Crazy about ideas

One of the joys of writing opinion columns is imagining that every Friday, in countless government offices, keen analytical minds share my ideas with colleagues and suggest that I may be the most preposterous lunatic ever to chew through the straps and stagger to a keyboard. It makes me feel less alone.

So did this Tuesday’s launch of the Institute for Public Policy Research’s new book A Canadian Priorities Agenda. I especially enjoyed their fascinating explanation of how they assembled their agenda by running the priorities of 12 experts past eight analysts before six judges chose five proposals each from the resulting …

Uh, maybe this would be easier if I could show you the explanatory tables they handed out at the luncheon. But I’m not kidding. It really was a fascinating way to generate proposals visionary enough to be worth trying, yet technically sound and relevant enough that someone might actually try them.

I certainly don’t agree with everything in the book. I don’t even endorse the editors’ contention that the result is non-ideological. But I’m not against ideology, I just say be careful which one you choose. And I’m not being pejorative in suggesting that this project’s ideology is essentially neoliberal: interventionist, somewhat trendy, but with a clear and helpful appreciation of incentives. I don’t share that approach, but it’s not absurd or scandalous. And it certainly is timely.

The book’s “Policy Challenges” are Human Capital, Climate Change, Natural Capital, Population Aging, Economic Security, Health Outcomes, Productivity, and Trade and Globalization (security issues were beyond the scope of the project). Is that not precisely the list of social and economic topics on which the average intelligent contemporary politician or public servant should welcome a discussion explicitly framed in terms of “scarcity of resources” and “tough choices,” costs, benefits and “limited means” available to governments?

I was sorry to see that the challenge of controlling public health care costs, though raised, was eliminated early in the project. Health outcomes are fashionable and I hope mine are favourable but let’s be frank: Canada’s governments could afford me dying in a hospital corridor; they cannot afford another decade of cost increases like the last one. And even people who know that incentives matter sometimes don’t grasp the extent of the problem, including some of these authors. I think. I haven’t read the book yet; I am a journalist. But I intend to; I am not a politician. How many MPs do you suppose will read it? Or their policy advisors, if they had big enough office budgets to afford any, which they don’t?

The IRPP is more likely to make suggestions agreeable to governments than I am. But it troubles me that they are almost equally unlikely to influence the policy agenda, and incentives are an important reason why. In the introduction, the editors concede that “governments are understandably drawn to what is expedient and popular, but they should also consider the overall costs, benefits and distributional effects of various policies. Policies that offer genuine net benefits to society, even if they are somewhat complex, can be clearly explained to the electorate by a government that is prepared to expend sufficient effort.” True, as far as it goes. But how far is that?

Sometimes voters understand perfectly well that a program that gives them a subsidy is not beneficial to society as a whole. But they don’t care; they just want the cash. And politicians do not assemble their platforms in ignorance of this fact. Participants in this project are surely also aware of it, some from academic study and others from experience (for instance, IRPP President and CEO Mel Cappe is a former Clerk of the Privy Council). But knowing about a problem isn’t the same as solving it.

This “public choice” difficulty of what political behaviour is rewarded by voters is compounded by a more general breakdown of public institutions. Even those ideas that governments like have little chance of becoming policy these days, and making sensible suggestions increasingly resembles bonsai gardening: an absorbing hobby but unlikely to produce edible fruit.

Since the proposals in this book are a good deal more congenial to Canadian governments of all partisan stripes than most of my ideas, it will be interesting to see whether they have any greater chance of getting close enough to the political decision-making process to be explicitly rejected rather than simply ignored.

If not, there’ll be more of us having leather for breakfast. Which will make it more sociable, but not more palatable.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson