Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Who Does Government Serve?

Given that my last post was on the 'in-and-out' problems plaguing the Conservatives, I'm going to leave that alone...Despite Elections Canada receiving a victory in the Federal Court of Appeals.

Instead of that, I'm going to editorialize a little and do some light philosophizing.

Today, the question of who government serves has weighed on my mind for a greater part of the day. Now, most people would have the knee jerk reaction that the answer to that question is obvious: government exists to serve the people of the country they represent.

But sadly, the question is not that simple at all.

After all, as I've said before, everything we do today has an impact on the future that has yet to come. As such, does our government exist to serve the people of today or the people of the future?

With the way governments talk about reeling in deficit spending and slowly making payments towards provincial and national debt, one could easily draw the conclusion that our government exists to serve the people of the future; meaning of course those that will still be alive in our country in 40+ years, and the next generation.

Undoubtedly, government has a responsibility to ensure that their policies are designed to have an impact on the future of the nation. As such, financial responsibility is a cornerstone of this philosophy. After all, our decisions today tie the decisions of tomorrow: If a government creates a $50 billion deficit, which it fails to correct, it limits the spending and policies that can be enacted by future governments.

Saskatchewan is perhaps, again sadly, a good example of this. Under the Devine Government numerous services were cut, privatization ran rampant, and our finances were 'criminally' (excuse the pun) mismanaged. And through the use of creative accounting practices, the people of Saskatchewan had no idea just how much money our government was burning through in their ideological pursuits.

As such, when the Progressive Conservatives were tossed from office and the truth behind the books was revealed, the hands of the 1990s New Democrats were tied quite tightly. Saskatchewan was brought to the precipice of economic collapse, and as such, tough decisions had to be made in order to right the sinking ship that was Saskatchewan finances.

Many people will condemn the Romanow NDP for hospital closings in the 1990s, and use this as proof of the horrible management style of the NDP. Yet they fail to mention, or perhaps remember, that it was the spending style of the previous government which forced the NDP to make difficult decisions.

Closing a hospital is a horrible thing, there's no doubt about that; but Saskatchewan needed to close down a few hospitals, or risk our entire economy collapsing right in front of us. As such, there truly was no other way Romanow could have handled the situation he was given from the government that succeeded him.

If this doesn't prove that our decisions today impact tomorrow, I don't know what will.

So, why bring this up?

I mention this because it shows how a government that lives purely in the now, lays the groundwork for future problems. This raises the question again, who does government serve?

Obviously, there is some drive for governments to be responsible to future generations. But does this mean that the role of government is to ensure that their decisions have a net positive impact in the future? To an extent, yes. But for the most part, this is not the primary role of government.

It is true that government exists in the realm of possibilities; that many of the policies proposed by political parties and governments often take time to become realized. An example of this, though an unpopular one, is the Liberal introduced Federal Gun Registry.

At the time, the registry was introduced and touted it was an economic blunder. It overshot the costs projected and was quickly becoming a financial black hole. However, once the initial hiccups wore off, the program manged to reign in it's spending. This is true of pretty much anything (look at the construction industry, for example) where the proposed cost of a project is subject to either coming in under or over budget. Very rarely does anything ever spend the exact amount budgeted on it.

Now, why did I mention the gun registry, I'm sure some of you are asking. I mention it because although it cost more than planned, it has become a sort of policy that exemplifies the idea of a net future benefit. The registry was created in the hopes of minimizing gun crime in Canada, and promoting responsible firearms ownership.

Of course, the registry has had numerous vocal opponents (including the Harper Government), but it has had strong support in the RCMP and local police communities.

The Conservatives point to the registry as still existing as a 'financial black hole', when the truth is that it no loner does. Financially speaking, the registry is no longer a 'billion dollar boondoggle', as it only costs a few million dollars a year to operate. Yet, the government does nothing to tell people this and is content simply to rely on the initial anger created at the initial cost overruns.

I'm straying a little, so let me reel this in and get back on topic.

The registry is an example of a piece of legislation that had future positive benefits, though it had initial problems in financing, which was introduced by a government that was seeking to serve the future by establishing a Canada that would hopefully have fewer gun related crimes.

As such, it was a good example of a government in power in the present serving the collective future good.

So, surely, the answer to the question whom does government serve has been answered, and the answer is that the government serves the people of the future by creating policies that will have a socioeconomic net benefit to people of the next generation.

However, despite the evidence above, the case is far from settled.

I say this because there are numerous amounts of legislation which has no socioeconomic future benefit, but rather has immediate 'benefits' for the present.

