Budgeting for the oil bust in Saskatchewan and Alberta

The resource price bust is already a few years old but it’s still hitting parts of Canada hard. Two guests talk about the impact of the downturn on fiscal policy in the Canadian prairies and what this augers for the bigger question of a transformation of the economy away from fossil fuels. First I speak with Charles Smith, associate professor of political science at the University of Saskatchewan. He is the co-author, with Andrew Stevens, of a great analysis of the Saskatchewan budget, titled “Building the “Saskatchewan Advantage” : Saskatchewan’s 2017 Austerity Budget” over at the Socialist Project Bullet. Next, I speak with Ian Hussey, research manager at the Parkland Institute, a social democratic thinktank in Alberta. He contrasts the Alberta NDP’s more stimulative approach to public finance; however, there remain many questions about the scale of the shift and the need for real climate action.

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Why Alberta shouldn’t look to Norway, and why that’s a reason to Leap

One of the clearest memories I have from my only trip to Norway is the repeated failures at hitching a ride. What appeared to be an unbroken string of brand new Audi’s and BMW’s whizzed by my friend and I, dirty and sweaty after a few days hiking and camping in the mountains. “Where am I that the comforts of our rich assholes are the rights of common citizens?”, I remember thinking.

You’ve probably seen at least one article saying that Alberta should be more like Norway. I don’t want to rehash that debate. But I think we’ve gone about it the wrong way and seeing why can tell us a lot about today’s sparring over the Leap Manifesto.

Comparing Alberta unfavourably to Norway for squandering its oil wealth has been a familiar trope of media and progressive organizations, especially since the oil price crash (here’s just the CBCToronto Star and Globe and Mail). The comparison has become so ubiquitous that it has also spawned a cottage industry of counterarguments from the right too. In short, Norway has been putting away the money it gets from oil in a sovereign wealth fund since 1990. The fund is now the world’s largest and worth over $1 trillion. Alberta’s fund, although older and actually the inspiration for Norway’s, is a paltry $15 billion. (Norway and Alberta have similar populations.)

The funny thing, however, is that Norway’s gigantic fund doesn’t pay for much of what the government does. Taxes do that. Take a look at the numbers. Public revenues in Norway at all levels of government are equal to over half of GDP (nearly 55% in 2014). Meanwhile, federal, provincial and local government revenues in Alberta make up somewhere around 30% of provincial GDP. That’s a massive difference. Alberta tax rates are lower: on individuals, on corporations and on consumption. In addition, the Norwegian government not only owns a majority share in its largest oil company, Statoil, but also taxes oil profits at a much higher rate. A special tax on “excess profits” takes the top marginal corporate rate on oil corporations to 78%. (more…)

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Climate and competitiveness in the tar sands

Anytime the oil barons and baronesses are smiling for the cameras with NGOs and politicians, we should at least be interested, if not outright worried. Was the release of Alberta’s new climate change strategy just an occasion for the oil execs to ham it up for the cameras pretending all is well or do they have truly something to be smiling about?

Now, because I don’t want to constantly feel like the asshole at a party—complaining about children ingrates at a baby shower, enumerating an ex-husband or wife’s flaws at a wedding, laughing at a funeral—here’s an important positive: Alberta plans to use half of the money raised by its new broad carbon tax for “just transition” policies. A large chunk of the money will go towards supporting now-more-expensive heating, fuel and other consumption for poor and working families, while some will go towards retraining and other opportunities for those who lose their jobs. Just introducing the phrase “just transition”, which appears in the climate document four times, into the mainstream is a success.

I want to, however, focus on another phrase, much more dominant in the report: “competitiveness”. The report worries about the competitiveness of the tar sands with more stringent climate policies. Oddly enough, in a world of low oil prices, Alberta’s oil industry is already relatively uncompetitive. The biggest recent competing source of “unconventional” oil, fracked oil from US shale formations largely concentrated in North Dakota, has seen huge efficiency gains and falling break-even prices. This means that it is profitable to extract oil there at ever-lower global oil prices. In short, the tar sands are today having hard time keeping up with the pace of innovation elsewhere. Today, the lowest-cost producers of US shale oil can produce profitably at lower oil prices than producers in Alberta’s tar sands.

