(Image Credit: freesvg.org; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons Licence)
We’re supposed to believe that paying higher prices for energy puts more money in our wallets, and restricting what people can say online leads to greater freedom of expression. Canada is rapidly becoming Orwellian BY DESIGN.
After I had uploaded my previous article ‘Bloodletting As a Remedy’, I realized that I had forgotten to bring up one point that had been in my mind on the subject, viz., the rebate that we get via our income tax refunds. My regret at this omission was short-lived, however, because I also realized that (a) the amount of stuff that I had to say on this point would have made the article too long, and (b) there is another policy of the federal government where also the underlying principle applies, such that the two can be discussed together.
In that article, I had coined the term ‘lexical sleight of hand’, but on reflection, it sounded clunky with a whiff of scholarly elitism – the kind we may expect from the academia. I was aware that the more established expression ‘slip of the tongue’ could not be applied when governments (and politicians in general) resort to less than honest use of language, because it is founded on inadvertent use of words. So, I thought that maybe we can go with ‘sleight of the tongue’ when words are improperly but deliberately used in pursuit of political objectives.
A ‘sleight of the tongue’ has the additional characteristic that the politically motivated, deliberate misuse of language has the potential to establish long-lasting beliefs that cannot be dislodged by pointing to facts and logic. For example, just a few days ago I was in a Twitter argument with someone who stubbornly held forth that the US invasion of Iraq was justified because ‘Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction’. In the year 2022, no one should have any doubt that the whole case of WMD was fabricated (and in any event, even if that claim were to be true, that does not justify the tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths & destruction of the country that ensued after the invasion).
SUM OF PARTS
There is an equally trenchant belief among many Canadians that the carbon tax Rebate that we get is greater than what carbon tax costs us over the year (or at least, for 8 out of 10 families). There are several issues that I have with this claim.
Firstly, given the number of families in Canada (or in any country for that matter), it would be impossible to ascertain – even in a ballpark range – the cost of carbon tax annually to each of them. Absent an all-encompassing data system that would thoroughly destroy any shred of privacy for the families, it is just impossible – and we don’t have any system to collect such data. Instead, the Rebate amount is decided based on specified factors (marital status, number of dependents and area of residence – viz., rural or urban). So, it is clear that the amount of Rebate has zero connection with how much carbon tax actually costs to a particular family.
To compound the situation, there is wide variation between families in terms of their CO2 emissions depending on their circumstances & choices – and there is too much variation even for one family in these to keep track of. Two urban families having similar incomes and the same number of children could be spending their money very differently and thus incurring very different amounts in terms of the carbon tax. Or the same family’s consumption pattern can change with time. And to further compound it, we don’t know the carbon tax component of the price of a product on the shelf (which could also change depending on, for example, if the pack of strawberries on a shelf in Ontario is from an Ontarian farm or a Mexican one).
Thirdly, (as a result of all the above), this Rebate is the only one that I have seen in my life in different countries where the receiver does not have any means of knowing how the rebate is actually calculated. For example, if a person is now spending X amount on petrol that is higher than the previous amount, how much would that increased amount of spending raise their Rebate by? There is this curtain between the receiver of the Rebate and its issuer, and there is a mysterious, unknown process that arrives at the same amount for two families with very dissimilar spending patterns.
THERE’S MORE WHERE IT CAME FROM
And finally, as the Blacklocks Reporter revealed in January 2021, the federal government was left with a sizable surplus (over $ 400 million) after paying the Rebates. I got into a discussion about this online, and someone broke down the number for Ontario ($138 million) as roughly $14 per year per family – and so no big deal. I believe that this habit – of breaking down large numbers to a very small metric that sounds benign – is wrong. Even $ 28 per family per year (i.e., double the amount that we were discussing) doesn’t sound like worth worrying over, so even $ 276 million would be no big deal. But large amounts are composed of a lot of small amounts. Applying an old Gujarati saying to Lake Ontario, we can say that it consists of drops of water – but the sense that we get from the words ‘drops of water’ is vastly different from the reality of Lake Ontario.
More recently, Lorrie Goldstein quoted Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux in his Toronto Sun article as saying that “Most households … will see a net loss resulting from federal carbon pricing… That is, the costs they face – including the federal carbon levy, higher GST and lower incomes – will exceed the Climate Action Incentive rebate they receive”. For this year, the number of families receiving less in Rebate than what they spend on account of carbon tax is estimated in the PBO report at 60%, rising to 80% by 2030 in Ontario and Alberta. This is an exact reversal of the claim by the government and its supporters & acolytes – that 80% of families receive more in Rebate than what carbon tax costs them. And yet the myth endures. Here is my hypothesis as to why it does:
ARTICLE OF FAITH
I have seen many people – including prominent public persons – hold forth that 11 cents a liter on petrol in carbon tax doesn’t have a significant impact on inflation. What this tells me is that when it comes to estimating the cost impact of carbon tax, other forms of energy and the knock-on effect on input costs throughout the supply chain are ignored. With such creative accounting, one can produce any result that one desires. Deeply rooted partisanship among Canadians will then ensure that the myth that the government brought into being via this creative accounting will endure for all time – or at least for the duration of their political careers.
