Hot! Grasp the nettle of guaranteed income

TimesColonist.com – opinion/columnists
March 3, 2013. Iain Hunter, Times Colonist

It has been brought to my attention recently that, like any querulous columnist, I’m good at pointing out problems, but lack the courage to suggest solutions.

I might point out that it’s not so much cowardice as ignorance that prevents me from sticking my neck out. Now, having made that admission, let me do so.

I want to discuss how to help overcome the dearth of leadership, innovation, imagination and common sense that has left so many Canadians, like so many others around the world, discontented with their lot.

“What is to be done?” I was about to ask. Well, that just won’t do. Lenin used it as a title for a pamphlet and I don’t want to alarm anyone.

The income gap that everyone bemoans is yawning wider in Canada. In the U.S., gripped by congressional constipation, economic “recovery” after the end of the recession in 2009 gave one per cent of the richest an 11.2 per cent increase in income and took away 0.4 per cent from the other 99 per cent, according to a study by the University of California in Berkeley.

Governments, ours in Ottawa included, tend to focus on winners, rather than those who are left behind in the mad race for the things of economic success, like production, profits and prosperity. They talk of economic “drivers” and encourage those who have to walk to walk faster if they want to get ahead. Some are moved, periodically, to march and bang pots.

Our governors have sensed for some time that something is wrong. Those who run factories and enterprises that build things, dig them up or cut them down, have persuaded them that there’s a growing shortage of “labour” and “skills” — a nice way to describe the people who are needed to fit into state-of-the-art production slots.

It was reported last week that the government is considering a proposal by a group of trades colleges to allow them to issue bachelor’s degrees as if they were universities. Parents who for generations have urged their young to get a university degree to get ahead last week were accused of “bias” by Human Resources Minister Diane Finley.

But when workers in cap and gown are driving behemoths over the oilsands, and making good bucks by doing so, there will still be human souls in lesser straits, if not dire ones.

There will still be resentment against those born with silver spoons in their mouths (making suckling difficult), and those who earn vast fortunes by hard work, cunning, stealth or sheer luck, and are able to keep so much of them.

We are thankful for their charity and bequests. Would it be cheeky to ask if that money in the public purse might not be invested better in the public interest? Is a cap on wealth acquisition as absurd as a cap on carbon emissions?

And what about a cap on the bottom? What about drawing a poverty line below which no one may fall? A line above which income will still be taxed but below which income is topped up from overall tax revenue?

Conservative Senator Hugh Segal is a persistent champion of a guaranteed annual income. University of Victoria economist Paul Summerville supports it as a “Canadian citizenship wage,” which recognizes that citizenship carries both rights and obligations.

A disincentive to work? Perhaps, for some. But the same could be, and is, said of existing welfare, income supplements and employment insurance. It shouldn’t be beyond the genius of governments that have tinkered with the tax system for decades to design a minimum income-support system that encourages people still to better themselves and their lot.

How much more efficient it would be than the piecemeal income-support systems we have now, such as employment insurance, social assistance, family allowance, child-tax exemptions and credits, and the GST credit.

How much less demeaning and costly it would be than our systems involving means tests and overlapping bureaucracies at every level of government.

Governments today like to stress how progressive their income-tax systems are. Trouble is, they don’t go far enough — in either direction.

It’s time to grasp this nettle.

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