Wednesday, May 14, 2014


Since 2008, a phrase has dominated much of the discourse in the world. This phrase creeps into conversations, on news casts, and in political speeches. We have been so imbued with the words that most of us believe in its truth. The phrase is ... "in these tough economic times."

I have never believed that we live in "tough economic times." Easy for me to say, I guess, since I enjoyed working in a profession that had an excellent salary grid, good benefits package and a top-drawer pension, which I am enjoying today. But the truth of the matter is that, for most people in North America before 2008, we were enjoying similar situations. In fact, the perception is that if you go further back in recent history, times were positively giddy with almost full employment, large union membership which guaranteed good benefits and pensions and opportunities for all. What went wrong?

In fact, very little went wrong. Well, let us qualify that a bit. Certainly, things went wrong for large numbers of people. Those who lost their investment portfolios and, therefore, their retirement plans suffered. Plants shut down, sending many out of work. Large corporations struggled and saw profit margins shrink. Consumer confidence eroded drastically. Politically, in many countries, all this resulted in distrust and crises in many parliaments. It seemed that the times were, indeed, "tough." We shrugged our shoulders, did our best to hold on to what we had, and listened to the media and corporate and political leaders who exhorted us to "save", "work harder", "become more competitive", and "tighten our belts".

Utter nonsense. Why? Because the crisis of 2008 was no worse than any other downturn in the so-called "business cycle". Because media and corporate and political leaders found convenient and easy phrases to throw at us. Because many of us who suffered the above losses, or knew someone who had suffered, believed the phrase. "We live in tough economic times." It's an easy mantra to swallow and it implies that, somehow, it is the fault of something else, something huge and unknowable, something sinister and heartless, that is causing these "tough economic times".

The reality is that we are not in "tough economic times". Instead, we are in what I like to call "times of misplaced priorities." What does that mean? It means that, instead of making choices that make sense, instead of becoming more involved in decision making, instead of paying attention to situations in the world around us, we choose to take the easy road. We like to think of trivial and pleasurable things, rather than the dull, dreary nuts and bolts items that affect us greatly. We can't be bothered with details: we'd rather pay simple and quick attention to things and then turn off. We'd rather have fun than be serious. We like the glitz and glamour instead of the hard work. We'd rather leave the hard work to someone else, but we like to complain when things go wrong.

We have lost our way. How can we justify a professional athlete like Dion Phaneuf of the Toronto Maple Leafs making $7 million per year to play hockey? In fact, how can we justify a player in the American Hockey League, a minor league, making a two way salary of $894,000 per year. That is what a young man named Tyler Biggs makes playing for the Toronto Marlies. Biggs has never played a game in the NHL, and is, by all accounts, a decent but unexceptional player for the Marlies. But his salary is major league indeed.

Compare those numbers to these salaries, which I quickly researched in a google frenzy preparing for this column:

Lawyer ..... average salary $123,000
General Practitioner ..... average salary $132,000
Dentist ....average salary $131,000
OPP officer .... average salary $76,000
RCMP officer .... average salary $72,000
Bank Manager ..... average salary $101,000
Nurse .... average salary $63,000                    ( there was a wide discrepancy here )
Secondary school teacher .... average salary $90,000   (there was a wide discrepancy here )
Member of Parliament .... average salary $163,000
Prime Minister ..... average salary $327,000
Cabinet Minister, Speaker, Leader of Opposition .... average salary $242,000
Captain, Canadian Armed Forces .... average salary $77,000
General, Canadian Armed Forces .... average salary $156,000
Private, Canadian Armed Forces ..... average salary $48,000
Engineering Manager ..... average salary $113,000
Construction Manager .... average salary $160,000
Construction Worker .... average salary $39,000
Electrician ..... average salary $40,000
Plumber .... average salary $25,000      (there is a wide discrepancy here)

This list goes on. Pick your salary to complain about, we all have our bĂȘte noirs. The point is that there is clearly something wrong when we willingly accept that some people who do jobs that involve playing games, sitting in an office, telling us what to do or think, or other such things, are paid more than those who heal, protect, work with their hands, and, in the most extreme example, die or suffer grievous injuries in the name of defending the society that pays them their wage.

How did this happen? How did we allow this ? And, perhaps more importantly, what does this say about us as a society? Our priorities are indeed out of whack. In the bigger picture, it's not just about salaries or who does what kind of work. I chose salaries as a means to shed light on what I perceive to be our inability to make the right kinds of decisions in the direction we, as a society, indeed as a species, are heading. We are, as John McFarlane, the editor of "The Walrus" magazine, says, "drunk on popular culture" and are unwilling or unable or just too lazy to face certain truths. We enjoy hearing about the latest childish misadventures of pop stars or actors, but don't want to be bothered about famine, war, disease or suffering.  We pollute our environment despite the dire warnings. We allow the wealthy corporate elites to increase their profit margins by sending good-paying jobs to foreign countries. Indeed, we encourage foreigners to come here to take jobs from Canadians simply because the foreigners are willing to work for small wages and no benefits. And, out of that, we are told to believe that anyone who is different from us, who come to our shores seeking a better life than the one they left behind, are somehow sinister, threatening, or making us give up our traditions or beliefs. We don't see their humanity and wishes for working to improve their own or their family's situation. We shrink from solving our impending pension and debt crises, believing that, somehow, winning an imaginary lottery will be our salvation. We spend like there is no tomorrow. We try to keep up appearances, thus heightening our self worth and self esteem. We turn away from images of cruelty and violence in other parts of the world, yet lap up entertainment in sports and movies and video games that glorify gore and suffering. We incessantly complain about our cowardly and cynical leaders, both corporate and political, yet refuse to get involved in the process of demanding better from them. We gobble up petroleum in obscene amounts, and call those who advocate for cleaner and renewable sources of energy cranks or tree huggers. We eat and drink like obese gluttons while billions eat very little and eat very poorly. We vilify those who raise alarm bells and praise those who entertain or titillate us.

As the cartoon character Pogo once said: "we have met the enemy, and he is us."

What went wrong?    

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