappear, and thus teenagers will have to find other ways to spend their free time. The result of all these cuts might well be higher crime, and thus higher costs again.

Despite Tory promises that they wouldn't cut health care, the provincial government is taking millions from hospital budgets (they say that they will reinvest it, but in the meantime the cuts are real, and hospitals will close). If it takes longer to get an accident victim or person suffering a heart attack to hospital, the problem will end up being more serious, and require more and costlier treatment.

Our infrastructure is suffering, too. Had the TTC spent what it needed to on safety, the recent subway accident might have been prevented--and so would all the attendant costs. Keeping our highways and bridges in good repair costs less than replacing them when they crumble to pieces.

Social and infrastructure programs cost money. But the problems that result from having no or inadequate programs cost even more.


How Not to Answer a Question

My job is to comment on social issues, not do television reviews. But I'm going to recommend a program for you to watch.

It's called "Question Period."

It's on TVOntario around 12:30 each night (check your local listings), and it's a broadcast of that day's provincial legislature's Question Period. It's a fascinating thing to watch, and very educational.

One of the things it teaches is how to avoid answering a question. You can learn much from Premier Mike Harris and his ministers about how to elude giving a direct response, or facing a problem, or admitting you're wrong. The techniques demonstrated (which require more dexterity than the ones taught in the Tai-Chi infomercial that follows) are of course not inventions of the Tories, but the government members are clearly masters of them.

1. Answer a different question. When the Opposition asks why the government cut funding to hospitals, in direct violation of election promises, the Premier or the Health Minister invariably answers, "But we didn't cut funding to health-care overall; we increased it."

2. Engage in a history lesson. This is related to the ad hominem attack below. When the Opposition criticizes the government for cutting social programs, protection of the environment, and so on, the answer is often something like, "When you were in power. . . . "

3. Attack the questioner. The ad hominem response (focusing on who is asking the question, not the question itself) involves phrases like, "Look who's talking!" This is the sort of logical fallacy I try to teach my students to recognize and avoid.

4. Pass the buck. The Tories are especially good at this. Health-care funding cuts and hospital closures are the fault of the federal government, or the restructuring commission, or previous governments . . . anybody but themselves. Of course, they'd be the first to brag about the lower expenditures.

Watch or tape the show so that you can see first-hand how dishonest the government can be when it comes to their handling of social and other issues. Look for these techniques being used, and learn to see through them. And keep them in mind during the next election campaign, when the government tries brush off your legitimate questions with cheap rhetoric.


The Roots of the Reform Party

The more you study Canadian history, the more you realize the very deep roots of some of our modern developments.

I have recently been doing some research on the Winnipeg General Strike, about which most Canadians know nothing. In May and June of 1919, the city basically shut down, except for essential services run by the strike committee. The strike was crushed when the government sent in the Mounties--a truly tragic affair given how many unemployed World War I veterans were among the strikers, and the victims.

It was a period of great political ferment, owing in large part to the growing activism of labour and farmers. Farmers formed their own political parties--the United Farmers of Ontario and the United Farmers of Alberta, which actually gained power in their respective provinces (in 1919 and 1921), the National Progressive Party, which took second place in the federal election of 1921, and the Social Credit Party.

The farmers' parties were anti-labour, anti-immigrant, pro- free trade; they were populist, meaning that they saw "big" anything, including banks and governments, as their enemies. They wanted to preserve "Christian" values, meaning they were suspicious of anything foreign or urban or reflecting other values.

Sound familiar?

The Reform Party is a direct descendant of these parties, and reflects many of their views. The Reformers' anti-immigrant stance is part of a long tradition of intolerance that has marked such right-wing populist parties, and the recent controversies over gay and minority rights were no surprise to those of us familiar with these parties.

The farmers who helped form the Progressive Party opposed the Winnipeg General Strike, for economic and ideological reasons. They objected to labour organizing, although they saw nothing wrong with farmers organizing to advance their cause. Similarly, modern-day right-wing populists like Preston Manning, Ralph Klein, and Mike Harris despise unions and seek to weaken if not destroy them. Of course, the result has been a shift of power not to the "little people" whom populists claim to represent but to big corporations and the wealthy.

