Charles Dickens would not lack for material.
The class struggle he wrote about in the 1800s is played out every day on the business pages of Canada’s newspapers.
In so many fundamental ways, not that much has changed from the days when he wrote those infamous words, “Please sir, can I have some more?”
The unfettered rich class is still telling the rest of us what we deserve or don’t deserve. Hardly a day goes by when a business leader, CEO or tycoon is not preaching to the masses about what society can afford or can’t afford. His salary, bonuses and stock options are rarely questioned as affordable, fair or just.
The discussion in the mainstream media is rarely about growing income inequality and how those at the top, including corporations, are just not paying their fair share.
The latest is the attack against deferred wages or pensions for working people in both the private and public sectors.
While CEOs and executives have one or even two gold-plated pension plans, the people who work for them are told retirement security is just not for them.
Society just can’t afford pensions, we are told. Yet somehow society can afford obscene corporate profits and unchecked and reckless corporate tax cuts.
Sometimes the message is disguised in the debt-hawk double-speak we get from the St. John’s Board of Trade. Other times, it is a very clear vitriolic attack against pensions issued by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
But the target is the same: workers and their pensions.
Part of the campaign to dismantle pensions is to pit government workers against those in the private sector. The theory is if we are busy defending, there is less time to counter an effective offence that highlights the real problems in our economy.
That is the mind-blowing amount of wealth being produced in our economy and how that wealth is being shared, or rather not shared.
Let them eat cake
Incredibly last week on the same day that a super-wealthy, retired CEO of a giant oil and gas company attacked workers’ pensions in a Globe and Mail commentary, a second article lamented poor economic growth, while corporate profits in Canada soar.
Despite what the article referred to as sluggish growth in Canada’s GDP (Newfoundland and Labrador is the exception), the picture for corporate profits remains “rosy.” A 52 per cent year-over-year increase is profits makes rosy somewhat of an understatement.
And yet we have a federal government that continues to hand out tax cuts to corporate Canada like candy to a baby and preaches austerity to the rest of us. Folks, there is something really, really wrong with this picture.
An economist with Gluskin Sheff and Associates noted in the article that this was “absolutely wonderful news for the capitalists.” No doubt it is.
It is also mind-boggling. And it is this dramatic shift in how we share, or don’t share, the wealth from our economy that has the United States in such an economic mess.
Joseph Stiglitz, a professor at Columbia University and a Nobel laureate in economics, recently wrote about what he called the “ideological crisis of western capitalism.
“I was among those who hoped that somehow the financial crisis would teach Americans (and others) a lesson about the need for greater equality, stronger regulation and a better balance between the market and government. Alas, that has not been the case. On the contrary, a resurgence of right-wing economics, driven, as always, by ideology and special interests, once again threatens the global economy.”
Canada, under Stephen Harper, has now embraced those right-wing economics that Stiglitz refers to. Like some voices in Canada, Stiglitz has been very critical of the so-called austerity plans touted in some parts of Europe and in North America.
“The financial markets and right-wing economists have gotten the problem backwards. They believe austerity produces confidence and that confidence will produce growth, but austerity undermines growth, worsening the government’s fiscal position,” he notes.
Politicians and policy makers have already forgotten the lessons of the 2008 financial crisis, says Paul Krugman, economist and New York Times columnist.
Corporations and bankers have returned to their heyday while workers are still paying a very steep price for something they did not cause.
Interestingly, Charles Munder, the vice-chair of the U.S. mega-corporation Berkshire Hathaway (the chair is Warren Buffett), recently noted that the economic problems in his country were caused by a combination of “megalomania, insanity and evil in … investment banking, and mortgage banking.”
The debate last week in the United States around the debt ceiling, the refusal by the Republicans to agree to a fairer taxation system is a very big indication that the “insanity” is still in high gear.
But it’s not just a U.S. problem. Canada is dangerously following down the same path. As noted by economist Jim Stanford in a recent commentary, Canada’s 50 most profitable corporations raked in an astounding $80 billion worth of after-tax net income in 2010.
And Stephen Harper gave them a $6 billion tax break. Go figure.
The richest corporations are dominated by two sectors. Yep, you guessed it: financial and resource sectors — banks, insurance companies, mining, and oil and gas.
So folks, the next time a CEO attacks a worker’s pension, the next time a business organization says we can’t afford something, respond by questioning the stunning and spectacular profits taken out of our economy, including right here in Newfoundland and Labrador, by mining and oil companies and ask, are we really getting our fair share of these resources? I can guarantee that we are not.
And the days of begging for our just share should be good and over. I believe Charles Dickens would agree.
Lana Payne is president of the
Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column returns July 30.