Should Ontario Become an Independent Country?

Ok just forget how crazy the question sounds.  The recent wrangling between Ontario and Alberta over the value of the Canadian dollar, oil output and the decline of manufacturing in Ontario (and other provinces east of Ontario) raises some reasonable questions about the Canadian monetary and fiscal union, aka the Confederation of Canada, aka, British North America, aka Canada.

Critics have long argued that the Bank of Canada’s single minded attention to price stability, i.e., inflation, and to a single policy instrument, i.e., the interest rate, was both too crude and too cruel.  Too cruel because it makes unemployment the site of dynamic economic dynamic adjustment and too crude because it is both geographically insensitive and structurally daft.

Here I will put the cruel to one side and consider the crude.  Interest rate adjustment is a crude way to attempt to manage the macro-economy.  Think about the regional dimensions.  If you exclude Western Canadian growth the beavers teeth look not nearly so sharp, or as long.  The present interest rate regime is probably too low for western Canada and too high for eastern Canada.  Suggesting that, all things being equal, the Canadian dollar is probably too high and too low.  Too low for the resource sector and too high for manufacturing.

Federal tax policy has not helped either.  The unilateral decrease in corporate income tax rates deprived the federal government of resource revenue while having little if any impact on investment in the manufacturing sector.   The west did not need a GST rebate the east did.  And to add insult to injury, the Federal government has decided to move to an austerian footing.  Again viewed through the lens of the west probably not a totally idiotic position to take (countercyclical one might say).  Viewed from the east, however, a completely counter-productive, pro-cyclical policy.

All of which raises the question if Ontario, or indeed if all of the provinces east of Manitoba, would not be better off with their own federal government and their own central bank.

O.k. time to remember how crazy the question was.  Not that crazy after all.  But it is only a sane question because macroeconomic policy (fiscal and monetary policy) is so cruel and crude.

Stimulative austerity bearing fruit in Britain? Not. Nor globally

George Osborne was quick out of the gates with the austerity as stimulus gambit.  Which as everybody from myself to Paul Krugman predicted was going to be a flop.  Osborne has been trying to save face by arguing that his government’s austerity package saved Britain from becoming Greece  (the most disingenuous piece of clap trap coming from the other side of the Atlantic since Tony last spoke of the need to go to war in Iraq).  The bond vigilantes are not swarming in on fully sovereign countries (i.e., those with the power to go around the bond market if they so choose; see almost any post by Bill Mitchell).  Indeed, Japan has a debt to GDP of over 200% and is issuing ten year bonds with great fan fare at below 2%.

Meanwhile Cameron has been trying to save face with an alternative: namely, that it is the crisis in the Eurozone that is to blame.  As Bill Mitchell points out the Eurozone was in crisis before Cameron pushed through austerity.  That is to say, if the British economic recovery hinged on a buoyant Europe it was a silly plan.

Now some fair-minded reader might insist that neither Osborne or Cameron could have known that the crisis in Europe would go from bad to worse and they are therefore the victims of optimism but not stupidity.  Not so.  Like the Canadian Finance Minister, Osborne has been preaching austerity and public sector restructuring to all and sundry.  The problem is that the austerity gambit requires that exports do the heavy lifting in terms of dragging the domestic economy up, up and away.  But if all the countries that buy your imports are also trying to do the same then in the aggregate we all loose: a in an anchor cut loose.

Canada and Britain could have perhaps used austere means to jump start their domestic economies by free riding on a massive stimulus in the US and Continental Europe.  Again it has been clear for some time that was not going to happen.  So even if austerity could have worked its funky magic it would have been because Europe was doing stimulating fiscal stimulus.

