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Run a deficit. Please.

This Magazine Staff

Yesterday was the Speech from the Throne, the strange annual ritual where the government writes a speech and the Governor General has to read it in Parliament. The Conservatives laid out a cautious — NDP leader Jack Layton dismissed it as “very timid” — and cost-cutting agenda, with a focus on the economy. There were also references to banning bulk water exports (yay) and increasing renewable energy (yay) through nuclear power (boo); and more “getting tough” with young offenders (boo).
Much of the news coverage since yesterday has focused on the likelihood of the federal government running a deficit over the next few years. This return to the red, after nearly a decade of federal budget surpluses, is obviously painful for the Tories, who regard balanced budgets as a cardinal duty of government. In fact, they said, this is kind of technically not even a deficit at all, you see, because it’s not a “structural” deficit plan, whatever that means.
This attitude, that surplus is the natural order of budgeting and that government deficits are a sort of sin that leaders must confess and repent for, is a relatively new attitude in Ottawa. Obviously, the outrageously overleveraged federal government of the 70s and 80s wasn’t desirable; living within your means is a good idea for individuals and governments alike. But this simplistic idea — surplus good, deficit bad, full stop — has hardened into orthodoxy over the last decade, and that’s stupid.
Government exists to provide social services for the common good. Given that the world economy is crumbling all around us and taking down everyone from banks to auto companies, there’s going to be an acute need for a resilient social safety net in this country, and probably soon. All indicators point to an increase in poverty, unemployment, and insolvency, and it is the job — the duty — of the government to pay for programs that alleviate the effects of these calamities. Run the deficit. Provide services. Don’t apologize for doing your job.

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