Austerity and Trickle Down Meanness

"Occupy Austin Halloween March", Picture by Charlie Llewellin, 2012, Wikicommons.

“Occupy Austin Halloween March”, Picture by Charlie Llewellin, 2012, Wikicommons.

Alex Himelfarb, former clerk of the Privy Council, was interviewed by Adam Kahane.


In this excerpt of Adam Kahane’s interview published here in The Globe and Mail I focus on austerity and trickle down meanness.

Kahane: What keeps you up at night?

Himelfarb: The number one issue for me is inequality. Let’s think of the bottom, middle and top of society. On the bottom, even if, as some argue, over the past few years things aren’t necessarily getting worse, they aren’t improving and certainly not at the rate that we see in many other rich countries. Compared with other rich countries, we’re doing badly, and on First Nations and aboriginal issues and on child poverty, unforgivably badly. Most troubling, we are moving in the wrong direction. Austerity at every level of government–largely self-imposed through years of unaffordable tax cuts – has eroded our key redistributive institutions, welfare and employment insurance, and continues to squeeze the programs that mitigate the consequences of inequality, including medicare. Austerity has yielded a kind of trickle-down meanness.

The middle class is also unquestionably stretched. Two things mask the extent of the problem. First, over the last decade, women have worked more hours than before, so many households have not actually fallen in income, although people are working longer to stay in place. The second thing is petro jobs. The oil-rich provinces have done pretty well for some working-class folks, because they have relatively high-paid jobs, but this success is regionally focused and fragile.

Then at the top, we have witnessed the very rich getting very much richer. Capital always talks louder than labour – that’s why it’s called “capitalism” and not “labourism” – but now the bargaining power of capital is through the roof. So money talks louder than ever.

Kahane: What is the impact of this growing inequality on our society?

Himelfarb: Extreme inequality is corrosive. When the people at the top and the people at the bottom are breathing such different air, it’s hard to imagine them finding any common interest or shared purpose. When people at the top are so rich that they can decide they no longer need public services, they effectively secede from society. When the gap is extreme, they also seem increasingly to believe they somehow deserve all they have. Hence trickle-down meanness. If they don’t need the services and deserve their wealth, why pay taxes? People at the bottom start to think that the game is fixed, and there’s nothing in it for them. They don’t want to vote and they, too, don’t want to pay taxes. Why pay or play when the game is rigged?

Kahane: Does government have a role to play in countering these problems?

Himelfarb: We have had 30 years of an assault on government. The right’s greatest success has been to redefine taxes as a burden or punishment and an unjustifiable constraint on our freedom, and to equate government with inefficiency and corruption. For decades we’ve heard that our main problem is the size of government. Is the problem climate change? No, the problem is the size of government. Is the problem inequality? No, the problem is the size of government. And the solution is to make government smaller. That’s a conjurer’s trick! That’s a distraction! And it has worked profoundly. Of course, government has to be made better, but that won’t happen so long as the very idea of government is seen as the problem.

The biggest impact of austerity is that it stunts the political imagination; it makes it seem like nothing’s possible collectively. Each of us is on our own. So I see not only this invisible, incremental, hard-to-talk-about growth in inequality, but also the loss of the collective capacity to do anything about it.

Possible Canadas is a project created by Reos Partners, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and a diverse coalition of philanthropic and community organizations. For more interviews, or to join the conversation, visit

This interview has been edited and condensed.

4 Responses to “Austerity and Trickle Down Meanness”
  1. Jean Fournier says:


    You should speak up more often.


    jtf Qualicum Beach BC. Qualicum Plages C.-B.

    Sent from my iPad. Envoyé de mon iPad.

  2. Robert White says:

    Glass-Steagall is the most significant determinant to analyse with regard to inequality of the socioeconomic kind and is likely the most salient determinant to examine as the leading driver behind the deinstitutionalization of old school neoliberalism, and ideology, felt by the so-called masses. No other single determinant can explain the qualitative and quantitative changes that have occurred with respect to investments made, or not made, into the superstructure of our once beloved ‘democracy’. 1994 ushered in Financialization of the present $1.5 Quadrillion dollar Dark Pool Derivatives universe, and this, in conjunction with, the deinstitutionalization of Glass-Steagall,
    and the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of Lehman Bros, was the precipitating event that deleveraged the
    so-called middle class, and working class Canadians, from having ‘skin-in-the-game’ as honest arbiters of our democratic process. Voting no longer matters to a majority of Canadians because
    the majority has learned that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour when it comes to the ruling classes that have supplanted participatory democracy with a corporatist oligopolistic agenda that results in wealth transfer to the effect that we are discussing socioeconomic imbalances in the range of the one per cent, as opposed to the ninety nine per cent, that have been effectively shut out of the political process entirely. Taken together, ‘capital’ risk was leveraged
    off onto the masses in our democracy when the Bush era Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson lobbied the United States Congress for the TARP billion dollar bail in instead of simply allowing the Wall Street Investment Banks to topple like dominos and force the economic reset that must occur for the economic fundamentals of macroprudential markets to resume a more normal course of modest economic growth.

    Housing prices do not always go up, and the economic system of Financialization introduced in 1994 was the genesis of the destruction of participatory democracy, as we had once known it through the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, et cetera. Slowly but surely the specter of Casino Capitalism replaced participatory democracy with the corporatist neoliberal model of Capitalism, as envisioned by Professor Emeritus Milton Freidman in the Chicago School of Economics, and Theory. Capitalism proper was replaced with a Financialization scheme that failed to account for one crucial aspect of market participation. That one crucial aspect was ‘expectations of market participants’ when the market fundamentals do not jibe with expectations of profit margin. Clearly,
    after housing prices began to fall in 2007, and borrowing standards were relaxed even further with
    NINJA subprime loans pre-2008, the stage was set mathematically for the weakest link in the leveraged chain of capital to break apart leading to a natural unwinding of bad valuations on mountains of commercial paper investments that went south for a now disenfranchised so-called
    ‘middle class’ ineffectual voting block, in a stagnated faux democracy, that espouses neo-Keynesianism from Central Planners of every stripe that are dependant upon increased taxation
    to re-inflate the $1.5 Quadrillion dollar Dark Pool Derivatives universe to maintain the bubble
    that keeps it all in equilibrium. In brief, restoration of a once thriving democratic tradition will only take place once the old superstructure is completely dismantled and rebuilt on a more suitable substrate that cannot crumble under the weight of endemic system wide corruption often referred to as Casino Capitalism. The orthodoxy of Marxian Capitalism is not practiced by Casino Capitalism and present day Corporatists operating in an oligopoly that controls, and has appropriated, all of the net disposable income of the majority of the population over the last four decades of population growth.

    In sum, the destruction of Glass-Steagall was the last straw that broke the democratic camel’s back,
    and the destruction of the American petrodollar is the blowback from that legislative wrongdoing on the part of macroprudential policy makers in governance and the private sector. Re-inflation of that bubble of dysfunctional disorder is not the way forward for the upcoming administration in my professional opinion.


  3. Maureen says:

    Alberta Views magazine would like permission to reprint an excerpt of this post in its May 2016 issue. The excerpt would run in the Eye on Alberta section, which includes news and opinion from a variety of sources, and the theme of that issue is poverty and inequality. The writer and source would be credited. Can you please contact me at to let me know whether we have your permission, or who we should contact? Thanks, Maureen

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