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dollar money flyingIn these days of COVID, there’s been a lot of talk about how things will change … or ought to change.

The New York Times ran a remarkable editorial in April as part of a series on ‘What America Needs’. It was as if America’s paper of record suddenly woke up and realized the country was not the America the Founders had intended. It reads like a Bernie Sanders stump speech – the part in which he rails against the inequalities of US society – before he gets to his solutions. Ironically, the New York Times has dumped Sanders in order to support Joe Who for the Democratic nomination.

And in the Toronto Star, Bob Rae and Mel Cappe offered their opinion on what Canada needs: a universal basic income, suggesting Canada’s COVID CERB is a good first step.

A universal basic income is not unlike what the English government enacted in its 1601 Poor Laws. Whatever the poor were able to scrape together was topped up by the parish to a living wage. Those Laws were amended in 1834, in the belly of the industrial revolution when being poor was your own fault. Poor folks were forced into workhouses and paid the same low wage as the most menial job in the land. It is perhaps not coincidence that slavery had been abolished in England and the Empire the year before.

The fact that even some corporate leaders want a universal basic income should arouse our suspicions that, maybe, this is not the panacea we need. A universal basic income is a chance to get cheap labour without the guilt of not paying people enough to live on. Or perhaps they see it as an investment on the part of government in the business of Canada. But then, any subsidy for business is an ‘investment’ whereas any program to alleviate poverty is ‘welfare.’

Let’s not be fooled – a universal basic income will be a public subsidy for private profit unless the private sector is forced to pay a living wage.

So, is the pandemic an opportunity to create a more equitable society? Not if history is to be believed.

The Black Death of the Middle Ages actually concentrated wealth in the towns and cities. The plague might have opened the door to the Renaissance, but it also gave rise to mega-corporations and the global trade of European empires and a colonialism fueled by slavery. The new societies that emerged were not in any way more equal.

The concentration of wealth that has occurred over the past 200 years has been well documented by Thomas Picketty and others. In the midst of the current pandemic that concentration is accelerating. The US Institute for Policy Studies shows that the combined wealth of billionaires in the US increased by $565 billion between March 18, 2020 and June 4th. During this period over 40 million Americans applied for unemployment.

But it’s not just their big numbers and their bigger bottom lines. Corporations in America and Canada have their fingers on the scale of government too. The revolving door between Wall Street and the Fed is well known. And Mr Trump, after making the rich richer with tax breaks and COVID relief, moved to indemnify corporations from lawsuits for forcing employees back to work.

In Ontario, the Financial Accountability Office reveals the province’s new income tax breaks overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest. The Ford government is moving ahead with completely privatizing home health care with Bill 175. Meanwhile, there are now five former Ford government staffers working in the private long term care industry – including the corporation Extendicare which owns 69 homes in Canada and manages another 56. Extendicare received provincial COVID money which it added to its estimated $1.3-plus billion in revenues for 2020.  It spent a measly $300,000 of its own money fighting the coronavirus in its homes but is rich enough to pay a dividend of $10 million to its investors.

SNC Lavalin executives escaped jail time. Volkswagen Canada escaped any kind of penalty for its fraudulent manipulation of vehicle emissions. None of the CEOs of the big banks went to jail for flooding the world with their toxic packages of collateralized debt. But George Floyd was lynched by the state for trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. And Chief Allen Adam was beaten by the RCMP for an expired vehicle sticker.

Change post-pandemic? It’s going to take a lot more than people in the streets to change this system.

David McLaren
Neyaashiinigmiing, Ontario

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