Economic inequality is not 'realistic'

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"Greed is good and I love money."

There was a time when such a lip-smacking declaration of personal gluttony would have been dismissed as boorish and anti-social.

Yet today this bombastic declaration by wealthy arch-capitalist Kevin O'Leary is treated as reasonable, even given copious airtime by our public broadcaster. (O'Leary currently figures prominently in two CBC TV programs and is soon to add another.)

Presumably, the purpose of a public broadcaster is to offer something not provided by profit-driven private broadcasters -- perhaps an expression of national purpose or a defence of the public interest.

Do CBC executives consider O'Leary's homage to greed -- constantly aired in CBC advertising -- contains some profound message for Canadians?

For that matter, why is greed and love of money considered good in the case of a wealthy investor, while the wider desire for simply a decent living standard is increasingly considered an expectation that may have to be curbed in ordinary citizens?

As deficits pile up, we are soon to be inundated with the message that we are living beyond our means and must learn to do with less.

Certainly, our small wealthy super-elite seems determined to ensure that nothing gets in the way of its right to fully indulge its greed, and that the burden of deficit-reduction is imposed on others.

A conflict appears to be looming therefore between Canada's elite, typified perhaps by Kevin O'Leary, and the aspirations of millions of Canadians who don't want to see programs they value -- health care, education, pensions -- sacrificed to deficit reduction.

In today's federal budget, the Harper government will carefully avoid major cuts to popular programs. But these cuts, made in the name of financial necessity, will be coming if Stephen Harper gets his majority in the next election.

In the U.S., where the hard Republican right has already taken control of the agenda, there's been an open assault on labour, and attempts to convince the middle class that the great advances made toward economic equality in the postwar years (both in the U.S. and Canada) are simply not affordable.

As prominent financial commentator Suze Orman put it in an interview with CNN's John King last week: "It may be you have to tell your kids, sweethearts, I just can't afford to send you to college. I have to pay for my own retirement, my own home."

Orman and King both blithely pronounced the American Dream dead, with Orman suggesting that this was simply being "realistic."

But there's nothing "realistic" about the conclusion that the middle class -- either here or in the U.S. -- must learn to do with less, that we must accept a world where parents are forced to choose between affording their retirement and sending their kids to college.

Both Canada and the U.S. were deficit-free not long ago. Indeed, Canada was running major surpluses until the 2008 Wall Street crash sent the world economy reeling.

What is unsustainable is society's willingness to accommodate the greed of the super-rich.

An "alternative budget," prepared by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, instead sensibly proposes raising their taxes, closing loopholes and increasing the top federal marginal rate from 29 per cent to 35 per cent -- for those with annual incomes above $750,000.

Of course, the rich preach that their uncontrolled greed benefits us all. But hard evidence shows this isn't true. As they've become increasingly dominant in the past 30 years, ensuring deregulated markets and low taxes for themselves, their own incomes have soared, while average wages have stagnated.

No, I'm not suggesting Kevin O'Leary be censored. But why does our public broadcaster treat him as a national icon?

Of course, CBC also gives lots of airtime to environmental activist David Suzuki. But Suzuki deserves it; he uses it to defend the public good.

O'Leary, on the other hand, speaks unabashedly for greed and the elevation of his own interests over everyone else's.

The solution isn't to censor him and his billionaire friends, simply give them less air time and tell them, sweethearts, we're just going to have to raise your taxes.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet and The Trouble With Billionaires. This article was originally published in The Toronto Star.

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