Saturday, September 19, 2015

On contrasting activities

Thomas Walkom rightly notes that this fall's election has seen somewhat more discussion of government acting in the public interest than we've seen in some time. But it's worth drawing a distinction between the varieties of intervention on offer from the NDP and the Libs respectively.

As much as the latter have tried to suggest that running immediate deficits is the sole measure of progressivism, the real difference between the two lies in their longer-term plans.

For the NDP, the goal of an active government is to build up a stronger social safety net over time. Immediate funding for child care, pharmacare and other programs is intended to set the stage for the development of stable and sustainable structures which can withstand even the most harmful of governments - just as the health care system set up decades ago is still broadly in place despite the cuts and neglect inflicted by the Libs and Cons since the 1990s. (Of course, we should also see the value in putting our existing programs on a stronger footing.)

It's true that this focus on the longer term means that not everybody in need of child care immediately will get it: the goal isn't to shovel money out the door, but to develop a program that works. But in a context where no party is offering immediate implementation of universal child care, it raises the possibility - ruled out by the Libs - that a fully-implemented program will eliminate the same dilemma for all Canadian parents for decades to come.

In contrast, the Libs' pitch is for a government which leaps into action immediately, then flees from the picture equally quickly a few years down the road. (And I'll leave aside for now the issues with trying to turn short-term infrastructure into long-term P3 contracts.)

In effect, the NDP is proposing an improved nutritional regimen for the public sector to bolster its long-term health, while the Libs' plan is limited to a temporary shot of adrenaline. And while we may be at point where it's best to pursue both to reverse the damage the Cons have done, the former is surely the path most worth pursuing if we want to see benefits that last past a single election cycle.


  1. A different way to look at this though is to consider the value of infrastructure over the long term. Usually securing funding for is the biggest hurdle to getting a major project done. Once complete though you have the value of whatever road, bridge or transit system in place for several decades with only the cost of general maintenance to worry about every year or two.

    In some instances the need for a large amount of infrastructure funding is evidently greater than others. I would argue with a lot of aging infrastructure, bridges and highways close to literally collapsing in Toronto and Montreal and a huge number of transit projects ready to go across the country now is probably one of those times. In that sense the Liberal plan for deficit infrastructure spending is better in some ways because it addresses the need sooner when it funding is badly needed, at an optimal time when the economy is still somewhat slow and interest rates are low.

    Both the Liberals and NDP are offering more guaranteed funding long term and a few other ways to help lower levels of government pay for infrastructure projects.In contrast to the Liberals the NDP plan also requires for new funding to be phased in over several years.

    1. To be clear, one of the major problems with P3s (which the Libs support) is that they tend to run contrary to your assumption, as the cost tends to be bumped into the future or offloaded onto other governments.

      When it comes to traditional projects, I can certainly see the appeal of trying to put a dent in our infrastructure deficit in a hurry. But that constraint may limit the long-term effectiveness of funding: if a federal government insists on pushing tens of billions out the door (counting multiple levels of government), then we'll see a focus on shovel-readiness rather than long-term social and economic benefit. (Your mileage may then vary as to the relative importance of spending now versus spending efficiently.)

  2. McGuinty's Green Energy Act is a typical example of Liberal "hurry-up-and-get-on-the-bandwagon legislation—poorly thought out, brought in without consultation with the public, it allowed big corporate players to snap up FIT contracts to make big profits for shareholders, producing electricity to dump on the northern US market. The resulting hostility has made "renewables" a dirty word for many Ontarians.