When our knowledge is unequal to our opinion

 

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Whenever a columnist, book reviewer or any other species of gum-flapper, who’s paid to pontificate windily about the world’s state of affairs, writes something like, “I don’t know much about this subject, but that’s never stopped me before,” I usually take that as a helpful invitation to stop reading.

Occasionally, though, curiosity gets the better of me. 

So it was the other morning when I stumbled across a line in Margaret Wente’s latest attempt to speak for the common man from her lofty perch, at the Globe and Mail,  as one of Canada’s best-known columnists.

In her diatribe against “liberal policy elites” who are snapping up copies of French economist Thomas Piketty’s new book about the growing divide between those who have and those who have not in western societies, Mrs. Wente declared, “I’m not qualified to analyze Mr. Piketty’s work (Capital in the Twenty-First Century), which even critics have described as ‘brilliant’. My question is why now?”

Her answer was transparently deflective: “The progressive elites have been completely captured by the declinist narrative. . .There’s just one problem with this. Although highly educated social progressives are alarmed by the scenario, hardly anybody else is.”

She then “proves” her point by quoting surveys that show that regular folk – you know, “real” people – couldn’t give a toss about so-called income inequality. In fact, what Joe and Jane Public care most about is government incompetence and waste.

Now, there’s a straw man if ever one came tumbling out of the opinion pages of Canada’s national newspaper. 

Ms. Wente may not like “policy elites”. She may have reasons to distrust them. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong about the deleterious socio-economic effects of the ever-widening gulf between the rich and rest. 

Equally, the apparent sanguinity of the general public doesn’t automatically denote that the average man and woman on the street is right. In fact, it doesn’t even go to the root of the problem.

Has it occurred to Ms. Wente that one reason why middle earners are more ticked off with governments than rich people is that they recognize how tax policies,  which were supposed to protect the common interest, have effectively accelerated the concentration of wealth among the one per cent?   

Besides, asking someone directly whether he’s worried about income and wealth inequities is like asking a farmer whether he’s concerned about crop failure. Sure, in a general sort of way. But it’s not real until it happens, up close and personal. And in this regard, data trumps anecdote every time. 

Earlier this year, a formerly confidential government report (made public through an Access to Information request by Canadian Press) declared that “the Canadian dream is a myth more than a reality.”

In fact, its findings pointed to “a middle class that isn’t growing in the marketplace, is increasingly indebted though it has a relatively modest standard of living, and is less likely to move to higher income (i.e., the middle class is no springboard to higher incomes).”

Other findings included:

“Over 1993-2007, there has been a slight hollowing out of the middle class, and the face of the middle class has changed considerably. Couples without young children and unattached individuals now account for most middle-class families.”

Meanwhile, “although middle-income families experienced a good progression in after-tax income, the same cannot be said of their earnings. In particular, the wages of middle-income workers have stagnate. . .Although the middle class holds a relatively fair share of the ‘wealth pie’, higher-income families have far greater nest eggs. Furthermore, wealth is not equally divided among middle-income families, with those headed by younger individuals being at a disadvantage.”

Compared with other western nations, Canada actually fares pretty well. But for how long? 

The economics of rampant income inequality is not an issue of pocketbook envy. Disparities in the currency that makes everyone’s world go round generate disparities in every avenue of life, from education to health care and, eventually, to the consumer sectors that sustain all goods and service-producing industries.

Although I am one of those gum-flappers who gets paid to pontificate windily, this time you can trust me.

I actually do know a little something about these things.

 

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