Cui Bono?

Who benefits from government actions? Our corporate rulers
February 1, 2014

Lucius Cassius, a consul whom the people of ancient Rome revered as a wise and honest judge, was often required to adjudicate disputes involving the laws or policies of the Senate.

Time and again, his first question was “Cui bono?” which can be translated as “Who benefits?” or “To whose benefit?” His reasoning was that no political action could be explained unless it was first determined who gained from it.

The even more illustrious Roman orator and statesman Cicero often quoted this maxim of Cassius in his own speeches.

It’s an analytical query that is just as applicable today as it was more than two millennia ago.

If applied, for example, to most of the major laws and policies of the Harper government over the past eight years, it would reveal that the beneficiaries have overwhelmingly been the top executives, investors, and shareholders of the largest corporations.

They have certainly benefited financially from the massive corporate tax cuts, the privatization of public services, the attacks on unions and union rights, the refusal to curb  industrial pollution, the deregulation of controls on their marketing activities, and the lax enforcement of the regulations that remain.  

The business and upper class members of the élite also benefit – if only in the short term – from the government’s indifference to the inexcusably high rates of poverty, hunger and homelessness that afflict so many Canadians, including hundreds of thousands of children. Spending more on the poor would leave less for the rich, so is excluded from the agenda of a government that operates as a plutocracy serving the rich and powerful.

Shortly before last Christmas, Industry Minister James Moore, when asked by a reporter about the scourge of child poverty, claimed it was not the federal government’s responsibility to ensure that hungry people are fed.

“Is it my job to feed my neighbour’s kids?” he asked. “I don’t think so!” he declared, laughing.

He later apologized, but in reality he had blurted out his true feelings, and unquestionably those feelings are shared by most of his cabinet colleagues, including Prime Minister Harper. Their concern is solely for the welfare of the most affluent people, who never have to worry about being poor or hungry.

Also just before Christmas, the premiers of all the provinces met with federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to seek his support for improving the Canada Pension Plan. This is an urgently needed reform. Two-thirds of Canadians don’t have a workplace pension, and most can’t afford to put much into an RRSP; so they have to depend for retirement income on the CPP and Old Age Security. 

Boosting the CPP contributions and benefits would clearly be affordable for all but the smallest employers. But the big corporations would have to shell out a bit more, so it wasn’t surprising that Flaherty – who is guaranteed a hefty parliamentary pension himself -- quickly vetoed the provinces’ proposal.

“Any hike in CPP premiums,” he proclaimed, “would amount to a payroll tax that would result in fewer jobs and take money out of workers’ pockets.”

Subjected to the “cui bono” question, however, that statement really translates as “any hike in CPP premiums would amount to an increase in corporate taxes and take money out of shareholders’ pockets.”

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It’s not only the Harper government that is servile to the big corporations and billionaires. To varying degrees, all governments are. Canadian provinces may occasionally dare to defy their corporate overlords on some social issue, but basically they all see their primary role as keeping Big Business happy. That means keeping business taxes low, keeping regulations weak, keeping social program spending down, keeping pollution control measures minimal, and keeping unions on a tight legislative leash.

On an international scale, too, of course, the large corporations – especially the high-finance ones – are now in effect ruling the world. All governments have become the political arms of this global monster and all human beings now live under its oppressive capitalist economic system. Some countries in Europe have managed to retain some elements of self-rule, but their economies, too, have all been enmeshed to some extent in the vast global capitalist framework. 

This victory of plutocracy over democracy would be bad enough if it was confined to economic matters. But it has also been a victory of greed over equality, competition over co-operation, bondage over freedom, free trade over fair trade, war over peace, environmental pollution over protection, and, ultimately, madness over sanity.

For a planet whose atmosphere, seas, soil, and forests have already been ravaged to a nearly irremediable extent, uncontrolled capitalism is the worst possible economic system that could have attained global supremacy. Every one of its driving precepts – notably the unlimited pillaging of resources and their unlimited consumption – is the direct opposite of the set of measures that today should be the No. 1 priority for all the world’s people and institutions. 

We live at a critical time when only a concerted international crusade has any hope of averting ecological, social – and, yes, economic -- annihilation. But it is our greatest misfortune as a “civilization” that it is also a time when we are ruled by purblind ideological oligarchs. They remain hell-bent on putting their short-term affluence ahead of the long-term survival of humankind, and thus are the least likely world leaders ever to mount such a monumental rescue operation.

In the end, who benefits? Nobody.

Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.