What Government Is For

Yes, this is a bit of a rant.


The Underhoused: Tent cities in (upper left) Vancouver BC, (upper right) Portland OR, and (lower right) new tents on a street in Nanaimo BC. The Vancouver site was bulldozed and converted to a playground. A new Portland tent city site has been installed by the local government, to mixed reviews. The original Nanaimo tent city site was bulldozed and replaced with “temporary” housing in construction trailers, and no one is happy. The building lower left is one of 2500 public housing “projects” run by New York’s NYCHA, housing nearly 400,000 people; the authority is near bankruptcy and many of the facilities are plagued with problems rendering them close to uninhabitable. 

The Tyee recently ran an article on the need for Vacancy Controls — the extension of rent controls to houses and apartments that are temporarily vacant. This would prevent renovictions and other forms of price-gouging and abuse by property owners in ridiculously overheated housing markets like Vancouver’s.

A shill for landlords and real estate speculators evidently screamed bloody murder and demanded an ‘equal time’ piece rebutting the proposal, which for some reason they gave him.

It made for discouraging reading. Vacancy Controls were, the opponent said, meddling in the market, depriving property owners of ‘market’ incentives to provide and upgrade rental housing. He wanted welfare instead — government handouts for those extremely impoverished to enable them to pay, in theory, for basic affordable housing. Anything else was meddling with property owners’ rights.

I guess he must be rich and out of touch with middle-class citizens. The median annual family income in Vancouver is $72,000 before taxes (works out to about $25/hr vs minimum wage of about $15/hr); that’s $51,000 after taxes. The median annual rent for a 2-bedroom home in Vancouver is $44,000 plus utilities. Basically less than one in five families working in Vancouver can (according to bank guidelines) afford to rent in Vancouver, and rents outside the city are now only marginally lower. These rents are completely unsustainable, and they’re increasing by 20% per year.

My response was:

When the necessities of life become unaffordable to a large proportion of the population, it is the absolute duty of all levels of government to enact laws to fix the problem. That doesn’t mean tinkering with the market, it means a massive program to construct a million or more quality housing units across Canada, and rent them out at affordable rates, even if that isn’t “profitable”. That’s what governments are for, and other countries have successfully done this. It’s really that simple.

Fifty or sixty years ago, price and rent controls were considered by most Canadians to be a reasonable way to deal with unaffordable housing and price-gouging, and any writer who wanted the ‘market’ to decide what rents should be, untrammelled, would have been loudly booed. But since then, the Overton window of accepted thought has shifted and shrunk, thanks to relentless conservative and right-libertarian propaganda, to the point that rent controls are considered by many if not most to be an unrealistic, discredited, socialist scheme.

I continue to believe, unfashionably now, that ensuring essential goods and services are available and affordable to all citizens is the fundamental purpose of government. Of course that is a socialistic idea. It also works. Raw, unregulated capitalism, which is the system we have now, and which we have been brainwashed to accept as the only system that has ever worked, is, by contrast, completely unworkable, good only for stealing resources and property from poor citizens, foreign countries, and future generations, and redirecting it to the very top caste of the elite of imperial nations — aka the 1% or the PMC.

Yet today, the right has so thoroughly smeared and discredited governments and public agencies and institutions, that even the lion’s share of progressives eschew expecting or requiring governments to do anything for their citizens; they’re increasingly viewed as corrupt, incompetent, obsessed with surveillance of citizens, and either totally unnecessary or a barely necessary evil.

But they’re not. Many studies over the past decades have shown that government and government agencies are, when they are not crippled and sabotaged by politicians, actually more efficient at providing goods and services than private corporations of similar size and scale. (John Ralston Saul’s books make this point eloquently.)

Furthermore, the criticism that governments simply cannot “afford” to ensure citizens have access to affordable essential goods and services is hogwash. The costs of dealing with the consequences of millions of people without secure, livable homes, without nutritious food, without access to essential health care, without a quality education, without reliable public infrastructure, and without adequate energy resources, is many, many times higher than the cost the government would incur to directly ensure these essential goods and services were available to all. And as depression-era programs have shown, when governments really are pressed to provide these goods and services, they suddenly discover they can afford to do so, and cannot afford not to do so.

