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Selling the 2012 federal budget: Envy-nomics 101

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"It's time for the public sector to have its 2008 recession," proclaimed former RBC Chief Economist Patty Croft, impeccably dressed and looking admirably well-rested (early retirement seems to suit her), on CBC Newsworld's The Bottom Line.

We know that governments make budgets, and budgets are about choices, but her wish list struck me as oddly personal -- more grudge match than analysis. However, by 4 p.m. on March 29, Patty's Proclamation turned out to be prophetic.

Budget 2012 certainly spreads the pain around -- paying special attention to some of the most vulnerable. But it's a lot less generous when it comes to sharing the recovery.

The budget was bookended between raising the age of mandatory retirement on the one hand, and significant financial cuts to the federal public service (and, more specifically, public servants) on the other. Both issues had been swirling in the media and political debate in the weeks leading up to the budget, along with some by-now-predictable "analysis" to soften up the public for the formal announcement of these new policy directions.

Witness Amanda Lang's assertion that we know there must be some of that darned government waste around here somewhere -- so we need some fairly drastic cuts to departmental budgets in order to root it out. There's always something that can be trimmed, is the implicit and explicit message. Never mind that EI applications are already being delayed by current understaffing issues, or that concerns have been raised about Canadian health and safety with the previous round of cuts to CIFA.

Ready, people? Let's give it up for listeriosis!

As for mandatory retirement -- in spite of the fact that there is no financial rationale to raise the age from 65 to 67, we might as well do it because "people live longer now" (though not as long, as it happens, if you live in poverty). And forget about phasing it in (a politically genius move that spares the over-55 Conservative electoral base from being impacted by this change), says Patty Croft -- crisis or not, time's a-wasting: tick tock! It's only those under 54 who will be impacted (and it's not like many of them vote Conservative -- unless they're already wealthy, in which case it's not like they have to rely on OAS anyway).

But is retiring with dignity so important when you can buy more stuff (duty free!) on a cross-border shopping trip (and this helps the Canadian economy how, exactly)? Priorities, people! As Orwell might say, doubleplusgood!

There's a longer storyline behind the recently announced cuts to the public service (not to be confused with the earlier rounds of cutbacks). Here, the government can draw on a number of popular whipping posts to justify its decision: they're unionized (shudder!); they have benefits and a pension (entitled!); and they're faceless, back-room government workers (useless!).

What's that, Patty? It's about "equalization"? What right do public employees have to job security, a decent standard of living, and retirement without poverty, especially when so many other workers aren't unionized.... whoops, sorry: pampered? By all means, cue the Two Minute Hate!

One point, though -- when an organization has the audacity to highlight the yawning chasm between the wages of the Canada's corporate elite and the rest of us, it's met with a fairly predictable accusation of jealousy. "Envy should not drive policy," at least one commentator is certain to finger-wag.

Yet when it comes to vilifying solidly middle-class workers who have benefits, or a decent salary, or job protection, or sick days, or vacation, or -- heaven forbid! -- a pension....well, then: let envy reign! Why should they have those perks (as if we're talking about corner offices, and not hard-fought gains made at the bargaining table) when you don't? Not that you should have them, mind you -- but just to make it fair, let's even the playing field. Downwards.

Seems it's perfectly fine for envy to smooth the road for policy shifts when it's about taking things away from workers that help ensure a decent standard of living and job security. But pointing out the incomes of the uber-wealthy in a conversation about growing inequality? Well, that's just mean-spirited and downright petty.

Funny. We don't hear that "equalize downward" argument when it comes to stratospheric CEO salaries; where they're concerned, the more out of reach, the better. It's as if they're a necessary (albeit false) reminder of what we might be capable of achieving... if only we hadn't let the assurance of a decent pension upon retirement hold us back from our true market potential. You know, one without any certainty, or a safety net, or a collective commitment to looking after each other.

"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- forever," says O'Brien in Orwell's 1984. Let's hope when the finance minister purchased his new budget-speech-giving shoes ($110 plus tax, cause things are looking up... for some of us!) this was not what he had in mind.

This article was first posted on Behind the Numbers.

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