Northern Economist 2.0

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Canada and the New International Age

Well, it has been a breath-taking week in international affairs and the best indicator yet that so to speak, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” By acting on a US legal request to arrest for extradition Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, Canada has earned an over the top response from China that to date has also been accompanied by the arrest of two Canadians in China on “national security” concerns.  The response of the Chinese government and media includes words like “revenge” and “heavy price” with respect to what Canada will face if Meng Wanzhou is not ultimately released.  This all comes at a time when China’s economy is increasingly seen as a source of opportunity for Canada with a desire to boost trade via sectoral agreements.

And to top it all off, President Trump has basically made Canada look like the ultimate puppet state by arguing that he could intervene in the dispute and let Meng Wanzhou off the hook if it was useful in securing trade concessions from China.  The Rule Breaker in Chief has made it apparent that he is just fine without a rules-based international order.  There really is very little that seems to distinguish the tenor of the President’s behaviour from that of other authoritarian leaders around the world.  God bless America for a constitution that has a division of powers and checks and balances for otherwise all of this could be much worse – as hard as that might be to believe.

It goes without saying that it is becoming an increasingly difficult time for a small open economy on the world stage.  Over the last year, the NAFTA negotiations with the United States and Mexico involved public insults directed at Canada’s leadership while Saudi Arabia had a major tantrum over our views on human rights issues.  Even if Canada had done a better job of politically tiptoeing around these assorted landmines, it remains that we would still get bullied because we are viewed as small and not of sufficient consequence.  Even China’s recent diatribes against us are really directed at the United States given that they can send it a message by targeting what they obviously perceive to be its “vassal” state.  So much for their respect for us.

While China undoubtedly has some valid points in this diplomatic dispute as expressed by its Ambassador to Canada in a recent Globe opinion piece, it remains that its behaviour is reflective of an insecure adolescent on the world stage.  When a country of 1.3 billion people that claims to be an up and coming world superpower unleashes such an stream of invective and vitriol on a small country of 37 million people, one does not see an injured party but a bully.  Only a bully terrorizes the small fry while treading lightly with the bigger kids.

So where is this going next?  Well, it is unfortunate Canada cannot seriously consider getting a membership with the European Union because quite frankly, it has become a pretty friendless world.  We can’t even rely much on our Anglosphere friends because Australia and New Zealand are small like us while the United States is on a world disorder frenzy and the British are busy immolating themselves over Brexit.  So, we are on our own.

We need to do what we do best.  Remain polite and play the hand that we have been dealt as best we can and ride out the storm.  Weather analogies are good - we can't control the weather, we only deal with it and Canadians are used to dealing with bad weather.  We need to reach out to the Chinese at a senior level and reassure them that we are doing everything we can to resolve this issue in a fair, responsible and rules based manner.  We need to reach out to the Americans and ask for reassurance that this is not just a trade manoeuvre and request that this matter be dealt with expeditiously.  If anything, we might want to try and bring the two sides together to seek a diplomatic solution though given the rhetoric to date we would risk getting side swiped by both sides. 

In the end, this will get resolved and life will go on.  Indeed, President Trump’s own words provide the best excuse for us releasing Meng Wanzhou immediately – obviously, he thinks the arrest is a trade bargaining chip and not a matter of national security.  If we were more opportunistic, that is exactly what we would do and stick it to the Americans given that they have no qualms about throwing us under the bus.  However, we are polite and follow rules.

However, once the dust has settled, we really need to re-evaluate and review our international relationships – especially those involving the United States and China.  In the case of the United States, given our economic integration and the fact that they take 75 percent of our exports, there is going to be little we can do except hope for the day when a new and more reasonable administration takes the White House.  We share a continent with the Americans and not with China and that is that.  They can be bullies too when occasion warrants but our ties with them have been long standing.  In a sense, we are not caught in the middle between China and the United States, we are with the US given our shared history and geography.

As for China, well that requires some more thought.  Given mercurial and aggressive behaviour on the part of China when they don’t get their way and their willingness to bully, we do need to be very careful that we do not become as dependent on their economy as we have become with the Americans.  I’m not sure the Chinese market is worth greater access to us given the potential costs to our businesses and our sovereignty when China decides they are unhappy with us and wish to punish us. Nobody likes being slapped around and if they do, you need to either break off the relationship or minimize contact via a more structured relationship.  It’s a big world and there are other customers for our wares.  We need to trade with countries that behave in a less vindictive manner when it comes to international issues.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Setting Direction: The Next Four Years for Thunder Bay City Council

Thunder Bay’s new City Council has been sworn in and the first meeting tonight will send important signals on what the direction of the new council is as well as the ability of new council members to work together and effectively make decisions.  This is a process being repeated cross the province as new municipal councils from Toronto to Dryden to Windsor begin serving their terms. 

Many often feel the role of Council is to make decisions that do things – like boost the city’s economy or cut costs.  The reality is that much of this can only be done indirectly.  For example, the economic impact of City Council is via its role in setting tax rates and tax policy as well as providing strategic direction on what infrastructure and quality of life investments can attract business.   As for cutting costs, Council needs to follow a process that involves its civil servants –administration - which administers and delivers services.

