“It’s still the economy – stupid”

If you ask the truck driver whose long distance runs put him over the limit on hours he can safely work, or call center workers who fret about losing their jobs, if they know anything of economics, you’ll likely get the same answer: “Not a thing.”

Yet these are the very people, along with millions of others like them, who pay the price when the nostrums advocated by economists turn the economy on its head, and make things worse rather than better.

According to Binyamin Appelbaum, author of what is sure to be this fall’s economics blockbuster book, The Economists’ Hour, (Little, Brown and Company), the economists have become the new policy makers in government, not always with good results.

He traces the role of economists in the four decades between 1969 and 2008 “in curbing taxation and public spending, deregulating large sectors of the economy, and clearing the way for globalization.”

Any one of the folks I mentioned above is likely to suffer the consequences tomorrow of the economies these new policy-makers have created: one that’s either over-heated through easy money and inflation, in retrenchment due to cutbacks in government and consumer spending, or starved of public fiscal stimulus.

Nor have the economists solved unemployment, which is higher than official figures claim – six per cent for Canada and around four per cent for the United States.  These numbers count only people looking for work, and ignore those out of work who have given up looking for jobs. Appelbaum gives the extreme example of Galesburg, Ohio, where the official jobless figure was six per cent for men in 2016. He says an additional 41 per cent of the city’s working-age men were neither working nor actively seeking work: “Some were retired, some were happy, but many had simply given up”

America has shifted from such trades as shoe making to bond trading due to forces that are mainly “beyond the control of policy makers,” according to Appelbaum. He cites the reduced need for workers due to technological progress in making everything from cars to computers, and the more even spread of manufacturing jobs throughout the world.

In the face of this, the transformation of policy driven by economic theories, Appelbaum argues, “has hastened the evolution of the American economy, and funneled the benefits into the pockets of a plutocratic minority.”

If there was a starting point for the surrender of policy-making to economists, it was the appointment of an economist, Arthur F. Burns, as chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board in 1970. Two years later, George Schultz became the first economist to serve as Secretary of the Treasury (under President Nixon) and by the late 1970s the U.S. government was employing more than six thousand economists.

Appelbaum asserts that growth slowed in each successive decade during the following half century. “A few people became rich beyond the wildest dreams of Croesus, while the middle class now has reason to expect that their children will lead less prosperous lives.”

As the role of government grew after World War II, extending regulation over large swaths of economic activity, “the effect seemed almost magical,” Appelbaum declares. The disciples of British economist Maynard Keynes, who advocated government spending to stimulate the economy, held sway during the Kennedy and Johnson years.

Then came a dread period of “stagflation” when unemployment and inflation rose together in the 1970s. Enter the supply-side economists, who argued for cuts in both taxes and government spending,

Calling for faith in markets, conservative economists like Milton Friedman and George Stigler lent their expertise to a coalition of the powerful, “defending the status quo against threats real and imagined.” Some became intimates of the Mount Pelerin Society, a right-wing elitist group assembled by the Austrian-born libertarian, and fascist friendly, Friedrich Hayek.

The only problem is that none of the cures advocated by the supply-side economists, as they came to be known when Arthur Laffer rose to prominence, worked. Tax cuts for upper income brackets did not increase employment. Cuts in government spending on benefits to lower income taxpayers were eaten up by increases in military spending and bigger subsidies for corporations. Government deficits rose.

Today, the United States under Donald Trump is running an annual deficit of close to one trillion dollars. If applied to Canada on the usual ratio of one-to-ten for population difference, this would mean a $100 billion deficit. In fact, Canada’s budget for 2019 laid out a deficit of just over $19 billion, making Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a Scrooge by comparison.

The result of the ‘economists’ hour,’ Appelbaum argues, is that “America has pursued economic growth without sufficient regard to the strength of the safety net,” leading to an imbalance “that has proven destructive.” It’s the reason, he concludes, that “the very survival of liberal democracy is now being tested by nationalist demagogues as it was in the 1930s.”

(My thanks to Little, Brown for an advance reading copy).

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The world wonders about Canada – why do we have it so good?

One need not search far in the global media for commentary on the remarkable success Canada is enjoying amid a world of economic turmoil, political crisis, and cultural confrontation.

The Washington Post, seeking to understand “What Canada is About,” sees our welcome of 25,000 Syrian refugees (30,000 by the end of 2016) as evidence of a country pulling together to meet a new challenge:

“Businesses, the Canadian Labor Congress, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, small towns and large cities are all contributing clothing, furniture and financial support to help settle Canada’s most recent influx of refugees.”

The London Telegraph, commenting on the unprecedented openness and people mingling ability of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, offered an answer to those who criticize his penchant for selfies in this quote from political observer Amanda Alvaro:

“I think the team that surrounds the Trudeau government has really understood strategically that if you have a willing leader who is prepared to walk in Pride and take photos with people and be accessible, then you would use that to your advantage to get people to participate in the political process.”

While the United Kingdom totters toward separation (losing Scotland) and isolation (abandoning the EU) and the United States faces a presidential choice between an artful manipulator and an unadulterated ignoramus, Canada rejoices that it is led by a young, vigorous, progressive Prime Minister.

Nor are Canadian journalists shy about recognizing the euphoria that seems to have settled on the “peaceable kingdom.”

Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail, generally no friend to liberals and progressives, wrote last week that “Canada is that increasingly rare exception — a country in which public support for immigration is strong.”

She quoted Prime Minister Trudeau at his meeting with the “Three Amigos,” (he, Barack Obama and the president of Mexico):

“No matter where you are from, nor the faith you possess, nor the colour of your skin, nor whom you love, you belong here. This is your home.”

Not that all is perfect in  Canadaland. Not all immigrants are succeeding, and the country is about evenly split on whether Canada’s current policies are taking it in the “right” direction.

So bring on the books. There’s been a half dozen published on Justin Trudeau, not counting his campaign autobiography, Common Ground.

The newest, Justin Trudeau: Natural Heir, will be out in English from Dundurn on July 23.  Huguette Young, the well-known Quebecoise journalist, wrote this in French and it’s been translated by George Tombs.

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Huguette’s book is good workmanlike  reportage that takes one through the well-known early life of the son of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and comes to a sudden stop on election day, October 15, 2015.

Like most books written on the run, The Natural Heir does not contain a lot of analysis. We learn that when he gave his noted eulogy at his father’s funeral in 2000, “He seemed younger than his 28 years.”

We get a recounting of his educational progress through Collège Brébeuf, McGill University, and the University of B.C. When he decided to enter politics, he chose the tough east end Montreal riding of Papineau, then held by a Bloc MP, because if he could understand Papineau “it would be like understanding Canada as a whole.”

From there, the outcome seems inevitable. First came attempts by the Conservatives to denigrate him as a lightweight. They failed. In the debates, Young writes, “Justin Trudeau comes across as the embodiment of change. With the good looks, optimistic tone, dynamism and passion he seemed quite the reverse of Stephen Harper, who appeared wooden, serious, and controlling.”

“You can’t buy charisma,” Young tells us. “Justin Trudeau remained a blank slate.” “Trudeau played his cards well.”

For the general reader who doesn’t follow politics closely, this is an excellent primer on Canada’s new Prime Minister. Readers seeking a more analytical appraisal of Justin Trudeau’s attempt at feminist, progressive, and generally leftist policies will have to await another day.