Federal government clearly misstates its economic record

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, November 29, 2023
Federal government clearly misstates its economic record

“Denominator blindness” refers to situations where people fail to put what seem to be big numbers into proper context. The affliction is especially common among governments seeking to justify their spending and other policy decisions. In Canada, denominator blindness has become a central feature of the narratives peddled by many politicians.

For example, the Trudeau government’s recent economic update, which includes a forward by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland where she notes that the International Monetary Fund expects Canada to have “the strongest economic growth in the G7 next year.” She also insists her government is fostering economic growth that “creates middle class jobs, raises incomes, and makes middle class communities more prosperous.”

Both claims lack context and misstate the government’s economic record.

Prosperity is measured using both a numerator, typically the amount of output the economy produces in a year, and a denominator, the size of the population. A larger population means the economic pie must be divided into more slices to estimate how much “output” is available to the average resident. With a rapidly expanding population, the economy must generate a lot more output merely to stop the individual pie slices from shrinking.

Minister Freeland is correct that Canada’s economy has been growing, both since the worst of the COVID shock in late-2020/early-2021 and over the period when the Trudeau government has been in power. But she ignores the bigger picture, which shows two important things.

First, since 2015 Canada has posted some of the weakest economic growth numbers, measured on a per-person basis, in half a century. The pattern of feeble economic growth was evident before the onset of COVID.

Second, Canada is among the few advanced economies where output or gross domestic product (GDP) per person in 2023 has still not returned to pre-pandemic levels. In part, this reflects surging population growth, which affects the denominator that helps determine whether economic growth is producing gains in average incomes and living standards. In Canada’s case, modest economic growth combined with a skyrocketing population has resulted in a multi-year decline in per-person income and erosion of overall prosperity. Adjusted for inflation, GDP per person is still 2 per cent lower than in 2019.

Denominator blindness also characterizes recent attempts by the federal, Ontario and Quebec governments to explain why they’re allocating up to $50 billion in subsidies and tax incentives to lure a handful of electric vehicle battery manufacturers to Canada. The politicians making these decisions point to the several thousand jobs the EV manufacturing facilities will support once they are fully operational. But they won’t discuss how this fits within the larger job market.

Total employment in Canada is 20.1 million, with almost 1.8 million jobs in manufacturing. The vast sums being thrown at EV battery manufacturers will have essentially no impact on the aggregate job numbers and barely make a ripple, even in the manufacturing sector. Moreover, not all the promised EV jobs will be “new” positions—many workers attracted to the EV industry will likely be drawn from other businesses, worsening skill shortages that are plaguing Canadian manufacturers.

Perhaps aspiring politicians should be required to study the basic arithmetic of fractions before they run for office.

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