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Inventing tax rage

By Larry Patriquin
March 6, 2005


[During the National Post’s first year of publication, it claimed that Canada’s supposedly exorbitant taxes were causing great damage to the economy and had produced a form of "tax rage" among the middle class. In contrast, sociologist Larry Patriquin suggests that the paper’s writers were engaged in a dubious form of "reasoning" in order to promote an ideology that mostly benefits the wealthy. In advancing its case, the Post published a stunning collection of factual and logical errors, which were incessantly repeated in editorials and columns. In 2000, the federal Liberal Party surrendered completely to the bogus "tax rage" promulgated by the Post, and the Liberals’ fiscal policy became tied to right-wing campaigns. Larry Patriquin explains how the Post succeeded.]


For a propagandist, the sole objective is to influence the public; hence, being right or wrong doesn’t matter. The purpose of the misinformation is not to seek the "truth" or to engage in an exercise of intellectual rigour, one where logic will triumph when all is said and done. There is something else going on here, something most candidly noted by Post columnist Diane Francis.

This seems to be the objective of the exercise: to deprive the institution of government of any respect.

According to her, governments "never have enough of our money to spend. They refuse to live within OUR means." As a consequence, she concluded, governments "must be deprived of revenue, support, and respect whenever possible." (17 April 1999: E12). This is a rare example of the ideological fig leaf falling off.

This seems to be the whole objective of the exercise: To deprive the institution of government of any respect, to make it appear as if government is a crushing burden on our freedom and our pocketbooks, and that our lives would be so much better if only government would disappear (except, that is, for laws protecting private property rights and the enforcement of contracts, funds for the police to beat back those annoying anti-globalization protestors, Crown attorneys to prosecute panhandlers and so on).

One would never guess from reading the Post that it is societies with strong governments, with governments that collect a large percentage of their nation’s product in the form of taxes, where people have the longest life spans, the lowest infant mortality rates, among the highest levels of economic growth and productivity and the lowest levels of poverty and inequality.

The Post manifested not only failures of logic but fundamentally anti-democratic values.

An editorial in the Post highlighted another goal of the tax cut drive. It argued, with reference to proposals in the US, that "it is important that the tax cut be large enough to constrain federal spending and preserve the momentum toward smaller government." (7 August 1999: B9). The cuts need to be so deep that they are almost irreversible politically. Whether that neo-liberal dream can be attained is another matter.

The goal, at least, is to harm government as an institution, to make it difficult for government to do its job, to kick it hard enough that it will have difficulty standing up again. The reasoning behind this is that, according to Diane Francis, our "taxes are too high because our democracy is flawed."(2 March 1999: C3). Ordinary people get to vote, the theory goes, and they tend to vote for generally higher taxes. What an "unflawed" democracy would look like was not explained by Francis in her column.

On the whole, the Post manifested not only failures of logic but fundamentally anti-democratic values, despite their copious use of terms such as "choice" and "freedom." The basic aspiration is to neutralize government as an effective force in society, especially its role as redistributors of income and wealth.

In its first three years of operation, the Post reportedly lost $200 million. However, this was a shrewd investment, compared to a return of roughly $150 billion in federal tax cuts over the period 1997 - 2005. The National Post was a stroke of brilliance on the part of the Canadian Right, an act of hubris perhaps unequaled in the Western world over the past few decades.

To reach their goals, right-wingers must see to it that the vast majority of people are fooled into believing something that is untrue.

The timing was perfect, just as the federal government was emerging from the era of huge deficits into one of gargantuan surpluses. The newspaper became a virtual in-house organ for the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance, yet another flank in the tax cut army. If anything, the creation of the Post demonstrated that the existence of a "free market" does not necessarily mean that the intellectual cream will rise to the top. Rather, it allows those with extremely deep pockets to start a daily newspaper. They then hire a group of individuals to rant in support of the end goal of, in this case, lower taxes, with little regard for evidence, research or logical forms of argumentation.

Here, I can do no better than quote Link Byfield (2001: A13), editor and publisher of the ultra-conservative Report magazine, who made the following observation: "If libertarian think tanks like the Fraser [Institute] and CD Howe [Institute] had not spent the past three decades tirelessly researching and propagating faith in economic freedom, does anyone think for a second that we would today see the Liberal Party implementing even modest tax cuts and contemplating the breaking up of the state medical monopoly? Certainly not. Major shifts in public attitudes take millions of dollars of investment and years of diligent effort to bring about."

