Cut the growth of growth commissions
I hardly ever disagree with Jack Mintz, former president of the C. D. Howe Institute, former director of the University of Calgary School of Public Policy, and for the past decade or two the dean of Canadian policy economists. But I do have a quibble with his most recent Financial Post column, called “How a Doug Ford government can make Ontario rich again.”
I don’t disagree with any of the growth-friendly policy measures he proposes:
• Reduce regulatory costs on business
• Postpone the next hike in the minimum wage
• Find an efficient carbon-emissions plan
• Streamline housing and land-use regulations
• Roll back rent controls
• Reduce tax rates, both corporate and personal, and broaden tax bases by eliminating both cash subsidies and tax expenditures
• Reduce the gas tax rate and broaden it to be an energy tax
• Cut ineffective programs, though that’s always easier said than done
These are all good ideas and none is so complicated that a back-to-basics populist such as premier-designate Doug Ford can’t either understand or sell them. Common sense (a phrase with important echoes from Ontario’s political history) dictates that having markets decide more and governments less—which lower, more neutral taxes will do—will open the way for Ontarians and others to invest their time, effort and money in the province. Policies that encourage Ontarians to spend more energy and imagination working and innovating and less energy figuring ways to get around regulations or game the tax system is what the province needs. It’s what all provinces need.
I agree with all that. But then Jack concludes his policy list by saying that “A good place to start [in on new growth-oriented policies] would be to create a growth commission, to come up with a new approach to make Ontario rich again.”
One thing we Canadians have had lots of growth in is growth commissions. The Harper government had an economic advisory committee. At least it included several economists, among them Jack Mintz. The Trudeau government had a prime minister’s advisory council on economic growth, though it included almost no economists, with the notable and important exception of my McGill colleague Chris Ragan. Most of its members were business people or university administrators and it was headed by Dominic Barton, the CEO of McKinsey, the consulting firm, a make-up that accords with the government’s interventionist, instrumentalist view of how best to encourage business activity in Canada.
But if we’ve got a list of the right policies and Ontario now has a premier who very likely understands them at a gut level, what would be the purpose of a growth commission? It would take time to put together, to meet, to deliberate and finally to report.
And, let’s be honest, its report would be predictable. Governments don’t populate these commissions in ignorance of prospective member views. If you want a group that’s going to recommend hands-on industrial policy, there’s a stable of academics and business people who can be counted on to recommend that. If you want a market-oriented hands-off approach, there’s a cadre of academics and—strangely—somewhat fewer business people who will go with that. (“Strangely” because in my experience, business people have been trained to analyze a problem and make a to-do list of how to go about solving it directly. Letting the unpredictable interaction of market participants produce the best outcome does not appeal to their controlling, Type-A personalities, which may be great for running individual firms but aren’t at all good for running an economy.)
Apart from a few general themes, Doug Ford didn’t provide an awful lot of detail about what a Ford government would do. But the themes are enough: no nonsense, straightforward action, common sense, trust in Ontarians. With that attitude and Jack’s list there’s no need for a growth commission. Just get on with it, premier.