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Recent Nova Scotia reports highlight failed system … but ignore real alternatives

by Garry Leech

 In many ways, the world is changing for the better, but we are in danger of being left behind, says Gary Leech of the Cape Breton Independent
In many ways, the world is changing for the better, but we are in danger of being left behind, says Gary Leech of the Cape Breton Independent

This column was originally published in the Cape Breton Independent

Over the past few weeks, three major reports have been published that address Nova Scotia’s education system, child poverty and tax structure. Together, these reports highlight the degree to which our political, social and economic system is failing. But none of these reports focus on the fundamental cause of this failure and, as a result, the only solutions proposed are more of the same flawed policies. Meanwhile, alternatives are emerging in many countries that are significantly improving the quality of life of their citizens, but we are in danger of being left behind.

In Nova Scotia, and in Canada as a whole, we have an education system that focuses on indoctrinating our children with the values and attitudes necessary to ensure that the many injustices in our society continue unchallenged. We have a taxation regime that ensures a wealthy minority can perpetuate their privilege and power while millions of Canadians suffer injustices. And the shamefully high levels of child poverty in such a rich nation is just one example of these injustices. But as the recent Occupy and Idle No More movements have made evident, increasing numbers of Canadians are becoming disenchanted with the current system.

The system I am referring to is corporate capitalism. Since the mid-1980s, both Conservative and Liberal governments in Ottawa have implemented corporate-friendly policies including the signing of free-trade agreements and reducing corporate tax rates. At the same time, the federal government has abdicated its social responsibility with regard to healthcare, education and overall human well-being by shifting more and more responsibility to the provinces without a corresponding shift in funding.

This situation has been exacerbated at the provincial level in Nova Scotia and other provinces by Conservative, Liberal and New Democratic Party (NDP) governments that have adhered to the same corporate-friendly policy regime as that implemented in Ottawa. The results have been record-high stock market indexes and booming corporate profits while the majority of Canadians have seen their real wages stagnate or decline over the past 25 years, poverty and inequality increase, public health care and education deteriorate, and infrastructure crumble.

Both Conservative and Liberal governments in Ottawa have overseen a slashing of the corporate tax rate over the past 15 years. In 2000, it stood at 29.1 percent; today it is 15 percent. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has conservatively estimated that each percentage point cut in the general corporate tax rate loses the federal government $1.4 billion a year. In other words, when the current corporate tax rate of 15 percent is compared to the 29.1 percent rate of 2000, Ottawa is relinquishing almost $20 billion annually in revenues. So where is that money? It’s in the pockets of the richest one percent of Canadians.

This redistribution of wealth to the rich has resulted in less public funding for health care, education and other social programs. Naturally, by relinquishing tens of millions of dollars in revenues annually, the government cannot sustain the levels of funding required to sufficiently maintain health care, education and welfare programs. So cutbacks are made in social programs in the name of fiscal responsibility. And yet, mysteriously, the same logic does not apply to the public funding of Corporate Canada as the subsidy spigot to corporations remains wide open.

Given this reality, is it any wonder that Nova Scotia and much of the rest of Canada are enduring higher rates of inequality, child poverty and family food insecurity? But none of the recently published reports identify the cause of this social crisis. And two of them offer more of the same policies as the solution.

The recent education report, titled “Disrupting the Status Quo: Nova Scotians Demand a Better Future for Every Student,” fails to ask the most fundamental question: What should the role of education be in our society? Should it educate students to critically reflect on the sort of people they want to be and the type of society they would like to live in? Or should it simply seek to indoctrinate children in the dominant values of our society in order to prepare them for the workplace?

The report takes the latter as its starting point and therefore ensures that school will continue to be more about indoctrination than education for most children. After all, the primary academic role of school in a capitalist society such as Canada is to ensure that the future workforce has the necessary grasp of reading, writing, math and science to serve the needs of future employers. But just as important, it instills certain behaviors and attitudes in students to ensure that they become obedient workers and supporters of the capitalist system.

At work employees are expected to behave in the identical manner they did in the classroom. The boss has replaced the teacher in the hierarchical structure and workers very quickly figure out how to satisfy that person’s wishes in order to receive pay raises and promotions—and to avoid getting fired. The education process has ensured that workers unquestioningly accept the authoritarian structures that exist in the workplace. It ensures that they never question the lack of economic democracy in capitalism, thereby allowing a privileged few to generate massive wealth from our labour. As Canadians we would never tolerate a dictatorship in the political sphere of our lives (i.e. government). And yet, we submit unquestioningly to authoritarian structures in our workplaces everyday.

The recent education report’s recommendations that education policy become even more centralized in the hands of the provincial government and its continued emphasis on standardized curriculum and testing ensures that teaching students to think critically about the world they live in will continue to be a rarity. And this works just fine for the wealthy elites in our society. After all, the last thing they want is a bunch of 18-year-olds entering the world with the capacity to think critically and a desire to use that skill to challenge the way that society functions. As billionaire oil baron John D. Rockefeller stated in 1903, “I don’t want a nation of thinkers. I want a nation of workers.”

