August 8 2003
The Toronto Star, Letters:
The letter from one Philip Hu yesterday Debt is crushing our students [[RM archive copy]] was most interesting, and I hope you will allow me a small amount of space to reply to it, and probe just a bit deeper into his problem.
It is indeed a terrible situation in Canada the last few years that students wishing higher education are being saddled with ever increasing debt for that education. Some students, I should say, more correctly - obviously, students from wealthy families who can afford the ever greater fees for a university education aren't complaining much - but such students are in the minority, and as one of the wealthier countries, overall, in the world, as Mr. Hu notes, it should be of great concern that we are saddling our non-wealthy students with such debts and, it must be noted, making such an education pretty much impossible for many poorer students, who cannot access the loans necessary to be accepted at university (a small challenge to anyone - dig up the statistics on current enrollees in university from families on or below the poverty line (some 20% of Canadian families - add another 20+% for "lower middle class" shall we say who would be almost as challenged to guarantee tens of thousands of dollars in bank loans) who managed to convince a bank to give them sufficient student loan guarantees to pursue a professional degree - my bet would be that it would be a very much smaller percentage of students than those from middle-middle or upper-middle class families).
But regardless of that - why, the question simply must be asked, are we demanding that Canadian students wishing a higher education place themselves in such debt to receive it? We are assuredly aware of the many studies that prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the wealth of a country overall, and the wellbeing of its citizens, are very directly tied to the level of education of its citizens - so it is rather perverse, to say the very least, and shortsighted, as a country, to make the obtaining of such an education harder and harder to come by, and impossible for many - the reverse would seem to be a more rational course for a wealthy, progressive country like Canada to grow and prosper into the future.
Well - the answer is relatively simple. In short, the ruling classes of this country decided some years ago that their first priority would henceforth be increasing the wealth of the elite - the bankers, the corporate leaders, the major politicians (the Bay St. crowd, one might say) - at the expense of - well - everyone else - and if that meant that taxes must be lowered, and available money for universities cut back, so that wannabe-university students such as Mr. Hu would thus be required to incur heavy debts for their education, among many other negative consequences for the country - well, that was acceptable to them. (Stupid and short-sighted, if I may inject a personal observation - but then many if not all of the "neocon" policies are just so)
This is no secret, the increasingly lower taxes the wealthy have demanded, and received, the last several years (beginning in the 1970s, actually) - and thus, of course, very inevitably, as the government receives less income from the wealthiest sectors of society, it must make adjustments to its spending. And reduced funding to universities has followed, followed again very inevitably and predictably, by an increase in tuition - which again, very predictably, impacts much more negatively on the poor or less well-to-do, while having no significant effect on the children of wealthy families.
The deduction is very straightforward, although apparently no one actually wants to put it into words - the government has decided that allowing the wealthy to retain more of their money is more important than, among many other things, giving the poor an opportunity at higher education.
This really MUST be spelled out in black and white, and all of the voters and citizens of the province and country acknowledge it - we have, as a society, through our choice of governments, decided that allowing the wealthy to become wealthier is more important to us than giving the poor a chance at a good education. When they (sorry, I really cannot say "we" here!) vote for tax-cutting governments, they are also voting for higher tuitions, higher debt costs for students, and in full knowledge that many poorer students will inevitably be denied a university degree because of this. Brighter future for the wealthy, bleaker future for the poor. That is one of the true meanings, perhaps the central one, of "tax cuts".
Obviously, this will not be a popular admission, as Canada has spent decades promoting itself as a progressive and egalitarian country throughout the world, pretending to be a society that promotes equality of opportunity through government programs - but as we have reversed that aspect of our society, as so plaintively explained in Mr. Hu's letter, we should at least be honest enough to acknowledge it, and not lie about what we are doing.
A message like - "Canada has now officially thrown off the outmoded, liberal nonsense of progressivism and equality-of-opportunity for its citizens, moving away from the model followed by its former European allies, and is determined to become ever more like the laissez-faire United States, where who you are in society and your opportunities depends much more on how much money you were born into, or how much you can obtain through fair means or foul, than on expecting the government to provide you with anything. We are in the process of making education once again primarily the prerogative of the rich, and getting rid of the tired and failed idea of "universal medicare", as our much more practical neighbours to the south have always been - if you can afford it, we got great health care and education - if you can't - well - hahahaha - who really cares?!?!?"
