Chris Pecora

Paying the Piper

A smarter tax conversation.

By Kevin Van Tighem

You get what you pay for. But since tax policy is anathema to many Albertans, it seems we’d rather buy climate disaster, obesity and ill health, dead birds and damaged watersheds than pay for a sustainable future.

Many seem to accept without question the neoliberal myth that government is bad and taxes are an abomination. Right wing propagandists, of course, don’t really care about us whose brains they work so hard to wash. They and their funders profit from the myth that we’re entitled to something for nothing: “Hey, give me roads without potholes, cities without crime, free healthcare, a clean environment and peace in our time, and send the bill… well, somewhere else. Maybe charge it to the grandkids; they’ll understand.”

Free-market capitalists describe any tax policy that doesn’t simply siphon wealth into corporate bank accounts as “social engineering.” That’s automatically always bad, except when private businesses want subsidies—when oil companies, for example, want more rail cars.

We’ve steeped in the neoliberal thought-soup for so long now that it’s hard to have a conversation based on an alternative view. But it’s time.

Government is something we choose, based on what kind of province we want. Since we’re all busy and it’s hard to organize the big things we need, we elect people to act on our behalf. Their work takes money. Nothing is free, after all.

Given we need to raise funds, it might make sense to tax the things we least value and then spend the revenues on the things we most need. What do we most need? Well, that’s for us to decide—it shouldn’t be up to neoliberal think tanks and industry associations who consider tax policy good only when corporations and rich people benefit.

An example of taxing what we don’t want in order to fund what we do: climate policy. We face rapid, probably catastrophic climate change driven primarily by the burning of hydrocarbons. We know how to produce non-carbon energy, but switching won’t be cheap or easy. So perhaps we should tax the consumption of hydrocarbons, and then use the revenues to help make the shift to non-carbon energy.

That’s exactly the approach our NDP government adopted with Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan. Neoliberals are horrified by so blatant an intervention in the god-like glory of the free market. The truth is that there has never been a free market for energy; we’ve been subsidizing oil for decades. With the carbon levy, renewable energy producers gain, and given the horrific implications of climate change, so do ecosystems, farming and future generations. Seems like smart policy.

So here are some similar ideas worth considering.

Too much sugar and too little physical activity cause lots of health problems. We could impose new taxes on sugar-laden foods and things like golf carts, off-highway vehicles and video games that discourage physical activity. The revenues could then finance school sports, field trips in nature or maybe even rebates on hiking gear and organic vegetables. The health rewards could be huge. We’d save on health costs too.

Water security is a critical issue for our dry province. But industry and motorized recreation have badly impaired the Eastern Slopes, where our water originates. Snowmelt and rainfall now drain off too quickly. But government has no money for repairing those gullied trails, eroding clear-cuts and abandoned wells. We could charge logging and oil companies a hefty annual fee for every kilometre of logging or well road until they’re fully reclaimed. We could greatly increase registration fees for recreational vehicles. Walking, after all, is a healthy alternative. The revenues could finance repairs to eroding land and damaged creeks.

Replacing income tax with a sales tax makes more sense than punishing employment while rewarding consumerism.

Pesticides and agricultural chemicals kill nature. Most prairie bird species are now at risk. Even insects are vanishing. But current policies actually encourage the use of those poisons. Why not tax them? The revenues could pay farmers to store atmospheric carbon in restored soils and to produce other ecological benefits through regenerative agriculture.

If we value work, why do we tax income? Wouldn’t it make more sense to tax consumption of disposable commodities? Many Albertans foam at the mouth at the simple mention of a sales tax. But shifting from an income tax to a sales tax would reward work while discouraging wasteful consumption.

Neoliberal dogmatists want Albertans to see government as the enemy and taxes as bad. But we elect governments for important reasons. And since we pay taxes to finance the work they do for us, we might as well tailor those taxes to the best public outcomes.

You get what you pay for. We’re paying for environmental harm and ill health—because vested interests always try to kill the smarter tax conversation before it starts.


Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.


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