Profit, wage, NDP, and tax revenue growth in Newfoundland and Labrador

Although I covered it off in my rebuttal to the Minister of Finance Thomas Marshall  in the last post I thought maybe a graphic would be a more compelling way to illustrate what has been going on in Newfoundland and Labrador.  I am sticking with roughly the same time frame as the minister but I will take 1996 as my base year and end in 2009.  This is generous on my part because if I took 1997 and ran through to 2010 it would show the rebound in corporate profits in 2010 and start from Tom’s trough year (1997).  So what I have done is create an index by normalizing the time series to 100 for 1996.  Here I have graphed profits before taxes (profits), total labour compensation (wages), net domestic product (NDP) and all tax revenues after subsidies (tax) save for royalties.  All values are nominal.

Click for a crisper image

So yes some wage growth but nothing sufficient to bring the wages of workers in the province up to the national average.  This in the context of a province caught up in tidal wave of profits.  Keep in mind that in the interview the minister only cited wage growth and was silent about the near exponential rate of growth in profits.  But thanks to that provocation I included taxes and economic growth (captured by NDP).

Two things stand out.  Wages did not manage to keep pace with economic growth (NDP) and tax revenue growth was relatively flat.  This tells me that the government in the province has essentially been using tax cuts to make workers, corporations and small business feel wealthier while at the same time jacking up public spending and paying for all of it with royalty revenues. From a political point of view it is a slam dunk.  The problem is that it leaves the province highly dependent on oil revenue to grease the wheels and pay for public infrastructure and services, which in turn gives the oil and gas sector even more clout and it does very little in terms of economic diversification.

Some conservative economists in the province have recognised the instability in the fiscal structure but their solution is rather unimaginative: rapid provincial debt repayment and spending cuts.  But this solution is equally as short sighted as the government’s.  Neither account for what happens after the oil.  When that actually happens is hard to call but it will.  For conservative economists I suppose this is not a problem.  Diversification happens naturally so they do not need to tell a story about what comes after the oil.  Curiously though, if they truly believe something does come after the oil then it makes little sense to be worried about the provincial debt and declining oil revenues as something will come up to replace the sector.

If on the other hand the province’s actual history of lurching from one commodity boom to bust and bankruptcy and then administration by Whitehall and later by Ottawa is anything to go by then the government cannot really afford to be so reckless.  So if you agree that austerity is not the route to take then you are left with the need for economic diversification and modernization all while keeping the growth of the public debt at a low rate.  That leaves tax increases and or a more robust royalty regime in order to change the fiscal structure and engage in an aggressive process of modernization and diversification without blowing the lid off public debt which as it now stands is a very modest 27-28%.

The Right Wing Commentariat is getting Desperate

Just go read Terence Corcoran’s latest in the National Post.  Never mind that the world was plunged into economic crisis by unregulated financial institutions and near fully captured regulators; never mind that by most accounts the financial regulatory reform that has taken place since has been mild and the regulators are still, for the most part, in the hostage room.  Terence tell us that one of the central reasons for the continuation of the slump is:

Banks are being regulated to an extent never seen before, forcing the world’s core providers of credit for business expansion to curb their appetite for risk. Confusion reigns as global and trans-national regulators blunder their way to impose ill-conceived rules and policies. The hard reality of new rules, ­especially new capital requirements, is that it forces banks to accumulate risk-free liabilities while curbing risk-taking loans.

For the right it is always the same villain: the government.  During the crisis they blamed the government because…wait for it…they did not regulate properly and the crisis was therefore evidence of state not market failure.  Now, as then, it is the state that is failing, not markets.

To wit, Terence finishes with:

Similar government interventions, bolstered by constant calls for more spending and taxes, are the norm through most of the G20 membership. To end the many debt crises, the first step should be to abandon growth-killing policies. With growth, even debts cease to be a problem.

Just where is Terence getting his information from?  The G20 is busy doing austerity across the advanced capitalist zone and not in the form of tax increases.  Does he even read his colleagues blogs?

The Fraser Institute thinks deficits should be the cause celeb of Canadian elections. Do you?

Maybe. But it all depends on how the issue is framed. Over at the FP online Niels Veldhuis and Jason Clemens are all sweaty under the collar from working overtime on trying to convince us that slaying the deficit is the single biggest issue facing Canadians and the conservative government. In their subtly* titled comment “Cut spending now” they argue provocatively that the government must reduce the deficit to zero not some time in future but over the next two years.

