Moderation in the Shadow of Debt

Tomorrow is the provincial budget, and there’s a lot to munch on in anticipation. There’s Hans Rollmann and Jon Parsons‘ treatment of the subject, which are, if nothing else, impassioned. To me, at least, they also fail a basic test of pragmatic balance; we can’t reinvent the economy entire overnight, which would, I think, be required in order to avoid financial ruin under these approaches.

Jon (my beloved cousin, whatever our differences may be), in particular, hits me in exactly the wrong spot:

…the more fundamental response to the question “What do you propose!?!” is that no one needs to have an answer in order to resist.

I do. I’m not interested or invested in “resistance” without alternatives. Laying the blame at the feet and the solutions on the backs of “elites” and “the wealthy” and “corporations” just sends me out the door; I don’t buy into that line. Partly that’s because I read budget numbers for fun; partly it’s because I have, over the course of my life, cultivated a strong interest in entrepreneurship and the business world.

I want to observe three things that happen when you tax businesses at a higher rate:

First, businesses have less incentive to try to establish operations in your jurisdiction. Newfoundland starts at a disincentive because of higher costs and lower market (in terms of buyer, job, and resource) access, and so a rising business tax regime needs a really good hard look.

To balance that, you can offer development programs, which have a history of falling over here. Part of that is due to a very limited resource pool and lack of critical mass in any industry, part of it is the ease of taking advantage to bootstrap your business and then getting out of town when the funds run out.

The businesses that stay are going to trend less aggressive. Owners who want their business to succeed at all costs are going to go where they can develop most quickly. This has the ugly little knock-on effect that your local businesses may fail at a higher rate because they are outcompeted by the hungrier competition in the world at large.

And I’m super-dubious about the ability to suddenly shift to full-on socialism. It’s in my wheelhouse, politically speaking, but it sounds silly when it’s written down (also: doctors are a monopoly? For real? I don’t think that word means what you think it does).

I like a more mathematical treatment of the issue. This, to me, is a good analysis, if for no other reason than it uses actual numbers to make its points. I don’t know how the author of that analysis shouts out to Hans and Jon, but it’s one of the things I do love about The Independent; radically different viewpoints in a single media vehicle is rare and beautiful at this point.

I consider the hard part of government to be working the details out. It’s the thing that makes me most angry about the current slate.

Originally I thought that the Liberals must be either liars (which I thought quite likely) or grossly incompetent (which I hoped was not). My line of reasoning was that they either made promises they knew they could not keep, or they failed utterly both at keeping the sitting government honest and accountable and  at doing the math on our fiscal situation.

A third option has occurred to me recently: what if they’re a whole different kind of liar and corrupted incompetent? What if they are actively avoiding putting the torch to previous governments commensurate with their failures? The conspiracy theorist in me wants to further extrapolate that this is because they have equally shitty things kept under wraps by a mutual agreement. The pragmatist thinks it’s just because it wouldn’t work or even matter, and would alienate voters while you’re at it.

I have started to buy pretty thoroughly of late into the idea that the parties in charge are not doing their jobs, and the people of the province are not holding them to account. It seems pretty obvious that Danny’s government fucked up pretty badly, but it doesn’t matter at this point; we’re never getting that money back, and the bottom has fallen out of the plan. And the Liberal plan never made much sense to begin with.

The province can’t ignore the state of its finances. We have to close the gap, and I do think it’s fair to say some of that has to come back from those who have benefited most. And the will to do that probably isn’t there.

But I don’t really think Muskrat Falls is an albatross, even if there sure are a lot of voices against it. I’d be on board with requiring a full cost and benefits analysis of the project, but every time I go to investigate claims against the project I find that they’re either misleading or incorrect.

And I don’t think we can keep all the goods. Maybe it’s because I came of age with Clyde Wells’ draconian policies, but I feel like we’ve been here before, and we survived. We’ll do it again.

I’m hopeful for tomorrow. I’ve had brief glimpses of the hard choices made by government departments in recent years, and I know that most of the hard choices didn’t fall to the MHAs. Department staff the province over have been once again asked to do the impossible, and I know they’ll have some strategies that will improve things in surprising ways.

But I also think that any doubled mental health resource idea is probably dead now, as is the nascent startup incubation effort. And those are deep losses, but they’re a drop in a very deep bucket right now.

I’ve leaned heavily upon the Independent in this article – a testament to their good work overall, as far as I’m concerned – but there’s one more article I’d like to touch on. At a social level, there needs to be a closing of ranks towards the overall picture of societal good. This is where Bill and Jon and Hans and all the rest hit it really really solidly on its head: we definitely need to shift, provincially, federally, and globally to a system that aims more squarely at ensuring that taxation is better at providing the basic means to run our society and that has clearly presented ideas about what that should look like.

In the days to come, I expect I’ll be coming back to this to look at what the budget as delivered will mean for me and mine. Hopefully, there’ll be many more and better words to chew on regarding the whole mess.