Tommy Douglas was a “macroeconomist”, not a “provincialist”!
A guest blog post from Mario Seccareccia, Professor of Economics, University of Ottawa
The NDP went through a roller coaster ride in 2015. It would seem that the party still hasn’t fully recovered from the outcome of that election, and it will probably remain so until it elects a new leader and gets its “policy house” in order. At the time, some of us were arguing that the NDP did not have a macroeconomic policy perspective, and we were deeply disappointed that it stuck to a tight script with its commitment to federal balanced budgets. Tom Mulcair, together with his predecessor, Jack Layton, had been explicitly committed to the principle of “sound finance” and to balancing the federal budget, despite the many progressive economists who have been arguing, especially since the global financial crisis of 2008, in favour of functional finance and the need for fiscal deficits to stimulate the Canadian economy. Ironically, it was the Liberals who had come out in favour of fiscal expansion during the elections last year, which was a contributing factor in their victory. In fact, during the campaign, we were being told by Mulcair’s team that the route to prosperity was through balanced budgets. After all, we were told, this economic thinking was supported by Tommy Douglas during his many years as the premier of the province of Saskatchewan and we must remain committed to his views.
This approach, which can be described as a purely “provincialist” perspective to federal public finances, seemed plausible and it suggested to many of us who rejected the Conservative rhetoric of a federal balanced budget “for all seasons” that Tommy Douglas had just never fully grasped the negative macroeconomic consequences of pursuing such an anti-Keynesian policy of budget balance at the federal level. However, recently, thanks to Henri Sader (Parliamentary Assistant to the NDP Member of Parliament, Peter Julian, representing New Westminster-Burnaby in BC), I came across Tommy Douglas’s farewell speech to NDP members in 1971, which actually shows, instead, that he was a highly knowledgeable “macroeconomist” and that he hardly believed in balanced budgets at the federal level to deal with problems of poverty and mass unemployment. Readers could listen to his full speech on the YouTube link provided below. I have edited the text, and provide below an important excerpt from his speech where he does provide us with a clear macroeconomic perspective of the federal public finances, including a supportive role for monetary policy via the accommodating actions of the Bank of Canada. Indeed, you will see from his brilliant and passionate speech that his only real concern was that governments should never rely on foreign borrowing to finance the federal budget deficit, a brutal lesson that many countries have learned, such as Greece since the financial crisis and Argentina before that. At no time, however, did he suggest that we shouldn’t run budget deficits to combat unemployment. It is more important to strengthen the balance sheet of private households in times of recession than to seek an elusive budgetary balance for the public sector.
As the NDP begins its search for a new leader, it is imperative that this issue remains front and centre. Much can be learned from Douglas’s speech that can serve as line of defense against the provincialist leaning that, in part, led to the NDP’s failure in 2015. This provincialist view does not apply to federal budgets. Yet, once we adopt a sound finance approach federally, it leads automatically to austerity policies in times of recession. The electoral mood around the world is telling us that workers are fed up with neoliberal austerity policies, and want governments to be pro-active in their net spending policies, as they had been during the early post-WWII period.
I have pulled some key expressions from his speech to give it what I thought is a more jazzy title, but the whole piece below reproduces the actual transcripts from his famous 1971 farewell speech. I also wish to thank Louis-Philippe Rochon of Laurentian University for his comments and for encouraging me to pull out these transcripts and to post them on the PEF site.
“A Continual War against Poverty, Unemployment, and Social Injustice: Making financially possible what is physically possible”
Excerpts from a farewell speech to the New Democratic Party given by Tommy Douglas (on April 24, 1971):
If I were asked to sum up for the people of Canada and for the New Democratic Party what I have learned from more than a third of a century in public life, I would sum it up by saying to them that it is possible in this country of ours to build a society in which there will be full employment, in which there will be a higher standard of living, in which there will be an improved quality of life, while at the same time maintaining a reasonable stability in the cost of living. ….
We don’t have to choose between unemployment and inflation. … My message to you is that we have in Canada the resources, the technical know-how, and the industrious people who could make this a great land if we were prepared to bring these various factors together in building a planned economy dedicated to meeting human needs and responding to human wants.
Mr. Coldwell and I have seen it happen. In 1937 when the CCF proposed in the House of Commons a $500 million program to put single unemployed to work, the Minister of Finance said where will we get the money? Mr. Benson asked the same question today. My reply at that time was that if we were to go to war, the Minister would find the money. And it turned out to be true.
In 1939, when we declared war against Nazi Germany, for the first time we used the Bank of Canada to make financially possible what was physically possible. We took a million men and women and put them in uniform. We fed and clothed and armed them. The rest of the people of Canada went to work. The government organized over 100 Crown corporations. We manufactured things that had never been manufactured before. We gave our farmers and fishermen guaranteed prices and they produced more food than we had ever produced in peace time. We built the third largest merchant navy in the world and we manned it.
In order to prevent profiteering and inflation, we fixed prices, and we did it all without borrowing a single dollar from outside of Canada. … And my message to the people of Canada is this: that if we could mobilize the financial and the material and the human resources of this country to fight a successful war against Nazi tyranny, we can if we want to mobilize the same resources to fight a continual war against poverty, unemployment, and social injustice.