Why this stimulus stuff will all soon be forgotten

It is raining money. Go outside without an umbrella and you’ll get largesse all over.

Why this stimulus stuff will all soon be forgotten

Hello? I am here to lodge a complaint on behalf of the Campaign Reporters’ Guild under Section 2. (a) of the Grievance Manual, “Time Utterly Wasted on the Campaign Trail.”

I will have you know I was there in Winnipeg. I was there at the vegetable distribution plant. I was not alone. There had to be two dozen fully accredited campaign reporters there, on that sunny morning in the second week of September. We got up early. We dressed warmly because a vegetable distribution plant is basically a big refrigerator. We stood around with our cameras and our digital recorders, amid the carrots and the turnips, and waited for nearly an hour for Stephen Harper to show up and make precisely one promise.

It was the biggest promise of the 2008 campaign: to lower the diesel excise tax by two cents, to give truckers a break on their fuel bills. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Precisely: the Harper Conservatives were all about not sounding like much, because back then, Harper’s goal was to portray himself as the candidate of modest prudence against Stéphane Dion’s reckless adventurism. Stephen Harper wasn’t going to spend us into debt and recession. Stephen Harper wasn’t going to promise the moon. Stephen Harper would stay focused. That’s what was needed, he said at every stop. His “training as an economist,” which he took care to mention three times a day, told him so.

That little diesel tax cut actually accounted for half the total value of all of Harper’s promises in Campaign ’08. And, being a campaign promise, of course it was doomed.

Budget 2009 is 360 pages thick. It announces stunning amounts of spending increases and tax cuts. There is money for tourist boats on the Saguenay. There is $25 million for a new arts prize. There is $200 billion for an Extraordinary Financing Framework. There’s not a word about diesel excise taxes. My training as a journalist tells me that on that sunny morning in Winnipeg, the Prime Minister of all the Canadians was talking out of his bum.

Don’t cry for the truckers. The cost of diesel has fallen 20 cents a litre since Harper made his promise. It’s not that the biggest promise of 2008 was vital and unfulfilled, it’s that it was beside the point while he was making it. Harper’s “training as an economist” (he has a master’s degree—I took a few French literature courses in university; can I claim training as Gustav Flaubert?) wasn’t worth a lot. But then, neither was anyone’s. My favourite chart in this year’s budget book is Chart 2.12 on page 46, which might as well carry the title NOT MY DAMNED FAULT and demonstrates, plausibly, that much of the current mess really isn’t Harper’s fault, except insofar as he decided to claim oracular powers of foresight at the worst possible moment.

The chart’s actual title is EVOLUTION OF PRIVATE SECTOR AVERAGE FORECASTS FOR REAL GDP GROWTH IN 2009. In handy graph format it shows hundreds of economists getting everything wrong for months on end. At the end of last August, when Harper decided to have an election, the smartest guessers were guessing Canada’s GDP would grow more than two per cent in 2009. By the time Harper got to the vegetable plant the projections were closer to 1.5 per cent. By the time Jim Flaherty rose in the Commons to deliver his fiscal update at the end of November, the projection had fallen to zero. Now it’s well into negative territory. On the scale of a federal budget, the difference between two per cent and less-than-zero is many tens of billions of dollars. You’ll be relieved to hear Harper and Flaherty have decided to plan on the assumption that even these latest guesses are too rosy. We are headed for jumbo deficits, but at least they won’t be even jumbo-er if the economy gets even worse.

So the dogmas of the quiet past having proved inadequate to the stormy present, the Conservatives have delivered a stormy budget. It is raining money. The winds are whipping it all about. If you head outside without an umbrella this year you will almost certainly get some federal largesse on you. The term of art for all this bluster is “stimulus.”

Caffeine provides stimulus too, and within a day after drinking some you have peed most of it away. So too with this budget. In two years it will be hard to find evidence all this spending ever happened. In mid-November, before things got weird in the capital, I wrote, “Given a choice, Harper will avoid spending on things that work or last, because we might conclude that’s what government is for.” That prediction has held up better than others. Harper’s crystal ball having failed him throughout the latter half of 2008, he has abandoned any attempt to plan. Here is one example.

The budget provides $750 million to build new university labs and $2 billion to refurbish old university labs and $250 million to fix federal government labs and $87.5 million for scholarships so graduate students can sit in all those labs. And it cuts the budgets for the granting councils that pay for research. Apparently all those grad students are supposed to do something else in all those labs besides research. There is no use getting too fussed about all this. In November Harper faced advocates of stimulus who urged him to spend, and be quick about it. He did just that. The Prime Minister has had to swallow himself whole. It would be a bit much to ask him to be thoughtful while he did it.

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