When less means more, at least politically

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New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant has decided to chop his annual salary by 15 per cent this year. His fellow cabineteers – all 12 of them – have agreed (if that is the right word) to follow suit, each taking pay cuts of ten per cent.

Sure, these are symbolic gestures at a time when the province struggles with structurally high yearly deficits and a long-term debt of some $12 billion.

But what’s wrong with that?

No, these voluntary rollbacks won’t rescue New Brunswick from fiscal quicksand. And, no, they won’t put money back into the pockets of hard-working men and women who run businesses, struggle to make their payrolls and watch their limited financial resources fail to meet their own, and others’, expectations.

But, we have to start somewhere. And where better to begin more visibly than right at the top of the public sector, where ministers of the Crown hold the keys – in more ways than merely symbolic – to everyone’s safety deposit box?

Besides, when was the last time you witnessed a private-sector fat cat, having seen the communitarian light, announce that he (or she) will gladly undergo self-administered liposuction in order to protect at least the appearance of fairness and equity in his or her corner of the corporate steppe?

I didn’t think so.

On the other hand, it does happen, if rarely.

Writing in the February 9 edition of The New Yorker magazine, financial columnist James Surowiecki, reported, “It’s no secret that the years since the Great Recession have been hard on American workers. Though unemployment has finally dipped below six per cent, real wages for most have barely budged since 2007. Indeed, the whole century so far has been tough: wages haven’t grown much since 2000.

“So it was big news when, last month, Aetna’s C.E.O., Mark Bertolini, announced that the company’s lowest-paid workers would get a substantial raise – from twelve to sixteen dollars an hour, in some cases – as well as improved medical coverage.” Indeed, “Bertolini didn’t stop there. He said that it was not ‘fair’ for employees of a Fortune 50 company to be struggling to make ends meet. He explicitly linked the decision to the broader debate about inequality, mentioning that he had given copies of Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty-first Century’ to all his top executives. ‘Companies are not just money-making machines,’ he told me last week. ‘For the good of the social order, these are the kinds of investments we should be willing to make.’”

So, perhaps, the better question is: When was the last time you heard a corporate fat cat talk like a progressive reformer?

The case of Mark Bertolini may only be the exception that proves the rule.

But, in the New Brunswick government’s case, they, too, seem to have figured out that a public gesture can go a long way – that they’d better be prepared to demonstrate a little personal austerity in the assemblies of decision-making before they start chopping frontline workers’ wages and salaries and raising taxes, as they most surely will.

Apart from anything else, it’s a move they can make without engendering a shred of controversy. (Take that Tory opposition). Fundamentally, though, it stands as a statement of principle – a guiding norm for the tough years ahead.

Sacrifice, it connotes, is no sacrifice at all as long as something durably good causally results: a healthier public balance sheet; a smarter, leaner, nimbler government sector and, by extension, civil service; a province, whose citizens, businesses and institutions are, for once, united in joint service to one another and not divided by the absurd venalities of intra-regional entitlements and juvenile, extraordinarily costly, preoccupations with local oneupmanship.

Governments rarely lead the way, point to the horizon. But when they do – and do it convincingly – their efforts can produce remarkable effects.

Their symbolic gestures, especially the good ones, tend to etch a path of memory in the popular imagination, where reality finally takes root.

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