HOW TRUDEAU WASTED A CHANCE TO SPARK CANADIAN ECONOMIC GROWTH DURING THE PANDEMIC
“I tried to suggest that there is a risk of complacency in ordinary times and that a crisis is the time when you might be able to mobilize some coordinated efforts to do better,” the Nobel Prize-winning economist said in an interview with the National Post this week.
Trudeau has paid lip service to investing for the future but the frustration for many of the coalition’s members is that the Liberal government is more focused on redistributing the existing economic pie than generating the wealth needed to ensure future prosperity.
Senior Liberals concede that thinking about the economy has not been the first instinct of any ministers in the government since the departure of former finance minister, Bill Morneau. The belief seems to be that ongoing affluence is ordained and guaranteed.
Trudeau and his finance minister, Chrystia Freeland, would prefer to talk about social justice issues than productivity, business investment or competitiveness. We have just spent a month-long election campaign where economic performance was barely mentioned, save when it touched on the nexus with gender politics in the form of childcare.
Ottawa positioned its 2021 budget, and its $100 billion in new spending, as “a recovery plan for jobs, growth and resilience.” Yet informed observers like former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge said “being generous, very generous, only 20-25 per cent was for growth, the rest was to boost personal and government consumption.”
But what we are really talking about is prosperity – and the prospect that it is imperilled.
A report by a group of 12 senators under the umbrella the Senate Prosperity Action Group that was released earlier this month illustrates this country’s failing grades.
Canada is the world’s 10th largest economy but in global competitiveness, it is 14th out of 141 countries; in GDP per capita it is 15th; in productivity, it is 18th; in terms of ease of doing business it is ranked 23rd; and in gross domestic research and development spending it is 18th.
Canada’s relative prosperity has worsened over time – in 1970, GDP per capita was 15 per cent lower than in the U.S.; in 2019, it was 25 per cent lower.
Equally troublesome is business investment – or lack of it.
Businesses across the OECD invested 40 per cent more per worker than Canadian companies, and U.S. firms 75 per cent more – in part because of the perception that it is difficult to get projects off the ground in this country.
Even Canadian firms have been investing abroad to benefit from more attractive investment environments (as a share of GDP, Canada’s taxes on corporate profits and payroll taxes are higher than the OECD average, while the average top marginal personal income tax rate in Canada is 53.5 per cent, compared to 47 per cent in the U.K. and 46 per cent in the U.S.)
If the Canadian economy was the Starship Enterprise, a yellow alert light would be flashing, and shields and phasers would be on standby.
The Liberals have also presided over a fiscal landscape that has the potential to undermine progress.
Annual federal program expenditures as a percentage of GDP grew to 27.9 per cent during the pandemic but will remain close to 20 per cent in the current year – much higher than the 13.6 per cent the Liberals inherited six years ago.
The Senate Prosperity Group’s report did not advocate an austerity push but said there is a need to avoid financing new programs with new debt.
The Liberal commitment to fiscal sustainability is implied, rather than explicit. The party’s election platform suggests that Canada’s debt to GDP ratio will decline slightly year on year to reach 46.5 per cent in the middle of the decade, by which time deficits will have dropped to a more normal range of $32 billion.
Ragan is skeptical. “Prudence is not really being talked about. I worry they are not going to be as successful as they think they are going to be,” he said in an interview. The Parliamentary Budget Office noted that a one point increase in interest rates could add $10 billion to public debt charges by mid-decade.
In their election platform, the Liberals did promise a strategic policy review of government programs – although not one that would be driven “by cost-savings or deficit reduction objectives” – as if such goals were now impolitic.
But such audits tend to flatter to deceive. A 2016 review of the hundreds of billions of dollars of tax credits that choke up the revenue system yielded just $3 billion a year in savings. Even the most unrestrained profligate would abolish tax incentives that were introduced to solve particular problems back in the mists of Canadian history but which are now superfluous – for example, the 10 per cent credit on investment in Atlantic Canada, introduced in 1977, or the tax relief for construction contractors, in effect since the early 1970s.
Kevin Milligan, professor of economics at the University of British Columbia, said he will be looking at the mandate letters of the new Cabinet to see if there is an intention to follow through with a real review of spending. He said he is generally at ease with Ottawa’s fiscal position but concedes “there is not a lot of wiggle room there.”
Attendees at the Coalition for a Better Future summit will be interested to hear from Romer, who made his name as a growth theorist and has long pioneered the optimistic view that the historical pattern has been one of accelerating growth.
That view, though, has been tested in recent years.
He joked that he is a “recovering” University of Chicago economist. “Twenty or thirty years ago, the message I gave people was that we need an innovative market economy that generates new ideas. The message I give people now is that we need governments to do their job, together with an innovative market economy.”
The pandemic has revealed significant weaknesses in the capacity of government to perform its most basic function – protecting its citizens.
Romer said his concern is that governments are too weak to do the job that citizens want and need them to do, in part because “special interests” are able to stop government action. He is particularly concerned about the power of the tech sector to induce paralysis in government.
Romer introduced the idea of endogenous technological change into the world of economics – the concept that more researchers produce more ideas and ultimately make everyone better off because ideas are not depleted by use, unlike objects that, if used by someone, cannot be used by someone else.
He noted that Canada’s growth is constrained by higher wages being paid in the U.S. but that this country could make a virtue of being a place that specializes in building a different kind of innovative tech sector based on public service, not stock options.
Romer said such an initiative would require the involvement of the federal government. Yet Coalition for a Better Future has emerged to build a consensus for an ambitious plan for Canada’s economic future precisely because there is a policy vacuum.
The worry is that the federal government is too complacent and self-satisfied at its re-election to mobilize the efforts that are needed to get its finances in order and gear the economy to compete in a digitized world.
Story by: National Post