Mark that Economics Assignment an “F”

Much has been made of the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper, PC, MA, MP’s background in Economics. Today, in his response to the Speech from the Throne, the outgoing Leader of the Opposition, Stéphane Dion, laid the blame for pending deficits and a bare cupboard in Ottawa not on the world economic situation but at Stephen Harper’s doorstep.

And the Hon. Dr. Stéphane Dion, PC, PhD, MP, although his degrees are in political science and sociology, has the right of it. The Harper Government has failed Economics. Today Dion may have spoken as a partisan — but he also spoke the truth, and it would be wise for the Conservatives to pay attention.

I have written previously on the dramatic increases in spending since Harper took power — not even Paul Martin, in his attempt to hang on to power in late 2005, has sloshed money around as Harper’s Conservatives have. The goal, of course, was to empty the proverbial cupboard, thus protecting against changes of course should they lose the 2008 election. Those of us who understand and support fiscal conservatism have been appalled at this. Now these decisions are turning to bite the Government. Witness Raphael Alexander’s rightful indignation at deficits as an intention (and this is not the first time he has called the Conservative Government on the carpet for a failure to deliver on their promise to, well, you know, actually be fiscal conservatives).

We should all look at the destruction this slopping cash around like a drunken sailor in port after a year at sea has created. Had we actually built something permanent with that money — some $40,000,000,000.00 over three years — perhaps there would be no issue. Forty billion dollars would buy a lot: it would buy a fair bit of new high-speed electrified rail line on key transportation corridors; it would buy a fair bit of rapid transit and interurban transit for our metropolitan areas; it would buy a host of other and useful things for the future. Alas, what we got were a basket of slops — some here, some there, a handout for this and a package for that — instead of anything that represented stewardship of the country for the future.

Weren’t the many programmes in Industry Canada, Heritage Canada, HRSDC, and so on created and left over from the Chrétien years enough? Weren’t the buckets of spending from the Martin years enough? (Almost all of these carry on, of course, now part of the base budget and headcount of official Ottawa, even though most of them had completed their task to a reasonable point long, long ago.)

Look, the NDP weren’t going to counsel restraint; they’re against tax cuts, and they favour operating programmes that require annual money and employ lots of people in the public sector. The Liberals had no sense of restraint in this area, either. If someone (like me) wanted fiscal rectitude, then that left the Conservatives, who preach it in their principles but fail to deliver in their practice.

Stephen Harper talks of pragmatism. I look at the neo-con that he was and see a right-wing liberal. I look at his track record and see a Liberal — worse still, a big spending one who could comfortably stand in Trudeau’s shoes — and it shames me to have Dion be the one to bell the cat.

But so be it: it is what it is.

So where next? Certainly economic changes in the global economy are tearing at the Canadian economy: commodity prices are sinking as the general world of finance capitalism lets the air out of its balloons, dragged down by weakening demand and the driving out of speculators forced to liquidate to deal with other losses. That impacts the West. Meanwhile, as loss of access to credit imperils the remaining industrial companies of North America, the branch plant and subsidiary supplier economy of Ontario and Québec get slammed as well. So it is not entirely true to say that our current fiscal capacity woes in Ottawa are entirely Harper’s fault.

Still, if he is an economist, he ought to have been able to recognize the bubbles for what they were — and somewhere in his undergraduate years he must have studied recessions, the Great Depression, and the concept of liquidation to reset pricing anomalies. My degrees are in philosophy and I could see it coming way back in the 1990s. Why can’t he?

Of course, for that matter, why can’t the Department of Finance?

Liquidation is needed to lead to capitulation: the point at which a firm footing for the future is possible. (Trying to stave off this — as the G-20 are and as the concerted efforts of Central Bankers is — merely makes it worse.) Now that our old fearless pundit, Garth Turner, is talking clearly for himself rather than trying to straddle the requirements of being a party member (and MP) with his desire to communicate the things he sees coming at us, his blog has become a sign of our near future (and worth reading for that alone). Paradoxically, he’ll do far more good for Canadians as an extra-Parliamentary voice than in it.

Now Garth calls the future as follows: major home “value” resets in multiple markets, upward of 50% or more. Why? The “rules for prudent lending” — much more important when the capital is tied up and not recycled through exotic mortgage-backed securities — are based on a century or more of experience. They proved themselves through the Great Depression and every up and down since. Those say maximum term 25 years, initial equity a minimum of 20%, and a maximum debt service ratio of 36%. Unstated — because before the downturn of the 1970s it didn’t need to be — is that that 36% can be met on one salary. Your beat up Kitsilano home going for around one million dollars is a thing of the past. The faster the crash to sustainable prices at 25/20/36 comes about, the more quickly the real estate market unlocks. You can read the rest of his projections at his site.

Paying down debt was a good thing; real tax relief was a missed opportunity; slopping money around like drunken Liberals of the past was a sheer waste. That’s the 2006-2008 track record to date.

A deficit now may well be needed, but it needn’t have been. That’s the 2008-2010 reality.

Trying to “soften the blows”, “keep the doors open” (take your demand for money elsewhere, auto industry: you make far more cars than there is a market for, anyway — and that market will shrink, not grow, so, yes, you do need to close down at least one company and many plants) and the like just wastes money we will borrow. Borrowing to build for the future, on the other hand, leaves us with assets — assets we will need in the near future and for many years to come.

So I hope, Mr. Harper, that you are deadly serious about reviewing the Ottawa that exists, because if you’re not willing to outright terminate a lot of the past programmes and slop chests and focus on investing in our futures appropriately then there is no reason to vote for you or your party in the future. After all, if you’re all going to be socialists and redistribute what was once wealth and is now only depreciating cash, making no difference between you and others in your “pragmatism”, then I might as well vote NDP.

After all, they’re honest about their intentions — and know that they can’t be too profligate. Unlike the man who spoke truth to power today and his party — and you and yours.

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4 responses to “Mark that Economics Assignment an “F”

  1. I have officially given up on Harper:

    http://www.wernerpatels.com/2008/11/harpers-train-w.html

    Harper is hopeless as a fiscal conservative (and economist!), so why fight the Liberals? Or the NDP?

  2. Werner: It is all most discouraging, that’s for certain. I wonder if the Greens would like to dump May and put a sensible leader in place? They have a fair bit of common sense in their economic policies … more so than the NDP and Liberals to date.

  3. Bell the cat. I can’t stop laughing about that one.

  4. I was picturing that old cartoon, Raphael, with the two mice and the pudgy one is sent out by the thin one to bell the cat … seemed to fit the occasion.

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