Budget 2021 provokes panic from deficit defenders

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland. Image credit: Justin Trudeau/Facebook

I know it seems decades ago, but a federal budget was presented by Chrystia Freeland just this week. Budgets are normally uninspiring events, yet this one had special drama, owing entirely to its social and economic activism.

Farewell the journalists' tool kit. There rose plangent cries from veteran columnists. Konrad Yakubuski mourned the end of the Washington Consensus (WC), which he dated to 1989, though its harsh tendrils reach further back. Andrew Coyne said "growth" is already back, so there's no need for programs like child care. Campbell Clark: "The deficit? The debt? Sustainability? Ssshhh. Don't worry about it. Don't look at it. It'll be fine. Don't think about it."

Ah, the sense of panic. This is a generation of journalists who grew up on deficit mania -- they learned to seek it out and write about it, the terms to use. Clark captures its emotional essence. It seems to me similar to the electoral reform issue that political pundits responded to as if they'd no interest in acquiring a new tool kit for covering transformed elections: our old one works fine, thanks. They are as attached to their methods as a carpenter to his tools.

But their displeasure ignores how long this change has been coming. The WC had decades in which it took over the world and was able to show precise results -- which were visible to all in the 2008-09 financial crisis. That catastrophe was its showcase, and the world barely survived. In fact, the part that survived was the rich part. Most of the rest at best clung on, and their bitterness led directly to the victory of Trump and similar results. Those like Justin Trudeau, Freeland and Joe Biden realized if they didn't change, the Trumps might settle in permanently.

I mean, when is the right time to reverse the spread of inequality and the decline in services: long-term care, pharmacare, child care, university costs? It's any time, or the day before. The resources to do all that exist; what's missing is only the literal money: cash or bank accounts. If it takes an "activist" budget to "create" the money to deploy those resources, well why not?

Et tu, Freeland? It's ironic that Freeland -- a former and highly successful business journalist, who grew up with the same assumptions and put in years salvaging one of the jewels of the WC (i.e., NAFTA) -- has drawn other conclusions now, which gave grief to her former colleagues. How? When?

She wrote a prescient book in 2012 called Plutocrats -- but I also recall her during the Obama years, when she'd appear on PBS's The McLaughlin Group. That was a profound gauntlet for any woman journalist to run (and good training for the jocular exercises of question period). She sometimes voiced amazement at the personal moral outrage which the superrich, whom she knew professionally, would express at being negatively portrayed after 2008, for getting themselves but not others off the hook. I've never forgotten it.

The ghost of the '95 budget. That was Paul Martin's budget -- "the mother of all austerity budgets," recalls Yakubuski nostalgically -- when he swore to eliminate the deficit, "come hell or high water," a phrase that still thrills our pundits. Old Liberals like John Manley tear up when they recall that achievement -- which was really just a math problem: you keep cutting health and social programs till the spending side equals the revenue side; then you pump your fist. If you missed it, don't fret.

Martin himself was never a true believer, and often sounded ambivalent, but he thought it'd get him from finance minister to PM. When it did, almost his first act was to create a national child-care program, with Ken Dryden in charge. It actually passed Parliament and was about to go into force when the NDP voted to bring the Liberals down, giving us nine years of Stephen Harper.

So I'm always gobsmacked when the NDP say they don't trust the Liberals to deliver child care because they've been promising it for years. They in fact did deliver -- but the NDP casually killed it. Don't look for Trudeau or Freeland to point that out, though. They're counting on the same NDP to pass this version, just as they did back then.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image credit: Justin Trudeau/Facebook

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