By Steve Boyd
At 8 a.m., I walked along a street near my home in the east end of Toronto.
It would previously have been bumper to bumper with rush-hour traffic. Instead, there were no cars, no delivery trucks. One streetcar rumbled by with only the driver on board, all the passenger seats empty.
The street was almost completely quiet except for the cooing of the many pigeons that wobbled along the sidewalk, no longer having to dodge around the usual pedestrians.
The shops were all closed down with various signs in their windows saying things like, “We are closed due to Coronavirus” or “Thank you healthcare and frontline workers”.
One hand-written sign in marker pen said, “Hang in there! We’ll all be back to normal soon!”
That well-intentioned sign stopped me. It was from a kind-hearted person without a doubt. And it shared the desire of most of us to get past this pandemic and get back to the way that things were…to get back to ‘normal’.
I found myself slowly shaking my head at that sign though…not at the good intention of the ‘back to normal’ message but at the simple fact that normal was not working for most people.
I have to write that again even more strongly if I may: normal was not fucking working for most people. It was not. The normal life for the vast majority of people was a stressful struggle.
Working to keep one step ahead of bills, if you had a job. Paying fees to banks for even withdrawing your own money, if you had money. Seeing online video clips of the lifestyles of the wealthy, if you had a phone or a tablet or a computer to access the internet.
It was (and still is at this point) a system with massive, massive advantages for some and massive, massive disadvantages for others.
Please consider this: multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos (founder/major shareholder/driving force behind Amazon) makes $8.9 million per hour on average. $8.9 million. PER hour. And financial reporting indicates that his income has dramatically increased since the coronavirus hit the world.
How was this ‘normal’ a good thing we should want to return to when there are people starving, living on the streets, or barely scratching out a living on poverty-level wages?
The wealth gap is no longer a gap! It is a wide, wide canyon that stretches farther than the eye can see or imagine.
But there is more than the wealth or wage canyon that is wrong with our ‘normal’.
The environment is without a doubt collapsing around us in many, many ways. The frozen north and south poles are melting almost ten times faster than previously predicted…icebergs the size of major cities are breaking off and plunging into the ocean. The oceans are awash with plastics that are made by the petroleum industry and all bodies of water are rapidly becoming warmer. What were once once-a-century wildfires and storms are now annual events. Species of living things are dying off week after week after week.
The air we breathe, the water we drink, the foods we eat have all become risky.
Why? The world continues to burn more fossil fuels every year despite multi-national pacts such as the Paris Agreement signed in 2016 as per the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. And governments and major corporations continue to ignore the protests and outcries from people around the globe.
Meanwhile, the oil industry continues to be insanely profitable for its shareholders and executives while at the same time asking for and getting huge government tax breaks and bailouts.
None of these things should be accepted as part of the new normal we want. None of them!
We should not go back to a system where success is measured by money and power, where ruthless business tactics are admired, where there are only a very few winners but billions of losers who are kept down by the very system of ‘normal’ that this shop window sign hopes to return to.
In its simplest form, capitalism is about competition and that can be a good thing. But capitalism has grown into something else entirely…it has become deadly and a winner-take-all battle where the extremely wealthy control all the levers and laws and then only allow a drip-drip-drip of money and opportunity to reach the masses…that’s us. You. And me.
In the old ‘normal’, governments kept bringing in ‘austerity budgets’ year after year to deal with deficits and long-term debts owed to global financial groups and banks. Those budgets continued to give tax-breaks to the wealthy and big corporations while squeezing as many dimes and dollars as possible out of education and healthcare and social safety systems and environmental programs and public transit systems and so much more.
Please also consider this: Do you have an off-shore tax haven? I don’t and most people don’t. But almost all major corporations do and almost all high-income/high-wealth people do in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Europe, and almost every country in the world.
Some of the biggest corporations on the planet pay next to no taxes to any country’s government anywhere in the world. Some of the wealthiest people pay a much, much lower tax rate than the $20-an-hour woman or man who right now is wearing a mask and trying to keep safe while working at your neighbourhood grocery store.
That was not a good normal we should yearn to return to. It’s a wasted, wasted wish.
We need a new normal…a big, brave, loud as hell, for-everyone normal.
A normal that doesn’t have a rigged system that lets some thrive in levels of luxury and power that most of us cannot even imagine while the forgotten poor get poorer and the middle-class dwindles into becoming nothing but powerless worker bees just glad to get the weekend off. We need a new normal that revives your passion, my passion, all of our passions for kindness, fairness, community…not measured by how well the stock exchanges are doing.
So many western countries now measure success through things like the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) numbers which reflect the monetary value of all finished goods and services made within a country.
The country of Bhutan, south of Tibet, instead has the Gross National Happiness (GNH) way of measuring success. It focuses on people’s quality of life, and makes sure that “material and spiritual development happen together.” We can have a new normal like this.
We need a new normal that ends our reliance on petroleum products…this is madness with a capital M and a capital A and a capital D. MAD! The oil industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to lobby and influence governments…they succeeded in the old normal.
We need a new normal that gets governments at all levels to work tirelessly to create better lives for the majority of our populations. They should not work for companies or lobbyists, even though it seemed that way in the old normal.
We need a new normal that eliminates ALL tax dodges. Every person and every company should and must pay their share of taxes. How can anyone justify companies that set new profit records year after year after year but pay nothing or next to nothing in taxes?
History shows that people and groups with power and wealth rarely give these things up willingly. But history also shows that major events such as wars, famine, or pandemics can and do lead to dramatic changes.
Please consider this last one: There are about 7.6 billion people in the world…a mind-boggling number of people! Among those billions of us, there are 2,153 billionaires (2019)…a very, very small percentage of the population. Yet the richest 1% on earth own about 51% of all wealth and assets on earth. In the U.S., the richest 1% own more wealth and assets than the bottom 90%.
We have a world-wide opportunity right now to NOT resurrect the things that weren’t working for most people but rather to build fairer systems that deliver better lives, eliminate wage canyons, fight hard against environmental collapse, and gang-tackle the driving force of 21st century capitalism: greed.
Greed, greed, and more greed from the already wealthy.
There are leaders right now who are speaking out for and pushing for a totally new normal. I, for one, am behind them and supporting them. You don’t have to shout or march in the streets (yet) to demand a better new normal. You just have to speak out. Speak out as often as you can. Push back a little or push back a lot but push back.
Your voice may feel small and unheard. Mine does. But a lot of voices can make a lot of noise.
I ended my morning walk along that nearly silent Toronto street thinking about ‘getting back to normal’ versus ‘building a big, brave new normal’.
As I neared the side street I live on, I spotted another person walking along the sidewalk toward me…the only other person I’d seen besides the streetcar driver. As we neared, he stepped closer to the closed shops and I stepped off the curb onto the street, both of us making wider room for passing each other.
We smiled as we got closer and I said good morning. He said the same and then quietly added, “Can’t wait for things to get back to normal.”
I smiled and nodded and kept walking among the pigeons.
Steve is a writer who talks to strangers. He previously co-owned several companies including a large advertising agency in Canada. He has been lucky to meet wonderful creative people and has had his lyrics turned into songs and his thoughts shared widely. Currently, Steve owns and writes satire for thelapine.ca.