Sunday, February 11, 2007

Ask not for whom the tax tolls…

London's Anne Marie DeCicco-Best joined 21 other members of the Big City Mayors' Caucus for a junket at Ottawa's posh Château Laurier on Friday at which they urged the federal government to "give their cities more money," an unexacting proposition for politicians who expect to give nothing in return. DeCicco-Best must have imagined herself at a council budget meeting, where these sorts of unrequiting financial requests are regularly and summarily granted. The urgency of the London mayor's demand might seem a bit more convincing if her council had not just found for itself a 4.9 per cent increase in spending over last year.

Unlike her own administration, however, other levels of government are not always such an easy mark. The contemporary political system in Canada involves an elaborate and ultra-Constitutional confusion of jurisdictional and taxation responsibilities, a scheme that allows politicians at all levels of government to joust over who must bear the political costs of tax collection and who benefits from spending it. It is this willy-nilly system against which taxpayers are generally ignorant but ultimately helpless from which the mayors are hoping to profit. And they may, for a while at least, but only as long it suits federal or provincial politicians — this importunate system ultimately serves the higher levels of government that have the power to resolve its shifting intricacies for their own political purposes. Cities have surrendered the practise of living within their own fiscal means only to play this destructive game — surrendering their own autonomy will make it even harder in the long run to ever again live within their own means. The only certainty, however, is that this is a game in which only politicians can be winners, and in which taxpayers are only spectators who have nothing whatsoever to gain from it themselves.

But there is surely no better proof of the preposterousness of the mayors' demand than the utter absurdity and meaninglessness of its defense:

The mayors said that without guaranteed permanent funding, cities will be unable to attract and retain the human and financial capital needed to help their cities compete globally.
If you can unpack that sentence, you're an able politician but little else besides. Even if, defying all economic logic and history, it were to be allowed that government spending actually stimulated human and financial capital instead of deterring it, why should it be supposed that the federal government is not in just as good a position to spend those taxes on their behalf — after all, it's not spending those enormous sums of money to attract and retain capital in the hinterlands. But in fact cities like London have enormous power by themselves to attract capital of all sorts, simply by spending restraint and by offering competitive taxes, but it is a power that they have determinedly shied from using. It's politically more economical to beg instead.