A true austerity plan aimed at balancing the budget would have taken a page from former prime minister Jean Chrétien and finance minister Paul Martin’s 1995 plan. The reforms by Chrétien/Martin eliminated a deficit much larger than the current one (4.8 % of GDP compared with 2.8%), within three years.

Chrétien and Martin’s 1995 plan proposed cutting program spending by almost 9% over just two years to get a handle on federal spending. These weren’t reductions in spending growth. These were actual reductions in spending.

Even more impressive is that Chrétien and Martin outperformed their goal and reduced spending by 9.7%.

This represented a remarkable fiscal transformation that, in part, made Canada the envy of the developed world. Spending reductions, balanced budgets, and debt repayment contributed to our outstanding economic performance from 1997 to 2007.

To emulate this success, Canadians need a serious commitment to balancing the books. The sooner the government gets its fiscal house in order, the sooner it can take action to reduce taxes and improve the country’s competitiveness. To that end, Mr. Flaherty should put forth a true austerity budget that actually cuts spending to balance the budget over the next two years.

It would be sad indeed if the Fraser Institute and the National Post succeeded in making a balanced budget in two years the frame of the fiscal debate and the central issue in the upcoming election. Here is why. Scale the deficit out of GDP and the miraculous Canadian recovery does not exist. In fact without the deficits run by the provincial and federal levels of government nominal GDP would still be at Q4 2007 levels. Nothing makes the point more poignantly then a graphic.

The deficit hawks want to make the case that we are in perilous times, that immediate and austere, tough manly action is required tout de suite within the next two years to drive the governments’ fiscal houses into balance and then some.

But what about the macroeconomic balance: just where is the stellar private sector growth of +/-  3% of GDP per year over the next two years going to come from to make up for the decline in government spending?  Analysts over at Scotiabank have a nice little table in their Global Forecast Update estimate that in 2011 and 2012 that without federal deficit spending real GDP growth is going to be 0.7% of GDP and 1.5% respectively.  None of this of course takes into account what would be the real implication of a 3% reduction in aggregate demand in each of 2011 and 20012.  If there is any multiplier at all to deficit spending those forecasts would have to be adjusted even further southward.

This is not 1995, debt to GDP is lower and so too is the deficit.  Further it looks as though that it was only in Q4 2010 that the Canadian economy managed to climb back to its q3 2008 level which was only achieved by deficit spending.  And even with that deficit spending we are nowhere near back to 1995.  So why all the hand waving and warmongering over the deficit?

Much of it is a genetic trait of neo-conservatism, much of it do with the lack of originality in the Canadian conservative movement in that it seems only capable of echoing is conservative cousins south of the border, and much of it has to do with a certain amount of nearing or in retirement age sub-urban idiotic ranting myopathy.  I am not convinced they can even divine their own narrow self interest at this point.

The fact is we do not even hear the private sector clamouring for public restraint at this time.  Business knows that without government deficits into the near future revenue growth is going to be anaemic.  Sure they are protesting to keep their scheduled tax cuts but that is about who is going to pay for the stimulus not about deficits per se.

Should deficits become the cause celeb of the Canadian elections they should only be so in two ways.  Do we need to commit to higher projected deficits in the short term to get the unemployed and underemployed back to work? And who is eventually going to pay for them?

* I say subtly titled because they, unlike my undergraduate students, had the sense not to throw an exclamation mark on the end which demonstrates a little restraint on their part… so credit where credit is due. Pun intended.

The Limits to the NDPs War on Consumption Taxes: and the Crisis on the Left

Usually the NDP frames their stance against the Harmonized Sales Tax as not being one of anti-tax but one of being anti-regressive taxation. This is a view I am sympathetic to. However, some real-politic concerns have slowly started to change my mind. I say slowly because back in Grad School I was willingly to put up with a never ending series of accusations that I was a petite bourgeois tax renegade by no less than my supervisor and 8 years later I have not been fully convinced. But let me indicate the three most important arguments that have been moving my mind however glacially on the subject.

