Thursday, August 18, 2016

Still time to add The Sassafras Crossing to your summer reading list

Recently a friend handed me a copy of his recently-published first novel, and I promised to review it here. But as I started reading it, I realized my promise might be harder to keep than I first expected. You see, I have reviewed several books in this column in the past, but all of them were non-fiction. I like to read about history, politics, science, and social movements. When I read fiction, I usually head for the genres, what many might consider escapism. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, action/suspense, political satire, comedy, mystery, even alternate history share my bookshelf. But what my friend wrote doesn’t fall into any of these genres; as far as I can tell, it’s just fiction. So I didn’t know how to approach it.
Lindrith (Lindy) Davies usually writes about economic justice and the fairer, more sustainable society we could have if we funded government with land and resource rents, instead of taxing our wages and productivity. He also teaches courses on the topic and edits the related Georgist Journal. But this is his first foray into writing fiction, as much as it was mine into reading it.
At first, I couldn’t immediately relate to characters who were just regular people, or understand where the narrative was heading. But as pages turned and I dug into the story, I grew truly curious about how or if they would connect or come into conflict. The novel, The Sassafras Crossing, covers about a year in the lives of several young people who are somewhat adrift, post-college but pre-career, trying to find their place in the world. With their unexpressed ambitions and reluctance to dive into the corporate rat race, their semi-dependence on parents while working minimum wage service jobs, they evoke the so-called “millennials” many love to mock today. But this realistic tale set in the early 1980s clearly demonstrates that this so-called new phenomenon of an indeterminate or even shiftless period in the lives of young adults is nothing new. What really matters is the opportunities for fulfillment society ultimately offers.
Another compelling side to this story is the struggle of some of the characters to find their place in a world where their sexuality is not recognized or condoned. While this is still often a challenge today, it was even more so 30 years ago, yet people then were just as likely as now to find themselves not fitting into society’s heterosexual norms. How this plays out for various characters, or even that it is an issue for them, is something that is only gradually exposed and explored through the story.
The lift bridge whose action provides the title is itself a character in the story. This antique yet still-functioning engineering feat facing replacement by a more convenient, newer-style span is both a setting for much of the story and a metaphor for the ways our world is a constant weaving of old into new. In the intersection of road and river, the cars that drive across whose movement is interrupted to allow pleasure craft to navigate the channel below, the need for expert human operators to mediate these conflicting uses, we find metaphors for many of the life changes and decisions negotiated by human characters.
Meanwhile, the story also weaves in a mix of musical styles and cultures, attitudes about work and family, the tug-of-war between succeeding in the rat race or chasing your personal dreams, and the way these decisions may be re-evaluated and reconfigured at later stages in life.
If you enjoy reading fiction, I expect you will enjoy this novel, while if, like me, you aren’t usually a fiction reader, this is an excellent place to start.

Published as my Root Issued column in the Barrie Examiner as "A Foray into Fiction".
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The real reason the Tigers roared

Michael Den Tandt recently opined that Canada’s government should heed the example of Taiwan and the other Asian Tigers’ rapid economic growth, by freeing up trade and pushing through new pipelines.
In some respects, he is right, we should copy some of the economic policies the Four Tigers rode to success. But he misconstrues what those policies really were.
Of course, one key aspect to their early growth was authoritarian governments, run by generals or former generals who engineered their election as “president”. As he noted in another column the same week, Taiwan only began holding free elections in 1996; I add Korea elected its first non-general President around the same time, while Hong Kong has never known truly free elections, and Singapore has been dominated by the same party for the past 57 years, with the same President for 31. Various studies have concluded authoritarian governance played a key role in accelerating economic growth. I expect most Canadians would not rush to give up our democratic freedoms for a few more dollars or jobs, and one consequence of this democracy is that major projects like pipelines must earn their social license by proving their environmental and other bona fides before approval.
Asian "tigers" grew due to land value taxation
Besides that, though, Den Tandt praises the merits of “capitalism” and thus seems to believe the secret to their success is a pro-economic, laissez-faire, low-tax approach. However, this is a bit of a mis-read. It is true these economies mostly had low tax rates on income, profit, and sales. However, they all balanced that with a higher tax on land, as well as instituting land reforms to discourage or break up the large land holdings of rich families and make affordable parcels of land available to farmers or homeowners. It is this key approach that sets the Asian Tigers apart from most Western economies.
You see, the founders of the Republic of China, Sun Yat Sen and General Chiang Kai-shek, understood that a fair and just economy is based on using value created by nature and the community to fund government. They did this by fully taxing the value of land and any increase in land value. Nature creates land, and the presence of a growing community gives it value; this value is either returned to the community, or else pocketed by private land owners who managed to call “dibs” on it. If the community collects that rent to fund government services, then confiscatory taxes on wages, income, profit or trade aren’t necessary. But if private owners keep the benefit of land values, then government has no choice but to seek other revenue sources: you and your business.
The benefits of land value taxation are many. It is fair, because it only taxes what people take or use for themselves, instead of taxing what they produce for the community. Instead of a value-added tax that punishes enterprise, it serves as a “value-subtracted tax” discouraging waste, hoarding, or living off land and resource rents. People are free to keep what they make for themselves, while passing back to government the wealth created by nature or the community. In this way, land stays in private hands for optimal use, while land values are shared fairly by all.
So yes, Canada could learn about successful economic growth from the Asian Tigers; not through authoritarianism or low taxes, but by replacing unfair taxes on wages or added value with fair taxes on land, resources, government-granted privileges and monopolies. With the dead weight of poor taxation removed, our economy would be free to grow in a fair, efficient and ecologically-sound direction.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Poor taxation needs to be removed in order to let economy grow".
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins serves on the boards of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.