Talk of affordability conceals real problem -- capture of wealth by the rich

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Andrew Scheer speaks to crowd. Image: Andrew Scheer/Flickr

What we need is an Enigma machine for deciphering election codes. It's the Second World War German device that Allied intelligence managed to unscramble so that they knew what the hell the Nazis were saying.

I'm driven to this rambling analogy by the sudden eruption of "affordability" as the key issue in our coming election. Where did it come from? It's not just one party, it's everyone, as if there's a secret committee.

The Tory theme, "Time for you to get ahead," is an "affordability" slogan.

Pollsters say "affordability could shape the election." Canadians feel "affordability anxiety." The Liberals told the CRTC to "focus on affordability." The Star's Heather Scoffield found an "affordability crisis" in Belleville because people from Toronto are moving there to escape their affordability problems.

Now it's careening down the campaign pike, full bore, in Andrew Scheer's new ad: "It's time for you to get ahead" because "Canadians are … following all the rules but … they're falling further and further behind… I have a plan to make life more affordable." The chutzpah is breathtaking.

Why do I hate the term? Let me count the ways. It's sheer euphemism. It's like calling torture "discomfort." It's like someone kidnapping you, swiping your home and all that matters to you, dropping you in a wilderness, and saying you have an affordabililty problem. You sort of do, among other things. But what a way to neuter an explosive subject, privatizing it into your personal problem, versus the culpability of others for mugging you over the last 40 years.

The weird thing is Bernie Sanders could say the same lines as Scheer except he wouldn't leave out the context, the cause and above all, the villains! Here's Bernie:

"Think about this. Income per person is twice as high as it was 40 years ago. Our economy is twice as productive. But half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck. Why is that? Because the richest 1 per cent captured 45 per cent of all new income over 40 years."

It's not an affordability crisis, it's a class conflict. It requires redistribution of wealth, not population (to Belleville!). But they pin it on affordability, as if it's a virus that calls for bed rest, rather than on the rich and their agenda since the 1980s, starting with with the panic over "deficits," a word that came out of nowhere, too, so that public spending had to be slashed and taxes cut since "it's your money and you should keep it" -- as if you can build your own schools and public transit, once you've got a few more bucks in pocket.

 Why do I hate it? Because it conceals the stasis or fallback of the last 40 years and the failure of neoliberalism to deliver even a sustained status quo. People can't afford houses, cars, child care, though they're employed and the stats say things are good. Slavery delivered full employment, too. "Affordability" conceals all that and makes it sound like a neutral description, as if the problem belongs to the houses or cars of tuition fees. They lack the element of affordability, the way walls in old houses might contain asbestos that simply has to be removed, because it and the harm it inflicts was only recently discovered.

Am I paranoid? Ideological? Listen, a study reported here this week, found that the 90 companies on the TSX that still have defined benefit pension plans, underfunded those by $12 billion in 2017, while paying out $66 billion to shareholders in dividends. They stiffed their workers and stuffed owners by 5-1.

But it's even more scabrous. During the 40-year war waged by the rich, one front was defined benefits versus defined contributions. Defined benefits (the common sense understanding of pensions) means workers know what they'll get and companies have to provide it. So companies have worked to reverse that onus, using threats based on other parts of their agenda, like free trade and their ability to move away, to pressure unions -- and they've largely succeeded. Now, even the very few firms still covered are shirking their responsiblilities.

You think that might have anything to do with affordability anxiety, not just among the young, but among older, formerly secure, working folk?

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Andrew Scheer/Flickr

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