Sunday, June 11, 2017

On comparative advantages

In the federal NDP's previous leadership campaign, Tom Mulcair managed to release numerous policy proposals without offering any hint of what he'd do as leader.

Starting from the (correct) assumption that a frontrunner could likely find his way to victory simply by minimizing controversy, Mulcair released policy planks which were based almost entirely on the NDP's previous election platform.

That left little for his opponents to criticize: any direct questions about Mulcair's plans could be attacked as critiques of Jack Layton's judgment. But it also offered little information for voters who genuinely wanted to know about Mulcair's own judgment and priorities. 

This time around, there was some question as to whether Jagmeet Singh would similarly try to neutralize policy as a basis for decision rather than offering any distinctive vision. But to Singh's credit, he's making a strong effort to drive policy debate both within the NDP and in the broader political scene - most recently by releasing an income security agenda built around three guarantees.

But if Singh's latest proposal offers a valuable basis for discussion and debate, it also highlights the distinction between Singh's plans and the more ambitious ones on offer in the leadership campaign.

In particular, Singh's plans fall well short of Guy Caron's in two key ways.

First, Singh's limited guarantees leave open the implied statement that many people don't deserve a secure living, including for reasons beyond their control.

It's fair to say that nobody working full-time should live in poverty, nor any senior or person living with a disability. And Singh's plan addresses those specific circumstances.

But Caron has already offered up the much stronger - yet to my mind, also more defensible - statement that nobody should live in poverty.

In effect, Singh's plan makes the debate about poverty one which seeks to redraw the lines as to who receives support - while relying on an underlying assumption that some people aren't deserving of income security. That figures only to help other parties looking to persuade voters that income supports shouldn't be extended at all, while also offering reason for hope to far less people than Caron's. 

And even if one assumed it's better to leave some out-group on the wrong side of an anti-poverty policy, it's far from clear that Singh has drawn the line in the right place.

In particular, a wage tax benefit wouldn't seem to offer support to people who can't find traditional work due to economic or personal circumstances - meaning that the people most excluded from work opportunities might continue to be left out.

Second, Singh plans to roll more of the existing social safety net into his plan, leaving less additional supports available where they're needed based on individual circumstances.

While Caron's plan would overtake only the Guaranteed Income Supplement among existing seniors' supports, Singh's would usurp the place of several more. And Singh also explicitly plans to roll the existing Working Income Tax Benefit into his plan.

Lest there be any doubt, Singh's combined plan for improved income supports would still make for a major improvement on the status quo. And it's for the best that he's managing to get the media talking about egalitarian messages even if his policy doesn't fully give effect to them.

But it also does reflect some meaningful differences in principle and policy compared to what other candidates have put forward. And Singh will need to justify his more limited proposals in order to win over voters looking for a leader who can win on principle.

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