The Reform Party has demonstrated two things above all. First, it has revealed its clear connections to its predecessors. Second, it has shown that most of its ideas, particularly its bigotry, are best left to the scrap heap of history. 


Revolution? What Revolution?

When you hear the word "revolution," you usually think of something radically new. Mike Harris has called his agenda a "revolution," claiming to offer a new approach to government. In reality, what he is offering is not something new but a return to the "good old days" of the nineteenth century.

Well, the "good old days" weren't.

Back then, taxes were low for the wealthy and services were few and expensive for the poor. Regulations on business were almost nonexistent, and so were unions; if you went on strike you were simply replaced. Charities, not government agencies, were responsible for dealing with poverty. There were no rent controls, but there was a two-tier medical system. It was a libertarian's dream.

You'd expect that in this earlier version of the neoconservative paradise, market forces must have made everyone happy and prosperous. In reality, people went hungry, and died from starvation and illnesses that could have been prevented. Education was the preserve of the wealthy, so money, not talent or intelligence, determined who got ahead. If you were born poor, chances were you stayed poor. Charities failed to deal adequately with any of this.

Companies fixed prices, thereby lessening competition and weakening the capitalist system. Workers were paid starvation wages and worked killing hours; wages were so low that children often had to work to help support their families. If a worker got sick or injured--even if it was because of an unhealthy or unsafe worksite--or pregnant or just old, too bad; he or she was fired for being no longer productive. (But that sort of thing wouldn't be allowed nowadays, right? Well, similar working conditions exist today, in Latin America's unregulated free enterprise zones, the maquiladoras.)

Streets were filthy and housing was poor (landlords cared little about upkeep, because no regulations forced them to care); conditions got especially bad during the two-decades-long world depression of the 1870s to 1890s.

Before the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and civil rights laws, racism and sexism were socially acceptable (no political correctness then!) and institutionalized. Politics was even more corrupt than it is today, if you can believe it. Canada was a "Christian" land--so Native and other religions were oppressed, or their followers harassed, with no legal recourse.

I'm always amazed when neoconservatives say that the liberal policies of the 1930s and 1960s are outdated; what they're offering are the policies of the nineteenth century.

Revolution? Something new? No: something that was tried a century and more ago--and was a proven failure.


The Myths of Smaller Government

One of the greatest myths being perpetuated by neoconservatives is that smaller government means more freedom and more power for all citizens. The idea certainly sounds logical, but if you explore it in depth you find that it's false--as false as what these politicians say about taxes.

Does smaller government mean more freedom? If we had a dictatorship, yes; the philosophical forefathers of neoconservatism, like the leaders of the French and American Revolutions, were fighting against oppressive regimes in favour of more democracy. But we have a democracy--a precarious one, true, but a democracy nevertheless--and that means we exercise rather than lose our freedom when we vote a government in.

The problem in this supposed clash between "big government" and freedom is that people sometimes confuse freedom with anarchy. But anarchy isn't freedom, except for those who are strong (economically, physically, or any other way). When properly applied, a society based on laws enforced by the government actually increases our freedom, because then even the weakest members of society can function without fear. Thus, we can walk the streets of our own city freely. Public services also contribute to freedom; for example, public schools ensure that your kids have the freedom--almost as much freedom as rich kids--to get as far in life as their talent and work ethic will allow, without being restricted by your level of income. Take away such services, and you take away freedom from anyone who isn't well-off to begin with.

As for power, an elected government doesn't have to detract from the power you have, unless it passes oppressive laws. In fact, in a democracy the government is your power (as long as it governs on your behalf); it's your way of expressing your views, and instituting the policies you want, in the face of those who are bigger and stronger than you. If a company is polluting your air and water, or making you work in unsafe conditions, or lying to you about the value and safety of its products; if you're fired because of race, religion, or sex; if you're maltreated in any way by people who can afford better lawyers than you can; you should be able to turn to your government for help. It's when the government doesn't do its job standing up for the people who elected it that government becomes a problem. At that point, you can exercise your power to kick it out of office--something you can't do to the large corporations or banks or anybody else who bullies you.

