Listener mail: William Watson and Pogo at the Christmas concert
LISTENER MAIL - DECEMBER 20, 2015
1) Response to interview with McGill University economist William Watson
Professor Watson says capitalism is the best way to lift people out of poverty - and that inequality is the best way to reward those with great ideas and great talent. He says poverty, not capitalism, is the enemy.
From Steve Weller in Vancouver"
"His unsupported assertion that corporations and rich individuals pay their fair share of the tax burden, supported by nothing except his words, 'I think they do', completely ignores the fact that the Corporate tax rates in this country have dropped from 37% in the 1970s to 15% today.
" Poverty does not exist in a vacuum. Smart, rich people have worked hard to redistribute wealth upwards. We need to redistribute it back again. And we need to stop listening to corporate apologists like William Watson."
That was from Steve Weller in Vancouver.
From Sam Boskey in Montreal:
"Watson would like us to believe (and believe it must be, since in his interview, he offered no real evidence) that growing inequality in income, opportunity and living conditions are of no cause for alarm, as long as the poor are not literally starving. The major beneficial effect of guests like Watson, is to demonstrate how much wiser are the vast majority of CBC interviewees."
That was from Sam Boskey in Montreal.
From Anthony Iacovino, Toronto:
"Dr. Watson justifies the compensation of professional athletes in Canada. A baseball player recently on the Blue Jays team has a contract worth over 200 million dollars. What value does this player bring to the fans? A temporary escape from the problems of life. At the same time, fans are charged outrageous prices for tickets and food. The fact that this player gets so disproportionately rewarded, when a working mother cannot feed her children, and seniors have to choose between paying the rent or buying their medicine, is unacceptable."
That was from Anthony Iacovino in Toronto.
From Leah Geller in Ottawa:
"Hmm, I guess Watson was having a senior moment when he 'forgot' about the evidence correlating social mobility (which he favours) with economic equality (which he doesn't seem to think matters). As British epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson says, if you want to live the American dream, move to (socialist, more equal) Sweden."
That was from Leah Geller in Ottawa.
Gordon Yusko, Vancouver:
"Mr. Watson extolled the wonders of Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was a self-obsessed control freak. His company supported working conditions in developing countries that harmed the health of its employees. As far as I know he did not give a dime of his 8 billion dollars to charity or philanthropic causes. Perhaps Mr. Watson should come up with a better role model for the points he makes."
That was from Gordon Yusko in Vancouver.
We asked Professor Watson to respond to some of these criticisms. He sent us this:
1. The point here was simply that our idea of what is poor changes over time. Does anyone seriously disagree with that? The story about some people - not everyone, not in all municipalities - having had their toothbrush counted as a luxury item for purposes of Depression-era relief was given me by an economic historian colleague, now deceased, who spent a good part of her career working on that era and subject. To make the general point, which is a commonplace, any number of examples could serve.
2. According to the OECD (StatExtract: Public Sector, Taxation and Market Regulation: Comparative tables, Taxation) taxes on the income, profits and capital gains of corporations were 3.7 per cent of Canadian GDP in 1965, which is as far back as OECD data go, versus 3.1 per cent in 2014. The series moves with the business cycle and was as high as 3.8 per cent in 2006. High marginal rates of tax do not generate much revenue if accompanied by lots of exceptions, as invariably they are. According to the Canada Revenue Agency, in 2012, the latest year for which data are available, the 224,910 tax filers who made total income of more than $250,000 earned 10.5 per cent of all income and paid 20.1 per cent of all income taxes. Their average tax rate was 28.9 per cent, vs. 13.5 per cent for everyone else. I probably shouldn't have used numbers without having the correct numbers at hand but, a., I did stress I didn't have the numbers at hand and, b., the numbers I did use reflected the reality, which is that top-end people earn a large share of income but pay an even larger share of tax.
3. Pages 152-6 of my book directly address the "Great Gatsby Curve," which is the relationship the listener is referring to. Most of chapter 7, "Opportunity," pp. 130-142, deals with intergenerational income mobility. It is not possible to discuss everything in even a long (by media standards) interview.
"In 1957, my grade 6 class was chosen to sing "Deck the Halls" at the Christmas concert. I and about ten of my male classmates were seriously into the cartoon strip "Pogo". I can't tell you whose idea it was, but there was a consensus among us, to substitute the words of the great Pogo carol "Deck Us All with Boston Charlie", when it was our turn to sing.
"The day of the concert came; we lined up onstage in the back row. At the downbeat, we sang out louder than the rest of the choir. The teacher conducting gave us a very dirty look -- but we were well-launched and sang the whole song. There was a visible change in the audience, with smiles crossing the faces of many of the parents. After we trooped out, the teacher gave us a stern talking to - we had sabotaged all the hard work of the other students, yada yada. But we could tell by the look in his eyes that he enjoyed the performance, and our pranking it with Boston Charlie."
That was from Barrie Lipton, in Toronto.
"Pogo" was the brilliant satirical cartoon strip created by Walt Kelly. The title character was an opossum living in the Okefenokee swamp. At this time of year, Kelly would pen a cartoon containing what he called an "opossum carol".
Here are the lyrics of Boston Charlie:
"Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an' Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!
Don't we know archaic barrel
Lullaby Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don't love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!"
Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker 'n' too-da-loo!
Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloupe, 'lope with you!
Hunky Dory's pop is lolly,
Gaggin' on the wagon, Willy, folly go through!
Chollie's collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarm bung-a-loo!
Dunk us all in bowls of barley,
Hinky dinky dink an' polly voo!
Chilly Filly's name is Chollie,
Chollie Filly's jolly chilly view halloo!
Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Double-bubble, toyland trouble! Woof, woof, woof!
Tizzy seas on melon collie!
Dibble-dabble, scribble-scrabble! Goof, goof, goof!
The lyrics to "Boston Charlie" and many of the strips in which the verses were introduced may be found in Outrageously Pogo (1985), edited by Mrs. Walt Kelly and Bill Crouch, Jr.