Alberta Politics
Donald Trump adopts a Mussolini pose while giving his State of the Union Address in February, but doesn’t even mention America’s burgeoning deficit (Photo: Shealah Craighead, the White House, Public Domain).

Deficit hawks fall silent in Washington but screech in Alberta and Canada – what gives?

Posted on March 11, 2019, 12:32 am
8 mins

It’s starting to feel like spring, the days are longer, and the deficit hawks, apparently, have all flown north for the summer.

As a result, nowadays, the hawks’ angry shrieks are seldom heard in Washington!

Stephen Harper, head of the Munich-based International Democratic Union, the neoliberal Internationale (Photo: Remy Steinegger, Creative Commons).

“The federal budget deficit is ballooning on President Trump’s watch and few in Washington seem to care,” the Associated Press reported Saturday, the news service’s reporter not even trying to hide his sense of wonderment at this turn of events.

To the reporter’s credit, he was actually able to drum up a Washington deficit hawk shocked and appalled enough about this development to spend a few moments complaining before flocking off to wherever Republican Senators go on a weekend.

Here in Alberta, meanwhile, with an election looming, the unpleasant cacophony of the deficit hawks is almost deafening.

If the silence of the hawks in Washington is perplexing, the fact our Canadian Republican types – called conservatives on this side of the 49th Parallel owing to the fact our Dominion is not a republic – are singing a different song is also unusual.

There was a day when conservative political messaging was quite different in Canada than the United States, reflecting real cultural and historical differences between our countries. This remains the case on the left to a significant degree.

Vladimir Lenin, apparently an inspiration to the neoliberal right (Photo: Pavel Semyonovich Zhukov, 1870-1942, Public Domain).

But over the past 40 years or so, there has been a significant effort on the right to forge an international ideological consensus through promotion of institutions such as the worldwide network of utopian market fundamentalist “think tanks” and Astro-Turf groups, many funded by Washington-based organizations like the Atlas Network.

Our former prime minister, Stephen Harper plays a prominent role in this effort, and now heads the market fundamentalist Internationale based in Munich, Germany. This organization is called the International Democrat Union and, while it is certainly international, is only a union in the sense of, say, the Soviet Union, and its commitment to democratic principles is open to question.

Nevertheless, this approach has proved remarkably effective at creating a consistent international economic ideology on the right – which nowadays encompasses pretty well all the parties of the right, everywhere, plus some in the middle, even a few supposedly on the left.

Calling this doctrine neoliberalism may seem counterintuitive, as it’s neither new nor liberal, at least in the modern understanding of the latter term. But despite its flaws, it is probably the most precise term for this pervasive and pernicious ideology.

It must be observed that this ideological consistency is remarkably reminiscent of the now-moribund Communist movement of yore. If you read the musings of the admirers of Vladimir Lenin in this right-wing movement, people like the slovenly former Trump Administration chief ideologist Stephen K. Bannon, you will see this is quite intentional.

This is so striking, indeed, that one almost expects Mr. Harper to start numbering the IDU’s regular clambakes, starting with “the First Internationale,” or some such.

A key part of this consistent messaging is a supposed horror of deficits, which is universal and all encompassing on the political right … except when it’s not.

Jason Kenney, leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

So if there is such a consensus on the right, how do we explain this remarkable divergence in the key talking points of the members of this international movement in Canada, especially Alberta, and in Washington?

The explanation is quite simple. It has been elucidated by a Nobel Prize winning economist, no less – although one, it must be admitted, whose views are not wholly in tune with the prevailing neoliberal ideological doctrine.

“Republicans spent the entire Obama Administration inveighing constantly about the dangers of debt, warning that America faced a looming crisis unless deficits were drastically reduced,” Paul Krugman wrote in his New York Times column soon after President Donald Trump’s inconveniently delayed Feb. 5 State of the Union message.

Any Canadian who is paying attention knows that the situation is exactly the same on this side of the border.

“Now that they’re in power, however,” Dr. Krugman continued, “and with the deficit surging thanks to a huge tax cut for corporations and the rich – they’ve totally dropped the subject.”

He quoted one of Mr. Trump’s senior officials on why the topic never came up in the SOTU: “Nobody cares.”

“Republicans never actually cared about debt,” Dr. Krugman explained. “They just pretended to be deficit hawks as a way to hamstring President Obama’s agenda.”

The obsession “never had much basis in economic analysis,” he added. “Republicans rail against budget deficits when they’re out of power, then drop all concerns and send the deficit soaring once they are in a position to cut taxes. Then when it’s the Democrats’ turn, they’re expected to clean up the Republicans’ red ink rather than address their own priorities.”

