The Irrational Fear of Austerity

Activists, students, and public sector workers joined together last Halloween in Montreal and paraded through the streets ghoulish effigies of Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and Finance Minister Carlos Leitao wielding bloodstained chainsaws to express their disdain for the Parti Liberal du Quebec’s (PLQ) 2014-15 budget. These protests painted a grim picture of the province’s future if the cuts were executed.

Several months later, Quebec’s economy is still functioning and blood is not running through the streets. Protesters have reorganized en masse, however, in an attempt to revitalize the 2012 Maple Spring protests and unions and student groups voted for strikes in the next several weeks. Much of the grievances come in response to cuts to education and the passage of the controversial Bill 3, which reformed public sector pensions to the relative detriment of pensioners.

The PLQ’s approval ratings have fallen sharply once the electorate felt the reality of their budget. Opposition parties, ranging from Coalition Avenir Quebec on the right and Quebec Solidaire on the left, have been taking advantage of the situation by volleying criticisms toward the Couillard government. Nevertheless, Leitao seems to be holding fast to his plan by emphasizing a stable investment environment, productivity growth, and tax reform as the path toward fiscal solvency. The PLQ promised to balance the budget for 2015-16 without raising taxes on Quebecers and their plan appears to focus on cutting evenly across the board, thereby spreading the pain around, while holding the line on spending in the coming years. Following their projections, growth-fuelled revenue should outpace spending growth, which would eliminate the deficit.

Protestors demand an end to or reduction in the cuts to social services and various groups have been pushing for to increase corporate and top-tier personal income tax rates, reduce business subsidies, and eliminate corruption. Lastly, they would like an end to dubious and frivolous spending. In any case, as illustrated recently in a Fraser Institute study, Quebec’s debt is a mammoth problem and it is only growing scarier. Public debt per capita and the province’s debt-to-GDP ratio, for instance, are the highest among all Canadian provinces. Indeed, it is a struggle to find another subnational government in a poorer fiscal state.

Boasting an unusually large debt burden can be disastrous: interest rates, for example, may rise unexpectedly and such a development could jeopardize scarce public funds. As a matter of common sense, Quebec should begin reducing its public debt burden. William Watson even considers the “Grecification” of the beleaguered province to be a possibility.

Considering that Quebec already has some of the highest tax rates in North America, spending control is evidently where the bulk of reform must happen. What is a government to do?

Protestors in Quebec have a right to feel frustrated. Quebecers have grown accustomed to generous social services as government after government spent beyond its means, and thus, they have never had to reap the consequences of such uneconomic behaviour. Provincial governments have also resoundingly mismanaged fiscal matters and corruption is widespread. Naturally, those protesting in the streets have begun looking toward the top percentile of the income distribution to bear the responsibility of balancing the budget. Yet, one wonders if these protesters have an alternative budget in mind that would not require raising taxes to crippling levels.

Much of Quebec’s austerity would have been rendered unnecessary of increases to tuition, daycare, and other government services had been indexed to inflation as they should have been for decades, but those options were unpalatable and remain so. Alas, the debt has stayed put and it has put on a few pounds.

Importantly, as Premier Couillard argues, the proposed spending cuts do not actually qualify as “austerity.” Austerity refers to an attempt at shrinking the state through spending cuts. The PLQ is not proposing this solution to the province’s debt situation. Instead, it is proposed a reduction in the growth of spending, which is mild by all measures of comparison.

But, as previously mentioned, protesters have a right to feel frustrated. Leitao’s budget will increase subsidies to small and medium enterprises, reintroduce the controversial economic development “Plan Nord,” and increase spending in other areas, ostensibly to encourage economic activity. More importantly, perhaps spending cuts should be more specific, as opposed to the provincial government spreading them around all departments. Public sector pension reform was necessary, however, spending cuts in the realm of social services could have been much friendlier. Lastly, one must consider whether it is appropriate to cut spending on education in light of Quebec’s universities performing worse each year in international rankings.

It could be more palatable, and more economical, to replace some of the spending cuts to education and health by eliminating business subsidies and scrapping Plan Nord, which, in particular, is a very expensive and ambitious project dating back to the Charest era to “develop” energy and mining sectors in Northern Quebec. The province would be better served by focusing on fiscal health and tax reform and by cultivating a commerce-friendly environment. Enacting Bill 78­-styled protest repression measures, however, will almost certainly not calm things down.

All said and done, the Leitao budget is a reasonable and effective one for sorting Quebec’s fiscal mess. It is imperfect, but it mostly makes good sense and it is moderate in nature. Thus, the province’s long-term economic prospects depend on its success and, ultimately, protesters will have to join the rest of the province and confront the reality that debt cannot be reduced without everyone taking a haircut.

Leo Plumer is an AIMS on Campus Student Fellow who is pursuing an undergraduate degree in economics and political science at McGill University. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies

Disparaging Disparities in the Canadian Provinces

The OECD Economic Survey 2014 indicates that Canada experienced solid economic growth in recent years, despite the recession in 2008. Estimates show that Canada’s GDP will grow between 2.5 to 2.7 per cent in 2015, for instance, which is a welcome sign for the Canadian economy. A country’s overall economic performance, however, does not reflect regional economic performance. In Canada, although the economy has been performing well nationally, the regional economic outlook is a different story–one of divergence across provinces.

