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When business and progressives agree

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It was news, not so much because of what was said, as who said it: The Conference Board of Canada released a report on rising inequality in Canada yesterday, noting that despite the fact that Canadians are better off than a generation ago, the richest 20 per cent in society are taking an ever-growing share of the economic pie, while the middle and poor are getting less. The Conference Board says that's a problem.

"High inequality raises two questions. First, what is the impact on the economic well-being of a country? The answer is that high inequality can diminish economic growth if it means that the country is not fully using the skills and capabilities of all its citizens or if it undermines social cohesion, leading to increased social tensions. Second, high inequality raises a moral question about fairness and social justice."

We agree. Wish I'd written it.

Actually, I'm glad I didn't.

It's one thing when organizations like the CCPA, journalists, and academics weigh in on the significance of rising inequality. It's quite another when the business establishment does.

In my days as a hired gun I did some contract work for the Conference Board on health economics. The inside joke is that the Conference Board is a not-for-profit organization, not for-loss. They don't do research that isn't well-funded and the money comes from probing questions that Canada's decision-makers, both public and private, are grappling with in real time. That means research on actionable issues, actions that business and governments can take.

In the case of the inequality report, the list of funders is a group of no-nonsense power-brokers, as noted on their website.

Acklands-Grainger Inc.
Agrium Inc.
Banque Nationale du Canada
Bell Aliant
Bell Canada
Gaz Métro
GE Canada
George Weston Limited
Groupe Canam inc.
Harvard Developments Inc.
Hydro-Québec
IBM Canada Ltd.
KPMG MSLP
Nitro Microsystems
Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Trade
Power Corporation of Canada
St. Joseph Communications
Scotiabank
Slaight Communications Inc.
Symcor Inc.
TD Bank Financial Group
Telus Corporation
The Co-operators Group Limited
The Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Company
TransAlta Corporation
Xerox Canada Ltd.

It's telling that rising inequality has been identified as a hot topic for this group.

We're watching the slow-motion train-wreck of rising inequality in the U.S. and though our levels of inequality are less extreme -- does anyone do extreme better than the U.S.? -- the rate of growth of inequality has been more rapid in Canada over the past decade than at any time in our history, and the richest 1 per cent scored almost a third of all the income growth of the decade preceding the recession. That's a bigger take than at any time on record, including the Roaring 20s. The Conference Board duly noted these trends.

There is a growing awareness that when the fruits of prosperity are so poorly shared, trouble is not far off, for the economy and for society alike. The Conference Board report is a reflection of the growing concern shown by the business press in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. in recent months, with stories ranging from national and international income trends to firm-level eye-poppers.

At Davos this year, the World Economic Forum named rising inequality as the "most serious challenge for the world." Their survey of 580 global decision-makers led to the conclusion that "economic disparity and global governance failures both influence the evolution of many other global risks." Tackle growing inequality, and you tackle the root of much dysfunction in the world.

The serious thinkers in Canada's business establishment are waking up to the significance of these facts. Serious thinking about what to do about it cannot be far behind.

Love them or hate them, business leaders are not armchair theorists. Their success and power comes from turning thinking into doing.

Progressives may soon have some company in the search for solutions to the problem of rising inequality. Wouldn't it be something if we agree on more than just the nature of the problem?

This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.

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