We need honest talk about the economy, not fear and ideology

Posted on September 11, 2015 in Debates

TheGlobeandMail.com – Globe Debate
Sep. 10, 2015.   Bob Rae

Bob Rae is a lawyer with OKT, teaches at University of Toronto, and is the author of What’s Happened to Politics

Canada’s economy is facing some tough challenges, and honest leadership matters more now than ever. With the notable exception of the United States, most of the world is in recession, or very close to it. Commodity prices are tanking, and the world’s fastest-growing economy – China – is in a serious slowdown. Oil, gas, and mining are all in trouble, and so the communities and suppliers that depend on a healthy resource economy are hurting badly too.

Stephen Harper’s minority governments spent money at a good clip, buoyed by the surpluses of the later Chrétien/Martin years. Ironically for him, he then ran deficits during bad times, adding more than $150-billion to the federal debt after the financial crisis of 2009. But a balanced federal budget was always the holy grail, and the Harper campaign belittles anyone who speaks of deficits again. Apparently Conservatives can have them, but woe betide those who ran them before they got there or propose them after they’re gone.

Unfortunately, Mr. Harper’s home remedy ignores both sluggish growth worldwide and the still-weakened condition of the Canadian economy, to say nothing of the fall in oil prices, uncertainty about Chinese growth, Greece, and now the refugee and re-settlement crisis. All these have only seemed to heighten Mr. Harper’s determination, regardless of what is happening in the real economy.

The Canadian economy is performing well below capacity, and growth is, well, elusive. Interest rates are low. It’s a good time to lock in some long-term investments. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s plan is said to be “risky” because he talked about deficits as being more sensible in the short term than pursuing austerity. He has rightly said that growth and controlling spending will produce balances and surpluses, and as Yogi Berra rightly pointed out “it ain’t boasting if you done it.” Canada has been able to do it before, and it will again.

By way of contrast, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has promised to balance the budget, no matter what, in his first year. He will also spend money on child care, transit, the environment, indigenous priorities, you name it. He determinedly points to balanced budgets in Saskatchewan as his guide to policy and action, and insists that higher corporate taxes would mean balances without any undue pain, and would pay for all the new programs.

Collapsing corporate profits do not produce higher revenues, even if you jack up taxes. As Billie Holiday rightly observed “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. And rich is better.” Corporate tax revenues may not recover for a few years yet. And Saskatchewan’s winning formula always depended on healthy commodity prices and resource revenues from an expanding economy.

As Mr. Harper pointed out himself during the last recession, there are times when investing in the future, and thus running a deficit, is in fact the better option. It is certainly better than making the recession worse.

So no matter how hard the ad-makers and the occasional weirdo candidate eruption will try to convince us otherwise, this election is not a Seinfeld show. It is actually about something. Voters will be assessing character, competence, honesty, and just plain good sense. We don’t know what the world economy will be like in a year, or two, or three. The federal government’s financial situation is relatively healthy, but the country around it is still fragile. A plan needs to do more than vilify opponents, and it has to do more than promise the moon and all with balanced budget on your doorstep tomorrow. A plan needs to look beyond fear and ideology, building on successes and experience that we have had before as a country and will have again. There are limits to what the country can borrow, spend, and tax, and whoever is in power will face those issues clearly enough. But we have other deficits to deal with – in transit, housing, and infrastructure, as well as social justice – and the country’s leaders ignore these, and how to pay for them over time, at their peril.

Already pollsters are telling us things are different from what they were a month ago. In the world of the 24/7 news cycle, a tweet is a long time in politics. Above all we have choices, which is far better than the alternative. Churchill was right. We have the worst of systems, except for all the others.

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