I am more inclined to believe the statement of the Parliamentary Budget Officer than the unsupported claims of self-serving politicians. The increased financial burden on Canadians – which will increase further every year as the carbon tax keeps going higher – will be highly detrimental to both the quality of life and the economy of Canada. I will leave the quantification of this negative impact to the experts.
TO SPEAK OR NOT TO SPEAK – THAT IS THE QUESTION
Recently, the federal government restarted its push for reintroducing its ‘anti-hate’ legislation (alternatively referred to as ‘the anti-hate Bill’ or ‘online harms Bill’ at the colloquial level). A similar Bill (C-36) was before the previous parliament, but couldn’t pass before the parliament was dissolved. Announcing the formation of an advisory panel, Minister Pablo Rodrigues stated the following (see this YouTube link of the CPAC channel; the reporter’s question begins at the 24:33 mark):
“Freedom of speech is fundamental right… it’s a fundamental human right. But – I’ll tell you something else. Actually, there’s a lot of people that don’t want to share what they think anymore, that are afraid of going online and speak freely because of the comments, the negative and vile reaction they may get. And I think in some ways, this will really help with freedom of speech in that sense.” (Emphasis added)
I will resist the temptation of calling this approach as ‘Bambi-fication of Canadian society’ lest the Minister deem it a ‘vile reaction’, but one does wonder what this proposed policy leads us to. I started becoming active on social media about 6 years ago, and in that time, I have faced my share of ‘negative and vile reactions’. I have also experienced a vastly higher degree of agreement, encouragement, compliments, joviality and good-humored banter. If I find that someone is being too obnoxious for my liking, I ignore that person & treat their words like water off a ducks back. In addition, we do have the convenience of the ‘block’ and ‘mute’ functions online. But that is an individual story and therefore cannot be a basis for policy discussion.
RISE AND FALL
At the societal level, it is true that providing more protections (on any front) enables its members to become more productive. This is because each such protection takes the worry off the individual’s head and makes it part of an overall structure where specialized people worry about it. In a sense, societal protection is one of the key drivers of civilization. But as the old East African saying goes, ‘Anything in excess is poison.’ The trick lies in being constantly aware of exactly where that dividing line is (I say ‘constantly’ because the line shifts with time), where ‘justified’ crosses over into ‘excessive’. Societies that consistently make the right call on this line prosper and rise. Societies that make too many wrong calls decline and (if unlucky enough) get subjugated. In that context, is this policy proposal driving us to the latter possibility?
The first thing that I would look for is if similar protections are available elsewhere in existing law. If this proposed legislation duplicates remedies that already exist, then it’s a case of ‘excess’. Secondly, we have to look for the unintended consequences of the proposed law. Specifically (and this is without casting aspersions on anyone, and only in the interest of creating a system that provides mechanisms for dealing with any situation that it may encounter), how can this law be misused by anyone to victimize another person? What we need here is the equivalent of the hackers that companies employ to find and fix the weaknesses in their software. Unfortunately, we have built up an environment in Canada where merely questioning the desirability of a policy in the broadest possible terms has become taboo and may be considered a ‘negative and vile reaction’. Each policy is presented as being motivated by noble intentions that can only be objected to by evil people. Further, given the recent nuptials between the NDP and the Liberals, it is more than likely that the proposal will in fact become law. By the time its adverse impacts are felt, its sponsors will have long gone riding into the sunset, and their die-hard supporters will keep defending this unwise law for decades. Just like the carbon tax Rebate, this Sleight of the tongue will endure for decades.
I say this with reasonable confidence because, according to this article by Anja Karadeglija in the National Post, the government’s report itself said that “there was predominantly critical perspective from civil society, academia and industry on both the process of consultation and the design and substance of the framework itself” in the 422 different submissions received. The government hadn’t published these submissions by the time the article was written, but going by their publication by some of the submitters themselves, the law would ‘result in the blocking of legitimate content, censorship, and violating Canadians’ constitutional and privacy rights’.
This is where Minister Rodriguez’s statement becomes directly relevant. A collection of experts, academics, Google, civil liberties groups and research librarians believe that this law would curtail freedom of expression while violating Canadians’ rights, and he believes that it’s a good deal if it allows the reticent to speak up, something that they may still choose not to do. In other words, we will be sacrificing our most fundamental rights and freedoms at the altar of ‘protection’ for uncertain gains while empowering nefarious elements to victimize innocent persons. It is difficult to see how a society can remain healthy and productive in such a scenario.