(more…)

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Repeat after me: Alberta isn’t Greece

Last week it was Andrew Coyne; this week it’s Jack Mintz. Seems all the National Post’s favourite conservative commentators have suddenly decided to offer their Very Serious Advice™ to Alberta’s new government. While Coyne made a spurious comparison between raising the minimum wage and instituting a minimum income, Mintz outdoes him with an even more spurious comparison between Alberta and Greece.

Simply put, it is completely disingenuous to compare Greece to Alberta. Greece has seen its economy lose a quarter of its GDP since 2008 – a level of economic crisis unseen since the Great Depression. Unemployment has spiked to over 25%, youth unemployment is over 50% and poverty is widespread. While private creditors who participated in the pre-crisis boom have been bailed out, Greece has been forced into a vicious spiral of austerity driven by an unsustainable debt.

What’s the situation in Alberta? Alberta is still expected to grow, albeit very slowly, in 2015 according to most economists. Unemployment is up by 1% from a year ago, before the oil price crash. In part this is due to firms trying desperately to find efficiencies and cut costs to maintain profits. The picture is not rosy to be sure, but Alberta is in a wholly different category from Greece.

However, not only are Alberta’s problems completely unlike those of Greece, Mintz is wrong about Greece itself. Mintz joins the chorus of mystification that presents Greece as profligate rather than insolvent. It’s not the flow of “unsustainable deficits” but the stock of crushing debt and insolvency that is driving Greece deeper and deeper into crisis–one openly abetted by creditors hoping to make it an example for anyone else in Europe hoping to free themselves from the yoke of austerity. (more…)

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Nope, Alberta still needs to raise the minimum wage

Last night, Andrew Coyne published a column in which he champions introducing a minimum income over raising the minimum wage as a radical policy suggestion for Alberta’s new NDP government. Coyne couches the column in his typical pseudo-contrarianism. Here he is supposedly advocating socialism…gasp! In reality, however, Coyne gets it backwards: a minimum income in Alberta today would almost certainly be a dangerous neoliberal measure. It’s raising the minimum wage that can help open more space for progressive politics.

First, the basics. The $15 minimum wage was a key promise of the NDP campaign and increasingly being adopted across North America. A minimum income is a theoretical idea that’s never really been implemented and would essentially guarantee every citizen some basic level of cash income. As Coyne notes, it but remains mildly popular across the political spectrum; it was recently floated as a proposal by Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi.

Coyne argues for the superiority of a minimum income as being solely focused on poverty reduction and redistribution, at the same time criticizing the minimum wage as too interventionist. As usual on the right, Coyne couches his opposition to hiking the minimum wage with an appeal to Economics 101: if the price of labour (the wage) goes up, the quantity demanded (employment) will go down. Simple: don’t mess with the market! (more…)

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With NDP win, what’s next for Alberta?

This episode focuses on what else but the recent Alberta provincial election that saw the social democratic NDP sweep into power after 44 consecutive years of Conservative rule. To gain some perspective on this rather remarkable result in Canada’s oil and gas heartland and see what lies ahead for Alberta, I speak with an NDP campaign insider as well as a long-time analyst of Alberta’s political economy.

My first guest, Adrienne King, was Rachel Notley’s Chief of Staff during the campaign and was just announced as the new premier’s Deputy Chief of Staff. She’s worked for the Alberta NDP since before the 2012 election and offer her point of view on the future from within the NDP. My second guest is Ricardo Acuna. Ricardo is the Executive Director of the Parkland Institute, Alberta’s major political and economic research institute. We spoke about the economic situation in Alberta, the role of the oil industry as well as the challenges facing the new government.

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