Tag: paul martin

Paul Martin: The Bill Clinton of Canada, Only Much Better

Imagine how weird it would be if the Cato Institute and Americans for Tax Reform praised Barack Obama for fiscal responsibility. And think how inconceivable it would be for the Heritage Foundation and the National Taxpayers Union to applaud Tim Geithner for economic stewardship.

The Canadian version of that happened while I was at the conference of the World Taxpayers Association in Vancouver two weeks ago.

The event was organized by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the main speaker was Paul Martin of the Liberal Party, who served as finance minister from 1993 to 2002, and then as prime minister from 2003 to 2006. I should add, for context, that the Liberal Party in Canada is not a classical liberal party with a track record of free markets and small government.

But Paul Martin was honored because he was responsible, while finance minister, for one of the best records of fiscal restraint of any policymaker in recent history (click here for international comparisons).

I’ve pointed out that the burden of spending fell under Bill Clinton, and I’ve even acknowledged that the federal budget hasn’t grown much under Obama, at least once you get past his first couple of years. But Paul Martin was far more frugal. And since Canada has a parliamentary system, there’s no ambiguity about who deserves credit. He restrained spending when his party had control.

What happened to generate the good results? For all intents and purposes, he imposed a spending freeze. And I’m talking a nominal spending freeze, not the kind of fake fiscal discipline you get when politicians make “cuts” off an inflated baseline. Because the budget was successfully restrained, that addressed both the problem of too much spending and the symptom of red ink.

Spending Cut Goal: 10% in Two Years

The new issue of International Economy has an article by Canada’s Liberal finance minister from the 1990s, Paul Martin, who succeeded in shrinking that country’s federal government. If a new President Mitt Romney wants to cut spending in Washington, Martin has some tips for him, such as cutting spending broadly, forecasting conservatively, and aiming to eliminate the deficit in a fixed time frame and sticking to it. (I’d also advise President Obama to follow the Canadian example, but he’s issued four budgets so far and seems to be more interested in following the Greek fiscal approach).

Paul Martin says:

I tabled the 1995 Budget in the House of Commons. No department of government escaped untouched. Transfers to the provinces for healthcare and education were reduced, public sector employment was cut by 20 percent, the Department of Transport was cut deeply, historic subsidies in the Department of Agriculture were eliminated, and spending in the Department of Industry was cut by 65 percent.

These were massive cuts, far greater than anything Canada had ever seen. Nor were the cuts simply reduction in the growth of future spending as is so often the case. These were absolute cuts in existing spending, such that by the end of the process the federal government’s expenditures as a percentage of GDP were lower than they had been at anytime in the previous fifty years.

From a libertarian perspective, Canada’s cuts weren’t actually “massive,” but for a Liberal government in a country with a population that had gotten used to government coddling, it was pretty impressive. As I noted in my recent article on Canada, Martin and his team cut the budget by 10 percent in just two years.

So my suggested goal for Romney and team if elected this Fall: at least match the Canadians and push for $380 billion of cuts out of otherwise expected spending in 2015 of $3.8 trillion. And do what the Canadians did: cut everything, including entitlements, aid to subnational governments, defense, business subsidies, farm subsidies, and much more in one big push. Many in Congress will resist of course, but presidents have their most leverage in the first year. Mitt will have nothing to lose but the country into a vortex of debt and economic despair if he doesn’t at least try.