On the Weakening of the Collective

Summary of interviewed, June 23, by Adam Kahane as part of his Possible Canadas project and first appeared here on Possible Canadas website

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, the situation with the poor isn’t worsening, but it also isn’t improving and certainly not at the rate that we see in many other rich countries. Against other rich countries, we’re doing badly, and on First Nations and aboriginal issues and on child poverty, unforgivably badly.

The middle class is 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 fortune. But there are a limited number of hours in a day, so when you hit a certain point, you can’t grow any further. The second thing is petro jobs. The oil-rich provinces of Newfoundland, Saskatchewan, and Alberta have done pretty well for working-class folks, because they have relatively high-paid jobs, but this success is regionally focused. Mostly our labour market performance has been shabby, wages have not kept pace with productivity gains and only barely with inflation, and more and more Canadians, primarily but not just young Canadians, are finding themselves with precarious jobs, with no security, benefits or prospects. So you’ve got significant middle-class problems that, if unattended, are just going to get worse, but because we have all these headlines about how well we’re doing compared, say, to the US (who have the most serious inequality problems among rich countries), you can’t get any traction on it.

Then at the top, we have probably the fastest acceleration and concentration of wealth of any country. 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 do you see as the impact of this growing inequality on our society?

Himelfarb: When the people at the top and the people at the bottom are breathing such different air, it’s hard to identify a common public interest. People at the top decide they no longer need public services, so they effectively secede from society. When the gap is extreme they also seem increasingly to believe they somehow deserve all they have. 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 don’t want to pay taxes.

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 equate government with inefficiency and corruption and to identify the main problem as 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.

For example, when the federal government cut GST, nobody pushed back; nobody asked what the costs would be. The government cut the tax by 2 cents, which is $14 billion a year. Where was the leadership from the universities, for example, saying, “Wait a second, we could use that”? Some municipal leaders did say that but no one was listening.

The biggest impact of this austerity movement is that it stunts the political imagination; it makes it feel 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.

Kahane: How do we restore our trust in our collective capacity?

Himelfarb: One of my favourite comments from Thomas Piketty (author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century) is, “Capitalism and markets should be the slave of democracy and not the opposite.” Democracy is vital to our economy and to our fixing our problems. So we have to renew the democratic process. We have to close the gap between governed and governors and give people a sense that they own the future. We need to have the kind of debates that help you start defining paths forward. We’re not having those right now.

I believe that leadership matters. Leaders must engage people by saying, “I want you to be part of this process. But don’t tell me what you personally need—we’ll get there. Instead, ask yourself, ‘What does Canada need?’” The question remains, can we create a democracy that allows people to rise above their personal preferences in this way?

Kahane: But doesn’t our weakened trust in one another make it harder for us to act collectively?

Himelfarb: One of the reasons why our institutions, including our political institutions, are so important is that, as former Prime Minister Trudeau observed, Canada is an act of defiance. Canada makes no sense: We are dispersed geographically; we have a terrible climate; we have two official languages and many non-official; we have no revolutionary moment that binds us; we are a country of immigrants; we are a country of great regional diversity. For these reasons, we have to work at being Canada. And when we lose trust in our government and in each other, it weakens us.

I know it’s massively arrogant to say this, but I believe the world needs Canada to succeed. We are an experiment that says, you can have and value profound diversity and still find common purpose when you need it. You can build the capacity to share and trust across these differences.

Kahane: Was achieving that sense of common purpose part of what inspired you to dedicate your life to public service?

Himelfarb: I loved my time in public service, was proud to be in the federal government. There was and is a lot wrong, a lot that needs still to be fixed—but that’s true of all our institutions, public and private and in between; all have to adjust to the information age and changing global realities. And no doubt government and public service have to reduce the level of bureaucracy—a function of the industrial age—and figure out how more fully to engage and empower citizens. But I have also seen government achieve fine things. During the four years I was Clerk, the federal government said “no” to Iraq, said “yes” to Kyoto, changed our electoral financing act to bring in more public funding and take out union and corporate donations, tried to limit the influence of money in our politics, said “yes” to same-sex marriage, increased national child benefits and support to Canadians with disabilities, invested in universities and science, expanded the park system and protected wilderness areas, signed the Kelowna accord to redefine our relationship with aboriginal people, and signed with all provinces and territories a 10-year health accord. There are many problems in all of this—imperfect designs, failure in some cases to deliver on the promises—but a lot of good.

Kahane: So you certainly didn’t leave with the feeling that government couldn’t do anything.

Himelfarb: I left with the feeling that it’s there to be had. But as they say, we get the government we demand, and I might add the future we are willing to fight—and pay—for.

14 Responses to “On the Weakening of the Collective”
  1. John Edwards says:

    Thanks, Alex. I don’t disagree with any of this. It is refreshing to read these occasional thoughtful pieces.



