Master of Allusion

Stockwell! It’s been a while since I’ve seen your face and I was wondering how life outside of politics was treating you. So, imagine my great pleasure when I came across your column on the CBC website: “Avoid the trap of the income ‘gap’.”

Noting the deliberate use of quotation marks, I had to continue reading—if only to find out your ‘thoughts’ on the subject of income inequality in Canada. After all, the CCPA and others have spent a fair amount of time documenting how the gap between the rich and rest of us is growing at a rate that outpaces what we’re seeing in the U.S.

You mention that research, too. At least, I think that’s what you’re referring to when you reference “a plethora of purported economic studies and institutes which proclaim that there is an income gap” (our ears are burning! And hey–nice use of alliteration!). And while you don’t actually talk about the research or the statistics—in fact, your commentary is virtually devoid of all that math and social science-y stuff—I have to give you props for your unabashedly glowing, almost Billy Joel-esque “Just the way you are”-worthy tribute to income distribution in Canada.

Could that also be why your column was released on Valentine’s Day? Stockwell, you devil! Don’t go changin’!

But one little word of advice, Stock. When you’re trying to find an analogy to discredit the research that documents the vast disparities between the wealthiest and everyone else, look for one that works.

As a former English student, I have a keen appreciation for literary devices like analogy and allusion as tools to make politics or research-based analysis accessible and engaging, so I applaud your effort. But the key, Stockwell, is that the analogy or whatever device you choose should enhance the facts—not replace them.

Which is why I think your comparison of the income gap to a subway platform is a bit flawed. But if you indulge me, I think I can make a few minor adjustments that will demonstrate how the “mind the gap” analogy you seem wedded to (and I admit it’s always fun to be able to re-use a familiar expression in innovative ways) can still work.

“Catch your foot in the death grip of that space,” you warn, and “the only ride you’d take might be the one to the morgue.” But not to worry, you continue: “millions of people take the risk daily and are generally well-served….we are all better off for that system despite its ongoing frustrations and problems.” And after all, you chide, “how silly it would seem if people took to the streets and attempted to tear the subway system apart because of its imperfections and the ongoing ‘gap’….Even though in the process of its operation some people get hurt in the system, we use it.”

And then you helpfully turn to what (and who) you’re really scolding: “Contrast that with the rationale some people are using to want to dismantle or at least seriously impair our system of relatively free markets and the freedom to be enterprising.”

It’s a bit of a stretch, Stock. But I think I can see where you’re trying to take us. And when offering constructive criticism, I like to start with the positives.

It’s true—subways have a gap between the cars and the platform. And it’s also true that the vast majority of people manage to step over the gap with relative ease. Good for you for getting the mechanics down.

But the thing is, where inequality in Canada differs ever so slightly from a subway is in the term “growing.” As in: the growing gap. So, let’s polish up your analogy.

Let’s pretend the gap between the subway and the platform is widening exponentially—that in fact it’s never been wider.

Now, let’s envision a fairly large percentage of people trying to leap across the gap….and falling to the tracks below. Let’s imagine others managing to clear the ever-widening chasm but, not quite making it into a subway car, are left clinging to the sides, hoping they won’t be dislodged before they manage to scramble aboard or before someone hauls them inside. Let’s imagine a few others do manage to make it into one of the last cars before the train speeds away.

And then let’s imagine, right at the front of the subway, a couple of people—looking suspiciously like Kelly McParland and William Watson—throw themselves down on the platform to create a human bridge across which a handful of well-dressed individuals leisurely stroll. They take their seats in the very first car of the subway which—you might notice—has a kick ass wet bar and is separated from the rest of the passengers (exhausted from their efforts to climb aboard) by several empty cars. They murmur instructions to the driver—and ride off in easy comfort, casting off the hangers-on who haven’t managed to make it on board.

See what I mean? That’s how you do literary analogy.

One more tiny point: your use of the whole “you’re just jealous” line felt a bit…well…forced. I mean, producing extensive and exhaustive documentation about the impact of increasing income inequality on families, communities, and the country seems like a fairly elaborate and time-consuming strategy for organizations whose real goal is to disguise their collective envy for those with stratospheric salaries. Especially since it seems much more logical that the accusation of envy has become a knee-jerk dismissal used by those who stubbornly cling to a system that is demonstrably working for fewer and fewer of us.

So it did occur to me that you might have been poking fun at some of those simplistic arguments that are trotted out to defend the growing gap as natural, or inevitable—or even a good thing (you know—something that builds character). Especially since I’ve noticed that you do seem to have an appreciation for the comedic—so I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. After all, I remember your 2000 campaign (the wet suit? the jet ski? the lumberjack routine? comic genius!). But be careful—like fact-based research, sometimes humour can turn on you, too.

 

3 comments

  1. Ok. This is really frigging funny. I mean I can’t believe Canadians actually voted for this man, but at least we get the odd giggle at his expense.

  2. The income gap is actually shrinking after you factor in all forms of taxation, transfer payments, and social benefits.. so your point is…?

    1. Interesting take, Brady, and I’m surprised and a little disappointed you didn’t offer statistical evidence to counter the far-reaching and detailed documentation from organizations like the CCPA, the Conference Board of Canada, the OECD and others. Especially since the point of this post was to underscore the way that many critics of those who point out the growing gap in Canada often offer little in the way of supporting evidence.

      Here’s the thing: while Canada’s tax and transfer system had in the past been somewhat able to limit existing income inequality, since 1994 that ability’s been significantly reduced, particularly for the poorest Canadians. There are some specific reasons: for example, fewer people qualify for EI, and welfare incomes are lower than they were prior to 1994 (perhaps you remember Paul Martin’s 1995 budget, which slashed federal program spending and included major changes to the Canadian Assistance Plan and EI).

      Meanwhile, at the other end of the wealth spectrum, incomes have grown significantly (while they’ve actually fallen for the poorest among us, and remained stagnant for many others) over the past two decades, and personal tax rates for the wealthiest have declined from 43% in 1981 to 29% in 2010. Add to this the move towards temporary, part time employment which overwhelmingly tends to pay less and is inherently less secure, and you lay the groundwork for what we’re currently experiencing–a growing gap in Canada that has accelerated since the mid-90s, is outpacing the rise in inequality in the US, and places Canada below average for income inequality compared to other developed countries.

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