Sorry, but real policy solutions mean inconveniencing the middle class

If progressives want more expansive social services, they have to make — and win — the argument for higher taxes on the middle class
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Feb 23, 2021
We don’t need to reconsider our ideas around urban planning if we think big developers are to blame for all our municipal woes. (iStock/benedek)

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This week’s episode of TVO’s Political Blind Date focuses on the environment and pairs Toronto city councillor Jennifer McKelvie with Barrie–Innisfil MPP Andrea Khanjin. The two diplomatically avoid the topic of climate change, but it turns out that the topic of “the environment” includes a lot, and the episode includes a paddle tour of Rouge Park in Toronto, as well discussions of air-quality monitoring and the government’s reforms to the municipal blue-box recycling program.

At one point, Khanjin reiterates the government’s commitment to fighting air pollution by “going after big polluters,” a phrase that carries a double meaning under the Doug Ford government. Who could be opposed to going after big polluters? Well, under this government, it’s also an explanation for abandoning the stronger climate policies it inherited from the Liberals.

Khanjin herself said in the legislature on May 13, 2019 — while defending the Tory record on supporting business and defending the environment — that “they have to close the door on their local businesses if they have to pay too much in electricity costs or carbon tax … That’s why we put a practical solution, a solution that says, ‘Look, we’re not going to be taxing people for getting ahead. We are going to go after the big polluters, and we are going to make sure that the big polluters do pay.’”

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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It's a nice rhetorical trick that happens to adopt some of the language that’s just as often found on the left — like the foolish argument that 100 large corporations are responsible for 71 per cent of greenhouse-gas emissions, which (implicitly) leaves their billions of paying customers innocent of any responsibility. Both sides do it because it lets voters off the hook: it’s not me who needs to change anything I do; it’s [insert preferred villain here]. But we don’t have to let people off the hook: we can rail against Exxon’s decades of misleading the public on the dangers of climate change while also admitting that nobody was ever tricked into buying an SUV to commute to and from the office. Indeed, the huge surge in SUVs and pickup-truck purchases occurred after the science of climate change had entered the political mainstream.

The issue is that you’re never going to arrive at a comprehensive solution to a problem if you start by narrowing the scope of any possible solution to “but don’t ask anything of the middle class.”

It’s one thing for the political right to engage in this kind of rhetoric, since the Tories seem ambivalent about whether they even want to effectively address climate change — so, for them, starting from a premise that leads to ineffective solutions might be a feature and not a bug.

But I worry when I see progressives engaging in this same rhetorical giveaway to the status quo, and I see it all the time. We don’t need to reconsider our ideas around urban planning — and the privileges we afford existing homeowners — because it’s big developers who are to blame for all our municipal woes (we rarely ask ourselves who’s moving into all those new homes). It’s big oil and gas companies that are to blame for climate change, not my SUV or my gas stove. Perhaps the most entrenched belief is that we can pay for the more expansive social services progressives want without having to make (and win) the argument for higher taxes on the middle class. No, somehow we’ll pay for pharmacare, child care, elder care, affordable housing, and probably a basic income or two on the back of taxes that leave the 99 per cent blissfully untouched.

It is just fundamentally incoherent to believe that there are broad, deep, entrenched problems with the economic, environmental, and political state of the world right now — but that we can nevertheless get to meaningful solutions quickly without so much as inconveniencing the bulk of the middle class.

This was already true before COVID-19, but the pandemic has added another layer to it: we all know that the pandemic has affected different Canadians differently and that it has largely exposed and aggravated the pre-existing economic and racial divides in our society. To take just the most obvious example: if you work from home and your income hasn’t been severely disrupted by the pandemic — a category that includes huge numbers of white-collar workers in anyone’s definition of the middle class — it’s entirely possible your household balance sheet has actually improved over the past year, with a documented increase in savings (what else are people going to spend their money on? movies and international travel?), even as huge numbers of people have suffered real shocks to their income.

Is this a problem that needs government attention? Conservatives can simply say, “No, next question” and move on. But progressives who have been adamant that post-pandemic recovery needs to address the longstanding inequalities the pandemic has exposed and aggravated have a hard choice to make. They can either talk honestly about the need for the comfortable middle class to help fund the recovery — or they can abandon their ambitions for what the recovery should look like. There isn’t going to be the money to do both.

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