  2. himelfarb says:

    Thank you very much John.

  3. Bill Sundhu says:

    Alex: Thank you for yet another powerful, clear and just call for meeting the challenge of inequality and the unraveling. It is a call to action for concerned Canadians – a message we can take forward hopefully the 2015 election – for a better Canada. Merci. (Bill Sundhu, NDP Federal Candidate, Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo).

  4. anonymous says:

    Disappointing, Where are the ideas? Where is the vision? There are neither. I suppose we are all expected to get lost in the policies and procedures?

  5. Beijing York says:

    Hi Alex! Such a pleasant surprise to see an invite to read this entry. I disagree with Anon. Sometimes ideas and vision rely on carefully assessing the best practices in recent history both here and in other countries/nations. In fact, some of the best ideas have come from taking a longer look at history to find new ways to fashion a more sustainable lifestyle. Recognizing the threat to what we value is the first essential step to finding the solutions to restore, sustain or re-imagine what will make for a more just, equitable and environmentally sustainable society.

    • himelfarb says:

      You’re always very generous BY. Anon of course has a point. It’s long past time that we begin to offer real alternatives both to austerity and to governing as usual. This interview was focused on the challenge which i might summarize as: our collective challenges have never been greater while our collective toolkit has never been weaker. This makes talking solutions difficult and clearly there’s no one shiny thing. It does mean first that we have to stop the bleeding, what Armine Yalnizyan has called the self-defeating policies, austerity, tax cuts, privatisation, deregulation. We have at least to stop making things worse. I also think that much of the change we need is already happening in what I have called the enough already movement – from Unifor to Idle No More from Occupy to the pipeline protests and the Montreal student protests, from Leadnow to Dogwood and a broad range of community initiatives we are rebuilding civil society. But unlike Anon (I think) I believe the state has a huge role to play – a strong state to harness the market on behalf of people and nature, strong civil society to harness the state. So once we stop the bleeding we need to push for political leaders that want strong civil society and engaged democracy, and will make climate change, environmental protection and inequality, particularly intergenerational equity, the overriding priorities. We could learn a lot from looking at countries that are making better progress on these objectives than we are. But as you say, it starts by recognizing that we are moving in the wrong direction and that we do have choices, there is an alternative.

  6. anonymous says:

    “But unlike Anon (I think) I believe the state has a huge role to play….”

    Anon thinks state must play role. But Anon just pawn in game of life.

  7. Mark Hammer says:

    1) Long time, no see. Welcome back! 🙂

    2) The world needs Canada to succeed, because Canada is simply a great idea. It is not an ethnicity, nor a particular religion, or language, or culture, or regional power. It is a great idea about what a nation can be when it aims for something more.

    3) I have concerns about the manner in which dialogue about democracy, government size, taxes, and the value of the bureaucracy, grinds up against dialogue about widening gaps. Individually, these two conversations are pressing issues and definitely worth having. But my sense is they don’t live peaceably under the same roof.

    Some dozen or more years back, we had a visit at work from then head of OPM Janice Lachance. She gave a nice talk, and mentioned how the US public service was adopting “family friendly policies”, and also moving in a direction of pay-for performance. Now, while both of these sounded great on paper, individually, when question time came, I remarked that the indicators of “performance” very often work against women. A British report I had read that very morning noted the manner in which glass ceilings were created by the ways in which “performance” tended to preclude women who wished to honour those very family priorities which Madame Lachance was so proud of supporting. I mention this as an example of how endeavours that seem eminently worthy, when viewed in isolation, don’t work together. And because each is planned around in isolation, no one allocates time and thought into how they’re going to work together.

    Similarly, much of what we see as wrong in the current anti-government zeitgeist stems partly out of the desire by many to simply want more. Gimme back my taxes so I can spend it on ME! You can’t want more, and have higher consumer expectations, at the same time as condoning a reasonable size of government, and a useable tax base. You can’t have the service of independent retailers, AND the advantage of Wal-Mart prices at the same time.

    Now, I am not for one moment suggesting that too many people have too much, or even enough. Nor am I suggesting they don’t deserve more. But part of the impetus for addressing the widening gap between “the 1%”, the working poor, and the diminishing prospects for remaining in, or aspiring to the middle class, IS because folks want more. Their allegiance can be bought for trinkets like income-splitting because they want “more”.

    My fear is that every time we shine a spotlight on “the widening gap”, it fuels the desire by many to close that gap on the back of good government. I.E., cut taxes, and shrink government to subsidize gap-closure. It becomes a bit like cutting off bits of your log cabin to burn, so you can keep warm: eventually you don’t have any cabin left to keep the cold out.

    So, for me, the challenge is to invigorate debate about both matters in a way that the one does not penalize or jeopardize the other. And that’s a MUCH more nuanced and tricky conversation.

    But again, welcome back, and happy Chanukah!

