News & Opinion

Election diaries: Me vs Us

In The Maven on March 26, 2011 at 5:23 PM

What’s the real message behind some of the election goodies on offer?

The Conservatives' income splitting promise encourages traditional families with stay-at-home moms. What about other kinds of families?

By The Maven | All the political parties are offering tax breaks or programs to enhance some level of family life. The focus is very much on families again this time around. Never mind that the definition of families for most of these programs is a rather outmoded one…one described by two opposite gendered heads with children living at home. In fact, the latest gambit by the Conservatives–their income splitting proposal–goes one step further by assuming (or encouraging) one income families. In fact, it is a subtle discouraging of two incomes. Yes, the Conservatives do have a social agenda.

Leaving that aside, there are significant differences in how we can enhance life for families. Programs favoured by the Conservatives lean towards personal choice and the ability to purchase services. An example of this is their child tax credit to recoup daycare costs. Approaches like health care vouchers and charter school initiatives fall into this category.

At first blush, it seems reasonable to give people money to make choices appropriate to their needs. Isn’t it empowering and more democratic to allow people to direct the social service sector by their spending choices?

Well, yes, if you see the world through a seller/consumer versus society/citizen lens. I have written elsewhere about how this applies to the education system.

The other approach is a societal or system approach. Instead of giving money to families to go and buy, say for instance, daycare services, government can set the same amount of money aside and develop a comprehensive daycare system. An excellent example of a comprehensive program is the health care system. The Canadian system is about 30% cheaper to run than the American system. By most measures our health care system is as advanced technologically as the American (taking into account the much larger volume in the American system). Our system is certainly much more egalitarian in providing a wider range of services to a far greater percentage of people.

Now that isn’t to say that there are not problems. Waiting times are an issue in our system. The delivery of services is not always equitable. Sometimes our system is less innovative in finding new ways to offer services. But the American system has larger issues. Aside from the obvious disparity in the provision of services to different economic groups, the American system is also far more wasteful administratively (spending a far higher percentage on admin than our ‘wasteful’ public system) and the complexity and confusion of paperwork in the U.S. is overwhelming.

There are real economies of scale to be achieved by a society approach to such issues as daycare. The same amount of money given to families to buy daycare (when none may be available) is better given to establish a comprehensive structure to set up and administer daycare.

Will there be shortcomings in such an approach? Certainly. But fewer than encouraging the individual purchase of services. And while there may be some fear of a homogenous one-size-fits-all approach, at least there would actually be a system. And political agitation has always provided the impetus for creativity within a public system in a way that private purchase never quite does beyond superficialities.

So when the political parties offer incentives and tax deductions for certain social programs, take a closer look at what they really intend to achieve. For the Conservatives, individual ‘family based’ tax credits further their agenda of less government and more individual choice in the narrow sense. But just as importantly, they are less likely to actually achieve the provision of services intended.

Another approach, and I would suggest, more efficient, more equitable, and certainly more likely to meet its goal of actually delivering a service, is to deliver a program in a comprehensive way.

That is why we fund public transit, public schools, public utilities this way. They are all public. Do we give up consumer choice by doing this? Yes. Do we get a better and cheaper provision of services this way? Yes, I think we do.

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In Election Diaries, The Maven comments on the leaders, the parties, the issues and the campaigns for Canada’s 41st federal election.

Read more of The Maven’s Election Diaries at www.tomaven.wordpress.com.

For past articles by The Maven on the West Annex News, visit The Maven archive.

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