Of course, this means taxes on the rich to pay for them. That is, taxes on the top caste who now own most governments, thanks to lax regulation, lax enforcement, heinous political funding rules, and corrupt and incompetent judiciaries.

And provision of such services would probably mean that there wouldn’t be money for wars and other forms of foreign military and political interference. What a tragedy, eh?

So I suppose I have to outline what government is for, in kind of theoretical terms, since it is highly unlikely that the top caste will cede its control and influence and allow governments to actually do their job.

I believe the government should authorize and control the construction and maintenance of millions of units of safe, comfortable, ecologically sound housing, and offer them at subsidized prices that enable all citizens to afford decent housing without spending more than 30% of their income on them. That would drive down the prices of units currently being built and rented by private developers. Maximum rental prices based on home size and local costs of living should be instituted to make more units affordable, and homes other than principal residences that are not rented out should be heavily taxed to bring them into the rental market or encourage the owner to sell them.

Food and energy are the two other essentials that should be governed by price caps and, in the case of energy, limited rationing against egregious excess usage. Foods included in national nutritional guidelines should be subsidized so that they are significantly less expensive than junk foods. Food and energy oligopolies should be broken up.

Universal and comprehensive health care and quality education including university should be free for everyone.

Essential public infrastructure — water, sewer, power, public transportation, communication, roads etc — should be maintained everywhere at minimum standards established by engineering and usage reports, with no delays or deferrals permitted.

And there should be a guaranteed annual income for all, based on living costs, and administered through the tax system (as a ‘negative income tax’). No one should have to live with the burden of debts exceeding the value of their assets, and debt jubilees and strict interest rate caps and anti-usury laws need to be reintroduced.

We could, theoretically, do this. Parts of it have been implemented throughout the world, repeatedly and successfully. We can afford it. We can’t afford not to do it. But with our economic, political and, increasingly, our social systems in an ever-growing state of collapse, we won’t do this. Nevertheless, regardless of what conservatives and right-libertarians may tell you, it’s not impossible.

This is, after all, what government is for. To ensure that the essential needs of its citizens are met, full stop. We seem to have forgotten.

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6 Responses to What Government Is For

  1. Ray says:

    I’m afraid that’s not what governments are there for. That’s what the “governed” sherp have to believe (no brainwashing trick to achieve this goal should be left out) in order to get fleeced by the governing elite.
    This is independent of the label that the governing elite sticks on their so-called form of governing.

  2. Theresa says:

    If there is one thing, one legacy of Civilization worth saving, it’s the Building Code.

  3. Joe Clarkson says:

    I agree, but the vast majority of people here in the States do not. That’s why they voted for Reagan et al and do everything they can to prevent governments from helping poorer citizens.

    I think the most basic reason here in the US is the success of the “southern strategy”, which has racism at its core. Maybe if everyone in the US were white Christians, governments would have a chance to promote equality of economic circumstance, but certainly not if “those people” would benefit.

  4. bogwood says:

    It’s complicated, but working on the population side makes sense to me. Stop all immigration for a decade. Stop most subsidies for children, particularly more than one child. Slow down the subsidies for cities. Less new building.

  5. Jeff says:

    Yes. This is the unfinished business of removing the 1% from control. George Lakey’s recent book Viking Economics shows how Nordic societies have attained high satisfaction and well being with universal services, investing in the population, that the wide majority support and pay taxes for. They attained it by struggling for it with mass nonviolent campaigns to push aside the 1% control. And they remain entrepreneurial societies, with private businesses and social mobility. Not nirvana, but strong examples of what can be done. He goes over the arguments of skeptics and offers responses. His later book How We Win is full of resources to do just that.

  6. Bill says:

    > when they are not crippled and sabotaged by politicians

    If I thought it were possible to stop this then I might be a socialist.

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