The National Post could be added to Byfield’s list of organizations that have been spreading the "faith." This relentless propagandizing began with the Right’s successful scuttling, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, of the generally progressive recommendations contained in the 1967 report of the Royal Commission on Taxation. This "propagating," as Byfield called it, continues to this day.

Is it any wonder that in this environment many people hold the contradictory views of wanting both lower taxes and more public services?

As part of their "diligent effort" in bringing about "major shifts in public attitudes," right-wingers must see to it that the vast majority of people are fooled into believing something that is untrue. This necessitates the construction of an ideology. If one were to put together a list of tasks to be implemented by media and "think tanks" in order to convince ordinary people that their taxes are too high and need to be dramatically cut, and that they would benefit enormously from such a cut, it would probably [include these points]:

# Pretend that democracy does not exist and that our elected governments are totalitarian oligarchs who steal money from us… like ancient Roman emperors. Make frequent reference to Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s "hissing goose".

# Depict the highest income earners, those close to the top 1 percent, as "middle class".

# Exaggerate the level of taxes paid by Canadians. Always use terms like "half" or "more than half", even though most Canadians pay something closer to one-third, and for those in the bottom half of the income chart, very little of this is income tax.

# Make the "taxes as a percentage of GDP" scale sound like it’s a dangerous fever. At 40 percent we get the chills. At 45 percent we are hospitalized. At more than 50 percent, our heads explode.

# Suggest that tax deductions such as those for capital gains and RRSPs are used by "everyone" instead of mostly upper-income earners.

# Point out what an "average" family will receive in tax cuts. This makes it sound better, given that the vast majority of families will not receive anything close to this amount.

# Substitute the word "all" for "some" - as in, "All would benefit…

# Portray income tax cuts as being a major supplement to ordinary, "struggling" working families instead of the insignificant "drop in the bucket" they turn out to be.

# Never acknowledge that an increase in private expenditures (tuition fees, user fees, licensing fees, highway tolls) will be the inevitable result of a tax cut. Convince people that tax cuts represent a "bonus…" and that this "additional" money will be used, not for the above-noted private expenditures, but rather for "saving and investment"

# Imply that our tax dollars go to "bureaucrats and politicians". Never mention programs and services like pensions, Medicare, employment insurance and so on.

# Create an aura of panic. Keep hammering away at the idea that there "is a growing sense of urgency that we need immediate action" (17 April 1999: E8). People are less likely to engage in reasoned debate when there is a stampede going on around them.

These forms of misinformation, characteristic of the Post, work by not telling the other side of the story. This is unlike a courtroom trial, where both the prosecution and the defence make the best case possible in a detailed examination of the evidence and where, in theory at least, no stone either for or against the accused is left unturned. Perhaps this is why juries typically make wise decisions and voters typically do not, because voters often receive a skewed view of crucial public policy issues and - with little alternative information - cast their ballots accordingly. Is it any wonder that in this environment many people hold the contradictory views of wanting both lower taxes and more public services?

The misinformation propagated by the Post was no doubt a major influence in the federal Liberals’ about-face, their metamorphosis into something that made a mockery of the party’s liberal heritage. This comes out clearly in the research of Jim Stanford (2000: B1-3), who calculated where the "fiscal dividend" was allocated over the period 1997 - 2001.

In his study, social reinvestment was defined as any program spending above inflation and population growth. Taxes as a percentage of GDP below the 1997 rate were counted as a tax cut. The rest went to debt reduction. He found that of the total fiscal dividend of $76 billion over this period, a mere $2 billion went into social reinvestment. $26 billion went for tax cuts, with by far the largest amount, $48 billion, going to debt repayment. The projected fiscal dividend for 2001 - 2005 is $70 billion, with $35 billion expected to go to debt reduction, $34 billion for tax cuts and just $1 billion for social reinvestment.


Larry Patriquin is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Social Welfare and Criminal Justice at Nipissing University. His research has been published in the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare and Review of Radical Political Economics. This essay is excerpted from Inventing Tax Rage: Misinformation in the National Post, by Larry Patriquin, Fernwood Publishing, 2004, ISBN 1-55266-146-6, CDN$ 24.95

 

 

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