Tax is not a dirty word, it’s a privilege
TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – A new book on Canada’s distorted tax conversation laments the disappearing idea that taxation is the price we pay for a good life.
Dec 17 2013. By: Heather Mallick, Columnist
“Is it the government’s job — my job to feed my neighbour’s child?” Industry Minister James Mooresaid, laughing unwisely, in a media scrum this week. “I don’t think so.”
To his credit, Moore did a clean, clear “I’m sorry” the following day sans those if-you-were-offendeds that blight so many apologies.
But he had posed a fascinating question that kept me reading a new book, Tax is Not a Four Letter Word: A Different Take on Taxes in Canada, late into the night so I could write an informed answer to this knotted question. Is it my charitable responsibility to feed my neighbour’s hungry child or should I expect government to do this? If it can’t afford it, should our taxes rise?
Edited by Alex Himelfarb and Jordan Himelfarb (the latter is the Star’s opinion page editor), the essay collection studies how the very word “tax” has become reviled.
It also sums up the tax-cutting surge of recent decades, the changing balance of what you and corporations pay, as well as federal vs. provincial taxation, how the system could be changed to reduce huge inequality, the arguments for and against carbon tax and a tax on financial transactions that could raise billions without pain.
Now I am a tax eccentric. I like taxes and frequently rejoice at what they give me: highways, air traffic control, emergency rooms, the tracking of the emerald ash borer, abortion rights, traffic lights, schools, food safety, the RCMP’s terrific boots, policing, regulating, licensing, autopsies, compassion, all the things that make us an organized and rational nation that is a pleasure to live in. I don’t trip over small corpses on the way home. It’s rather nice.
Conservatives, on the other hand, enjoy these services while abusing taxes as the necrotizing flesh disease of Canadian life.
I have a recurring insomniac fantasy. I have bought the winning ticket in a $350-million American lottery and a dilemma arises over which nation gets to tax my jackpot. They let me choose, the Americans snickering because their withholding tax is 30 per cent and Canada’s top marginal tax rate is, I guess, 55 per cent. My fantasy plays out on my favourite show, The Colbert Report. On my right is Ted Cruz, that Canadian-born tea bag of hate, on my left Andrew Treusch, head of the Canada Revenue Agency. (I had to look him up but he seems nice and has a cheerful Twitter feed.) Who will win?
Why, Canada of course! I can get a full hour’s entertainment out of the American audience’s reaction: disbelief, rage, the full All Foreigners Are Stupid.
But taxes are cheap and beautiful. They feed my neighbour’s scrawny child, end of story.
The Himelfarb book explains that I was actually wrong, that Canada’s top marginal tax rate in Ontario is in fact only 49.53 per cent. I had not known it had sunk so low. Colbert then faints at the declaration that I’ll willingly pay a higher rate to feed toddlers. (It’s a satisfying little 3 a.m. scenario. I can spin the thing out till morning.) Although I note that children in Canada are often undernourished, which is why Moore was being questioned in the first place.
Tax is full of revelations. Tax and spend, we say, tax and spend. But why not say “spend and tax,” given that we spend money for nice things. The writer Benjamin DeMott refers to “junk politics,” the authors say. It “has contempt for evidence and experts, plays to both our fear and vanity, and divides us into hard and fast moral categories: villains and heroes, criminals and victims, hard-working taxpayers and freeloaders.”
But taxing is more complicated than that, as essayist Jim Stanford says. “Governments decide, in the context of the conflicting and contradictory political pressures they face, what programs they will provide. Then they figure out how to fund those programs.”
Neo-liberals cut taxes first, Stanford says, while the programs exist, thus creating a deficit that is used to justify further cuts. We are manipulated. For example, we are told that we can’t afford pensions. Neither can we raise payroll taxes to raise CPP benefits for the future.
But we can pay them if we choose to. Read this splendid book and ponder the choices available to us.
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