Unease grows over inequality

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial Opinion
Published On Wed Dec 08 2010.   By Carol Goar Editorial Board

The warnings are beginning to register. People aren’t ready to act, but they’re listening, reading, thinking about what happens when a tiny minority grows extremely rich at the expense of everyone else.

This week, British author and epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson is delivering a lecture entitledAge of the Unequals. All of the tickets were snapped up a month ago. “We were happily surprised,” said organizer Peter MacLeod, who heads MASS LBP, a think-tank specializing in civic engagement. “This is a serious crowd that stumped $25 for a Friday night before the holidays.”

Last week, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives published a study by senior economist Armine Yalnizyan that showed the richest one per cent of the population reaped an unprecedented one-third of the gains from economic growth between 1997 and 2007. She has written about the growing gap between Canada’s corporate elite and the rest of the population before. But this time, her message got people talking.

In October, Penguin released a new book by Toronto Star columnist Linda McQuaig and Osgoode Hall tax professor Neil Brooks called The Trouble with Billionaires. It argues the excessive inequality in North America is bad for democracy, bad for the economy and bad for society. The book is getting respectful reviews in unexpected places. Here is what Jonathan Kay, managing editor of commentary at the National Post, wrote in the current issue of theLiterary Review of Canada: “Given the somewhat radical left-wing bona fides of McQuaig, I was surprised how reasonable I found many of the arguments in this book.”

It’s far from a groundswell as anyone who listens to talk radio will know. But three years ago, there wasn’t even a ripple of unease.

Until the recession hit, nothing could shake the faith of North Americans in the omnipotence of the marketplace. Scandals at Enron, Tyco and WorldCom were dismissed as hiccups in the system. Economists who pointed out how skewed the distribution of earnings had become were dismissed as alarmists.

Now people are looking for answers their governments and business leaders can’t provide. They’re at least open to the idea that something might be wrong with the system.

The symptoms of a structural malaise are certainly there:

The median earnings of full-time workers, adjusted for inflation, haven’t gone up in 30 years.

University graduates are moving back into their parents’ homes, unable to get a foothold on the career ladder.

The middle class is shrinking. Once-dynamic economies have assumed the shape of an hourglass; top heavy with well-paid knowledge workers, bottom heavy with low-paid service workers and emaciated in between.

And the postwar assumption that each generation will do better than the last looks decidedly shaky.

But even when Canadians acknowledge these trends, they balk at the remedies. Income redistribution remains a taboo phrase. Shoring up threadbare social programs is considered prohibitively expensive. Returning to a more progressive tax system isn’t on the political agenda.

But there is a dawning recognition that there are more losers than winners; that good jobs are getting scarcer; and that lashing out at cash-strapped governments hasn’t solved the problem.

The stirrings of a national debate are there, if there’s a leader who can speak for the slipping majority.

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