Canada’s new recession and the push for alternatives

The Bank of Canada today cut its benchmark interest rate today to nearly record lows, now just 0.5%. In the face of an oil shock and other weakness, monetary policy is expected to do the heavy lifting of beating an economic funk. Today’s move reflects a poverty of economic policy from the ruling Conservatives and much of the political class.

Harper has been adamant that Canada’s downturn—now very likely a recession, about which his own Finance Minister  remains in denial—is the result of global forces. There’s nothing that can be done to counteract a host of external problems but to button down. The best a government can hope for is to maintain a fabled fiscal discipline.

However, there’s a disjoint between saying that policy couldn’t have been used to avert downturns like this one and screaming bloody murder anytime someone raises the prospect of even mildly activist, redistributive, old-school social democratic economic policy. If current policy is that ineffective, then perhaps it’s high time to try something else? “There’s nothing we could have done” is just a fatalistic cover for political choices.
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Budget 2015: A tale of austerity past, present and future

I’ve been banging the drum of “slow-motion austerity” for a while and little in the 2015 federal budget suggests any change from the pattern of death by a thousand cuts. This budget is another is a series of unspectacular austerity budgets. Taken together, however, the cuts rapidly add up and budgets become more remarkable for the tenacity with they’ve made us pay to get to the present.

A long-term view focused on austerity is very different from much of the mainstream coverage of the budget with a tawdry focus on “goodies” for this group or that. While the media should be criticized for too easily swallowing government talking points and dividing people into opposed special interest groups, it would be naive to think of this budget outside the context of electioneering to carved up demographics. On the one hand, this reinforces a neoliberal narrative of each for themselves; on the other, this is also the reality of the on-going neoliberal transformation.

So while this budget may be more politicized than average in light of the fall election, I won’t write about goodies for groups. Instead, I’ll take the opposite tack: look at the election year budget as a continuity of slow-motion austerity past, present and future. (more…)

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The Conservatives’ balanced budget legislation: Silly economics, smart politics

I wrote up the Conservatives’ new balanced budget law for Ricochet. In short, the law is really silly in terms of economics, but simply pointing out its economic stupidity is not enough, because the whole point is to shift the political consensus. Politically, it’s not that dumb. So rather than play games about who cut better and balanced budgets faster as many are doing, we need to look at the balance of economic power that drives these moves. The full piece is below:

The Conservative government’s balanced budget legislation is a classic attempt to shift the boundaries of acceptable public debate. In terms of economics, it is a silly exercise in arbitrary rule-making and its rules are bound to be broken. In terms of politics, it is another step in consolidating a consensus that puts punitive cuts to the many in the service of ever-larger gains for the wealthy few.

The legislation set to be introduced by the federal Conservatives along with the upcoming budget has been attacked as myopic and the result of twisted logic. Pundits left and right agree that the legislation will be unenforceable and thus unsuccessful in the long run. The problem with the law, however, is the already visible success of those pushing Canadian politics wholesale to the right.

16258234155_2e00d7cd29_zWhile details are still scant, the legislation aims to force subsequent federal governments to refrain from deficit spending except in as-yet-undefined “exceptional circumstances.”

We’ve seen this movie before. In Canada’s largest province, Ontario premier Mike Harris introduced balanced budget legislation only to have it repealed in 2004 and replaced with a softer version that does not stipulate outright balance every year. Most Canadian provinces have balanced budget legislation, but not surprisingly all suspended it at some point in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008.

Even the Eurozone, the current poster child for austerity, has a limit on national government deficits (equal to 3 per cent of GDP) rather than a ban on them. Like other rules of this type, though, the number itself is not as important as the lack of flexibility and the push for spending cuts as the default response to crisis. The Eurozone rule has certainly contributed to Europe’s inability to escape stagnation and prolonged crisis since the financial crash — despite being broken by various countries, largely those powerful enough to get away with it.

Arguments like these, however, do not get at the heart of the matter. It’s good to have a few of them out there, but balanced budget legislation is most dangerous not because it’s bad economics, but because it is good politics. (more…)

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