The neoconservative agenda of smaller government is being pushed by powerful people. They want a dog-eat-dog society. And is it any wonder? Why wouldn't a dog-eat-dog society be so highly favoured by big dogs?

Don't fall for it.


Damn Lies

Many of our economic and social policies are based on statistics: the unemployment rate, the rate of inflation, the poverty level and how many live below it, and so on. We measure what's happening in society and respond accordingly.

There is nothing inherently wrong with collecting this information, provided that the statistics are correct and are properly used. It's very easy to misuse or misread what we know or think we know.

For instance, our debt and deficit problems are both a direct and indirect result of the high interest rate policy (known as "tight-money" or "monetarism") that the Western world has been following since the mid-1970s. The policy was designed to fight inflation, which is measured by the consumer price index or CPI. Inflation was a serious problem then (less so now, which is why interest rates have fallen), but the CPI is a very blunt instrument for measuring it. People's behaviour is very complex, and so the increase in any one person's cost of living may have little to do with the CPI. Let us say, for example, that a sharp rise in the CPI is caused by much higher gasoline prices; does that mean that someone who doesn't own a car experiences the same rise in his/her cost of living as someone who does? If broccoli and cauliflower are equally priced, then one goes up in price and people respond by switching to the other, does their cost of living really rise? But if you tell everyone they've all experienced a 10% rise in inflation, they'll ask for at least 10% more from their bosses to keep up. And that just sends inflation spiralling upward.

Statistics can be used for various purposes, like advancing one's political agenda. When the government announces an increase in the number of people living below the poverty line, right-wing groups like the Fraser Institute respond by claiming the poverty line is too high, thereby trying to dismiss the problem. Also, there is nothing wrong with collecting race- based crime statistics provided the purpose is to identify a social problem and correct it, rather than stigmatize groups in society. Racists love to use statistics dishonestly to promote their views, notably when it comes to supposed measurements of "intelligence" based on biased tests.

Above all, we know that the unemployment rate is a very poor measure of what's really going on out there. It doesn't measure the number of people so desperate they gave up looking for work, or how many people described as "employed" are underemployed, even to the point of not making enough to live on.

Our social policies must be based on facts, not perceptions or inaccurate information. We have to find better ways to measure what's happening to people, so that we can do what we need to to solve our problems.


I Told You So

People often say, "I hate to say I told you so, but..." and then proceed to do exactly that.

Well, I'm not even going to pretend to do this reluctantly.

I told you so.

I said in some of my earliest columns that the deficit was caused not by supposed "overspending" by governments on social programs, but by high interest rates that A. made government borrowing costs higher, and B. slowed down the economy, thereby increasing expenditures and decreasing revenues.

Interest rates came down when the inflation rate went down in the U.S. and Canada. The result here has been a reduction in government borrowing costs and an economic recovery; as a consequence of those two developments, the federal deficit is substantially lower. In fact, Finance Minister Paul Martin says that the deficit will be $5 billion lower than expected. The Liberals, in other words, never needed to cut transfer payments to the provinces for health care, education, and welfare; had they relied only lower interests, it seems the worst they would have done was meet their deficit targets. Meanwhile, partly because of cutbacks at both the federal and provincial levels, unemployment has remained stubbornly high, and that has kept overall fiscal and economic conditions worse than necessary.

I also said that you would pay for your provincial income tax cut in other ways: user fees, higher property taxes, and so on. The recent fight over the "mega-dump" of social services highlighted the transfer of costs onto property taxpayers. Also, the reduction of hospital funding and closing of hospitals (contrary to Tory election promises) has meant that patients face more out-of-pocket expenses for their own health care. And that doesn't count the unpaid labour now being exacted from family members and volunteers.

Finally, I told you that the Tory health-care cutbacks would lead to deaths. They have. Opposition members and the media have brought to the government's attention numerous cases of patients being neglected, left to languish in hospital corridors or on waiting lists. Patients have suffered and died needlessly. Health Minister Jim Wilson tries to pass the buck, claiming this is evidence of problems in the old system, not the result of his own policies. Well, because of this government's cutbacks nurses and other staff have been laid off, and the ones who are left are neither numerous nor energetic enough to take up the slack.

