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What if stimulus spending actually built something stimulating?


 

The main focus of the build-up to this week’s federal budget is not what’s coming next but what’s coming to an end. The government vows to deliver no significant new spending, so the 2010 budget Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is slated to table on Thursday must, by default, draw attention to the winding down of the two-year stimulus spending spree he launched last year.

Most of the debate surrounding this Keynesian public-works binge—especially the $4-billion Infrastructure Stimulus Fund created in the 2009 budget— was over whether it would be enough to beat back the recession. (As the Globe and Mail’s redoubtable Janet McFarland reports this morning, most of the spending will flow after the worst of the downturn is well behind us.)

I thought from the outset that if the federal government was serious about spending as fast as possible without risking boondoggles, it would have simply topped up normal transfers that flow to cities and towns with a few billion extra earmarked for small-scale capital projects. That was, in fact, the strategy suggested by  the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and endorsed by independent economist Dale Orr.

But that approach would have led to nothing flashier than municipalities speeding up their standard road, sewer, waterworks and parks projects. That’s not the sort of infrastructure that provides politicians with platforms for giant novelty cheque photo-ops. So, instead, the federal government chose a more cumbersome process that allows cabinet ministers and ordinary MPs to claim a bit of the supposed reflected glory of somewhat larger-scale projects.

And yet the need to get the money out the door within the two-year timeframe precluded most truly ambitious undertakings, the sort that take considerable planning. What we ended up, then, was projects larger than, say, digging a new sewer line, but smaller than the grand buildings that can put a permanent mark on communities.

I was prompted to ponder the potential of truly landmark public construction schemes by Tony Judt’s essay “In Love with Trains,” part of a wonderful series of short memoir pieces by the historian that are being published in the New York Review of Books. (Judt is gravely ill with Lou Gehrig’s disease.)

It’s not his love of the trains but the stations that stands out. “At their best—from St. Pancras to Berlin’s remarkable new central station—railway stations are the very incarnation of modern life,” Judt writes, “which is why they last so long and still perform so very well the task for which they were first designed.” He realizes that England’s great “glass-and-metal Victorian stations” were to him what churches and cathedrals were to earlier poets and artists.

With Judt’s reflections in freshly in mind, it’s deeply unsatisfying to think that we’ll come through our present round of infrastructure spending without raising up anything nearly so enduring. And it’s not because major public buildings have lost the power to change the way we look at cities. Did Richmond, B.C., ever stand for anything in our minds (besides, it’s near Vancouver, right?) before the Richmond Olympic Oval speed skating rink? The oval’s so-called “wood wave” roof, made of pine-beetle killed lumber, is a marvel. Does Winnipeg have a better calling card these days that the new Manitoba Hydro Place, a striking 22-storey tower designed with astonishing energy efficiency features?

Judt reminds us that public buildings that serve practical functions can also fire the imagination. There’s nothing wrong with humble public-works aims—as I’ve noted, if our goal was to inject money quickly into a stalled economy, paving streets and laying pipes would have been just the ticket. Instead, we’re spending those billions a bit slower, and yet, a few decades from now, will we have anything worthy of remembering?


 

What if stimulus spending actually built something stimulating?

  1. I am certain someone will jump in this thread to proclaim that Harper is really a good conservative and it was the coallition that made him waste so much money.

    Of course, it is true that the opposition parties pushed Harper to stimulate the economy. It is also true that with the exception of the home reno tax credit, the Canadian Economic Inaction Plan has been a bust.

    • "I am certain someone will jump in this thread to proclaim that Harper is really a good conservative and it was the coallition that made him waste so much money."

      Of course you are certain because that is a factually accurate – for you, anyway – statement, read the coalition document which explicitly states the lack of stimulus funding in the fiscal update was the reason why they formed a coalition.

      The G-20 and World Bank also made him do it; industrialized countries were told to spend 2% of GDP as stimulus and that is what many of them did. Enlightened sovereignty, some call it.

  2. "and yet, a few decades from now, will we have anything worthy of remembering?"

    I think there may be a couple of Christian colleges that will be looking pretty good. And we won't have to remember them, since they will be central to our lives in the Canadian Republic of Gilead.

    • "And all of that prompted one big question: Snowmobilers! Why?"____Maybe cuz he couldn't handle a dog team? He came up north for a photo op, tried the team but apparently fell down, got cold and left. Of course the pic in the paper showed him mushing across the pole.__Snowmobilers get stimulus money, meanwhile there's a strike on in Sudbury that threatens to cost 700 jobs, due to decision to allow a Brazilian company to buy out Inco. Priorites… i guess more snowmobilers vote con than miners.

    • Aha! Signs of a poison pill ahead, methinks. That's perfect hidden election-vote buying material, that snow-grooming stuff.

  3. So which is it Libs, pick your taling points:

    -the stimulus was NOT needed, the economy would have recovered anyway
    -the govt's action plan was a success

    Canadian economy grows 5%, tops forecasts

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business

    • 'I thought from the outset that if the federal government was serious about spending as fast as possible without risking boondoggles, it would have simply topped up normal transfers that flow to cities and towns with a few billion extra earmarked for small-scale capital projects. That was, in fact, the strategy suggested by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and endorsed by independent economist Dale Orr"

      Niether…back to the drawing boards Wilson.

    • How about the stimulus was needed, but my god that was a lousy way to go about it.

    • How about stimulus was needed, but this particular Action Plan was ineffective? But thanks for sharing that false choice with us, Wilson.

  4. I wish they'd battened down the hatches instead of spending any extra, but I suppose the damage was kept relatively small. I expect that's why our recovery is going better than that of our southern neighbors, who spent money like there's no tomorrow.

  5. Canadian Federation of Municipalities suggested that the Fed Gov’t just hand the stimulus money to municipalities? Shocking!

    • And yet, oddly enough, possibly the fastest way to get the stimulus funding spent…

  6. Is it possible to cancel some of our existing stimulus commitments (the ones that haven't started yet) to save money?

    • Considering how quick Harper is to cancel his military commitments, I assume the E!AP commitments wouldn't be any different.

      Except that Harper's already said he won't be doing that.

      • Forget about politics for a second and let's focus on the bottom line. Canada has billions of dollars in funding commitments for "stimulus" projects that haven't even started yet. Why can't all parties cooperate in order to cancel the least useful of these projects so that we can save a few billion?

        • Waaaugh!!! I want Harper to continue funding those snowmobile grooming tracks…it's s much easier to walk my dogs. All joking aside once you hook people with frivolous spending it's likely gonna be hard to claw it back…local politics come into play also.
          I was never a fan of much of this spending. Outside of fixing the roads and sewers, a few green projects, and perhaps the odd legacy project to keep JG happy…. A new high speed railway to somewhere might have been nice?

        • Nothing's saying they can't.

          Harper's saying they won't.

        • Nothing's saying they can't.

          Harper's saying they won't.

          • Nobody's saying anything, really. It's one of those things that none of the parties wants to talk about.

  7. "Instead, we're spending those billions a bit slower, and yet, a few decades from now, will we have anything worthy of remembering?"

    A massive bill that we have not paid for, yet? Or at least Canadians have not paid for.

    I wonder if Chinese peasants, the people we are borrowing money from to pay for our middle class entitlements, care about buildings that are worth remembering. Neither do I believe my seven year old nephew, one of the people who will pay for Cons spending spree, is all that worried about buildings to remember because his bill would be even bigger than it already is.

    • Yeah but your nephew could at least have drawn some comfort from enjoying a remarkable building, museum or sport facility while wondering about its cost…sounds like he gets the bill and none of the thrill.

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