Brian Lee Crowley

Why Premier Wynne is wrong to lament tuition isn’t free

In the last Ontario budget Premier Kathleen Wynne brought free tuition to lowish-income students and in an interview lamented that she couldn’t make it free for everyone. I beg to disagree. I get everything that the advocates of zero tuition are saying about their desire to improve access to PSE and yet I still don’t think that the evidence shows that free tuition is the answer to the problem of access. For example:

  • We have a far better record at getting people into PSE than other countries that have free tuition (e.g. Germany and France).
  • I do not see the case for subsidising equally the children of billionaires and welfare recipients.
  • Subsidizing tuition out of general tax revenues makes poor people subsidise those who will be wealthy.

Finally Queens did a very interesting study a few years ago in which they compared the impact of lower tuition across the board vs putting it up but reserving 30% of the increase for scholarships and bursaries for low income students with good academic records. The second option was found to be significantly better than the first at improving access and equity.

To see more of the argument, have a look at my Globe column of March 18th, 2016.

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Guaranteed Annual Income: Wrong solution, wrong problem

In my never-ending campaign to épater les bourgeois (aka the commenters on the Globe’s comments page), my latest column takes aim at one of their favourite policy prescriptions: a guaranteed annual income for Canadians, delivered through the tax system (also called a “negative income tax”). Almost all the arguments advanced in favour of this alleged panacea are deeply flawed and take little account of incentives, human motivation or of the complexity of administering fairly or cheaply a system that will not be simple but rather devilishly complicated.

This column appeared in the 11 Dec. 2015 edition of the Globe’s ROB in their Economy Lab feature.

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$15 minimum wage? Not if you want to help those that really need it.

Incoming Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has confirmed her partyt’s intention to raise the minimum wage in the province to $15/hr. Like many things this sounds good but in fact isn’t, especially if your objective is to help the most vulnerable workers (and potential workers) at the bottom of the wage scale. A $15/hr minimum wage is simply a government decree that anyone who cannot produce $15 worth of value with an hour of their labour will not work. Thanks for the help guys!

Read my analysis in my latest column for the ROB’s Economy Lab feature in the Globe and Mail.

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Aboriginal Canada and development: Get the narrative right!

Is Aboriginal Canada, mired in poverty and poor education, nonetheless opposed in principle to doing anything to change their circumstances? You might be forgiven for thinking this if you read much of the commentary in the media surrounding the recent decision by one community to turn down over $1-billion in benefits from the proponents of an LNG facility on the west coast. But dig a little deeper and you quickly discover that in fact the reverse is closer to the truth and Aboriginal Canada is thoughtfully seizing many of the opportunities that natural resource development in particular is making available. They just want to make these decisions on their own terms. Read all about it in my latest column for the ROB’s Economy Lab feature in the Globe.

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What Canada can, and cannot, do about inequality

To hear the critics talk, inequality is growing in Canada because of a mean-spirited effort by governments to reduce the tax burden and leaving the most vulnerable to fend for themselves. As I point out in my column for this Saturday’s Ottawa Citizen, this view ignores important facts. First of all, the level of progressivity in Canada is growing, not falling. In other words far from cutting taxes for the wealthy and washing our hands of those on low incomes, if you look at taxes paid and benefits received Canada’s social safety net is highly progressive and increasingly so.

Rising inequality is therefore not an artifact of Canadians failing to shoulder their responsibilities. The issue is that the inequalities created by globalisation, technological change and returns to skills and talent, market generated inequalities are growing even faster. So is the solution even more taxing and raising benefits? No. On the contrary, as the research I cite from Philip Cross and Munir Sheikh clearly shows, we are at the limits of what we can do through high taxes and passive income transfers. The rest of the progress we need must come from improving economic opportunities and incentives and equipping Canadians to benefit from them, both of which are made harder by high taxes and poorly designed transfers.

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Separated at birth: Ottawa budget, 1995; Quebec budget, 2015

My latest musings for the Globe/ROB’s Economy Lab revolves around the context and significance of the year’s most important budget: Quebec’s. After years of failed attempts, the new Liberal government of Philippe Couillard will make another stab at fixing Quebec’s self-imposed economic decline by wrestling with the out-of-control growth of the Quebec state over the last 50 years. The stakes couldn’t be higher, but it is not at all clear that Couillard will be more successful than his predecessors. That very uncontrolled growth of the state has created a political climate in which a democratic mandate may not be enough to overcome the organised resistance to reform. In the column I draw parallels between the historical significance of Paul Martin’s 1995 budget and this one, 20 years later. Both aimed to fix the damage done by several generations’ worth of bribing Quebeckers to support federalism or sovereignty. Martin pulled it off, but his task was more manageable.

Wish Couillard well. He’ll need it.

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What a dollar is worth matters as much as how many dollars you have

Lost in the angst about income inequality is the fundamental point that the poor’s purchasing power is increasing all the time. Innovation is the chief explanation, as I lay out in my latest column for the ROB’s Economy Lab feature in the Globe. I am one of those people who thinks that the gap between the most and the least well-off is far less interesting than whether we are improving the lot of people at the bottom. One of the most effective ways to do that is to increase their purchasing power, which private sector innovation does more effectively and effortlessly than increases in government transfers.

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Why the Parliamentary Budget Officer needs a few mental health days

The Parliamentary Budget Officer recently released a paper explaining why it doesn’t actually cost the government anything when civil servants take sick leave. His conclusion was, IMHO, so bizarre that I felt compelled to devote my latest column for the Ottawa Citizen and other Postmedia papers to dissecting it. My conclusion, which I was too polite to express this way in the column itself, was that the only way that it can cost nothing extra if public servants are absent is if they’re not doing anything when they are there. Somehow I don’t think that’s what the fans of the PBO’s paper had in mind as a conclusion….

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D-Day, the Cold War and Putin’s challenge to the West

In the latest of my seemingly endless screeds for the Ottawa Citizen and other PostMedia newspapers today I mine the D-Day invasion and the West’s success in the Cold War for lessons to apply to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s challenge to the values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Relax, Mr Obama: We don’t have to engage the Russians militarily.  On the other hand, if we don’t show an unwavering willingness to do so if necessary, he will continue his campaign to re-create Russian greatness and a bi-polar world at our expense and that of weaker countries on his borders and perhaps farther afield. The longer we delay in responding decisively, the more emboldened he will become.

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More than education at stake in Ottawa-First Nations pact

In my latest column for the Globe’s ROB I make the case that the newly announced agreement between Ottawa and the First Nations over education could do more than advance the cause of Aboriginal education, as vital as that is. It could also be the key to strengthening the leadership of National Chief Shawn Atleo and the influence of the new generation of Aboriginal leaders looking to turn newly- recognised rights into genuine economic opportunities.

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Brian Lee Crowley