Flunkanomics

As Canada teeters on the cusp of economic irrelevance, standing abreast a line of healthier nations, oblivion is warded off by the unparalleled rhetorical and policy-making prowess of the Cerberus-like creation, comprised of Canada’s three duelling macroeconomic thinkers.

Just kidding.

While justifiable trepidation sets in over a panoply of economic issues facing Canada — unwavering household debt, a sagging Loonie, near-deflation — the economic watchdogs for our three main federal parties traded rhetorical boxes of meaningless tropes in Question Period all week.

To set the scene: Chrystia Freeland is the new MP for Toronto Centre, and her battle readiness has been far from proven in the weary political knifefight that is Question Period.  She stands just the same, levelling her dagger.

Mr. Speaker, this month the IMF released a report on Canada’s economic outlook.  The story the IMF tells is of a lost decade.  To quote from the report, “Canadas exports have barely recovered from the Great Recession….  The IMF warns that low productivity growth has, and I quote the IMF report, eroded Canada’s external—”

From there, it’s a wash.  The Tory benches rose in righteous indignation — rightfully so, to a degree, as that IMF report went on to say that the decline in exports can be partially attributed to the US’ soft recovery, and a declining demand for Canadian non-energy goods.

But Minister of State for Finance Kevin Sorenson didn’t say that.  Instead, he picked up his notes.

Thanks to the economic action plan, Canada has the strongest economic performance during both the recession and the recovery.  Over 1 million new jobs have been created, of which nearly 90% are full-time and 80% are in the private sector.  The IMF and OECD both project that Canada will have among the strongest growth in the G7 in the years ahead.

Amen to those facts.

Amen, brother!

Except those are some pretty lame facts.

Sure, the IMF expects Canada to pull off 2.2% growth by 2018 — behind the US’ 3% and the UK’s 2.3% — but that’s hardly something to brag about.  It may have been impressive in 2010, when all countries were floundering.  Now, as Canada holds itself up as more of an economic powerhouse that debt-laden France — France, for Christ’s sake — it casts shades of a fully-grown man showing off the bronze medal he won at a children’s potato sack race.

And, besides — forget the G7.  Canada’s growth is projected to be behind Chile, Mexico, South Korea, Switzerland, Israel, the Slovak Republic, Poland, Norway, Ireland and Estonia.  Overall, Canada is expected to behind the OECD average.

But Freeland never really got to her question, which no doubt would have otherwise been a hard-hitting dissection born out of her long-held expertise on economics.  Good thing she had another kick at the can the day after.

Mr. Speaker, this month, IMF economists warned that the declining competitiveness of Canada’s non-energy exports is something that concerns us.  The IMF pointed to a widening productivity gap that has eroded Canada’s external competitiveness, particularly in…manufacturing.  Middle-class Canadians know this.  They are feeling the effects in their paycheques.  Will next week’s budget finally do something to address these problems and help Canada’s struggling middle class?

Read on, Chrystia, read on!

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“Non-residential business investment is also expected to accelerate,” explains the IMF report.  “As the more favorable and less uncertain external outlook, as well as still relatively favourable financial conditions (including strong cash balances)…should induce Canadian businesses to resume spending and expand capacity to meet future demand growth.”

So what does Freeland want done?  What is the Liberal Party just dying to see in the budget?  Stimulus spending?  (The likes of which they’ve been decrying under the auspices of the Canadian Action! Plan.)

We know this government’s position on the CA!P, but Sorenson reiterated it just the same.

Mr. Speaker, thanks to Canada’s economic action plan, Canada has enjoyed the strongest economic performance, both during the recession and after, in the recovery.  Over one million net new jobs have been created in this country, nearly 90% are full-time and 80% in the private sector.  Both the IMF and the OECD project that Canada will be among the strongest economies in the G7 in this upcoming year.

See, Chrystia, everything is fine!  The unemployment rate is over one point lower than 2009!  That’s great!

Well, except that the participation rate is also down by a percentage, even as the population grew by a million people, so that helps rosy the numbers a bit.  So, really, the employment rate is only up a measly 0.2 per cent.

And that’s 2009.  If you compare 2013 to the 2008 data, Canada’s unemployment is a full point higher, and the participation is down two points.  That is to say — Canada created about 850,000 jobs, and about 850,000 people joined the labour force. Sounds nice, until you consider that tens of thousands more Canadians fled the labour force over that time.

One million net new jobs over the lowest, darkest days is no great accomplishment.

So Freeland couldn’t skewer Sorenson on his song-and-dance.  Let a true pro do it.  Let Peggy Nash take the wheel.

Economic growth has stalled.  Nearly 1.4 million Canadians are unemployed.  Last year, barely 5,000 full-time jobs were created in the entire country.  Instead of tabling another austerity budget that will eliminate tens of thousands of jobs, will the Conservatives finally encourage job creation by proposing a tax credit for businesses that hire young people and by reinstating the eco-energy retrofit program?

Wait, what?  A strong start by the NDP’s finance critic stalled midway through.

First: enough with fretting over high youth unemployment.  It’s a manufactured problem.  Henny Penny types look at spikes in youth unemployment as though there are streams of hobo-20-somethings with bindles slung over their shoulders, trudging alongside the rails.  Look at this way — in 2009, when unemployment skyrocketed, university enrolment jumped by eight-and-a-half points (more than the entire five years prior, combined.)  When going gets bad, youth get going back to school.  Boutique tax credits for business are a nice idea, but it’s hardly attacking the core issue of systemic unemployment.

And the home eco-energy retrofit program?

A nice idea that proved wildly expensive and only applied to that fraction of the country that happened to need home upgrades, and could afford them in the first place.  It is hardly Canada’s biggest economic driver — in its five year lifespan, the program was accessed only about a million times.

Did Sorenson say that?  No.  He didn’t.

Mr. Speaker, this government has the best job creation in the G7- and you know the rest.

Nash jumps back in the fray.  The tide of household debt is rising!  She warned.

Will the Conservatives listen to the NDP and use their budget to get household debt under control by supporting job creation and by cracking down on things like payday lenders?

It’s unclear how cracking down on payday lenders will create jobs, and it’s almost as unclear as to how they’re contributing to the recent explosion of household debt — they’ve been around for a decade and they only tend to loan a few hundred dollars at a time, mostly to low-income individuals.  The explosion of debt is in middle-class households (thanks, largely, to low interest rates, not because of overly-high ones.)

So in a week of Question Period scuffling over the economy, in the midst of a particularly touch-and-go time in our economy, and on the cusp of a budget — which the NDP have already labelled the “do nothing budget” — it’s perhaps worrying that our MPs are so contemptuous of the usefulness of open debate that they’re not ready to propose any solution, alternative, ideas, theories, evidence, data or other relevant information to the debate.

There was a moment who I’d hope that Freeland — considered a worldly economic brain-trust that high-brow card-carrying members of the intelligentsia turn to for analysis — and Nash — billed in her ascension to the high ranks of the official opposition as the clever left-wing alternative economic planner — would offer a thoughtful alternative.

They have not.

So let’s give the de-facto finance minister the last word.

Mr. Speaker, every year the NDP demands that we raise taxes and spend, spend, spend.  Again the answer this year is no, no, no.

Nevermind.  Let’s just put our heads down on our desks.

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Other columns by Justin Ling

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Harper and the liberal journalists of Sparks Street

Harper’s Israeli Rorschach Test

Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling

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