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Taxes and the Ghost of Bob Blair

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Robert Blair died in April 2009. “Bob” – as he was best known – headed Nova Corporation and became in time a very wealthy man. Unusual in the oil and gas sector, he was also a staunch Canadian nationalist, refusing to let Nova join the Business Council on National Issues (today, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives) as he believed the organization with its free trade mantra threatened Canadian sovereignty.

I first met Bob in the mid-1990s. Gordon Laxer, a political economist at the University of Alberta, and I travelled from Edmonton to Calgary to meet with him. We wanted to start up a policy institute. Bob and some others, living in Calgary, had a similar idea. We met at Bob’s luxurious home overlooking the Calgary skyline, the home belying the thoughtful, kind, and down-to-earth man who lived there. Out of that meeting, Parkland Institute was born.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Bob lately. In the 1990s, Canada faced pressures from a host of business interests, especially those in the financial sector, to deal with what they described as its “debt problem.” Tales of credit rating downgrades and insolvency filled the popular press and radio talk shows. Then, as now, pro-market advocates and right-wing zealots declared the welfare state the cause of all ills and demanded cuts to government spending.

But Bob had a different answer. Speaking at a Senate hearing, he asked why the federal government was intent on going after “welfare moms” to reduce the debt, as they didn’t have any money. Instead, Bob argued, the government should go after people like him, the rich in Canada. The rich could easily pay off Canada’s debt and should do so.

Bob Blair realized that taxes are the price of a decent and civilized society. He was also a proud Canadian who didn’t want his country held captive to financiers. And, finally – he was quite frank about this – he also reasoned that paying off Canada’s debt would result in not only the country’s wealth growing, but that, in doing so, the rich would also be better off as their assets would rise; in effect, the costs of higher taxes to pay off the debt would soon be recovered. Unfortunately, Bob’s plea went unheeded. Among right-wing advocates, “tax me, I’m Canadian” was not only the name of a book at the time but a bold assertion of Canada’s lesser status in their eyes compared to the free market USA.

Today, the United States and much of Europe faces a major debt crisis. As in Canada years ago, calls for reduced government spending and more tax cuts fill the press. Recently, however, Warren Buffett – regularly listed among the world’s richest individuals – has called for the wealthy to be more heavily taxed. In case you haven’t read Buffett’s statement, he said the following:

“While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks…My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.”

Since then, a number of other wealthy Europeans, from France, Italy, and Germany, have likewise come out in favour of higher taxes upon the super rich. They understand that the grinding inequality that lies at the heart of the world’s ailing economy and growing social unrest will get worse if they do not step up to the plate.

Will such pleas be heeded?

In the case of the United States, the answer is, “Not likely.” Why not? In general, the idea of raising taxes – period – runs up against a well-entrenched pattern of right-wing populism with its mix of antipathy to government and belief in rugged individualism. But, more specifically, the Republican party in that country is staunchly opposed, on ideological grounds, to raising taxes; indeed, so firm is this belief that it will go to the wall to defend the very richest individuals, such as Warren Buffett, from themselves in this matter. In recent days, some Republicans have perversely labeled efforts to tax the rich as “class warfare.”

Thankfully, Canada is not the United States; and Alberta, oil aside, is not Texas. Nonetheless, there are some – the Fraser Institute and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation who take to the barricades every time someone suggests raising taxes. For that matter, Prime Minister Harper has on several occasions stated his belief that, “There is no such thing as a good tax.”

Still, polls show a majority of Albertans and Canadian would support higher – but fairer – taxes in order to defend public services. In contrast to the sales pitch made by right-wing pundits, they understand that there is no free lunch. You get what you pay for, whether we are talking about health care, education, or social services, or getting the potholes in the road fixed.

Forward thinking people, like Bob Blair, have always known this truth. It’s not too late to start listening to them.

Trevor W. Harrison is a political sociologist at the University of Lethbridge and co-director, along with Gordon Laxer, of the Parkland Institute.

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