Elites debate boosting the economy, but for whom?

Elites and the talking heads in the media are arguing about how to respond to Canada’s soured economic outlook. Who should try to boost the economy, the federal government via fiscal stimulus or the Bank of Canada via monetary policy? But while elites argue amongst themselves, the overriding context is a transfer and concentration of economic power upwards. This, not $10 billion here or 0.25% there, is what hamstrings any policy response going to the benefit of the many.

First, some context. Yesterday’s report from the Bank of Canada describing the state of the economy did not make for happy reading. While there is no crash, no panic and no crisis, the picture isn’t particularly rosy. The kind of generalized malaise and stagnation that has affected much of the globe since the last crisis—and that our resource boom staved off—seems to be hitting home. The Bank revised downwards its projections for both growth and inflation, and has a history of being overoptimistic. (more…)

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Cutting through Canada’s election fog: inequality, climate change and free trade

This week’s podcast is a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives double-header. The CCPA has been an invaluable resource for alternative economic and political analysis for decades and I always enjoy highlighting their work. First up, I speak with Seth Klein, the director of the Centre’s British Columbia office, on how inequality and climate, two major issues to which Seth and the CCPA devote considersable effort, have fared in Canada’s election debate so far. Seth also talks about how the platforms of the parties stack up against the Leap Manifesto. The second half of the episode contains my conversation with Scott Sinclair, the CCPA’s chief trade researcher. Scott talks about the freshly-concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, and what this enormous trade pact means for us and our democracy.

elxn_issues

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The economic debate we got and the one we need

I feel more like a broken record: another piece for Ricochet on the economic debate in the 2015 election and the missing big picture. This after the Globe Debate on the economy.

The Conservatives have promised balanced budgets and have even enshrined them in law. The NDP is also promising balanced budgets, painting itself as “responsible” with government finances.

The Liberals are the only party to break out of the balanced budget consensus, admitting that for a few years they may run small deficits of about $10 billion, or 0.5 per cent of GDP.

The leaders will meet in Calgary to go head-to-head at an event sponsored by the Globe and Mail. But will they break out of the narrow constraints that have thus far defined the conversation on the economy? (more…)

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Transfers, taxes and who pays for austerity

The question of who pays for austerity and how is an enormous one. Promoters of austerity often claim that cuts to universal services are fine if they’re offset by transfers to those who can’t pay for newly-marketized services. The same goes for expanding services – why give everyone childcare if you could just give those at the bottom the money to pay for it the same as those who can afford it?

There are many arguments for why services should be public and universal that do not simply rely on whether everyone is able to pay for them privately. However, even on their own terms, the argument for ramping up transfers to the bottom of the income distribution hasn’t held up in recent times.

I was intrigued by a post from Matt Bruenig that compares the US and Finnish tax and transfer systems, arguing that while the Finnish system looks less progressive by some measures, this is due precisely to higher and universal transfers. I’ve been looking at lots of data on the latest phase of austerity in Canada that began at the federal level with the election of the Chretien Liberals in 1993. Here, I’ll steal some of what Matt does and apply it to the Canadian tax and transfer system since then.

For starters, here are average gross government transfers by quintiles in Canada. This is how much money people receive in the form of cash benefits and credits from all levels of government. This is thus only a rough picture of what’s happened at the federal level, but most transfer income is federal. The first chart is for 1993 and the second is for 2011 (the last year of publicly-available data); everything is adjusted for inflation to constant 2011 dollars.

150402 Govt transfer 1993

150402 Govt transfer 2011

What’s striking is how similar the two charts are. While the economy has grown – 35% growth in real GDP per capita between 1993 and 2011 – government transfers have essentially stagnated for everyone. The bottom 40% have actually lost in transfer income and only the fourth quintile saw any kind of sizeable increase gaining just above 10%.

Next, let’s add income taxes into the mix. Here are the same two charts, but this time showing net government transfers. This is the difference between the transfers above and income tax paid to all levels of government.

150402 Net transfer 1993

150402 Net transfer 2011

Again, we have little change over almost two decades except for a lower net transfer to the richest 20%, though this is likely a reflection of the growing inequality in market incomes, especially higher top incomes (and hence higher income taxes). Remember too, that this shows a more progressive structure than if we took all taxes including those on consumption as well as user fees (again, paying more with stagnant transfers) into account. This total tax structure is far less progressive – somewhat regressive even in some provinces.

Here is another way to look at the changes in same net transfer data, showing the trends in time over the entire 1993-2011 period.

150402 Net transfer series new

We can divide what’s happening into a few distinct periods at the federal level (provinces do more direct spending). Clearly visible are

  1. a main phase of Liberal austerity from 1993 and 2000,
  2. a short upturn after the 2000-era tax cuts (since net transfer = gross transfer minus taxes, a reduction in tax means the net transfer goes up)
  3. a general stabilization since then, only punctuated by
  4. the fall in incomes and short-term fiscal expansion after the 2008 crisis (with a clear trend back to the stabilization or lower in the last years of data).

Finally, here is a last chart that takes net transfers and divides them by market income. That is, it shows what percentage of market incomes is received on average by each quintile as net government transfers.

150402 Net transfer percentage series

This last chart is combines the picture of growing inequality with transfer stagnation. Economic growth is not translating into shared resources, whether in the form of existing or much-needed new public programs or even simply being pooled for redistribution. This certainly points to austerity falling disproportionately on the backs of the poorest.

