Death and Quebec taxes

Two-thirds of Quebecers think they pay too much in taxes.

Thus concludes a poll conducted from Jan. 8 to 10 for the Institut Économique de Montréal by Quebec’s Léger marketing firm. The same pollster reported, in a survey conducted three weeks later for Le Devoir, two-thirds of Quebecers would rather see a reinvestment in public services than a tax reduction.

You can’t help but be reminded of humourist Yvon Deschamps’s observation that Quebecers want an independent Quebec in a strong Canada.

But you have to admire the two per cent who told Léger that they think we should be paying more in taxes — although most of them are no doubt among the one-third whose income is too low to be taxed at all.

After all, it’s pretty rare to find a wealthy man (it’s mostly men, after all) who will concede that maybe the society that helped make them so rich might deserve a reasonable return on its investment. For every billionaire like Warren Buffett — “Warren Buffett has a simple explanation for why rich Americans should pay higher taxes” — there are thousands more in the top one per cent who think like Quebec economist Pierre Lemieux, who dismisses the idea that corporations have a social responsibility and asks “why should a business care for anything other than its own interest?

The same goes for the interests of the wealthy, of course. Since the first hunter convinced his buddies that allowing him a larger share of the meat would make him better equipped to go out and hunt more meat for the tribe, this “trickle-down” theory has been a favourite fairy tale of the economic elite, who now take home the lion’s share of the animal that they pay others to hunt and butcher.

There’s no more vivid example than Donald Trump’s latest tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, which will deprive the U.S. treasury of an estimated $2.2-trillion over 10 years. In exchange for this windfall, a number of corporations are publicly lauding Trump and promising new investments, though these promises represent a tiny fraction of the boosted bottom line. Billionaire private equity investor David Rubenstein told a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week that he expected most of the extra cash will go to buying back shares from individual investors and offering bigger dividends, a belief echoed by Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan. Although some of this will trickle down to grandma’s investment account, most will be used to consolidate the control and wealth of people whose only interest is to acquire more of the same.

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But back to Quebec, where the government estimates that corporate and personal tax havens are depriving the public purse of somewhere between $800-million and $2-billion a year.

Although Quebecers, on average, pay more taxes than other Canadians, we also get more for our money.

In a recent Montreal Gazette article about how high our taxes are here compared to other provinces and countries in the OECD, the reporter notes that a Université de Sherbrooke study concludes our tax burden is higher than the OECD average, but lower than in Greece, France, the Netherlands and Austria. But when you toss the value of government services (subsidized daycare, drug insurance, etc.) into the mix:

“… when monetary benefits received through the tax system are included, a single parent who makes the median salary or less has a negative net tax burden — meaning they receive more money through the tax system than they pay. For those individuals, Quebec’s tax system leaves them with more money in their pocket than any other tax system in the OECD would.”

So it makes sense that most Quebecers would like to see their tax burden lowered, but not if that means a reduction in the services that those taxes pay for.

The problem with the Institut Économique survey is that it isolates the yin of taxation from the yang of public services. Unlike the Le Devoir survey, it merely asks respondents if they’d like to pay lower taxes. In that context, it’s actually rather encouraging that one-third of respondents said “no.” ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.

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