The indoctrination process initiated in our schools and continued throughout our lives by the mainstream media allows the sort of tax reforms proposed in the provincial government’s recent tax report to seem rational. The Nova Scotia tax and regulatory review, titled Charting a Path for Growth and authored by consultant Laurel C. Broten, calls for a further intensification of the corporate-friendly approach that has dominated policy-making at both the federal and provincial levels since the 1980s.

The report recommends eliminating the highest income tax bracket, which is 21 percent for those earning over $150,000 a year, and shifting government revenue generation away from progressive income taxes where the wealthy pay more to a regressive sales tax where rich and poor pay the same rate. It also recommends that the province “should over the next five years incrementally raise the small business tax rate to 8 per cent from the current 3 per cent. The increased revenue should be used to gradually lower the general corporate income tax rate.” In other words, wealthy individuals and corporations should pay lower taxes while individual Nova Scotians and locally-owned small businesses pay more.

Given the social, economic and taxation policies implemented at both the federal and provincial levels over the past three decades it should come as no surprise that child poverty in Nova Scotia has increased by 22.7 percent since 1989. In Cape Breton, one in three children now live in poverty.

The Report Card on Child and Family Poverty 2014, titled A Generation of Broken Promises, stated, “Sadly we are still waiting for systemic changes that would ensure that every­one has a safe secure home, adequate nutritious meals, opportunities to learn, to play and to engage in meaningful employment.” But while declaring the need for “systemic changes,” the report primarily advocates implementing policies that simply transfer some of the national wealth from the richest Canadians to those in need. In short, it calls for a tweaking of a fundamentally flawed system rather than the sort of broad structural change that all of Canada’s major political parties are opposed to.

But broader structural changes are possible. They are being implemented with great success in numerous countries around the world, particularly in South America. For instance, the United Nations recently praised Bolivia for reducing poverty by 32 percent over the past decade. Similarly, Venezuela has overseen a reduction in poverty from 55 percent of the population to 18 percent over the past 15 years. These dramatic changes came about when the people of both Bolivia and Venezuela elected democratic socialist governments that implemented policies that directly contradict Canada’s corporate-friendly approach.

If we look beyond the mainstream media propaganda that seeks to discredit the impressive achievements of these nations we can see how they came about. Both the Venezuelan and Bolivian governments increased state control over their natural resources, particularly oil and gas, and used those revenues to fund social programs in the areas of education, health care, the basic food basket, housing for the poor, and a broad array of community-based initiatives. Gaining control over the country’s natural resources and investing them in social projects has proven to be a boon for job creation and, by extension, reductions in both poverty and inequality.

Following Argentina’s economic collapse in 2001, which was caused by 15 years of implementing the same corporate-friendly policies that currently dominate in Canada, thousands of worker-owned cooperatives emerged and played an instrumental role in that country’s economic recovery. During the crisis, many wealthy business owners shut down their enterprises, putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work. But the workers didn’t wait for another rich capitalist to come to their rescue, instead they responded by organizing cooperatives and taking over the closed businesses. Rather than simply being wage labourers with no voice in their workplace, more than a million Argentines are now their own bosses in a thriving economic democracy. And many of these worker-owned enterprises are more successful now than prior to the crisis when they were corporate-owned businesses.

And in Denmark the government has heavily promoted renewable energy rather than following the Canadian path of subsidizing private oil companies. As a result, more than 30 percent of Denmark’s electricity is now generated by wind power at a cost lower than that produced by fossil fuels. While in the United States, a recent study shows that locally-owned renewable energy projects, particularly wind and solar, generate more jobs than large corporate utility companies.

We should draw inspiration from these examples (and many others, including emerging local initiatives) to shift power and decision making away from centralized governments and Corporate Canada to people at the community level. We need to develop an education system that encourages Nova Scotia’s children to think critically about the world they live in—to think outside the capitalist box—so we can challenge the dominant role played by corporations and implement sustainable alternatives.

And, as in Venezuela and Bolivia, the state should gain control over Canada’s oil and gas reserves to generate government revenues that could be used to support social programs as well as locally-owned small businesses and worker-owned cooperatives, particularly in the areas of local sustainable food production and locally-based renewable energy projects. It is these sort of locally-based initiatives, democratically-determined by people at the community level, that should be the benefactors of government policymaking and funding, not corporations and wealthy individuals.

The recently released reports in Nova Scotia highlight the social and economic crisis we currently face but they fail to note the primary cause or to suggest far-reaching alternatives that could transform the lives of the increasing numbers of Canadians being left behind by the current corporate capitalist model. It is time we took back ownership of our society from the corporate elites and the political lackeys who serve their interests. And plenty of examples have emerged over the past decade that we can use for inspiration. In many ways, the world is changing for the better, but we are in danger of being left behind.

Author: Garry Leech is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Cape Breton University and a member of the J. B. McLachlan Media Collective.

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