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Catherine Holt: Good business requires good government, too

If you follow Bill Gates and Warren Buffett — those icons of American capitalism — you might have been startled recently, as I was, by their adamant view that they, and other members of the one per cent, need to pay way more taxes.
Microsoft co-founder and Berkshire Hathaway board member Bill Gates, left, and Berkshire Hathaway chairman and CEO Warren Buffett both agree the wealthy need to pay more in taxes, Catherine Holt writes.

If you follow Bill Gates and Warren Buffett — those icons of American capitalism — you might have been startled recently, as I was, by their adamant view that they, and other members of the one per cent, need to pay way more taxes.

This goes against what has been considered gospel — that the private sector does not support handing over hard-earned money to government.

We want our politicians to enable the private sector so it can thrive and create jobs and a strong economy. But when it comes to the public sector, there is often an attitude that government is wasteful and a financial burden that needs to get out of the way.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, countries that too often set the tone for Canadian attitudes, there is a serious clash going on between the private and public sectors. Their national governments are led by private-sector champions on a mission to dismantle the institutions they were elected to lead.

But in this clash, Gates and Buffett are unexpectedly at the forefront as defenders of the public sector. They talk about government keeping a society and economy healthy by providing services that enable people, especially workers, to stay healthy, educated, safe and mobile.

Gates and Buffett are driven by the appalling information that life expectancy in the U.S. has been on a decline since 2014. The same is happening in the U.K. Lower life expectancy is typically an indicator of an “undeveloped” country, where public services are inadequate to elevate a country’s population to a higher standard of health and education and therefore income and longevity.

Thankfully, there is less dramatic news in countries with a mutually beneficial relationship between government and business, such as those in Northern Europe as well as Switzerland, New Zealand, Germany, France — and Canada. Life expectancy is stable or continues to creep upward. People report high levels of happiness, financial stability, education and health.

I recently read a good case study of this in a fascinating piece in the New York Times about a young couple who moved from New York to Helsinki, Finland. The couple was pleasantly shocked to find, not just a better standard of living for themselves, but what they see as a capitalist paradise.

Companies can thrive and better compete globally because their workers are healthy and financially stable. Unlike the U.S., employers and workers in Finland don’t have to create and pay for their own expensive corporate or personal solutions for parental leave, child care, housing, education, health care or transportation.

This takes me back to the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce and our advocacy priorities for 2020. Each year, our very active public policy and advocacy committee decides what areas we want to see government improve to make our region a better place to do business.

The dominant concern I continue to hear from Chamber members is that, in our current low unemployment economy, we have too many jobs going unfilled. We need more workers. And that means we need government help with things that attract workers — affordable and available housing, childcare, transportation and better access to health care.

If we took the Finnish approach — or maybe we should call it the Buffett/Gates approach — we might say that there is a virtuous circle created when businesses pay taxes for government to run public services. Run well, these services form a strong social fabric needed to support workers so they can function at home and work. We can take it a step further and see this partnership as a way to become a destination of choice for those who want to build a career and raise a family.

Everyone wants the best and the brightest — what are we offering to make them come here?

We already have the landscape, the weather and the jobs. How about upping our game in other ways? What if we had housing that didn’t require you to mortgage your children’s future, or if child care was available at a reasonable cost rather than relying on your worn-out parents or your neighbour?

What if you didn’t need a car because the bus goes by your stop every eight minutes, as do the new rapid-bus routes in Vancouver and in many cities in Europe and Asia? What if health care didn’t require taking hours off work to sit in a germ-ridden clinic to have five minutes with an over-worked GP you’ve never laid eyes on before? Or what if university tuition was only $250 per year — as in France?

Tthe Chamber will continue to speak up when businesses are hit by unexpected taxes such as the Employer’s Health Tax, which transfers all the burden to private sector employers, or when governments waste money on poorly run infrastructure projects. It’s important to call out policies that manipulate markets, such as the speculation tax, or unfairly ask businesses to pay property taxes that are multiple times the rate charged to residential properties.

Holding government accountable is critical for democracy. There’s always room for improvement.

But we can still recognize the powerful benefits that come from a strong partnership between government and business. It’s what can put us among the very best places to live — and we might even live a little longer, too.

Catherine Holt is CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.