Riding Toronto’s Dupont bus to work last month, I passed the series of holes representing new condo developments I’ve become used to along that street. But this time, as I looked with habitual dismay at the sign reading “Luxury Condominiums from $1.3M,” I was touched by some very sincere vandalism. Someone had climbed up to the sign and scrawled in Sharpie, “Where are we supposed to go?” and “Plz help!”
These are the concerns of a generation — so why are progressive campaigns uphill battles? Why are policies to benefit the 99% a hard sell? How do elections about affordability take us from the centre to the right?
This summer, federal Liberals and Conservatives are likely to get nasty as they assume election postures. It’s an opportunity for progressives to stand out positively. We can offer a way out of that same old cycle, but first we have to understand why that hasn’t worked before.
Our advantage is that we tend to have the facts on our side. We can go all-in on evidence-based plans without upsetting supporters. We don’t always lean into this advantage, but it’s there for our use: not having to put a spin on all your proposals saves a lot of energy.
So why do we often lose to campaigns that barely have a plan, let alone an evidence-based one? Our disadvantage is nearsightedness. We tend to bring only facts and proposals to debates, as if they’re enough on their own, but they aren’t.
How many times have you heard an exchange like this? A progressive candidate says, “We should do X, because it will have benefits A, B, and C, and furthermore, it’s the right thing to do!” Their opponents ask, “How will you pay for X?” Then the Liberal says to avoid a debt spiral, we should do only 10% of X, while the Conservative says tax cuts would be more beneficial.
At this point, it doesn’t matter how good the progressive candidate’s answer is, because they have already been cast in the role of idealist dreamer. It’s as if fiscal conservatism has become synonymous with realism.
The problem is that public discourse does not revolve around facts. It revolves around mythology.
When I say mythology, don’t hear “lies.” Mythology only means the stories we carry through our lives to make meaning of them, to show us where we can go from where we are. Good mythologies grow out of facts, but citizens can’t carry all the facts. There are too many of them, and they seem to contradict each other. Instead, we carry stories. This is human nature, for better and worse.
We have a certain public mythology of how the economy works. You know the one: it talks much of credit card debt and belts that should be tighter. But its cornerstone is the idea of jobs as golden eggs laid by the rich. This mythology best serves its creators: conservative politicians. It’s inaccurate but dominant. A cynic would say it dominates because it’s a simple lie, while economic facts are too complicated for most people to understand. But that’s false.
Conservative economic mythology dominates because it’s the only mythology on offer. We progressives oppose it with bare facts, which is like opposing an ocean with rocks. They sink right in. There’s plenty of room. They take their place at the bottom.
Let’s back up to that question: “How will you pay ... to solve homelessness? ... for sane classroom sizes? ... for Indigenous citizens’ rights? ... to leave our children a livable planet?” Wouldn’t we rather take issue with the question itself? To be progressive is to know in your bones that to ask these things is degenerate.
If Canada were a poor country, failing to solve these problems would be tragic. But in a wealthy country, their continued existence is an outrage that should be winning elections — even under our broken system. Yet somehow the degenerate question sticks. Again, the problem is mythology: that of government as intrinsically cash-strapped.
Progressives can’t continue to champion individual ideas with individual supporting facts. By arguing only over details, we endorse existing mythologies. We can’t continue proposing needful programs despite their expense. We can’t continue proposing only modest corporate tax hikes, as if they are things to feel guilty about. These are not electable postures.
Voters are waiting for a direct challenge to the old mythologies — which means proposing better ones. If we base our campaigns only on facts and policy ideas, we assume our place within a story someone else wrote. Instead, we should base our campaigns on a competing story — one better aligned with the facts, whose plot leads to the better world we want.
Lest it sound like all I’m advocating is a stirring “yes we can” slogan, I’ll illustrate a competing economic mythology. Could it be more factual? Absolutely. I’m no economist, but again, facts aren’t what we lack. The point is, it’s a lot more factual than the economic mythology we have now, and it’s also a lot more hospitable to progressive policies.
Here’s the core idea: money is a human invention for human convenience. Thus, so is an economy. It exists through governmental power, which is to say through the legitimacy of public will.
If the economy’s an artifice, it shouldn’t surprise us that it requires maintenance. If the government created it, it behooves the government to maintain it. Government is the only entity without a conflict of interest in doing so.
