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Government of the 1 per cent, for the 1 per cent, by the 1 per cent

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The first leg of the federal election campaign has featured much debate over who benefits from different proposals. At least indirectly, it has been a conversation about income inequality. What have they been saying?

The Harper Conservatives have introduced a number of high-cost measures, all of which are based on tax cuts, all of which would widen the rich/poor gap. The Liberals promise poverty reduction, direct supports to caregivers, propose a learning strategy, suggest a range of approaches to improve health care, and name rising income inequality as a problem. The NDP pledge to eliminate seniors' poverty, legislate targets and timetables for eliminating child poverty, aim to ease the affordability of a range of basic family expenditures, and tackle the basics of health care -- train more doctors and nurses. They, too, say we can ill afford to exacerbate inequality. Everyone claims they are trying to relieve pressures on the middle class.

The Harper team would like to you to believe their platform is targeted squarely at families in the middle. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is hard to imagine a federal government that has done more to accelerate the concentration of income, wealth and power. It is hard o imagine a federal government that has done more to render the most vulnerable populations invisible. But they are now in striking distance of forming a majority.

What is at stake?

This month's issue of Vanity Fair features an article by Joseph Stiglitz -- former chief economist of the World Bank -- on the topic. The title says it all: "Of the 1%, For the 1%, By the 1%."

I mentioned his remarkable essay in a speech about economics, inequality and democracy I prepared for TVO's Big Ideas series last week, to be aired in a couple of weeks' time.

Yesterday a journalist who attended that presentation, and not easily persuaded, followed up with a question -- "How perfect a fit is it -- government by the 1%, of the 1% -- for Canada?"

My answer was "pretty perfect." Indeed, a more perfect fit here than in the U.S., land of super-sized reward.

Let me elaborate.

In 2007, you were in the top 1% club if your pre-tax income was over $169,000. That's taken from data provided by Michael Veall, co-author with Emmanuel Saez of cutting-edge research on the evolution of high incomes in North America since 1920. The data end in 2007 and don't include capital gains.

Sitting in front of me when I received the email was an article from the newspaper that said: "An MP makes a base salary of $157,731."

I went to the CRA tax statistics and calculated that, of 24.2 million tax returns in 2008, 2.1% of Canadians had pre-tax incomes over $150,000, including capital gains.

There's enough people in that category that you wouldn't know them all: 513,180 people had incomes of $150,000 or more. (Of these, 1,380 people didn't pay any taxes.)

That's a lot of people, more than you'd have as friends, even on Facebook.

But it's not common to make more than $150,000. Only 2% of Canada's tax-filers do. If you include the whole population, only 1.5% of Canadians do.

That was in 2008. The next year wiped out almost half a million full-time jobs, and the incomes that go with them.

Without doubt, people with incomes over $150,000 make up an even smaller share of Canadians today.

Now some of you reading this will not see $150,000 as extraordinarily rich. But close to 99% of Canadians make less. And our MPs make more than $150,000.

We send MPs to Ottawa to represent our interests. Some of them take pay cuts to do the job. Many of them have friends who make more than they do. They think they are the middle class. (We all do, rich and poor alike.) They are not.

Making more than $150,000 doesn't make our MPs bad, or out of touch, or unable to govern in the public interest.

But little of what surrounds them helps them stay in tune with what is happening to most Canadians.

The media and markets mostly reinforce the reality of households making relatively high incomes, rarely reflecting the daily grind faced by the vast majority of Canadians.

That's why we need researchers, analysts and the media to pay attention to tell us what is happening to the whole picture, not just what's happening to the people at the top.

As a point of reference, the halfway mark of the distribution of incomes for families raising children in 2008 was $48,000. That's after taxes. That's only $2,000 more than it was in 1976. Yet today's young family is better educated and has more adults working than a generation ago.

The growing concentration of income, wealth and power is not inevitable. But it is coming to be viewed as normal. More importantly, like climate change, it is not sustainable. Ignore it if you will, but it will only grow more problematic.

Government of the top 1%, by the top 1%, for the top 1%? Written as a cautionary tale by an American for an American audience, it is fast becoming reality here in Canada.

The democratic promise is that our governments will be of the people, for the people, by the people; that they will balance interests and pursue outcomes that serve the greater good.

Election 2011 puts that promise to the test.

This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.

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