The Ontario election isn’t about deficits—and that’s a good thing

How big is your deficit? This Ontario election, no one seems to care—and that’s a decisive positive to emerge from a campaign that’s too often been submerged in the politics of personality.

There is more and more light sneaking through the widening cracks in Canada’s austerity consensus. Hopefully, it will shine not only on the latest vote-buying scandal or bout of red-baiting but hit upon some of the big questions of economic policy. Here, the relevant question is not “how big is your deficit”, but “who will it benefit?” Or, put most expansively, “how are you going to transform the economy?”

In part, deficit panic has taken a back seat this election season because of an uncomfortable fact for those on the right usually most eager to stir it up. Mike Moffatt, economist at the centrist Canada 2020 think tank, has very roughly costed out the Conservatives’ platform (something the party has so far steadfastly refused to do) and found that their deficits would most likely be the largest among the three major parties. That’s the result of promising big tax cuts for companies large and small, car drivers, the wealthy, the upper middle class and other core Tory constituencies alongside insubstantial changes to spending. It is transformation biased towards the wealthy.

Doug Ford will protest that he will be able to generate “efficiencies”. These, however, will be either extremely painful cuts—think lay-offs for thousands of public sector workers like teachers, nurses, long-term care support staff or park rangers alongside fewer services—or an unkept promise. Decades of neoliberalism have created a lean public administration as much as the right won’t admit it in public. Anyone claiming to easily find $6 billion in efficiencies, or nearly 5% of Ontario’s budget, without shedding jobs or cutting services is simply lying.

The Ontario Liberals, surely emboldened by Justin Trudeau’s deficit-embracing, progressive neoliberalism, have also settled on steady, modest deficit spending. Deficits allow them to avoid raising taxes (the provincial corporate tax rate has kept falling on their watch) while continuing down the road of slow-motion austerity whose defining features are cost control and welfare state rationalization. Nothing to worry the financial markets and bond raters here. No real transformation either—the cuts of the Harris years are further baked in, only their rough edges softened.

Chastised by their loss in 2014 and emboldened by deficits from everyone else, the NDP is also projecting modest deficits every year of its mandate if elected. These however are due to more substantial increases in both revenues and expenditures than the other two parties, with deficits generated by raising expenditures more than revenues. The important piece is not the deficit but what’s happening with the two components that produce it: expenditures and revenues. On the latter, the Ontario NDP have finally injected the smallest pinch of class politics into their policy, promising to raise taxes on both corporations and the wealthiest.

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Is Canada the Sweden of anything?

There was an odd article last week on the explainer site Vox that argued Sweden doesn’t achieve its relative equality with very progressive, “soak the rich” taxation. While Matt Bruenig and Mike Konczal have already provided excellent, US-centred rebuttals to this argument, I thought this would be a good occasion to take a look at some comparative facts about Canadian inequality and overall redistribution.

First, notice that on the chart in the original article, Canada is very close to the US, as being among the “least redistributive”. This goes against the national image of a kinder, gentler capitalism more akin to the various North European countries clustered around the middle and top of the chart.

Source: Vox.
Source: Vox.

The chart, however, is based on an odd measure of redistribution: the percentage of total income tax paid by the richest households (the Vox article doesn’t specify exactly, but it could be this OECD measure of tax revenue paid by the top 10%).  As Bruenig and Konczal both point out, defining the degree of redistribution like this has many problems: for example, it can make a very unequal society with low and flat(ish) taxes appear to be much more redistributive than a fairly equal society with high and progressive taxes. In many ways, the Vox article is simply measuring the degree of inequality in multiple ways rather than relating it to tax progressivity.

In light of this, what does it mean that Canada is right down there clustered with the US as a country that supposedly taxes progressively but doesn’t redistribute? Is this something the chart nevertheless gets right? Is it that while Canada is often presented a kinder, gentler state that can be set alongside its Northern European counterparts (themselves no absolute paragons and eroding slowly), the gap between it and the US is really not that wide? (more…)

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Economic history in the present: Potlatch and tax

This post inaugurates an occasional series I’m calling, “Economic history in the present”. This series will look at vignettes from global economic history with an eye to current phenomena or particular events. Some will be more speculative, drawing on anthropology and philosophy; some will be more rigorous. Hopefully, both aspects of this approach will produce interesting juxtapositions that illuminate the present via the past. Without further ado, here is the opening salvo…

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While redistribution is a bit of dirty word today, it has been a key economic activity across human history. As resources move from the periphery of society to its centre through means more or less refined – from robbery and pillage to rents, taxes and tithes – the need arises for mechanisms to move some resources back from the centre to the periphery. Whether to pacify, reward or simply keep from starvation, the powerful have long given part of their take back to the powerless. Over the course of human history, the vehicles for redistribution have varied considerably: from the haphazard to the ritualized, from the simple to the elaborate.

potlatch-ceremony

One oft-cited means of redistribution comes from the lands now occupied by British Columbia. The Pacific Northwest of North America has a rich tradition of the potlatch, a highly complex, formal redistributive process frequently drawn upon by anthropologists. In ceremonies lasting from several hours to several weeks, wealthy and powerful leaders of kinship groups gave away their wealth to guests from the surrounding area that included members of their own group and often entire rival groups. The more that someone gave away, or even destroyed, the more prestige they garnered and the wealthier they became in the eyes of others – despite the fact that a potlatch might leave them temporarily near penniless. Social status was conferred via giving rather than having.

The potlatch with its ironic twist on wealth should not, however, be mistaken for some kind of utopic ritual; the powerful could give away so much precisely because they had the power to obtain it in the first place. Redistribution is fundamentally about restoring a semblance of social balance; the potlatch gift is a counterpoint to the potential and actual exploitation and violence inherent in the prior process of distribution. It points to redistribution as pivotal in keeping social peace and ensuring continued social cohesion and survival. (more…)

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