Under Stephen Harper, Canada can fairly claim to be the best-governed country in the advanced democratic world. Thursday's federal budget locks up Canada's lead.
Right now, the major economies share a common economic problem: With the world slowly and fitfully emerging from the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, they must begin to plan to reduce their debt burdens -- but not so fast that they crush demand and abort the recovery. The United Kingdom exemplifies the dangers of moving too fast: your recovery falters.
The United States exemplifies the risks of moving too slow: The inability of its political system to agree on any plan to budget has cost the world's biggest economy its Triple-A credit rating.
Canada has been seeking to move at a pace that's just right -- and with the 2012 budget, Canada continues to succeed. Barring an unexpected slump into renewed recession, Thursday's budget moves Canada to budget balance over the next three years. There will be no tax increases. Federal spending growth will be restrained, but outlays will still rise: from $272.9 billion in the year just ended to a projected $296.6 billion in 2015-2016.
This "steady as she goes" course has disappointed some. The Edmonton Sun denounced the budget as "Trudeauesque."
Such an assessment is upside-down. Trudeau's budgeting was notorious for its recklessness. Harper's budgeting is impeccable in its caution. By 2015-2016, Canada will have reduced both spending and debt to pre-recession levels. Nobody else on earth will be able to say anything like that.
The austerity economies of the Eurozone have cut and cut their budgets. Yet budget balance eludes them. They're in a trap. If you reduce spending too fast, you crimp your economy -- and thus also and inadvertently reduce your revenues.
A less dramatic economic policy can support growth and boost revenues. Here's a trade that a lot of other countries would gratefully accept: Jim Flaherty's plan allows spending to rise by 11.65% over 5 years. Over those same five years, revenues are expected to surge by 26%.
Would anyone benefit from a smaller rise in the expenditure line if it is true that -- as most economists agree -- a reduction in expenditure pulls down the revenue line by even more?
The Harper government has already accomplished the second hardest task in government fiscal management: It responded to the economic crisis by supplying just enough fiscal stimulus. Miscalculate that dosage, and you risk careening from economic crisis to debt crisis.
Now it is settling to the very hardest task: mustering the discipline to recall the stimulus when it is no longer wanted. Overdo it, and you get the relapse into recession that the U.S. suffered in 1937. Underdo it, and you miss your targets and waste your effort.
On these fiscal calculations hang the prosperity of tens of millions of people and the future of a great country. OK, yes, sure -- after it's all over, we'll be able to look back in time and see with hindsight how this decision or that might have been made better.
From the perspective of today, however, the important news is: How much has already been done right, under the most extreme difficulty, in a time of supreme danger?
This article was also published in the National Post.
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