OTTAWA — Bill Clinton doesn’t buy Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s dictum that there’s no such thing as a good tax.
The former U.S. president, speaking to a well-heeled Canadian audience Friday, ripped into a mentality he says is “gripping America today” in which the wealthiest are looking out for their own improving interests while everyone else is just trying to hold on.
Clinton, the former Democratic president who appears to enjoy immense respect in Canada, rattled off a series of statistics on the growing inequality of income distribution in the United States.
The amount of wealth held by the top 10 per cent compared to the bottom 90 per cent is hitting historic highs, Clinton told an audience that included Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney, a number of Conservative MPs, and a galaxy of business executives.
“I’m apparently one of the few people in that (high-income) group that thinks it’s a lousy idea,” Clinton drawled, drawing laughter.
“There’s too much inequality. This is not sustainable.”
With the National Arts Centre theatre packed up to the third balcony with patrons who paid up to $179 per ticket, Clinton is not getting any poorer. His speaking engagement in Ottawa was one of two Friday — the second in Montreal.
No cameras or recording devices — even by working news media — are permitted into the former president’s paid engagements, lest they diminish the currency of future talks.
But Clinton, who started his address a half-hour late, gave full value to the arts centre crowd with a 50-minute speech followed by almost 40 minutes of questions and answers with former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna.
It was during the latter session that Clinton critiqued what he says is a new form of conservatism that’s emerged in the last 30 years — and leads, he argues, to rising income inequality.
While Republican presidents as late as Richard Nixon still believed in the power of government action, said Clinton, Ronald Reagan came to power in 1980 with a message that all government is the problem, “there’s no such thing as a good tax” and any tax was “presumed bad.”
It’s a philosophy that was espoused by Harper as recently as last year, when the prime minister told the Globe and Mail there are two schools of thought on taxation.
“One is that there are some good taxes and the other is that no taxes are good taxes,” Harper said at the time. “I’m in the latter category. I don’t believe that any taxes are good taxes.”
Clinton had earlier argued that inequality, instability and unsustainability are the downsides to global interdependence that must be addressed in order to harness the many upsides of globalization.
As for the midterm elections being held next week in the United States, Clinton acknowledged they’ve become a “referendum on people’s anger and frustration” over the economy.
“Whenever you’re angry or anxiety ridden, there’s an 80 per cent chance you’ll make a mistake,” in your decisions, he said.
Clinton, fresh from some 117 appearances on the Democratic campaign trail, couldn’t resist more partisan posturing, arguing American voters elect Democrats “to fix things up. They think we’re fixers.”
“Otherwise they’d rather hear Republicans talk about lower taxes,” he said.
Those tax cuts, he immediately added in a low voice, increase government borrowing “and will compromise their future” — an aside that drew widespread applause and laughter from the arts centre crowd.
The United States, said Clinton, has been “at the mercy for too long of people who just want to hold on to yesterday.”