In the last few decades, intraregional economic disparities have widened in OECD countries and the 2008 recession seems to have exacerbated them. According to the OECD regional outlook, for instance, Canada has the 3rd largest regional economic disparities in the OECD since 2010. There are many studies, however, that rely heavily on the standard neoclassical growth model. Serge Coulombe and his colleague observed a decline in Canadian regional disparities, citing an “economic convergence phenomenon.”

In neoclassical growth theory, the term “economic convergence” typically means a decline in economic disparities between regions on account of poorer economies growing faster than richer ones. Evan Capeluck, in “Convergence Across Provincial Economies in Canada: Trends, Drivers, and Implications,” employed 25 economic variables to measure whether poorer provinces are catching up economically with their richer counterparts, which neoclassical economists theorize. Capeluck concluded that, in the long run, the ten Canadian provinces did experience economic convergence, but he indicated that “… there was divergence in economic variables related to income, productivity, and fiscal capacity.”

As shown in the chart below, with the exception of a few oil producing provinces, economic growth in most provinces grew less than the national average in 2013. Nova Scotia’s GDP, for instance, has grown slower than the national average for roughly two decades. In fact, in recent years, Atlantic Canada has experienced a significant outmigration of younger individuals and families, which not only affects the labour force, but also human capital–two of the most important determinants of economic growth.

The widening gap in economic performance across provinces is a serious threat to struggling provinces, such as those in Maritime Canada, where in recent years equalization payments from the federal government have declined as a share of GDP, due primarily to Ontario’s becoming a “have-not province.” This decline poses some economic and fiscal challenges to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island and these challenges may persist if Ontario’s economy continues to underperform. Equalization payments, and more broadly, federal transfers, comprise a significant share of Maritime Canada’s GDP. In fact, these provinces rely on federal transfers as a fairly substantial source of revenue and a small reduction in the share of equalization payments to those jurisdictions has a substantial impact.

Notwithstanding those developments that pertain to Canada’s equalization programme, the biggest obstacle facing the Maritime region is economic growth. Provincial governments in Maritime Canada should simplify the tax system, streamline regulations, and create an economic environment conducive to growth. Adopting more efficient policies that encourage competition is a good start.

Rinzin Ngodup is an AIMS on Campus Student Fellow who is pursuing a graduate degree in economics at Dalhousie University. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies

Revitalizing Atlantic Canada

Writing for Free Exchange allowed me to examine a multiplicity of issues facing Atlantic Canada and the following are some that I have found to be of paramount importance.

The most prominent issue in Atlantic Canada is slow economic growth, which has resulted in an enormous outflow of skill labourers, young professionals, and families who have left for British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan to find work. Economic growth rates in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, for instance, have fallen below the national average of 2 per cent in 2013. Newfoundland and Labrador, which is currently booming due to oil production, is somewhat of an exception, however, declining revenues threaten to derail the province’s path to prosperity. In addition, the three Maritime Provinces experienced declining populations in 2013.

NL’s growth is largely attributable to strong oil and gas production, which has been growing in the province since the mid-2000s. The rest of Atlantic Canada could benefit from NL’s model and the region may need to look toward the oil and gas sector. New Brunswick currently boasts an opportunity to host the Energy East Pipeline and has a prospective shale gas industry. Other opportunities include increased cooperation or shared services between the three Maritime Provinces and exploring trade prospects with emerging markets.

Another problem facing the region, and the entire country, is unfunded liabilities. In other words, public sector pensions are a significant issue that plagues both federal and provincial government. This is where Atlantic Canada can lead: New Brunswick and Nova Scotia both made changes to their pension programs and the rest of Canada could learn from their progress.

In addition, Canada’s healthcare system requires additional consideration and policymakers must look into issues plaguing it. Through the Canada Health Transfer, the federal government allocates funds to the provinces to assist them with growing wait lists, quality assurance, and a number of other issues. However, progress has been futile. The federal government has given $41 billion in additional healthcare funding since 2004, yet, in 2010, Canada ranked last out of 11 countries in terms of wait times. This is why policymakers should consider alternatives to the status quo.

There are also serious democratic issues facing the country. The Senate remains unelected and unaccountable, and the Supreme Court’s recent ruling inscribed the current structure in stone. Its ruling does not need necessarily indicate defeat, though, and the Prime Minister, in addition to supporting premiers, must take the lead and ensure reform to the Upper Chamber.

While many Canadians may agree that these issues are of great importance, there must be action. We often criticize the political sphere for not dealing with these issues adequately, however, the truth is that we, as electors, must show that they are a priority or politicians will not give them due consideration. It is our duty to ensure that ideas, such as natural resource development, prudent fiscal management, and adequate healthcare, receive fair scrutiny, rather than arbitrarily dismissing them from the outset; it is our duty as citizens to place them on the political agenda.

Randy Kaye is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute