Wanted: More good ideas from the political left.
by Don Cayo


A lot of people pitch in to create what they call an alternative federal budget every year. Some are the loony left personified. Some are cynical shills for unions and other entrenched interests. Some are just naive. But, like the too many cooks of fable, they concoct a saccharine pap, equal parts unassailable goals and unworkable ways to attain them.

Their earlier budgets show these guys to really be the last of the big spenders. But this year even they want a balanced budget — an astonishing measure of how deeply fiscal prudence has rooted itself in the Canadian political psyche.

Of course, they still want to spend more. So much more that they can’t pay for it all even if they “Tax the rich!” — the usual panacea advocated by those in no immediate danger of being elected to manage an economy.

So the alternative in this alternative budget is to have the Bank of Canada artificially lower interest rates in Canada — a scheme that would save our debt-ridden governments a bundle. If only it worked.

But we Canadians have just seen — again — what international money traders do to our dollar when we let our interest rates dip just a tad below those in the United States. Artificially mandated interest rates low enough to save the required mega-bucks would make a 68-cent dollar look like the good old days. And capital — domestic and foreign — would flee this country as never before.

So if you think this idea is economic insanity, you’re right. But if you think it’s also the best the left has to offer, I’m happy to tell you that you’re wrong.

The left, at least what Professor John Richards of Simon Fraser University might call the “non-traditional left”, is doing some serious thinking these days. In the forefront is Professor Richards himself, a former NDP MLA in Saskatchewan who retains his loyalty to the party and who has just written a book, Retooling the Welfare State, for the C.D. Howe Institute.

In it, the author finds some substantial things right with the social institutions built by Canadians over the last few decades. And he finds some things appallingly wrong with the way people and institutions that he calls “the traditional left” are defending — or not defending — them. Their technique, in a nutshell, is to ignore the very real flaws that also characterize these programs and to clamour for ever-more spending on the assumption, demonstrably false, that money cures all ills. Their technique is to never, ever look reality in the eye and deal with faults in programs that may cripple the economy but enrich the entrenched interests who administer and profit from them.

He calls instead for such things as strict accountability from the people who administer social programs, greater flexibility to experiment with methods that produce better results, and programs — including out-and-out “workfare” — that are geared to putting unproductive Canadians back to work.

I think Professor Richards is onto something. Most Canadians don’t give a fig for fine philosophical distinctions between right and left. They like to be generous, yes. But they like to be pragmatic, too. And they’d like better opportunities for themselves and their neighbours to earn their way in the world.

In Professor Richard’s analysis — and in mine — you get what you pay for. So if we pay people to be marginalized with no job or part-time or seasonal work, we get more people who are marginalized with no job or part-time or seasonal work. If we make it easy for men to abandon their family responsibilities and we pay economically ill-equipped single women to have more children, we get more women and children unable to make it on their own. If we pay companies to hit artificial job targets rather than real production goals, we get more industries that teeter and fail.

In a world where taxpayers — not only in Canada, but around the world — are pushed to the limit of their willingness to pay, good programs flounder. Canadians broadly support things like Medicare and accessible education, but we support the concepts, not merely fossilized practices of the past. We don’t much care if the entrenched interests hang onto to all their perks and power; we care about what they deliver for the substantial amounts we invest. If that means introducing new rigor — competition, or performance standards, or new efficiencies — so be it.

These programs won’t be saved by whining for more money or by pie-in-the-sky schemes to close ourselves off from the world with phony interest rates or newly printed money. They’ll be saved, if they’re to be saved at all, by making the economy dynamic enough to pay for them, and by finding innovative ways to deliver more bang for the buck. They’ll be saved, if they’re to be saved at all, by clear-eyed thinkers like Professor Richards, not by the unimaginative bleating of “the traditional left.”

The pity — and the danger — is that the Professor Richards of this country are in all too short supply.