September 25th, 2021

Laying It Out: A deficit of good ideas

By Medicine Hat News Opinion on February 27, 2021.

Can we officially lay to rest the myth about deficit spending, crammed down our throats by austerity-drunk “fiscal” conservatives and adopted by centrist and self-proclaimed left-leaning politicians around the world?

Honestly. If Thursday’s Alberta budget doesn’t convince people the very idea of balancing the books any time soon is not just a fantasy but a gigantic mistake, we are in for a painful couple of decades – at least.

They say a budget is never “good” for the governing party because you simply can’t satisfy every desire. But this latest version from the United Conservatives certainly proves you can disappoint an entire province.

If you’re a fan of austerity, there’s no way you support this kind of new debt. And if you support properly funding public services, there’s no way you’re a fan of what this government has in store.

I suppose it’s possible someone (besides, perhaps, Premier Jason Kenney) might actually favour slashing the public sector while simultaneously adding record debt, but that person sucks.

Albertans were sold a lie that spending on them was detrimental to their future because of provincial debt, and so a record number of voters agreed to trade services for a balanced budget. Yet, while the UCP quickly fulfilled its promise to cut, they immediately began increasing the deficit.

They push the narrative that COVID and oil prices take all the blame, but we’d do ourselves a great disservice by forgetting their inaugural budget, which – after two years of campaigning about debt – added $2 billion to the deficit while cutting from nearly every ministry.

How?

Among several poor choices, they took revenue (33% Job Creation Tax Cut) and gave it to the wealthiest among us, most of whom took the cash and ran while the premier bragged at a new McDonald’s. And they’ve found ways to misplace money, gamble it on bad bets, or simply waste it in court rooms and war rooms on the backs of our classrooms.

The point is, with or without the UCP, we are going to add debt, and I’ve been trying to say this since they got here. The energy industry in Alberta can never be what it was, and it’s high time we understand that reality doesn’t care if we’re comfortable.

Viruses aren’t going to disappear to a world without challenges, and for Alberta especially, those challenges will be expensive – if I list nothing but well cleanup, my point is made in completion.

But the good news in all of this is we have a tool at our disposal that can help shield Albertans from the worst.

Properly spent debt.

Now that we can see debt is inevitable, it’s essential we know why that’s not a bad thing. Nobel Prize-winning American economist Paul Krugman does a good job explaining it.

The following was from a 2015 piece he wrote for The Guardian when Brexit was top of the news, but his message was to all governments – austerity makes everything worse.

“Conservatives like to use the alleged dangers of debt and deficits as clubs with which to beat the welfare state and justify cuts to benefits; suggestions that higher spending might actually be beneficial are not welcome. Meanwhile, centrist politicians and pundits often try to demonstrate how serious and statesmanlike they are by calling for hard choices (by other people).”

I’ll link to his article at the end, and I encourage you to read every word, but his point is simple. If you spend deficits on stimulating the economy, you will. If you try to balance the books with austerity, you’ll fail – and debt will rise anyway.

Just like the International Monetary Fund, which agrees with him, Krugman isn’t exactly a left-wing voice.

“It’s true that you can’t run big budget deficits forever (although you can do it for quite a long time), because at some point interest payments start to swallow too large a share of the budget. But it’s foolish and destructive to worry about deficits when borrowing is very cheap.”

And guess what? Borrowing is ultra cheap right now, which our government knows as it projects an $18.2-billion deficit this year and accumulated debt of $115.8 billion by the end of next.

Our problem with this latest budget, as it was in each that we’ve seen, is it has the big deficit and none of the rewards. Every government for decades has bought into trickle-down economics in some form or another, and it’s only led to the exact opposite.

And now, we’re getting myriad cuts – despite Ottawa’s COVID relief allowing for a few budget niceties – and the province has changed nothing about its already failed plan to “attract job creation.”

First he said $100 billion would be our death, and now Kenney’s goalpost has moved to “keeping debt under 30% of GDP.” Folks, we’re going to sail past that like it’s standing still.

We can do it one of two ways. We can let these grifters take our stuff and bet it on the good ‘ol days, or we can embrace our future by properly funding one with educated, healthy people prepared to lead the world in trying to protect it.

Austerity during recessions is a path to failure and no economist worth a word will tell you otherwise. We’re going to spend the money anyway, we might as well spend it on ourselves.

Read Krugman’s entire piece here: https://www.theguardian.com/business/ng-interactive/2015/apr/29/the-austerity-delusion

PS – Shout-out to David Climenhaga for accidentally giving me the idea for this one.

Scott Schmidt is the layout editor for the Medicine Hat News. Contact him at sschmidt@medicinehatnews.com

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