My graduate supervisor’s point, and one which I was sympathetic to, but just not enough to bring me around on the issue was about the tax base. His argument was that as long as progressive income taxes were in the political firing line progressives would need to fight to keep the tax base and that meant consumption taxes. Indeed Swedish social democrats used largely this strategy to maintain funding for a high quality and efficient social democratic welfare state. Note: Sweden has both higher income taxes and higher consumption taxes than Canada.

The second argument which has started to move me around on this issue is over the question of broader political strategy. Just how will the Carole James NDP in BC, if it were to gain office, manage to raise taxes of any form after having thrown the party’s lot in with what can only be described as Vander Zalm’s petty populist tax revolt? By ranging themselves against consumption taxes does the NDP really think that to the median voter that is a green light to raise their income taxes? So whatever the truth of the NDP’s position against regressive taxation it does not mean they are going to get progressive taxation. I dare Carole James to make increased progressive income taxes the centre piece of the next campaign. Simply put the discursive consequences of being against regressive taxes probably are equivalent to being against taxation in general. In my mind this is the strongest argument against the NDPs war on consumption taxes.

The third argument is the Pigou argument. Simply stated economic activities involving demonstrable negative public externalities ought to be taxed. Tax what you don’t want and redistribute to what you do want. In principle I get the logic here, where it breaks down is getting a political consensus on what we do want and don’t want.

The reality is that there is simply a massive public aversion to higher taxes of any form and there does not seem to be strong consensus on redistribution. So even when we can find an example of where a government has been able to increase regressive taxes there has been only tepid nod to redistribution. Exhibit A would be the last budget in Quebec.

There is a good article, Fueling the Tax Revolt: What’s Wrong with the NDP’s Anti-HST Campaign by Matt Fodor, in The Bullet on all of this including the NDPs various predicaments. I will quote at length the conclusion:

Ironically, the U.S. and Canada in fact have more progressive tax systems than Denmark and Sweden. Taxation rates are higher in the Scandinavian countries at all income levels. Thus the highest earners pay a higher level of income tax, but so does the working class – the ratio between the top bracket and what an average worker pays is smaller in Scandinavia. In 2004, the combined level of personal income taxation and social security contributions for an average production worker was 24.1% in the U.S. and 25.1% in Canada – compared to 33.7% in Sweden. And the average production worker in Denmark (44.1%), along with Germany (44.5%), paid the highest among OECD countries.

All countries use taxes and transfers to counter inequality, but the Nordic social democracies mainly rely on transfers. Transfers as well as taxation, have a role to play in terms of reducing inequality. In a paper for the Ontario Fair Tax Commission – which was established by the Ontario NDP government as a means of exploring tax reform – Lars Osberg stressed that transfers must also be taken into account when one speaks of progressivity:

“In practice, the tax and transfer systems are inevitably closely linked – indeed, it can be argued that transfer payments are ‘negative taxes.’ The net impact of taxes and transfers on individuals is the difference between payments made to and payments received from government. This net impact is relevant for equity purposes. Although some tax choices (such as a value-added tax) may be regressive, taking a higher percentage of the income of the relatively poor, the tax/transfer system as a whole may be progressive, if expenditures benefit primarily the less affluent (as in Sweden).”[11]

It should be stressed that progressive taxation must remain on the agenda for the Left, and that the shift away from progressive taxation (including in Scandinavia) over the past two decades remains a concern. In Canada, the case for far more progressive taxation remains especially compelling. Jackson points out that the income gains of the 1990s went disproportionately to the wealthiest 10 per cent of Canadian families – and these income gains were more pronounced the further up the income ladder. And while the effective income tax rate for most Canadian taxpayers declined only slightly, it declined much more sharply for the very wealthy. The phenomenon of rising incomes at the top, Jackson observes, can only be effectively countered by progressive taxation:

