A few months ago I developed an unhealthy relationship with a photo of Bill Morneau, Finance Minister to the stars, in which he was beaming with what appeared to be genuine, astonished happiness, as his fellow Liberals applauded him and his dumb budget as if their seats at the cabinet table depended on it.
I should say, by way of qualification, that I don’t like Finance Ministers: I don’t like what they do for a living, I don’t like their qualifications, I don’t like their smug faces, and I don’t like to see them praised, just generally. An excellent Finance Minister, the subject of awed profiles in the Globe and Mail, is either an asshole or plays one on TV, and I suspect Bill Morneau is in both camps.
During the election a little over a year ago, you will recall, the Liberals dusted off their tricolour cockades and promised to go after the 1%, increasing the tax burden of the very rich so it was proportionate to what a tradesperson or a professional just starting out on their career paid.
The pledge was about as convincing as the Liberals’ promise to end first-past-the-post, given that the Liberals were largely responsible for Canada’s growing income inequality and given that Bill Morneau, the man put in charge of the file, came into government fresh from the more boring of the two loudest right-wing think tanks in Canada.
He reversed his party’s promise to go after the 1% after being lobbied by some Chief Executive Officers, with whom he happened to be on a first-name basis.
Even more famously, the Liberals said they would not balance the budget, which confused a lot of people into thinking that meant they were going to spend more on helping out people who were struggling. Everyone forgot that it’s also possible, and indeed much more common, to run a deficit because you don’t have enough tax revenue.
As it turned out, Morneau was very much like a Finance Minister. First he reversed his party’s promise to go after the 1% after being lobbied by some Chief Executive Officers, with whom he happened to be on a first-name basis (which actually sounds more like hanging out than lobbying, but whatever). Then last fall, he advised Canadians that they should just get used to having short-term precarious employment, as if he had even the slightest little idea of what he was talking about.
Now, those same CEOs (or ‘peeps’) are urging him to cut the deficit that he created by cutting taxes for them. Can you guess how he’ll do this? Not by raising taxes. He’ll probably do it by cutting spending.
The scene is playing out exactly as greater Finance Ministers than Bill Morneau set down it would years ago. First you cut taxes in order to “stimulate the economy” and then, whether that works or not, you wait three beats, then discover that there’s a deficit. (Surprise face emoji!) Stunned by this discovery, and operating under the wise counsel of the smartest rich people around, you cut services in a vain attempt to get the deficit under control.
The real architects of the deficit charade were, without a doubt, the federal Liberals in the 90s.
And sure, Stephen Harper’s government did make reckless tax cuts when it was in power, tax cuts so dangerously deep that the Liberal opposition called for them to be implemented more slowly. But the real architects of the deficit charade were, without a doubt, the federal Liberals in the 90s, whose Finance Minister, Paul Martin Jr., was all-but-universally branded a political genius for his brave cutting of money to old people and children.
The cut-taxes-until-you-have-to-cut-spending move was once described by Thomas Frank, writing about one of George W. Bush’s budgets, as “armed robbery with a loaded federal budget,” in which deficits “enrich those at the very top of the social pyramid while cutting services for those lower down.”
Why, you might ask, am I writing about all this at a time when white nationalists are using the US government as a stick with which to beat up immigrants, and radicalized white men are murdering Muslims in their places of prayer? Surely now isn’t the time to change the channel. Income inequality is a big deal, in fact, and it unquestionably dovetails, rhetorically if not in social fact, with growing xenophobia.
There is a well-rehearsed response to calls for more openness to refugees from Syria, among people who count themselves as simply nationalists (even if they are, in actual fact, all white): that Canada should focus first on “taking care of our own,” finding solutions to the problems faced by our own seniors and veterans before agreeing to take in vulnerable people from elsewhere.
The connection is, of course, specious. For one thing, no government or opposition party that opposes the admission of refugees is seriously proposing to divert money from refugee support systems, which are meagre in any case, to seniors or veterans. The reason there is “no money” for seniors and veterans is that Bill Morneau is an asshole for a living, and his Liberal caucus colleagues are perfectly cast to provide progressive cover for this fact.
Class, as awkward and rude as it is to talk about in North America, is as much a factor in Canadian politics as it clearly was in the US election.
But the lack of factual basis for the opposition between helping out refugees and helping “our own” doesn’t negate the fact that completely justified resentment of income inequality is underneath the turn to demagoguery and hate. Class, as awkward and rude as it is to talk about in North America, is as much a factor in Canadian politics as it clearly was in the US election.
When Seth Meyers joked in 2011 that “Trump is filthy rich but nobody told his accent,” he was unwittingly tapping into what would become a very powerful force: Trump’s appeal to people who hate slick rich guys like Bill Morneau, and would prefer a rich guy who isn’t slick.
All the educated progressives who laughed at the joke, blithely confident that Trump’s accent was equally embarrassing to everyone, got a rude awakening. If we want to keep Don Cherry and Kevin O’Leary on TV where they belong [sic], we need to start demanding of our governments that they do something to reverse the growing gap between the opportunities available to those who already have money and those who are struggling to get by.
Cover illustration by B. Mroz.