Growth without “well-being”

by Barry Weisleder

The gap between economic growth and the well-being of Canadians widened considerably since the 2008 recession. That is the conclusion of the Canadian Index of Well-being (CIW) which released its third national report on November 23.

This comes as no surprise to millions of people who personally experience precarious work, longer commute times, or rising rates of diabetes, and yet feel none of the promised benefits of a re-surging gross domestic product. Now we have statistics that shatter the myth of “trickle down” prosperity.

From 1994 to 2014, Canada’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by 38 per cent, while national well-being rose only 9.9 per cent. The Great Recession hit living standards hard, further depriving many of leisure, of volunteer time, even sleep.
Based at the University of Waterloo, the CIW examines 64 indicators across eight domains pertinent to quality of life.

While the GDP measures money circulating in the economy, the CIW identifies changes in community vitality, political involvement, education, environment, health, leisure and culture, living standards and time use.

Over the past 21 years, the image that emerges is a GDP rebounding from the crash, but with ordinary Canadians paying the price. From 1994 to 2008, the living standards segment rose 23 per cent. Then it plunged almost 11 per cent and has yet to recover. Gains previously made in employment were lost.

Income inequality is rising. While median family incomes have risen, millions struggle with food and housing costs.

And when living standards drop, social, cultural and political engagement do too.
Business pundits argue that the GDP is fragile, that governments cannot afford to worry about well-being.

The truth is that society cannot afford ongoing environmental degradation. It cannot afford the human and economic costs of poor health. It cannot afford the decline in equality and fairness.

And yet, it seems, that’s all that late capitalism has to offer.

Road Tolls, the highway to greater inequality

How are we going to pay for the better urban infrastructure so desperately needed? Well, it shouldn’t be by resorting to user fees that hit working people and the poor, disregarding ability to pay.

Regressive taxation, like Toronto Mayor John Tory’s new plan for road tolls, is the highway to greater inequality. Wealth in Toronto, in Ontario, and beyond, has never been so humongous, and yet never so concentrated in such few hands.

What is the alternative funding model? How can society fund public transportation, social housing, childcare, education, culture and recreation facilities, and meet health needs in Toronto, one of the richest cities in the world?

The alternative is clear. Raise taxes on big business, on the giant banks, on land developers, property speculators, non-primary residence owners, on churches, mosques and temples (religious institutions pay zero property taxes), on big commercial advertisers, big landlords, and on all the big businesses that profit from the mass transportation of their workers and consumers to the workplaces, cash registers and credit card machines of the metropolis.

Taxation of the many deep reservoirs of private wealth would end the sham debate between new road tolls versus a general property tax hike. Taxation of the tax dodgers, of the commercial parasites, of the super-rich and famous, of the big men of property, is an open and untrammeled field of public revenue possibilities. Serious income obtained from those who can afford to pay would rapidly enable the city to end gridlock and abolish homelessness. It could reverse infrastructure break down, and in the process, create good jobs. Best of all, this can be done without fostering fights between downtown and suburban residents — a favourite ploy of ‘opinion leaders.’