What sort of maintenance does an economy need? The whole point of money is to change hands. When a lot of money changes hands in a given year, we call that a high GDP and feel good. When money doesn’t change hands, it’s less useful, and we say our economy is doing poorly. Maintenance means keeping money moving. We can even imagine following an individual dollar, and judging it more useful the more hands it changes per year.
But here’s one true part of the prevailing economic mythology: it takes money to make money. Money has a sort of gravity, meaning concentrations tend to become more concentrated. The rich grow their wealth more easily; big businesses grow faster. If left unchecked, this useful property of money leads to inequality, stagnation, and instability. On one hand, you get pockets with huge amounts of money serving the interests of a few people — our largest corporations and wealthiest citizens. On the other, local economies come to a standstill — entire towns left behind by the auto industry.
These problems don't work themselves out, just as potholes don’t fill themselves in. Potholes only get worse when neglected, although they are, in a sense, natural — like inequality. But the thing is, roads themselves are not natural, and neither is an economy. If you’re going to create them, you have to maintain them. That’s common sense.
To keep money moving, you have one preferred option and one backup option. The backup option is to conjure more of it out of thin air. The preferred option is to take it away from where it’s become overconcentrated, and put it to a better use.
This is where we get blasphemous: the old mythology holds concentrations of money sacred. Supposedly, they are what generate wealth for the rest of us. It’s important to lean into this contrast, not away. In a better mythology, some concentration is healthy. After all, we want to reward hard work and smart risk-taking. But high concentrations do not generate widespread wealth; they impede it. As the concentration of money increases past a certain point, it ceases to be a just reward and becomes a dynasty. Money in this state circulates only narrowly, and is thus less useful.
The underlying principle is so obvious it can escape notice: money concentrates when income goes unspent. Where it's least concentrated, all or most income has been spent. So if your goal is to keep money moving, you should leave it where it is being spent and take it from where it isn't.
This picture of the economy suggests a clear outline for economic policy. Centre the tax burden on the most profitable corporations and wealthiest citizens. Work out lower tax margins for smaller businesses and moderately wealthy citizens. Impose no tax on citizens who struggle to afford a normal life — which includes buying a home and saving for retirement. Not only is it wrong to increase their hardship, but every dollar you take from them is a dollar they would have spent on food, clothing, school — in other words, goods and services that create jobs. Don’t take their money before it can create jobs. Take it after it’s been spent on a business — after it creates jobs.
Furthermore, making a business do a little more paperwork — the cost of which it can subtract from its taxable earnings — is far more efficient than making its customers each spend hours fussing with individual tax forms. This approach is a win-win-win on ethics, job-creation, and efficiency.
After you collect the money that had become the least useful, what do you do? Make like Robin Hood and just give it to the poor? Well, what I just said is a good argument for basic universal income. But fully funded public services are also crucial to economic health, because they provide a baseline quality of life that enables everyone to take part.
Here’s a perfectly good myth left derelict by prevailing economic mythology: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In economic terms, public services are the cheapest solution to social ills. They prevent or provide early treatment of poverty, crime, disease, and ignorance. Another win-win: save money by solving social problems early, and gain the productivity of as many citizens as possible.
I could go on, but I hope I’ve illustrated what a better mythology can get you: common sense on your side. Progressives often find that saying obvious things in public imperils their obviousness. This is because common sense is relative to your mythology. Candidates who want change but don’t challenge status-quo mythology end up fighting common sense. To communicate how obvious progressive ideas are, we must lead with our different view of the world.
Of course, you don’t want to underestimate the power of status-quo mythology — its defenders are brutal. But you also shouldn’t overestimate it. In an era of high angst, voter turnout still tends to be lower than in previous generations. Existing mythologies only win for a lack of competition. Conservatives and Liberals love that they can form government with the consent of a quarter of eligible voters. But citizens are hungry for a better story.
The economy is only one chapter in our collective book of mythology. But for progressive ideas to find traction, it’s the one that most needs rewriting. If you’re a progressive candidate, you probably found something in the above that you agreed with, but would be afraid to say because it’s blasphemous. Consider staking your campaign on it. The better you articulate your difference, the better you illustrate how much it matters who governs. Instead of thinking of the votes you may lose to the centre, think of giving non-voters a reason to vote, and voters a reason to volunteer.
Remember that question, “Where are we supposed to go?” What this person is asking for is a better story — a way of understanding the world that points to a viable future. Mainstream candidates are happy to spend debate time arguing about how to pay for things, because that won’t get this person’s attention. But arguing about the whole concept of an economy will, and that’s a conversation we need to have.