This is what happened when Liberals and New Democrats won elections in Ottawa and Edmonton. Suddenly, deficits mattered again. It foretells exactly what will happen if Andrew Scheer or Jason Kenney come to power in the federal and Alberta elections expected soon. This is not just a pattern. It’s a strategy.

In Alberta, if Mr. Kenney manages to hang onto his party’s current substantial polling lead, our deficit will soar to unprecedented levels as a result of his planned program of tax cuts.

Of course, it will also become a convenient excuse to lay waste to public health care, education and the other valuable public social programs neoliberal ideology despises, but what commentary there is about the size of the debt and deficit will be shuffled off on the NDP or the Liberals.

As for the impact of cutting taxes on deficits and debt, all the usual suspects will fall strangely silent, just as they have in Washington. Screech? The deficit hawks won’t even tweet!

It is written.

9 Comments to: Deficit hawks fall silent in Washington but screech in Alberta and Canada – what gives?

  1. David

    March 11th, 2019

    The Conservatives have at best a poor record at deficits. When Harper came into power Federally, along with Jason Kenney, they inherited a surplus from the Liberals, which quickly turned into a deficit and it remained that way for most of their 10 years. Of course now they are back to criticizing the Federal Liberals for running deficits, either showing a shameless hypocrisy or if they don’t like that, perhaps they can claim amnesia.

    Likewise in Alberta, we have not been deficit free in Alberta for over 10 years. Over their long reign, the PC’s did have some good years and some bad years, but certainly this included a number of deficits. Lest we forget, the Saskatchewan Party next door that the UCP likes to hold up as a model is not running a surplus either, nor is their other favorite premier, Ontario PC leader Doug Ford. There is a budget coming soon in Ontario and I suspect it will be ugly, with a record amount of red ink. As is often the case the provinces who are actually in the best financial shape are those not run by the Conservatives or PC’s – BC and Quebec.

    I suspect none of these facts will deter the UCP from continuing to natter on about deficits – Kenney does not seem the sort of a career politician to let the facts ever get in the way of his arguments, this does not surprise me. The more surprising thing is that some people fall for his bs.

    Reply
  2. Political Ranger

    March 11th, 2019

    Yeah.
    So the right has been singularly focused on ‘winning’ for at least the last generation, perhaps since Regan/Thatcher/Mulroney.
    Nothing else matters!
    Say anything, do anything, or nothing – just win.
    And when they do; not an intelligible governance plan articulated by any of them. Just loot the Treasury!

    Today we have 2 existential crisis facing us. Both of which require political solutions.
    1. Climate Change. It’s here and it will change everything but only for those left alive.
    2. Fascism, Authoritarianism, Fundamentalism. Without a cohesive, rational and transparent strategy for liberal democracy around the world we are indeed a World In Disarray.

    It’s been 75 years now since the world had to deal with such global crisis. Perhaps 80 million people were killed trying to make their point back then.
    Unless we begin to aggressively pursue solutions to the above it’s likely that the casualties will be less this time around.

    Reply
  3. Brogan

    March 11th, 2019

    Conservative politicians exist to enrich themselves and give their campaign donors tax breaks while regressing us socially. Its christo-fascist plutocrats all the way down since before I was born. Why does anyone that isn’t a rich white Christian fanatic think that Kenney, a lifetime virgin because of his literalist religious ideals, would have any respect or concern for them? Kenney is Harper’s bitch: a voodoo economics/prosperity gospel shill. Is this province so greedy and stupid and ignorant of the past that it will buy policies that keep it as a failed Petro state?

    Reply
  4. Farmer Brian

    March 11th, 2019

    As a conservative minded Albertan I am certainly concerned about fiscal responsibility for myself and my government. At a time when our government is running large deficits I certainly agree that it is counterintuitive to cut taxes. I also appreciate that we need to attract back private investment. Today’s economic environment both provincially and federally seems to involve a lot of subsidies to large corporations, is this different than a tax cut? A tax cut applies to all companies, subsidies to only a few. The Alberta NDP’s record on debt and their projected future debt isn’t so rosy either. According to their third quarter update by the end of 2023-2024 Alberta will have an accumulated debt of $94.8 billion. As part of this update they project a balanced budget based on $12.3 of non-renewable resource revenue up from $5.5 billion today. Does this sound possible? Then look at the interest we will pay on accumulated debt in 2023-2024, at 2.5% this amounts to $2.37 billion per year. Imagine if interest rates go up. This amounts to 58% of the $4.1 billion we collect this year in corporate tax. In my opinion it doesn’t matter who wins the next election it is a mess! Enjoy your day.