The perfect example of this is the Harper Government's GST reductions. As we should all be aware, since being elected in 2006 the Harper Government has shaved 2% of the GST. Now, this is hard to defend as a future benefit as it effects the present. After all, it means that people living right now in this moment are subjected to 2% less Federal Tax on goods and services.

Another example, though still related to tax cuts, revolves around reductions in corporate tax levels.

Now, some conservatives may attack me here. After all, they argue that corporate tax cuts have a positive future benefit: that companies are lured to Canada because of their generous corporate tax system, in turn creating jobs, and in turn generating more wealth for the country. And since this takes time, it becomes a future benefit.

Now, that sounds like a sound argument, doesn't it?

But since the Conservatives have begun rolling back their corporate tax level...How many companies, that weren't here before, began running to Canada? How many corporate headquarters moved out of New York to Toronto?

As such, arguably, corporate tax cuts exist solely as a present benefit (for companies) as opposed to a future positive benefit.

And now that I think of it, there is a clear distinction being drawn in my mind between future benefit and present benefit; and unsurprisingly, it's ideologically based.

This may be a controversial thought, especially from such a young man, but here goes:

The politics of conservatism revolve around present benefit; while the politics of progressives revolve around future benefit.

Think about it.

Social issues, such as medicare, are usually revolving around future needs. Spending in health care is always arranged on projections and targets; the concept of say increasing spending in areas like medical imaging or hiring new nurses revolves around a target (ex. 20,000 new nurses by 2017) and budgeting projections (ex. spending increase by 4% by 2014, 8% by 2025, etc.)

Furthermore, the politics of future benefit seem to revolve around the idea of constancy. Again, using medicare as an example, levels set by a government are unlikely to decrease. A government would not spend $400 million on medicare one year, then decrease it to $200 million the next.

As such, the concept of future benefit suggests that a government today would set limits that would not be decreased in the future.

Whereas, if you look at present issues that constancy disappears.

Going back to the example of tax cuts. The 2% GST decrease is not a constant. As times change and budget strings become tighter, the chances of a tax increase become more and more likely. This is due to constancy, indirectly, given that Canadians want certain levels of service to remain the same and as such this means that spending in key areas (like medicare) are not likely to decrease because of the impact it would have on services.

But at the same time, these programs need to be paid for. And that means that the government needs to be able to generate income for these programs. As such, tax cuts exist solely to create a benefit in the present that is likely to disappear in the future.

And since, right wingers tend to be the champions of tax cuts, they are championing the idea of benefits now, regardless of the cost later.

As such, getting back to my opening statement on this idea, the ideological lines are clearly drawn between parties on whether they exist to create a positive net benefit for the future (and in most cases, the near future and sometimes the present) or rather they exist to create a limited benefit for the present, with no real regard to the future.

After all, after the 2006 election of the Harper Government and the 2% reduction of the GST, the Canadian Government of the future has lost that income. It's subjective history, but there's questions over what the Harper Government could have done with that extra 2% of revenue; and even further questions of what future governments could have done with the 2% of revenue.

Effectively, I think it is possible to argue that our political system today is clearly becoming divided; and not just between Liberal/Conservative, Left/Right, but rather between altruism and selfishness.

The Harper Government has been the epitome of self-serving, living in the now with no concern for the future style of government I've talked about in this post. The bulk of their policies have no net positive benefit for the future, and very few positive benefits for the present. In fact, I'd argue most of their policies have net negative effects for future Canadians.

After all, the Harper Government's prisons plans (which could cost Canadians upwards of $5 billion) will be a project that Canadians will pay for for years to come; while doing nothing to actually address the problems that create the environment that allow crime to develop. And their tax cuts have robbed future governments of revenue which could be used to foster such a program.

It is true that a government needs to be responsible to the people it serves today, I don't think anyone could argue against that...But they also have a responsibility to ensure that their policies have a positive benefit on the future of the nation. After all, we've all been taught the adage of leaving things in a better state than we found them.

That is a guiding principle, and perhaps the biggest different I see now, between right-winger and left-wingers: Right wingers live to see policies that benefit them NOW; while left-wingers live to see policies that benefit everyone, now and in the years to come.

Effectively, I think the answer to the question I opened with: Whom does government serve; is multifaceted and could be argued from numerous different viewpoints.

However, I think we can all agree that we'd prefer a government that thinks years in advance when they consider their policies; as opposed to one who scraps together policies on a day-to-day basis with little care, or regard, for the impacts that their follies of the day will have on Canadians not just now, but for years to come.

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