Missing the point

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By Jackson Doughart, Policy Analyst

Unifor economist Jordan Brennan has criticized AIMS’s study Measuring Austerity in Atlantic Canada. In this blog series, my colleagues examined the arguments he presents and responded to his criticisms of our methodology here and here. I add a note on how Brennan seems to have missed the purpose of our research.

Brennan writes, fairly, that there a lacks precise definition for “significant cuts” in public expenditure and “difficult economic conditions,” the two components that report author Patrick Webber includes in his description of austerity. That there are competing academic definitions in the literature is a point that Webber acknowledges in his introduction, with the general description being sufficient for the purposes of the study.

Webber included European cases of austere economic conditions for context – giving the reader some idea of the magnitude of budget cuts in places where government has implemented austerity policies. However significant cuts must be to qualify as austerity, the fact is that Atlantic Canadian governments have been growing their program spending regimes, not cutting them.

For his part, Brennan equates austerity with any cut in the level of spending when he writes: “Atlantic Canada governments face choices about how to govern. They can choose expansionary policies or contractionary (‘austerity’) policies.”

This rather supports Patrick Webber’s point. The entry of “austerity” as a meme of popular political lexicon is very much informed by the European experience since the Great Recession. It may well be, as Brennan writes, that Greece is an extreme case of austerity, not the archetypal one.

But that’s not how the public understands it, which is why Webber’s study is an important contribution. It is irresponsible for the proponents of ever-growing government to misrepresent all calls to limit spending as a campaign to replicate the conditions of Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain.

What we need is more moderate rhetoric, one that can consider the merits (or demerits) of more restrained government without the exaggeration and falsehood that this proposal is extreme. Throwing around words like austerity in the context of Atlantic Canada amounts to crying wolf.

Neither Patrick Webber nor AIMS can be fairly characterized as “Austerian.” Nowhere do we advocate that Atlantic governments should emulate the slash and burn ethic of Europe. Our upshot is that the provinces need to be more responsible with public funds now, so that the hard choices of austere conditions will not face them in the years ahead.

Editor’s Note: This blog entry is Part 3 in a series of four blog posts related to our recent paper “Measuring Austerity in Atlantic Canada” by Patrick Webber. Following misdirected comments and criticism of the study, we compiled this series to clarify misconceptions and to underscore its findings. Read part one here. Read part two here.

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