UPDATE: It appears, in the example offered below, that it wasn’t just private relationships between the wealthiest that make them work harder. Sometimes they just ‘feel that I did a great job’ and are thus entitled to their entitlements
In two recent appearances on the CTV news National Affairs program, James ‘Jim’ Doak has argued against the recent Ontario NDP-Liberal budget deal to add a 2% surtax to those with incomes over $500,000. Appearing on a panel with CCPA Senior Economist Armine Yalnizian, Mr Doak, an asset manager, suggested that the NDP proposal (now adopted by the Ontario Liberal government) amounted to ‘ethnic cleansing’ in that it deliberately ‘defined a group not by language or culture but by how much they make. And she (Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath) wants to get rid of them.’
Put aside for a moment the macroeconomic merits of a wealth surtax, or the likelihood of the wealthiest moving to more tax-friendly jurisdictions, or even the dangers inherent to increased income inequality. And ignore the ridiculous moral equivalence between macroeconomic policy that might lead to capital flight between provincial jurisdictions and the programmatic murder of specific ethnic groups.
What is perhaps most charming about Mr Doak’s outburst is the very real contempt he exhibits for the process of policy deliberation and the complicity of the media in accepting his contempt as if it were all part and parcel of a healthy public debate. (‘A great, great debate’ says one of the two hosts as the discussion ends, ‘we should have you two on together again!’)
The sleight of hand Mr Doak and those like him use when arguing against tax increases reflects a policy debate, that is perhaps not a debate about policy so much as it an exercise in revealing an obvious contempt for democratic process.
Presumably in response to widespread complaint about the language in his first television appearance, Mr Doak has attempted a justification of sorts for his comments but his defence of his initial rhetoric does nothing to justify his claim that he used the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ deliberately.
To his thinking, political parties that advocate for wealth distribution over austerity are ‘visigoths’ at the gate, only motivated by ‘political greed.’ To assume otherwise is to ‘pretend’ since all politics is self-interested politics. There are many good reasons for addressing ourselves to the problems of declining public trust in politics but Mr Doak doesn’t think in these terms. Indeed his world-weariness, lecturing the great-unwashed masses is as evident on the page as it is on his face in the second panel conversation he took part in. – more on that below.
But Mr Doak is not alone in his views. A recent interview on the CBC Toronto morning radio show interviewed hotel developer Steve Gupta, who suggested, among other reasons, that because the wealthy worked ‘harder than most’ for their money, they ought to be able to keep it and indeed should be ‘rewarded’ for earning it. Of course one need look only as far as a recent front-page headline to realize what a lazy argument this is.
Unsurprisingly, editorials that chastise the Liberal Party for accepting the terms of NDP support on the budget call the tax increase ‘reckless’ and ‘counterproductive …in a society that wishes to promote innovation and entrepreneurship.’ But these views are little more than reflexive arguments that trade in moralized conceptions of ‘hard work’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ as if these were the sole domain of the wealthiest among us.
Of course these kinds of arguments are not widely shared. Not only is Mr Doak radically out of touch with the rest of the country – a series of recent polls suggest that most Canadians support some form of increased taxation on the wealthiest to reduce income inequality But there is also widespread empirical evidence that the core of the anti-tax argument isn’t borne out by reality.
Increased taxation levels don’t result in decreased economic activity so much as they increase tax-avoidance strategies. The wealthy enjoy where they live as much as anyone else and won’t leave Toronto. Instead they are likely to take advantage of services that allow them to selectively report their income. Indeed the same study suggests that some will actually increase their economic output to maintain their income levels.
And importantly, the buzzword logic that presumes ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘job creation’ are central to the maintenance of collective well-being is itself shown to be suspect. The wealthiest increasingly generate their wealth, not through business activity or investments, but through high wages. Contrary to Mr Doak’s assertions that Bay Street will decamp to Calgary there is no evidence to suggest capital flight is likely. If anything the problem is that the tax revenues the government hopes to generate will not materialize
So why are we subjected to these same lazy tropes – that the wealthy work harder, they will flee to more welcoming shores – when it can be shown that they won’t. Apart from a lazy brand of economic fear-mongering, that is itself nothing new, part of the answer can be found in Mr Doak’s comments in his next television appearance
We can be thankful perhaps that he didn’t again compare tax policy to ethnic cleansing. But he did suggest that the new surtax – or more properly the process that led to its inclusion in the budget – was ‘an abuse of democracy.’ But is Mr Doak’s complaint that the last minute horse-trading necessary to prevent another provincial election is somehow corrosive of the ideal of policy deliberation? We might agree with his comments, but Mr Doak has not suddenly discovered his inner citizens’ deliberative agency. (Indeed he characterizes the process as ‘trivial’ and ‘puerile’)
He is concerned with the widespread evocation of ‘weasel words’ such as ‘fairness.’ Fairness is understood by Mr Doak as an ideological tool of the left, a reflection of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ that seeks to strip the wealthy of their rightful place at the levers of power. Amazingly he cites the Gladstone-Disraeli debates on the Second Reform Act, a debate that raised hysteria about the enfranchisement of the working poor in Britain at the time.
That Mr Doak understands his place in society in terms similar to those of the landed aristocracy of the 18th and 19th centuries is staggering. One can only imagine the dark threat Mr Doak (and Mr Disraeli) imagines imposed on him by the demands of the criminal poor for a minimal level of democratic agency. In this light his initial comments about being selected for a kind of ethnic cleansing make some kind of anti-democratic sense.