“Canada needs to pay much more attention to income tax progressivity given the steep increase in top incomes, which is now the key driving force of rising income inequality in Canada and other ‘neoliberal’ advanced capitalist countries. Transfers counter inequality by raising the lower end of the income distribution, compared to the middle and the top, while progressive income taxes counter inequality mainly between the top and the middle and the bottom of the distribution. If inequality is now being largely driven by the growth of the income share of the very top, progressive income taxes must play a larger role in our redistributive policy arsenal.”[12]

In spite of the NDP’s denunciation of the ‘regressive’ HST for taxing ‘ordinary Canadians’ rather than corporations and the wealthy, it has failed to put progressive taxation back on the agenda. Besides symbolic gestures opposing the latest round of tax cuts by Liberal and Conservative governments, the NDP has been unwilling to call for increased income taxes for those with the highest incomes. By failing to do so, claims that the party is not “anti-tax” just “anti-regressive tax” ring hollow. The declining progressivity of the Canadian tax system remains a core concern, and an issue that certainly should be taken up by the NDP. However, the key lesson of Nordic social democracy – that a well-financed welfare state necessitates the use of consumption taxes and other so-called “regressive” taxes – remains essential.

There in fact is a compelling case for consumption taxes on socialist and ecological grounds. Social democrats, include those in Scandinavia, have been rightly criticized for pursuing ‘shared austerity’ policies that redistribute income within the working class/middle class while having abandoned policies that target capital. That being said, socialists ought to defend policies that redistribute income from higher-income workers to low-income and unwaged workers on solidaristic grounds. As the Nordic social democracies have shown, this is done through sales and turnover taxes. There is also a ‘public goods’ argument. The taxation of private consumption can fund the provision of public goods (such as parks, public transit, public housing, etc.) that are more ecological than private goods. Furthermore, public goods provision has the effect of decommodification which is as important as progressive taxation in terms of moving toward socialist relations in capitalist societies.

The global economic crisis has resulted in a hard-neoliberal turn toward fiscal austerity and public sector wage restraint and cutbacks. Such an anti-austerity campaign necessitates at the minimum reversal of the Harper government’s cutting of the GST from 7 per cent to 5 per cent, a move that was opposed by the NDP but goes against the spirit of the anti-HST campaign. As Mel Hurtig observes, Canada already ranked number 27 out of 30 OECD countries in terms of taxation of goods and services in 2003. While “someone buying expensive jewellery or new Bentley will save a bundle…a 1 or 2 per cent saving on even inexpensive household items represents only pennies. Yes, pennies to a poor person are important, but 2 per cent of the cost of a million-dollar house could pay for a big pile of groceries for many poor families.”[13]

The GST cut costs the national treasury billions of dollars per year. The restoration of the GST to 7 per cent alone would significantly offset the cuts to the public sector. Further increases to the tax are essential components to the improvement and expansion of public services. Transfers to low-income households could be significantly increased as well.[14]

The building of an anti-austerity campaign that makes the case in support of expanded public services is not likely to come from the NDP leadership, given its opportunistic stoking of anti-tax politics on behalf of so-called “working families,” as well as its muted opposition to current attacks on public sector unions. It is a matter of some urgency to re-imagine what a new anti-neoliberal alliance will look like in Canada. The union movement in Canada is, for the most part, providing almost as little leadership in social struggles. Public sector unions in alliance with users of public services ought to take up the leadership here, but they will only be pushed to do so to the extent a new left begins to emerge inside the wider union movement. But it could be argued that private sector unions and social movements – anti-poverty, feminist, environmental, and other organizations – are in an even worse state of disorganization. This speaks – like the debate over the HST as a whole – to the wider crisis of the left in Canada. An anti-austerity campaign needs to be equal parts a fight against neoliberalism and building a new left. •

Canadian Central Bankers Past and Present: IgNoble Truths

What an odd week. David Dodge wants an adult conversation about tax levels and the quality of public services. This clearly runs afoul of the conservative meme that less is always more. But the big show- stopper had to be Carney’s remarks on Canada’s abysmal productivity record. Carney bluntly argued that the business community had been showered for some time with a pro-business, pro growth policies but had failed to deliver the goods as it were. A Globe column by Kevin Carmichael and Iain Marlow nicely captured the essence of it:

Insulting or not, Mr. Carney’s comments represent a certain frustration among policy makers who feel they have done everything the business lobby says is necessary to encourage better productivity and innovation – only to see executives sit on piles of cash and avoid the risks taken by companies in countries where productivity is higher, such as the United States.

