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Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

Fearless champion of the corporate over-dog snarls at CCPA's eye-popping New Year CEO salary tally

| January 11, 2016
Hugh Mackenzie

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The progressive Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' (CCPA) eye-popping annual New Year's comparison of CEO salaries with what the rest of us earn seems to have gotten up someone's nose!

That someone? The fearless champion of the corporate overdog itself, Vancouver's notorious boiler room for market-fundamentalist propaganda, the Fraser Institute.

There is a certain level of irony in this. After all, the idea of illustrating the corrosive effects of income disparity by identifying the moment in the year just begun when the country's Top 100 CEOs will have earned the average Canadian working stiff's salary is just the sort of memorable meme the Fraser Institute was created to come up with … although not in the service of fair taxation or a better Canada, to be sure. 

According to the CCPA report by researcher Hugh G. Mackenzie, that CEO-average-pay moment in 2016 arrived at the crack of noon on Jan. 1, just as the executive set was sitting down to a nice tax-deductible three–martini lunch at the Petroleum Club or its equivalent in your city.

The Fraser Institute, for its part, is generously subsidized by just such corporate bosses in Canada and the United States, including the likes of the notorious billionaire Koch Brothers of New York City, to gin up "research" showing that ideologically pure market fundamentalism is the answer to all the ills of Canada and the world.

It's the Fraser Institute, for example, that publishes "studies" purporting to prove Hong Kong, run by the Communist Party of China as a trading entrepôt, is "more free" than Canada, with its ideologically imperfect degree of market perfection, or that now-broke Alaska is a much better run oil-rich jurisdiction than, say, NDP Alberta.

Cooking up such studies, of course, is the easy part -- you just cherry pick data, or reach conclusions that are not supported by whatever data you do find. The hard part is writing press releases so confident the media can’t resist them and thus swiftly and dutifully regurgitates them without analysis or balance.

The Fraser Institute is good at press releases. In 2013 they published more of them than there are weeks in a year -- each supposedly tied to a legitimate piece of "research" churned out by their cadre of "fellows" and "analysts," which is hard to credit. Nothing much has changed since then except the format of their website, which makes their releases harder to count. 

Each Fraser Institute study reaches essentially the same conclusion: that putting lower taxes and fewer controls on corporations and extremely rich people is the answer to all the world's woes.

So, if only those chief executives had reached the Average National Working Stiff Salary by, say, 8:00 a.m., the group presumably believes, God would be in His heaven and all would be right with the world.

You can see how the Fraser Institute might be concerned that a progressive think tank is using data to reach a conclusion that’s hard to question -- the reported facts, after all, are the facts -- illustrating that growing income inequality is no good thing, and doing it in a way media finds hard to resist.

So on Jan. 5, three oft-quoted Fraser Institute operatives -- Charles Lammam, Hugh MacIntyre and Milagros Palacios -- published a blog accusing the CCPA of doing what their organization does as a matter of routine, comparing the proverbial apples with the proverbial oranges.

The CCPA wasn't using a fair comparison, the Fraserites huffed, because its researcher counted as executive pay such pay-like phenomena as bonuses, company shares, stock options, pensions and perks. So I guess if only you counted the bonuses, company shares, stock options, pensions and perks received the TFW working night at the 7-Eleven …

The group used a typical Fraser Factoid, claiming the CCPA study is doing one thing when it's actually doing something else. They said the purpose of the CCPA study was to compare the total compensation of chief executive officers generally with workers generally, and then argued that neither the CCPA's measure of CEO pay nor its measure of average Canadians' compensation was appropriate for such a comparison.

What's more, they sniffed, the Top 100 are "the superstars with unique talents and qualities in high demand." This is closer to the true Fraser Institute position: Our bosses deserve it, now shut up … and get over it!

Similarly, another in the vast network of market-fundamentalist think tanks funded by the corporate right, the Montreal Economic Institute, attacked the CCPA study for proposing to tax away the money and use it for public services -- which might be a good idea, but isn't what the CCPA said, or ever has said.

All the CCPA study does, and all it purports to do, is compare pay at the elite level of Canadian publicly traded corporations with that of the average Canadian.

Since, as the Fraser Institute admits, the specific data the authors of its talking-point memo demand doesn’t exist, they suggest using Statistics Canada's broad measure of "senior managers," which includes many people who are not part of the corporate elite, to come up with numbers that are a little more to their liking.

That, of course, is not what the CCPA's study is unpretentiously comparing. CCPA's measure of CEO pay is identical to that mandated by Canadian law for corporate reporting purposes. Its measure for average worker earnings -- Statistics Canada's weekly average industrial wage -- is the yardstick most commonly used by economists to measure Canadians' employment earnings.

By the way, the CCPA broke out the numbers in the report so that serious critics could pull out corporate perks and bonuses and compare what's left if they really wanted to do.

So the shocking ratio reported by the CCPA is what it is, and nothing the Fraser Institute says can change that.

That said, I don’t think that's the real point of the Fraser riposte. I suspect it's meant to be a memo to mainstream media bosses that their journalists should only pick up stories on economic topics from authorized, approved market-fundamentalist propagandists like them. Otherwise they would have put it in a press release.

That could account for the weird omission of the name of the CCPA in a publication attacking the CCPA. Leastways, that way, the Fraser Institute's critique won't come up on Google where it could be accidentally discovered by chumps like you and me.

After all, their mandate is only to "reach the intellectuals, the teachers and writers," as someone dear to their hearts put it, not schmucks who earn minimum wage in precarious jobs.

On the other hand, after a year like 2015 maybe they're just feeling the heat from progressive institutions like the CCPA, which have an alternative fact-based narrative about how Canada can be a better place for all Canadians, not just the microscopic elite at the top of the corporate heap for whom the Fraserites work.

Perhaps they'd simply prefer you never knew what the CCPA has to say.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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