User fees are a scam against the poor and middle class

These are the last days of a legendary Newfoundland institution - the gravel pit party.

These are the last days of a legendary Newfoundland institution – the gravel pit party.

Some people have squatted for as many as 50 years on the same abandoned gravel pits, returning on weekends to their trailers or tents, using the pits for summer camps, like their more affluent neighbours use cottages on lakes. But leaving your gear in a gravel pit is now banned – like most once-free things in Canada.

Undoubtedly, the Newfoundland government is herding its campers toward the more manageable public parks.

This is only another symptom of the growth of taxation. For the last thirty years the federal and regional governments of the US and Canada have cut taxes for the wealthy while increasing them for medium and low-income families.

How did they accomplish this? With tax cuts for the wealthy, and two deadly words – user fees! Endlessly escalating user fees. And surcharges on user fees.

Not since the Great Depression has economic inequality been so enormous in North America. In 2006, one per cent of Americans earned more than 50 per cent of the entire nation’s income.

Yet taxes for the wealthiest 30,000 Americans have halved since 1970. These are the guys screaming the loudest about high taxes, and doing their best to make sure you pay their share.

The invention of the computer has facilitated this fleecing. We’ve entered a strange era where an unholy conjunction of plutocrats, computers and bureaucrats have aligned like evil stars in an astronomer’s nightmare.

Bureaucracy is a long-lived creature, drifting in and out of control since our earliest recorded history.

Some 4,500 years ago in ancient Babylon, in one of the oldest texts known to mankind, a citizen complained: “The inspector of the boatmen seized the boats. The cattle inspector seized the large cattle and then seized the small cattle. The fisheries inspector seized the fisheries.”

According to archeologist Samuel Kramer: “Even after death, officials could claim quantities of a man’s barley, bread, beer, even furnishings.” Harsh, eh? Or familiar?

In medieval Japan the rice taxes were so high they charged more rice per acre of land than the land could produce. The only way for the farmer to escape the taxes was to indenture himself to a lord who charged only slightly less, and maybe donate a son or two who could be sent to die in local wars.

Life hasn’t changed much, except for the addition of computers to the mix. Now they can bleed us without our noticing as the charges incrementally increase. We’re like frogs sitting in water gradually being heated. The temperature rise is so slight we don’t notice it until we’re cooked in a bowl of user fees and licences.

The word bureaucracy is derived from the words for desk and rule – the rule of the desk, and it’s bureaucrats who do the real work of the plutocrats and their pet politicians. The horror of bureaucracy is that it can also swallow well-intentioned politicians and bureaucrats trying to bring good governance to corporations or political regimes.

Yes, even bureaucrats can be the victims of bureaucracy. This was outlined in the Peter Principle, which brilliantly recognized that employees are promoted to their level of incompetence.

Combine this with Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the space made available, and you’ve got modern government. Parkinson discovered his law when he was appointed to learn why the British Colonial Office kept expanding while the British colonies disappeared.

Occasionally, a cluster of politicians or saintly bureaucrats appear, and attempt to reduce bureaucratic infestations, but cost cutting is usually ineffective because bureaucracy is a master of self-defence. Cutbacks often merely force it to reduce beneficial programs while retaining the bureaucracy that controls the funding.

User fees are not small potatoes. The federal government takes in $4 billion every year, and even the auditor general complained it’s making too big a profit on our expensive new passports.

The following are only some of the federal programs that charge user fees: race track supervision, national parks, grain inspection, citizen registration, fishing licences, broadcasting licences, specific statistical services (government-speak for billing us to find out what our government’s doing), aircraft landing, terminal rentals and concessions, contract policing, passports, scientific services, small business loan administration, publications. And so on. Arggghhh!

It’s worse when you consider municipal and provincial user fees which add up to 17 billion dollars a year. That’s a lot of user fees.

What’s wrong with user fees? Simple. They disproportionately affect the middle class and the poor. According to Jeffrey Sachs in The End of Poverty: “The history of user fees imposed on the poor is a history of the poor being excluded from basic services.”

For instance, you’d think our government would recognize our impoverished children need public services, sports, and the outdoors. Nope. These are slowly becoming the preserve of higher-income families.

Taking a family of four (including two teenagers) on a steelhead fishing trip in a national park for a long weekend costs approximately $120 in camping fees and nearly $200 in licences. That’ll keep the poor kids in the ghetto where they belong.

It costs $7 to $15 just to park your car and go for a walk in Ontario parks.

This year, I paid close to $120 for standard hunting and fishing licences.

User fees can be dangerous in other ways. Higher fare fees in urban areas literally drive people away from public transit, thus damaging the atmosphere.

Consider the taxes on gasoline. Sure, gasoline should be expensive to pay for the environmental damage vehicles cause, but sometimes it seems like more of the tax money is going to crucial matters like MP pensions than solar- and wind-power research or fuel-saving incentives.

Canada began charging income tax less than 100 years ago, and taxes have only grown steadily worse since then. Now our children face a future of expanding surcharges and licences and user fees and restrictions. It’s so bad they can’t even camp out in a gravel pit.

Brian Brett, poet, journalist and novelist, lives on Salt Spring Island and returns to the Yukon whenever he can. His new book, Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life, is forthcoming from Greystone Books.

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