True, City Council approves all decisions but it is only after strategic direction is provided and the alternatives have been produced and analyzed by the administration.  If City Council wants to reduce expenditure growth, it is not their role to decide what areas should be cut or restrained, it is their role to select the target expenditure level or the desire to reduce spending and then ask administration for their options on how to achieve it.  Having set the policy direction, City Council then decides on the options provided by administration to pursue in meeting the target.  In brief, the role of City Council is to select targets and then make decisions to meet those targets based on the instruments provided by their civil servants.

Of course, the automatic response to any such pontificating on the part of observers like myself is that I am not a member of Council and if I feel I know so much I should walk the walk and run for office. While I appreciate that elected office is an important calling and a tough job,  my response to that is on several levels. First, you should always be careful what you wish for. Second, such a retort on the part of any politician is really designed to stifle debate because given the number of people expressing opinions, how can we all run for office and all serve on Council or as an MP? Third, as engaged citizens and taxpayers we should contribute to debate and discussion and we all have skills that can serve the public in different way.   There is no one size fits all standard for public service and we cannot all be elected politicians.


So, that out of the way, the main challenges facing Thunder Bay over the next few years appear to have been categorized by the Mayor in his address last week: taxation, crime, the economy and infrastructure.  I would broaden the “crime” category to general “social fabric” given the interaction between crime, inequality and poverty but fair enough.  These are the categories most in need of attention in Thunder Bay.  Taxation of course is related to spending given that the municipal tax levy is directly linked to the amount of spending.  And, of course there are always issues that will rear their head as a result from decisions made elsewhere – such as the decision to legalize cannabis.

So the issues on tap for the first meeting tonight are whether to close Dease Pool or spend millions of dollars in repairs (apparently $2.8 million more), changes in parking regulations,  a recycling contract extension ($2.6 million more) and a report on the performance of the  new Python 5000 pothole repair machine.  Aside from the parking regulations, these issues all ultimately may involve spending more money for one reason or another.  Given that taxation rates are ultimately linked to spending, tonight will provide a pretty good indication of what we can expect from City Council with respect to tax rates in next year’s budget process and the direction for the next four years.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Long Run Economic Performance: Comparing China, the UK and USA

In light of my recent contributions on China’s economic performance which have appeared in The Hill and on the Fraser Institute Blog, I thought it might be useful to provide the figures which underpin the longer-term analysis of their performance.  The data I used is from the Angus Maddison Database – the 2018 update – and the data is summarized in the accompanying Figures 1 and 2.

Figure 1 plots total real GDP from 1820 to 2016 in 2011 USD for the United States, the United Kingdom and China.  In 1820, China had a vastly larger economy than either the US or the UK with a real GDP of $325 billion compared to $69 billion for the UK or $21 billion for the USA.  Indeed, for much of economic history, China has always been the biggest economy in the world as a result of its massive population.  In 1820, China had a population of 381 million people compared to 10 million for the United States and 21 million for the UK.  However, the 19th century was not kind to China and by 1870, China’s economy had shrunk to $270 billion but it was still larger than the United States at $150 billion and the UK at $179 billion. 


Total GDP of both the US and the UK grew quickly as a result of late nineteenth century industrialization with the US matching the UK in 1878 and then pulling ahead in terms of total GDP.  By 1887, the US economy at $306 billion was larger than China at $274 billion and the UK at $228 billion.  By the eve of the First World War in 1913, the US economy at $791 billion was nearly twice the size of both the UK and China at $368 billion and $344 billion respectively. In the period since WWI, the United States grew rapidly and by the mid 1970s was over five times the size of the UK economy and about five times larger than China’s economy.

China had a Communist revolution in 1949 but economic performance in its aftermath - while substantial - was not as robust when compared to the last forty years.  From 1950 to 1975, China real GDP grows from $348 billion to $1.2 trillion – a tripling of output.  However, things for China really take off with the first economic reforms and liberalization of the 1970s and from 1975 to 2016, its economy expands from $1.2 trillion to $17.3 trillion.  Over the 1975 to 2016 period, the US economy expanded from $5.6 trillion to 17.2 trillion while the UK expanded from $1 trillion to $2.5 trillion.

In 2016, China re-assumed its historical role as the world’s largest economy.  Yet, as I pointed out in my oped pieces, this is not the end of the story.  Despite its impressive and rapid economic growth in terms of total output, China still lags when it comes to per capita output. As Figure 2 shows, over the entire 1820 to 2016 period, China has always had a lower per capita GDP than either the UK or the US and the relative gap has not changed all that much despite the rapid growth of the last 40 years.  In 1820, per capita GDP in China was about 26 percent that of the UK and 41 percent that of the USA.  By 1975, its per capita GDP was 7 percent that of the UK and 5 percent that of the United States.  After the robust growth of the post 1975 period, by 2016 per capita Chinese GDP now stands at 34 percent that of the UK and 24 percent that of the US.


So, China has done very well but it still has a long way to go.  Its rapid extensive growth masks the fact that large swaths of its population are still quite poor.  Its economy is showing signs of economic and political fragility given its aging population, large debt levels and economic inequality and this has global implications.  Such fragility is probably a reason for its more authoritarian turn in recent years under President Xi Jinping.  After the rapid growth and improvement in living standards of the last few decades, any economic slowdown may create a politically volatile domestic mix of discontent.