I'm convinced it's this inherent distrust of government efficiency which I harbour, that lies near the heart of the Conservative upswell today.
By Ben Bull
Published October 02, 2008
Like a billion other folks around the globe, I watched in wonderment (and occasional bewilderment) as Barack Obama accepted his party's nomination for President last month.
Apart from the epileptic raucousness of the crowd (what it is with Americans and their rallies? Do they really think politics can make a difference?!) and the curious mock-gothic backdrop, I was impressed by what I saw and heard.
One theme in particular caught my attention:
"For over two decades," the Senator began, John McCain "has subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy - give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is - you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. No health care? The market will fix it. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps - even if you don't have boots. You're on your own."
Trickle down economics: we've all heard of this before, right? After all, what other form of economics is there? How else can we spread the wealth?
I wondered, at the time, exactly what else Obama could be advocating if, as he suggested, the trickle down effect wasn't working. I got my answer a few days later. Another city, another platform, another over-the-top speech:
"We need to enable the working classes of America," Obama was proclaiming, as he explained how America needed to cut its workers some slack so that the economic benefits "can trickle up."
Trickle Up? What the hell is this? I wondered. Some sort of reverse-physics economic osmosis? What would Sir Isaac Newton make of it? Or perhaps I'm way off - maybe this has something to do with waterboarding...?
As with all matters I don't understand, I decided to foget about it and move on. But, as is often the case when I do that, I started to hear a lot more about it.
CBC's The National, a few weeks later: Stéphane Dion musing about Conservative Corporate tax cuts. "They don't trickle down," he stuttered, "They don't work at all."
Then RTH's own Adrian Duyzer, bemoaning the impending economic bailouts in the US, and RTH Editor Ryan McGreal's subsequent comment:
Something like 2 million American families face foreclosure on their homes this year ... If you divide the $700 billion among those 2 million families, each family gets $350,000 ... Use the money to help families pay their mortgages so they don't default, the securities made up of blocks of high risk mortgages don't collapse in value, and the financial institutions that leveraged themselves to the hilt buying them don't go into bankruptcy.
It's beautiful trickle-up economics, and it starts by helping the people at the bottom of the pile, who were screwed first and hardest by the financial crisis, keeping its corporate architects afloat as a side-effect.
So what is "trickle-up"? Obviously, in pure physics terms, such a thing is impossible - unless you live in China - but can it work for our economy?
Well, whatever you do, don't ask my Mum.
Back in the '80s when I first started voting Conservative like my parents, right-wing commentators were regularly besmirtching the "loony left" and their patented welfare state.
"It's cradle-to-the-grave economics!" my parents would rage, "and guess who pays for it?"
My Mum would then cite numerous examples of unemployed people who were "too lazy to work" including the old Romany who came into our shop once a week for his pasties and his dole cheque and bragged about never having worked a day in his life.
"I don't have to," he'd boast, kissing his cheque and tucking into his pastie. "I have everything I need right here."
I remember opening the paper one day around this time and looking at a picture of a fat bloke in Nottingham who'd just had his council house extended to accomodate his rapidly expanding family. A ten thousand pound renovation, ten kids and no job - and millions of angry taxpayers asking the same question: "Why?"
But enough preamble, let me get to the point: I don't trust my government to "trickle-up". Social programs run by the government just don't seem to work, and the reason is quite simple: It's because governments are unaccountable and inherently inefficient.
An example: In 1997 I was a struggling new immigrant, unable to land a job in my chosen profession of health care. Two years of mailing out resumes and busing around town providing male-attendant care to the elderly for eight bucks an hour had led me spiralling into debt.
My RN certificate was gathering dust in my closet by the time I finally stormed into the unemployment office in Toronto and told them to "end the madness."
To my delight I learned about a career planning course being offered to EI recipients, which would provide me with free training in a more in demand profession.
"Sign me up," I said.
I found it ironic at the time that I needed to become even less employed so I would qualify (I wasn't on EI at the time), but I quickly made the necessary adjustments and signed up for the next course. Two weeks later I was enrolled in the most expensive, in demand, senior level IT course I could find, and off I went back to school.
I applied myself earnestly to my new studies and quickly ran through my exams. The course was tough - designed for experienced and knowledgable IT Professionals and with seven modules to complete. But with the encouragement and support of my fellow classmates, I eventually dispatched them all.
The discouraging part of the experience however, were some of these same classmates.
I recall one incident, a few weeks into the curriculum. I had noticed that several people were routinely showing up late for class, walking out halfway through or just simply not turning up at all.
As we prepared for class one day, a Career Advisor from one of the government agencies that had signed us all up came barging into the classroom and berated us for "not making an effort."
"You're trying to work the system," she raged, wagging her finger and looking in my direction. "You will be weeded out!"
What was she harping on about? I wondered, as she stormed out of the class. At the time I had completed two of the seven exams that comprised the certification, and I was quite happy with my progress. But as we discussed the situation over lunch, I soon realized that I was about the only person on the course who had made this kind of progress.
As we went around the room I listened to a litany of excuses from my fellow classmates on their stalemate status.
"This course is too hard," said one.
"I'm scared I'll fail," said another.
"I can't be bothered," said someone else.
Looking at the situation through new eyes, I came to realize that most of my colleaugues were complete and utter slackers, signed onto this career planning gig as yet another "freebie" from the government, a way to extend their EI and defer the day they ever entered the workforce and started returning the tax payers investment.
I met up with one of my fellow classmates a few years later when I signed up for a refresher.
"Are you doing this course too?" I asked, happy to see her again.
"No," she laughed, "I work here now."
"That's great! Are you one of the trainers?"
"No, I work on reception."
Turns out she'd bailed on the course after the money ran out.
Ten thousand dollars of tax payers money, to train a receptionist.
My distrust of social programs is not limited to this experience. I have witnessed the ongoing abuse of government-enabled taxpayer generosity by people all around me.
A family member who signed up for a free course and then dropped it, pocketting to subsequent course fees and depositing the government issued remittance slips in the bin.
Welfare cheques dutifully collected with not a job search in sight. And a gradually acquired attitude of, "the world owes me a living - and so do you."
The fact that Governments sponsor these efforts doesn't make me feel any better either. From almost everything I see and hear, governments are spectacularly inept at addressing social causes.
The real culprits for the terminal apathy on my IT course were not just the sad-sack layabouts who signed up, sat longside me and pretended to listen. No, it was the Career Planners who gave them the undeserved opportunity in the first place, and the government who designed the scheme to fail.
I'm convinced it's this inherent distrust of government efficiency which I harbour, that lies near the heart of the Conservative upswell today. "If the government is going to screw up," I reason, "then at least let them screw up with fewer of my dollars."
It's a sad commentary that I feel this way. After all, I have always looked to my government to equalize our standard of living. And the government sponsored IT course that was offered to me gave me just the leg-up I needed.
At the same time, this program was badly run, and there was no accountability. The course was axed shortly after I graduated, perhaps in part because of all the dropouts, but I'm sure the perpetrators of the scheme were left to plot their next tax expenditure adventure.
I don't trust what I can't see, and actions without consequences just can't be trusted. So until we have a system of government in place that offers more transparency in the way my tax dollars are invested, I'm afraid I'm just not willing to sign up for any more of these black hole investments.
When our government works the way it does today, there's only one thing I want to do with the trickle effect, and that's reign it in. Turn the faucet back a few notches. Turn the trickle into a drip.