I told you so.


Neither Tough Nor Necessary

One reason right-wing political parties have been so successful recently is that they have portrayed themselves as strong leaders, able to make the tough but necessary decisions. Any opponents are therefore soft-hearted and weak-kneed.

The reality is that right-wingers offer policies that are neither tough nor necessary. They prefer to follow the winds of prejudice, and offer phony or misguided solutions to our problems.

The Tories at Queen's Park, for example, have sought to convince people that they're very tough people; but how tough do you have to be to beat up on welfare recipients, the working poor, the sick, the elderly, and children? Because people generally have the mistaken impression that the majority of welfare recipients would rather receive assistance than work-- that people choose to be poor--it is very easy to target welfare recipients for attack.

As the Tories savage the weakest members of society, they justify their actions on the basis of our deficit problem. Yet the deficit is not so serious that it means denying middle-class people--more exactly, middle-class voters--a tax cut. How courageous is it to offer everybody a tax cut the province can't afford, just to gain popularity--and an election?

If the Tories were really tough, they would go after the powerful, not the powerless, in their drive to balance the province's books. If the Tories were really tough, they would challenge misconceptions about welfare recipients rather than feed into them and use them for political purposes.

The tough reality is that the poor don't choose to be poor; most people on welfare want to work but can't, for various reasons; the unemployed aren't lazy but are instead the victims of hard times. Or perhaps Mike Harris has never heard of layoffs, downsizing, de-industrialization.

Yes, the deficit is a problem, but not as big as it's made out to be--certainly not big enough to risk the health and even lives of our poorest and most vulnerable fellow citizens. People in this province--and in the country as a whole--can afford decent health care, housing, and other programs.

But it would take a truly tough government to assert these facts, and to tell Ontario's middle and upper classes that hard times don't justify selfishness toward the poor or hospital closings or user fees at libraries.

The Tories are tough with the weak and cowardly with the politically and economically powerful. There's a very good reason the omnibus bill has been nicknamed the "Bully Bill": it is symbolic of the government's entire approach. Bullies are not tough, and the beatings they administer are never necessary.


The Fraud of Workfare

The Ontario government released some details of its workfare plans recently, and the whole idea deserves serious attention.

The Tories announced during the election campaign their plan to introduce workfare, although it wasn't a new idea; the NDP had proposed their own version a few years ago. The idea is to force able-bodied people--but not single parents any more, contrary to David Tsubouchi's original plans--to work or lose their benefits.

The idea is based on some erroneous beliefs about people on welfare. The assumption is that welfare recipients are dependent and lazy, and don't want to work. While that may be true of some, the vast majority do want to work, as proven by the fact that the number of people on welfare declines when the number of jobs increases. Middle-class victims of "downsizing" are now learning what working-class people have known all along: people find themselves out of work through no fault of their own; business cycles have more to do with unemployment than laziness. But it makes us all feel better to blame the victims--at least until our own layoff notice arrives.

Workfare has been tried elsewhere, and the problems outweigh the benefits. First, it's expensive to administer, and in fact has ended up costing governments in the U.S. and elsewhere more to administer than is saved through declining welfare rolls. Second, welfare recipients have occasionally been used to replace people who were already employed; after all, they're cheaper and non-unionized. Third, it's often difficult to determine who is "able-bodied," since some disabilities, particularly psychological ones, are not immediately obvious.

But there is a fundamental logical error in the whole idea. The government claims that these will not be "make-work" projects, but involve real work. Well, if you have the money to pay someone welfare, and there's a job that needs doing, why not simply hire a welfare recipient? Why not pay him or her a real wage, with real benefits, and treat the person with respect? Forcing someone to work on pain of starvation sounds very much like an institution that was abolished in the last century. . . .

I have no problem with training welfare recipients for the jobs that are available, and ensuring that they make a real effort to find work--and even throwing off the rolls those who don't try to get off welfare. What people don't realize is that that's all done now, under the current system. Workfare is just the next step in humiliating, blaming, and even enslaving people who inadvertently and unwillingly become poor--and, incidentally, providing governments and business with lots of cheap labour.

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