Even the world’s most resource-rich country has now been caught in the debt trap. Its once-proud government programs are being subjected to radical budget cuts—cuts that could have been avoided if the government had not quit borrowing from its own central bank in the 1970s.
Last week in Ottawa, the Canadian House of Commons passed the federal government’s latest round of budget cuts and austerity measures. Highlights included chopping 19,200 public sector jobs, cutting federal programs by $5.2 billion per year, and raising the retirement age for millions of Canadians from 65 to 67. The justification for the cuts was a massive federal debt that is now over C$ 581 billion, or 84% of GDP.
An online budget game furnished by the local newspaper the Globe and Mail gave readers a chance to try to balance the budget themselves. Possibilities included slashing transfer payments for elderly benefits, retirement programs, health benefits, and education; cutting funding for transportation, national defense, economic development and foreign aid; and raising taxes. An article on the same page said, “The government, in reality, doesn’t have that many tools at its disposal to close a large budgetary deficit. It can either raise taxes or cut departmental program spending.”
It seems that no gamer, lawmaker or otherwise, was offered the opportunity to toy with the number one line item in the budget: interest to creditors. A chart on the website of the Department of Finance Canada titled “Where Your Tax Dollar Goes” showed interest payments to be 15% of the budget—more than health care, social security, and other transfer payments combined. The page was dated 2006 and was last updated in 2008, but the percentages are presumably little different today.
Penny wise, Pound Foolish
Among other cuts in the 2012 budget, the government announced that it would be discontinuing the minting of Canadian pennies, which now cost more than a penny to make. The government is focusing on the pennies and ignoring the pounds—the massive share of the debt that might be saved by borrowing from the government’s own Bank of Canada.
Between 1939 and 1974, the government actually did borrow from its own central bank. That made its debt effectively interest-free, since the government owned the bank and got the benefit of the interest. According to figures supplied by Jack Biddell, a former government accountant, the federal debt remained very low, relatively flat, and quite sustainable during those years. (See his chart below.) The government successfully funded major public projects simply on the credit of the nation, including the production of aircraft during and after World War II, education benefits for returning soldiers, family allowances, old age pensions, the Trans-Canada Highway, the St. Lawrence Seaway project, and universal health care for all Canadians.