Being cute with economic data won’t help those being left behind



It’s been a big week for economic data, and more to the point, for how those numbers are being spun for the public’s benefit.  Conservative leader Erin O’Toole in particular is trying to establish that his is the party of sound fiscal management, and it’s in his particular interest to make the numbers look as bad as possible, and to try and drive the narrative home that the Liberals are somehow incompetent economic managers.  The problem, of course, is that O’Toole and his MPs have been vociferously lying with statistics, but they’ve been aided in the task by a largely innumerate media that looks for narratives of doom and won’t challenge the context of those figures.

The big news out of the week was the release of the fourth quarter GDP figures for 2020, which were surprisingly strong – the second strongest in the G7.  One might suppose that this would be worth mentioning, but no, every headline and O’Toole press conference focused on the fact that on an annual basis, the country suffered the biggest hit to GDP since comparable records started being kept in the 1960s.  Never mind that our recovery from the depths of the pandemic-related downturn has been particularly strong, and that the preliminary estimate for January’s figures were that they would grow and not contract in spite of the second wave of lockdowns and mockdowns across the country.  This should be good news – relatively speaking – but you’d be hard pressed to read that.

But while the bigger economic picture attracted the narrative of doom, there were other reports out that looked at the pandemic-related benefits like CERB in the face of wage losses, and the calculation that those benefits were outweighing the wage loss according to the statistical data, giving rise to the notion that perhaps CERB was too generous.  Of course, this would rely on those benefits only being CERB, but it wasn’t – it was also a number of things like increased Canada Child Benefit or GST credit payments, which absolutely helped those on the very bottom of the income scale, which makes it difficult to try to simply claim that CERB – with its rather meager $500 per week payments – was “too generous.”

This is compounded by other reports, looking at the same StatsCan data, that show that the vast majority of job losses were among those earning below-average wages, and this should come as zero surprise because we know that this has been a demand-side downturn that has largely impacted service industries – most especially wholesale and retail trade, and accommodation and food services.  Even more to the point, these are the kinds of jobs that disproportionately employ women and minorities, and the numbers confirm that they have been the worst impacted by this downturn.  It’s one of the reasons why this is being termed the “she-cession” (along with the fact that women in other areas of the economy are being forced to drop out of the workforce for the sake of childcare), and why there is such a focus by this government around inclusive growth as the cornerstone of their recovery strategy.

What I found particularly difficult to swallow was O’Toole tweeting about this report, saying “I’m very concerned by the findings of this report.  I don’t want any Canadian worker to be left behind or forgotten.  We need to get people back to work safely and quickly.”  I’m having a hard time buying his concern for those being “left behind” because he and his party spent the summer railing that CERB was so generous as to be a disincentive to work – never mind that in a global pandemic it was necessary to pay people to stay at home, and the fact that it was barely paying more than minimum wage.  If $500/week was indeed a disincentive, then perhaps the problem just might be the low wage rates themselves – but his silence about that fact certainly makes it look like his concern is more about people accepting the benefits than the working conditions themselves.

Amidst all of these numbers are of course the deficit figures, which O’Toole again likes to trot out to make the claim that his party would be better economic managers, but I’m not sure there is enough of an attempt to look at the counterfactuals.  Could the money spent to combat this pandemic have been spent better?  Remember that speed and capacity are very real factors – money needed to get to people as soon as possible once the lockdowns started, and incomes started to evaporate.  The EI system was too broken to effectively help Canadians in a timely manner, and there were physical limitations as to how fast they could kludge together mechanisms with the existing CRA system to get that money out to people.  It’s hard to fathom how any other party or government could have operated any better in these circumstances.  The federal government also doled out eighty to ninety percent of all pandemic spending because of inability or unwillingness from the provinces, and this is certainly reflected in the more recent suite of pandemic benefits where it’s the federal government giving bigger payouts to those areas affected by provincially-mandated lockdowns.

The fact that O’Toole has been getting cute about these statistics and others (the false comparisons around unemployment figures has also been of particular concern) is problematic enough, because lying with statistics is still lying.  But the fact that he has not moved away from his positioning for a bro-covery, and the fact that he continues to deride the government’s approach to inclusive growth as being “an experiment” as opposed to tried-and-true conservative theories like trickle-down economics, is an indication that he’s not actually paying attention to the very figures that he wants you to think he’s quoting from.  He may preach about not wanting to leave people behind, but he’s pushing policies that will actively harm the very people he says he’s looking out for, which should be concerning for the voters he’s trying to reach out to in order to win the next election.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from Dale Smith. @journo_dale

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