Just a bit of the truth, in the modern era. Or more of the same old usual lies.
And please forego the stories about "competitiveness" and suchlike as being the impetus for lower taxes, so we must adjust etc and etc - they are stories for children, or passive people of few thoughts or will to think whose brains have been addled by too much television, as you well know. In truth, the country has and continues to generate great wealth - all we are talking about is how we are going to divide that wealth (which is, of course, generated almost totally by the working people of the country, NOT the bankers or CEOs or "investors" of Bay St, who merely abscond with as much of it as they can) up. For many years, our country was what we might call "progressive", in that it attempted to help the poor, through the levy of a certain amount of taxes on the rich; but now, in the "neocon" era which is ascendant in Canada and much of the world, we are returning to what we might call more Dickensian times, where the rich are given free rein in their exploitation of the poor and (lower) middle class all over the world, and one of their current justifications for such exploitation is this "competitiveness" theory. Nobody has ever fully explained anything behind this "competitiveness theory" - but in reality, is it not simply the rich investors competing to see who can wring the greatest profits from their investments? - and naturally, by reducing their taxes and services provided to their workers, and even their workforce through "downsizing", and selling off assets before bailing out and leaving the problems for others, their profits go up!! - and thus, in the "competition" to see who can get the greatest profit, they appear to be doing better. But for most citizens and workers - well, it should be obvious that such policies have a negative impact rather than otherwise. "competitiveness" is a central plank of the race to the bottom, as far as individual citizens of this or any other country are concerned - and, quite frankly, I am rather ashamed of you people at the Star for not talking about this and related things a bit more openly.
Or again, let us not bluster about the fairytale "national debt" causing the government to reduce spending etc and etc - once again, it was a deliberate policy choice of various governments which decided that the country would allow private banks to create the Canadian money supply, and over a period of years incur that national debt through borrowing the money thus created, and thus, again over a period of many years, transfer hundreds of billions of taxpayer's dollars to the wealthy "investors" rather than have the Bank of Canada create the same amount of money in a non-inflationary fashion each year, and thus avoid that debt, and the hundreds of billions of "service charges" transferred over the last 20 years to the wealthy.
Also, rather obviously, the Liberals federally and the PCs provincially in Ontario have both levied huge tax cuts for the wealthy over the last few years - they might equally have spent that money on universities and health care, but - very deliberately again, and very politically - chose to give huge sums of money to the wealthy in this country rather than the needy or struggling.
It is a harsh thing to say, and a thing not likely to make most of us shout out to the world with pride LOOK AT WHAT WE HAVE DONE!!! - but it is, nonetheless, a very true thing to say.
To summarize - it has been the deliberate policy of both the federal and provincial governments in Canada over the last 20 or so years to implement policies that make the rich richer, and make life very much more difficult for the poor and middle class.
Policy. Not some universal force, or unavoidable situation, or situation somehow thrust unwillingly on the governments - but deliberate policy choice. With, one might even add, deliberate aforethought.
And somebody ought to point that out to Mr. Hu, and all the students of this year and the last several years and the years to come - they are 30 or 40 or 50,000 dollars or more in debt, which they will ultimately pay off 2 or 3 times over during the first decade or so of their working lives, given the usurious interest rates they are forced to tolerate and again the government allows, because our governments feel that it is more important to use money that might have been used to keep their education costs at a reasonable level to make the wealthy wealthier.
And that is the kind of society Canada is, today and, unless things are changed, will continue to be.
Don't lie about it. Don't make excuses. Don't pretend it is something it is not. If that is the kind of country the businessmen (and few Margaret Thatcher type women) and politicians think appropriate for Canada, at least have the courage to stand up and admit it. There are elections coming up in our major province and federally soon - it would be interesting to say the least if this kind of thing would be acknowledged and debated during those elections. And then more interesting to see if, when such things are put in true words, in black and white, if these government would again get elected.
But I won't hold my breath. As we have seen so often in the past, elections are never a time for truth telling.