Federal government’s redistribution economics doesn’t work

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Appeared in the Hub, June 4, 2024
Federal government’s redistribution economics doesn’t work

Prime Minister Trudeau’s vision for a more prosperous Canada relies on a much larger role for the federal government, with more spending, regulation, borrowing and higher taxes. By moving existing money around—both from higher-income workers to average Canadians and from the future to the present through borrowing—he believes the Canadian economy will be stronger and living standards will rise. But after nine years of governing, the evidence is clear—the prime minister’s redistribution economics doesn’t work and has actually reduced living standards in Canada.

Let’s first understand the magnitude of the changes made by the Trudeau government. Federal spending (excluding interest costs on debt) has risen from $256.2 billion in the last year of the Harper government to an estimated $483.6 billion this year, an increase of 88.7 per cent.

Even excluding COVID-related spending, the Trudeau government has recorded the five highest years of federal spending (on a per-person basis, after adjusting for inflation) in the history of the country, far surpassing spending during both world wars and the Great Recession.

Under Trudeau, the federal government has introduced several new programs (including dental care, daycare and pharmacare), and expanded several existing programs such as the cash transfer to families with children under 18 and corporate welfare.

Redistributing existing income has been a clear policy goal of the Trudeau government. From 2015 to 2022, average government transfers to families with children have increased from $12,685 to $15,750 (inflation-adjusted), an increase of 24.2 per cent. Yet among these same families, employment income only increased 8.0 per cent during the same period, meaning government transfers grew more than three times faster than their employment income. And as a share of household income, government transfers have increased from an average of 8.0 per cent between 1995 and 2007, when employment income was growing much faster, to 10.3 per cent in 2022.

The Trudeau government has financed this explosion in federal spending by borrowing, which is simply taxation deferred to the future, and tax increases.

Specifically, the government increased personal income taxes on professionals, entrepreneurs and successful businessowners. It also increased taxes on businesses, which is an indirect and less transparent way of increasing taxes on average people since businesses don’t actually pay taxes, only people pay taxes. Higher business taxes mean less investment and thus lower wage growth for workers, lower payments to the businessowners, and/or higher prices for consumers buying goods and services.

The Trudeau government also opaquely increased taxes on average Canadians. While it lowered the second personal income tax rate, it simultaneously eliminated several tax credits. As a result, 86 per cent of middle-income families experienced an increase in their personal income taxes as did 75 per cent of families with children in the bottom 20 per cent of income-earners.

But again, the government financed much of its new spending by borrowing, which means future tax increases. Consider that total federal debt stood at a little over $1.0 trillion when the Trudeau government took office in late-2015. By the government’s own estimates, total federal debt will reach almost $2.1 trillion next year.

Higher debt means higher interest costs, which divert money away from programs such as health care or badly needed tax relief. From 2015-16 (when Trudeau was first elected) to this year, federal debt interest costs have increased from $21.8 billion to an expected $54.1 billion. For context, this year the federal government expects to raise $54.1 billion from the GST, which means that every cent raised from the national sales tax will go to pay interest costs on the federal debt.

By focusing on moving around existing income (i.e. redistribution) rather than promoting income growth through investment and entrepreneurship, the Trudeau government has helped produce an outright economic growth crisis. Canada’s current decline in per-person GDP, a broad measure of living standards, is one of the longest and deepest declines of the last 40 years. Moreover, as of the end of 2023, the latest year of available data, the decline in living standards had not stopped so there’s a chance this could be the worst fall in living standards since at least the early-1980s.

According to a 2023 study, growth in per-person GDP from 2013 to 2022 was at its lowest rate since the Great Depression. Indeed, Canada’s post-COVID recovery was the 5th-weakest in the industrialized world. And prospects for the future are no better. A recent study by the OECD estimated that Canada would have the slowest growth in living standards among 32 high-income countries for the foreseeable future.

Simply put, the Trudeau government’s policies, which focused on government-led prosperity and moving income around instead of growing incomes, have led to a decline in living standards and economic malaise. Canadians are struggling when we should be leading the world in growth and prosperity. The only way to reverse our economic decline is to embrace a markedly different approach to policy focused on economic growth through entrepreneurship, investment and innovation.