Inequality is a major theme of current research in economics throughout the world. The now-famous Capital by Thomas Piketty released in English in 2014 is a case in point. It is also a major focal point in Canada, as illustrated by the bookIncome Inequality: The Canadian Story published recently by the Institute for Research on Public Policy and in the ongoing work of the Broadbent Institute and other groups.
The Liberal election platform promised to “make the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) truly independent” of the government and to make sure that the office is properly funded. The platform also promised to make government accounting “consistent and clear.”
It was, then, a bit surprising that the PBO had to make a formal request for information normally provided in the federal budge, and was forced to provide its own estimates for the missing numbers in its report to Parliament on April 6. The Department of Finance finally released the requested information only on April 8, more than two weeks after the budget was delivered in the House of Commons (on March 22nd.)
Recent events have triggered an important discussion on the Left’s approach to climate change policy. The Leap Manifesto is one expression of the desire to transition to a carbon neutral economy while creating a more just and “caring” society.
As expected, the federal budget delivered on the Liberal promise to leave the age of eligibility for Old Age Security (OAS) and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) retirement benefits at age sixty five. The Harper government had previously decided to phase in an increase to age sixty seven.
Many pundits have argued that the eligibility age should rise in line with longer life expectancy. They say that a higher retirement age would reduce the growing cost of the OAS/GIS program, and will boost the economy by pushing seniors to work longer.
The new Canada Child Benefit (CCB) unveiled in the 2016 federal Budget has been widely supported by progressives and anti poverty activists who have long favoured the expansion of income tested child tax credits. By contrast to the so called middle-class tax cut which favours the more affluent, the CCB will have a positive impact upon the lamentably high rate of child poverty in Canada (which stood at 16.5% in 2013), and will promote greater income equality among families with children.
Somewhat ironically, the new program is an unintended consequence of the regressive policies of the Harper government which opened up the needed fiscal room for progressive change.
The Budget reinvests significantly and appropriately in many important government programs broadly in line with the promises made in the Liberal platform. However, it falls short in some important areas, and the biggest failure is to restore federal fiscal capacity to support improved social programs and public services over the long term.
The bottom line is that the Budget increases federal government program spending from 13.6% of GDP in 2015-16, the last year of the Conservative government, to 14.6% of GDP in each of the next two fiscal years. This represents a significant increase in spending of about $20 Billion in the coming year, 2016-17. Program spending is, however, forecast to gradually decline as a share of GDP back to the 2015-16 level after the next two years.
The idea of a basic income guarantee for all Canadians has again moved to the front burner with the House of Commons Finance Committee and the Ontario government supporting further study and experimentation. This could be an important step forward, but incremental reform towards an income tested guarantee for working age Canadians delivered through the tax system will be the best path forward as opposed to more visionary “big bang” solutions.
The concept of a basic income has won support from both the political right and left. For the former, it promises to simplify complex income security programs and to replace most if not all welfare state programs with a single cash payment which would allow individuals to meet their needs in the market. For the latter, it is a means to free people from dependence upon the job market, a tool for social solidarity amidst a rapidly changing world of work, and a means to abolish poverty.
More than twenty years ago, back in 1994, the federal government released the report of the Advisory Group on Working Time and Distribution of Work. (Disclosure: I served as the Labour Adviser.) The central message of the report has been pretty much ignored by governments ever since, even though it is more relevant than ever today in a slow growth world where good jobs are hard to find.