Entitlements in an Age of Austerity

“I am entitled to my entitlements.” So said outgoing Liberal cabinet minister David Dingwall as he defended his generous severance package in December 2005. The line was used to great effect in the 2006 election campaign that the Liberals lost, commencing the reign of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Post-economic crisis, and in what is often called an “Age of Austerity,” the fury directed at lavish spending by public servants has only intensified. The trope of public employees living large on the taxpayers’ dime tends to be used more frequently by conservatives who favour small government anyway. But of course individual conservative politicians – Bev Oda, Mike Duffy, and Alison Redford to cite a few recent examples – can also be caught up in its wake.

Thus there is a sense in which this critique of the “culture of entitlement” among the political class might be seen as non-partisan. Certainly that seems to be the thrust of Gary Mason’s article in today’s Globe & Mail, “The days of entitlement in office are ending.” On the other hand, getting people to see themselves first and foremost as “taxpayers” may feed into a critique of public sector spending more generally. In this sense, the view that there is a culture of entitlement among political elites feeds into the view that government is inherently wasteful, put most straightforwardly by US conservative activist Grover Norquist, who once claimed his ambition was to “shrink government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

Mason’s article cites Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation (a group often sighted lurking around the bathtub), who says that “Public pressure is changing the rules for political perks.” One of the reasons cited – maybe because it is used to explain everything else in the world, so why not this? – is the rise of social media. The other, though, is more interesting.

Mr. Bateman believes that more people today have what would be considered white-collar jobs. They understand how executives and business leaders should be conducting themselves and don’t see politicians as being any different or more entitled. “They understand that world and what’s appropriate, perhaps more than a 1950s blue-collar worker did,” said Mr. Bateman.

And in the information economy of today, most workers don’t get to fly business class, take their spouses to South Africa, stay in $1,000-a-night hotel rooms or sip $16 glasses of orange juice, he said. Their working lives are much more austere.

Much could be said about the way that “austerity” is seen (or argued) to be internalized, particularly among a class of people (white collar, information workers) who were once supposed to be immune from the economic insecurity that was foretold for blue collar manufacturing workers. The ideological sleight of hand in the move from elites (“executives and business leaders”) in the first paragraph to “most workers” in the second is certainly revealing: if there really is the same standard applied across the board, then we would have to say “executives and business leaders don’t get to fly business class…” But if business leaders shouldn’t fly business class, who should?

More interesting, though, is the narrow way that “entitlements” are defined. It is a mark of the triumph of neoliberalism’s economic mode of thinking that when talking about “entitlements” we seem to only end up talking about spending perks: a second home, luxury hotels, overpriced orange juice, and outright financial transfers like severance agreements and “gold-plated” pensions.

Less commonly discussed, but arguably far more common and dangerous, is a culture of political entitlement. If we think about entitlement to wield power without meaningful accountability, then we are in the heyday of entitlement in office. The mayor of Toronto’s case is known well enough to be summarized succinctly: despite everything that he has done, he feels entitled to continue in office. His sense of entitlement seems based only on his professed love of the job and the city, and his belief that only he can stop the gravy train. The case of our Prime Minister: here it is a matter of complete disdain for even the idea that anyone outside of his inner circle (said circle perhaps extending no further than his own head) could have a valid point of view. His government recently dismissed the unprecedented number and diversity of dissenting views on the so-called Fair Elections Act as the opinions of “self-styled experts.” More generally, the use of omnibus legislation, the prorogation of Parliament, the canceling of the long-form census and other measures typically used to inform evidence-based policy-making, the muzzling of government scientists, all of this has been in the service of more efficiently driving through Stephen Harper’s agenda. He knows what he wants to do. He thinks it is right. Therefore, whatever anyone else might do or say, he thinks he can, he should, and he will do it. He is the Prime Minister, and is entitled to wield power. He feels entitled to his entitlements.

To return to what was said by Jordan Bateman, above, the problem with the current era of austerity is not just that white-collar workers in the information economy were denied the promise of a better material life, or that “their working lives are more austere.” It is that in the current information economy, the veneration of “leaders” (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, etc.) extends well beyond our working lives. Our political lives have become more austere. One way to describe authoritarianism might be an exaggerated sense of entitlement among political leaders: authoritarian leaders feel entitled to wield power without the checks that are present in a more democratic system. In Canada today, that culture of entitlement, unfortunately, is alive and well.

 

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