‘Just spend more’ is not a sound guiding principle for government

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, November 19, 2017

As we pass the mid-way mark in the Trudeau government’s mandate, it’s clear that the only guiding principle for fiscal policy is “just spend more.” Spending more, regardless of economic conditions, is not only not sound policy but seriously risks the country’s finances and is all too reminiscent of the 1960s and ’70s, which took Canada almost three decades to recover from.

Broadly stated, there are two economic approaches to government finances. The first is rooted in Keynesian economics, named after one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes. The basic idea underlying this approach is to manage the demand side of the economy to smooth out economic fluctuations. In bad times, the government stimulates demand, particularly by consumers, by spending extra money, lowering tax rates, and/or lowering interest rates and thus (at least theoretically) improves the economy. Conversely, in good times the government reduces spending, increases tax rates, and/or increases interest rates to temper the economy to prevent it from overheating.

The other approach, often called supply-side economics, argues that government lacks the information and incentives to manage the economy along Keynesian lines. Rather, this approach focuses on improving incentives in the economy for savings, investment, entrepreneurship, business development and work effort. Put differently, the idea underlying this approach is to get the “rules of the game” and incentives right so individuals, families, entrepreneurs and businesses make better, more productive decisions, which leads to a stronger economy.

Now the reality of politics is that neither approach is ever implemented or maintained in its pure form. Rather, government policy tends to ebb and flow between these two sets of policies. For instance, the Chretien Liberals tended more towards improving incentives and the “rules of the game” by balancing budgets, reducing tax rates, and reforming government spending. The Harper Conservatives had a more mixed record favouring Keynesian-type policies during the 2009 recession and its immediate aftermath while promoting better “rules of the game” outside this period.

Neither of these approaches seems to be operative in the current federal government. Instead, there seems to be a drive to simply spend more money. If the economy is weak, Ottawa should spend money. If the economy is strong, Ottawa should spend money. That’s not a guiding principle for fiscal policy; it’s a path to fiscal calamity.

Specifically, the Liberals under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office in late 2015 and immediately boosted spending by roughly $7.7 billion compared to the existing budget plan of the previous government. Less than six months later, in its first full budget (2016), the government increased spending by $66.3 billion over the four-year period (2016-17 to 2019-20) compared to the 2015 budget. A year later, in its 2017 budget, the Trudeau government increased spending by another $10.9 billion over this same four-year period.

To further understand the height of current federal spending, consider that per person spending (adjusted for inflation) is now at its second highest level in Canadian history, behind only Harper’s spending in 2009 in the depth of a global recession.

Perhaps more telling is the economic update released in October, which introduced more new spending of $17.5 billion between 2017-18 and 2022-23 despite the government’s pronouncement that the economy was improving.

Simply spending evermore money is not sound fiscal policy and seriously risks Canada’s finances. Remember, these spending increases and ensuing deficits are occurring outside a recession. Any economic slowdown, or perhaps even a recession, will place the government’s finances into deeper deficits, which would likely take a decade or more to work out of, meaning the country will accumulate substantial additional debts that will further burden future generations.

As Canadians take stock of the Liberals’ two years in office, it’s worth considering the lack of a functioning guiding principle for fiscal policy—other than what appears to be a proclivity for evermore spending, which seriously risks imperiling federal finances.

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