Start old age security at birth

Posted on February 20, 2013
Filed Under Commentary, Economic & Political Philosophy, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment

For years we have been hearing that the industrial age was near its end. The information age was on the horizon. Transition times are painful but, once the page has been turned, no one really wants to turn it back.

When I first came to the Miramichi, the woods were full of leather-skinned, steel-boned, cable-muscled men with huge chain saws. I marveled at their ability to work in the hot, humid woods for so much of the day. I marveled even more at the fact that, on Friday afternoons, half tons with chain saws in the back were parked outside the Low Tide. After a week of gruelling labour, these pulp cutters had the energy and strength to party like madmen all weekend. There was a level of intensity about their humour and zest that was exciting and fun but never more than a moment or two from scary.

One of the things that always amazed me about them was how they could work as they did among millions of mosquitoes and black flies and moose flies. When I asked about that, they said, “They aren’t too bad if you don’t drink water”.

Ah, I thought. That explains it. They work all day in dust, heat and humidity that would drop an NFL lineman and they don’t hydrate!

Those men were gradually replaced by mechanized forestry machines. There was a lot of resistance and protest but, even then, more and more of the men who did the work were being brought in from rural Quebec.

Now you could not find young men who would want to work like that. We have a hard time to get apples picked.

This is not a bad thing. No one wants to work like that anymore.

The same is true, I think, of assembly line work. I’ve seen an acre of women keypunching gasoline credit card transactions. I’ve seen three men tied to a metal press so that, when the lead hand hit the activation buttons, tethers pulled the other two men’s hands away from the machine.

I’ve hand fed 100,000 numbered, perforated, milk tickets, in sheets of 10, into a printing press.

Jobs like these have been sent off shore to India, China and other third world countries. We miss the union wages they used to command in North America but we don’t miss the work.  Those jobs won’t be coming back and, with luck, the people, many of them children, doing them now will soon be able to move on to more gratifying and rewarding enterprise. The future of menial, repetitive jobs is in robots.

We can look at that as a problem or as liberation and opportunity. With intelligence, we can redirect our human resources to more creative and engaging work. We can even manage our economies so that people do not have to work nearly as much or as long.

There is no shortage of things to be done. Conservation, reclamation, and landscaping are all things can be interesting, productive and, on a planet of limited resources, practical.

If we arrange for the production of robots to be shared, we can provide a high level of basic necessities to everyone with much less work. If you consider the amount of world-wide production that goes into absolutely non-productive work like war it is obvious that it does not take many people to produce what we actually need and want.

If you consider the segment of the population involved in government and corporate bureaucracies, it is obvious that only a small percentage of people are actually producing things now. I’m not denigrating bureaucracies. I’m just saying that, as these functions are automated, computerized and delegated to robots, most of our population will be freed up for other purposes.

Already many of the things we do produce are more for our souls than for our bodies. Fashion, cosmetics, music, movies, television, literature, and games are all quality of life assets, not bare sustenance. They are also huge elements of our economies.  The creation of beer, wine and spirits is a huge industry. Gambling is viewed as an economic generator. There is a large underground economy in marijuana and other drugs. We support thousands of people in prisons and the people who watch over them.

Where does education fit into all of this? We tend to think of it in terms of making us fit to work. On that scale, education must be our biggest investment from now on. There was a time when education was a luxury for the rich and powerful. There was no need or motivation to educate the peasants. Education just made them ambitious and made them wonder about things.

Now, education can become a luxury readily available to all. Someone said, “The educated palate never goes back”.

A taste for better food, better music, better literature and better art enrich life and wisdom and civilization.

Instead of bemoaning and grieving for the dead industrial age, we should be insisting on political, social and economic models that would take advantage of the new opportunities.

One of the first ought to be to eliminate poverty. That is not only the right thing to do, it is the practical thing to do. Contrary to what some rich people would have you think, money does not trickle down, it flows uphill. When people have money, they spend it and we all get a taste as it flows back to the top.

It should also be obvious that, unless all of us are safe, none of us is safe. As long as there are people out there who are hungry or cold, who cannot feed their children and have no hope, how safe are you and I?

Therefore, we should do everything possible to liberate people from poverty, offer them education and hope.

Oddly enough, there is already a very simple and beautiful program in Canada that could serve as a model.

It is the Old Age Security program. At 65, every Canadian is entitled to get it. It runs about $750 per month. When it was made income related, the federal government set up a program to reduce it for high income earners. When your net taxable income, after deductions, reached $50,000 per year, they began to claw it back at the rate of 15%. If your net taxable income was $51,000, they took back $150 from your next year’s payments. By the time your net taxable income reached $100,000, it was all clawed back and you got nothing. You won’t find too many people crying for someone with a net taxable income of $100,000 and that was when it was started. It is an indexed program so now you’re up to about $120,000 when you are on your own.

The people receiving OAS pay income tax on what they receive, of course.

It is so simple and so beautiful, it requires that we give politicians and bureaucrats more credit than we usually like to do.

Why not put every Canadian on OAS the day they are born?

I know it sounds crazy expensive but would it be, really?

For one thing it would release many people from the welfare trap. Now, if a person on welfare does go to work and earn some money, we not only claw back almost all of it, we take away extended health care benefits for him or her and any children.

It could also make it possible for welfare or working poor parents to finish their educations. I met many women over the years who needed only a couple of credits to finish a degree. They could not because, if they quit their entry level jobs, or were already out of work, they would lose unemployment benefits.

We would still need a certain level of monitoring for the protection of children and spouses from having the family incomes drained for substance abuse or gambling. In fact, we may need more of that now for people who are not on welfare.

Yes, some people may game the system and we might need to insist on some public service contribution from people not in the work force. Even physical disability need not disqualify people from that in this information age.

It seems to me that most people who earn some money are always interested in earning at least a bit more. I think bringing people out of the welfare trap might instill many of them with ambition.

What is the alternative? Cheap foreign labour and robots are going to do the dirty work. Are we going to let the benefits of that accrue only to a continually shrinking percentage of the very richest people. And who is going to buy what the robots produce if the lower economic classes have no money?

Business people often oppose increases in the minimum wage because it motivates business to look for more ways to avoid hiring people. I’m not sure that is true if everyone is on a level playing field to hire. I think there is more money in the system when the poor have more money.

However, if everyone was on OAS, the minimum wage would be less of an issue from an employer’s perspective and an employee’s. An employer would have to offer enough to tempt someone to improve on OAS. An employee might have a range of options including full or part-time work.

People often wonder why empires and great societies crumble and fail. I’ve read a suggestion as to why the Islamic world, once the world leader in arts and sciences, has fallen behind. The writer suggested it was because, with policies excluding women from education and participation in government and industry, they were using only half of their human resources.

Whether it be men or women, I don’t think any society has much future if it excludes a growing percentage of its human resources.

A good first step to a better educated, more engaged, wiser citizenry, prepared to contribute to and live to the fullest in the modern world is to eliminate poverty.

On we go! DAC

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