For example, Canada’s corporate tax rates are among the lowest in the world, thanks to a near-universal acceptance on the part of federal and provincial governments in recent years that this is necessary to spur investment.

Clearly the business community is miffed because someone, and not just an anybody but a somebody, finally asked the relevant question: After a GENERATION of giving corporate Canada public policy, hand delivered on a silver tray, where pray tell, for the love of all that is profane, are the results?

Over at the Post, no surprise, Terence Corcoran, attempts to exercise the intellectual side of his brain. Inter alia he dusts off Hegel in an attempt to preserve The World Historical Spirit; aka the right of private property owners to do what they want; aka, naked capitalism (this is Corcoran’s reading of Hegel).

As for productivity, even Mr. Carney’s review of the causes of Canada’s poor performance failed to come to any clear conclusions. Maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that, maybe it’s lack of competition, too many small firms, lags in investment results, to few high-tech innovators. Even in finance, supposedly Canada’s global trump card, Canada severely lagged the United States in productivity growth. And maybe nobody has a clue.

One thing is certain, no business makes investment decisions to achieve national productivity goals set by the Bank of Canada. Even Hegel got it. In Philosophy of Right, he wrote: “Wealth, like any other mass, makes itself into a power. Accumulation of wealth takes place partly by chance, partly through the universal mode of production and distribution. Wealth is a point of attraction.” The message, perhaps, being that central banks have nothing to do with it.

Productivity as divine mystery not even as divine revelation! What a glib Hegelian Corcoran is. And what an odd twist he throws on Hegel too. Increasing wealth for Hegel, as later with his student Marx, comes along with increasing poverty. Knowing this we can appropriately re-read Corcoran’s conclusion:

Wealth and poverty are something the central bank has nothing to do with.

Self serving, de-politicizing, obfuscating clap trap.

What seems to have Corcoran so exercised is that Carney made a big mistake: he pointed out that business has not delivered productivity. That is, he politicized the issue. What Corcoran and the other ciphers of private privilege do not get is that sooner or later public officials and institutions have to provide outcomes that preserve and increase the general good. Neoliberals like Corcoran error when they think they cling to to the meme that private gain always translates into public betterment and will never be asked to pony-up. It is as if he, Corcoran, is angry that Carney betrayed the IgNobel Truth: increases in private privilege are accompanied, more often than not, by increases in private deprivation.

Stiglitz: Capitalism is Characterized by Big Bubbles and more

Stiglitz is one of the few (liberal) economists who is not suffering from a massive bought of cognitive dissonance owing to the GFC. This hour long interview with Joseph Stiglitz is well worth watching. Don’t have an hour? Then watch the first fifteen minutes.

Oh my! Krugman jumps ship

Judging by Krugman’s online post today Same as he Ever Was, he has jumped off the good ship Obama. If Krugman is gone then that means a hole ship load of progressive activists are too (not that Paul leads them but rather is a bell weather of sorts). Watch demobilised progressives sit out the next congressional cycle and then the next presidential race. The republicans have won the day and perhaps the field through no merit of their own.

Same As He Ever Was

These days quite a few people are frustrated with President Obama’s failure to challenge conservative ideology. The spending freeze — about which the best thing you can say in its favor is that it’s a transparently cynical PR stunt — has, for many, been the final straw: rhetorically, it’s a complete concession to Reaganism.

But why should we be surprised? Here’s one from the vault. Two years ago, I was deeply frustrated with Obama’s apparent endorsement of the Reagan myth.

There was a lot of delusion among progressives who convinced themselves, in the face of clear evidence to the contrary, that Obama was a strong champion of their values. He wasn’t and isn’t……