Rebuilding the middle class: The Liberals have a chance to rectify their past economic mistakes

As the new Liberal government starts to put its economic plan into action, its commitment to paying attention to the evidence (unlike its Conservative predecessors) should provide them with both comforting and cautionary tales.

On the one hand, there is ample evidence to support the Trudeau government’s plan to allow for short-term deficits in order to reinvest in infrastructure and rebuild the middle class. On the other, the data also points to a rather more inconvenient truth: the trend towards growing inequality actually started on the Chrétien Liberal government’s watch.

A recent report by TD Economics notes that while the top 20% of income earners have gained 30% since 1976 (most of that since 1994), the middle 20% have only seen an increase of about 5% in that time. More tellingly, the report suggests that it was only in the mid-to-late 1990s that the level of inequality in Canada began to take off “when governments stopped leaning against income inequality.”

During the campaign, Justin Trudeau demonstrated his willingness to take on board new economic thinking and break with the old Liberal Party’s obsession with paying down the debt at any cost. Although the Trudeau Liberals’ willingness to run a small fiscal deficit in the short-term was ridiculed by the Conservatives and challenged by the NDP during the election campaign, it is actually entirely consistent with much mainstream economic policy thinking today.

A recent discussion note by economists at the International Monetary Fund (not exactly known as a bastion of left-wing thinking) warned governments like Canada against imposing austerity measures in order to pay down their debts more quickly. The authors note: “While debt may be bad for growth, it does not follow that it should be paid down as quickly as possible.” In fact, “If fiscal space remains ample, policies to deliberately pay down debt are normally undesirable.”

Or, to borrow former NDP leader, Jack Layton’s, well-known phrase (as noted in a column by Andrew Coyne last March) there is little point in paying down your mortgage faster when your house is falling down from badly-needed repairs.

This reminder of Layton’s common-sense wisdom should tell us two things. First, and most obviously, the NDP lost its way in its efforts to seem economically credible enough to govern. While there is no question that the party had far less political leeway than the Liberals to challenge what has become a Canadian obsession with balanced budgets and debt-reduction, by setting aside the more hopeful ambitions of Layton’s NDP, Mulcair and his advisors ended up in the odd position of being more conservative than the IMF (not to mention Andrew Coyne).

Second, we need to remember that it was the Chrétien and Martin Liberals, not the Conservatives, who made debt reduction a centrepiece of their economic policy in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The first cuts made in the 1990s were designed to reduce what had become a genuinely unsustainable deficit. Back then, Canada faced a milder version of Greece’s recent dilemma, with bond markets increasingly suspicious of the government’s credit-worthiness.

Yet what started as a strategic response to external pressures soon became an end in itself: the running of surpluses to pay down the debt became a mantra—part of the brand of the Liberal Party itself.

As we now know, that policy had its own very serious human costs.

I remember well the moment when the Liberal government stopped leaning against inequality and started to dismantle the same social policies that Pierre Trudeau’s government had built. I was a parliamentary intern in the House of Commons from the Fall of 1994 to the Spring of 1995 (in fact, one of my fellow interns was Arif Virani, who has just been elected as a Liberal MP for Parkdale-High Park). I watched a Liberal party that had campaigned on the left move sharply right. I watched smart, progressive politicians like Lloyd Axworthy overseeing the erosion of our social infrastructure, and I tried to understand why.

That experience shaped the rest of my career. I decided to go back to university and become a professor of international political economy in order to try to understand why countries like Canada could believe that they had to destroy their social fabric in order to survive economically—and how we could prevent this happening again.

In the twenty-plus years since I first sought to understand how Canadians can foster a caring and just society in a competitive and often unstable global economy, I have not come up with any easy answers.

But I do know that a Liberal government that is genuinely open to learning from the evidence, and committed to paying attention to inconvenient truths, will not reproduce the same mistakes that it once made.

Rising inequality hurts all of us. Recent research has shown that more unequal societies don’t grow as quickly, as many members of society find themselves unable to invest in their education and training, decreasingly overall productivity.

As the TD Economics report notes, the factors that allowed us to avoid the more radical hollowing out of the middle class seen the United States in recent years can no longer be counted on, as the commodity boom comes to an end and the hot housing market starts looking increasingly like a bubble about to burst (or at best deflate). Without creative government action, we are at risk of falling into a vicious cycle of lower growth, cuts to programs, further inequality and even lower growth.

While some might argue that the Bank of Canada’s recent downgrades to the economic outlook should push the Liberals back into their old austerity mode, that zero-sum game no longer holds water. As middle-class jobs come under even more pressure, leaning against inequality can help us all.

This was originally posted on the CIPS Blog.

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