Deficits

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When Stephen Harper was elected, he promised to change Canada until we could not recognize it. In some respects he has succeeded. On the world stage, we are no longer viewed as peacekeepers. While we are not yet considered warmongers, we are certainly seen as willing cheerleaders to war. He has significantly diminished our environmental record; making us look foolish on climate change abroad while gutting environmental legislation at home.

But nowhere has Stephen Harper changed Canada more than in the way we think about government spending. While perfectly willing to run seven consecutive deficits, he has ingrained in the minds of Canadians both that deficits are bad (or has he?) and that he is in no way responsible for causing them. This is a peculiar sleight of hand. On the one hand, he claims to be a great economic manager while, at the same time, denying any responsibility for what happens in the economy. The strange thing is how many people, both in and out of the media, have been willing – are still willing – to go along with it.

Take the matter of deficits for a moment. Both Mr. Harper and, more bizarrely, Mr. Mulcair, swear up and down they will never run a deficit. Mr. Harper is understandable. Balanced budgets are an ideological touchstone for the Conservatives; it matters not what is good for the country, it only matters that he ascribes to the great shibboleth. Mr. Mulcair is of course trying to fight the image of the NDP as profligate spenders – even though the evidence is that NDP governments are no more likely to run deficits than anyone else (in fact slightly less likely). It is all perception not good policy that matters.

In fact, whenever Mr. Harper or his supporters tout his economic credentials, I want to choke. He has a Master’s from a not very good school of economics (U of Calgary is good at a lot of things but economics and political science aren’t among them). I know more economic theory than Mr. Harper ever actually demonstrates.

Deficits are part of the economic cycle. You run deficits when the economy is in recession or when it is running too slowly to sustain itself. Mr. Harper has already shown his inability (in 2008) to recognize an economic disaster and seems to be in denial about a recession this year that he probably caused. So it hardly means much when he makes fun of Trudeau’s proposal to run deficits to kick-start the economy. The Prime minister is as emotionally and psychologically committed to austerity – despite the growing evidence that it hasn’t worked most places – as he is to using oil as the sole driver of the economy.

The Liberal proposal particularly makes sense if the focus is on much needed infrastructure, improved education and productivity incentives. Those are exactly the reasons why families run deficits – to build houses, get university degrees and purchase tools and computers to improve their economic prospects.

It could be worse. I go into deficit to go on vacation – which I suppose in Mr. Harper’s case would be all those military adventures in foreign lands.

But that’s ten minutes.

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