Trudeau's G20 commitment to equality needs more than fine words: Don Pittis

At the G20 this week, Prime Minster Justin Trudeau joined other leaders in renewing his commitment to overcoming inequality. But experts say shaking up the system that helps the one per cent requires more than fine words.

To direct wealth away from the 1%, voters are going to have to keep pushing for change

At the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other leaders renewed commitments to fight inequality, but experts say action is more difficult than words. (Reuters)

In a famous quote that he may or may not have actually said, U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt reportedly told a group of supporters:  "I agree with you. I want to do it, now make me do it." 

True or not, the quote is used by Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker to illustrate a point about government that few people understand. While G20 leaders, including Justin Trudeau, may have renewed their commitment to greater equality this week, even for the world's most powerful leaders, saying something, and even wanting it, doesn't mean it's going to happen.

At the G20 conference in Hangzhou, China, Trudeau wasn't alone in renewing the pledge to save the world from inequality. Leaders from U.S. President Obama to Chinese president Xi Jinping added their voices. Other leaders, including those from Britain and Australia, chimed in. 

Labour Day commitment

"The benefits of growth can't be limited to the wealthiest one per cent, they must be felt by everyone," tweeted the Canadian prime minister on Labour Day.

But as Hacker and his co-author Paul Pierson point out in their book Winner-Take-All Politics, subtitled How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class, the complex political process that moved wealth into the hands of the richest will be difficult to reverse.

Insipid growth

Their book refutes the idea that globalization, technology or differences in education caused the lower and middle classes to get a reduced share of the pie beginning in the mid-1970s. Instead, they clearly blame a failure of politics and they insist that inequality is itself the cause of our current insipid growth.

"It's become increasingly clear that growing inequality isn't just a problem of fairness," Hacker told me in an email. "It also threatens the functioning of our democracy and the dynamism of our economy."

Hacker and Pierson, whose most recent book, American Amnesia, warns that the "war on government" has gone too far, describe a conscious move by business and the wealthy to lobby the U.S. in a way that weakened the democratic voice of the poor and middle-class majority.
U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, author of the New Deal that helped pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression, supposedly told supporters they needed to apply political pressure to make him do the things he wanted to do. (Reuters)

The same process — while the resulting inequality may not be so pronounced as in the U.S. — happened in Canada as well, according to Daniel Béland, a political sociologist who holds the prestigious Canada Research Chair in Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.

Lobbying success

As a response to the growing power of organized labour in the 1960s, business groups poured resources into lobbying governments for provisions that ended up helping the wealthiest. Tax cuts that disproportionately favoured business and the rich were one of the results.

"These are people who are often close to politicians, business people and people who have more clout than the average citizen," says Béland.

In Canada, but especially in the U.S., he says, business lobbyists were also successful in blocking laws that encouraged trade unions in the private sector. That severely weakened organized labour, one of the most powerful groups lobbying, not just for their members, but for the interests of the poor and middle class more broadly.

Quite reasonably, business groups act in their own interests using the methodical, organizational skills that makes business a success.

Change happens between elections

Unlike flash-in-the-pan groups set up to contest elections, business groups persist, with most of their lobbying success coming between elections.
Chris Kutarna, a Canadian who is currently a fellow at the University of Oxford, says this is the time for 'radical activism' to make sure the benefits of technological change are widely distributed.

That means, even though voters may declare their preferences at election time, without strong and persistent organization, their voices can easily be drowned out as elected members are bombarded by well-funded lobby groups insisting that what's good for business is good for everyone.

While so many people worry about a stalled world economy, Chris Kutarna, a Canadian author and scholar at the University of Oxford, believes we are in the midst of a miraculous economic, technical and cultural revival comparable to the Renaissance. He sees a time of ferment when ordinary people could reclaim their share of benefits being created by the information age.

Radical activism needed

Interviewed as part of a project on the theme of disruption on CBC Radio's The Current, Kutarna says that in such disruptive times groups wanting a share of the gains must fight hard, and that a fair distribution of the benefits is not going happen automatically.

"The notion that we can just step back and let the positive consequences come to us is completely false," says Kutarna. "This is a time for radical activism, rather than waiting for the good things to come."

Trudeau has clearly stated that he wants all Canadians to feel the benefit of growth, not just the one per cent. The question is whether the people who want it to happen can generate enough noise to make him do it. 

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About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.