Note: all data comes from Statistics Canada, CANSIM Tables 202-0703 and 202-0704.

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Minimum wage workers not the only ones getting screwed

I have a populist piece in The Tyee this morning on how last week’s paltry $0.20 minimum wage increase in British Columbia actually reflects stagnant wages across the economy and why the Fight for 15 is everyone’s fight. Here it is in full.

Last week, the B.C. government reacted to the increasing push for a higher minimum wage… by giving minimum wage workers a 20 cent raise. Even Business in Vancouver magazine quoted UBC labour economist David Green calling the new higher wage “laughably low.” What perhaps hasn’t received enough attention is that the two-dime bump in the minimum wage — the first in three years — is not that far out of line with stagnant wages across the economy. For instance, the average wage in British Columbia grew by 14 cents in 2014! While 20 cents over three years doesn’t even allow minimum wage earners to account for inflation, the fact is most of us have been barely keeping up with price increases. Real wages, those adjusted for inflation, have been mostly stagnant.

While Canada-wide statistics paint a picture of modest wage growth since the end of the last recession in June 2009, much of this growth is due to the three oil boom provinces, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador. In fact, for the more than 80 per cent of workers outside the oil boom provinces, average real wages have grown just two per cent since that period. Median wages, which are not dragged upwards by the disproportionately large increases in wages for the wealthy, have seen just 0.4 per cent growth outside the oil provinces. This is stagnation loud and clear (see this earlier post for a closer look at the numbers). (more…)

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Stagnant wages for over 80% of Canadian workers

Are wages in Canada stagnant or growing? The short answer is another question: do you live in an oil boom province? There’s a fairly common meme that while Canada, like the US, saw wages stagnate, this is no longer true. Indeed, overall wage growth has picked up since the last crisis.

The baggage that comes with this meme is that we here in reasonable, responsible Canada shouldn’t care about all those things that the US and European lefts are alarming about: no need to worry about inequality, austerity doesn’t concern us and so on. But while it’s a truism that we shouldn’t wholesale import analysis of another economy into the Canadian context, we are not immune to global trends. Yes, the US is a large economy with huge internal markets and this is a big difference; however, as a small, open economy, we cannot escape larger trends, especially with ever greater economic integration through free trade, freer movement of capital and international financialization.

One example of a phenomenon we haven’t really escaped is precisely wage stagnation. Here is a pair of charts showing wage growth since the end of the last recession in June 2009. They separate the three oil boom provinces (Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador) from the rest of Canada. The first chart is from the survey of employers and shows the change in average real weekly wages . (It and all others are smoothed out to show the underlying trend, adjusted by provincial CPI and weighted by the size of the workforce in each province.)

120225 seph short

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The lament for Canada’s middle class

I’ve been posting more sparsely lately for a number of external reasons but this should change soon I hope. For now, here is the first major piece I wrote for Ricochet. In some ways, it’s the obligatory piece on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, but really it’s my way of trying to think through the hand-wringing about Canada’s middle class. Below are the first couple of sections, read the rest here.


The US is in the throes of a debate about inequality: It’s the Waltons versus the Walmart workers on food stamps, the runaway rich in the 1 per cent versus everyone else. Meanwhile, Canada’s inequality discussion has been largely confined to the woes of the middle class. Even the New York Times added grist to the mill by proclaiming Canada’s middle class better off than its US equivalent.

Similarly, while the US has made a veritable rock star out of French economist Thomas Piketty, whose 600-page economics tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century has topped best-seller lists, Canadian reception has been much more muted. This is a bit surprising because Piketty, in drawing out the link between capitalism and inequality, tells the story of a new Gilded Age replacing the post-war Golden Age that saw the middle class establish itself. One reason Piketty’s book may have left less of a mark on Canadian debate is that more of a middle class has endured in Canada. But will today’s middle class survive? (more…)

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Forum on Piketty’s book in Vancouver

On June 25th, a standing-room only crowd of 150 people attended a public forum and discussion titled “Pikettymania, Inequality and You” on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Today, I’m happy to post in full the four talks that made up the first half of the event (the second half was all discussion). The total is about an hour in length with each speaker taking 15 minutes. Enjoy!

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Forget global superstar, Vancouver’s housing troubles start at home

Vancouver was the star of a recent New Yorker article that shone a light on the city’s lack of housing affordability and linked this lack to an inflow of foreign buyers. Unfortunately, this link is extremely tenuous, as most of the support is anecdotal or based on very limited data. At the same time, there are good reasons to look for the sources of the lack of affordability much closer to home. Articles like that in the New Yorker allow for far-flung conclusions that end up bolstering a fatalist political narrative about the potential for meaningful change.

First, the data. The New Yorker author, James Surowiecki, offers two major sources to back his claims. The first is a Sotheby’s report stating that 40% of buyers of Vancouver luxury homes (luxury homes had an average low cut-off price of $2.8 million or three times the overall average price) in the first half of 2013 were foreign. At the end of his article, Surowiecki also cites Andy Yan’s interesting energy usage studies, the most recent of which showed that somewhere between five and ten percent of the city’s condos may be sitting empty at any given time. Of course Surowiecki cited the sensational statistic that almost a quarter of homes in one Coal Harbour census tract were likely vacant at census time. (more…)

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