Gift Horse Remorse

When all you want is to be miserable, there is no pleasing you.

Paul Hanley's photo of his birthday present

Paul Hanley takes a photo of his birthday present

Paul Hanley, the StarPhoenix‘s answer to David Suzuki except without the charm, sees no benefit in the “Saskaboom.”

Saskaboom is supposed to make our lives better, isn’t it? It may be making some of us richer – there are now 8,000 millionaires in the province – but the evidence suggests Saskatchewan’s booming economy has not translated into a better society.

Can you believe that there was once a time when rich, successful people were considered to be “society”?

Sure, there are many hundreds of new trucks lined up in the car lots and plenty of young men with big wages eager to buy them. The suburbs are expanding, couples are building houses and buying big screen TVs, but where are the social goods that make for a strong community?

People getting the chance to purchase what they want, to pursue their dreams, and to live their lives more in accordance with their wishes? Where’s the social good in that?

Some countries see wealth as an opportunity to create public or social goods. These are goods or services that benefit the largest number of people in the largest possible way.

By definition, a healthy economy provides more goods and services which benefits the largest number of people in the the largest possible way.

Classic examples include clean air and water, streets, health care and literacy. Such goods are “non-excludable” and “non-rivalrous,” meaning some individuals cannot be excluded from their use and usage by one individual does not reduce availability to others.

At any one time, the water I drink is used by me alone, the air I breathe is used by me alone, the street under my car is used by me alone, the doctor I see is seen by me alone. My use of these reduces their immediate availability to others.

His point, of course, is that society doesn’t provide these goods equally, which is another way of saying Hanley is envious of others’ good fortune.

It seems our booming economy mainly creates private goods that are excludable and rivalrous, in that they are exclusive to those who can afford them.

Envy.

And because we have adopted an ideology were economic winners feel entitled to all the income they earn – even though that income often results from exploiting publicly owned resources – tax revenues are insufficient to generate the public goods that build communities.

Resource income comes not from simply “exploiting publicly resources” but from providing the capital, labour, expertise, infrastructure, marketing and delivery of these resources, which benefit consumers and society as a whole. The alternative to this is if the state itself runs their own resource companies, which was done remarkably poorly in the past and, in some backward nations, today.

With all the money being generated in the province, why are universities cutting budgets? In other wealthy societies, such as Denmark, which has fewer resources than we do, most higher education is free.

The universities are cutting budgets because they are bloated bureaucracies with no sense of restraint, while higher education isn’t free in Denmark or elsewhere; it’s subsidized by “economic winners”.

Supposedly, Saskatchewan is the only jurisdiction in Canada running budget surpluses. The provincial auditor says this is a polite fiction and a fuller analysis of costs and revenues reveals deficits in nine of the last 10 years. Why, when our economy is booming?

Good question. Our economy is booming despite the growing expanse of government. Such is the power of the marketplace.

Despite the boom, inequality is growing in this province. The top 20 per cent of families with children earn 40 per cent of after-tax income, the bottom fifth only six per cent.

The key word is “earn”.

Rents and other living costs are rising due to the boom, making life harder for low-income families.

Rents and living costs are rising not because of the boom in general, but specially because more people want to live here. Saskatchewan is becoming a more attractive place to build a life for thousands of people. This is a good thing.

Whole segments of the population – including most First Nations and Metis citizens – continue to be excluded from the boom. Inequality results in social problems. Aboriginal kids often land in jail instead of university. Yet reserve schools get less money than other schools. Why is that?

The most socialized demographic in the province — i.e. those receiving the most taxpayer subsidized income and services relative to taxes paid — are First Nations people. Since they rely on government more than other demographics, they are less dependent on the free market economy and, as a result, do not benefit as readily (though are not excluded entirely) in times of market prosperity. This is not a good thing.

And northern Saskatchewan reportedly has among the highest levels of poverty in the country when resource extraction there generates hundreds of millions of income for mining companies.

Hanley’s expressed concern for the poor folk of northern Saskatchewan would be more convincing if he weren’t trying to shut down the only viable private industry in the north.

We are booming, but Saskatoon doesn’t have enough money to fix its potholed roads. Traffic is increasingly unpleasant and as the city expands, time spent in cars can only rise. Yet there is not enough money to provide effective public transit.

There’s not enough money in the world to provide effective public transit.

Meanwhile, the federal government is systematically cutting every measure designed to protect our most important public good, a clean and sustainable environment.

If only that were even half true.

There are other models. In Denmark, for example, social policy in areas such as health care, child care, education and protecting the unemployed are part of a “solidarity system” that makes sure almost no one falls into poverty. Danes pay very high taxes, but in return en-joy a very high quality of life due to the proliferation of public goods. It may be difficult to become very rich, but it is also difficult to be poor.

Some earnest Danes might disagree with this. Hanley might be happy about Denmark’s anemic economy,  though he might not be enthused about one of the primary causes.

Denmark’s minimum wage is double North American levels and people who are totally out of the labour market have a basic income guarantee of about $100 per day. Unemployment insurance covers up to 90 per cent of earnings for as long as two years. Every worker in Denmark is entitled to five weeks of paid vacation plus 11 paid holidays. The state covers three-quarters of the cost of child care, more for low-income workers.

It’s official. No one works in Denmark.

Despite high taxes, the Danish people rank among the happiest in the world, according to an OECD study. They are also highly engaged citizens: In their last election, which had no TV ads, 89 per cent of Danes voted – for governments that tax them heavily.

For “right-wing populist” governments.

Why is there so little public benefit from Saskatchewan’s boom?

Because Paul Hanley has a very narrow definition of “public benefit”.

In Paul’s world, if it ain’t perfect, it ain’t good.

Remember that if you ever consider buying him a birthday present.

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