Robin Hood Economics

Canada’s economic context at the time of Election 2011 is one of “precarious recovery”, and overall demand conditions are weakened by a few major factors. Unemployment is still just under 8%, which is good compared to the double-digit unemployment of the early 1990s, but not great compared to the expansions of the late 1990s and 2000s. Too much of the employment gains that have come are in part-time jobs, so added to the 1.5 million unemployed are another half-million or so who are under-employed.

That is not good for businesses in Canada. Nor is the fact that one-third of the gains in income over the past decade have gone to the top 1% of households. The super-rich use this income as a means of keeping score, but it is not spent in the real economy. Canada’s wealthiest could have $100,000 fall out of the trunk of their Porches and not even notice. Yet, further down the income ladder, we see record levels of household debt that are contraining spending.

Again, not good for business. A good business climate is one in which demand is strong, where people have good incomes are spending them on good and services (though I’d add with carbon taxes making it much more expensive to purchase carbon-intensive goods and services). This is especially true for small businesses in Canada, who are tapping domestic demand not US or global markets.

Too much of our leading economic thinkers have been swayed by the idea that corporate income tax cuts are needed in order to improve incentives for new investment. This supply-side economics has not delivered even on its own terms, and at a massive cost to the public treasury. If anything, corporate tax cuts have been a lost opportunity for much-needed investments in infrastructure and social programs.

This is, in large part, because the corporate sector has been accumulating surpluses. As Jim Stanford pointed out recently, the net of after-tax profits less new investment has led to a $500 billion surplus in the corporate sector over the past decade-plus. Corporate income tax cuts only add to this cushion, and do almost nothing to further new investment because investment is driven by demand conditions. We have just provided windfalls to the most profitable corporations in Canada, in particular the big banks, oil and gas companies and telecom/media industries.

Raising corporate income taxes, as the Liberals (from 16.5% to 18%) and NDP (to 19.5%) have suggested, would drain some of this surplus and put it to work. We could rebuild our infrastructure, reduce poverty and reinvest in our social programs. This would address real and pressing needs in the country (as opposed to jets and jails), create good jobs and reduce unemployment. We could consider providing tax credits to business for new investment (in place of across-the-board tax cuts) but the key point is to focus on effective demand in the economy.

So, a little Robin Hood in our economic planning would do a lot of good, and as the economy rises so the deficit would fall. Adding in some new tax brackets for very high incomes, as the AFB has recommended, would be even better. Remember that corporate income tax cuts are tax cuts for the richest Canadians. Our economic policies should be judged by whether they increase inequality or not. We know that lower levels of inequality are better not just in stronger demand, but also in terms of broader health and social outcomes. A simple test: does this policy further enrich the already wealthy? If so, it must be rejected.

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