Thursday, January 24, 2008

Pennies from heaven

...if Ottawa feels flush enough to lower the GST, that money should have been handed over to cities.

So said Christopher Hume; based on the context, I can only assume that he meant the federal government ought not to lower taxes, and instead write a big cheque to the governments of the city of Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and perhaps a few other municipalities.

Pennies from heaven, taxes that someone else levies and takes the heat for, make some politicians very happy. The idea of one level of government (the "bad guy") taking the heat for taxes, and then cutting a cheque to the "good guy" level that provides the services also appeals to ideologues and advocates. But the process of justifying taxation by providing services provides one of the few assurances of good government we have. A politician who can shower services on the electorate without specifying the cost will enjoy a spurious popularity and a license to indulge in mismanagement or outright corruption; a politician forced to justify raising taxes will have to ensure the public gets value for its money. Moreover, the process gets the public involved: debates over how to spend our money focus the attention like few other things.

Recently, Hume has written about the high cost of car addiction and the ways it skews our priorities, as well as the reluctance of drivers to pay their share. In this sense, Christopher Hume gets it. So why, in his article calling upon the federal government to fund the cities, does he say of the finance minister: " fact potholes are his concern." If we demand that the federal government pay to fix the damage to our roads caused by drivers, then how can we ever expect to change the habits of people in our city? Making it the responsibility of the federal government to pay for fixing potholes sends precisely the wrong message to drivers: it defines their auto habit as something so important that the federal government has a responsibility to pay for it. If we eve hope to reduce automobile use, we have to send the opposite message, and define driving as a private indulgence, for which the individual has the obligation to pay the full cost.

Cities do currently pay the cost for some services that the federal government has an obligation to at least share. These include immigrant services and services for urban First Nations people. However, fixing potholes does not belong on this list. As someone who disagrees with Canada's current government, and will work hard to defeat it in the next election (roll on the day) I hate having to agree with anything the minister of finance has to say, but in this case, has has simply told the truth. Moreover, he has provided us with an opportunity. The prospect of having to raise taxes to cater to the demands of drivers might change the minds of people such as Rob Ford and Case Ootes. Goodness knows, the sneers of progressives haven't affected them.

No comments: