A few weeks ago I had a rant about an utterly attrocious story in the Toronto Star reporting wholly uncritically upon a Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives study which purported to show (but, in fact didn’t) that low-wage employment had increased in Ontario. I had thought it was something of a low point for critical journalism, until I read Mark Sarner’s op-ed piece on ending poverty in Saturday’s Star. Good Lord, if this is the public face of progressive policy, progressives are doomed.
The gist of Mark Sarner’s piece is that we can end poverty with a guaranteed annual income for all. OK, that’s a fair a point, but he goes disastrously off track from there. He proceeds to make the unsupported claim that it would only cost $16 billion to implement such a proposal – less, he claims, than Canadian governments currently spend on social assistance and EI:
The assumption is that we can’t afford to. Are we sure? What would it cost exactly? Answer: about $16 billion a year in today’s dollars. Big money. Yet nowhere near as much as it is costing us now to keep it going.
In total, governments spent $13 billion in welfare payments in 2009, the last year for which numbers are available. Say $15 billion in today’s dollars. Those on EI who are classified as poor account for another $3 billion a year or so. Now add the costs of administration — about $4 billion. All to keep the wheels of the system turning. And turn they do, without end, and without ending poverty.
In other words, we could reduce the societal cost of poverty by $6 billion per year by replacing the existing anti-poverty programs with a guaranteed annual income for all
From there he goes on to all sorts of far-fetched (and implausible) reasons why Canadians don’t want to spend less money to eliminate poverty (apparently we hate the poor so much we’d rather spend more money to immiserate them).
Now, anyone with an ounce of common sense would look at that claim and wonder how Canada could reduce poverty, by giving more money to more people and by spending LESS money than it does now (they’d also wonder whether Canadians are really so mean-spirited that they’d spend an extra $6B a year to NOT eliminate poverty). I don’t think much of the Toronto Star and its editors, but surely to god it occurred to them to ask that question before they published Sarner’s article?
Moreover, Sarner’s claim that introducing a guaranteed annual income would cost, in total, $16 billion – i.e., $6 billion less than Canadian governments currently spending on income support is belied by the one article he cites on the point. That article, by the Star’s Carol Goar, cites a study by Elaine Power, Robin Boadway (a former professor of mine), William Cooper and Pamela Cornell (all supporters of a guaranteed annual income, I hasten to add). Belying Sarner’s ridiculous claim that introducing a guaranteed annual income would cost $6 billion less than we currently spend, they estimate that such a proposal would cost $40 billion more than Canadian governments already spend on social assistance and old-age security – i.e., $46 billion more than Mark Sarner thinks it would cost. As that article correctly points out, a guaranteed annual income is a feasible policy, but an expensive one, one that would require a fairly significant tax increase for all taxpayers (to get a sense of the order of magnitude, you’d need to more than double the federal GST from 5% to 12% to bring in that kind of revenue (assuming, perhaps unrealistically, no change in behaviour)).
This is the sort of article that just drives me up the wall. From a policy perspective, a guaranteed annual income has a lot of merit (though good arguments can be made against it), but if you’re going to make the case for it a guaranteed annual income you simply can’t, as Sarner has clearly done, make up facts from thin air. Pretending you can end poverty at no cost is the political equivalent of a ponzi scheme – it’ll end badly for all concerned.
Moreover, if you’re a progressive, you should be absolutely enraged by Sarner’s piece. Trying to sell social programs to the public without fairly costing them (or figuring out how to pay for them) is both disingenuous and dishonest. These sort of proposals tend to discredit otherwise worthwhile progressive policies, because voters know too well that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and aren’t inclined to believe those who promise otherwise. Moreover, they don’t prepare progressives (or the public) for the hard political fight that they would likely face to persuade Canadians to spend that extra $40 billion or so that Boadway et al think it would cost to end poverty (and, note, saying it’s a hard political fight isn’t the same as saying it’s not worth fighting, it saying that progressive have to be willing to fight that fight). Successful politics is about making hard political choices, progressive need to accept that.
And shame on the Star for running this sort of flimsy piece. I mean, it’s all well a good to publish articles promoting changes in social policy, but could they really find nothing better? Did they actually think that this provided a meaningful contribution to public debate?