Eugene Lang

Opinion: Venus and Mars Align – Income Inequality Agendas in France and America

July 25, 2012

When the President of the most anti-government country on earth and the President of the country that invented dirigisme are converging upon a political narrative, if not a shared policy agenda, something is going on that Canadians better pay close attention to.

Francois Hollande, the newly elected socialist president of France, is defining the early days of his presidency on the issue of income inequality.  Barack Obama, who faces a jaded American electorate in a few months, has decided to make income inequality the central issue of his re-election campaign.  This amounts to the political equivalent of the alignment of Venus and Mars.

Canada lies, both culturally and politically, in the mid- point of these two planets.  And yet oddly enough politicians in this country are saying almost nothing about income inequality.

Hollande has exhibited the most extreme rhetoric and pointed policies on the subject, echoing the language of the Occupy Movement.  He has called “the world of finance” his main enemy. The government Hollande leads plans to introduce a variety of tax increases to level things out on what he has termed “the grasping and arrogant rich”.  These include wealth, financial transactions and inheritance tax rises.  An extra 3% dividend tax on business has been mooted.  Planned increases in value added tax by Nicolas Sarkozy, Hollande’s predecessor—which would have hit hardest on low and average earners—are being cancelled, even though the French government desperately needs the revenue (not having balanced its budget in thirty eight years and with a debt GDP ratio of 86%).  A new 75% top rate tax on incomes over 1 million euros is expected.  Salaries at majority state owned companies, of which there are dozens, will be capped at 20 times the lowest paid worker’s wage, meaning some chief executives could take as much as a 70% pay cut.

All in the name of reducing income inequality.  And all quite popular in the land of liberty, equality, fraternity.

But how can an income inequality agenda be popular in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, a country that likes to present itself as the world’s beacon of unbridled free market capitalism.  President Obama certainly thinks it can be.  He sees income inequality as the “defining issue of our time”.  While Obama’s points are subtler and less overtly “soak the rich” than Hollande’s, the message is pretty clear.

In his State of the Union Address in January the subject of income inequality featured prominently.  The president said– “No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important… We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”  Building on this theme in April, the president said–“What drags down our entire economy is when (sic) there is an ultra-wide chasm between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else.”

So for Obama, income inequality is bad for the economy, which fits well with America’s basic narrative.  And for Hollande and the French socialists, income inequality is an affront to the core French values of egalite and fraternite.  Different strokes for different folks.

President Obama has been shorter on solutions to the defining issue of our time than has Hollande, but he has put a couple things on the table.  Notable among these are extending tax breaks for America’s struggling “middle class”, by which he means everyone but the top 2% of earners, who drive the income inequality gap so wide in America.  And he has expanded tax credits for low income people and put more money into education.

While income inequality has emerged over the past few months as a dominant issue in France and America, the silence among Canada’s politicians on this subject is truly deafening.  This is especially puzzling given that measures of income inequality are much worse in Canada than in France.  And income inequality in this country is rising faster than it is south of the border.

This week the Premiers gather for their annual confab to discuss the major issues they think confront Canada.  Energy, a perennial favourite, is at the top of their agenda.  The Premiers would be well advised to spend a little more of their energies on the defining issue of our time.

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  1. It’s one thing to be aware that the disparity in incomes is a problem,even Keynes was aware of the issue, but it’s another thing to have an understanding of how to approach the problem and present solutions. Policies to counter the malaise need to be implimented.

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