Monday, November 15, 2010

a sign-off of sorts for Alberta readers

I'll probably be blogging less about Alberta affairs going forward, not least because the ground is fairly well covered by others. Capital Notebook is back, although the most trenchant Leg watching commentary is likely to be found at former Liberal MLA Maurice Tougas' blog. One of the things I found remarkable about Maurice's 2004 run in Edmonton-Meadowlark is that his winning campaign spent less than $5400. I remember a Wildrose conference in 2007 when an experienced PC Alberta organizer advised us that running an urban campaign would require $8000 and a rural campaign $12 000. With Wildrose Alliance operations now dominated by big spending federal Tories, constituencies are probably being told they need to spend $25 000.

The fact of the matter is that the debate of interest to me is the government of Alberta's fiscal situation, and it is a debate that the average Albertan is not particularly interested in. A chasm in perspective between the "wonks" and the general electorate is not unusual of course. I agree with the Fraser Institute that Gordon Campbell is the best fiscal manager of the 10 provincial premiers, but Campbell's approval ratings are in the single digits, a level so low that the BC premier could not continue to govern (he announced his resignation earlier this month). But there isn't much wonk interest in Alberta's finances either. Why? Because the province has simply not been compelled to face the issues that most other North American jurisdictions have begun to wrestle with. A review of the cash on hand held by US states indicates that a large chunk is held by just two: Alaska and Texas. These two states having something in common with Alberta, of course: significant oil and gas royalties.

With a full third of its budget historically being funded by natural resource-related revenues, Alberta can afford to maintain inefficient policy and carry on with an air of self-satisfaction, taking in the spectacle of others grappling with their emerging financial problems with an air of bemusement. The typical Albertan has accepted the convenient explanation that his province's prosperity is due to hard work, a pioneering spirit, and "conservative" values in general.

This "character" myth, is of course, exactly that, a myth, but it would get rather tiring for me to point this out again and again. Over the past couple of years I've essentially said what I have to say: save and invest more, spend less, and consider how budgeting decisions are made as opposed to just the decisions, which is to say wake up to the influence of unions, especially public sector unions, on the public policy process. One can only write so many jeremiads before one has pigeon-holed oneself as, well, a Jeremiah. The more interesting observation I wish to make here is that avoiding a calamitous future would involve a shift in public perception and attitudes that would extend far beyond Alberta.

Consider, for example, trends in healthcare spending. Below is a graph of the annual growth rates in health expenditures in constant 1997 dollars:

Alberta readers might look at the 1993 to 1996 anomaly and reckon that they see the handiwork of the early Klein. But in fact this is a national graph produced by the Canadian Institute on Health Information. The following three graphs from the same source illustrate health expenditure per person in constant 1997 dollars, with the upper line in each representing public expenditure and the lower line representing private expenditure:

One can make a couple of observations about these graphs. One is that the target of limiting healthcare cost growth to GDP growth+1%, as targeted by a draft proposal released by the co-chairs of President Obama's deficit commission, is not unreasonable. Even GDP+0% would not be a flat line in the above charts, because a flat line would result from holding spending growth to inflation and population growth and GDP growth will exceed that (if it didn't, real GDP per capita would not rise over time). The other observation, more germane to this blogpost, is that while the 90s dip is more pronounced in Alberta's case, for all three provinces we see an acceleration in constant dollar expenditure per person from about 1996, creating a notable inflection point given the declining or steady level trend of the previous four years. 2009 and 2010 suggest that public spending may decelerate for Saskatchewan and Ontario relative to Alberta, but these data points are forecasts (and so represented by white dots).

Here's one more chart, which displays spending in the United States by all levels of government as a proportion of GDP:

Note the decline from 1991 to 1999. While there is variation between states and provinces, the overall story is that fiscal conservatism was a North America-wide phenomenon in the 90s. One can draw two conclusions from this. One is that fiscal debates in any given state or provincial legislature do not occur in isolation from the larger "culture." The other is that if most of North America is overspending, any given sub-national jurisdiction has likely succumbed to the same trend to at least some degree.


Anonymous said...


Maurice said...

Thanks for the nice words, Brian. I'll have to look up trenchant, but I assume it's positive.