    Reply
  5. St Albertan

    March 11th, 2019

    I’m torn between inappropriate amusement and total disgust, at our ability to willfully fail, when we’re given opportunities that only come once! Alberta is accidentally (according to geologists) situated over a poisoned chalice of riches. Much like Norway’s offshore. They and their 5 million citizens have amassed a Trillion (and growing at between 4 and 8% per year) dollar investment fund. They achieved this global superlative of economic prudence by emulating a premier of this province and his plan. They started pumping their revenue fifteen years after we did. All along they have paid 100% for their social programs and 100% for their military and foreign diplomatic presence. Arguable, their language is rather impossible! I guess that’s why Albertans just can’t get it!

    Reply
  6. Sam Gunsch

    March 11th, 2019

    And these con’s enabled by the daily stream of BS in the RW media from cheerleading RW pundits/thinktanks.

    …pretty much like the USA RW media analyzed and discussed here:

    https://www.vox.com/2018/10/23/18004478/hack-gap-explained

    The hack gap: how and why conservative nonsense dominates American politics

    Matthew [email protected]@vox.com

    excerpt: ‘something I’ve dubbed “the hack gap” over the years, and it’s one of the most fundamental asymmetries shaping American politics. While conservatives obsess over the (accurate) observation that the average straight news reporter has policy views that are closer to the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, the hack gap fundamentally does more to structure political discourse.

    The hack gap explains why Clinton’s email server received more television news coverage than all policy issues combined in the 2016 election.’

    excerpt: ‘The hack gap has two core pillars. One is the constellation of conservative media outlets — led by Fox News and other Rupert Murdoch properties like the Wall Street Journal editorial page, but also including Sinclair Broadcasting in local television, much of AM talk radio, and new media offerings such as Breitbart and the Daily Caller — that simply abjure anything resembling journalism in favor of propaganda.’

    Reply
  7. Jerrymacgp

    March 12th, 2019

    There once was a time, long ago—the 1970s & early 80s—when deficits were a real issue, because deficit financing of public spending drove interest rates sky-high and triggered double-digit inflation. I came of age during that time, so I well remember it. So, much of the focus of politics in the late 80s and early 90s was on balancing budgets, even if that meant heartless cuts to services ordinary people relied more on.

    However, today things are different. For reasons that as a non-economist I don’t really understand, even the massive nearly trillion-dollar US government deficit doesn’t seem to be driving inflation or high interest rates. So, while Conservative politicians get into a swivet about deficits, the federal Liberals in particular seem to have nothing to worry about on that front—their recent unrelated problems notwithstanding—and in my view neither does the Alberta NDP, whose problems are not really about balancing the budget. Voters don’t seem to really care, and after all you can’t eat a balanced budget, or wear it, or drive a truck down it. We are also living through a period of record low and fairly static interest rates, and low inflation, so there’s no concern government spending is out of hand or unaffordable.

    So, we have an incumbent NDP government that sees a slow, but sensible path to balancing the provincial budget, and resists the kind of radical changes that would make it happen any faster; and you have a Conservative party trying, without much success, to get people all in a tizzy about the deficit, when what they’re really worried about is will I have work next week or next month?

    Maybe the UCP will own the next election, as everyone seems to think is a foregone conclusion. But, campaigns matter, and don’t count the Notley NDP out just yet.

    Reply
  8. Rocky

    March 12th, 2019

    You have missed another important way in which Neoliberals are like Communists. In addition to advocating a utopian system that has some merits but doesn’t quite work, as you rightly point out, they both claim the idealized world they pretend it will create is based on science. “Scientific socialism” and the “law of the market” are the same pseudo scientific claptrap, dressed up in slightly different clothes.

    Reply
    • John B.

      March 13th, 2019

      Back in the late ‘70s when I met for the first time a person, this one a student of economics at one of the universities in Southwestern Ontario, who was a member of the old Libertarian Party of Canada, the “Let’s Free Enterprise” guys, I made a similar observation after listening to his pitch. He didn’t follow and immediately launched into a lecture on what he referred to as the “economic pie” that ended with the assertion that, “There is no pie; there is no pie!” After I advised him that I hadn’t introduced the term into the discussion, he proceeded to browbeat me on socialistic ignorance of the marginal propensity of blah-blah-blah. When I asked him to define that term, I couldn’t follow him because he used it several times in his multi-paragraph explanation of its meaning. Then he got to the point. He was aware that my union and I personally had been involved recently in a job-action over issues of site contamination and work permit falsification that had caused a major project to be shut down. The lecture turned toward reality: if any other worker had been willing to continue under the conditions to which we had objected there should be no sets of social constructs preventing him from doing so; and that what had transpired was a costly violation of Market Law engendered by excessive regulation and made possible by restriction of individual worker rights. Confirming to myself my initial simple observation, I thought, “That’s right: another Marxist”, but this one enlightened by professors belonging to a different set of draft-dodgers than the ones who’d wormed their ways into the sociology departments a decade earlier.

      Reply

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