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Mark and welcome back yourself. Thoughtful comments as always. The evidence, however, would suggest that these conversations are two parts of one issue. Check out the research.by Rothstein and You, for example, that inequality is the major factor that undermines social trust. Absent social trust we get more acquisitiveness and competitive consumption. The lack of social trust undermines democracy, social cohesion and even economic performance. And the best remedy is universal policies and programs that improve general welfare. I’m with folk like Tony Judt who argue that extreme inequality is corrosive and nothing can be fixed if we don’t fix that. I don’t accept that wanting more or the pursuit of self interest is any more natural or basic to the human condition than altruism and solidarity. Rather it’s profound inequality that nurtured the former and universality the latter. Merry Christmas.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        I don’t disagree on some of that. Like yourself, I see social trust as the primal glue that forms the very basis of a nation. I am not as convinced, however, that acquisitiveness is the *consequence* of eroded social trust. My own sense is that the current cultural/societal zeitgeist fosters a climate of acquisitiveness (nicely illustrated by Boxing Day lineups). It is that climate of acquisitiveness that amplifies not only the perception of economic inequality, but fosters measurable gaps in economic opportunity as well.

        If I think I *deserve* more, then I have a) no compunction about leveraging my existing wealth and economic advantage to remain and thrive in the “1%”, and b) a tendency to make negative attributions about whatever I perceive as a systemic factor that prevents me from acquiring more. Both ends of the distribution view government and the collective needs as obstacles.

        I was rather dismayed to learn the other day that my nephew is moving from Bay Street to Wall Street. Speaking to hi the other day, he extolls the virtues and even necessity of the 1%, declaring how they “create jobs” in downtown Toronto, whereupon he enumerates all the service-sector employment they provide by their spending habits. I don’t doubt that somebody somewhere needs a job busing tables or washing dishes, but this is not the sort of “benevol;ence” that fosters social trust. However, I’d be lying if said the guy busing tables *didn’t* want a big-screen TV to watch the Superbowl on, and complains about how “all his tax dollars are going to waste”.

        Nope, I respect you enough to wish I could agree 100%, but I’m the sort who sees acquisitiveness as the stunning blow to the head, and erosion of social trust as the throat-slitting that follows. I just think there are broader societal forces that creep up on you, and pile on inertia when it comes to getting the right things done.

      • himelfarb says:

        Well, you ought to check out the data some of which is summarized (with links) here. https://afhimelfarb.wordpress.com/2013/07/18/why-we-have-no-time-for-politics/

        I agree that a simple causal chain doesn’t say it all. In a culture in which consumer replaces citizen, private consumption becomes a source of social position. Taxes may contribute to collective well being but they don’t convey any positional value. Public goods are in that sense homogenizing. It’s not HST about inequality.

        But with increasing inequality the evidence suggests that these status concerns are intensified and social trust further undermined. What Rothstein and others have discovered is that more equal societies do in fact show more social trust and avoid some of the extremes of competitive consumerism.

        Interestingly the data also show that in Canada as inequality grew, social trust declined. And while some dismiss this as the inevitable result of deepened diversity You’s research found that even highly diverse societies manifest high social trust as long as they maintain a high level of economic inequality.

        In any case, have a look at the research. You’re right to think view the decline of trust as something bigger than simply the consequence of inequality. Certainly there are other things going on here. But extreme inequality is clearly a major factor in undermining solidarity and trust. It brings out the worst n us even if it didn’t create what’s worst in us.

  8. Jared says:

    Great post, Mr. Himlefarb. A few points I’d like to add:

    1) As John Ralston Saul pointed out in his outstanding book “A Fair Country”, Mr. Saul pointed out that our Constitution could have easily stated our national goals as “peace, welfare and good government”, rather than “peace, order and good government”. In some respects, that is inherited from the Aboriginal heritage we’ve inherited as part of Canada, and that Saul further discusses extensively.

    2) People say that “Red Toryism” is dead, and that we are more individualistic overall, but I have found that many elements of it, and the concern for the greater common good that is such an important part of it, continue in fact to be much stronger in Canada than most people realize, including in my home province of Alberta:



    3) Finally, from a purely tactical point of view, one might observe how the development of the social safety net actively kneecapped any hopes of a Communist revolution in Canada, as people largely became satisfied that many of the problems they were upset about had been addressed. Who needs a revolution when all of the main reasons for one have actually been addressed? Such similar actions today can undermine support for more radical movements that might try to gain ground today, not to mention stimulating the consumer demand that is so important for the functioning of the economy.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Jated. I’m sure you’re right that if our leaders called upon our fellow feeling rather than pulling us apart it is there to be found. And, yes, too, on your other point. In fact Von Bismarck, often considered the father of the welfare state in Europe, was motivated by his hatred of socialism far more than any preoccupation with social justice.

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