Canadian voters threw out Prime Minister Harper's austerity-based "new normal" and have got American conservative leaders scared to death!
Pre-election, it was hard not to be impressed by Canada’s liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, when they included in their campaign platform a policy promise to put their nation in debt in order to repair and upgrade the national infrastructure.
Post-election, it is equally difficult not to be impressed by the Canadian public. This was a citizenry that understood the immense potential benefits of such a policy, faced down the traditional fear-mongering of government spending, deficits and debt by conservatives and the media, then went to the polls and served notice in a big way that it was time for Canada to “go big” on infrastructure investment. As E.J. Dionne cogently noted in a post-election column, “Trudeau proved that voters understand the difference between profligacy and necessary public investment.”
Relatively speaking, Trudeau and his supporters did not actually “go big” in their commitment to infrastructure repair/upgrade. The amount to be borrowed and spent approaches $10 billion/Canadian (roughly $7.6 billion/U.S.) annually for three years, although Trudeau has also stated that infrastructure spending will increase by $60 billion over the next decade.
But, symbolically speaking, they went “way big.”
Canadians have been mired for a decade in the tight strictures of static, no-growth austerian budgets and were beginning to believe the conservative nonsense that the best they could do as a nation would be to surrender to a “new normal” defined by such notions as “being satisfied with less” and “better just isn’t possible.”
The willingness of the public to resoundingly reject, by what amounted to jaw-dropping numbers, such an absurd, minimalist “new normal” as well as their willingness to enthusiastically toss on the garbage heap of Canadian history the ideological orthodoxy of the austerity crowd evidences just how dissatisfied our northern neighbors had become with their lot.
It also evidences just how ready they are to do what must be done – including “going big” per their economic plans – to jump-start the process of making real, dynamic changes in their nation’s economic, social and cultural life. One of Canada’s most well-connected and well-respected political commentators, Paul Wells, opined that it was the disaffected, disillusioned Canadian public that, more than the politicians, drove the ultimate narrative of the election. Trudeau, he said, “had to go big, or the Canadian voter would send him home.”
Apoplectic austerian conservatives in Canada have, of course, already gone apocalyptic per their scare tactics – arguing, as always, that the stimulative effect of Trudeau’s infrastructure borrowing and spending will lead to out-of-control inflationary spirals, massive deficits/debt and high unemployment.
Frightened that the very idea of increased government spending during recessionary or weak economic times – or, for that matter, increased government spending at any time – might cross the porous border that separates Canada and the U.S., Republicans and related right-wing groups in Washington are equally apoplectic and have gone similarly apocalyptic with their Chicken Little scenarios.
The truth of the matter, however, is that what worries American conservatives most is not that Trudeau’s Keynesian economic plan will fail, but that it will succeed. Nothing threatens them more than the possibility that Trudeau’s promise of government borrowing and spending on infrastructure will actually lead to the job-creation and economic growth that their own supply-side, austerity policies have failed to deliver in the U.S.
After all, if their right-wing, know-nothing, bed-wetting flock takes note of Canadian successes, it might begin to wonder why those policies weren’t implemented here at home. And they might begin to ask questions about who obstructed the implementation of those policies when they were originally proposed; cf. John Boehner preventing President Obama’s Infrastructure Bank Bill from ever receiving even a first reading in the House.
Republicans continue to say, without being challenged by journalists who know better, that the only way to “fix” the U.S. economy is via a combination of spending cuts, mostly cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and changes to the tax code. On what planet do spending cuts create jobs? On what planet do tax cuts create jobs? And in what alternate universe would one have to reside in order to believe that the Republicans would so enthusiastically close tax loopholes that the increase in revenue would be substantial enough to transition an economy from static to expansionary? Or that the wealthy would change course and invest their tax windfalls in the means of production rather than the exotic, get-richer-quicker financial instruments of Wall Street?
Hence, the real question: Just how long are Americans willing to remain mired in the same low-growth, low job-creation, low-wage, low-opportunity economy that is the logical result of austerian policies such as those of Alan Simpson, every GOP presidential candidate, the Republican Congressional Clown Car and my unemployed next-door neighbor (who at 54 has substituted Social Security disability benefits for unemployment benefits and still complains about government spending, people “living off the government,” and, yes, all the “takers” who live around us).
This is the moment in both Canada and the U.S. wherein public/private investment in infrastructure is a game-changer for their respective economies.
First, the timing is perfect. As the Liberal platform in Canada stated, “Interest rates are at historic lows, our current infrastructure is aging rapidly, and our economy is stuck in neutral. Now is the time to invest.” The same is the case in the U.S.
Second, there is no economic sector in either Canada or the U.S. that can so quickly generate across-the-board job-creation and economic growth quite like the construction sector. It has the longest food chain of any economic sector in either country. The tentacles of ancillary industries and companies stretch out like capillaries, oxygenating virtually every other sector of the economy in every part of the country.
Looking for historical evidence of the extent to which infrastructure spending can impact a recessionary or weak economy?
The American middle-class was given birth in the post-WWII years by the G.I. Bill and its emphasis on housing and by Dwight Eisenhower’s fundamental commitment to infrastructure spending; cf. the Interstate Highway System. (Interestingly enough, Eisenhower didn’t borrow to pay for what became a game-changer in American economic history. He raised marginal tax rates as high as 91%. And, guess what? The sky didn’t fall!) Put simply, the greatest era of generalized American prosperity was generated by the ramping up of the construction sector via a focus on housing and infrastructure.
Tired of austerian ideologues defining Canada’s “new normal,” Canadians went to the polls and decided that they, and not the ideologues, would define Canada’s future. They got it right, in a big way.
The U.S.? Given that the mainstream media still characterizes Ayn Rand disciple Paul Ryan as a “moderating influence” in economic matters, given that the Clown Car Caucus currently dominating the House of Representatives will, as a result of Republican gerrymandering of House districts, almost guarantee a huge Republican majority for the next decade, we won’t be getting it right anytime soon. Not in a big way. Not even in a small way.