National Post

Robson on why the figures never add up.

- John Robson

Well looky here. The federal Liberals just found an extra $ 10 billion in our pockets. So with revenue unexpected­ly surging will they invest prudently or go on a vote- buying spending spree? I wonder … I wonder …

Specifical­ly, I wonder why we’d believe the next thing they say they’re going to do when they can’t predict deficits to within $ 10 billion with all the resources of the federal government at their disposal. The problem isn’t that they’re lying, or alone in being unable to forecast. It’s that they’re not.

I don’t wonder whether they’ll spend the $ 10 billion. The feds have been on a spending spree since Trudeau Sr. that’s not about to stop, and these newly- discovered dollars aren’t a different colour, size or shape, so you could save them while spending a bunch of others. Besides, government­s redefined vote- buying spending sprees as prudent investment so long ago they have sincerely forgotten the difference.

Federal program spending was $ 111 billion in 1996- 97 and will be $ 305 billion this year. Unless it’s more. So they’ll spend it all right. ( Oh look. They already leaked a boost to the Canada Child Benefit.) But they have no idea what they’re doing and won’t when they announce their new plans.

They certainly didn’t when they campaigned on a brief run of deficits not exceeding $10 billion. And while many people felt that the Liberals were dishonest in making this and other promises they evidently felt no strong attachment to, they really didn’t know their promises were hooey. Many realized they personally had no clue how it was all meant to work, but believed some really smart people in the party’s brain trust had it all figured out. Others believed they were those really smart people. But they weren’t.

Of course they might have said, gee, as an opposition party, not even the official opposition, we had limited research resources. Of course there was a cocktail napkin quality to some of that election stuff. But in power we’ll have an entire Finance department full of financial geeks and … um… get this year’s deficit wrong by 23 per cent.

I very much dislike most government budgets. Not just for what they do but for how they present it. Instead of tables up front saying what they expect to spend and where they hope to get it (that’s on p. 251 of 278 in 2017’s edition), you get page upon page of self- congratula­tory prose about wonderful programs to turn your squalid life around, plus endless bwa bwa bwa about exactly what economic conditions might do unless they don’t.

I don’t know how self-respecting men and women can write turgid clichés like, “At the centre of the Canadian story is the middle class and the promise of progress,” and then go home and sleep at night, let alone suppose such prose has any place in a budget. But on it churns sickeningl­y, followed by tables of, “World’s Largest Firms by Market Capitaliza­tion,” and “Change in Full-Time Versus Part-Time Employment Since December 2015,” and “Real Canadian Non- Energy Goods Exports and U. S. Non-Petroleum Goods Imports,” and “Average Private Sector Forecasts” of projected GDP growth through 2016-21 averaging 1.7 per cent real or 3.5 nominal, all designed to give confidence in their projection­s.

We’ve been getting this ostentatio­us display of pseudo- expertise since the Mulroney years, when blithe promises of balanced budgets just around the corner followed by dismal surprises had citizens wondering if they were playing drunken games of “pin the tail on the donkey” in the Ministry of Finance basement. But while the PR has improved, the forecasts haven’t.

In government, it’s easy to brush off a few billion dollars as a rounding error. But while I’m glad this year’s deficit is $5.2 billion smaller than the forecast $ 23 billion, being off by a quarter means I won’t believe their next prediction either. As for the claim that their panicky changes to small business tax rates have not yet been “fully costed,” it’s not because they’ve been too busy with a political brushfire, though they have. It’s that the exercise is inherently impossible. The economy is too complex to model.

We live in an age in thrall to mathematic­s, where we expect to predict growth to a decimal place five years out, know the ideal interbank lending rate to two decimals a year from now, and measure global temperatur­e to hundredths of a degree. If a budget said, “Frankly we don’t know what’s going to happen, but here’s what we’ll spend and here’s a plan to pay for it that we’ll adjust if the creek does rise, or fall,” there’d be stunned silence followed by outrage. But it would have the virtue of being true.

If instead we keep demanding, or accepting, smoke, mirrors and post hoc rationaliz­ation we’ll get it. But why would we want to?

 ?? DREW ANGERER / GETTY IMAGES FILES ?? The Liberals under Justin Trudeau had no idea what they were doing when they campaigned on a brief run of deficits not exceeding $10 billion, writes columnist John Robson.
DREW ANGERER / GETTY IMAGES FILES The Liberals under Justin Trudeau had no idea what they were doing when they campaigned on a brief run of deficits not exceeding $10 billion, writes columnist John Robson.
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