Alongside the economic equality gap, which embodies the current crisis, there’s an opinion acceptability gap, which bedevils it. Here’s what I mean.
A Strategic Counsel poll in The Globe and Mail this week found: "Slim majority opposes rescue of auto makers." My only surprise was that the majority was not larger. But the question assumed that a rescue is a bailout is a handout, full stop, as has largely been the case in the United States. Responses changed when conditions were added: 88 per cent would be more favourable if auto CEOs took pay cuts, 86 per cent if Canadians got discounts on made-in-Canada cars or if it saved jobs, and 62 per cent if government got an ownership stake in return. Wouldn’t you have assumed, from all you read and hear, that there’s zero support for public takeover of an auto firm? Most Canadians didn’t flinch.
But what if you floated that idea among the opinion elites rather than the unmiked masses? Those editorialists, experts, business leaders, academics, elected officials — would collectively guffaw, you could hardly get a conversation going at their version of the water cooler. There are rare exceptions, such as Toronto Star columnist Tom Walkom, who proposed taking over Chrysler. But his loneliness makes him an exception proving the rule.
Chrysler is a good, practical example, since the turnaround boys at Cerberus who bought it have found it hard to turn around in this economy, the way you used to be able to flip houses. They might grab an offer. What would be the argument for doing it? Let me ratchet up the hilarity among the opinion elites by suggesting, as a model for it, the CBC. I pause to allow the waves of merriment to ripple through their columns and clubs. Why, at this very moment, har, har, the Harper government is about to loosen regulations and taxes on the private TV nets while denying any and all relief to the CBC.
Yet, the effect of the CBC has been positive not just on its audiences but on the private networks and the people who work for them, many of whom trained at the CBC. It has set standards for others, as the BBC did in the U.K., and created a broadcast environment good for us all. Or you could use Chrysler as Petrocan was once intended to be used — whoops, cue more hysterical laughter from the know-it-alls.
My point is, you can’t even raise these options in arenas where opinion is normally expressed, though the majority, if asked, seems open to them.
Take an American example. CNN ran a poll this week on what people see as the most important economic issue. Taxes ranked last, at 11 per cent. But in the discussion conducted in all those elite arenas, the only alternative voiced to the Obama stimulus approach is tax cutting. This is a very big disconnect. Most "folks" aren’t even interested in tax cuts as an approach to the crisis.
These two opinion realms simply do not align, but all the communicative equipment is on the side of the elites. Try to cross the line and even Alan Greenspan, who now argues for nationalizing U.S. banks, isn’t so much dismissed as ignored, as if he had stopped speaking and started barking.
This is a linguistic deficit that reflects a democratic deficit, since the views of the majority are simply not heard in a crucial debate.
But it’s also one of the things sinking us at the moment because if you can’t even voice potential solutions, you are far from enacting them. There is a public appetite for bold policy, but any concrete action, such as nationalizing banks in the U.S., or Chrysler here, would evoke a highly articulate uproar that would inundate — and intimidate — those wider spread but muffled views.
I might add that, when I write these columns, I tend to calibrate their language toward my colleagues in the opinion elites, since that’s our society’s lingua franca. Fair enough, in ordinary times, which these are not.